The Madcap’s Last Laugh, Syd Barrett tribute concert – May 10th, 2007

I’ve been trawling through my diary from ten years ago, chronicling my trials as a writer, but every now and then I find something very special that has nothing to do with my scribblings. Ten years ago today I was lucky enough to go to a gig with my nephew Chris which exceeded all expectations…

Last night Chris and I drove to the Barbican to attend The Madcap’s Last Laugh, a tribute concert to Syd Barrett. I had been looking forward to this since it was first announced. All sorts of rumours had been flying around about who might show up, but when names like Robyn Hitchcock, Chrissie Hynde and Martha Wainwright were officially announced I realised that it would be a sincere tribute from people genuinely influenced by Syd. I had wondered if anyone from Pink Floyd might show up. Guy (Pratt) told me that David Gilmour had been approached and had politely declined. I guess he felt that he had made his tribute already with his very moving rendition of Dark Globe on his last tour. David saying no effectively ruled out Nick and Rick, too, and as for Roger… I knew that he was in the country on tour, but who knows if he had the time?

Anyway, the traffic was terrible and we were fifteen minutes late but, thankfully, the show was late starting and we were in our excellent seats (second row, just right of centre!) in plenty of time for the start. The show was wonderful in a very English and slightly shambolic way. Everyone was just a little under-rehearsed, singers had scraps of paper with the lyrics, roadies wrestled with mic stands to ready them for the next artistes, all of varying heights. The line-up was great. Captain Sensible (looking alarmingly like Paul O’Grady), Nick Laird-Clowes, Damon Albarn, The Bees, and then, to finish the first half, on strode Roger Waters.

Well, Chris and I jumped to our feet as did the rest of the audience. He looked very nervous – he was shaking like a leaf even when he was playing – and he played Flickering Flame on an acoustic guitar accompanied by Jon Carin on keyboards.

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Roger Waters – Flickering Flame

What a great first half. I even saw Storm Thorgerson queueing for the loo in the break.

The second half was even better. Vashti Bunyan, more Damon Albarn and Captain Sensible, Robyn Hitchcock, John Paul Jones, and Chrissie Hynde. Then Joe Boyd came on and told us he couldn’t think of a better way to round off the evening than to ask David, Nick and Rick onto the stage… Well, we were blown away. I had totally convinced myself that this was not going to happen and here we were. There were shouts of ‘Roger Waters!’ from the crowd, to which David replied, ‘Yes, he was here, too…’ So where was he now? Never mind… They played Arnold Layne – it wasn’t the greatest rendition, there were problems with Rick’s keyboard and mic, but it was just terrific to see them playing again.

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From L-R: Richard Wright, Andy Bell, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Jon Carin

And that was it. There were cries for more, not least from me, and they did join everyone else for the final Singalonga Bike. An amazing evening and Chris and I left on a real high.

I later learned from Guy that David had called him at 2pm that day asking what he was up to that night. Guy had a Bryan Ferry gig in Cambridge and couldn’t attend. He was gutted. He also explained Roger’s no-show with the band: apparently he had to get back to his hotel to meet his girlfriend. I hate to think that I missed my one opportunity to see the classic Floyd line-up because Rog’ fancied a quickie with his bit of stuff*…

Anyway, it was a great evening, a worthy tribute to Syd and I got some good photos. I had hoped to meet Matt Johns from the Brain Damage website, but I couldn’t get a signal on my phone in the Barbican. Turns out he was sitting about four seats down from us.

*I realise I’m being very uncharitable here!

For a full setlist, the wonderful Brain Damage site has it all here.

All photos by Mark Stay

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My Jazz Chord Theory of Creativity

I found myself with a free afternoon yesterday, not something that happens often these days as any spare time I have tends to be dedicated to writing, but I’m in a lull on one project and stuck on another, and so I found myself plugging my guitar into a pedal board and amp, and I started thrashing out a few chords.

Inspired by its inclusion on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY soundtrack, I thought I’d have a go at learning David Bowie’s splendid MOONAGE DAYDREAM and was surprised by how simple it was: lots of nice major/minor chords, a very easy riff and a straightforward melody.

And it got me thinking about a half-baked music analogy I have about creativity. When rock bands start out they begin with the simple stuff: twelve-bar blues, major chords dropping to minors, and a cool hook. Stuff that’s basic, but highly effective, hitting people right in the feels…

Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy and making people feel totes emosh since the dawn of time.

But as an artist progresses in their career, they understandably want to try something more complex and challenging, and, if you’re a guitarist, this means that sooner or later your favourite band will start using complex jazz chords…

Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.
Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy jazz, but in quite small doses. It just doesn’t engage me emotionally in the way that a big, stupid rock song does. Just as I prefer Bowie’s early stuff, I suspect that it’s songs like STARMAN and LIFE ON MARS that are paying the mortgage at chez Bowie, rather than anything he’s recorded in the last twenty years. It’s also why the musically straightforward 1970s-era Pink Floyd continue to sell more than the jazz odyssey stylings of their early Syd Barrett stuff or, say, Captain Beefheart…

Of course, this theory is full of holes: if anything, the Beatles’ songs became more straightforward as they progressed, Kate Bush’s stuff was always complex musically (though her early albums are arguably more tuneful), and it probably doesn’t apply to classical or opera, though Beethoven’s Fifth (Duh-Duh-Duh-Duuum!) is as rock n roll as classical gets.

But you get the idea: the simple stuff works. It will always have a greater reach, audience-wise, than the introverted, “clever” stuff.

And here comes the big, clanging, G-major analogy that I’ll be trying to apply to my writing: I won’t be putting too many jazz chords into my stories. I might think I’m being clever by killing the hero on page 35, or starting in the middle of my story and working backwards via flashforwards, but some poor producer has to pitch that idea to raise money, and nine out of ten of them will always go for the simple sell.

That’s not to dismiss “simple” as “easy”: keeping a story truthful, engaging and emotional is hard enough as it is. So why make life more difficult for yourself?

And so my creative aim in life is to hit the same simple and moving peak as Bowie who has Mick Ronson open a song with a big, fat D-major chord as he cries, “I’m an alligator!” There’s no greater achievement in art…

 

 

The Endless River and the end of Floyd

This week sees the release of what has been confirmed by the band Pink Floyd as their last ever studio album, The Endless River.

The Endless River

I have a long history with Floyd, and to be around when they’ve called it a day is both sad and curiously satisfying. The end of a great story. Like many of my generation, my first awareness of Pink Floyd came with the release of Another Brick In The Wall (Part Two) and I was all too eager to misinterpret the message “We don’t need no edjacashun!” I also recall poring over my uncle’s copy of the album, its gatefold festooned with Gerald Scarfe’s wonderful artwork.

But it wasn’t until my teens that they really made an impact. Back then, believe it or not, I was a football referee. Something I wasn’t terribly well-suited for, not being a massive football fan and just beginning to need to wear spectacles for my short-shortsightedness. I had to quit after a couple of years when I had no real comeback to the players’ cries of, “Ref, are you blind?”

Back then Wembley Stadium use to employ referees as stewards for football games and major events. My dad – a much better ref than I ever was – would regularly attend FA Cup matches and the like in this capacity. And in the summer of 1988 he asked me quite out of the blue if I wanted to be a steward at a couple of concerts. The first was the amazing Michael Jackson Bad Tour, the second was for Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason.

Jacko was awesome, as you’d expect, but the Floyd gig triggered something inside of me. I found a sound that I hadn’t even realised was missing from my life, but I suddenly had to have more of, immediately. The bigness of Richard Wright‘s keyboard sounds, the ‘ting’ of Nick Mason‘s ride cymbal – a pleasing acoustic noise absent from all the electronica I’d been listening to that summer – and all of this led by David Gilmour‘s siren-like guitar. And not forgetting Roger Waters‘ lyrics… Ah, Roger! Not only had I found the perfect band, but one with a story that stretched back to a tragic figure called Syd Barrett, followed by an unprecedented success forged by a group living in the shadow of a genius, then torn apart again by that very success. There were lengthy magazine articles and books chronicling this epic odyssey, including Miles’ excellent Visual Documentary.

I devoured everything, and while my contemporaries were discovering rave or grunge I was stuck firmly in the ’70s and became a boy obsessed. I made compilation tapes for all my mates and even successfully converted a fair number of them, dragging them to gigs at the ghastly London Arena, glorious Knebworth and Earl’s Court. Even the lovely, patient woman who was to become the love of my life was not immune, having to endure my guitar practice as I learned to play their songs (having all but given up on the instrument a few years earlier). I even studied the lyrics of The Wall as part of my GCSE coursework, discovering how to stretch out my thesis “It’s about alienation, innit” to 1500 words.

One of the most significant decisions in my life was dictated by a Floyd connection. At the time I was a sales rep for a publisher, driving all over the South East of England and writing plays in laybys in my lunchbreak. I was in a happy little rut. Then I bumped into a fellow rep who said there was an account manager job going at Orion Publishing, and was I interested. At first, I refused: I loved the freedom of the open road, and working in an office would mean regular hours that wouldn’t allow me to put on plays. Then something occurred to me, “You guys are publishing that Pink Floyd book by Nick Mason, aren’t you?”

“Yup.”

“WHERE DO I APPLY?!”

And so I ended up in an office job, gave up on the theatre, and started writing screenplays instead. And see where that got me.

Oh, and I got to meet Nick Mason. A lovely, lovely man who put up with my fanboyish tendencies with the patience of a saint. Tangentially, I also got to meet David Gilmour, Richard Wright, Gerald Scarfe and the wonderful Guy Pratt, whose brilliantly funny book My Bass And Other Animals was published by Orion and should be read by everyone and anyone with a passing interest in music.

I missed out on Live 8 and with the passing of Syd and then Richard it seemed like it was all over, and now it really is. I’ve played Endless River on an endless loop today. It’s arguably the boldest album the band have released in thirty years, and all those things that had me fall in the love with the band are present and correct, but now it sounds like the distant echo of something passing into time, fading into the past. A fitting farewell from a band bigger than the sum of its parts. And that’s a beautiful end to their story.

Abseiling off Battersea Power Station – “You gotta be crazy…”

Well, I did it! Just got back and my legs have only now stopped wobbling.

Battersea Power Station seems to have always lurked in the background of my life. We used to drive past it constantly when visiting relatives when I was a kid, it’s appeared in many of my favourite films and TV shows, including Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (“A fish, a fish, afishafishafish”), The Dark Knight, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and a few episodes of Doctor Who.

But for me it will always be the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals that shows the building at its most iconic. As a teen I bought a wall-sized poster from Carnaby Street, plastered it on my wall and imagined that I lived in an apartment looking down on it (What? I didn’t have a girlfriend, so gimme a break!).

That album’s song Dogs opens with the words “You gotta be crazy” and I have to admit that this refrain was repeatedly whizzing through my head as a small group of us were led into the main shell of the building.

My one regret today is that we weren’t allowed to take cameras with us into the building. The inside is incredible and you can see why it attracts film makers looking for something big and apocalyptic. Shafts of light beam through broken windows, cracked wooden rafters and rusting zig-zag stairwells, illuminating the wreckage below. Decades of neglected debris. Twisted iron girders, resting on hunks on concrete. The perfect playground for an adventurous boy. It’s slightly ruined by a giant plastic gazebo in the middle of it all – a room for corporate events and such – but I did my best to ignore that.

We were led up seven flights of steps up onto the roof, a large flat area about two football pitches long, and all in the shadow of those giant chimneys. One of the organisers cheerily settled our nerves by telling that we weren’t really that high, just 140 feet or so. She took us to where three scaffolds perched over the edge of the wall.

They asked for a volunteer and, in a weird sort out of body experience, I heard myself saying “Yeah, I’ll go!” Oh well, best to get it over with I guess. I clambered up the middle scaffold where a very calm man explained that the green rope was my safety rope and would hold me just in case I decided to do anything stupid. Bit late for that, I thought as he asked me to step over a red rope and lean all my weight back. I looked down, found Claire, Em and George and gave them a wave…

Photos – click to embiggen and enjoy ironic captions…

It was all over far too quickly. Once you get over the initial primeval voices in your head screaming “What are you doing? Get back on the roof! Are you mad?!” it’s just you and your feet gently bouncing off the wall as you feed the red rope through the belay.

I might have developed a taste for this. The cheery lady had said that they used to do these off the top of Guy’s Hospital, which is four times higher… maybe. Dunno. Maybe.

It’s not too late to sponsor me! Today raised over a hundred grand for Cancer Research, which is amazing, but every little helps. Click here: http://t.co/DUFOktZCLu or text STAY73 £5 (or whatever amount) to 70070.

Thanks to everyone who sponsored me. I know everyone’s skint at the moment, so I was delighted to get at least £450! I promise not to make a habit of it.

I’m flinging myself off Battersea Power Station

Sorry the blog’s been quiet recently. OUR ROBOT OVERLORDS has been in production, and I’ve been very busy with something very cool that I hope to announce very soon.

In the meantime, my friend Jennie McCann causally suggested that I join her abseiling down the side of Battersea Power Station on 31st August, and like an idiot I hastily agreed.

I get vertigo*. Not the “Ooh, aren’t we high up?!” kind of vertigo, but the proper lizard-brain-telling-you-it’s-a-good-idea-to-jump kind of vertigo. I first discovered this on a trip to Paris in 1999 when I was wandering around Notre Dame and suddenly found myself high up in its ramparts. It occurred to me just how old and crumbly the building was, and how the whole thing could come tumbling down any second now, so why not save myself the aggravation and hurl myself off now. I shook this off as an abberation, but then later that day I found myself at the top of Eiffel Tower (which is full of holes and was only built to last a few years!) and – holy shit – that’s a tall frickin’ structure. I clung to the centre of it like a limpet, only occasionally shuffling to its edges.

Weirdly, I’m fine in planes. No problem at all hurtling through the air at thirty-thousand feet. Work that one out, if you can.

But Battersea Power Station is just too hard to resist. I’m a massive Pink Floyd fan and the station adorns the cover of their 1977 album Animals, and I had a huge poster of this on my wall as a teenager. Also, many of my favourite films have been made there and if flinging myself off the side of it means I get to explore this hallowed ground, then so be it.

Me and Battersea Power Station in happier times (I'm on the ground!)
Me and Battersea Power Station in happier times (I’m on the ground!)

I’ll be doing this for Cancer Research UK. Too many of my friends and family have suffered from cancer, and I’m very impressed with their work. So do please donate whatever spare shekels you have into the pot. It all makes a difference!

Please click here to go to my Just Giving page.

*Quick update. My friend Dom pointed out that I actually suffer from Acrophobia, not vertigo. I blame Hitchcock.