Continuing my musical life story with one of the stranger episodes- how attention-seeking ended the first band I led.
By the middle of the 1980s, in Manchester, I’d got over the novelty of multitrack recording and begun to take songwriting seriously.
I’d been writing songs since I was 16 but I’d always tended to rush it, taking the first draft as ‘it’ and if inspiration didn’t come, not writing at all. Moving to a new job in Staffordshire, I found myself living in a hotel during the week while Mrs Lamont was selling our house in Manchester to enable us to buy in our new village. This was expected to be a couple of months but actually took six months.
Six months in which I was stuck in the Peak Weavers, Leek, with an acoustic guitar. I started to use the time to revise some old songs that had I’d been messing with for a while, completely rewrite some and write some new ones. Without my Portastudio I had to focus on melody and words rather than adding layers of instruments to disguise weak songwriting. A couple of the songs that eventually – very eventually – found their way onto my albums were drafted and redrafted in this hotel room: Call Back Fall Back and Best of the Blues (a rewrite of a cringeworthy song from the days of Window Bill).
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But once Mrs Lamont and baby Plague (I find myself returning to the names I gave my children when I started blogging – Plague and Pestilence!) had moved from Manchester, I began to think about a band. I’d never had a band of my own, doing my songs.
Violinist? Not exactly
I advertised in a music shop in Stoke for a violinist and bass player. Nothing happened for months then out of the blue I got a call from a young man who played blues harp and whistle, but who fancied being in a band. Without much enthusiasm for those instruments I drove to Stoke to meet him. After hearing his deep voice on the phone it was a bit of a shock to learn Matt was still at school! But he was a superb player, able to quickly find something appropriate for every song, and adding drive and raunch to my languid songs. Moreover he knew a violinist, Chris, even younger than him, but a good player. He didn’t improvise much but he could transcribe melodies I hummed, learned them quickly and added ideas of his own. With a handful of my songs and some covers and folk songs – I can’t remember any now – we played at a couple of folk clubs. As they were both under age I was responsible for getting them in and out of the pub sober and getting them home.
He was into Bob Dylan in a big big way
One Saturday evening in October 1988 I wrote The Ballad of Bob Dylan (the full story of the song is here) and eagerly presented it to the band that week. We knew this would raise the stakes for us and it did. It gave Matt a chance to shine on blues harp. We added a bass player, Toby (thankfully not another schoolkid), and started playing regular floor spots at Keele University folk club. Our popularity there grew until we were offered a headline spot. Then, after some weeks, another headline spot.
And that’s when it happened.
The Hungry Ghost
For four years in Manchester and the first year in Leek I’d been creating music with an imaginary audience, dreaming that one day I would discover people who liked my music. It had become a central fantasy. Now it was becoming real. You’d think I’d be satisfied. You’d think I’d be happy. After our second Keele headline quite a few people had congratulated us, shaken my hand, asked if we had records (of course we didn’t), praised the songs and the performance. I took Matt and Chris home and started the drive back to Leek. It was nearly midnight. I was reflecting on the way people had been complementing the music, liking my performance.
And suddenly – so suddenly I can still see the the bend in the road where it happened – I realised it wasn’t enough, I still wanted more and I would ALWAYS want more, no matter how much I got. It was a terrifying vision of endless dissatisfaction and craving for approval. I came home shaken.
I was reminded of the Tibetan mythical characters the Hungry Ghosts – people whose lives were characterised by greed, who find themselves reborn as creatures with distended, empty bellies and choked thin necks who crave food but can’t swallow it. So much so that, as a reminder, it would become the name of my next band years later.
For the next few days I couldn’t bring myself to contact the band. It was a wake-up call that said if I continued to try to feed my ego this way I would always be hungry. I couldn’t see a way to get on stage again without starting the whole process up again. I had my family, and a new baby about to be born. That would have to be my focus. I would have to find a way to make music for its own sake, in its own time, not just to get people’s approval. A few weeks later Pestilence was born and I willingly laid music aside for a year or so.
Looking back I’m happy with that, but what I’m not happy with is the way I treated the band. I just didn’t contact them – ever again. I knew I couldn’t explain to them what I’d seen – I didn’t think anyone could understand it – and I didn’t want them to think I was ending the band because of any fault of theirs. So I just hid away. Before social media it was much easier to do that. I feel bad about it to this day, they deserved better. Then again, I’m sure they got over it very quickly indeed!
Just over a year later we moved to Edinburgh. The house sale process threw me into another six months of songwriting solitude in my new city. The vision of craving for attention would return time and again to haunt me, and prompted a second withdrawal from performing in the early 1990s, but I’ve reached an accommodation with it now and it’s just like a familiar itch that needs scratched every now and then.
That’s how I had my first band, and panicked myself out of it.