I’ll never forget my wedding day. It was the first gig the Elderly Brothers ever played.
We were a band handpicked for the occasion: on lead guitar, Chris W – never performed outside his attic; on bass, Comrade Ken – influences: Chuck Berry and Trotsky; on keyboards, Big Dave – would rather have been playing Bach; on drums, Chris H – never played a musical instrument before in his life; on vocals and rhythm guitar, yours truly – age 54, I had finally realised the only way I was ever going to be in a band was by getting married and booking myself to play at the reception.
We gave a performance that night that people still talk about. I stabbed myself in the eye with the microphone; Dave sampled Chopin whenever he got lost; Chris H surrounded himself with a full kit of drums and only ever hit one of them. Looking back now I wonder if the story of the Elderly Brothers shouldn’t have started and ended in that marquee: one legendary gig and goodnight. But afterwards a guest swayed towards us and said: “I wonder if you’d like to play at my hang-gliding club’s AGM?”
We laughed at the idea. But soon Ken had put together a set list. Chris H found a drum teacher in Pontefract. Chris W bought a new guitar. The truth was we had all dreamed of playing in a band since we were teenagers. The Elderly Brothers, we knew, was our last chance.
The hang gliding gig was a disaster. It was held in a sports club and there was only one electrical socket. Somebody plugged the kettle in and our entire sound system died.
But we weren’t discouraged. We began to rehearse once a week in the village hall. We put together a set list of solid rhythm and blues, inspired by Chuck Berry, Dave Edmunds, Chuck Berry, and Chuck Berry. We each brought something different to the band. Ken was our fiery, free-spirit – I once saw him lose his temper with his plectrum. Chris W gave us an air of mystery, plus a truck-load of equipment; Big Dave was our moral compass; his hope was that one day we would become the first carbon neutral rock band. Chris H was an Everton supporter and taught us how to cope with disappointment. My contribution was a totally implausible belief that this band could go places if we could only find our audience.
After rehearsal we would visit the Nag’s Head, where the landlord had offered to be our manager. He said we could play in his pub on New Year’s Eve, as long as he could do his Norman Wisdom impression as a warm-up. It was the first of the now legendary ‘Elderly Brothers live at the Nag’s Head on New Year’s Eve,’ gigs, performances of uncertain quality, but earth-shattering volume. One punter announced we were the worst band he had ever heard and he was going to sit in his car until we’d finished. “We’ll put that on the back of the album,” said Ken, proudly.
Our children disowned us. The wags made fun of us at their book group. And yet we were gradually improving, searching for our own sound. Chris W found it one evening on the distortion pedal. From then on it didn’t matter what we played. Once a song had been put through our rehearsal crusher it emerged sounding exactly like all the others.
Slowly the gigs started to come in. The vicar was a fan and asked us to headline at the new church organ inauguration concert. Fiona the yoga teacher booked us for her fiftieth birthday. These were halcyon days when no local event was bona fide unless the Elderly Brothers played. We were five guys with three chords, the stars of the village fete and the chair of the parish council’s leaving do. You could sense we were on the verge of a break through. It came when we were asked to play at a fund-raiser for a new school bottle bank.
This was a step up. This was playing in front of an audience we didn’t know personally – people who had paid to come in. And we were on a bill with other bands, most of them school kids who suffered us because they wanted to borrow Chris W’s huge range of equipment.
But there was also another band of middle-aged men, The Governors – named because they were all school governors. They were everything we aspired to be: they had a website; they’d been to a recording studio; they had the confidence to play songs by T. Rex; they even claimed to have once been paid for a gig. And they came with their own fans, who cheered and danced when they played and then disappeared to the bar when we came on. We felt intimidated; we bombed.
We sat in the pub, demoralised. Ken lost his temper and gave a rousing speech: the Governors were just a bunch of pop idols who had sold out; so what if we didn’t have printed T-shirts like they did, at least we had our integrity. No way were we going to try to compete with them. Instead we needed to go back to our roots. We would become a blues band from the Derwent Delta.
This was easier said than done, and required a level of musicianship that might have been beyond us. We became more intense: we took to wearing black on stage, and we developed musical differences. Some of us admitted to using drugs – anti-inflammatories mostly, and some statins. The pressure began to show as Big Dave collapsed with kidney stones. He thought he was dying. As they wheeled him into surgery he made his wife promise she wouldn’t let the Elderly Brothers play at his funeral.
He recovered, but morale was at a low. What we needed was a bonding trip. We borrowed a leaking barge and cruised up the Ashby de la Zouch canal. We took our instruments, but spent most of the weekend re-enacting the final battle of the Wars of the Roses on Bosworth Field, where Ken, (as Richard III) lost his temper with the entire House of York, (the rest of us).
But something happened that weekend that changed everything. A Sunday Newspaper began a series of give-away guides to playing rock music, a treasure trove of invaluable tips from the experts. The Elderly Brothers never looked back.
Big Dave called an Emergency General Meeting. With a flipchart and Post-its he chaired a discussion and we thrashed out a revised development plan. We decided to abandon our abandonment of the mainstream and become more commercial. We learnt some Beatles tunes and one by Buddy Holly. We experimented with backing vocals. We invited an ace harmonica player to join us. Not only could he play with his eyes shut, he brought down the average age of the band by ten years.
We worked on our performance. We went to see Wilko Johnson play and took notes. It was pointed out to me how Wilko roamed the stage as if he should be sectioned, while I, in the same frontman role, stood at the microphone like a rabbit. I experimented with prancing about, but after consideration decided to make a feature of my inertia. I would stand completely still, try not to blink even. I awarded myself a moniker: The Plank.
We honed our act. We played a PTA Halloween party; we played a gay wedding. A rare clip of us at our peak still survives on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEo31yN_esU . And then, the unthinkable happened: we were offered money for a gig.
A Christmas party in Glenfern Residential Home in Matlock Bath. The original band had pulled out. Could we stand in with an hour-long set at short notice? £200. We didn’t know whether to accept or not – being paid also meant we could be sued. But I sensed this gig was our destiny. I’d always been convinced this band could take-off if we could just find our niche, and here it was: the nursing home circuit.
Chris W bought a new guitar. Ken wrote new patter, advising the audience to turn their hearing aids up to 11. We rehearsed all week. We learnt a Chuck Berry Christmas song. We argued over dress code: (Santa Claus hats or no Santa Claus hats?) We timed the set: it ranged from 41 minutes to 75, depending on what mood drummer Chris H was in.
On the night of the gig we packed up a trailer and headed off in silence. We reached Glenfern, set up, sound-checked, then went to the pub. We pumped ourselves up. Ken gave a speech similar to Henry V’s at Agincourt. When we got back to the venue the manager informed us there had been an outbreak of shingles and the gig would have to be cancelled. Sorry.
That’s show business I guess. The trouble was, having had a smell of success, there was suddenly nowhere left for us to go. We all sensed it was the end. There was no big bust up or anything, just no more emails arranging rehearsals. It was difficult. We needed some sort of closure, a farewell gig. It came via the vicar who asked us to play at his retirement party.
We decided not to rehearse. And what was interesting was it made absolutely no difference to our performance. Big Dave still jumped up and down like a Thunderbird puppet; Chris H dropped a stick in the middle of Great balls of Fire. You could still see Ken’s lips move as he counted to 12. I came as near as I ever got to crowd surfing when I tripped over my guitar lead. We played as well that final gig as we did the first at my wedding, the only difference was Chris W had bought a remote pick-up which meant he could play his guitar while leaning against the bar.
We took up other hobbies. Ken trained for a marathon. Dave took a night skipper’s course. I took up classical guitar. I sat my grade 2 exam and now have a certificate on my wall.
It’s not the same though. There’s nothing quite like the raw thrill of playing a ruby wedding anniversary. We’ll leave it for a while, let wounds heel. It won’t be long before one of us suggests a comeback. We’ll never really split up until one of us drops dead. Maybe it’ll happen stage; maybe no-one will notice
What we should do of course, is get a camper van and go on tour. Now there’s an idea.