In the summer of 1997, sandwiched at some point between the grinning, overwhelming optimism of Blair’s Britain and the outpouring of self-imposed grief for a dead princess, I was forced to sell my guitar. It was a black Gibson copy; cream scratch-plate, caramel coloured tone dials, a pair of scuffed humbucker pick-ups. The strings whiskered out from the tuning pegs and the black Ernie Ball strap held it comfortably low around my groin. I played it through a miniature Marshall amp, the sound muffled and fuzzed, and tried to master the chords to songs I loved, the results a messy, halting squall of atonal, arrhythmic noise. I was, and remain, a shockingly unmusical person, and a shitty guitarist.
Even though I’d long been aware of my staggering ineptitude at plank spanking, selling that guitar was no less painful. I put an advert in the Liverpool Echo and a kid called me up the same day. That evening his mother drove him to my flat and we both watched as he picked up the guitar, tuned it without the aid of an electronic contraption and adjusted the bass and treble. He sat on the edge of the bed and played Blackbird with a confidence and aptitude bordering on the precocious. He said that he liked the guitar’s look and sound, but that the amp was a bit underpowered. He paid in cash; his mother looked sort of proud. I bet he slept with that guitar in his bed that night.
An imaginary life ended with that transaction; a parallel existence of tour buses and drunkenness, willing girls and sweaty clubs. It was as hopeful a notion as becoming world speedway champion or having a major retrospective at the Tate. The delusion, however, worked because of its own entirely fictive basis. I could have the dreams of singing a post-punk inspired cover of Neil Diamond’s "Beautiful Noise" at the Manchester Academy, or smashing up a guitar at CBGBs precisely because they were impossible. Had there been any chance at all of it happening, I’m not sure it would have been quite so much fun.
I thought about this a lot as I read Tim Thornton’s all-too-painfully-recognisable Death of an Unsigned Band. Over the last decade I’ve spent a lot of time with good friends in good, unsigned bands. Being on the periphery allows you to share in their world, but such vicarious dreaming is tempered by the fact you’re not at its centre – it’s your poor friends who are checking the prison-wall style notches against their bands’ name as people enter the gig; it’s them who are treated like shit at sound check; and them who ultimately end up chasing promoters for a few quid after providing the drums for yet another four-band show. For all the excitement of playing and recording, I’ve always thought the pay back was somewhat slight.
Death of an Unsigned Band captures this tension with acuity, and in doing so creates a set of characters who are at once engaging, flawed and utterly recognisable. The episodic, interview-style approach perfectly suits his subject and Thornton cleverly keeps their personal stories in the background – the effect suggesting that Russell, Ash, Karen and Jake are only really living when they’re being the band. The consuming nature of such ambition is well drawn, and the drab period of musical history in which it takes place – the 2000/1 of Coldplay, Travis and Turin Brakes – only serves to make their hopes and dreams appear so much more cruelly dashed.
What marks Death of an Unsigned Band out is its refusal to pander to obvious narrative arcs, there are no tedious explorations of the nature of fame, nor is there a token drug problem or a thinly disguised Yoko. It’s an honest depiction of the way thousands of people spend their weekends and week nights – playing clubs and bars, thinking that this time it might happen, that the A&R guy might chuck his chequebook their way – and is pitched just right for a summer read for anyone who’s spent their money to see their friends play, or been one of the ones doing the playing. Despite that memory of the guitar, I know which side of the stage I’d rather be on.