Drunkenly Clanking the Tambourine: My Life as a Failed Internet Sensation
published: 18 /
In 'Gimme Indie Rock' Jamie Rowland writes about his teenage band's rise and sharp fall
I’ve been a fan of music for a very long time, but I’ve always had a very non-participatory role in terms of its production; like everyone, I’ve dreamed of being a rock star and winning the adulation of my fans, but these imaginings always drift on quite quickly as soon as something else distracts my attention, or I remember I have no talent.
Well, I say always. There was an occasion some years ago when, quite by accident, I ended up being a singer in a band. Even more surprising was that said band actually did receive some adulation – not U2, stadium-sized adulation, but equally disproportionate to the quality of the music.
The band was born back in 2005; I had just finished Sixth Form College, and had a year-long period outside the education system stretching ahead of me, before I was set to start uni in September 2006. As was often the way with summer holidays, months of anticipation gave way to the realisation that there is not much to do when you don’t have any money, and your imagination has been stifled by years spent in front of the television – which is exactly where I found myself that summer; bored and frustrated.
Happily I was not alone, as my brother was home for the Summer too, between his second and third years at university, and he had brought with him his then-girlfriend Sarah, who has since become his now-girlfriend Sarah.
At the time, Sarah was starting to learn to play the guitar, and it was while practicing her chords towards the end of one long, eventless day that she wrote a little tune and started singing a melody to herself (although the lyrics were just “na na na na-na-na na-na naaa”). Mark heard her singing and, finding the tune to be actually pretty catchy, helped Sarah expand on her starting point and make it into an actual song. Hearing the noise coming from upstairs, I investigated to find the two of them writing this song about a flatmate they both wanted to move out of their house (not me; a housemate at uni). Having nothing better to do, I joined in, adding some lyrics and singing along with Sarah.
Within an hour, we had a finished song, and I don’t remember who suggested we record it, but all we had to hand was Mark’s dictaphone, so we performed it live into that, in one take. And it sounded... alright. It was quite good even; a fun little song. And it had been a lot of fun writing it. The recording was obviously extremely lo-fi, muffled and buzzy, but that seemed toad to the ramshackle appeal of the whole thing.
Over the next few days, we wrote more silly songs – one about missing an episode of 'Diagnosis Murder', one about prized childhood possessions, and even one about sexy Vikings (which we never recorded – our sole dalliance with self-editing). Along with acoustic guitar and vocals, we added a rudimentary percussion section in the form of a tambourine and a bongo.
Months later, a comment online would describe us as sounding like “a bunch of drunk students pissing about in their sitting room”, which was pretty accurate except we didn’t have the excuse of being drunk.
One of my favourites from that first batch of recordings was a song about the fleeting but intense friendships one makes at drunken, teenage parties. As far as I can remember, it was the first song where I wrote all the lyrics by myself, and I was quite pleased with their mix of silliness and poignancy.
Of course, what every band is waiting for is a hit; that one song that strikes a nerve with people, a product of its time, touching on the zeitgeist of the era in which it was created. For us, that song was ‘Emo Scenester Chic’.
After we had written four or five songs, we had started up a MySpace page and stuck the songs online. We had very few listens as I remember, and most of those we did have were probably just from friends or family, or more likely ourselves. I was talking to a friend of mine about the band and our funny songs one afternoon, and he suggested an idea for a new one to me. “You should do a song about a kid who really wants to be emo and cool, but he’s too happy and can’t join in. And you should do it in the style of the Beach Boys.”
This seemed like a very funny idea to me, so I set about writing some lyrics to the tune of ‘California Girls’ – I wrote a verse and a chorus before taking the idea to Mark and Sarah. Together, we wrote another few verses and came up with an original tune, which wasn’t really all that much like the Beach Boys, but was certainly suitably cheery-sounding for the song’s story. When we felt like it was as good as it was going to get, we recorded it (on Mark’s trusty dictaphone, of course) and stuck it up online.
And people liked it. In fact, some people really liked it. One man in particular posted links to our MySpace page on a number of blogs, where people added their own thoughts on our music – and they were positive thoughts, too! People were calling us “anti-folk” and used phrases like “very good”. A couple of people even compared us to the Moldy Peaches, much to our delight and confusion.
Off the back of this, our “friends” on MySpace quickly grew, and we soon had a small, possibly even loyal, fanbase. We were getting airplay on university radio stations (upping our listenership by two, maybe even three people at a time!) and we put out a little, 10-song demo of varying quality, which we sent out for free to anyone who wanted it. We were even offered a gig supporting Chris TT in Dudley at one point, but turned it down as we really didn’t think our shambolic performances would translate well to a live setting (plus their was the issue of people paying to come to the gig, and I personally would have felt we were ripping them off - at no point during the band’s short life-span did I ever feel we were good enough to justify charging people for our music.).
At this point, we were contacted by the then newly-formed Cherryade Records (who are still releasing fantastic indie-pop records to this day, so check them out) about contributing a song to a Christmas compilation they were going to put out. We were thrilled to be asked, and set about writing and recording our own, original festive “hit”. These are a couple of the reviews we received for our effort:
“This is ultra lo-fi, like a family sitting around and recording a post Christmas lunch music session on Grandad's reel to reel. I hear Aunty drunkenly clanking the tambourine." – Andy Malcolm, for 'Collective-Zine'
"One of the worst songs I've ever heard. A bunch of half pissed sounding students trying to do Jeffery Lewis. Problem is even he does Jeffery Lewis badly." - Fraser for 'Diskant'
A mixed response then, although the general consensus seems to be that we sounded drunk – but how flattering to be compared to Jeffery Lewis!
It had been a few months since our initial recording sessions by this point, and I decided to move up to Carlisle – where Mark and Sarah were studying – so we could write some more songs together and put more work into the band; I suppose this was in response to how much people seemed to like our stuff, although it seems kind of silly to me now.
By this point, I had started to learn the guitar myself, and had picked up enough skill to write and play a bit in our songs. Our sound expanded with our confidence and, like Dylan before us, we decided to risk upsetting our fans and go electric. Luckily, unlike with Dylan before us, no one cared. We now had two guitars and keyboards, as well as our trademark bongo and tambourine section. Our lyrical style had also changed. All our earlier songs were based around real life and real people; that wasn’t so much the case now, and I think my lyrics in particular had become much more abstract – our songs ‘Pronged Cutlery Liberation Front’ and ‘Fishes aren’t Friends’ were, as you might ascertain from their titles, about absolutely nothing in particular.
My favourites from that second recording “session” were still driven by a clear narrative, though; ‘How I Met Your Mother’ (which pre-dated the television series of the same name – not that I’m suggesting they stole it or anything, but you know….suspicious) was a faux-70's pop/soul track from the point of view of a man who wanted to get his lady undressed and make sweet, 70's-style love to her. It was a lot of fun to perform and to listen to, and I had the pleasure of playing a keyboard solo towards the end.
My absolute favourite, and probably my proudest moment as a lyricist, came in the form of a song called ‘My Electric Mother (Deceased)’. I had written the lyrics in their entirety in about fifteen minutes one afternoon, and they told the story of a character whose mother had died in an electrical fire, only to return as a super-powered, crime-fighting ghost. The opening line was: “My mother died in an electrical fire/We didn’t need to build her a funeral pyre.”
Not bad, eh? The best line, if I do say so myself, was in the chorus:
“She’d never a light up a room when she was alive/But now she’ll burn the retinas out of your eyes”
I remain extremely proud of that one to this day!
Anyway, just as we were finishing up with these new recordings – six in all – another small, independent label, Filthy Little Angels, approached us through MySpace. They wanted to use ‘Emo Scenester Chic’ and one other song of our choosing as part of their record club – subscribers to the club would get a new 7” record every month, featuring two artists with two songs each. Obviously, we thought this was an amazing idea – an actual, vinyl record with our stupid songs on it! We said yes, of course and sent one our new recordings along to them to put on the record – I forget which one. Would we also like to contribute a song to the free 'Grease' covers album they were putting out? Yes, of course we would!
This turned out to be a bad idea, though. We didn’t really have enough musical skill to make a decent re-working of any song, and our choice of ‘Summer Loving’ was rendered even more insipid than the original by our lack of energy or enthusiasm for the project once we came to this realization. Anyway, the label liked it enough to put it on the record, but only after we were made to re-record it to make it less “silly”.
But that was our thing, we were “silly”; the band was a just a bit of fun, a time-wasting exercise which had somehow become something more and was suddenly in this fantasy realm were the fruits of our pissing about might actually become ‘product’. This shift was probably too much for the ramshackle foundations the band was built on to take, and it was the beginning of the end for our brief and inconsequential flirtation with the music industry.
We tried to have a couple more writing sessions, but our songwriting had become over-complicated, and we were working separately from each other rather than as a single unit; individuals trying to get others to play their songs rather than a band making music together. It wasn’t fun anymore, it was hard work, and the last time we tried to write together ended with us all getting irritable and snappy with each other. It ended when I walked out in a strop, like a pathetic teenager (which I was).
At the same time, Filthy Little Angels had taken us off of their Record Club release without telling us. When we asked what was going on, they said they were worried that we weren’t committed enough to the cause, or something along those lines. They were worried we wouldn’t promote the record enough to get people signing up. Maybe that was true – this was supposed to be a hobby, not a job, so we weren’t particularly inclined to spending lots of time on boring promotional activities (we were just a bunch of drunken students, remember). Honestly though, I think it’s because we continued to offer up our songs – including ‘Emo Scenester Chic’ – for free, and the label didn’t like that (as they told us). I can see their point of view of course, but I still didn’t think anyone should have to fork out their hard-earned cash for our musical guff-wads.
So that was that; like so many bands before us, we were taken in by a record label who promised us the world, only to be thrown aside at the last minute, tossed into the gutter to wonder where it all went wrong. Admittedly, the world we were offered was more of a low-rent Legoland, and the gutter was the comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. It still hurt though. Sort of.
I suppose we never really broke up. we just stopped doing it. It was no longer fun, Mark and Sarah had dissertations to do and I was working full time. Our band had been born out of boredom, and we weren’t bored anymore, so it became a bit… redundant.
And that was that. The birth, life and death of a band, forged out of friendship - the inspiration, the glory, the rise to success, before falling pray to egos, hunger for fame and the folly of the music industry. It was the classic rock’n’roll parable, watered down and suffering from a vastly reduced budget, which took all of about eight months to play out.
You might have noticed that I have at no point mentioned the name of our band. The reason for that is that we still have a very small presence on the internet left over from all those years ago, lingering like an eggy fart under a duvet. And I don’t really want people to go looking for it. I don’t know why; it just seems like such a long time ago now, and it’s something I’d rather leave hidden in its dark corner of the web than have people fishing it out, blowing the dust off of it and making a big dusty, musty mess all over the place. It is however, an interesting example of the power of the internet, and how an afternoon’s mucking about can quickly be transformed into a bona-fide ‘project’.
I doubt I’ll ever be in a band again; I just think there are so many people far more talented and musically skilled that I could ever hope to be, that it would be churlish of me to distract from all their good work with my paltry efforts. All the same, I feel I should finish this with some kind of cool, summing-up phrase which illustrates what a rush it all was, but that would be akin to slowly pedaling a tricycle from one end of a patio to the other, then looking meaningfully into the distance and saying, “What a riiiiide!” So instead I’ll just say this: it was fun while it lasted.