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Japan And Back

Some time in late summer 1988 I received a sales statement from our record distributors. My band’s first album, Let’s Get Away From It All, had come out a few weeks earlier, and I was dreading a similar fate to the debut single which had stalled on 29 copies for nearly two years.

I opened the envelope and stared at its contents for several minutes. We’d sold nearly 1,000 copies in the first couple of months. How? We hadn’t advertised it, so who in the UK even knew about it? Which part of the country had developed a sudden and urgent taste for the music of Friends? The answers were quickly revealed as ‘no-one’ and ‘none’.

In a fit of curiosity I phoned Red Rhino and spoke to one of the sales team. I asked where all these records had gone, and wouldn’t we now need to press some more? ‘Mostly Japan’, he replied casually, and yes, we should, as quickly as possible.

Since then Japan has been the place where our music has been most popular, the place from where we’ve received the most – and most enthusiastic – fanmail (now mainly email), where two other labels have licensed seven of our records, and where we’ve never managed to play. Until now.

With the exception of a solo concert I played in Tokyo in 1995, our efforts to get ourselves transported to Japan for a few modest dates had proved fruitless. Late last year I was contacted by Tetsuya Nakatani, owner of one of the labels, Vinyl Japan, who have released our records there, asking whether we’d like to play three concerts with The Monochrome Set as an acoustic three-piece. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we agreed to go instead as an electric four-piece, and headed out to Tokyo in early April.

Apart from the concerts, the soundchecks, and the time hanging around the venues, the trip is a bit of a blur. But I made sure the musical part of it was etched on my mind as if it was going to be the last, and best, thing we ever did. I hope it’s not the last, but it was certainly the greatest experience of the band’s, and my, career. Even of my life.

Preparing and practising for the shows, my aim had been to deliver a set which made the same impression on the audience as concerts by Jonathan Kelly, The Chameleons, Steely Dan and a handful of others had made on me over the last 40 years. Something you look forward to as a fan, which fulfils all your hopes, and leaves you with a feeling on the night and in your mind afterwards that lasts for years.

For an experienced, tried and tested band who had been there before, maybe three shows in reasonable sized clubs wouldn’t be a big deal. For us they were a huge deal. Twice in the concerts I was suddenly hit by the enormity of what we were doing, and what it meant to be there, especially after a major earthquake, and was overcome by the emotion of it. Coming on to the stage in the dark at Shimokitazawa Garden, Tokyo, and seeing this packed sea of eager faces briefly choked me up in the first few lines of On A Day Like This. The culmination of 25 years’ waiting and hoping and preparing was suddenly too much. Singing while you’re crying might sound like a great idea in theory but actually just results in lousy singing, so I had to wrench back control of my voice and feelings. And introducing the last song at Muse Hall, Osaka, in our final night, again I cracked up, and only got through the slow introduction to You’ll Never See That Summertime Again thanks to the generous pauses built into the arrangement. Then the band came in, the song let rip and it was a joyous end to the tour.

We’d prepared an hour-long set, a mixture of old and new, with two songs from the new album The Zen House, and the balance of the set inclined towards the most familiar and popular records. We linked several of the songs to avoid too many mid-set pauses and chat, with intros to the next song emerging from the end of the previous one. It was a thrill to hear the ripple of familiarity as the start of old favourites like Far And Away emerged, and catching the eye of people in the audience singing the words with me.

So how was it for us? It’s impossible to judge from the stage, but I can safely say that it felt as though the three concerts were the best the band has played, and the best performances I’ve delivered. It’s been rare in our live career to be standing in front of a crowd that large and that enthusiastic, many of whom are there because they have known your music for years. After the first concert the promoter came up to me in the dressing room and said “William, come and meet your fans”. I’d been expecting to meet up with a couple of people I’ve got to know by email, but he meant something different. A queue of fans was lined up, armed with records and CDs, usually in immaculate condition, felt-tip pens and their names written on the back of their hands. Again, maybe routine for a bigger band than us, but for me moving, novel, flattering, and a rare chance to meet some of the people who have kept us going over the years.

The best advice I ever received about being in a band was ‘don’t split up’. Of course that’s exactly what bands should do when they feel their time’s up. But the advice came from someone who knew me, and knew that my music would keep coming as long as I had an outlet for it. I’m thankful for that advice, although I suspect we’d never have split up anyway. So what’s kept it going for 25 years, without knowing that a chance email would appear one day saying ‘how about Japan?’ A mixture of stubbornness, perversity, megalomania, faith in the music, quality control, a desire to connect with an audience, and the knowledge that there are people out there, an audience, to whom the music means something, even a great deal. And I’m more than ever convinced that most of those people live in Japan.

Friends’ new album

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Late Night Early Morning

Two down, three to go. By now well and truly warmed up, we came back from Berlin a couple of weeks ago after playing the Popfest and started preparing for Japan.

The warming up bit happened at the Half Moon, Putney, where the only heat was generated on stage as we played to two men and a dog, minus dog, minus also one of the men in the interests of gender equality, plus a woman and plus one of the other bands on the bill that evening. A small but perfectly formed audience, then. Our bass player, Edwin, however, was anything but warmed up, as he only just managed to stay awake and on his feet after a particularly virulent bout of what should be politely described as gastric trouble.

Berlin, on the other hand, was something else entirely. Right from being met at the airport we were beautifully looked after by our hosts Uwe, Olaf and Anja, and had plenty of spare time to explore the city before playing some time after midnight.

We made friends with fellow bands The Pooh Sticks (some fellow Welshmen for me to banter with) and the multitudinous Cola Jet Set (“they’re from Barcelona”), even randomly bumping into the latter troupe miles away the following morning and discovering more bizarre coincidences such as their familiarity with the streets of Walthamstow where we live. It is, indeed, a funny old world.

Our hour-long set, complete with acoustic interlude, seemed to go down well (although it’s always impossible to tell truly from the stage), and my use of exclusively German to introduce the songs didn’t appear to perplex anyone in the audience. Getting to bed at five in the morning is something I can only handle now if I’m getting up late the following afternoon, which wasn’t the case by several hours. But that’s pop ‘n’ roll.

And then it’s the comedown. Back to London, back to work, back onto the bike after the taxis and planes, and back into the routine.

Usually there’s nothing on the live horizon to look forward to, but this is the closest we’ve ever come to a ‘proper’ tour and the prospect of three more shows means that the feeling of wanting to do it again as soon as it’s over can be prolonged by another couple of weeks.

One more rehearsal to keep the set fresh in our minds and hands, and we should be ready to go. We’re off to Tokyo on Wednesday. In the words of the song, This Is The Start.

Under The Ground 13: Life Sketches

The couple opposite are exchanging amused glances about the person next to me, and possibly about me too, as I do my crossword. With their smug trustafarian look and coolly superior lifestyle they have clearly identified a target for ridicule. The man is darting quick looks at my neighbour as he starts sketching him. The woman is smiling appreciatively at his artwork. Soon he has finished his drawing, and they grin their satisfaction at the presumably satirical masterpiece. Now they turn their attention at me, in my suit. I look up when I see what they are doing but fail to catch their eye. Am I annoyed because they have failed to ask my permission or because they see me as a subject of humour? When they have finished I plan my revenge. I stop doing my crossword – difficult anyway – find a blank piece of newsprint, look over the top of my paper periodically and pretend to sketch them. Eventually the movement of my head attracts the woman’s attention. I smirk when our eyes meet and she blushes. She knows. I’ve won.

Funny Old World – The Tour

Strange thing. Like waiting for London buses, you hang around for years trying to get some dates abroad (especially in Japan and Germany) and then four of them come along at once.

For that reason I’m calling this the ‘It’s A Funny Old’ World Tour as it takes in five concerts in three countries and happened in a fairly random way. The Half Moon, Putney (Tuesday 15 March) is a great old venue with a history of epic nights, Berlin Popfest (Saturday 19 March) is one of a clutch of international indiepop highlights dotted throughout the year, and the three Japan dates with The Monochrome Set (from Saturday 10 to Tuesday 12 April in Tokyo and Osaka) are the first time I’ll have been there since 1995, when I played a solo show (with a Japanese percussionist) at Club 251, Shimokitazawa.

We’ve been in contact with Tetsuya Nakatani of Vinyl Japan for nearly 20 years, as his shop has been a good customer of our record company, and he licensed two of our records for release on his label about ten years ago. And Uwe of Firestation Records in Berlin has been a great supporter too, has included some of our songs on his Sound Of Leamington Spa compilations, and probably got sick of me asking if we could ever play in Germany.

Thanks to our bass player Edwin, and the place where he teaches, we’ve got a rehearsal room (well, hall really) where we can actually hear what we are playing and where it’s a pleasure to practise. And it’s fun reworking the set for what I think of as our Beatles line-up of two guitars, bass and drums. Actually not much reworking is needed as we’ve generally used keyboards in the past mainly for texture rather than substance, and Richard, our guitarist, can easily handle the female backing vocals with his fine falsetto. So it feels like a tight, fit unit, which I hope will deliver a good, punchy set. 

The challenge has been narrowing down some 150 songs to about 15, and choosing a selection that people will know or want to hear for the first time, not forgetting our own personal favourites, of which I have many! 

We’re preparing an hour-long set for Germany and Japan and 45 minutes for London, and have chosen songs from all the way back to our first album right up to the next one, which should be out in time for the Japan concerts.

We’ve got a few more rehearsals before we hit the stage, and I’ll keep in touch with how it’s going. So long as it’s going well!

Ground Level 2: On The Road Again

Streets of London, I’m back! Nearly thirty years after last shaking a fist at a taxi driver, I’m on the road again as a serious cyclist – ‘serious’ meaning regular and frequent, not just with a frown on my face.

What prompted this return to the saddle was an inadvertent crime. I’d dashed onto a train at my local station, in my hurry omitting to touch my Oyster card against one of those bleepy things and getting landed with a hefty fine by the long arm of the overground law.

Feeling unreasonably aggrieved, and devoting my 15 minute journey to sulking about the waste of desperately needed cash, I mused that there must be cheaper ways of getting to central London than shelling out £20 to a couple of heavies in National Express uniforms (or even parting with the actual fare of £2.40). Staring morosely out of the train window, I suddenly realised that there were, and that one of them was standing forlornly in my hallway, with two flat tyres and no lights.

I was already working on a rebudgeting exercise with the dual objectives of cutting my expenditure and reversing the headlong-downward trend in my income, and quickly calculated a saving of around £1,200 a year, a very handy supplement to the only other bullet point in my strategy so far, the giving up of Mars bars.

As the train trundled towards Liverpool Street, my usual destination for gym or work, I noticed that it had followed main roads almost all the way, so the next day I plotted my cycle journey by actually walking the route. It took two hours. Knock off at least half that for a pair of wheels and I’m quids (and even hours) in, and probably a bit less sweaty than after walking the walk.

A couple of days later, after three decades’ worth of essential repairs and maintenance, I’m freewhelling through Upper Clapton, my ancient brakes squealing like a flock of geese, celebrating my reunion with the brotherhood and sistership of the cycle.

So what’s changed? In many ways, not much. Thirty years of roadworks have made no appreciable difference to the surfaces I’m trying to glide over. Nor has the passage of time done much for the consideration of bus drivers or the eyesight of white van men.

On the plus side, there are far more cycle lanes, and those marked spaces just before the traffic lights are very welcome, as you join the phalanx of cyclists getting a head start on the herd of cars that lurch forward when the lights change. And there are many more of us around now than then, so I often actually feel part of a majority, both numerical and moral. Yes, someone in authority has been very considerate towards cyclists in my time off the roads.

I’ve found a tame bike shop, where the staff treat me as neither a nuisance nor an idiot. And the memories come flooding back. I recall the sheer delight of discovering how to cycle with no hands as I was wheeling down Kennington Road one bright spring afternoon in the late 1970s. The joy of finding a hidden sidestreet that shaves a few seconds off the journey. The fun of trying to time the run-up to the lights so as to avoid stopping and planting my feet on the ground.

But I’ve resolved not to romanticise, fetishise or idolise cycling, not to be one of those self-righteous types who believe the laws of the road only apply to people on four wheels, who view red as the new green, and who see the pavement as a convenient extension of the cycling lane. And I won’t be one of those shiny cyclists on skinny bikes who do a lot of standing up. I’m going to be a purely functional cyclist, using my creaking machine to get me from A to B (and Z if possible) and save me a fortune. The possibilities of observation and reflection may be fewer than on the Underground, but the scope for vitriol is almost unlimited. I’m already yelling “how many lanes do you need, then?” with worrying frequency.

Under The Ground 12: Follow The Sign

I hear it approaching and run onto the platform, dodging and weaving through the tide of humanity disgorged here. Several signs obscure the only one which tells me anything useful – whether this train goes all the way to Walthamstow or only as far as Seven Sisters. I decide not to risk it, and to wait until I can read the sign, unhelpfully situated halfway down the platform. I miss the train, which sets off happily on its way to Walthamstow. Damn. The now visible sign tells me that the next two trains go to Seven Sisters. Fair enough. But then so do the next three. By now feeling victimised, I approach one of those London Underground people who do the inaudible platform announcements and wave table tennis bats at trains. Why aren’t any of the trains going to Walthamstow? “You need to watch the sign”. Awestruck by this diamond of elliptical logic and feeling I’m missing something obvious, I explain that this is exactly what I’m doing and try again. Same answer. Is it worth positing that answers to ‘why’ usually begin with ‘because’ or ‘I don’t know’? It isn’t. His manner tells me he is either (a) faking an extreme case of clinical depression, (b) actually suffering from same or (c) congenitally rude. A Walthamstow train pulls in. “Here’s your train” he says, his voice a half-and-half concoction of sarcasm and triumph. “Thank you” I reply, for my part trying to suggest that he’s made this happen. But actually I already knew. Because I’d watched the sign.

The Golden Winter

Football can play strange tricks with the memory. Not to mention the emotions, digestion, everyday equilibrium and spiritual well-being.

It lends itself to nostalgia just as easily as cricket or, as I get older, any other realm of human activity. If all my years so far have been formative, probably the most formative of the lot were my teens, which I spent in a growing state of resentment crossed with existential grouchiness in comfortable Chester. Much of that ill-will was based on the city’s very comfort, my anti-establishment ardour craving something a little more proletarian to match my misjudged self-image. The rest was founded on disappointment that it wasn’t London, which we left in late 1967 when my father got his ideal job.

My brother, my friends and I hitched ourselves to Chester’s fourth division football team (a poor substitute for the West Ham I’d left behind) and we became regulars at the old Sealand Road ground, now inevitably demolished.

And I recall a magical age of spring afternoons standing at the Kop end, squinting into the sun and marvelling at the skills of a legendary team: Terry Carling in goal, Edwards and Birks at full-back, hard-man stopper Barry Ashworth (‘Sir Barry Ash’ to the Sealand End), Graham Turner (later a very intelligent manager), Eric Brodie, two real wingers in Billy Dearden and Andy Provan, a Bobby Charlton-like baldie (Derek Draper) providing midfield inspiration, and lethal strikers in Eddie Loyden (or Gary Talbot) and the elfin Alan Tarbuck.

Great days, fondly remembered. Why then, do I also remember, and not at all fondly, trudging home once a fortnight vowing never to return after yet another mind-numbing 0-0 draw? But that’s nostalgia for you. It fixes the memory like a computer repair programme, so you’d never know it had been any different.

Fast-forward nearly thirty years and I’m a regular at Field Mill, alternating visits from my Worksop home to Mansfield with expeditions to the furthest reaches of small-town England, often for equally sterile goalless borefests. Rochdale, Carlisle, Plymouth, Southend, come on down…or, preferably, come on up, to Nottinghamshire, and save me the journey.

On balance I’ve enjoyed my time as a Stagsman. Ups and downs certainly, but one brief period in my relationship with the Yellows really was a golden age. It lasted from just before Christmas 1994 until early new year 1995, a matter of a couple of weeks at the most.

In charge of Stags at the time was Andy King (“he’s got no hair but we don’t care”), a maverick, a ‘character’, an enthusiast and, occasionally, a footballing inspiration. It was his first full season running a club and he’d assembled a team which, like those Chester gods of the late 60s, I can still reel off and see in my mind’s eye. Darren Ward, a brilliant young goalkeeper, Ady Boothroyd, later an up-and-coming manager, Ian Baraclough (ditto), Paul Holland the team’s engine, Lee Howarth and Mark Peters as solid centre backs, Simon (‘Fantasy’) Ireland, Steve Parkin, Kevin Noteman, and up front the brilliant and much-maligned Steve (‘Wilko’) Wilkinson and Stewart (‘Turbo’ because he could run quickly) Hadley. And, waiting in the wings for most of the season after being injured in a friendly, the magnificent Iffy Onuora.

And were they so great, or was I now still driving (instead of walking) home cursing the wasted time? No. They were. I’m not much given to quoting Spandau Ballet, but I know this much is true.

We started the festive period by hammering local rivals Chesterfield 4-2 on a bright, crisp Sunday morning. I was able to go to the Christmas meal with the theatre company I worked for boasting our talents rather than making excuses for supporting a bottom-division side. (Three goals for Wilko, by the way.) I spent the holidays in Kent and my combined Christmas and birthday present was a long-distance lift back to Field Mill to catch the game against Hereford. The weather was foul, with cold wind and lashing rain, and I took the pre-match precaution of planning the last leg of my journey home. There was, I was told, a ‘skeleton’ bus service from the town centre, which would mean leaving the match a few minutes early. The alternative was taxis at ‘silly’ prices. I decided on a sensible bus and left my luggage at the club shop.

Boxing Day was the start of what Glenn Hoddle, had he been aware of Mansfield Town’s existence, would have called the ‘O’Neill Donaldson Situation’. I, and the crowd of around 2,400, noticed someone warming up who we’d never seen before. Unaware that Kingy had just signed him on loan from Doncaster reserves, we knew nothing about O’Neill Donaldson, and I only learned his name when someone near me demanded to know of John (‘Doobie’) Doolan who the hell was he. We took his reply (“O’Neill”) to refer to a surname. Donaldson, although unknown and so far partially nameless, was instantly recognisable as possessing effortless class, and his name soon became official when several letters from it illuminated the malfunctioning scoreboard. He scored two goals on his Stags debut, but most memorable of all was a freak free-kick from Ian Baraclough. Planting the ball a few yards inside his own half, Baraclough aimed long and the ball sailed in for the most glorious goal I’ve ever seen at Field Mill. Reports refer to it being ‘swept in’ by the strong gust of wind, but believe me, it had plenty of momentum from Baraclough’s boot alone, and needed no intervention from the weather. 6-1, as I left to retrieve my luggage and head for the bus. Walking away from the ground I heard a seventh goal acclaimed and felt broadly satisfied with life.

In the ghostly town centre the skeleton bus service turned out not only to have no flesh but neither any bones whatsoever. It was, in fact, devoid even of a skeleton. I approached one of the ‘silly’ taxis drivers hovering like vultures for mugs like me, heard £50 mentioned and turned away to walk home. Mansfield to Worksop is about 15 miles, and with two suitcases, a strong wind, driving rain and a main road to negotiate (plus, apparently, a killer on the loose, a fairly regular Mansfield occurrence), this was going to be interesting. Staggering along the soggy, grassy stretch that boarded the A60, and half-heartedly gesturing at the few passing cars, I got home at nearly midnight, aching all over, frozen to my own (actual) skeleton, and feeling a world-weary sadness. By now I was broadly dissatisfied with life and looked forward only to tomorrow’s trip to Scarborough and dining out on the long walk experience for the rest of my life.

On 27 December I felt as I’ve only subsequently felt the day after running my first marathon. My limbs were like lead. Someone else’s lead, for that matter, and not my own. I caught the train to Scarborough, where the weather was no improvement on the Field Mill Boxing Day storm. On a North Yorkshire mudbath we won 5-2, with Donaldson adding another two goals and instantly acquiring hero status. So far that’s 4-2, 7-1 and 5-2. Far from believing that it couldn’t last, I could never see it ending. Kingy’s boys were playing glorious, flowing football and, for the sake of a classic football cliché, scoring goals for fun.

So could it last? Barack Obama would have said yes it could. And he would have been briefly right. Next up were Barnet, the following Saturday, easily despatched 3-0 at home with, inevitably, another two goals for O’Neill Donaldson. The spell was only broken when, being early January, the third round of the FA Cup dropped in at Field Mill. Graham Taylor’s powerful Wolves team recovered from being two goals down to win the match, but still Donaldson managed his seventh goal in five games.

The end was near, and Kingy, realising that other football managers read the papers and word gets round, knew that Donaldson, as a loan signing, still belonged to Doncaster and wouldn’t be grubbing around the fourth division (or whatever it was called by then) for much longer. And that Doncaster, if they had any sense, would soon be a bit less generous in what they were lending out to their rivals. We knew the game was up when he started belittling O’Neill’s contribution in the papers and playing down his form. So, Andy King, seven goals in five matches – not quite good enough? Donaldson went to Sheffield Wednesday, where I hope he earned the money he deserved, and spent the next few years in their, rather than Doncaster’s, reserves. I just can’t help feeling…

The Golden Winter became the Silver Spring. There were great moments then too, when Onuora finally recovered from his broken foot and put in some storming performances which combined the delicacy of a ballet dancer with the brawn of a bulldozer. That team scored 100 goals for the season before losing to Chesterfield (yes, them!) in the promotion play-offs. In the second leg two Stags were sent off and we went down 5-2 in extra time as I, and many others, wept not just for the defeat that night, but for what we knew would follow. Ady Boothroyd threw his shirt into the crowd, and they were gone. The team was broken up, the best talent sold off, and it was back to square one next August. Well, that’s football, Brian.

Any regrets? Any what?