“Most people think most pop stars are idiots don’t they? And I agree with them.”
Ian Brown, The Stone Roses, 1989.
My name is Middlerabbit and, apart from other things, I’m a guitar player. Before I get the bit too comfy between my teeth, I’d like to add one or two things that, as a guitar player, I don’t do. To avoid repetition, I’m not going to type, ‘…for fuck’s sake.‘ after every item in this list, but if you’d like to imagine someone with a relatively gentle northern English accent saying that, you’ll get the picture. Probably by about number 4.
- If anybody asks me, I don’t say, “I play guitar,” I say, “I play the guitar.”
- If at all possible, I avoid the words ‘riffs‘ and ‘licks‘. And ‘gigs‘.
- I don’t pull fuckfaces when I’m playing.
- I don’t lean back and point my nose at the ceiling, even though I have a particularly pointy nose that’s well suited for that sort of thing.
- I don’t noodle, at least not in public.
- I don’t give any of my guitars names. Or consider them to be female. Or call them fucking axes, for fuck’s sake. I know what I said, but fair dos, eh? Imagine my disappointment when it turned out that Curtis Mayfield (whom I previously considered unimpeachable) referred to his guitar as ‘my axe‘. It’s big of me, I appreciate, but I do forgive him: anyone who puts records out such as If I Were Only A Child Again (which I’d love even if it wasn’t so unusually grammatically accurate for a pop record, although I’d have preferred ‘If Only I Were A Child Again’ if I’m being nitpicky) and If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go (not ‘gonna’, which I don’t mind actually) deserves a bit of leeway, don’t they?
- I don’t do that thing where you stick the body of your guitar into your groin and make out it’s my dick.
- I make a point of having the thinnest, most basic guitar straps it’s possible to get. Meaning, no studs, no patterns, no buckles showing, no nothing.
- I don’t stick my legs as far apart as it’s possible to get them while I’m playing.
- I don’t go back-to-back with other guitar players whilst onstage.
- I don’t have conversations with people I’m playing with, while I’m playing. You know, smug little asides that result in the pair of you smirking.
- I don’t smoke anyway these days but even when I did, I didn’t play with a fag in my cake hole or stuck between the strings in the headstock.
All of those things seemed important to me when I started learning to play and I’ve not changed my mind about any of them although, to be quite honest, I did try the smoking thing but it wasn’t for me.
I appreciate that I’ve not really mentioned much about actually playing the guitar – apart from noodling – and, to tell you the truth, it’s not even like those are the only things I’m not prepared to countenance in terms of playing the guitar. I could have happily added things like, not having stickers on your guitars, making sure they have headstocks, not hanging them on walls, not having your strap so that you’ve got a wooden bowtie or so low down that it’s round your ankles like Peter Hook used to with his bass guitars. Going further than that, I’m not prepared to tolerate leather trousers or waistcoats either. The list, as I daresay you can imagine, goes on.
Some them are probably vestiges of the Rockism thing that was sort of a thing in my formative years – about fourteen or fifteen – most of them are anti Rock ‘n’ Roll clichés, I suppose. Some of them, I have no idea why I don’t like it. Take no. 1: saying I play the guitar instead of I play ‘guitar’. It’s not just guitars. If I played the piano to a higher standard than I actually manage, I’d say, I play the piano, not I play ‘piano’, as I would for all musical instruments. I don’t call myself a guitarist either – and neither do many other people – ah-ho-ho – but I would call myself a guitar player. Beats me, I like blue more than I like red too. Big deal, eh? Well, to normal people, yeah…
While I’m on the subject, there are some guitars that you wouldn’t even pick up, let alone play. A woman I used to give lift to work bought her partner a guitar for his birthday one year and it looked like a spider. I’ll find a picture of one.
I suppose that the sort of guitar you play might imply something about you so I suppose that people who play guitars like that are saying that, I don’t know, they’d do pretty well if the earth had flames coming out of it and the sky went black. I used to have a pink guitar which, I learned, really annoys some people. I ended up getting sick of getting asked why I had a pink guitar so I sprayed it blue, but badly because I’ve already rubbed it down to the wood where my elbow goes.
That guitar’s a Fender Stratocaster. Known as ‘a Strat’, which have been played by so many people that they’re not really associated with any style in particular which suits me.
On the whole though, it’s mainly pretty arbitrary stuff and it’s not as if I insist that anybody in any bands I go to watch have to follow my list or anything but I will say here and now that if they don’t follow it – and I’m sure as hell not going to tell anybody what to do, they ought to work it out themselves – I won’t be watching them for very long. Yeah. Check me out.
A couple of months ago, I played as part of a band that did an hour of Rolling Stones songs as part of a club night that a friend runs. We went down well to a well oiled crowd, we all enjoyed ourselves and I wore a pair of ludicrous trousers. So, all things considered, a good night.
As a result of that, more bookings came and now we’ve been asked to do a half and half night of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs. Oh, and a night of The Stone Roses, but that’ll be spring/summer.
So far, so good.
As I’m only really in the periphery in terms of this band – it’s not my band – I do what I’m told. Well, mainly I do what I’m told. For instance, on the Rolling Stones night, the first list of songs I got sent to learn didn’t include either Paint It Black or Sympathy For The Devil which struck me as daft, and I got my way with those. What I didn’t get my way with was doing Beast Of Burden. “Whose favourite Stones song is Beast Of Fucking Burden?” I rhetorically asked the rest of them and then I found out that they really enjoyed playing it…
Anyway, last week the list of Beatles songs was sent on to me and, as is often the case, my first response was, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake.’
The reason wasn’t because I was expected to play a guitar shaped like a spaceship or anything (although one of the chaps has requested that I don’t play my blue guitar because ‘The Beatles didn’t play strats, they had teles.’ which, as any anally retentive Beatles guitar enthusiast will (should) be able to tell you, wasn’t the case. Anyway, I’m ignoring that one completely, what for fuck’s sake-d me was the list of songs.
When we played the Stones stuff, it was all the singles. It was mainly what you’d expect, not so much focus on the earlier sixties stuff, we played singles from about 1966 and 1968-71-ish. Almost exclusively singles.
The Beatles list had precisely three singles on it. And yes, I know, I’ve argued myself that there aren’t any obscure Beatles songs and, in many ways, that’s true. It’s not that it’s not true, it’s that sometimes it’s not true and one of those times is a Saturday night in Hull in January.
Some of it, yeah. Come Together – I don’t love it, but people seem to enjoy it enough. I Feel Fine – great. Taxman, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – alright, even though they’re not singles. You Can’t Do That – Pushing it a bit, as are Don’t Let Me Down, I’ve Got A Feeling and One After 909. Still, there’s pushing it and then there’s something else entirely. Helter Skelter – sort of, maybe, not convinced. Then, to finish off, I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Yer Blues.
I’d say that two of those eleven are decent choices, another two are adequate, four of them are pushing it and three of them are typical of musicians. In fact, all of them are typical of musicians, but some are worse than others.
As a person who learned to play a bit on the late side – I was about 21 when I first picked a guitar up – I had quite a long exposure to music without knowing anything at all about, for example, what a bass guitar did. I listened like a punter listens: to the whole thing which, on whole, musicians don’t.
Musicians listen to music in a different way to non-musicians. I said earlier how I didn’t refer to myself as a guitarist, well, I don’t often refer to myself as a musician either. In fact, I used to tell people that I wasn’t a musician, I just played a guitar, but that sounded even worse than saying I was a musician, so I gave up on that one pretty quickly. What musicians do is listen to individual parts. They listen out for patterns; there’s only so many variations in most pop and rock songs and, after so long, you start to recognise them. It’s the same as any activity which consists of killing the goose that laid the golden egg: you take things apart, see how they work and make your own. It looks like there’re a lot of options on musical instruments – and there are – but most combinations sound crap; there’re only so many that sound pleasing to Western ears and once you’ve worked that out, you soon pick up on little bits and pieces that you hear in hundreds of songs. It’s how they’re put together, everybody’s got the same ingredients in terms of note selection anyway.
Anyway, the other thing about playing an instrument is that you enjoy playing some things more than other things. For all sorts of reasons: what it says about you as a person, if it looks impressive, if it seemed complicated and you sort of challenged yourself to learn how to do it. Things like that.
As a result, what often comes quite low down on the list of priorities for musicians is this: does anybody actually want to hear this? I don’t know if that’s surprising or not. The problem that musicians face is that, of any given crowd, there is always a small percentage who either are musicians themselves or who like the idea of musicians. Both groups of people want to talk about guitars, amplifiers, pedals, plectrums and the rest of it. Both groups of people also no longer listen like punters and think about what it says about you as a person, if it looks impressive, if it seemed complicated…
When I was in bands properly, I’d sometimes get asked if I was in bands to get girls. I wasn’t, which was just as well. If, on the other hand, I was in bands to meet middle aged men who wanted to talk about guitar strings and capos, I’d have been laughing, because that’s what most people who want to talk to you after you’ve played want to talk about.
But it’s a small proportion of most crowds and not a proportion who engage in the activity that every last member of every last band in the world want their audience to engage in – dancing.
A dancing crowd means you’re winning, if you’re playing in a band. If they’re not dancing, they might be digging it, but basically, you’ve failed. Musicians might not admit that, but that’s what it feels like. Clapping’s nice; it’d be a bit odd if nobody clapped or, worse, you get a sympathetic smattering of applause, but yeah, it’s dancing that they want.
Depending on your band, your audience is looking for different things. If people like something, they’ll dance to it. Head banging at metal concerts, swaying ethereally at shoe gazing ones, whatever you’re playing, there’ll be a dance for it. For a band that plays weddings, bar mitzvahs and christenings, it’s very straightforward: you need to get girls dancing. Nobody’s really there to see you in particular; you’re just the band. Bearing that in mind, what your everyday Wedding/Bar Mitzvah/Christening attendee wants to do is get pissed and have a dance. To songs they know.
Which means, don’t play fucking Yer Blues. Or I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Or Don’t Let Me Down. Or Beast Of Burden. These songs are musician songs and, furthermore – to be a bit 20th century about it – they are boys’ songs. In the traditional sense. You know, men being anally retentive about major 7th chords whereas women just get on with it and just want to dance. You know, to stereotype genders like we used to. I know the world’s changed and I don’t really get it but, believe you me, audiences haven’t.
And what that means is that instead of just playing music, maaaan, I have to start thinking sort of politically. Which I don’t really like doing, although I suppose I know how to do it if I have to. Not that thinking politically is a definite winner, because it’s not.
The political thinking consists of this…
- Thinking of songs that are a bit more Beatlesy and that girls might want to dance to and working out how to play them so that it’s not just me moaning about something. You know, doing that finding solutions, not problems thing. I hate that, but I hate playing to people who aren’t dancing more.
- Pointedly not learning how to play I Want You (She’s So Heavy) or Yer Blues, so that we can’t really do them anyway, not as well as others anyway.
- Being mildly diplomatic, meaning, learning how to play the rest of the list properly so that I’m not being too fascistic about the whole thing.
- Instead of me turning up and saying, “I know better than you nobheads, do what I say,” I just looked up on Spotify what the most played Beatles songs were and learned how to play them. And, to be fair, a couple of other things that weren’t on the Spotify list or the list I got sent by the others because I can do a really good job of those and, to be honest, I’m big headed enough to think that I do know better. Even if it’s not the best idea to just come out and say that. Things that most people can’t play very well on a guitar that I can. So Dear Prudence, with its fancy arsed finger picking. Strawberry Fields Forever, because I can make my guitar sound like a mellotron, and I Am The Walrus, because I can do a pretty good cello impression on it as well. And no, I don’t use a bow. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, even though it’s not a great song, it’s got a a big, daft chorus that people like. Which is more than you can say for I Want You (She’s So Heavy).
Because what I’ve realised is that the kids I play with are, at heart, rockers. They want to play rock and roll. and I hate rock n roll, which is what that list at the top of this was all about. I’ve realised that I like the psychedelic Beatles. Who doesn’t? From Rubber Soul to The White Album (not including Yer Blues, no, which isn’t psychedelic). My bandmates, I’ve belatedly realised, are into the Let It Be album, which I’m not particularly. Why are they into that? Because it was going to be called Get Back – meaning, Get Back to their rock n roll roots which I don’t think they were very good at. They were an ideas band and what that meant was that psychedelia was perfect for them.
So, hopefully, I’ll manage to get them to go for a bit of English psychedelia as opposed to back-to-basics rock n roll songs that, basically, deal in misery and over earnestness – both of which are honey to most musicians’ bees. Not so much the public though.
I’ll let you know how I get on. I’m not holding my breath.