6. The Muppets When: 1992-1994
Disclaimer: I said I’d stretch the definition of “record” and this post definitely tests it to breaking point. At times it also seriously tests my powers of memory: everything here is true but I can’t guarantee that details haven’t been embellished by time. The video footage contains haircuts that some viewers may find distressing. Oh, and in case it gets confusing, there were two people called Phil in the band. I was one of them.
“The best mates”
– Listen, listen, I’ve got a great name for the band.
– What band ?
– The one we’re starting.
– O-kaay, what is it ?
– Picture this. The stage is dark. Audience going insane. Intro music starts up… “it’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to meet The Muppets on the Muppet show tonight”… We’re on stage. Straight into the first song.
– The Muppets ?
– The Muppets.
“The guitarist and the singer”
– Richie’s in.
– Really ? You asked him ?
– Well, I didn’t really let him say no but that doesn’t matter. He’s in.
– Can he play ?
– Can he play ? He’s awesome. Strat. Gibson SG – think he’s played at the Rock Garden or something.
– Sounds promising.
– He’s got a singer as well.
– Who ?
– Andy. You know him, he’s got a room at the other end of block 7 to you.
– Yeah, I know him. Can he sing ?
– Don’t know. Apparently.
“The Chem Soc Ball”
– We’ve got a gig.
– What do you mean we’ve got a gig ? We’re not ready.
– We’ve got a gig. Chemistry Society Ball. I know the guy that’s organising it – I told him that we normally only play around town but that we’d do it for him as a favour.
– I haven’t got an amp…
– Borrow one, it’ll be fine.
– You haven’t got an amp or, in fact, a bass…
– I’m buying one, don’t worry.
– We don’t know any songs…
– I’ve been thinking about that – about a set-list. Just need a few songs that are pretty easy to play but still amazing. I’m thinking rock obviously.
– Obviously… but we don’t have a drummer…
– No but I’ve been recommended a guy. It’ll be fine. Bit older than us, think he’s doing a post-grad in space science or astro physics. Something like that. Got his own kit and, even better, his own car.
– When’s this gig ?
– Two weeks.
“The rocket scientist”
– *knock knock*
– (Answering door) Yeah ? Hi ?
– Alex ?
– Hi, I’m Phil, this is Phil. Sorry to disturb you – we’ve heard you’re a drummer.
– Er… yeah, I guess. I play in a couple of bands.
– Fancy joining another one ?
– Well, I suppose I don’t mind sitting in to see how it goes.
– Great, you’re in.
– What are we called ?
– The Muppets. Don’t worry, we’ll probably change it.
Late Spring and the French doors leading from Beaumont Hall to the Botanical Gardens are flung open. Outside curious botanists mingle with unwinding students. Inside five young men set about the task of setting up a rehearsal space. On one side of the room someone carefully unpacks a Fender Stratocaster from its flight case, sets up a myriad of effects pedals, pulls a dust cover from a Roland amp, plugs in, briefly consults a digital tuner on the floor and then refines each note by ear. On the other side of the room someone else absent mindedly strums a cheap, unbranded guitar plugged in to a borrowed amp and chats to the bassist. Somewhere in the middle the drummer puts together his kit with a precision that tells of countless hours placing snares, toms and cymbals, whilst the singer paces, nothing to do.
The drummer signals that he’s almost done and one of the guitarists – the one that isn’t holding his instrument like it’s about to bite him – suggests starting with “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. The band are booked to play The Chem Soc Ball and, by way of warm up, have persuaded the social committee at their halls of residence to let them play the hall bar. A set list, largely featuring songs with no more than three chords, has been agreed and this Dylan song, albeit the at-the-time current Guns ‘N Roses version, is on it.
The opening bars of the song ring out into the room, the guitarist picking nonchalantly. A certain tension rests across the remainder of the room – they’ve never played together before, never even heard the drummer, are supposed to be performing publically in a couple of days, and then at a function where people have paid for the privilege of attending. A set of circumstances built on a fair amount of bullshit, an object lesson in how far a lot of front can take you. All of it crystallising in this moment – if they can’t run through a mid tempo, three chord Dylan song then the exercise will surely be exposed for the sham that it is ?
The drummer makes a final adjustment to his snare, sits down on his stool, twirls a stick between his fingers and, four bars in, effortlessly plays a run round his kit before everyone comes crashing in to the first verse. Perfectly on time and in tune. Everyone exhales, looks at each other and grins. Music. They might actually get away with this.
The bar at Beaumont Hall is packed. A night’s free entertainment, curiosity value, friendship – whatever the reasons, they had come. It’s hot, the warm evening air ratcheted up several degrees by the mass of bodies. Drink flows liberally and the mood is exuberant, expectant. A receptive home crowd.
Five people detach themselves from the throng and move to the end of the room where instruments are already arranged. The same spot where, two short weeks ago, they’d first come together to play. No stage, just an area for the band demarcated by a line of microphone stands.
The crowd are appreciative before they even hear a note, a cheer erupting at the sight of guitars being slung over shoulders and the crackle of leads pushed into amplifiers. The band pause, look at each other, exchange nods of affirmation and it begins. Thirty breathless, blurred minutes, and eight songs, later it ends – all they had time to learn. They’re not allowed to get away so easily, the audience demanding more. So they play the entire set again, grinning at each other, at this thing they’ve started.
Late Autumn, eighteen months on from that first gig, and the five members of The Muppets crowd round a sound engineer in a run down studio in the centre of Leicester. He pushes faders up and down on the mixing desk in front of him, removes his headphones, spins in his chair and looks up at the band: “what’s next ?”
They’ve been there all day having scraped together the cash between them to book out the space and record some songs: their songs. There’s only time to get down four songs, the playback of each one painfully highlighting each mistake, each chord out of time, each dropped note, in a way that’s usually covered up in the immediacy of a live performance. It’s a sobering, painstaking experience but they persevere, repeating takes, over dubbing – trying to make the best document they can.
At the close of the day they leave – a solitary cassette containing four tunes the only tangible reward for their efforts but all flushed with the deep satisfaction at having created something new.
The band on stage at Stamford Hall is the same one that started out across the road in Beaumont two years ago. The same but different. Better. The rhythm guitarist now at least looks as if he’s on speaking terms with his guitar. The bass and drums play as a unit, each song not necessarily gathering unwanted pace as it goes but staying in tempo. The lead guitarist still doesn’t realise quite how good he is, knocking out dexterous solos almost casually, and the singer now looks comfortable and confident on stage. They’re tighter musically but more relaxed performing.
The audience is bigger and pulled from a broader constituency than their own circle; still a student crowd but now drawn by word of mouth and reputation. They’re no less engaged for it and, by the end of the set, most of the room is up, dancing.
The University film society are here, recording the gig for posterity – freezing in time the band at their high point. Freezing in time the impetuosity to start something from scratch, the commitment to actually carry it through, and the time to turn it into something good. And, yes, also freezing in time some misguided leather trousers, a waistcoat that’s since gone on to a successful solo career touring with Mumford & Sons, and some of the worst hair ever grown on a human head. Mostly though freezing in time one of many fun, joyful nights playing music.
The Muppets played a big part in almost three years of my life; I can remember rather more about the hours of rehearsal and playing than I can about, say, Jean Jacques Rousseau or any of the other great political philosophers that made up my degree course. Think I was more of a John Locke kind of guy.
There are numerous fragments that still raise a smile over twenty years later. Our very first rehearsal was marked with absurdity; as we practiced “Rain” (The Cult) the refrain in the chorus “here comes the rain” caused an elderly couple, outside browsing the Botanical Gardens, to pause at the window, peer in, raise their palms upwards and frown in enquiry. We once played someone’s 21st in London, Richie broke a string on both his guitars mid set, and so the rest of us had to try and fill whilst he repaired the damage – cue the single biggest crime against the blues ever perpetrated as we launched into an impromptu jam. I knew nothing, not even a simple scale, a semi-quaver might as well have been a crisp that failed the quality assurance process at the Walkers factory, so my response to being told that we were going to jam in D was to just play a D chord over and over and over…
There was a regular event at the University for student bands to play – the Old Coffee Bar Club. Periodically it would host covers night which marked a couple of our finer hours as we always flung ourselves into the spirit of it, picking one band, learning a few of their songs and then trying to dress up like them. The Stones were fairly straight forward (“Jumping Jack Flash”, “Sympathy For The Devil”, “Wild Horses”, “ You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) and gave us an excuse to break out a nice line in 60s wigs; presumably I was Brian Jones. Better was Take That (“Only Takes A Minute”, “Take That & Party”, “Could It Be Magic”) where our efforts extended to a couple of brief pieces of choreography and waistcoats over bare (frankly pretty pasty) torsos; presumably I was Jason Orange.
All of those songs, including the Take That ones, stayed in our growing set. By the end we covered a fairly broad range from Seal’s “Crazy” to The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” by way of perennial crowd pleasers – EMF’s “Unbelievable” and the Black Crowes’ take on “Hard To Handle” – through to some slightly more esoteric choices that we liked – The Doors’ “Maggie M’Gill” and JJ Cale’s “After Midnight”. Along the way we lost Bon Jovi’s “Keep The Faith” (top note in chorus too high), Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” (very difficult to play tight), and, due to various disagreements, never quite got round to adding Sister Sledge’s “Lost In Music”, REM’s “Losing My Religion”, or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. On top of which we’d fashioned about ten of our songs which stood up pretty well – even usually closing with the epic “Boy I’m So Glad (I’m Not You)”, a slow burner that borrowed a bit structurally (okay, quite a bit) from “Freebird”.
Song choices were probably the biggest source of argument in the band as everyone had diverse tastes. They were also a source of tension in that, sometimes, there were songs we couldn’t do due to my lack of technical ability. The most notable instance being Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way”. It’s a pretty simple riff but still too complicated for me and so, despite everyone else firmly believing it would go down a storm, we didn’t do it. This only became problematic when we played a “Battle of the Bands” at one of the halls of residence. By this point we had long since left living in halls and so turned up without an audience full of our friends, albeit with a reputation for being pretty good. First band on were clearly at the point in their group’s life cycle that we’d been at earlier in this piece: brand new, enthusiasm to burn, and a room stocked full of their mates. They opened with sodding “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and the place went berserk. “Battle of the Bands” was declared an unsatisfactory draw. Maybe we pinched it on away goals but it felt like defeat.
And the long mooted name change ? It was discussed many, many times – endless suggestions that not everybody could agree on. As an example, Phil suggested “Seahorse” (him: “it’s exotic and mysterious”, me: “it’s shit”) which was largely ridiculed only for John Squire to name his post Roses band The Seahorses a couple of years later. I was right though, dreadful name for a band. The closest we came to changing was to “The Big Bush Experience” – which I guess we (wrongly) thought was just the right side of cheeky innuendo without being puerile. It only lasted one gig as everyone just kept asking us when we were changing back and referred to as The Muppets regardless. So it stuck.
The posters outside the Princess Charlotte (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) proclaim “local showcase”: bottom of the bill, The Muppets. The posters inside the Charlotte, promoting gigs long since past, whisper the promise of this venue, a roll call of bands that have made it in the last twenty years: Radiohead, Pulp, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Blur, The Killers, Primal Scream, Muse, and the Manics. It might be a spit and sawdust pub in the East Midlands serving up lukewarm beer in plastic glasses but it represents the one thing that drives all aspiring bands: hope.
The bands to be showcased loiter in the back-stage room, all feigning an air of cool detachment, like none of this matters, like it’s something that they do all the time. But it’s all artifice, all a little too studied to be real. There’s palpable nerves all round.
Being bottom of the bill offers only one advantage: you play first. The Muppets have been allocated 15 minutes and four songs but, staying true to the grandest traditions, stretch this out by tacking two songs together and closing with something that goes on for about 7 minutes. In all they probably manage 25 minutes before bowing out, reacting with innocent surprise to the annoyance of the proceeding acts.
The audience reaction is good, if a little less enthusiastic than they’ve become used to. This isn’t solely their crowd. It’s a shift from known student band playing to other students, often at events involving large amounts of booze, to unknown local band playing to paying gig goers. It’s a shift that reveals what’s involved in really trying to make it – the days and days of rehearsing, the relentless slog round pubs and clubs begging to perform, then playing to tiny rooms of people, hoping eventually to build a following. It’s a shift that they never made.
– We’ve been thinking about the band next year…
– Great, good – we have too.
– Yeah, well it’s a bit awkward, but we’re thinking of staying in Leicester and carrying it on. Only…
– I think we’re thinking the same sorts of things…
– …only, we’d like to move on in a different direction. Andy wants to play guitar, there’s some other stuff we want to try… More blues based. Walking bass lines. That sort of thing.
– So what are you saying ?
– We think it’d be better if we call it a day with the current line up. I mean, Alex is still going to drum, and Phil, if you want to play bass then that might still work…
– But you’re kicking me out ?
– Ah, don’t take it like that, it’s time to change – it’s time to do something else. You’re in to different stuff anyway…
– Is this because of that fucking Lenny Kravitz song… ?
It wasn’t really about that fucking Lenny Kravitz song. In part, though, it was a reflection (a fair reflection to be honest) on relative technical ability in the band – I couldn’t play to the standard of the others.
To his eternal credit Phil never took up the offer to remain in the band. It was essentially our friendship (and his incredible drive and ridiculous ability to get people to do things that, rationally, made no sense for them to do) that had started the whole thing and our solidarity stood fast to the end. Continues to do so to this day.
The Muppets mark 2 – I genuinely forget what they re-christened themselves – did carry on for a while in Leicester. I saw them play at a pub on new year’s eve, I guess 1994/5, and it was a strange, sad experience watching Andy, Rich, Alex, and some new bassist (who, yes, did indeed play a lot of walking bass lines) run through a lot of our old set. Still no Kravitz though.
However, my abiding memory of those couple of years isn’t one of sadness for what might have been but one of real pride in what we did – it might not seem like much in the scheme of things but we recorded a bunch of our own songs, played to a lot of happy people, and shared a lot of great moments. Some of which – lost in a song on stage, watching the reaction of the audience, seeing people respond to something you’re creating – are amongst the happiest of my life.