A Guided Tour Of Here And NowAlso starring The Table, The Fall, The Flu, And The Bus That Wouldn't Start.
Graham Lock, Sounds [pdf]
"How can you work for nothing? It's economically impossible. We're working lads…" Mark Smith, The Fall
There's No Biz Like Show Biz
Liverpool, Devember 3. I'm sitting in a car with The Table. The group's co-founder Tony Barnes is talking about record companies.
"We've hed record companies, when it was in fashion to be beaten up, saying, 'Why don't you get beaten up lads?' Literally. I mean, we're normal people, we're not going that crazy to make it. 'When somebody says that to you, you just think, 'Good God, what the hell are these people an about?'"
Bolton, December 4. I'm sitting in a bus with Here And Now. Bassist Keith Da Missille Base is talking about promoters' response to the band's "free gig' policy.
"There are certain agencies… I don't think we better mention them… but somebody beginning with B phoned up Central London Poly and warned them about the Here And Now band sying, you know, 'Look out, this bunch are a really heavy bunch of geezers, I wouldn't book them if I were you' etcetera. And there is a little of that flying around, mainly because they're a bit paranoid — they take us as a threat to their livelibood."
So This Is Real Life?
The night I join the Here And Now free tour in Manchester, their bus breaks down; there's a row between the band and the roadies, and a row between members of the band in which a cup is thrown and a woman flees into the night crying.
We spend half the night pushing the bus up and down a grimy Manchester back street, and the other half squashed up on the bus holding post-mortems on the rows.
The bus is home for the Here And Now entourage. A red single decker, converted to include a kitchen unit, seats and bunks, it sleeps two babies, a dog and around fifteen adults. Water has to be fetched daily. A single electric fire provides heat.
Two days on the bus end I'm groggy wth flu. Everyone else has, or has had, the flu. It's hard to get to sleep, what with the babies crying, the flu-ridden adults coughing and the healthy ones snoring, so most people don't get up again until the middle of the afternoon.
The next day is Sunday. We have to get from Manchester to Liverpool and the bus won't start. We try pushing it again. No good. Someone phones a garage, and later a guy turns up in a breakdown van. He's not a real mechanic, he explains, just the man who looks after the garage on Sundays.
The first thing he does is to tow the bus onto some wasteground, where it gets stuck in the mud. We all clamber out and push it back onto the road. Then we discover the breakdown van is stuck, so we have to push that too. Then, us pushing and him towing, we go up and down the same grimy backstreet while the afternoon gets darker and darker. Not a cough from the engine, but plenty from the rest of us. The man from the garage gives up; he I send a mechanic around at eight in the morning, he says, and drives off for his tea.
So we catch a train to Liverpool, where it's pouring with rain, and have to ride back in the equipment truck, band, roadies, fans and gear scrambled in the back. Here, Keith Da Missle Base tells me about God.
He's been in the band a while, has Keith. Must've been, cos he's left twice already. Why, I ask.
"I'm older than the rest of 'em — 27 — and tended to get let with all the organisational work on tour. Well, it was too much, what with playing as well. The others seemed to think that because they were doing the right thing, with the right attitudes, then God would provide. Well, God did provide, but he was working through me."
Keith and drummer Kif Kif Le Batter do most of the talking for Here And Now. They're also polar oppesites onthe albeit small spectrum of the band's corporate political outlook — Keith is caustic, pragmatic: Kif Kif earnest, idealistic (he's also let the band previously — because they were too commercial!).
The stock response to Here And Now is: "Oh yeah, they're just a bunch of old hippies." Talk to Keith ond that's rubbish. Talk to Kif Kif and you begin to wonder.
On the train down to Liverpool, I ask Kif Kif the big question. Why do you do free gigs?
Kif Kif considers. His face creases up in evidence of the intellectual effort. Finally he speaks. "I'm not sure if I can really explain it you, man. I don't know where your head is."
It's on top of my neck, man, as per usual. But I don't say this. I just look at him expectantly, and Kif Kif tries again.
"You know the yin-yang symbol? Well, I see that as applying to the state ofthe world. And, like, until recently each half wae taking from the other half, grabbing and snatching" — here Kif Kif claws the air expressively — "but now there's change, and each half is giving to the other half instead. And doing frre gigs is, like, part of that change."
Oh. I have to admit I'm disappointed with this answer. It sounds like a load of horseshit.
Keith's reply is: "Why free gigs? To cut out all the big business stuff that comes between people and bands, who're after all" — sarcastic grimace — supposed to be representative of the people. How about that?" Yeah. That makes more sense to me and my vulgar materalism.
The mechanic doesn't turn up at eight the next morning. Nor nine. Nor ten. At eleven someone bravely gets up and phones the garage. It transpires the mechanic was injured in a car crash the previous evening; but a replacement is promised shorty. Amazingly, he turns up and proves efficient. One more push and tow session, and the bus sputters into life. In Exeter, Kif Kif tells me, the bus got a tow from a madman on a tractor. The motto for this tour should be: You're either on the bus, or you're pushing it.
"Free gigs are a good idea. But we could get a good deal and become real bastards…" Russell Young, Table
Would You Buy A Free Gig From These People?
This is a strange situation. I didn't talk to Here and Now because I liked their music — I'd barely heard it — but because I was intrigued by their free tours. I wanted to find out why and how they did free gigs, and spread the information. After all, it seemed like an idea worth encouraging. And if I liked their music too — well, that was a bonus.
But I didn't like their music. Not at all. Apart from Keith and Kif Kif, the group comprises Gavin Da Blitz on synthesiser and Steffy Sharpstrings on guitar, while Annie Wombat and Suze De Blooze provide becking vocals and dancing. To these ears, they produce bland soggy instrumentals interspersed with silly, moralistic lyrics of the "what you see what you are" variety.
Even "Seventies Youth", one of their more socially aware songs, is spoiled by a dirge-like tune and a delivery that has all the attack of a damp squib in a barrel of blancmange. And why this emphasis on the instrumental anyway? Why their penchant for jammung? How does that kind of music fit in with their radical stance?
Keith Da Missile Base waxes lyrical:
"Sometimes feel that inside there's just a little bird that's singing — it's singing its beart out. I can't put that in words, no way, but sometimes when I'm really lucky, I can get that onto my bass.
"And there's power in music, an energy moving through the crowd. Whoever's there will feel iy, will feel stronger and more capable of handling the problems they're faced with in life. That's what music's for, what culture is all about.
And pure music, as it comes from the heart, is the best way of expressing that power. I believe that, I truly do."
Well, maybe. But I don't hear that in Here And Now's music. Which doesn't invalidate their free gig policy — obviously — but it does present a problem. Because, if Here And Now fail in their bid to alter the structure of the Music Biz, it won't be through any lack of determination, but because — to my mind — their music lacks the passion and perception to make enough people care about them.
But — free gigs! Briefly, this is how it all began. Here And Now (a different line-up) used to play cheap gigs. Their equipment regularly fell apart, they had to hire a PA and transport, which is why they needed the money. One day Daevid Allen heard of them, found them, worked with them — as Planet Gong they sold an album to Charly Records for a straight cash payment and a guarantee that the record would be sold cheaply. They were able to buy equipment and a PA. When Daevid Allen pulled out, his prestige had rubbed off on the band. They sold another album to Charly ('Give And Take' — retail price £2.25), bought more equipment, the bus, a truck. And so — free tours.
This free tour was their fourth within 12 months; thelr most extensive to date, covering most areas of England plus dates in Scotland and Wales, each gig featuring local bands, and frequent guest bands — in Leverpool, The Table; in Bolton, The Fall.
Day to day expenses are met by a collection taken at each gig. The average take is about £27—£30. In Wades, the band reckoned them selves lucky to get £15 per gig, which meant they went hungry. At Mangheter and Liverpool, they took about £70 each night. The money is spent on food, diesel for the bus and equipment truck, and on emergencies — like the bus breaking down. At gigs, the band also sell their albums (but the money goes to Charly) and give away copies of their own magazine.
About the relationship to Charly, Keith says: "They're really good to us. They have to be. We're their big white hope for the future. It's a con job, like everything else. They think they'v got anether Pink Floyd or whatever." Uproarious laughter resounds around the bus. "We know what we are, but we allow them to get what they need out of us, which a good deal less than they get out of other bands 'cos we insist they sell the albums cheap.
"We do free tours, right, and one of the ways we finance this is by selling albums. But you don't have to seel them at £4.50 to get your money. We're proving that. You can sell them at half price and still make it a viable concern — make it possible to bave this bus and the other things."
Bur free gigs are anathema to those who live withing the shadow of their wallets. Not only the establishment promoters, ut 'alternative' promoters.
Kif Kif: "The guy at the Roundhouse called it misplaced idealism. misplaced idealism. He just freaked out and lost his temper and screamed down the phone at us for about ten minutes, saying it was a big fucking throwback to '67, it would never work, it was all a load of rubbish, and he had to make lots of money blah blah blah blah."
And those college promoters who think free gigs are just a Mickey Mouse enterprise shove the band into a tiny room built to hold 150, eople, and then find themselves with a potential riot on their bands when 600 turn turn up…
"That's negative opposition — lethargy, apathy, lack of belief in what we're doing," Keith shrugs. "But it's changing. We're gradually building up network of people and venues all over the country who're into putting on free gigs."
Despite the hassles, Here And Now have shealy proved that free tours are feasible.
"If we ean do it for free," says Kif Kif, "maybe other people will see it's not impossible, and start doing it as well."
"So music and big business won't go hand in hand any longer," adds Steffy darkly.
We Wanna Bite The Hand That Feeds Us (But Not Until After We've Been Fed!)
There are contradictions. Of course. One irony is that Here And Now's commitment to free gigs is not always shared by their guest bands. Both The Table and The Fall say they can't afford to do many free gigs.
Russell Young of The Table: "Are free gigs a good idea? Oh obviously. But what could happen is that we'll get a big deal, turn into real bastards, and say, 'Fuck off free gig people'.
"I mean, you can't really say. I like the idea. It's a good way to get across to people, but you have to live. Our aim is to secure a deal with a major company, despite unhappy experiences with Virgin Records and Chiswick. The group terminated their contract with Virgin after a period of discontnet climaxed, they say, with the company refusing to provide financial support for the support slot The Table had been offered on a major tour. Then a one-off deal with Chiswick failed to work out, the band again feeling that promotion had been inadequate. More [fools?]."
Tony Barnes: "There were 3,000 advance orders for 'Sex Cells', while singles by Johnny Moped and Radio Stars had far fewer, but Chiswick went with them because they had long-term deals. They were protecting their investment."
So The Table are hoping to sign with a company who have the financial clout for a lavish promotional campaign. All for the sake of their art.
Russell again: "We're looking for a good deal cos we've got good material and we're not gonna waste it in the kind of situation that's happened before &mdahs; where it's put out and gets no promotion, o nothing, and nobody gets to hear it. We've wasted songs really, with the record companies we've been with."
Mark Smith of The Fall has less sympathy with free gigs, though the band supported Here And Now at Bolton, and on their Scottish dates. Why are they doing free gigs with Here And Now?
Well, we wanted to play Bolton with them, cos they're mates, like. And we wanted to get up to Scotland cos there's a lot of interest up in Scotland for us, and we couldn't get up there on our own, cos we don't use agents."
You arrange all your own gigs?
"Yeah. We're OK for England, but not Scotland."
Are you keen on doing free gigs?
"Not really. I mean, it's economically impossible for us. We're working lads."
Here And Now do it.
"I know that."
If it works for them, why can't it work for you?
"How cant work for anybody? How can you work for nothing? Do you work for nothing? I mean, I don't. Our fucking band's been on the dole for two years, we're just starting to make a living.
"I think people should pay for what they fucking get, anyway. We do this cos we like Here And Now, that's all.
"I dunno. I just wanna make a living out of the band, you know. I want independence, which we've got. We fight for it. (Pause) Is the bar open?"
After The Standing Still?
Another irony is that Here And Now's policy of playing with new wave bands — designed to break down the barriers between 'punk' and 'hippy' &mdahs; sometimes has the reverse effect. Like The Fall's set at Bolton.
I'm so befuddled by the flu I can't tell if The Fall are good, bad or playing the National Anthem. But the punks at the front pogo exuberuntly, spilling onto the stage and repeatedly stopping the set, despite Mark Smith's plea to use yer fucking heads"; while the hippies gather at the back, jeering and chanting "off off off."
Then it becomes easy to laugh at Here And Now's naivety, to shrug your shoulders and ask, "What does it matter anyway? It's just another game, isn't it, this wonderful world of rock 'n' roll? Another stupid, squalid game." And so we hide our compromises, our own lack of vision, behind a cynical sneer. Well, I do.
But Here And Not aren't cynical and they don't play that rock'n'roll game. Whatever you think of their music, the implications of their stance are fascinating. Free gigs? Cheap albums? Hardly Utopia, but at least a tiny step in the right direction.
Strangely, the music press have largely ignored Here And Now and their ideas.
"It could be they feel the whole things is so trivial and unimportant and small and ridiculous, it's hardly worth bothering about," sighs Keith.
But the band suspect there could be other reasons.
"The music press is controlled by industry and big business, the same as most other things," says Kif Kif, "and what we're doing is creating an alternative to that. And some people are gonna hang on to that old thing, right, they ain't gonna let go of it, and they're gonna die with it."
Brave words. But the outlook is not entirely hopeless. The Pistols proved it was possible to get up and play whatever you liked &mdahs; and people did. The Desperate Bicycles proved it was possible to make and sell your own records — and people did. Here And Now have proved it's possible to play free tours and cut album prices by 50% — and people could.
And for the future? Here And Now suggest an alternative free gig circuit, an equipment pool, co-operatively -owned printing and pressing plants. And there's also a need for a distribution organisation to work with the independent labels, perhaps in the same way that the Publications Distribution Cooperative works with independent magazines in the publishing field.
Pipe dreams? Maybe. But at least people are trying. The ideals of '67 and '77 are still burning strong in '79.
Keith: "That fucker in the middle. He milks the bands and he milks the people. He's she one. We're cutting him out."
Kif Kif: "In '67 it was like a dream. People said, "Oh yeah, let's play free music'. They dropped lots of acid, went out and borrowed lots of money, and ended up in a big fucking mess.
"The difference now is that peaple are making it work in the real world. In a real way."