Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Spell With A Shell

At the close of 2010 SILVERY contributed a track to the two disc 'The Leader Of The Starry Skies' - an album of covers of songs by Cardiacs to raise funds for their main man Tim Smith who is quite ill at the moment. I thought I should write something here about it. My first exposure to the band was when I first heard 'Manhoo' on the Marc Radcliffe show on Radio 1 in May / June 1996 and loved it straight away - in keeping with my tastes of the day, it could've been the Spiders From Mars doing a Blur song. I remember I scribbled down Cardiacs - 'Yarhoo' on my homework as I misheard the title (Radcliffe was a great source for finding new bands pre-internet - I still fondly listen to Big White Stairs via finding them the same way).

Shortly after that, I accidentally heard them on the same show playing a live session. I recall one song being about a dog called Sparky or something? A couple of weeks later I picked up a copy of the 'Manhoo' single (pictured is the follow up 'Odd Even', featuring Timmy's face) in my local record shop and played it to death. I had a bizarre flashback. I was sure my older brother had a CD by Cardiacs (I had previously exhausted his collection in failed attempts to get into Bauhaus, Babes In Toyland and The Pixies - what can I say, Blur hadn't got good yet) - and sure enough he did. 'The Seaside' from 1984. Crumbs, that's like 12 years old? I put it on and the sound was totally at odds with the bouncy, glammed up, dare I say Britpop of 'Manhoo' - but I persevered (in between stopping 'Jibber & Twitch' on the CD thinking that the phone was ringing). I later learned that my brother used to play 'R.E.S.' to me when I was very little because I found it funny. I cobbled together a tape of the collected 12 tracks I now owned in order of preference. That accompanied me on holiday to Spain that summer. I made a point of getting into them after that - first up was the album that 'Manhoo' and 'Dog-Like Sparky' (oh Dog-LIKE Sparky) were taken from - 'Sing To God'. A double album. Takes a deep breath. Needless to say it became the soundtrack to the rest of my 1996 and 1997. I have fond memories of 'Billion' twinkling through my head as I woke up in a pile of leaves in South Kensington once. I went to see them for the first time after that with my brother acting as counsel and explaining what the fuck was going on. Our trip to The Joiner's Arms in Southampton is remembered in Adrian Bell's commendably ultra-mad Cardiacs book 'Aylesbury Bolton Wolverhampton Hove'
The album 'Leader Of The Starry Skies' is tremendous. Mainly featuring Cardiacs family bands, but also contributions from the likes of Ultrasound, The Magic Numbers, and XTC's Andy Partridge, most seem to settle on strangely countrified, reflective readings of the songs, but my favorites are Panixphere fucking demolishing 'To Go Off & Things' and Local Girls wobbly and muscular 'Odd Even'. My contribution was 'Spell With A Shell' from the 1999 album 'Guns' - an overlooked gem that I favoured for it's simplicity (predictable gist: it isn't simple). The video was made during downtime on the set of 1902's Le Voyage Dans La Lune, directed by Georges Méliès. The juxtaposition of the man in the moon looking down and the child looking into the pot containing the little beetle he's found blah blah blah.

As I write this I'm also reminded of Tiny from Ultrasound giving me a ring to double check the words on the quiet bit of their contribution 'Big Ship'. Our mutual recordist Kev told them that I'd know, and sure enough I drank up, rushed home and pulled my vinyl out and compared the two original Cardiacs studio versions with the lyric sheet. I don't know what they were on about. That I became a Cardiacs go-to-guy is testament enough to my love of this band, and I hope my wishes for Tim Smith to heal and for him to know he is loved are heard.

Another little memory - bizarrely on Mark Radcliffe's former co-host Marc Riley's 6Music show, some 12 years after that first airing of 'Manhoo': Cardiacs are in session and play a version of their super unreleased song 'Sparkly Silvery Sky'. Unfortunately it would be in the very same room a couple of months later we dedicate a live 'Action Force' to Tim's recovery.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

DAVID 2004 - 2006 (Or thereabouts)

Next in the ongoing (and slow off the mark) SILVERY 10 Year Celebrations: a contribution from a pivotal Silvery. Young David Williams - electric bass and trusty confi-dandy:

2004: THE CALL UP ~ My tour of duty with Silvery began with a text: "COME TO BACKSTREET AT 3PM. THEN WE CAN BE QUEEN."
James, the Task Commander, had given me a demo CD a week or two earlier with 6 songs on, along with a baffling sheet of chord progressions and a clunky bass guitar, which sounded a bit stout and looked as though it was made in the 1840s. It was spring 2004. I'd been in London about 6 months and hadn't worked out what I wanted to do with it. James and I met working in a bookshop and bonded over the grim slog and the absurdity of it all, and the mind-wrecking loop of useless film soundtracks the bosses insisted on putting on, all day, every day.

Those first demos, recorded as a 3-piece (Orman, Pull, and a drummer called Giuseppe), were good enough to win over this sceptic. I'd tuned out of guitar pop bands at some point around the turn of the century when I became old enough to see the UK indie scene for the haircut competition it always had been.

But that first demo CD was so confident, so well defined and so _singular_. It rocked foremost - I knew it would be a hoot to play live. Camp, but deadly serious, delivered with a frantic, shrill energy, and with a visual aesthetic to match. Songs referencing the ghostly imprint of bygone London, fortean phenomena, stinging rebukes to lazy people and wasted potential. Many of the songs were already there - apart from the odd arrangemental tweak, all they really gained in the intervening years was muscle. Each had a little trick, and an unpredictably memorable tune. They were detailed little worlds unto themselves - "perfect, but miniature". They already sounded like a manifesto. There was Squadron Leader, with placeholder lyrics. An instrumental Devil in the Detail. The Nod, and A Penny Dreadful pretty much fully formed. A scrappy take of A Man Has Disappeared in the Sky, and best of all, a white-hot version That Which Is/That Which Is Not. The whole thing was worked out. (I think this is testiment to my one fingered keyboard playing. Still available for hire - The Quaire Fellow)

The deal was that it was James's band. His songs, he was the director. I could write my parts but he could tell me to change them if they weren't what he was looking for. Fine by me - I had a guitar duo called Little Hands Clapping to serve as an outlet for my own compositions. It was a bit like joining the Jimi Hendrix Experience. I was signed up to what James had in mind and willing to work at making the band sound as exciting as it could be.

At my first rehearsal the band complimented my cherry red DMs and showed me Star of the Sea and an embyonic, verse/chorus arrangement of The Nishikado. James gave me a fine bandsman's jacket to wear and told me off for playing too funky.

Giuseppe was a fantastically loose, noisy drummer - you had to watch out in rehearsals because he was prone to breaking his sticks and you'd have to dodge flying splinters. He had a hyperactive style - he could only be counted on not to play a simple, steady beat, and to speed up, slow down, and break up the rhythm mid-bar. With two fuzzed out guitars, the sound could get messy, so I took on a sort of Noel Redding role, keeping it solid and simple at the centre as all hell broke loose around me.

The set took shape. James showed me Murder Holes. Later we invented a dance craze to go with it, and a year or two later treated Brighton to a furious display of "murderholing" at the Pav Tav in Brighton, after we played the Freebutt. Explaining the song's unorthodox structure, he revealed IT'S ALL SHAPES. And it was. All the songs were. They had an internal logic mapped out on the fretboard. I learned Sparks and Fire off a tape with older demos and live versions, and wrote a sexy new bass part, which James let me record for the second album. The first time me and Giuseppe played Ropes and Sails (which always, always went with S&F), we were instructed to play as though on a deck of a ship, looking out over a bay. So that's what we aimed for.

My first public act as a member of Silvery was to emerge from a cupboard which served as a dressing room in the Hope and Anchor. My second was to clatter into a mic stand as I mounted the six-inch high stage. Over the next two years I carved out a niche for myself as "the clumsy one". Accidentally unplugging my instrument was a speciality, though I also did a mean line in tripping over cables and whacking my mic with the head of my guitar. Once I got carried away tossing flowers into the audience at the Bull and Gate and pelted a big bunch directly into a girl's face. Topping it all, on my last-ever gig in front of 1800 people at Koko, I executed a geometrically perfect scissor kick before slipping on a slick of bubble machine fluid and ending up on my arse in a tangle of limbs and guitars with James.

The Nishikado could have that effect. At that first gig Guiseppe came in a beat late, turning the entire first verse inside out. James had talked me into providing backing vocals ("I just need a bit of noise behind me") but I'd never sung live before, didn't have much of a voice and struggled to co-ordinate singing one rhythm and playing another, unless I was just thunking along on the root notes. Which, most of the time, I was. I was suffering from a throat infection and lost control of my voice - though the minidisc recording revealed that trying to follow James's part I'd actually nailed a perfect fifth in the chorus. Never managed that again.

That summer, I discovered the power of the oom-pah bassline. Tried it first in the chorus of Devil in the Detail. James and I fell about laughing, so that sealed it - it was definitely in. I put that in as many songs as I could manage, and it helped nail the marching band, fairground feel we knew the band needed.

Then Simon joined. By the end of the first rehearsal it was difficult to believe he hadn't been in the band all along. He was instantly integral to the Silvery sound with his plinky-plonky piano parts, off-beat organ vamping, and, a little bit later, swirling War of the Worlds FX.

The five piece Silvery didn't last long - two or three gigs I believe. After a promisingly loose, electric showing at the Dublin Castle in August, that October (I think?) we played a bizarre gig in a reverberant hangar of a venue supporting David Devant. We were well drilled by this point, and played a pretty safe 2004 style set, made memorable by the novelty of playing in a space big enough to have useable monitors, and thus being able to hear ourselves properly. I remember a distinct lack of energy - partly nerves, probably, and partly because the place was just about empty when we went on, filling up with puzzled thirtysomethings over the course of our performance.

Then, with zero fanfare, Giuseppe went back to Italy. The band played a final, confrontationally ramshackle drummerless gig to a rammed Hope and Anchor, with a set dominated by untested songs (Charge of the Light Brigade, Will Self, 1994). Cues were missed. Middle-aged people danced. James roamed the audience with his inaudible acoustic guitar. Islington scratched its head. Howard decided he'd had enough. We all felt a little bit silly and had a word with ourselves about what to do next. For the remainder of 2004 there wasn't really a Silvery, so much as a little handful of us that wanted to have a band.

2005-06: OVER THE TOP ~ "Let's do 1994 again", said James. "That one's got 'HOPE' written all over it".
Stinking Backstreet Studios, winter 2004-05. Repairing the band was proving to be harder than just slotting one component into the space left by another. Alex, our new drummer, was very tight from the get-go, but at those first practices he was a little... tidy. It took a little while before he acquired the fluidity and frankly Popeye-muscled oomph you hear on the albums. We'd lost that power and weight a band gets when it's been rehearsing and gigging regularly for months. And with guitarist Howard gone too, the jaw-clenching racket of the '04 lineup had been greatly diminished.

But rebuilding from the chassis up presented opportunities, too. For one thing, James could bring in all the songs Howard hadn't liked very much, which broadened the set nicely. 1994 sounded great straight away, always punchy, crisp and with a cheeky swing. Orders came in too, and we worked up full band arrangements of Will Self and Quaire Fellow. Those two came to be dominated by Simon's inventive keyboard tones - running his organ through a multi FX and distortion pedal for extra edge.

I bought a fuzz box for the bass too, which enabled me to take over the the intros to Squadron Leader and Devil in the Detail, and kick the noise levels up during bits like the freak-out section in Sparks and Fire. The best example of that is the live cut of Seven Seas of Rhye - I might as well have been riding a motorbike around the stage. Loved it.

With James handling more lead guitar duties with wonky aplomb, and Alex growing in confidence by the week, the band was gigging by the end of January. I'm amazed now at how far we moved, from basically a standing start, in the first six months of that year. We cut about half a dozen demos in February, laying down the drums and guide bass on James's trusty four-track in Backstreet. Then we reconvened at the studio where Simon worked to overdub everything else over the course of a Sunday afternoon, giddy on free sweets. The songs came over better than in the fog of live performance, but overall the results were disappointing - more like working models, lacking the tightness and thrill we were looking for. Still, the version of That Which Is (swamped in fuzz bass) won Silvery's first airplay, from Steve Lamacq shortly after I left the band. There was an early take of Foreign Exchange, with a shorter outro. The version of Will Self saw the first appearance of the "Silvery monks", the droning bass baritone choir who still can be glimpsed hovering in the background of modern-day Silvery recordings.

We practiced every week, no excuses, and played one proper gig every month, with flowers and uniforms and everything, which we would make an effort to get people along to. Between those we'd slot in midweek support slots at rubbish venues to try out new songs, revive old ones, or just experiment with the setlist. It toughened us up. No-one on any bill we ever appeared on could match us for sheer rabid eyes-on-stalks energy. I'd feel physically bruised going into work the next morning.

It was easy to lose control - to get swept away in our own whirlwind. Or, just take the stage too drunk to get the details right, especially if we were playing towards the end of the evening. "A Silvery gig should be like a well-drilled performance of HMS Pinafore," James said. "But it can end up sounding like the Muppet Show". Keeping the bass tight wasn't a problem, because Alex's snare and kick work was endlessly interesting to lock into and play off against. But all the chaos and adrenalin, and the scrappy PAs, made it really hard to do justice to the ensemble vocal sound we were aiming for. I always regretted that. Hated singing badly in front of people I knew. I'd dread the chorus of Revolving, because I couldn't reach the notes James sang (a lot of the songs were devilishly high), and could never find the right pitch if I tried to go a fifth or a third below.

The singing was the only aspect that we didn't really drill. Rehearsals were four hours long. The volume in those brick-walled railway arch rooms was nauseating. But the practice allowed us to learn little tricks and embellishments to give the gigs a greater sense of occasion. In the first gig with Alex, during the outro to Devil, the band dropped out abruptly as Simon played a few bars of Hava Negilah in a carousel organ style, before we all crashed back in, in unison. Orders grew its familiar fanfare intro and triumphant conclusion. Sparks and Fire gained a poignant music box prelude. Murder Holes was prefaced by an oom-pah instrumental version of the theme to Screen Test. We'd also throw in Mancini's Baby Elephant Walk, and fooled around with some songs from the Bugsy Malone soundtrack. The Animals are Vanishing, Action Force, and Revolving all became staples in during the first part of the year. Later on we added Warship Class, and toyed with Identity.

I assumed a sort of Sergeant Wilson role, to James's Captain Mainwaring. I tended to know the new songs first, from bedroom practices with James, especially when he stayed at my house for a few months. I remember running through Murder Holes for the first time with Alex while James went out to make a phone call, and helped explain Warship Class with its tricky time signatures, pauses and key changes. James and I both had jobs that enabled us to goof off and email constantly during the day, so we often talked about bringing in new things, or tweaking old things, or plotted setlists and talked about what worked and what didn't at the last show.

We recorded a second batch of demos in June - finally doing justice to Devil, and laying down representative (but not much more) versions of Murder Holes, Revolving, Action Force and Animals are Vanishing. It sounded pretty good, more controlled than the "Scooby and Shaggy being chased around a big top in a hurricane" live shows. But we were better than those versions within weeks. We blew that session by trying to do too much. Recording and mixing in the same day was always going to be a recipe for madness - especially when two members of your band are employed in the recording business. And, we hedged our bets, rather than concentrating our efforts on getting the essential stuff right. Single take versions of Penny Dreadful, The Nod and Foreign Exchange got finished off at the studio where Alex worked. Later on we remixed Action Force, with a pitch-shifted chipmunk voice on top of the chorus to lighten the overall tone. That ended up being my part, live. I could do three sorts of singing: unison, snotty call and response, or helium squeals.

The "showcase" gigs got bigger and better - we played a packed, steamy Buffalo Bar (supporting Devant, again) two days after the July 7 bombings - for a band so plugged into the spirit of London it felt like an important time to be out and about and kicking ass. Next was the Metro Club on Oxford Street, then the Purple Turtle in Camden, and the Marquee on Leicester Square. Those performances were fierce. Later, when I saw 2008 era Silvery with Joe on bass, I was jealous of how good they sounded - way beyond when I had been in the band - particularly the harmonies, while Joe's playing glued everything together much better than mine had. The set was almost identical to 2005-06, and the mature band gave a much clearer account of itself, and was much more likely to win over more first-time listeners. But it didn't have the everything-to-prove, nowt-to-lose ferocity we had 2005-06.

Rumours got out that we were in possession of a tape of **** ******* and **** **** having sex. It was a very 2005 rumour. They were a couple for a bit. While ******* was a rock star. Back when he was thin and everything. Anyway it went round ********* fan forums, then got picked up by the celeb gossip circular Popbitch. Given the profoundly unsavoury characters surrounding ******* at the time it put us in an awkward position. But there were upsides to having our every move watched by a load of desperate crackhead gangsters. Within a couple of weeks we were being offered gigs at Koko. We did two, either side of Christmas 2005. The first was an opening slot, and went rather well. The second was one off headlining, and was bloody mental. Before we went on, we did a little show at Tommy Flynn's, just up the road. Alex pattered on a snare, Simon played on a toy keyboard, and me and James sang. It remains a mystery how we got out alive.

I can't explain the thrill of the curtain going up, bobbing people spread out in front of me, and a theatre of balconies stacked on balconies up into the gods. Feedback, abstract organ noises, and Alex throwing himself into the marching drum intro to Orders. Most of the kids hadn't heard us before - and they went nutso anyway. In the writhing crush down the front, a couple of girls in stripey top shouted "we love you". They seemed very, very young. The gig rattled by in a blur, but by this point in the year we weren't playing bad shows - we couldn't miss, I guess, not when we were that juiced. Backstage was depressing - a lot of seedy, coked up old bastards and vacant Topshop kids.

Koko stood out because of the scale of the thing, but in truth, with every gig feeling increasingly crucial, we developed a standard "best of" set, and as a result the shows across the back of 2005 and into early 2006 became much of a muchness. Dragging the same material around London for another year while we got signed, and then for another two off the back of an album seemed a rather humdrum prospect. Bigger-time managers and promoters came along to see us and hang out, and they were repulsive. I didn't much fancy the prospect of a becoming a face around the London rock scene - and it was clear we would have to do exactly that if we were going to get noticed more. Nambucca, on the Holloway Road, was buzzing, but I never had a night there that didn't leave me feeling sad, lonely and bored.

I just preferred a night in at home with the missus. It became obvious that Silvery was destined for bigger things which I didn't much like the look of - "I understood the reasons but the system gave me Horrors". I didn't want to hold anyone back - so between some quietish midweek gigs in early 2006, and with a distinct sense of anticlimax, I quit. I might have been in good company as an ex-Silvery, but it was depressing to think I'd become like the people who are treated with such contempt in Murder Holes, or Orders, or The Nod, trading in excitement and romance for a more certain, ordered life. Silvery powered ahead without me. In summer 2006 they filmed a video to Devil in the Detail with the recording we'd made a year earlier, that summed up everything that was fun about the band.

The band had "HOPE" written all over it. Amid another bassist hiccup that autumn, I came back for three gigs on a strictly temporary basis, to keep the momentum up. It was all fun, no pressure, and culminated in one final hurrah headlining Koko. We hired matching suits - I got a pillbox hat (pictured) - and blew the roof off the place. At the end, during a celebratory coda to You Give A Little Love, we dropped hundreds of multicoloured balloons into the crowd. It was a beautiful moment, and a proper way to bow out. But it was time for another, stronger component to slot into my place. The band would become tighter, grander and more successful after I left - but I think it's fair to say that a little part of the reason Silvery made it to that point was because years earlier, the four of us had built up one hell of a head of steam.