Saturday, 24 May 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 5

The TNS were, to all intents and purposes, a covers band. There was 'Beast in my Pants', and the never-completed 'Kurt Russell's Beard', but none of the members really wrote songs. I think Ed liked the idea of writing songs, but he never got around to it - and was in thrall enough to the Ramones that he never got much further than an E-bar power chord.
When I brought along my guitar, and Tortoise Head was formed, the original members were:
Lee C: drummer, banjo player, and insouciant presence. He was my sister's boyfriend for a time, and I remember once chasing him round the school playing field for a good 5 minutes, him laughing all the way, after he had booted me while playing lunchtime football.
Rich: guitarist, whose elder brothers' love for Genesis had a regrettable impact upon his psyche. Rich was, in his quiet way, a comic genius, whose sex- and scatology-obsessed themes were keystones to the Tortoise Head humour. His greatest line was givend when we had a holiday on the farmland of one of Ed's family's friends, in Stithians, Cornwall. As we put up the tent, the paterfamilias came to see what we were doing. 'Are you going to dig a latrine?', he asked, jokingly. 'I don't dig latrines, said Rich, 'I fill them.' When Rich and Ed went to Aberystwyth university in 1987 (Ed dropped out after a term and joined myself and Si at Warwick) the letters he sent, sure markers of a degree of psychological disintegration, sent me into gales of laughter. I still have them, though at 39, they're a harder read than they used to be.
Lee E: bass player, driver, and for some time de facto financial supporter of the band, as he was the only one working while the rest of us were at university. Lee was an unreliable bass player; not unskilled, but with a poor sense of the beat, rendering him hardly rock-steady as a part of the rhythm section. (This meant I had to play a tight rhythm guitar even when I got confident enough to be more adventurous, limiting the Tortoise Head sound.) His driving was invaluable though, especially when borrowing his dad's Transit van to cart the gear down to Ed's house. Lee had a succession of cars: a much-loved oxblood Cortina Mk4, in which the first compilation tapes were aired, and which provided us with means to go on the first 'Lads' holiday, to Cornwall; a Rover SD1, a remarkable thing that once saw us doing over a ton on the M11 on a trip from Essex to Cambridge which took a bare 40 minutes; and the red Austin Healey Sprite (a re-badged MG Midget) whose two-seat limitations ultimately proved to be an irritant.
Ed: rockist extraordinaire. Especially when he swapped the donkey jacket for a rocker's leather motorcycle jacket.
Me: my musical sensibility was different to the others, though we shared a similar sense of humour. (Ed and I were particular fans of Spike Milligan.) I was always into literate guitar pop lilke Elvis Costello or Lloyd Cole, classic 60s rock like The Who and the Stones, plus current indie bands like The House of Love and the Pixies.
Simon: an ex-officio member of the band and, I would say, my best friend in my teenage years. Si started many hares that I have spent the last 25 years running down (Ballard, Philip Dick, Iain Sinclair, and more music than I could mention, but particularly the Velvet Underground, REM, Cocteau twins, etc etc). Ed always cast Si as a doctrinaire NME-reading indie kid (anti-rockist in those days) but that didn't tell the whole story; Si just derided the metal lineage (Sabbath, Metallica, Iron Maiden) that Ed held dear, albeit with some degree of irony. Although he had a love-hate releationship with the band, Si was usually at practices/ 'jams' and later played drums and percussion on my early home-recorded 'solo' material, before I discovered the joys of samples and loops and the Atari ST.
Rich's family moved to Wales in 1987, and he found it increasingly difficult to stay around and play, even though older brothers and sisters were still in Essex. He eventually drifted out of the band, by degrees rather than by decision.
I didn't want to play just covers. Being in a band, I thought, was about playing your own stuff. I can't remember the first song I wrote, or the first one I sang to the band. I remember churning out something and mumbling the lyrics into a mike in Ed's billiard room (a nerve-wracking experience overcome by the sembalnce of ego), and the reception wasn't exactly enthusiastic, but encouraging and kind. This led eventually to us working on riffs or whole songs that I'd come up with at home. The first one was going to be called 'Lacanau to Figueras'. It goes: dum-dum-dah-dah-dum, dah-dah-dah-dum...

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, no.6

I have been relenting of late. I too have been scouring the blogs, wondering how good Samir Nasri is, wondering whether we'll sign Ben Arfa, laughing at the Robinho rumours and Hleb's idiotic agent. The circulated new kit looks like the 1998-2000 one with the white panel down the side, one of my favourite Arsenal kits. (We won nothing in it, though. The old supporter's superstition dies hard.)
It's the Premiership I really dislike. I hate the hype, the money, the cultral poverty, the bling. It's showbiz, really, and so Platini et al are missing the point when they decry the lack of English talent. When the FA created the Premiership/ Premier League and Sky pumped all that money in, what we have now was an inevitability. The EPL is probably 'the most exciting league' in the world: but it's much more like the IPL, the Indian Premier League 20/20 cricket circus, than anyone would want us to believe. It's razzmatazz, spectacle, Prime Time: and it has very little to do with English players. For as we know by looking at the England team, English players are NOT the best in the world.
I'll be supporting Turkey at Euro 2008, by the way.
So, I'm still in limbo. My love for the Arsenal refuses to die, but I despise the league they play in. Can Arsenal secede and play in La Liga, please?

Sunday, 4 May 2008

A History of the Tortoise Head, part 4

I walked into Ed's billiard room with the guitar I had bought from him, and no amplifier. Rich Laxton was there, his guitar (a Stratocaster) plugged into the PA, which was a 'head' and two large cabinets/ speakers. TNS was finished, and I'd kind of invited myself to come and play. I plugged in and we 'jammed' a bit. Ed, I think, played the tambourine.
This was the first time I'd played music with anyone, a nervy first date with new partners. It was a relief to find out that they didn't mind if I wasn't a very good player, that I was in fact pretty bad; they weren't too hot themselves.
But it was the buzz (rather than the fuzzbox), the counterpoint and the raw noise you can make with two players (even better when you add drums and bass), the interaction and interconnection with even the most rudimentary techniques, which addicted me to the experience of being in the band.
'Jamming Me', sang Tom Petty (on a track from the Let Me Up album), over and over on a compliation tape. And that's what Tortoise Head did. We jammed, and it jammed me, jazzed me, thrilled me. There's nothing quite like playing music with your mates, and still I miss it very much.

Why I am giving up the Arsenal, part 5

Today I was able to watch the last 15 minutes of the Arsenal-Everton match, Arsenal's penultimate match of the season. In fact, I turned on the tv just as the Bendtner header hit the back of the net.
I see this as a small step on my road to recovery. The metaphor has changed: this isn't a divorce from the Arsenal, or a trial separation; I've been forcing myself to go cold turkey, to forge a different relationship with the team and the club. It's beginning to work. I no longer need to deny the Arsenal, but they don't retain the power over me that they did. It feels a whole lot healthier.
I read in the online Guardian today a piece about Florent Sinama-Pongolle, once a young French world-beater who was signed by Gerard Houllier's Liverpool (in emulation of Arsene's youth policy), who never made it there but who subsequently left for Spain and has carved out a decent career at, I think, Real Zaragoza. In last night's match, Pongolle was racially abused by Atletico Madrid fans. (As a by-the-way, Atletico's ground, the Vincente Calderon, is the only Spanish football ground I've been to. I saw Atletico lose to Celta Vigo there about 10 years ago. My Spanish is rudimentary, but you couldn't miss the vitriolic abuse aimed at the then Atletico coach, who I think was Claudio Ranieri. Not surprising, really: Atletico were rubbish.)
The abuse suffered by Pongolle made me think of the very real advances made in the English game to eradicate racism which, particularly in the stands (and the fans must take some of the praise for this) is much better than it was in the 1970s or 1980s. Watching a West Brom match from the late 70s on ESPN Classic, the post-match interview with then-manager Ron Atkinson revealed his dim-witted 'praise' of Cyrille Regis's and Laurie Cunningham's efforts along the lines of 'they were a credit to their race'; and this was a man whose elevation of the 'Three Degrees' (the other being Brendon Batson, who West Brom converted from an ordinary Arsenal midfielder to a very classy full back) was markedly progressive for the time, and whose later spell at Aston Villa was characterised by the number and quality of Black British and overseas players in the squad.
Arsenal have a long tradition now of Black British youth players who make the first-team squad. Among the first was Paul Davis. Bizarrely, he first registered with me when I watched (green with envy) an episode of Jim'll Fix It in the early 1980s, when Jimmy Saville arranged for a young lad to play a 10-minute mock game with Arsenal players - at Highbury! Paul Davis was one of those players.
He would be central to George Graham's Arsenal; strangely enough, as he was not a power-running midfielder like Michael Thomas or an all-energy wide player like the late David 'Rocky' Rocastle. Paul Davis was elegant, a thoughtful passer, a player without ego or flashiness, a player who would have fitted in perfectly with Arsene Wenger's teams. He provided the 'cultured' midfield play that separated George's Arsenal from other long-ball teams of the time, but his lack of ego, his ability to be the team hub, meant that he was never in the England reckoning. Like another excellent passing midfielder of the same period, Everton's Paul Bracewell, his very qualities left him overlooked. Any England team of the late 80s or early 90s would have been improved by Davis's presence; think of how bad Graham Taylor's England was. (Compare him to workaday players like Geoff Thomas, or Carlton Palmer.)In the 1991 season, when Arsenal played Tottenham at Highbury, Davis had tyro Paul Gascoigne in the opposition midfield. Not only did Paul Davis put Gascoigne in his pocket that day, marking him out of the game, he then went on to outplay and outpass his opponent. Arsenal won on the way to the title.
Sometimes it's metnioned that Paul Davis spent a long part of one season banned for an incident caught on television, but missed by the referee. Playing Southampton, he punched and broke the jaw of Glenn Cockerill, a mouthy (if skilled) midfielder. For Paul Davis, not exactly fiery of temeperament, to have done that, one can only surmise that the preceding 90 or so minutes had been full of abuse, niggling fouls, and, perhaps, even racism. Only the two of them know that for sure. But I was shocked when I saw the punch. A punch? Paul Davis?
He also scored one of greatest goals I have ever seen watching the Arsenal at Highbury. It was in the run-in to the 1989 championship season, a home game in March 1989 against Charlton. It was in the week of my birthday, so me, Ed and my very good friend Simon all went to see a midweek evening game. (This would have been the Easter vacation.) The game ended 2-2, and it was one of several times that Spring where we thought the Arsenal had blown it. (The later 1-0 home defeat to Derby, right at the end of the season, was the last and worst of these, and seemed to confirm Liverpool's title.) But, defending a corner, Arsenal broke away down the left. We were in the West Stand, as usual, watching, climbing to our feet, as Paul Davis sprinted towards the Clock End to support the break. Over came the cross, and Davis flung himself full length, a spectacular diving header, all the more stunning for its singularity: unlike Michael Thomas, who surged through oppsing defences regularly to score, Davis was not a prolific scorer. But this goal epitomised him: skill, drive, and total commitment to the Arsenal cause.
It seems now that Arsenal will lose Matthieu Flamini and Aleksandr Hleb to AC Milan and Inter Milan respectively this summer. Paul Davis was a one-club man, a wonderful and perhaps neglected footballer. How the Arsenal could do with a player of his skill, intelligence and commitment next season.