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My Exciting Life In ROCK (part 1): The Durham Ox Singers
If you're paying close attention to these entries you might notice that the gigs are pretty well spaced apart, and you would be CORRECT. I'm trying to stick, as far as i can, to the solo gigs I've done and in my early years in ROCK these were hard to come by - often for good reason. That doesn't mean that I was IDLE the rest of the time though, I had several other things on the go, one of which was The Durham Ox Singers.
It all began in The Durham Ox, a pub in the centre of Leicester where most of the people in bands gravitated to once The Magazine had closed down. These days it seems there is a THEMED BAR for every possible persuasion but back in the dark days of the last century everybody had to drink in the same place place i.e. Old Man's Pubs. I think we're really missing something now that you can choose to go to a FUNKY BAR dedicated to people just like you - in olden time you'd often find yourself ending up sat at the bar in conversation with people of all sorts of ages and backgrounds, for no other reason than you'd all ended up in the same pub- it was Community Work through BEER, and it was LOVELY.
One night we were sat at the bar discussing the lack of gig venues in Leicester at the time. The Mag was closed, The Charlotte had closed down for refurbishing and most other places had stopped having bands. Rather than (continue to) sit around moaning about the situation we decided to DO something about it. Dave knew a venue round the corner that we could use, there were plenty of bands we could book, and we had a GRATE name - LollopaLeicester - for the evenings, all we needed was something to make it MORE than just a normal gig night. We needed a THING, and that thing, i thought, could be The Durham Ox Singers.
When I'd needed backing vocals on my World Cup single I'd asked loads of people from different Leicester Bands to meet up for a singalong one Sunday in the Ox. As ever with The Leicester Music Scene, absolutely nobody could be bothered to turn up so I ended up asking a few of the proper regulars to do it, and they did a BRILLIANT job - when you want to record the sound of season ticket holders singing a football chant, pub regulars is what you want - and were thus credited on the single sleeve as The Durham Ox Singers.
We'd had so much fun doing the recording that I was KEEN to do some more and when I eventually got home the night after our discussions i came to the eminently sensible conclusion that we should do a cappella versions of the hits of the avant garde, starting with REVOLUTION #9. For those who don't know (and if you don't, please rectify this IMMEDIATELY) this is the penultimate track on The Beatles' White Album, a roughly ten minute collage of loops, noises, samples and all round WEIRDNESS that divides fans pretty much down the middle into those who think it's AMAZING and those who think it's STUPID. I am very much in the former camp, and so spent the next week crouched over my tape player every night working out how to recreate it just with voices. It was a LONG week but by the end of it I was a) BOGGLY EYED b) acting suspiciously and c) in possession of a six part a cappella arrangement.
We met a few nights later in the upstairs room of the Ox to have a read through, and by JIMINY it sounded AMAZING. It was a very very carefully worked out version, and if you were familiar with the original you would, I think, be IMPRESSED. If you weren't, you'd be ALARMED, but in an impressed sort of way. We performed it the next week at the first LollopaLeicester to an audience AGOG that such a thing could possibly happen, and we had such a good time doing it we agreed to carry on.
One of the loveliest things about it being a bunch of pub regulars was that we all had big and varying record collections full of Unusual B-Sides and Weird Album Tracks to choose from, with each of us digging into their record collections for new songs to work out. There was more Beatles, of course, but also some Pink Floyd, Doors, Tom Waits and, on one notable occasion, some Alternative Television.
As I say, Dave ran the label Sorted Records and had managed to get Mark Perry from ATV to let him release their next single - he's managed this by the CUNNING PLAN of WRITING HIM A LETTER. ATV were booked to come and play a LollopaLeicester so Dave thought it'd be a fitting tribute if we learnt one of their songs, "The Radio Story", which on their recording is a spoken word PIECE with sound effects. We did it as a slightly deranged RANT with SCREAMING, WHOOPING and WIND EFFECTS.
Mark Perry stood right at the front of the crowd for the entire performance, with a look on his face that could EITHER have been STUNNED AWE or APPALLED HORROR. Afterwards he said "I wrote that song when I was at the lowest point in my life. I never thought I'd be able to laugh at it." To be honest, he didn't look like he'd done a lot of laughing, but still.
BOUYED UP by this success we recorded a single featuring Revolution #9, Horse Latitudes by The Doors, and Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast by Pink Floyd, all recorded under the ever vigilant and constantly beleagured eye of Mr Kev Reverb, former international pop star with Crazyhead and long-time force of REASON in my recording "career". When the single was released I wrote a MANIFESTO for the back of the sleeve, pointing out that this was PROPER ART made for a LAUGH by people in a PUB, and got quite worked up about it. In my heart of hearts i think this single is the item i am MOST PROUD of making in ALL My Exciting Life In ROCK, because while it IS a ludicrous piece of tomfoolery, it's ALSO a Profound Art Statement and ALSO ALSO filled with LOVE and FUN. It's GRATE!
We got so excited that we even recorded an album, featuring all of our stage act and more, such as a new composition called "Tom Baker Came Into Town" about the time that... well, you can probably guess. The highpoint of the recordings though was our version of 4?33?, by John Cage. It's a PIECE arranged for Piano, divided into three seperate movements, during which NO music AT ALL is played - the movements are seperated by the piano lid being briefly opened then closed again, and in the original performance it was timed with a STOPWATCH, turning the pages of the score.
We can look at this in two ways, i think. Firstly as ART - the whole idea is that it makes you aware of where you are, and the forced silence makes you hear everything and everybody around you and INDEED: INSIDE you. Secondly, as PUNK - it's a MASSIVE FUCK OFF to the very IDEA of performance and classical music and EVERYTHING, and is basically FANTASTIC.
Our version was a pretty faithful cover version - we didn't have piano lids but we DID have a score, consisting of three sheets of blank paper which you can hear being turned over on our recording. You can also hear breathing, shuffling about, some very loud WINKING at each other and the occasional cough - we had a MASSIVE ROW about whether or not we should DOUBLE-TRACK the whole recording. I wanted to do it just because it would be such a RIDICULOUS thing to do while Dave, who was paying for the session, thought MAYBE we should get on with something else.
Dave won in the end - FINANCE beating ART! - but we agreed it would be something rather EXCELLENT to perform live. ALAS we never got the chance, as we had only one gig left in us, and it was our FESTIVAL DEBUT. The festival was called Off The Tracks, run by the brother of a friend of a friend who'd heard tell of of ART TERRORISM and wanted to catch a bit of the funky action - as well he might. We rolled up to find the whole thing was taking place on a farm which was FULL of folkies - beards were de rigeur, the sweaters were arren, slightly grubby yet very well spoken toddlers swarmed everywhere, and finger picking was not frowned upon. It was very cosy, slightly boring, and totally unready for what we were about to do.
We took to the stage and things started well as people laughed and applauded our bravery in standing up in front of them, doing what we were doing, but the laughter died down as they realised we were going to KEEP doing it, and soon the BARN we were playing in was emptying quicker than a lift with a fart in it. Fifteen minutes in we were singing to a group of perplexed seven year olds down the front and a visibly affronted sound man, who was clearly enraged that their were minor auxiliary members of Pentangle still alive and playing who could be on stage instead of us. "We're just going to do a couple more songs" i said, to which he loudly retorted "No you're not!" and pulled the plug.
ANGERED we stormed out into the farm's courtyard determined to finish what we had come to do. The six of us gathered in a small circle and did "Horse Latitudes", complete with NEIGHING, WHIP LASHES and SEXUAL GRUNTS. A small crowd gathered and then VERY QUICKLY went away, leaving us to finish off on our own, slightly shamefacedly.
We hung around the festival for a bit, but most of us had had enough so went off back to Leicester and to the pub. There was some talk of doing a tour of other pubs called The Durham Ox - the plan was to do the tour WITHOUT asking permission, dashing into each pub, doing a PIECE and then dashing out again, but after MUCH in-pub discussion we realised that not everybody would take this as non-violently as the folkies did, and so we went into semi-retirement, coming out only occasionally as my backing singers once more, satisfied that both of our career aims - ART PUNK and sitting around in pubs - had been more than fulfilled.
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