New Directions for my Harmonica

So after ten years of being in the same band I was astonished to be asked to join a new one. It’s true to say that I was incredibly humbled and flattered to be asked, especially being that the new band is well established and has a fantastic bunch of experienced musicians in it. Unfortunately this new venture caused much eye rolling from my wife due to the fact that I would be absent from the house for ANOTHER night of the week, but she knows who she married…

Anyway, the band I have enjoyed the company of these last ten years is The Harpoon Blues Band. Whilst I continue to enjoy their company alongside this new venture, I thought it was interesting how very different beasts they are. I also thought it definitely worth a write about, as some of you out there may have had the same experience.

Lets start with a bit of background about The Harpoons:
The 9 years previous to this year we were not very serious at all, well, we took our music very seriously indeed and we didn’t muck about at rehearsals and have fun times at gigs, but we never really put too much time and effort into promoting the band and getting gigs. Until this year. At the start of January 2017 we no gigs at all, nada, zip, butkiss, nothing. So I got on the campaign trail and managed to rustle us up LOADS of gigs! I went mental bugging every venue I possibly could and we have had a gig or two nearly every weekend throughout summer 2017. My hard work paid off. I say it paid off but really just by booking the gigs my hard work had really just started. Before I say anything else I want to make it clear that I love the band and I get on really well with the guys in it. What my aim is here is to get across what a logistical nightmare organising 4 blokes with family, wives, kids, businesses, jobs and houses into twenty dates at twenty different venues in twenty different locations. My head has literally been thumping over the organisation of these gigs before I even got to any of them and played a chuffing note.

The Harpoon Blues Band is a lively band that I front, sing and play harmonica for. Our music is upbeat Rhythm and Blues and people dance for most of our two hour set. My harmonica playing is never held back and is a bit ‘balls-out’ to put it bluntly. I play my face off and trade riff with the guitarist until we are dizzy. I talk to the audience, get them going and encourage those to dance that aren’t. For my part I try to involve the audience in what we are doing; I talk them through the song history, share onstage jokes that are happening between band members and so on and so forth. It really can be hard work and most gigs I come off stage feeling very tired, dehydrated and mostly hoarse in the voice as I’ve been giving it too much beans on the vocals. I’m also pretty deaf by this point too. We play a little game on stage that goes a little something like ‘let’s each get slightly louder in turn until no one can hear anything but a wall of noise and we are all deaf’. It’s odd because during soundcheck my harmonica can be heard finem, then by the start of the second set it comes about that I can’t be heard at all. Thanks. Have I been blowing my head off for the first set and not being heard at all, or is everyone else just getting louder? The drummer wears earplugs as he’s worried about his hearing. I think he has the right idea, I’m seriously getting worried about mine.

So now on to my new venture: The Jamos and Sir Mathew Band.

I play the harmonica.

That’s it, in a nutshell. I turn up, plug my amp in then help with the rest of the PA etc. It’s mostly acoustic guitars, bass guitar, a cajon and some growling grungy vocals from the band’s front man, Jamos. In this band I just stand at the back and blow my harp. For my presence in the musical spectrum I am the string section, the horn section, the twin guitar line, the backing vocal, mandolin, violin or even the keyboard. I get to express all these things with my harmonica and I have to say that it can really be quite challenging. The sound I have on the harmonica doesn’t have to be so ‘in-your-face’ and for the better part of the band’s sound as a whole I can be ‘felt’ instead of being really ‘heard’. I’m also an extra, so there is no pressure at all on my shoulders to engage the audience: we already have a front man, his name is Jamos and he’s great at it. Another point is that my ears don’t ring after a gig as we really aren’t a loud band.

As a covers band the song choices are mostly from the nineties, as that is our age group and era. Nothing is very obscure and people know what the song is that they are listening to. Some modern classics make it into the set too and I also feel that I am part of something very contemporary. The drummer in The Jamos and Sir Mathew Band arranges most of the gigs and manages the band’s Facebook page etc so I don’t have to. I help out where I can; sharing posts, using my graphic design skills to create posters, T Shirts etc for the band. But mostly I just play the harmonica. I don’t even have to sing.

All in all, TJASMB can at times seems like a bit of a holiday compared to the effort required to be in the Harpoons. But both have seperate and equal merit and I love both and now I’ve had both I’m not sure I could be without either. Greedy, I know but I don’t care. I’ve not had any gig clashes so far so I will have to cross that bridge when I come to it. One last thing to mention is that in both bands I am considered a musician of equal standing. This is something I have not always been used to as a harmonica player. In both bands I am considered a full-time, permanant member and never as an add-on or an afterthought. It’s a wonderful feeling.

How many bands do you dep/frequent with? What are your experiences?

New Directions for my Harmonica

My Harmonica Tone Journey (Odyssey)

It’s a can of worms, searching for your tone. It’s not like you ever had it only to lose it and had to look for it again. It’s not even like you can describe it to someone properly without gesticulating madly, making incoherent noises and using large amounts of onomatopoeia. Your tone is your sound, it can define you. So you think. As a young man I listened to a LOT of harmonica players on records, or CD’s as they were called back then. I wanted to play like they did and I wanted what they had. It was strange though, because my focus was always on their techniques, abilities and song choice and hardly ever on their ‘tone’. I say ‘hardly ever’ as I did have a dabble at one time, around the age of 17, with an astatic mic and a tube amp but it was short lived and lasted as long as someone else was buying the equipment. So it was that I spent (wasted?) hours learning the bends, overblows, overdraws, trills, scales, arpeggios, breathing patterns etc etc etc that came out of my stereo, placed there by my harmonica heroes. It will be 30 years next year since I picked up the Harmonica and I’m still acquiring new techniques this way.

But what about my ‘sound’?

For decades I have tried to find my own style, my own sound. These last two years I have invested a large amount of time into trying to find it. There has been tears, tantrums and a few angry gigs I have to tell you. I’ve bought and sold gear I bought on a whim and held on to stuff I can’t let go of as I am convinced that it will work for me at some point as it seems to work for everyone else! Take the vintage Astatic mic I bought earlier this year. I thought I had paid a fair amount of cash for it but some quick internet based research told me that I had gotten an absolute BARGAIN. Very pleased I was to have an actual Astatic as I’ve not had one since I was 17 years old. I actually had a band to gig test it with this time around. So with giggling schoolboy excitement I tested the mic with my amp choice; a Marshall AVT. Now, I know hat the Harp-tone junkies amongst you are saying right now: “That’s a gain-y amp! You wanna get a fully valved one.” I know it is and I know I do. However, I was well happy with my Marshall, an old CAD vocal mic and a noise reduction pedal until I got that old harp-tone itch again.

For the 8 years preceding my recent harp-tone odyssey I used a clean, cheap radio vocal mic that went straight into the PA. It was a clean ass sound and I could always be heard, never got any feedback/recirculation and didn’t have to lug a massive amp around.

My tone was sooo clean though… Squeaky clean, country clean!

Did I ever have any sound problems? No, I did not.

It was clean though.

I blame the boys in the band. I’m so easily led. They happened to mention that they had seen some old blues players with ‘those bullet mic things’. I explained what they were, how I’d had a bad experience twenty-something years ago and never gone back. Was it worth another go with an older head on my shoulders? Like I said, I’m easily led. So I looked around for an amp and a friend had one for sale for 20 quid. Worth a punt, I thought so I bought it, plugged my radio mic in and experienced what I had done all those years before when the volume pot would creep past the number 2: howls of feedback. I know, I thought, I have an old vocal mic in a drawer that is even DEAFER than the cheap radio mic I had been using. I plugged it in and gave it a blast. The squeals and howls came again but this time not as prominently. The tone was thin though, very thin and everything I read said I NEEDED reverb and/or delay. Never having been a fan of either of those effects, even on vocals, I shunned that idea and carried on regardless. I’d heard of a noise gate before and thought that might be an idea. A mate had one for sale for 20 quid (it’s the magic price round my way) so having plugged that it, turned the bass up, the treble down, the mid up a gnat’s cock and boom! It sounded great! So I thought…

I had a distorted harp-tone. At last. It was kinda raucous and kinda rough and ready but I now sounded like those skinny rockers who played guitar on my Dad’s records. I did not, however, sound like the harmonica players of old that my band mates wanted to hear from me. SO far my tone journey had led me to Rocksville circa 1979 when what they wanted was Bluesville circa 1959.

So I bought the bargain Astatic (this time costing a bit more than 20 quid) and played a full two numbers of a gig with it, unplugged it, plugged in my ancient vocal miv (not the radio mic I had ebayed that already) and haven’t looked back. That was until my wife spotted a vintage looking amp in a junk shop that her friend owns. ‘A find’ I thought to myself. I’ve seen stories on Facebook pages of people finding vintage amps in thrift stores etc and they turn out to be stonkingly good amps. This was my turn for a bit of awesome luck! They wanted £120 for it and it was an Electar amp, another valvestate this time made in the Gibson workshop, the shop owner said I could trial it before I made a decision to buy it. I took along my old mic and noise pedal and gave it some noise. Number 2 on the volume knob, no feedback. Number 3, 4, 5 and still no feedback. Number 7 was the feedback magic number. The sound was breaking up nicely and the amp tone had a warmth that the Marshall didn’t have. I think I liked it. Then I noticed a switch for a ‘boost’ channel. Volume down first then a little tap of that then volume slowly up again…what a beauty! It’s a lump though and I started getting hacked off lugging it around this festival season but it’s been totally worth it. No feedback, reasonable warm tone and lush overdrive/honk when I want it.

I guess in conclusion I’m really glad that I learnt my techniques before my tone, although maybe I should have grown them at the same time? My old Harmonica teacher David Michelsen used to say that if you don’t work on your acoustic tone and you sound shit, if you then play through an amp all you have is loud shit. I guess he had a point. I love my little cheap set up and I will think long and hard before I spend a friggin’ fortune on an all valve amp!

(I am actually saving up for one though!)

What has your tone journey been like?

My Harmonica Tone Journey (Odyssey)

Harpin’ By The Sea 2017

Last year I attended the awesome ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks‘, this year I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ for more Harmonica shenanigans.

Here’s what happened:

Back in February I attended ‘Harping By The Sea’ in Hove here in the UK. A one day Harmonica festival of tuition, masterclasses, jam sessions and concerts. A fine excuse to get away for the weekend and spend some time brushing up on my Harmonica skills. Practise is something I rarely get time to do with a young family, a full-time job and all the trappings of life. They are all welcome trappings, but some ‘me’ time was definitely needed in the bleakness of a British wintertime.

I filled up my 17 year old Beetle with gas and trundled on down to the south coast on a 3.5 hour journey that was both uneventful and at times pleasant. ‘Pleasant’ not being a term associated with British road travel, but at 5.30am on a Saturday in February it seemed like I had the roads to myself. Having read the travel advice on the excellent ‘Harping By The Sea‘ website I had planned ahead and booked my parking to a private driveway using my Justpark app. Gotta love the technology! A fifteen minute walk along Brighton and Hove’s glorious and historic seafront to the Brunswick in Hove and I was there.

Once inside the Brunswick, registration was only held up by my bumping into old friends and it was my fault there was a wait in the queue as I was bloody chatting! This was a well attended event and it was great to see so many new faces. Some familiar faces I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, John Vaughan being a stand out guy and between us we held up the line catching up on old times. Once registered I took a table and scouted round for more faces. Relief, the crew from ‘Blue Saturday in Bucks’ were there. Big Azza, Francis and Russ grabbed me a seat at their table and we caught up on the harmonica happenings since the BSiB festival the previous year. For anyone that hasn’t met Big Azza, you really need to. Azza is a total inspiration. Lately I’ve been calling myself a ‘has-been’ when anyone asks about my harmonica career. I was part of a band who did tour when I was much, much younger. I am always implying that my musical career is all over and done with now. Azza is a different story altogether; firstly he overcame throat cancer and did not even pick up the harmonica until he was two years older than I am now. Azza described to me how he dedicated time to teaching people the harmonica, formed bands, put himself out there and got a new lease on his life through playing the harmonica. His band was booked up for the rest of the year, three gigs a weekend! At this point in the year, my band The Harpoon Blues Band, had none at all. I was all woe is me until I heard all this and it made me wanna pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again. Thanks Big Azza.

So onto the learning…

The advanced class is what I chose as I like to consider myself an advanced player. Always dodgy ground for me. What makes one an advanced player? Is it like social class and totally subjective? If you think you are advanced then are you? The organisers, Richard and  Stuart made it clear in the welcome speech that we could change workshops at anytime if we felt that the workshop we were in wasn’t for us. I had my ‘get out of jail free’ card so I felt safe.

Cajun and zydeco were on the menu and boy was it an eye opener. Ably lead by an old acquaintance of mine, Aidan Sheehan it was a rip-roarer of a workshop. Aidan and I had met many years before on the judging panel at the Bristol Harmonica Festival in 2005 (I think it was 2005 anyhow!). He was judging and I was compere at the time, we got on great and he’s a very knowledgable chap. A multi-instrumentalist, Aidan plays harmonica, accordion and squeezeboxes all with the same ease and fluency on each. I had to concentrate to keep up, which was great, this was pushing me and my abilities. The work sheets Aidan had copied had the tab really clearly laid out and he led us through it all by the hand (metaphorically I might add).  In no time at all we were making convincing zydeco and cajun noises. Loved it!

Over lunch attention was drawn to my T-Shirt. I was working at a T Shirt printers at the time and had fashioned myself a little ‘Harmonica Player‘ T Shirt as a heat transfer onto a black shirt. I’d stolen the initial design from a website and added a distressed look, changed the font slightly and boom: self-made designer T Shirt! Big Azza said that if I made a bunch more I’d be welcome to sell them at the next Blue Saturday event. I had a few more ideas I’d knocked up in illustrator in a slow moment at work the week before which I showed round the table on my phone. “I’d buy one of those!” and “Do they come in 4XL?” came the reactions. I put a pin in the idea and decided to give some serious thought to making my own brand of T Shirts. After all, what could be a more perfect combination; Harmonicas and clothing?! I’d found the perfect job.

After lunch it was Lee Sankey’s turn to put us through our paces in the advanced class. Richard had again chosen a very knowledgable and established player in Lee and I have always admired his harmonica playing (even if he does play the harp upside-down!). Lee focused initially on what mad an advanced player, so he asked us which of us considered ourselves proper advanced players.I put my hand up, not really noticing anyone else’s hands going up. I’m sure they went up I was just letting my anxiety show and not noticing anyone else. I managed to get myself singled out at this point. Lee was stating that as an advanced player we should be putting some light and shade into our playing and also should at least be able to do a 3 octave major scale on a diatonic harmonica. He pointed to me and asked me tif I’d like to play one. “no,” I said initially, not wanting to be singled out and have to play to a room crammed full of advanced harmonica players. “Can’t do it?” Lee asked me? Taking this last sentence like a red rag to a bull I played the scale from one end of the harp to the other. Thunderous applause echoed throughout the room. What had I done? It was just a scale! It seems that not everyone can do this and I had forgotten my own abilities. It was turning out to be a day of awesome learning for me.

As I said previously, it was a very well attended event. I’d not seen so many harmonica players in one place since the early days of the Bristol festival. Bloody brilliant to see and encouraging as I think sometimes our beautiful instrument is a dying art. It seems that the only thing that was dying was my knowledge of the community, its easy to isolate in my part of the world. A man from a very different part of the world is Jerome Godboo. This Canadian harpmeister was giving a masterclass that afternoon and I’m glad I caught it. I have to admit to having never heard of the man until the festival but I’m glad I’ve heard of him now. What a player. Jazzy licks with a bluesy twist, this man knows his altered tunings and gave us an insight into a regular gigging musicians experience and lifestyle. A very cool guy.

The evening meal was yet more discussion over what we had all learnt that day, Aidan’s cajun workshop being a favourite so far. After a semi-heated discussion over the use/need for overblows (me being for, the other person being against) the jam session loomed. I could feel the nerves creeping up me from the moment I heard sign ups had been called. I didn’t want to have gone all that way and not played as much as I could! It took some awesome encouragement from Lee Sankey to talk me into it in the end. I signed up to knock out a version of ‘The Blues Overtook Me’ by Charlie Musselwhite from his ‘Ace of Harps’ album. Opting for a slower more acoustic feel than the shiny, bouncy album track I only made one glaring error in playing and then sat down to enjoy the rest of the performers. It has to be said that my friend Mr John Vaughan is an outstanding Blues harmonica player, if you get chance then please check him out. I heard three requests for the video of his jam session slot before he’d even finished playing! His partner Yuki plays harmonica too, and gave the best rendition of Sonny Terry licks I have ever heard (better than Paul Lamb? I thought so). How I wish I could get ANYONE else in my house to play harmonica, but they won’t, John is a lucky guy!

I hung around as long as I could for the evening concert but the day was starting to take its toll on me. I thought it best to retire for the long drive home in the morning, my head full of new harmonica knowledge, my pockets full of new harmonicas and my wallet empty of cash. I caught Lee Sankey’s set (which included a blistering William Clarke tribute) and the start of Richard Taylor and The Blackjacks. Tight. As. Hell. Well worth a listen, especially for Richard’s understated harp playing and his interplay with the rest of the band. I don’t know but I’d wager they know each other pretty well to play that tight.

Thanks Richard and Stuart for putting this on, see you next year for definite, this time with my Harmonica-tees stall in tow.

Harpin’ By The Sea 2017

Blue Saturday in Bucks 2016

Below is an article I wrote that was published in Harmonica World Magazine late last year:
The Blue Saturday was advertised not just as a gathering of harmonica players but a day of tuition and workshops, followed by a jam session and an evening concert. The wegottickets website offered three different tutors and three different standards: Richard Taylor teaching beginners classes, Hugh Budden with the intermediate/advanced and Giles King with advanced playing. The techniques and topics they would be covering were clearly listed, I just needed to click and book.
Job done. This Blue Saturday was already looking quite slick and very well organised. High Wycombe offered a good choice of local hotels at reasonable prices, all just minutes walk from the venue.
The Arts4All Centre is centrally placed within the town and well set up with multiple rooms ideal for workshops. Clear space and multiple doors between each room meant that any noise from amps or group playing would not disturb other workshops. Upon arrival I met Big Azza who totally lived up to his name as a giant of a man. I was welcomed, signed in, name badged and wrist-banded according to which workshop I would be attending. The wrist bands helped identify immediately who I would be spending the day with and I felt that it really helped break the ice. We even received
a free gift of a beautiful leather harmonica pouch and a tie pin. A couple of fellow attendees were already milling around and more ice was broken over a coffee and discussions about what harps we preferred and our playing experience.
It’s fair to say that I am a very experienced harmonica player, but I have to tell you that this event demonstrated to me that there is always something for all of us to learn. I learnt a microphone technique from a fellow workshop attendee, I learnt acoustic and electric tone projection along with a deeper vibrato from Giles King as well as a new way of thinking about how many harps to take to a gig from Hugh Budden. The tuition continued unwittingly into the evening concert as I received a lesson in frontmanship (my new word, dedicated to the man) from watching Hugh Budden’s excellent onstage persona. Richard Taylor’s working of a band in a live situation was formidable as
he directed which chords they were to play AS he was singing!
For me personally the event served to make new connections and to be inspired to get out of the rut I felt my playing had slipped in to. It had been a few years since I last attended an event and my experience this time means that I will be attending regularly once more.
Well done and thanks to Big Azza and crew, a great event. See you next at the next one.
Blue Saturday in Bucks 2016

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want to.

That sentence has been my mantra for the past 20 years whenever I am asked the question: “Why aren’t you a professional musician?” It has always seemed like the ultimate ‘get out’ claus, the complete answer to the question that is far too complicated and emotional to go into at that particular moment. Far too much of everything to go into at any moment, if I’m completely honest. Anyone who has read any of my blog posts in ‘I Used to be in a Band’ on this blog will know that I had an early musical career playing the Harmonica. For those that haven’t and/or cant be bothered/don’t have the time, I’ll give you a brief summary.

In 1988 on a camping trip with the Scouts my 12 year old self picked up a mouth organ that one of the leaders had been playing. Within 6 months there was a band full of us all playing harmonicas in a group to a standard that got national and then international stage and TV interest. Tours, festivals, TV and more tours ensued, all crashing to a halt, when at the age of 17 I won the World Harmonica Championships in the Blues and Jazz categories.

Not long after the hubbub of being World Harmonica Champion died down (a performance at The Jazz Cafe with WAR and an appearance on Blue Peter) it all went downhill. I left home, got a flat and then fell in love with a very beautiful young girl. To support this extreme change in lifestyle I had to get a job. I could have moved down to London to seek my fortune, but I didn’t. I wasn’t in a good place and lacked the confidence to make such a drastic move. ‘Lack confidence?’ I hear you exclaim, ‘a musician lacking confidence?’. Well, yes, I’m sorry to break the illusion but most if not all musicians lack confidence, in fact its sometimes why we become musicians in the first place. Singers, in the main don’t lack confidence, but players of musical instruments are just the sort to be introverts. Think about it: learning a musical instrument takes years and years of practise. One locks oneself away in a room away from the world going over and over the same things in order to try and get better at playing phrases, scales, arpeggios and generally understanding one’s own instrument. At one time I spent at least 4 hours out of every day locked in my bedroom playing the Harmonica. Was this healthy? Probably not, but its an excuse a reclusive and non-confident person can use legitimately to hide away from the world without getting questioned.

Anyway, obscurity beckoned and I ran there like a dog through an open gate. I took a job as a screenprinter in a friend’s shed. He had a hand carousel(!) and printed 1 colour prints onto overalls for the oil and gas industry. It was great to learn this new skill. I learnt how to make screens, mix inks, load garments and all sorts of stuff that was earning me money and paying for my flat, girlfriend and increasing drinking habit. Eventually a job came up at a large local screenprinting firm and I applied. Based on the experience I had gained on my friend’s carousel I got the job and the rest, as they say, is history. Here I am twenty two years later, working as an artworker for a clothing company that screenprints onto tee shirts. I’ve been married twice and have two beautiful and very well behaved children, whom I adore. My house is vast and has 5, count them, 5 bedrooms. Yet despite all this I still feel a complete and total failure most of the time. Yes, get over yourself, I hear you cry. More and more lately I can’t stop the little nagging voice in the back of my mind telling me what a failure I am. The little voice that rears its head anytime I am asked that infernal question: “Why aren’t you a musician for a living?”

It’s my talent and I’ll waste it if I want

Never slag-off your boss on Social Media

I know it sounds like obvious advice, but some of us have done it and some may also have seen that these ‘fails’ make for great memes too. But really folks, never slag-off your boss on Social Media.

In my previous employment I made the rookie and school boy error of slagging off work on my Facebook page. I was so smug about posting the cryptic and non-specific line. I was convinced that they would never catch me out, I was too clever. It was all about the outcome of what I considered to be a ridiculous task that my boss had had me bound up in for a couple of years. I had a beef and I decided to have a moan and let off some steam online.

I had my privacy locked down, I was not friends with any of the management team at work and I only took friend requests from work colleagues I thought had the same ideals as me, one of which being: ‘stick it to the man’. What could go wrong? Well, it turned out that someone held an old grudge against me that I thought was over. He had his revenge and he served it cold.

The incident that followed could of lead to me not trusting anyone ever again, but it didn’t. The truth is that you can trust people, but you can’t always trust human nature. It was obvious who showed the boss my post from his phone, so I tried to confront him about it. The said ‘grass’ evaded me right up until the day I left the firm. When I was confronted by my boss about the post I did the grown-up thing and denied that the post was about work at all!

I was so angry that I wrote a poem about it:

‘My boss is a dick’
I’ll post that on my wall
He’ll never get to see it
Just for my friends
Not public, at all

How was I to foresee,
Some fucking arse-licker,
Out in the factory,
Would show my boss,
Make him see the screen grab,
To prove that he’s working hard,
A wayward factory lad.

“You posted it in work time,
That’s what irks me most,
This firm has been good to you,
A most auspicious host,
This is how you repay us,
Calling me a dick,
I demand an explanation,
And I want it fucking quick.”

I’m sorry it cost you money,
For me to bad mouth you,
I’ll do it in my own time next time,
And edit my friend list too.

I didn’t actually write the words, ‘My Boss is a Dick’ but the words that I did write would have made for poor poetic coupling!

Thanks for reading.

Never slag-off your boss on Social Media

Funeral for a Friend

Recently I attended the funeral of a very old friend of mine. Well, when I say ‘friend’ I’m not even sure what I mean by that anymore with this particular person. I’ve been very lucky and only attended a handful of funerals in my lifetime. Some might say that having reached the age of 39 with both parents alive and a full compliment of grandparents is very lucky indeed. I only lost my great grandparents in my late twenties. The prospects look good for my own longevity, if only I could learn to look after myself better. Having said all that, the funeral of the 78 year old man I am attending today had a mother who lived to be 102. The secret of her extraordinary long life; she quit smoking when she turned 80.

So, having a full compliment of parents and having attended only a smattering of funerals, how am I supposed to feel about the death and proceedings of someone who was really close to at one time in my life?

I remember at some point in my youth my father, being somewhat fascinated by Egyptology, told me about the god Anubis. Anubis attended to the recently departed souls, weighing their hearts. If their heart was light then the soul floated up to heaven, if heavy they descended to the underworld. I always thought this unfair. How could a person be entirely good all their life? As a child I was raised as a Christian and as such was taught that Jesus would forgive me my sins. I was also taught that it was probably best not to sin anyway, just in case. That always seemed a big ask for a me, especially given the circumstances I have often found myself in and the lot I was dealt in life. Today I find myself weighing my departed friend’s heart. Unlike Anubis I am not looking for the weight to be light so that it can float up to heaven. I am looking for the good and bad deeds from my friend’s life to even themselves out.

Thinking back in time, I’m becoming more certain that it is this train of thought that led to my subsequent atheism. I think that I wanted to be judged by an unfair system. Through childish eyes I hear myself screaming ‘it’s not fair!’ into the abyss of my distant youth. Eventually I came to judge myself more harshly within the confines of my own life, not waiting to be judged after my death by a mythological deity. I judged myself harshly as a child and gave up on being good, at times almost completely. My recently deceased friend never gave up on trying to be good. He always judged himself by his own system and lived by his own rules.

My friend’s name is (was) Norman and I first knew him as a Scout leader. I joined the Cub-Scouts the minute I was allowed to at age 6 and it subsequently consumed my life. Norman was a part-time leader, only turning up at the odd meet and attending camps as a extra man to help out the other leaders. Aged 11 I moved up to the Scouts and coincidentally, Norman became more involved in the group. Norman owned a large, white transit van that he allowed us to fill with kit to take to our annual summer camps. Being a patrol leader, I was allowed to sit in the cab with Norman on the way to the camp. Casually strewn on the dashboard of the van were two shiny mouth organs. I asked Norman if I could have a go, a question both he and I both joked about on many an occasion since. Long story short, I never put the harmonica down. We formed harmonica groups and traveled the world performing on stage and TV alike, Norman as our band manager and mentor. The first time Norman and I shared the joke we were standing in New York’s JFK airport and silly o’clock in the morning. The tail end of a grueling schedule of TV performances and touring. A tired and tour-worn Norman looked at me smiling and said, “Next time you see something you like on the dashboard of my van, bloody well leave it alone!” It always made my heart rise to believe that my actions that fateful day had in some way being responsible for all the great times and success we were having.

By age 16 I was a seasoned musician and traveler. I had spent nearly every waking hour playing the harmonica and every weekend traveling around to one gig or another. My parents had divorced when I was 12 and the fall out was devastating. My relationship with my mother soured and my father retreated to lick the wounds of their 12 year marriage. My mother needed me at home on weekends to look after my little sister and to keep the house while she worked. She was too tired to do anything after her long shifts. I wanted my own life and not to be a parent to her and my siblings. I needed a parent, I needed a way out. Music was the answer. Norman was the answer. Norman owned a Harmonica mail-order business that he was looking to take on the road to festivals etc. The perfect answer was that I would go and live at Norman’s house and work for him. As an Harmonica player of some note by then, I could sell Harmonicas to practically anyone. I also made myself useful round his house, cooking and cleaning up after his elderly mother. Norman paid me handsomely for this with both room and board.

As I turned 17 things had evolved nicely in our household to a secure routine of making a little bit of money and growing the business nicely. We drank more, ate more and had a great time. Norman loved playing devil’s advocate to any point that I cared to raise and in a humorous way helped me question so many things that I took for granted in my life. It was within the framework of this relaxed atmosphere that Norman made some disturbing confessions. I wouldn’t like to go into them in great detail, but dear reader know only this: Norman NEVER hurt anyone nor forced anyone to do anything against their will. Norman did, however, exploit his position of authority where children were concerned and gave in to a couple of temptations that he really shouldn’t have done. In retrospect I am able to see that these morbid confessions were little more than grooming. A grooming which I never gave in to and he never again pursued.

To this end I find myself weighing Norman’s heart on my own set of scales. On the day of his funeral I found myself smiling at the crass jokes he used to tell, his argumentative nature and his techno-phobia. His lack of personal hygiene raised a smile in me that couldn’t go away. The generosity he showed, not only to me, but to everyone he came in contact with; all these things and many more aspects of Norman’s personality made up the good side of the scales.

The heavy, in my estimation, was evened out. In conclusion I think it is not only possible to love the good and the bad in someone, but it is also possible to love the good enough to forgive the bad.

Funeral for a Friend

Time and Motion

Saving time in industry and making headway is not about making great leaps forward. Sustainable, gradual growth can be likened to beating a world record time. World records are broken and races are won by shaving seconds, sometimes hundredths of a second off at a time. If we strive to shave the seconds off of each task instead of cutting corners altogether, then over time greater efficiency can be achieved.

Time and Motion

Like for like or Just Unfollow

The increasing automation and insincerity of social media.

When a company, personality or organisation’s social media audience reaches a certain size then one expects a degree of automation. It’s how the large audience is obtained which is my initial issue with some accounts. This can also apply to how the audience is maintained. How many people un-follow inactive accounts voluntarily? How many just have a large amount of followers that migrated from their Facebook page?

This issue initially bothered me when I started to use Twitter and Instagram in earnest at the beginning of this year. I have had accounts with both social media platforms for some time now and never really had more than 10-15 followers on each of them. Up until that moment I had posted maybe half a dozen times on each and I noticed that my piffling amount of friends or ‘followers’ was made up of old acquaintances. I had followed my friends and acquaintances back plus followed a few celebs I admired or thought interesting. Just being nosy really. My wife on the other hand is a very sociable person outside of the realms of social media and has nearly 200 Twitter followers having never posted anything at all! In fact she confessed to me the other day that she had created an account some years ago and forgotten all about it having not found it useful.

I mean, using some sort of automated scheduling system, especially in the corporate and entertainment sector can be dead handy. If you’re going to be part of the conversation you may as well be talking when the conversation is taking place. Having said that, if you are saying something worth hearing then it will get re-posted, commented upon and ‘liked’. What you are in fact doing is broadcasting. A successful e-commerce entrepreneur was speaking at a conference I attended once. His comment was that as dad as social media goes one should try to be part of the conversation. Even radio stations have scheduling issues where they try to hit their target demographic. Shows, presenters, advertising and general content gets chosen to go out at certain times of the day that are deemed most likely to hit who it is aimed at. We all know this. It is no surprise that this now happens with social media. It’s dead handy as well. I used Hoot Suite at my previous employers to set up and schedule the social media postings for the week. That was it, all done in one hour on a Monday morning, allowing time for various other tasks around the busy factory I worked in. The problem came with engagement. The idea was to be able to leave it to its own devices to ‘broadcast’ throughout the week. If someone commented or responded to any post then that was where things could get time consuming. I’m sure my PR guru sister will tell me after she reads this that there are terms and strategies for all these problems, but I’m trying to keep this as layman as possible.

After posting more often of late onto my Twitter and Instagram accounts I have started to gain a small flood of followers and was surprised by how quickly the numbers went up the more often I posted and the more I followed back, almost automatically to anyone who followed me. I was just being polite at first, to be honest. After a while I noticed that my timeline was full of spam, jewelry sales, diet pill sales and various irrelevant memes. I had been following people who had only followed me for a follow back. My excitement rose every time I received a private message from someone after I followed them. I know I was being extremely naiive but I was initially a bit shocked to see the addendum to the messages I obtained from my new followers: ‘Via Just Unfollow’. This was oft times followed by the offer of 10,00 likes on Instagram and 10,000 followers on Twitter. I thought I would sign up for this, what a great way to cheat and reach a wider audience! Then I sat back, calmed myself and remembered a meeting I had with my former boss about gaining web traffic for our web-to-print solution.

It was the intention of my former employer to link up with a client that made a magazine for a city social scene, a ‘What’s On’ if you will. Their website had traffic of over 35,000 hits a month and my boss wanted a piece of that for our site. It instantly occurred to me at the time that not everyone, if anyone at all would want personalised printed media after visiting a What’s On website for their city. It was traffic indeed and ten times what we had been getting already through organic sources but not the right kind of traffic. We needed to find, hunt down and target our demographic. We had no USP, we had no idea what our ACTUAL demographic was so there was no way to hit it. I am no longer working for that firm but I believe the site struggles even now, 4 years into the project.

Just like my former employer, I don’t need followers for the sake of followers. I would genuinely like people to follow my accounts and read my stuff because they are interested in what I have to say, whether they agree with it or not. I will not ‘like for a like’ and nor will I ‘Just Unfollow’. I will, however, monitor who I follow from now on and be grateful for genuine followers.

Like for like or Just Unfollow

I Used to be in a Band – ‘What’s That Noise?’ – 1991

When you get a call from the BBC asking you to be on one of their shows its a fair assumption that you’ve actually made it. Yes, the BBC actually called us up and asked us to be on their music artsy programme What’s That Noise. I was a massive fan of the original run of the programme which was charismatically presented by Craig Charles. Being a massive fan of Red Dwarf as well I was so excited I could have burst at the prospect of actually meeting him. Having said that, we had appeared on Jools Holland’s Happening a few years back and not actually met Jools himself at all. I placed my excitement in reserve and in retrospect it was a good job that I did. Repackaged and revamped, What’s That Noise was being presented by Tony Gregory whom we had met before when appearing on rival channel ITV’s Motormouth. Our manager, Norman, even had the balls to ask Tony why he switched sides. Tony answered awkwardly that it was for the prestige but certainly not the pay. Ryan just stuck asking Tony where Craig Charles was, a question which obviously didn’t go any way towards lifting the awkwardness at all.

Technology had marched on during the time that we had been frequenting television studios. Instead of the usual clip-on microphones or makeshift vocals mics on a stand, ‘gun-shot’ microphones placed some way in front of us. Pointing up from the floor they were unobtrusive and picked up the sound beautifully from quite a distance. It was a great relief not to be tied to a microphone whilst playing the mouth organ for a change. One could almost be forgiven for forgetting that the mics were there at all. Set in an arty mood with a studio reminiscent of the minimalistic set for The Old Grey Whistle Test, the new format for the show was strikingly different to what I was used to watching on the original Craig Charles version. Long fading camera shots, multiple takes and extremely talented musicians took up the whole day and went on well into the evening as all acts performed their numbers.

As we were about to trudge back to our dressing room a dandy looking, very petite chap in a red velvet suit stood in the middle of the studio floor and asked us all to gather round. I recognised the musical director straight away. We had been introduced to him earlier in the day but up until that point had not actually had any interaction with him. He explained that he wanted everyone to perform a piece intro music for the show. The piece would then be used as a backdrop for Tony to present the acts and do a talk-over. The idea was for us each to play a different note in harmony with the other groups, artists and musicians appearing that day as one big band altogether. Musical director that he was he knew exactly what he wanted us to play. He walked past the line of us five lads and called a note out pointing to each of us as he passed. I was told to play a D flat, John was told to play an F. Bearing in mind the amount of collaboration that needed to happen between the various sorts of musicians for this to come off correctly, it became obvious to me that this velvet clad dandy knew what he was doing.

At the end of quite a long day of ‘work’ five teenage boys can get a bit restless. Things had got a bit pushy and shovey down the line up as the day had gone on and John was in a particularly odd teenage mood by the time we came to the big band slot. Our managers had retreated hours ago into the control room with the director and editing crew. We were unsupervised, tired and not the most receptive we could have been.

After the first run-through things were sounding a little odd. The musical director moved between the acts and stuck his ear out in front of each of them in turn listening for the culprit with the bum note. He circled past us and stopped in front of John. The chap leaned forward and very politely told John in a whisper that he was playing the wrong note. John seemed to take this piece of criticism very well to begin with. Having a reputation for being more than a little unreasonable at band rehearsals when it came to correction, I was surprised when there came no reaction. When John was right, he was right and no amount of proof or logic or evidence would sway him. I knew it had all gone a little too well. As the musical director turned his back to walk away John pulled a face. Waiting until the chap was half way across the room John started:
“Fucking c***, who does he think he is?” John said under his breath. All the time staring daggers at the musical director’s back across the room from us. The musical director stopped suddenly. Still with his back to us he lifted the index finger on his left hand to his earpiece. His head turned in our direction, just for a second. After a moment he carried on walking, almost as if he meant to go and do something and then thought better of it. Ryan gave an affirming snigger in John’s direction, so John carried on.
“Fucking twat, fucking telling me I played the wrong note. Fuck him.” John grinned across the room aggressively in the musical director’s direction. By this time Peter had joined in the sniggering.
“How much of a twat is he then John?” Ryan smirked, egging him on.
“He can’t fucking tell me what note I’m playing. I know what fucking note I’m playing. I’m doing it fucking right, must be some other c***.” vented John.

As usual at this point in this sort of situation, we all joined in. Swearing, giggling and calling the musical director all the names under the sun then ensued from all of us. Bravely done behind his back and far across the studio floor from him.

Segment finished and in the can, we were presented by a runner to our red-faced managers Norman and David. They ushered us out of the studio, barely giving us time to wash the make up off our faces. Being herded into the back of a white transit van and careering off in a screech of tires was becoming a bit of a habit. We sat in silence on the way to the hotel that night. Silence was also the main theme for the van drive home down the A12 in the morning. Just outside the M25 I ventured to dare to ask Norman what the matter was.
“I’m still too angry too angry to say anything at the moment.” Norman commented sternly.
I hung my head in shame, we had been bad again and again I had no idea what had happened. I reassured myself that I sat on the side of the righteous had nothing to worry about. At this point I had a very clear conscience.

Norman stopped the van just outside of Chelmsford to fill up with petrol. Peter, John and Ryan all piled out of the back of the van and into the shop. For some strange reason, John decided that what would make the ultimate snack, the king of comestibles would not be a pack of crisps or a chocolate bar like any other normal person. Oh no, in his tiny pea-sized brain John thought it would be totally awesome (it was the nineties after all) to buy a sliced white loaf of bread. We set off again and the five of us rattled around in the back of the van getting more and more boisterous. Norman and David on the other hand sitting in the front seats of the van, got more and more stern. Things got out of hand. With no seats in the back of the van the five of us were free to kick the living shit out of each other if we so desired. Something we did quite regularly on tours. With no seats or harnesses in the way we took full advantage of the space and started throwing stuff at each other. A toilet roll, a rolled up towel, a cushion, a wash bag with toiletries still in it etc. This all went flying around the inside of the back of the van, much to our own amusement. In a stroke of pure genius(!) John decided that he would ball up slices of dry bread and hurl them at the rest of us. Pretty soon the back of the van looked like a bad snow scene. Crumbled and smeared white sliced loaf was in our hair, our clothes and stuck to pretty much every surface it could. It was when someone, I forget who, started chewing up the bread and making spit-laden dough balls that Norman stepped in. The van came to a screeching halt in a lay-by. Norman leaned over the back of his seat and started grabbing bits of bread manically. Ryan got the arse that he had been thrown around in the stopping of the vehicle and was making ‘I’m going to sue you’ noises at Norman. Norman was not interested.

“You are never going on TV ever again. This is the last trip I ever do for you lot.” shouted Norman amidst his bread grabbing fury.
“It’s only a bit of fun Norman.” countered John, “we’ll clear it up, don’t cry about it.”
“Yeah don’t howl Norm.” seconded Peter.
“Its not the bread that’s pissed me off, although it would have been nice to have been offered some. I’m starving!” said Norman, “It’s what happened at the BBC that’s really got me mad.”

The five of us exchanged quizzical looks for a moment. Then it dawned on me.
Norman delivered the coupe de grace: “We could hear you breathing in the control room.”

The entire floor staff had heard every breath we took and every word we said. The feed from the gun-shot microphones that we had mistakenly forgotten about had taken our foul-mouthed tirade against the musical director and plumbed it round the entire studio. Most importantly it fed right into the earpiece of the red-suited dandy of a musical director.

“We didn’t know where to look after the first 5 minutes of you boys swearing.” David put in.
“Once you piss off the BBC you have pretty much dug your own grave as far as TV goes.” finished Norman.
He was being melodramatic, but he was understandably very angry and embarrassed. I am sure at the time we all thought it was a great big laugh, but really… you never know who’s listening.

I Used to be in a Band – ‘What’s That Noise?’ – 1991