Monday, December 12, 2005

Rock family trees - Autopilot, part one...

"Good evening, Birmingham! Are you ready to rock???!!!"
No doubt the city which gave the world the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Move and, er, UB40, has reverberated to such words or similar many, many times.
Sadly, the live debut of Nineties supergroup Autopilot, in England's second city, was not kicked off by such rousing sentiments, but a less memorable mumble or two.
In fact, neither Nick nor Aidan can quite remember how they introduced themselves to the swarming, capacity crowd of, ooh, at least a dozen largely-indifferent observers at the Birmingham Midland Institute.
Though, unconfirmed reminiscences do dimly recall the sentence 'Quick, let me just have the one more drink, I can knock it back in no time before we have to go on-stage...'
Dutch Courage-mainlining precautions aside, this was the night Autopilot came of age.
The night to relish for those fortunate few who took the inspired decision, while pacing the frisson-filled Friday night streets of Birmingham, to plunge into the BMI basement for the advertised 'Folk evening'...
Well, frankly who could refuse...?
Suffice to say, each and every one was rewarded with a concert they would all remember for the rest of their weekends.
Okay, so the Victorian, Grade II-listed building, hidden off Birmingham's business district, was hardly a glamorous, awe-inspiring rock venue to rival the Shea Stadium or New York's CBGBs.
But it was a start.
And what a start.
Actually, the less said about the start, the probably better.
Since it featured the tipsy twosome who would soon become known to all and sundry (mostly sundry) as Autopilot, but for the time being had to accept their session band status accompanying the evening's organiser - Nancy.
Oh, Nancy.
Quite the character.
She had turned up to the first ambitious 'Autopilot' rehearsal at the imposing, intimidating, frankly dismaying ugly Chamberlain Hall a few weeks earlier.
She had responded to an optimistic scrap of paper pinned on the musicians' board at Birmingham Central Library, looking for unspecific instrumentalists interested in the likes of The Beatles, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, 'etc'.
Yes, that's right, the ad mentioned those dread words 'Folk' and 'Rock', albeit with an ambigious stroke ('/' for the unititiated, or the predictably perverted).
But that's still no excuse.
Nancy turned up, once so had Nick - then the resident Chamberlainer, albeit in the posh Tennis Court amenities rather than the 15th floor cubbyhole Aidan had previously endured ('Still... nice view, eh? ... ?')
Nancy wasn't the only one, mind.
A girl called Caroline - well, I say girl, at about 30 she was years and years and YEARS ahead of our intrepid whippersnapper delinquents at this stage.
And, yes, she was a bit dull.
Very talented, obviously, and had studied music and scales and harmonies and cadences and all that, well, not 'jazz', I suppose, but all the rest... and was still trying to apply them to the scrappily-scrawled attempts at songwriting suddenly thrust in front of her.
She tried to play along, manfully enough, on the Chamberlain piano, which looked respectable-ish but proved to be flatter than Gwen Stefani.
But as her brows furrowed and her polite smile shifted into an entirely-flummoxed frown, it was just a matter of time before we - or she - had to end her misery.
And it was the question 'But what does it actually mean?' that suddenly killed off an admittedly-fragmentary rendition of 'Every Day, Every Dawn'.
The song may have been a miserablist stoooodent cliche from intro to ending, sure.
But there were a couple of half-decent images buried in there somewhere, schurely - 'But my words pour down like confetti, / Toppling over the kerb, / Then rainbow-rolling together / Each individual word, each individyal colour', or the, ahem, uplifting chorus, 'But I don't feel pain anymore, / I know that's easy, so easy to say, / But I only recall what I no longer feel, / Though I remember every day / Every dawn...'
Hmm, so maybe she had a point.
But that was still no excuse to challenge such inspired musicality as expressed in the instruction: "Yes, so it's from C chord to, well, it looks like a D, but with the top string lopped off and the little finger hiding round the back like this... Can you somehow make that come off on the piano....... Hello?..... Hello?'
Needless to say, that historic first session, bringing together the full line-up of Nick, Aidan, Nancy and Caroline was also the last sighting of that quartet in the same room together, making not-at-all-sweet music...
Historic days, historic, er, day...
But it did yield some benefit.
Because Nancy, dear Nancy, 40-something polite high-pitched Nancy, with her Purdey pudding-bowl hair helmet tinged a disturbing shade of purple, was obviously so overwhelmed by the two thrusting examples of tomorrow's-generation-fresh manhood who'd invited her into their undergraduate domain, she offered them a headlining spot at the next folk music gig she had on the cards at, yes, you're well, well ahead of me, the BMI.
Needless to say, our daring duo had to think long and hard... not to decide whether to accept, they did that in a second, but then came the tricky question of whether to invite friends in numbers - to ensure a strong, hopefully-supportive audience - or to keep it secret from everyone, yes, everyone, because it would just be too, too embarrassing otherwise...
As it happened, Autopilot would perform two BMI-storming gigs, the first in front of a contingent of Aidan's allies, the second in front of Nick's people.
Doing it in shifts, you see.
Minimising pain all-round.
Both groups of whom applauded in (most of) the right places and offered the sort of moral support which can only be truly offered by friends sacrificing their Friday night on the promise of mates making fools of themselves, and finding themselves not at all disappointed...
So, anyway, back to that debut BMI performance, and, reluctantly, Nancy.
That Beatles standard, 'With A Little Help From My Friends', has been covered by many great artists, most notably Joe Cocker, who took his radical refurbishment of the song to number one in 1968.
Sadly, our Nancy's rendition will only go down in rock history if someone secretly had a tape recorder running to capture this most calamitous of covers.
T'would make the infamous, covert tape of Linda McCartney's disastrous backing vocals on 'Hey Jude', during Wings' tours of the early-1970s sound like a 'Dusty In Memphis' by comparison...
Your intrepid historian could gift her the benefit of the doubt and report merely how she 'uniquely' delivered the song's lyrics, but sadly, to ignore the melody that accompanied them would be a dereliction of duty.
Eight years on, no-one is yet sure quite what melody it was, but it's safe to say it was nowhere near anything The Beatles intended.
The same went for her encore of 'Imagine', of which the kindest thing that can be said is that at least only John Lennon was insulted by this rendition, and not both Lennon and McCartney.
Then again, she did take her place alongside Mark David Chapman as a fellow ruthless murderer of the man himself...
Only the eagle-eyed - or perhaps the appearance-addicted, boy-band-worshipping teenyboppers who sadly weren't actually there - would have paid attention to the pained faces of Nick and Aidan as they manfully struggled and strummed along.
But they did hold some consolation - they knew that playing along to such a ridiculous performance was the only thing guaranteeing them their own spot, mere minutes away.
And, though it seemed at the time that 'Imagine' might just go on for ever - 'Imagine this song never finishes'... - and in increasingly discordant keys, at that - finally the abashed students managed to shuffle their hostess off the stage and suddenly...
And suddenly... and suddenly...
Yep, it was just the two of them.
Oh.... no....
'Er... Evenin' folks,' Aidan 'quipped'.
'Nice to see you. Here's a song.'
What a showman indeed.
And then, panic-stricken, he launched into the playful D-chord intricacies of 'Autopilot', the singalong song which had fortuitously appeared to him between Nancy's offer of a gig and the gig itself.
Because 'Every Day, Every Dawn', while being the first real fully-formed original song to have emerged since Nick and Aidan began jamming over Christmas 1997, was a bit of a depressing dirge.
And a co-composition called Rat Race, comprising Nick's lyrics and Aidan's tune, still needed fine-tuning.
And as for 'Tell Me', an epic romantic ballad penned by Nick for, well, history doesn't quite seem to record who at this point, please bear with us - well, it was a lovely, simple song, embellished by an superficially-flashy, basically-basic middle-eight from Aidan based around a F# diminished 7th (what the pros - well, these 'pros' anyway - call a squiggly chord, on the 2nd fret).
But somehow he didn't quite seem confident enough to sing it, either to the subject or a staring set of gimlet eyes.
As it turned out, though...
Well, he almost had to.
Because once Autopilot had the stage, they seemed indulgently, impeccably at home.
They whisked through that song 'Autopilot', written almost in one at 25 Holly Road, Edgbaston, quickly shuttled down the Hagley Road to Chamberlain Hail's Tennis Courts, where Nick quickly picked up the pace.
(Aidan, so set on committing this burst of inspiration to memory and finely-tuned practice, turned his eyes away from the Del Amitri lyrics Sellotaped to Nick's door, trying to convince himself they were just a mirage...)
So, anyway.
They performed 'Autopilot'.
And, lo, it was good.
For those few saddoes who have a) got this far and b) have some vague, weird interest in stooodent lyrics, here are those historic words...
Hundreds of miles she travels
Flown on a tide of two tired eyes
To glide on clouds of crimson
Bought a ticket waving her goodbyes
Oh but she turns her face now
Mascara running a safety alibi
And it's fast down a corridor
An airport lounge, sending two tired eyes
Staring down, down, down
Switch me off, or turn me on
Spin me round and around
On autopilot wheels
Flick the switch, flick the switch...
Hundreds of times he tails her
Tailspun, a tornado, in the sky
Hands jammed over his ears
But his eyes stay open
Boys don't cry
Oh but he turns his face now
An airline meal in pieces lying there
And he's breathing in pressure now
Inhaling deeply, and falling through the air
Down, down, down
Switch me off, or turn me on
Spin me round and around
On autopilot wheels
Flick the switch, flick the switch
We're going too high now
We're going too fast, he whispers
We're going too far, she says
We're going too high...
Hundreds of miles over oceans
Two worlds losing distance, losing time
Two heads but hundreds of futures
Thinking, smiling and dreaming's
Just wasting time
I lay my head in their hands now
An easy dream, it's someone's easy lie
And I land on the runway's evening blue
Lie on my bed, and watch the clouds roll by
Down, down, down
Switch my off, or turn me on
Spin my round and around
On autopilot wings
I'm autopilot happy
On autopilot wings
Flick the switch
Flick the switch...
Hmm, looking back, I still don't have a clue what it's about.
Other than hints of my fear of flying, but it's hardly worth deep analysis.
But anyway, back to our narrative...
Aidan and Nick got through their epic Autopilot, to a surprising flurry of cheers and claps (mostly from the pre-prepped party of supposed 'groupies' in the corner).
Infused with a little more confidence, Aidan dared to speak to the audience and introduced the next number as 'a song from a movie', before sticky-fingeredly plucking out the opening chords to Kermit The Frog's 'The Rainbow Connection' - a beautiful song, even more so when performed without the gulping comedy vocal of Jim Henson, emerging out of a bulging-eyed green thing. . .
Not that Autopilot would claim to resemble a pair of cloned Brad Pitts, but still...
The song seemed to go over well, beautifully in fact (well, sort of), but no moment was as entrancing as the second the last chord rung out its last, and the pair of them hurled down their guitars, gave peremptory bows and raced towards the cheap seats at the back with not-very-well-disguised-at-all relief...
And still they kept clapping.
Then again, the acts that followed were no 'Saturday Night At The Palladium' contenders.
In fact, the sheer surreal fantasia of watching a ballroom-dancing couple who had forgotten their music, so had to pirhouette in silence, was well worth the entrance fee (free).
As was the wrinkled old geezer declaiming the words (and words only) of hoary old sea shanties (and managing to make them last for what seemed like a year on the ocean waves...)
Well, it was certainly a different Friday night out, that's for sure.
Having done their bit (and done it well, though they did say so themselves), Autopilot suddenly found their Southern Comfort and Cokes rudely interrupted by a request to rustle up a few more songs and open the second half.
Well, now, this was a different matter entirely...
Of course, they had rehearsed songs - not just the aforementioned 'Tell Me', 'Rat Race' and 'Every Day, Every Dawn', but also contemporary covers such as 'The Drugs Don't Work', 'Say What You Want' and the obligatory 'Wonderwall' (it was the law in dem days).
But none seemed quite fitting... and suddenly Nick's face was turning green, leading him to resemble somewhat of an upturned carrot, freshly plucked from the allotment...
Aidan, meanwhile, seemed to be knocking back enough spirits to send him striding, only half-fitfully, to the front of the room to open the second half with aplomb.
Sorry, not 'aplomb', but, 'a sinking feeling in his stomach', as he suddenly began to inwardly curse his erstwhile musical partner for sticking to his seat (if Autopilot could be described - albeit fancifully - as 'Simon-and-Garfunkel-sing-Britpop', then Aidan suddenly felt himself to be nothing more than the 'and' in that equation...)
Scanning the ancient folky fruits filling (well, sort of) the venue, apart from the girls in the corner and their newly-arrived boyfriends who seemed to have been at some birthday drinking session beforehand and were maybe not in quite the musical conossieurship mood a nervous first-time performer would really desire, it seemed best just to aim for a solid, straight-down-the-line C-chord and take it from there...
Aidan performed an old Byrds ballad 'John Riley' (about a sailor lost at, well, sea, only to be eventually reunited with his ever-loyal love - ahhh...) and 'She Loved A Portuguese', a Cockney-accented comic song about such cheery subjects as spurned love, cheating women and double murder...
Well, I thought it was funny, anyway...
And it did seem to go down well.
The night was a success.
Nick and Aidan were the heroes.
Birmingham was their's.
Next stop, Hollywood...
Or, at least, Cricklewood...
Well, they shuffled away pretty happily, anyway, shrouded in surprised compliments from 'ver girls', overly-friendly congratulations from the folk cronies who were no doubt already envisaging these young bucks sprucing up their dinner parties from now on...
But most important seemed the shared relief, and delight in a job well done - or, at least, got away with - as Nick and Aidan packed away their guitars, stepped into the chilly streets beyond the BMI, and... started pummelling their companions with possible bandnames...
Sadly, the hundreds of possibilities have been lost to (bad) memory by now, other than the inspired 'The Wood-Bees' ("because we play acoustic - ie. wood -- guitars, and come from Barnet, whose football team is nicknamed 'The Bees'... No? ... Really? ... You sure, because we really like it.... ? And it's so clever...?')
Or, well, 'Autopilot' - ruled out because it was the name of our (so-far) best song, but simultaneously still ruled in because... well, it was the name of our (so-far) best song.
And so it stayed, the default name for a default band, even in the dark days ahead when a difficult-to-shake-off interloper would try to re-label the group the humiliating-sounding 'Jolly Herrings'.
Yes, you've guessed it...
You haven't heard the last of Nancy...
But that's a tale for another time...
Well, perhaps. Don't all clamour at once...

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