It’s exactly a year ago this month since Bytes From the Big Apple first graced the information highway. It’s also the first anniversary of my departure from low-lying Nashville to move to higher ground in Manhattan. You can imagine, therefore, how disturbing it has been to learn of the recent floods that have devastated Music City. To see so many familiar buildings being swamped and to hear from friends who’ve had their lives ruined by the devastation, is an extremely hard pill to swallow. The story first came to bear when I returned from a trip to the U.K. Now that was a bundle of fun, thanks to my flight being delayed by the ash spewing volcano with the unpronounceable name. If you add to that the ecological mess left behind by the Gulf oil spill, temperatures that go up and down like a yo-yo and far too many earthquakes for anyone’s liking, then it would seem that the planet is currently being plagued with disasters due to the sins of mankind.
Having spent most of my working life in the music industry, I can recall a fair amount of on-stage disasters that have occurred over the years. My first memory of something being seriously amiss during a live performance, was when I sat down with my parents to watch “Sunday Night at the London Palladium”. Top of the bill on the evening question was torch singer, Pearl Bailey. Halfway through her act she grabbed the microphone and tottered down into the audience. Trying desperately to retain some sort of composure, she tripped and fell straight into a poor unsuspecting guy’s lap. Ms. Bailey was quite clearly feeling no pain. The incident was second only to the time when the Irish playwright Brendan Behan was clearly out of his skull on the Malcolm Muggeridge TV show. Fellow guest Jackie Gleason was prone to comment – “It wasn’t an act of God, it was an act of Guinness.”
A disaster of a totally different kind took place in Great Yarmouth on May 29th 1966. It’s easy to be precise about the date simply because I kept a diary. It was a Sunday evening on the Britannia Pier, and I was playing bass with Pinkertons’ Assorted Colours on a bill led that included the Spencer Davis Group and Barry Fantoni. Barry was then hosting the BBC’s trendy TV show, “A Whole Scene Going”, which had resulted in him being voted Television Personality of the Year. So far so good. He’d also been signed to Fontana on the basis that he’d authored a trough of pop songs. Never in my life have I seen anyone die on stage like he did that night. Apart from his excruciatingly flat vocals and the fact that he looked anything but a pop star, Barry had no act at all. The audience responded by refusing to applaud. It was beyond embarrassment.
When it comes to aggro breaking out onstage, don’t think it started with a spat from Amy Winehouse or the Gallagher boys. In 1965, the Kinks single-handledly invented in-house fighting at a gig in Cardiff when Ray Davies’ brother Dave and drummer Mick Avory came to blows after only one song. Davies started the quarrel by insulting Avory and kicking over his drum set. Avory responded by hitting Davies with a cymbal stand, rendering him unconscious, before fleeing the scene. Dave received 16 stitches to his head whilst Mick told the cops that hurling instruments at each other was part of the Kinks’ act. A few months later, the Gates of Eden, a trendy new band who’d taken their name from a Bob Dylan song, somehow found themselves on tour with Jerry Lee Lewis. What the promoter was thinking about, heaven only knows. The majority of Jerry Lee’s audience was there to see him, and him alone. When the band opened up at the Birmingham Hippodrome with their latest single, oddly-enough a Ray Davies song entitled ‘Too Much On My Mind’, a fusilade of spark plugs rained down from the circle. Ignominious was not the word. The band split the following year.
Whilst audience participation of this sort might be mildly amusing, it can easily turn nasty. I well remember the night that Bill Haley and the Comets played the New Victoria Theatre in London at the end of a long European tour in 1976. The moment Bill took the stage and launched into his upbeat brand of rock n roll, the packed house went bananas. It was looking to be a night to remember and unfortunately it was, but for all the wrong reasons. A section of the crowd decided that dancing in the aisles wasn’t good enough, so they proceeded to commandeer the stage and engulf Bill and his musicians. Those in the stalls who’d paid to see their hero as opposed to ‘legless Larry’ and his mates were not impressed, and polite calls for the gate-crashers to sit down turned to fisticuffs. As the fire curtain was lowered, Bill courageously said “Thank you London, you’ve been a wonderful audience”. The press had a field day with the story the next day, so I met with the man and recorded a short interview which went out on Radio One that evening. As composed as ever, Bill confirmed that his music tended to produce an over-enthusiastic reaction once in a while. It was the understatement of all time.
Yet another variation on the term ‘disaster’ within the context of a live performance has to be when you make your excuses and leave because you’re not digging the gig. This happened to me in the mid-1980s when I went to see Dire Straits at the Wembley Arena. The band was hotter than a pistol at the time, with albums going platinum and tours selling out right across the planet. It was also a time when Mark Knopfler had enough hair to warrant wearing a tennis-player’s sweatband, so all of the elements were in place to clock Dire Straits at their peak. It was all rather sad really, because I’d known Mark since the days when his brother David was in the line-up. Also because another good friend Ed Bicknell (once the drummer with Jess Conrad no less) was now their manager. Woo-ed, no doubt, by the might of the event, the audience was ecstatic to the point of obedience. But to me, the show was soul-less beyond belief. Maybe it was an off night, or maybe it was just the result of endless touring. But seeing Mark perform as if he’d undergone a charisma by-pass, was a total disaster in my book.
The Nashville connection came into play during the mid-nineties, when a one-man show took place at the Ace of Clubs. Ironically, this long-gone venue was situated in the heart of the downtown area that has suffered the worst of the recent floods. I’d just moved to the city at the time and I went along to see singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb perform at the annual Tin Pan South’s Legends Night. You may ask why such a talent with a song folio that included ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘MacArthur Park’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, could be associated with a disaster. Well, it wasn’t his fault. It was the sound man’s. Just three microphones were required on the night; one on the vocal and two inside the piano. So what could go wrong? Plenty, as it turned out. The speakers were emitting a low-pitched hum even before Jimmy mounted the podium, so you just knew that something wasn’t right. When he went to say hello, the mike began feeding back to the point where people were forced to cover their ears. From there it was downhill all the way, with adjustments, settings and compressor levels being frantically reset to no avail. Jimmy summed up the situation by stating – “I didn’t know there was a budget on the sound system”.
Come the 2000’s and Nashville once again played its part with another musical disaster. Each and every April, the city stages a ‘Country Music Marathon’ with thousands of hardy souls legging it around a 26 mile course to raise money for charity. After all of the runners make it home, the event is traditionally crowned with a post-race concert staged at the Nashville Arena. Star names from the country world such as Brad Paisley, Martina McBride and Diamond Rio have all played the gig, with some of them, to their eternal credit, even taking part in the run itself. Not being a road-runner myself, I’ve done my bit by participating in some of the warm down events instead. The first time I went along the headliner was Jo Dee Messina, a singer who seemed tailor-made for the occasion as she’d recently become involved with the ‘Special Olympics’. She bounced onto the stage around 9-30pm and proceeded to sing, sing, and sing. As the minutes ticked by it was obvious Miss Messina was overstaying her welcome. The tired audience, many of whom had been in the race, were not just drifting away, they were leaving in droves. Yet on she went, until at 11-20pm, with just a handful of people remaining, she finally left the stage having become a prime contender for the entertainer’s Darwin Award.
And here we are in the 2010s, with plenty of time ahead for many more musical disasters. Of the gigs I’ve seen so far, all have gone off smoothly. However, mention has to be made for this year’s Grammys, which to date rates as the talking point of the still-emerging decade. Glossy? It certainly was. Tacky? Even more so. This column gave mention to the generally shabby affair at the time, but the performance that was way out front in the cringeworthy stakes was that of Taylor Swift. On the night when she won no less than four Grammys including, can you believe, ‘Best Country Vocal Performance’, she attempted to harmonize with Stevie Nicks on the Fleetwood Mac song ‘Rhiannon’. It was an unmitigated disaster. Having seen both girls in concert during my time in Nashville, I can only come to one conclusion. Stevie remains a trooper whilst Taylor is a blooper. During her soundcheck, which I happened to be present at, in full earshot of everyone the Swift Miss informed the sound mixer that she couldn’t hear the Pro-tools in her monitor speakers. What a revelation. It never rains but it pours.