Soloing etiquette

I love a bit of band politics and a recent experience has got me to reminiscing about a certain situation that has arisen in bands I have been in:

“I think you two should take it in turns to solo during more numbers,” Came the input at band rehearsal last night. “I think it makes a great extension to the songs and gives you (points at me) a chance to show off your harmonica skills.”  Five minutes later during the soloing section of the song in hand, our guitarist was happily noodling away. As soon as he started I backed off the mic, took the harp out of my mouth and waited out the allotted ‘one time around the verse and chorus’ that he had his turn to solo in. I did my usual introductory riffs to take the lead from him at the end of the turnaround, but to my surprise he wasn’t budging. He just kept on soloing. I tried the eye contact, but his eyes were closed, lost in his solo. It was actually a truly epic solo so I took the chance to listen to what he was playing and felt awed at how good his chops where. ‘I’ll get it on the next one’, I thought to myself. The turnaround came again and… you guest it, he carried on soloing! This time around the verse when the turnaround came the singer had decided that it was time to bring the last verse in so he wilfully started singing, my chance of a solo in this song passed by. I automatically dropped back in to backing mode and the band played on.

At the end of the song our singer wasted no time and addressed the issue straight away.
“When it’s Paul’s turn to solo you have to stop playing so that we can hear him.”
“I did!” protested our guitarist.
“No you didn’t I was here and I heard it!” Our singer shoots back. The singer and guitarist have been in bands with each other for many years now so how they speak to each other looks like crap when written down but is actually always spoken with complete affection.
“Alright, maybe I did carry on soloing, but I did play a bit quieter during his solo.”
“That’s still soloing even if it is quiet, maybe you should just play chords while Paul solos?”
“Yeah man, no probs!”
An amicable solution had been found and the issue addressed.

The whole situation took me back nearly 30 years to the first band I was ever in. I then realised that this ‘solo stealing’ had been happening all my musical life. Thankfully, these days it was dealt with in an adult and (semi) professional manner. Back when I was in a band with 4 other teenage boys, all playing harmonicas it was a completely different story…

We had a tune called ‘Random’s Boogie‘ and we played that tune everywhere. And when I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE. It was a mostly improvised 12 bar blues boogie where we started off with a slow section and then after a couple of times round the 12 we kicked off into a fast paced boogie chug. The structure after that was to take turns in having a solo and show off our skills. There being 3 lead players in the band there was plenty of room to extend or shorten the tune depending on the time slot we needed to fill. This made the tune perfect for radio and TV so we wheeled this tune out time and time again. You can probably see where I’m going with this…

The solo stealing started by accident, we just weren’t listening to each other and couldn’t tell who’s turn it was. Everyone wanted to play at once and it just sounded like a dog’s breakfast. Needless to say that the tact of a 13 year old boy is far removed from that of a 30something, so the suggestion that we take turns was not given or taken as lightly or amicably as it was at my recent band rehearsal. To be blunt, we just swore and shouted at each other over it. Far from resolving the situation (quelle surprise), drawing attention to the issue only made things worse. Knowing that stealing each others solos wound each other up we started to do it on purpose. When the solo stealing started out in rehearsals it was quickly jumped on by our managers and musical directors, especially when we were rehearsing for TV slots. We would start just soloing over each other and it sounded proper awful. After being reprimanded we would all play nice and take turns during the next rehearsal. The very second the red light turned on on the TV cameras it was a free-for-all again. We all played over each other, stole solos and made each other really angry. Being the goody-two-shoes that I was at the time I stopped participating and just back and didn’t take my turn to solo, I just carried on playing the backing. I started to feel like a side man in my own group. I began to resent the situation and came to hate playing the tune at all. I was 14, moody and if I couldn’t play I was gonna take my ball home.

What I have taken away from this is that what we are playing, the tune, the song, is bigger than those of us playing it. We are party to creating a great thing and should feel privileged to be part of the song, no matter how small a part we play. It’s a cliche for a reason but the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. The solo is no good without decent backing to play it over. But it’s tough, because if we’re doing it properly we commit ourselves emotionally to the song and give a piece of ourselves away. The trick is not to be too precious about it and give that piece of yourself willingly and accept deference to your higher power: music.

My advice: keep your ears and eyes open, remember what you rehearsed and most important of all leave your ego at the rehearsal room door!

Has any of this happened to you? How are the politics in your band?

Soloing etiquette

I used to be in a Band – Porno in a Hedge 1990

So the annual traipse across Britain was undertaken this particular year towards Kent and a little place called Sible Hedingham. Incredibly twee and definitely Tory, the place smelt of money and the idyllic quiet life. By this I mean it had trees, an active industrial estate and pub that didn’t have blood stains on the car park. In short, it was a town that was opposite to ours in almost every way. The British Harmonica Championships and festival was dwindling. It was dwindling down to the last few blue-tie wearing, old-school, old-boy network, Kent-type people that kept the National Harmonica League alive. Lets face it, an organisation with the word ‘league’ in the title smacks of one of two things: comic book geekery or 1970s middle class stuffiness. It didn’t seem it back then. I am sure it doesn’t seem it to read this, but I appreciate that those guys kept it all going through those tough and quiet times. Seeing the NHL in the productive and flourishing state it is now is partly down to those guys keeping the lights on. I salute them, every white collared one of them. Times were financially very bleak in the UK around then and these guys were probably the only chaps with any money left to put into a dying art like playing the Harmonica. Calling themselves the ‘Kent Chromatics’ a small band of middle-of-the-road music loving, middle-aged good guys decided to hold the ‘festival’ in their neck of the woods that year. I say ‘festival’ because that was what it was called, even though it had the sum total of around 30 people in attendance.

Our manager and designated driver Norman decided that as it wasn’t too far, we would all travel there in the Transit van and drive back the same day. Turning up at the Sible Hedingham Village Club Hall was a hark back to a golden age. The Village club hall was the closest thing to a Working men’s club that the world still had and it looked every bit of it. There was an air of make do and mend about the whole affair. There were hand written signs to the toilet and refreshments supplied in chipped mugs by the wives of the Kent Chromatics (or harmonica widows, as I like to call them). Hand painted wooden plaques with league tables of pub game champions throughout the years adorned the walls.

As usual, the five of us; my brother Dean, John, Peter, Ryan and myself were chosen to represent our small corner of the harmonica community. David was to accompany us as a chaperone. Earlier that year, before our American tour, Norman and David became more than just our chaperones. They had applied for a Matron’s licence for our supervision purposes. Norman and David claimed that it gave them parental powers over us and as such we were to respect them in the eyes of the law. I looked this up and found this paragraph under The Children (performances) Regulations 1968 which just about sums up what there role was for us:

12. (1) A person, who may be a man or a woman, approved by the licensing authority (in these Regulations referred to as a matron) shall be in charge of the child at all times during the period beginning with the first and ending with the last performance to which the licence relates except while the child is in the charge of a parent or teacher.

They had legal care and control of us. They were, as they claimed, legally our parents for the period of our performances. Reading through the rest of the article, it seems that one of my parents must have signed something to hand over care and control to them. Kind of scary when I look back, but no-one suspected. Funny word isn’t it, paedophile. It means ‘love of children’, but not the nice caring, gentle, nurturing love that exists between parent and child. No, it has come to mean the sexual defilement of children. It is an ugly word, a horrible thing to call someone and a label that once cast will never really be shaken. It is fair to say that Norman and David loved children. Honestly, they did. They cared for us, they cared how we acted and how we felt when we were afraid and confused. They took us all around the world and never allowed any of us to come to any physical harm whatsoever. Well, except for that time that John gave Ryan a black eye when we were on Motormouth.

I digress. Long story short: we couldn’t behave ourselves. Norman and David were preoccupied with harmonica business in the hall leaving us lads to our own devices. We found pieces of a porno mag in a nearby hedge and took turns to steal and snatch it from each other to try and get something to wank over. The mag got smaller and smaller and more and more ripped to pieces as we fought over it. Soon it was in total shreds and no good to man nor beast by the time I got hold of it. I tried to get excited by the small scrap I was left with, but I really couldn’t make out what it was at all. It just looked like a small, dismembered animal and there was no way that was getting me off. That really is saying something, as any other man will tell you, at 14 years old there is not a lot that will not make you get an erection. Later that day I found out that one of the lads had squirrelled a sizeable piece of tit and pussy shot for himself. I had nipped back to the van to grab a harmonica I had left there and opened the side sliding door of the van just in time to see the scrap of paper disappearing down the front of his jeans. He really didn’t care that I had caught him either, he just laughed and carried on.

Back at the Village Club Hall, Norman was being collared by an elderly gentleman and asked if he knew the kids running riot outside. He was telling Norman about us throwing stones at the windows of what looked like an abandoned warehouse/factory. I honestly thought that it was abandoned, why else would anyone be throwing stones at its windows? When I had walked past John and Peter were smashing what seemed like every pane in the entire wall of the building. The warehouse was behind a large fence and quite a way off, a lot of skill was required to get the stones to hit the really high windows. I really wanted a go and John and Peter were smashing them quickly so we all joined in throwing stones, Dean being a particularly good shot. I had never broken a window with a stone before and actually found it really satisfying. I recognised the old man complaining to Norman as the one we had all told to “fuck off” earlier when he had walked past waving his walking stick at us and shouting for us to stop. Norman shouted at us for ages, which was something he NEVER did. David was too drunk to care by this point and we all spent a very quiet ride home in the van.

As I read this back, remembering those times, I am not so sure we were actually an harmonica band. The whole situation seemed to be less about the music and more about just being a group of lads from Great Yarmouth getting into trouble.

I used to be in a Band – Porno in a Hedge 1990