Sunday, July 30, 2006

Fulham Greyhound: the Uncle Phil's Eye View

Fulham Greyhound was one of the happiest and stressful days of my life. I don't know if we had slept since leaving Toronto as we were rushed from one interview to another, from a photo shoot to a meeting of players and entourage, for what seemed an eternity.

Kevin Hunter, our tour manager/driver/roadie, kept us hopping and on schedule the whole time as we went from NME to Melody Maker to the next. I couldn't keep anything straight except my bangs which were Johnny Ramone length.

The club looked like nothing special, basically a big flat-black room with strips and remnants of silver duct tape interfering with the otherwise glamorous decor. Ahem. We loaded in but as we soon came to realize, Kevin and Carl were committed to doing all the work. They had agreed together that we would be calm and rested whenever possible and that the stage setup and sound-check was their job, their responsibility. That was a first for me.

Back stage was beer and wine and yes, a chutes and ladders game: one of about 5,000 we would wind up with. Sadly, I doubt any of them made it back state-side. The soundcheck was quick and functional. The opening act, "I, Ludicrous" was one guy or maybe a duo and a boom-box. I believe John Peel had played something of theirs on his show as well.

While I, Ludicrous played, we sat in the dressing room and I'm going to guess I was just shy of totally freaking out. Kevin asked each of us what we wanted on stage drink wise and made sure cans of ale, lager or H2O were opened and at everyone's respective station.

When we strolled out onto the stage the sound was deafening. Yeah, Dave, it was our Beatle moment. And not the last. The place was absolutely packed. I don't remember what we started with, how long we played or anything except that my hands were shaking the whole time.

On "Considering a Move to Memphis" I used to play a pentatonic riff using all harmonics on the guitar during the second solo. What I remember is my hand trembling and moving over the neck and not a damn thing coming out but clicks or ghost notes. My thoughts were along the line of "Me terrible. Them hate me. Me very bad."

But that wasn't the case. The Sheffield Lads began immediately with their chorus of "Absolutely More!" and the other word new to our ears being shouted out was "Brilliant!" At the time we didn't know that Britishers use "brilliant!" like we would say "great!" For a moment we thought "Damn! They think we're fucking geniuses!"

The Lads met us afterwards and introduced themselves explaining that they were prepared with the itinerary to see just about every upcoming show. As I stated before, they were fun to be around soon becoming a welcome sight for sore eyes at each U.K. show.

At the end of the night, once the van was loaded, Kevin climbed into the drivers seat and quieted us down with a stern "I've got something important to say to you all" tone to his voice. We hushed and he said "WHO WANTS A BEER?" We all cheered as he pulled out beers for each of us as we drove back to our hotel.

Maybe we sucked and maybe we were great. It really didn't matter. The show was huge, the crowd flipped for us, and it kicked off the tour awesomely.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

1988 Tour: Fulham Greyhound

When we arrived in Britain in October 1988 for our first tour, we didn't play any shows right away. We first spent about two or three days doing nothing but interviews, photo sessions and BBC recordings. Our first actual gig in front of an audience was at the Fulham Greyhound. We had absolutely no idea what to expect. In the rush of events, my memories of many of the details of that show are hazy, but a few details stand out. I remember doing a soundcheck in the afternoon, and noting the fact that the promoter had supplied a brand-new "Snakes and Ladders" board game in our dressing room, along with the usual refreshments. We learned that this was a clause in our contract rider, that each venue would provide a board game for the band. I played chess with Ken on a couple of occasions when a chess-board was offered. (Ken was a fine chess layer and always crushed me easily, even while spotting me a few pieces.)

After doing the soundcheck in the empty venue, we went somewhere for dinner and came back a couple hours later for the show. At this point, the place was absolutely packed. I cannot exaggerate this point whatsoever. I have never been in a denser crush of people in my life—it took at least 15 or 20 minutes for us to squeeze through the throng from the pub's entrance to the dressing room. It was unbelievably hot and humid from all of the bodies packed together. As we got on stage, I looked up and saw that the walls were literally dripping with moisture. I was so sweaty that I nearly dropped my saxophone a couple of times. Already nervous about the show, having to worry about simply holding my instruments added another layer of stress that I'd never experienced before. As we faced the audience, the crowd let out a deafening cheer that seemed to last forever. I remember thinking quite clearly to myself, "Now I know what the Beatles felt like..."

The actual gig is a complete and utter blur for me. Maybe Phil or Ken can remember something else, but I can't. I have no idea how we played. I don't think it really mattered that much. I dimly recall playing "Considering a Move to Memphis" and the roar being almost as loud as the band. Somewhere I have a glowing review of the show that I'll post if I can find it. After that, we were launched on the tour. Our prospects seemed limitless at that point.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Prequel to The First Tour (1988)

With all of the mail coming in from England, with all of the BBC airplay that continued unabated from mid-1987 onwards, and with our snazzy new distribution deal with Fundamental/Red Rhino all coming together, we naturally thought that a European (or at least British) tour would instantly be in the offing. Oddly, none of our record distributors seemed to be pushing this idea very hard. We however, saw the situation as a hot iron that needed to be struck if anything were to happen.

So when I went to London in January of 1988 (my wife Kathleen had to go there on a business trip), I thought I'd drop in on the folks at Red Rhino and see if we couldn't get that plan moving forward. I talked it over with Chuck and the band, and all agreed that it made sense to try to contact them and see about organizing a tour. I said "drop in" because they didn't have an actual phone number, or at least one that we had access to. I had no means of making an appointment. All we had was a street address in York. So I took a four-hour train ride up to York from London and walked around asking directions until I was guided to a fairly shabby part of town. I walked up to a doorway on the correct street with the correct number, but no other indication that I'd come to the right place. No sign saying "Red Rhino Records, Ltd," or anything helpful like that. I knocked. And knocked some more....

Eventually a bloke came to the door, opened it about two inches or less, and said, "Yes?" I asked if this was the location of Red Rhino Records. He didn't really say one way or the other, just more or less replied, "So, who wants to know?" I explained that I was a member of the Colorblind James Experience, that I happened to be in England just then, and that I happened to have taken a train to York to speak with them about help in setting up a European tour.

"Wait here."

So I stood in the damp chill of the doorway for a while, and eventually was invited in. The two gentlemen that received me were very gracious from that point onwards, and after some discussion they gave me the name of a booking agent in London who they thought would be interested in working with us. And also recommended a fine pub for lunch, whose steak and kidney pie was outstanding. The initial cold reception and mysterious behavior made a lot more sense a few months later, when we learned a bit more about this company that was handling our record in Europe. I'll explain further in an upcoming posting.

In my various wanderings around York, I had also stopped in at a local record shop, just to get a sense of the music scene there, and because I simply couldn't walk past a record shop in those days. As I walked in, what should be playing on the store sound system but "A Different Bob," from the first album. I walked up to the counter and said, "This is a fine record that you're playing here." A largish fellow looked up and said, "Oh, have you heard of them, then?" "Actually," I replied, "I play in that band." I have never seen a jaw drop in a more classic manner in my own life (or in a movie) before or since that moment. Priceless. He told me he was a huge fan of the band, loved the album and that it had been selling well at their shop. At this point, I had to get back to the station to catch my train back to London. I reviewed the day's accomplishments. I had: 1) made direct contact with Red Rhino, 2) conveyed the fact that we were eager to tour and been encouraged by the response, 3) been given the name of a booking agent (Paul Buck, who did help book our first tour), and 4) discovered firsthand that the buzz about the album was real. It felt like a fairly productive day. The strangeness of the experience didn't sink in until much later.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thank You, John Peel

Many tributes and appreciations of the great British DJ John Peel are spread across the internet. Here's one more. Over his 30-year career at the BBC, he broke many new and unknown bands to a national audience. We were one of them. Our European tours and our succession of independent-label releases between 1987 and 1992 are largely due to the effect of this single individual. Without his advocacy of our first LP, probably none of those things would have come to pass, or certainly would have happened much differently. Here's the sequence of events:

In 1987, the CbJE had completed its first album, released on the Rochester label Earring Records. This came out a few months prior to my joining the group in the summer of '87. At that point, G. Elwyn Meixner and Bernie Heveron had left to pursue individual projects, so the band's sound was retooled to include horns—myself on clarinet and saxophone and John Ebert on trombone; Ken Frank came in on bass. The group had a thousand copies pressed (LP only), of which about a third were reserved for promos, to be sent to radio stations and record companies. Someone (maybe Phil or Ken remembers who, I don't) suggested to Chuck that an English DJ named John Peel might find our music attractive. So we plumped up the requisite international postage, and Chuck mailed a single copy of the LP to Britain, addressed to "John Peel, c/o the BBC."

A few weeks later, Chuck came home from work to find a fan letter from England in his mailbox, enthusing about the album. Peel had been playing several cuts from the album, including "The First Day of Spring," "A Different Bob," and (most importantly) "Considering a Move to Memphis." Over the next few weeks, more mail arrived, from all over Britain. Chuck had included his mailing address on the back of the album, but there was only the one copy in England at that time. So that meant that people were calling the BBC offices in London in order to get the address. Another Radio 1 DJ, Andy Kershaw, also began to play the album on his show, with strong audience response. Momentum gathered. Other radio hosts on the Beeb like Liz Kershaw began to play the album as well and the strong audience response continued. Peel never seemed to let up in his appreciation for the album, playing nearly every song that was on it. He didn't care that it was on a tiny private label, that it was unevenly recorded, or that there was no product in shops at the time. He just liked the record. Because of this, we had a national reputation in Great Britain before we even had American distribution.

Some time afterwards, we were contacted by Fundamental Records in Georgia about licensing the LP. This deal would also include English distribution through an outfit based in York called Red Rhino. Fundamental was a more or less known quantity in the States, then mainly notable for releasing Eugene Chadbourne onto an unsuspecting public. We went for it. Fundamental also issued the first LP on CD and cassette. As this was the beginning of the exciting new CD format, bonus tracks were a big deal. We added two songs that had just been recorded by the new group at Saxon Studios (see Phil's earlier posting on this Rochester institution), as it seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back now, those extra tracks don't seem to fit with the original set of songs.

In early 1988, my wife had to go to London on a business trip, and I tagged along. Mostly I knocked around London during the day and shopped for avant garde classical recordings, but I did take a train to York to contact the folks at Red Rhino about a tour. That adventure will require its own posting. The other thing I did was to call the BBC to ask to leave a message with Peel. I had no illusions about speaking to the great man myself, and I learned later that he generally tried to keep a bit of distance between himself and the artists he played. My call was transferred around the building for a bit and then a male voice suddenly came on the line; the most mellifluous "Hello" I'd ever heard. I explained that I was trying to reach John Peel's office in order to leave a message with him. The voice replied, "You've done even better, this is John Peel speaking!" We chatted briefly, and I ended the conversation by thanking him for all of the enthusiastic airplay that we'd received on his show. Ever gracious, he said, Well, thank YOU lads for making such a wonderful album."

Monday, July 03, 2006

CbJE at the BBC

Above is a picture of Phil Marshall and Colorblind James at one of our recording sessions at the BBC. I think it's from our Death Valley Boys session for Andy Kershaw in 1989. We did four of these over our three tours, including two on our very first tour, when we were considered a pretty hot item. These sessions all consisted of four songs, were all recorded in a single day at the BBC's Maida Vale studios and all were engineered by the exceptional Mike Robinson. Robinson is listed as producer on the cd insert, but Dale "Buffin" Griffin (the orginal drummer for Mott the Hoople) was also present in the capacity of producer for all four sessions. Griffin was supposedly possessed of a legendary irritability, but he seemed to like us and put in long hours getting the best mix possible. We were told he never did this for other bands.

British readers of this blog will simply regard these BBC recordings as an ordinary event, but there is nothing comparable to them in the United States. At the Maida Vale recording complex was a warren of studios recording all manner of music, all day, every day. As we wandered through its hallways on our way to lunch, we'd peer in windows to other studios and see jazz bands, choruses, orchestras and more, all being recorded for broadcast. A little bit like heaven, I thought at the time.

Our first session for John Peel (18 October 1988) included a very fast version of "Polka Girl," "Hey Bernadette" (a rollicking song dedicated to the actress and singer Bernadette Peters, who Chuck admired strenuously), Phil's terrific instrumental "Havoc Theme" (which my daughter Rachel often uses as title music in her videos; someday Phil will get a fat royalty check for that number), and "Wedding at Cana." All of these, except "Hey Bernadette" had been recorded previously, with two appearing on our second album 'Why Should I Stand Up?.' After we heard the exceptional quality of the recordings, we realized that it was foolish to duplicate stuff we'd already recorded, so after that we only recorded unreleased songs for the Beeb. The one exception to this policy was on our first session for Andy Kershaw, where we did record a too-fast and hectic version of "Considering a Move to Memphis," at his request. (Actually, he only requested the song, not that it be hectic...)

A couple years later, that first John Peel session was chosen for release on his Strange Fruit label, and was also licensed in the States on another label. On the Strange Fruit release there we are, listed alongside the likes of Joy Division, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, New Order, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Syd Barrett and others. "Judge us by the company we keep," Chuck once said. The rest of the BBC material (sixteen songs in total) has resided in their vaults ever since. Some of it is excellent stuff—the "Rollin' and Tumblin'" Peel session (7 November 1989) found the band in especially fine form. We often discussed issuing an album of all this BBC material, but never got around to it. At this point, it seems unlikely that any of it will see the light of day again. A shame, as it comprises some of the band's most important recorded legacy (and many of Chuck's finest songs), and comes the closest to capturing what we sounded like as a live band.