Ask any musician who’s ever played on the infamous north of England working men’s club circuit, and they’ll have a wealth of stories & anecdotes. Here are some of mine…
Playing a gig to a whippet:
The band I was in at the time, a pop/rock covers band, was booked to play a Sunday lunchtime slot at some remote mining village social club in CountyDurham. Now, Sunday lunchtime in a northern working men’s club is generally a male-only thing: leave the wife at home preparing the roast beef & Yorkshire puddings, so you can team up with your mates, go and have a few pints, see the band and watch the stripper.
That’s right, there’s usually a striptease “artiste” booked to wriggle her bits around in the interval between the band’s sets. We’re not talking about the new, respectable “burlesque” type “tasteful” display of eroticism here: Dita Von Tease in a basque getting artistic with ostrich feathers – no, this kind of venue demands something a little more, erm… rudimentary in nature. With the emphasis on “rude”.
Anyway, this particular Sunday was a bleak January day with snow on the ground. Attendances at the club are down due to everyone being in the grip of the post-Christmas financial hangover. This coupled with the poor weather, and the last minute cancellation of the stripper due to a mix up with her agent meant that we were playing to an almost empty concert room. The place could easily hold 300 people, and there were no more than a dozen blokes in. Slowly they begin filtering out as the realisation spreads that there’s no naked female flesh to be seen. By the time we got to the end of the first set we were playing to an old guy nursing his bottle of brown ale and tobacco tin. Curled up at his feet is a grey-muzzled old whippet dog.
Come the start of the second set we hit the stage with enthusiastic decibels of “Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame…” The old boy has clearly had enough and goes to the lobby to pump coins into the slot machine, leaving us to play the rest of our 45 minute set to… the dog. Who didn’t even have the courtesy to stay awake. That’s showbiz, folks!
A different venue – a Catholic club in Sunderland, and a different band. This was a country band. Not the new kind of country music which has become fashionable in recent years – Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill etc., no this is strictly Tammy Wynette, Slim Whitman, Boxcar Willie, Jim Reeves and other “old school” material. The country audiences up here didn’t even approve of “new” acts like Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings… in 1994.
We get to the venue, set up the gear & there’s an hour or so before we’re on so it’s time to go in search of a drink. The bar is open & unlike a pub where you just saunter up to the brass rail, catch the eye of the bar staff & order your poison, in the social club there is a strict queuing policy. This means that you hear several people in front of you placing their drinks orders & I’m mystified that everyone seems to be ordering something called “yippee-aye-yay”. Because of the curve of the bar I can’t actually see what it is they’re getting when they ask for this. A cocktail of some sort? Hardly. This is Sunderland, remember? Maybe it’s something to do with it being a country & western night – there are blokes who’ve turned up dressed as Randolph Scott in “Ride the High Country” or John Wayne in “True Grit” – compete with eye-patch. Some of the costumes are better than mine & I’m the one on stage in an hour!
So, yippe-aye-yay must be some sort of western themed speciality drink – a pint of lager with a Stetson or something, right? But there are people ordering it who clearly haven’t come for the country music – they’re the “posh” folks who’ve come through from the lounge – where there are carpets on the floor, and a TV in the corner & a game of bingo later. So… they wouldn’t be ordering anything related to the noisy vagabonds making a racket with their electric banjos in the concert room, would they?
By the time I’ve heard a dozen people order the same drink, it’s my turn to get served so out of sheer curiosity I order “…a pint of yippee-aye-yay, please.” This is when I find out that India Pale Ale (IPA) pronounced in a broad Sunderland accent sounds like a cowboy holler. “A pint of the IPA” comes out as “A pint of yippee-aye-yay”. Mystery solved.
Kempy the drummer:
I could not only devote a whole blog to the Teesside legend that is Mick Kemp (universally known as “Kempy”), I could probably fill an entire book. Whenever musicians get together in these parts, they often get to know each other by swapping anecdotes about the kempster. This one is my favourite:
Kempy, a slightly dishevelled bloke with a gravel-rough voice which makes it’s way out of his mouth past a permanent roll-up on his bottom lip, is the drummer in a band called “The Winners” – each band member is dressed as a leading sports hero of the day. Bjorn Borg on bass; George Best on lead guitar, Seb Coe on keyboards… you get the idea. Barry, the singer, isn’t really into this erm… “concept” and starts discreetly looking for a new band.
Barry’s day job is as a glazier for the local council & often supplements his income with the odd “guvy-job” – Teesside slang for doing a bit of cash-in-hand work on the side. Kempy has just had a new extension built onto his house, which adjoins the railway tracks, & who better to fit the windows at a cut price “mates rate” than good old Barry, his faithful singer? Barry duly turns up with his apprentice, Kempy’s choice of glass, a tub of linseed putty and all the necessary tools, and the windows are fitted to everyone’s satisfaction.
A week later and Barry has been offered a job with a different band, but is dutifully working out a notice period with The Winners & imagined that the spilt was amicable… Until he reminded Kempy that he still hadn’t been paid for fitting the windows:
“F*ckin’ whistle for it!” came the gruff response, past the smouldering roll-up. It seems that Kempy felt let down by Barry leaving the band, and had adopted one of his legendary sulks. There was no point arguing – Kempy’s stubborn demeanour is well known and you may as well debate the fossil record with a creationist. Barry therefore decides to let it ride & try again when a few pints may have mellowed the situation a tad. No such luck, it seems, and Barry is now in a quandary – what to do? Escalate the whole situation into a feud over a paltry few quid, or let Kempy have his little victory? Barry chose a third way…
In the dead of night Barry and his accomplice snuck into Kempy’s back yard by torch-light, communicating in hand signals like commandos, they slowly, silently, and oh-so carefully removed the glass they’d installed but a few days earlier before making their getaway (quite literally) like thieves in the night. Barry was braced for a phone call and a tirade of tobacco stained, expletive-rich abuse later that day. At which point he was planning to go & replace the windows with his point now made & honour restored. But no such turn of events happened. Silence from campKemp.
Then about six weeks later Kempy & Barry find themselves in the Post Office queue. They’re several places apart, but due to the “S” shaped queue, they end up next to each other at one point. Kempy spots Barry, and at the top of his hoarse brogue, in front of all the people posting letters, the grannies cashing their pensions & everyone else on either side of the counter, he growls “I bet you think you’re a right clever sh*t, eh?!… I thought them trains sounded bloody loud!”
They both set about giggling like schoolboys at the ridiculousness of it all & went for a pint. That’s the way we settle stuff up here – the UN could learn a thing or two from the northern club circuit.
See you next time for something a little more guitar specific.