Being in a band – attention seeking behaviour

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.

Solitary songwriting

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).

The Peak Weavers

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.

In hiding

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.

 

Mike Heron: Smiling Men

Mike Heron: Smiling Men with Bad Reputations cover

Step this way – How Mike Heron opened the door for me

A review of Mike Heron’s Smiling Men with Bad Reputations previously published in the Incredible String Band fanzine Be Glad.

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations coverSometime around 1971 I wrote to Mike Heron and asked him, among other things, about the title and sleeve design of Smiling Men with Bad Reputations. The title, he said, came from Timothy Leary’s version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the sleeve was ‘a Vogue-ish interpretation of the title’. However, in the time-honoured Be Glad tradition of reading ludicrous significance into every chance noodling of the ISB,  that sleeve has a personal significance for me, as Mike, in presbyterian black, offers a pineapple, that exotic Liberace of the greengrocer’s world, to an equally ripe-looking multinational crew of gatecrashers at a nativity play. Before this album, my musical world was similarly dour, even allowing for the influence of the String Band.

I was approaching music from folk clubs, with a smattering of the cosmic from the Moody Blues, Tyrannosaurus Rex and King Crimson, but I knew nothing of the wider world of music. Despite my friends’ promptings I couldn’t find anything to get excited about in Cream, the Who, Led Zep or anything ‘heavy’ as they used to call it. I was deeply suspicious of Marc Bolan’s sudden interest in electric guitar, and the short writeup I saw in Disc about Mike’s forthcoming album with a range of international rock musicians wasn’t calculated to make a dent on my worthy world. But when I finally bought it, it opened more doors for me than anything I’d heard before or would hear again. It was my favourite album for years, probably still is, and was definitely one of the most formative musical experiences I ever had. But that was to come.

Initially, I’d heard it a few times without even recognising it. In my world there was no place at all for any kind of black music – soul, funk, Motown – all the glorious stuff that was going on in the late sixties and early seventies went right past me. Although I might tap a foot to whatever Motown singles were in the charts, and even nod sagely when my bassplaying friends pointed out that the bass playing was brilliant, it just wasn’t serious music in the sense that progressive rock or folk-rock (or even Donovan!) were music. How could it be when they did those ridiculous dances on TOTP and wore those daft outfits? Like a cleaner at an orgy, I was blank to the funk. So one afternoon I was listening to John Peel and heard that storm of brass and congas groove into Call Me Diamond; I thought ‘jazz’ and just mentally tuned out, as I did to much of Peel’s playlist. Only this time, I happened to tune back in after the song as he was announcing who it was – surely some mistake here? For a moment I wished for a rewind button, but soon thought better of it and marked this down as an aberration I probably wouldn’t buy.

My next exposure to it came months later with a sampler for Island Records called El Pea – a beautiful production in the days when album sleeves were approached with a kind of verve and freedom that few have managed with CD jewel cases. I bought this for the String Band’s Waiting for You, but enjoyed a few other things on it (the only thing I remember being Quintessence, and even that might be wrong). An abridged Feast of Stephen was on that sampler, and although I found it pleasant in a bland sort of way, I had to listen through it many times when I was listening to other tracks on that side. (It was a lot more effort to lift the needle from a record to skip tracks you didn’t immediately like, so the ‘growers’ usually got a chance in those pre-home taping and pre-CD-fast forward days.) It seemed a funny one – you could never quite figure out what it was as a song – no chorus, no repeated sections, no rhyme, then that odd kind of Hey Judeworkout at the end with its strange jerk of timing. I don’t know how many weeks or months I listened to it in this non-comprehending way until one day, like Hirem Pawnitoff, I suddenly saw the point! That was when it became the album I asked for, and received, for my birthday (probably my 17th). Thus began my musical education. In the year that followed I listened to this album as intensely as only a teenager with about ten albums in his possession can. Probably every track in turn became my favourite track, and I learned – probably exactly as Mike was learning from John Cale at the time – how a rock song can be arranged. In some people’s minds this was the ‘rock’ intrusion that led eventually to the Ruinous Feud and  the end of the String Band, but for me each song was an opening to a new world of instrumentation, feel and  to new heroes.

Call Me Diamond

Dudu Pukwana album sleeve.This was probably the first time any of us had ever heard Mike or Robin sound ‘professional’ – hence my not even noticing it on the radio. A seamless rhythm section with bubbling congas and the first brass arrangement I’d ever really listened to. Mike sounds like he’s having the time of his life singing it, and for my money it’s probably his best-ever recorded vocal. As I’ll have to note later I think Mike’s voice was always at its best when he was shouting, whether on his own songs or as backing vocal to Robin. He seems to hold the pitch better and have a purity of tone that he loses when trying to be ‘intimate’ on the quieter songs. This was one of the tracks that attracted most interest from the music writers, many of whom made comparisons with Van Morrison, comparisons which, I imagine, must have given Mike confidence to contemplate a career away from shadow of Robin’s artistic stature, in a field in which Robin couldn’t or wouldn’t want to compete. As for me, of course, it was years yet before I even heard Van Morrison, and when I did I couldn’t relate the barking bullfrog I heard there to the joyous outpouring of Call Me Diamond. My favourite shower song, this! Call Me Diamond on Amazon

Flowers of the Forest

Richard Thompson, early 1970sLike Feast of Stephen, this was a grower, a song that meandered through structure and mood like a forest stream, although it does have that little chorus to return to as a reference point.  I watched Mike play it on stage with Stan Lee on bass, following Mike with the fierce concentration of someone who isn’t sure where the song’s going either. It wasn’t till I got the sheet music that I was able to follow, and to appreciate the novelty of, the chords. As an arrangement on record, though, it’s a beaut. The classic Mike Heron guitar scrub (also heard at the start of orlds They Rise and FallW, and later on Memphis on Reputation) is supported by fluid and sensitive bass and drums, and exquisite Richard Thompson guitar. Again, my first hearing of Mr Thompson (I don’t know why, but Fairport never really interested me before), and it was the first spoke in my wheel as an up-and-coming guitarist who had always thought that no matter how strange a piece of guitar sounds, if you play along enough times, you’ll gradually work out how it’s done. Hah! Nearly thirty years later, I’m no nearer than I was the day I first heard it to finding even one of  Thompson’s phrases on this song. I can’t even figure out whether he’s playing open chords with a capo. What on earth is the man doing, save creating the nearest thing music has ever produced to a prickly bramble bush? Flowers Of The Forest

Audrey

Eroticism cleaves to music in a uniquely sticky way in a teenager’s life, and this song with its wonderfully crafted poetry contrasting the snowy street with the warm and quiet bedroom, was the soundtrack of a million fantasies. Especially as the warm harmonium rises and spreads around the line about ‘take your clothes off’. Ooo-er Mrs! This was the first track to sound like it could be a String Band track, although Robin would probably have asserted himself more on the backing than John Cale; it even had a little mistake in the guitar arpeggio left in like a String Band track! Like tracks for artists as far apart as Nico and Nick Drake, it showed off John Cale’s ability to choose exactly the right instruments and the in right quantity to catch the essence of a song. I even love the way it begins to fade out just as it finishes – it somehow adds to the satisfaction at the end of the song. Audrey

Brindaban

Gerard who? I think this was Mike’s first recorded string arrangement, with the rather skimpy thanks to Gerard Dott for his ‘technical assistance’ (but it was my ideas, right?), and again it drew my attention in a studied way to something I’d often heard but taken for granted – string arrangements. The next to grab my attention was Diamond Meadows on T Rex’s self-titled album! Like so many times before, I feel it’s a song where Mike’s singing doesn’t quite do the song justice. I know many feel his inaccuracy is endearing, or just part of the ISB charm, or whatever; but more and more when I listen to the old stuff with 90’s ears, I think what a shame – how good it could have been if he or his producers had taken a bit more care. It’s not as if Mike was a bad singer – the live shows I remember and the many live tapes I’ve heard have hardly any  flat or clumsy singing – it’s just that he seemed to be willing to accept a take that another producer wouldn’t have accepted at all. 60’s spirit or surrounded by yes-men? Who knows? For me, Brindaban points the way to the imaginative and exciting string arrangements Mike would score on later albums.  The lyric celebrates Krishna and the Gopi milkmaids by the town of Vrindavan in Hindu legend, although when I ‘looked through all of my books’ I didn’t find Malati, Mahdava or what on earth the first or the fifth were – things with kokilas in, I expect! Brindaban

Feast of Stephen

John Cale, 1971.Oh yes, Feast of Stephen. My favourite Mike song and arguably his finest recorded moment alongside Cellular Song. A perfect match of song, writer and arranger, as Cale subtly builds up a Spector wall of resonance and magnificence around Mike’s evocative and mysterious story. Every time I listen to this recording I notice something new, whether it’s the guitar slashes at “Don’t know her name”, the delicious staggered drum roll towards the end, or Cale’s screams and roars (or is it Mike?) on the fadeout. For someone who’d never really listened to rock drums (sad, eh?) every repetition of the fa la refrain was introduced by a new, different little fill – what an education! One of the live highlights of seeing the band in 1972 was an everyone-on-stage-now version of Feast with, of all people, Robin savaging the drumkit with all the manic glee of Keith Moon and none of the skill! The song wears equally well its new, quieter, incarnation with Dave Haswell and his gongs and bullroarers. And for a thoroughly challenging cover of this song, get Adrian Whittaker, Deena Omar and me round a piano  with a few bottles – or maybe not! Finally, this was the track that sent me to Paris 1919 and the discovery of the rest of John Cale’s heroic repertoire. Feast Of Stephen Feast Of Stephen – Mike with Trembling Bells 

Spirit Beautiful

(Ah, remember when albums came in decent 20-minute chunks and you had to decide whether or not to listen to the other side? Am I the only one who finds most CDs go on too long? Am I really as decrepit  as I feel writing this?)  Well, the Beatles had started their most famous side two with an Indian drone, so why not Mike? Now for me, Within You Without You was the standout track of Sgt Pepper, and likewise this was the first Smiling Men track I fell in love with, and it was a love I was able to sustain for years because of the complexity and subtlety of the tabla rhythms, always full of surprise and mischief. Just try finger-rapping a couple of jam jars along to it and you’ll see what  I mean.  I remembered hearing the song first on a String Band radio show and liking its ‘community singing’ feel, but this arrangement, wisely using ‘real’ musicians rather than band members and friends, makes much more than the sum of the parts. When I chose it for my cover on a  tribute album (having decided I’d inflict more damage than credit to any of the other songs on this album or any of Robin’s), I was able to lift every snippet of melody I needed from somewhere in this glorious arrangement. Spirit Beautiful (Mike’s version) Spirit Beautiful (my version)

Warm Heart Pastry

Here was another part of my musical education – the one that showed me what rock guitar, bass and drums were all about. I’m sure there are proper Who tracks that capture the essence of the Who as perfectly as this, but I’ve not heard many. And I prefer Heron’s voice to Daltrey’s.  I remember someone – I think it was Peel – reading out ‘Hey, I’m a hungry man and you know I ain’t talking bout grits – look at you, you got a sour lemon stuck where a smile oughta fit’ and saying it’s not exactly what you expect from the Incredible String Band, is it?  And just at the end, as Keith Moon tries to rein in his mad muse for a finish, Cale comes in with his funereal viola and, no doubt, a funereal twinkle in his eye. Imagine if they had got this on Top of the Pops! Sho’ nuff’r’am! Warm Heart Pastry

Beautiful Stranger

This was one where the words were more interesting to me than the music. After all, it mentioned breasts. No, it was another lovely little movie-in-song like Feast of Stephen, a shipwrecked sailor or lost soldier gradually coming round from his fever to the ministrations of a native beauty. The stop-and-start drum rolls became a distraction after a while, but I loved the tinny guitar, delighted for once to hear a guitar on record that sounded like they did when you just plugged them in in real life. Beautiful Stranger

No Turning Back

I seem to remember some story of this being for a film, but I don’t remember the details. For me, it’s the weakest point of the album, mainly because of some frankly awful singing. Again, it’s so frustrating because it he sings most of it so well, the guitar playing is innovative and interesting and the lyric is mysterious but feeds you just enough to be intriguing. Has he just died next to his lover and started speculating about his next life? If only I could reincarnate as Joe Boyd and frog-march Mr Heron back into the vocal booth to drop in some overdubs for this song! No Turning Back

So that’s Smiling Men. Now I’m second to none in my admiration for Robin Williamson as a poet, composer, singer and cultural force. But if I could only take one Incredible item to the proverbial desert island with me it would be this one, which gave me so much pleasure and so much inspiration when I most needed it.  Thanks Mike!

© Norman Lamont 1997

If this article chimes with you, you might like more of my String Band-related stuff:

Inspirations: Desert Island Discs

Some months ago, a discussion on the Out of the Bedroom board invited readers to choose their Desert Island Discs – the albums they would take with them if they were to be marooned on a desert island with the best sound system available (so that’s plausible, eh?). It’s a fun exercise, so I picked albums that aren’t necessarily favourites or most influential, but ones that I could live with and come back to for an extended time. For some reason, classical music, compilations and live albums were not to be included.

Revisiting the exercise now (November 2004) I’ve only changed one of my original list. Most of them have Amazon links where you can listen to snippets and – if you want – buy them!

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations Mike Heron
Innervisions Stevie Wonder
Catch Bull at Four Cat Stevens
U The Incredible String Band
Ten New Songs Leonard Cohen
Bel Gabriel Yacoub
Abbey Road The Beatles
The Equatorial Stars Fripp and Eno
Rhythm of the Saints Paul Simon
Time out of Mind Bob Dylan

 

Smiling Men with Bad Reputations: Mike Heron

Smiling Men cover.

I’ve said enough about this album elsewhere. An early 70s superstar session featuring John Cale, Richard Thompson, Pete Townshend and Keith Moon among others, plus the some of the best material Heron has committed to album. Smiling Men on Amazon

 

Innervisions: Stevie Wonder

Innervisions cover.

From the initial charge into Higher Ground through the gruff choirs of Living for the City to the sublime title track, the whole album proclaims the sheer joy of singing. The friend who introduced me to it, however, said at the time, ‘Never mind the singing, feel the rhythm!’ It’s all there. Innervisions on Amazon

 

Catch Bull at Four: Cat Stevens

Catch Bull at Four cover.

This was the album in which Stevens began to leave behind his more innocent-sounding acoustic ditties and get into some more complex arrangements. His voice also got harder and more soulful. Even listening to it now I find new touches of percussion or backing vocal I hadn’t noticed before. I never fail to get a thrill from the surging arrangement of Eighteenth Avenue. Catch Bull on Amazon

 

U: the Incredible String Band

U cover.

With my lifelong association with the ISB it’s hard to pick an album but I have to pick one. The trouble is I know most of them so well, there’s little left to hear in them. This is the one I think I could listen to for a few years more. It has two of Robin Williamson’s finest songs Queen of Love and Invocation plus the feel of all the different periods of the ISB’s development up to that time, with sitars, shanais, comedy songs, challenging poetry and Mike Heron just beginning to explore his ‘rock’ voice. U on Amazon

 

Ten New Songs: Leonard Cohen

Ten New Songs cover.

I select this over other favourite Cohen albums for the obvious Zen influence, the unified and consistent mood and the wonderfully-recorded deep voice. It’s a long way from his early stuff, which I also love, but it conveys more than its explicit message, and seems to change the atmosphere of the room in which it’s played. Ten New Songs o n Amazon.

 

Bel: Gabriel Yacoub

Bel cover.

An album of traditional-influenced original songs by a French folk-rock pioneer of the 70s (with his band Malicorne). Biting acoustic guitar complemented here and there by pipes or a string quartet. This came out in the early 90s, followed by a couple of albums which I found bombastic and over-arranged. This simple collection of short, emotional songs leaves you wanting more. Bel on Amazon. ( There are no audio samples on Amazon but you can hear Bel here. )

 

Abbey Road: the Beatles

Abbey Road cover.

I wanted some moptop in my collection but it was a tough one to call between this, Revolver and McCartney’s Ram. In the end I picked this as the final flowering of the partnership with such wonders as I Want You, Something and the ‘side two medley’. Abbey Road on Amazon

 

The Equatorial Stars: Fripp and Eno

equatorial stars cover.

This is the only one I’ve changed since my first list, reluctantly bumping the Handsome Family’s Twilight. This came out in the summer of 2004 and is a series of tentative, exploratory guitar solos against crystalline backdrops. Sounds cold? It isn’t – Fripp’s phrasing has a yearning quality that reaches to the heart. This album is  available from EnoShop where you can hear a couple of samples.

 

Rhythm of the Saints: Paul Simon

Rhythm of the Saints cover.

Simon’s follow-up to Graceland, working with African and Brazilian musicians to make what must be his most musically and lyrically complex work. It would take years of satisfying listening to tease out all the strands of The Coast, Further to Fly or the title track. A masterpiece. Rhythm of the Saints on Amazon

 

Time Out of Mind: Bob Dylan

Time Out of Mind cover.

Sure, it’s not as well-written as Blood on the Tracks or as exultant as Desire, but again I’ve almost drained them dry from listening, and this album, while flawed, has the advantage of those crepuscular arrangements and a great grumbling-old-man vocal. Plus it’s got Highlands! And the cover picture sums up the music perfectly. Time Out of Mind on Amazon

© Norman Lamont 2004