One day the shop phone rang and Big Phil picked up.
“Oi ‘alf a job. It’s some bloke called Ricky asking about your demo?”
I plonked my heavy pile of un-filed vinyl on the floor, trying to remember which one Ricky was. I had been handing out demo tapes for weeks and had lost track of who had what and why. Big Phil held the phone to his chest and arched an angry eyebrow.
“Not happy about these extracurricular calls during work hours Horace.”
I snatched the receiver, mumbling something it was better Phil didn’t hear. I’d have to make this quick. As interested as I was in whoever was on the phone, I also needed to keep my job. A small, excited voice was at the other end of the line.
“Is that Horace?”
The voice sniggered. “Is that your real name? Love it. My name is Ricky. I’m the entertainments manager at London University.”
“Oh, right. Hello.” I lowered my voiced.
“Have I got you in trouble ringing at work?”
“Um, a little bit.”
“Don’t worry I’ll make this brief. Someone passed me your demo, of The Pointy Birds?”
“I love it. Brilliant. Do you have management?
“Well, I’m interested. I manage bands. Do you know Suede?”
“Well, I used to manage them…but I moved on.”
There was a slight pause and then some commotion at the end of the phone line. Ricky had been distracted by something or someone. He released a hyena like laugh and then returned to me.
“Sorry about that Horace. Madness here. Where was I? Oh yes, would you like to meet?”
“Can you do this evening? Say 6:30pm?”
“Great. Come to U.L.U. It’s the big building on the corner of Malet Street. Ask for me at reception. Everybody knows me here.”
There was a click at the other end of the line and the small, excited voice disappeared. I put the phone down and returned to filing in a bit of a daze. At last, someone was interested. But who was this person? I could feel Big Phil glaring at me but I didn’t care. I would be out of here soon. This was the beginning of something. I could feel it.
I left work at 6pm and made my way through the streets of Soho to U.L.U. – the Union of London University near Goodge Street, or ‘Yoo-Loo’ as it was more commonly known. A rabbit warren of students colliding by day, at night it was better known for putting on great gigs featuring the best up and coming bands. Tonight there was a gig with some band from Oxford called Radiohead. What sort of uncreative tossers named their band Radiohead? Never heard of them. Probably rubbish.
I approached the receptionist who looked liked she had had a very long day. Annoyingly I couldn’t remember the name of the person I was meeting. Was it Roger?
“Hello, I’m here to see the Entertainments Manager…um…Robby?” I said in my best “I’ve got an important meeting” voice, rusty though it was.
“You mean Ricky?”
“Ah yes that’s the kiddy.”
She gave me a tired, blank stare and then pressed a button on her switchboard.
“You seen Ricky?” she said, looking me dead in the face. “Is he? With Stuart?”
She gave a deep sigh and pressed another number. A pink bubble appeared from her mouth and then exploded.
“Stuart? Are you with Ricky?” A pause was followed by another sigh. “Is he? Well, I just tried there.”
She shook her head like she had better things to do. I suspected this was not the first time today she had sought him out. A girl with frizzy red hair and dungarees rushed past carrying a walkie-talkie.
“Debs – you seen Ricky?”
“He’s in the bar.” she said without stopping, uttering the words that suddenly made him real and me a bit nervous. The receptionist ushered me through the gates.
“Upstairs. He’s the little round fellow with a big laugh. You can’t miss him…”
I pushed my way upstream against a tide of students and followed the signs to the union bar through a maze of brightly lit corridors. The bar, in contrast, was a dark noisy hubbub that reeked of body odour and the sour stench of bleach. Here, the less studious sprawled about on sofas with their hands down their pants, curled up asleep or playing drinking games. It reminded me of my own student days.
I looked around for someone resembling an entertainments manager. At the bar a magician was surrounded by students. He was doing a mind-reading trick. He had asked a student to think of a number followed by a series of sums so that the student arrived at another number. He then asked the student to think of a country starting with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. And then a mammal and then a colour. The magician paused for dramatic effect and then revealed the answer.
“You are thinking of a grey elephant.”
The student nodded gobsmacked. The huddle of students reacted with impressed noises.
This had to be Ricky. His laugh from the phone instantly recognisable.
He looked through his adoring fans and clocked me staring at him.
“Horace?” He called over their heads.
“Be with you in a minute.”
Despite cheers and jeers and requests for explanation, Ricky declined and came over.
“Hello, I’m just entertaining the troops.” He giggled. “Got to keep morale up in this place. So Horace – if that is your real name – pleased to meet you. I’m Ricky.”
I shook his hand. He wasn’t what I was expecting at all, not that I had really known what to expect, never having met an entertainment manager in real life before. Ricky was somewhat ageless. It was hard to tell if he was in his twenties, thirties or forties. His shirt was tucked tightly into trousers pulled up high around his waist, which seemed incongruous next to the scruffy students he was hanging out with. He wasn’t exactly rock n roll but then I suppose band managers didn’t have to be. There was something of Noel Edmonds about him.
“Come on, let’s go to my office where we can talk. Walk this way.”
He did a silly walk, waddling like a penguin and then guffawed. I laughed politely and followed him down a further maze of corridors as Ricky high-fived every one we passed, introducing me like I was a special guest. It felt good after 9 hours in the dark, filing vinyl.
“This is Horace. That’s Dave. Dave works in the canteen don’t you Dave?”
Dave acknowledged me with a tired smile and then went on his way. Everyone seemed to know Ricky or share a joke with him. Before I knew it, we were in his office and the atmosphere changed.
“Sit down,” he said. The sing-songiness in his voice to which I’d become accustomed in the brief moments I’d known him disappeared.
The office was a pretty standard dreary and beige. I sat down on a chair by his desk which was swamped by mountain of paperwork and a big pile of CDs and cassettes that had toppled over. Although my job filing vinyl was bad, it wasn’t as grim as having a desk job in an office. I shuddered. Thank god I was going to be a rock star soon. Outside I could hear traffic and the laughter from students leaving or gig-goers arriving.
Ricky sat the other side of the desk and gave me a brief but serious look. Then quick as a flash, his smile re-appeared and his eyes twinkled. A phone was ringing somewhere under the pile of papers on his desk but he ignored it. He put his feet up on the desk.
“Soooooo, ‘The Pointy Birds’. Love it. Love the name, ” he said enthusiastically,
“Yes, it’s from the film….”
“Yeah, I know,” Ricky interjected, the first person ever who didn’t need to have it explained. “Steve Martin ‘The Man With 2 Brains,’ it’s my favourite poem of all time.”
He wasted no time in reciting it.
“‘The Pointy Birds a-pointy-pointy. Anoint my head, anointy-nointy.’ Love it. Classic.”
I was impressed he knew it. I was about to speak but Ricky wasn’t finished, quoting a couple of lines from the film.
“‘I’m Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr…I don’t find this amusing Derrero.’”
He really did love it. I kept quiet, assuming there would be more. I was right. Ricky then launched into one of the scenes from the film verbatim.
“‘Sounds like a subdural hematoma to me.
Oh, it does, does it? Well, it’s not your job to diagnose.
But I thought…
You thought, you thought. Just go. Three years of nursery school and you think you know it all. Well, you’re still wet behind the ears. It’s not a subdural hematoma. It’s *epidural*. Ha.’”
I felt uncomfortable as an audience of one but Ricky was enjoying himself so much I smiled politely. His routine was interrupted by a knock. The girl from reception with frizzy red hair popped her head around the door.
“Ah there you are – Stuart is in reception looking everywhere for you.”
Ricky winked at me.
“Did he ask for a long weight?” said Ricky.
“Yes and he’s not pleased.”
Ricky howled with laughter.
“Brilliant! Horace, you got to hear this. I got Dave from the canteen, you know Dave, to get Stuart to ask me for a long weight, right? So Stuart asked me for a long weight not knowing what one is and I said I’d be right back and left him there waiting. That was about an hour ago. So he’s definitely had a long wait. Classic.”
Ricky looked at me wagging his tail. I had no idea what was going on.
“He’s not happy,” said the red-haired girl.
This set Ricky off again.
“Honestly…too much” he said wiping his eyes.
“What should I tell him?” she asked impatiently.
“Tell him I need him to go to the hardware store on Goodge Street and get some tartan paint.”
She rolled her eyes as Ricky collapsed in laughter again. The door clicked shut and I looked to Ricky, forcing a laugh. It sounded more donkey than human. Once Ricky had recovered, the sober silence returned and I knew that this was it.
“Sorry about that, it’s madness here. Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, here it is. Love the demo.”
Ricky rummaged around his desk and then held up a cassette tape and spun round in his chair like a CEO, and with his other hand shot me with an imaginary pistol. It felt weird to see the cassette with my handwriting on it. How had it made its way to him? He read out the track listing.
“Benefit office, Lift me, Blowing Your Brains Out…great…so what’s the lineup?”
“Well, there is currently 4 of us. We’re between drummers…”
“A bizarre gardening accident?”
“Spinal Tap. You seen it?”
“Ah yes, of course.”
“Funniest film of all time. No question.”
I nodded in agreement. Ricky smiled, resisting a rendition.
“Sorry, Horace, continue.”
“Yes, so there’s er Marcus on bass. We met at college. We did a degree in politics…”
“D’ you get a Desmond?”
“A ‘Desmond’? As in a Desmond Tutu?”
“Ah, right. Yes, I did, actually.”
He clapped his hands.
“Knew it. Sorry, continue.”
“Right yes…well then there’s Dave on guitar and Josh on keyboards.”
“And who is sorting gigs for you? I would love to see it live…”
“This bloke Nadir has been helping us out. You might know him because I think he used to work with Suede too?”
“Ah yes, I know Nadir.”
Ricky held my gaze. I wanted to ask him more. Why Ricky wasn’t with Suede anymore? Before I could ask, raised eyebrows replaced the goofy smile.
“So tell me, Horace. How famous do you want to be? Really famous or just cover of NME famous?”
It was slightly disorientating how quickly he shifted gears between being silly and deadly serious. I had to think. This felt like a trick question. Also, I didn’t know the answer myself. How famous did I want to be? Really famous? So famous that I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without being mobbed? Possibly. Iconic hairstyle? Wynona Rider’s boyfriend? I was about to plump for the cover of the NME but then he cut in.
“I mean do you want to be really successful or are you happy to be just another ‘indie’ band?”
He finger quoted the word ‘indie’ disdainfully.
“Yeah well I mean it would be great to have the credibility of an NME cover of course but I want our songs to be massive…have builders whistle our tunes…”
He liked this.
“Excellent. Love it. So you would be happy with daytime radio 1? Smash Hits covers?”
“Yeah.” I said unsurely.
He started laughing. I felt confused and then realised the Spinal Tap reference. He stood up. He couldn’t resist this time. Doing the voices perfectly.
“‘If I told them once, I told them a thousand times – spinal tap first, puppet show second.’”
He roared with laughter and then continued.
“‘You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash and a man’s arm extended out up to here, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it. You don’t find that offensive? You don’t find that sexist?
Well, you should have seen the cover they wanted to do! It wasn’t a glove, believe me.’”
He sat back down wiping his eyes.
“THE funniest film of all time. Every line a classic.”
He got up again.
“‘This tasteless cover is a good indication of the lack of musical invention within. The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.
That’s just nitpicking, isn’t it?’”
He flopped back down in his chair. His big laugh filled the room. My laugh felt small in comparison. It was hard to compete. He was having so much fun.
“Too, too funny.”
I nodded in agreement. I could feel the muscles in my face ache from my prolonged forced grin. I was not sure where the conversation would go next. It seemed to have a life of its own. Eventually, Spinal Tap left the stage and Ricky got back to business.
“So you really want it, Horace?”
“Yeah…I mean… yes. Definitely.”
“A lot of indie bands think they do, but they don’t really want what they think they want.”
I nodded like I knew this. He held my gaze. I could see a muscle tighten in his pupil, the look of an officer interrogating a soldier, or the look one gives a dodgy hot dog seller.
He then posed what seemed like a series of existential questions:
What was our plan?
Were we talking to anyone else?
Which label did we want to sign with?
Who did we want to record with?
I wasn’t really sure. It felt weird for someone to be taking us seriously. I felt like I was fluffing my lines. He continued.
“Well, it’s the best demo I’ve heard for ages. I can get it to Saul who runs Nude.”
“Wow, ok – that would be amazing.” This was the label who signed Suede and were now in talks with Sony.
“They will want to hear more stuff. Do you have more songs?
“Yeah, loads,” I lied.
“Great. Do you remember The Blow Monkeys?”
“Yes.” I said wondering where he would go next, “I liked their single ‘Digging Your Scene’.”
“Yeah that one was alright, they’re kind of a poor man’s Bowie. Do you like Bowie?’
“Yeah, sure. Who doesn’t?”
“All time greatest.” Ricky started singing in a perfect Bowie voice. “‘Ground Control to Major Tom.’”
“Wow. You really sound like him.” I cut in, hoping he would stop.
“Among my party tricks. Anyway, I digress. I can get you some studio time through a friend who runs The Blow Monkeys label if you’d like?”
“Right…wow that would be amazing.”
“Ok, I’ll sort it. Also, it’d be great to pop down to a rehearsal if that was possible? Meet the rest of the Birds?”
“Er, yeah sure.”
“And when you’re up and running with a drummer we can sort some shows out. Do you know Mike Greek? He’s a Live Agent at Wasted Talent. He would love it.”
“Actually, I know. You could support my band at our next gig and I can get Mike and some people along to see it?”
He giggled. “Don’t take it too seriously these days. We’re called The Passion-dales.”
We agreed to meet up again, said our goodbyes and I left U.L.U. feeling a mixture of excitement and confusion.
Outside, it was a pleasant evening. The air still had some warmth in it, pubs over-spilt with students and life seemed full of possibilities. I decided against the tube and walked up Hampstead Road towards Camden taking my thoughts with me. The rush hour traffic had ground to a halt and I walked past the number 29 double-decker bus jam-packed with commuters, squashed together like sardines doing the 9 to 5, the same trip every day. Following the same footsteps home. Losers! That was not for me. I was headed for the big time. I was pleased there was a recession as it fobbed off the pressure from my parents of having to get a ‘proper’ job.
‘There are no jobs, Mum!’
‘This is Art, Dad! P.S. Can you lend me some money?’
The further I got from the reality of a normal job, or the normality of a real job the more I realised a normal job was not for me. Being in a band was the only option. I had to go for it. There was no plan B. I knew what I wanted and was convinced I could do it, so it was just a case of doing it. I called this my three hurdle theory because I had decided in life there were three simple hurdles to jump.
- Work out what you want to do with your life.
- Work out whether you can actually do it.
- Do it.
For most people the first hurdle was the hardest and could take a lifetime working out. For me it was easy. Rockstar. I couldn’t quite understand why other people didn’t also want to be a rockstar. They probably did, but then fell at the second hurdle which was working out the practicalities. Was it realistic? Did you have the talent, the inspiration, the perspiration? How about the ego, the hair, the cojones? Er, yes! Ego in spades, epic hair, and bucketloads of cojones! So then it was a case of jumping the final hurdle and doing it! It was a kind of twist on Roy Castle’s ‘dedication’s what you need’ meets the ‘Just do it!’ Nike advert.
As I approached Mornington Crescent, I saw a queue snaking its way outside The Camden Palace. A queue like that would soon be forming for us. This music venue was our mecca. It had five floors and was packed to the rafters every week. We went every Tuesday to ‘Feet First’ – a nightclub that played the best in indie music and featured the top up and coming bands live on stage. Anyone who was anyone (who read the NME and liked indie music) went to Feet First – bands, music industry and music lovers alike.
A familiar scene played out in my mind. We were headlining. It was our name on the Feet First flyer. The night would be sold out, touts, guest list queues, family and friends in the balcony, press, labels, publishers, agents, famous friends. The gig would be a sea of people moshing and singing along.
“Hello Camden Palace, I used to come here every Tuesday. Great to be up on the stage now. “This one’s called Benefit Office. Let’s rock!”
The place would go wild. And of course, there would be girls. Everywhere. SCREAMING! Yes, this dream was soon to be our reality and I was up for the challenge.
Life was good and we were on track. I’d play in the band during my twenties – record some classic albums and tour the world a few times – and then when I turned thirty, write, direct and star in my own BAFTA award-winning sit-coms and Oscar-winning films, before writing best-selling novels in my forties. I might do a bit of oil painting and stand-up along the way too. That wasn’t much to ask, was it? I knew what I wanted to do. I was convinced I had the talent to do it. So it was just a case of doing it. Three simple hurdles. The only question was whether we needed to find someone a bit more serious to manage our affairs as I wasn’t certain we were going to get anywhere with a joker like Ricky. And I was on a tight schedule. I was kicking 23.