The classical guitar lessons were not going well.
I could barely pluck and plonk my way through even the most simple of the “etudes” set for me by my guitar teacher Mr Miles without stopping in the wrong place or playing the wrong note. They were not going well mainly because I did not practice enough, and I didn’t practice enough because it was unrewarding and boring, and it was nothing like being in T-Rex as I was rather optimistically hoping. I still couldn’t work out how you got from the dreary repetitive exercises that I was being given by Mr Miles to full on proper power pop, it was like he'd never heard of electric guitars. There were definitely no signs of proper songs in Mr Miles’ music rooms which hosted a strictly classical curriculum and were located just across the road from my primary school. Despite my lack of obvious progress I continued with my weekly appointments, partly because I was hoping that one day the etudes would be over and we could start on Ride A White Swan, but really I just didn’t want to disappoint my parents.
By the time I was 8 years old, all I really wanted to do was to be in a band. There were no actual bands of any merit with 8 year olds in, and I didn’t want to be in a silly children’s band, like the kind of novelty freakshow who might crop up on Junior Showtime or Opportunity Knocks, or a one hit wonder like Our Kid or Flintlock. That wasn’t what I meant at all.
Staring at the photograph my father had taken of me in my school uniform leading my utterly non-rock star life, simply served to further illustrate the enormous gaping canyon between me and the bands I would see in magazines and watch every week on Top of The Pops in their rock star clothes with proper electric guitars and this gap seemed utterly unbridgeable. I didn’t have a proper guitar, just my stupid nylon strung classical one that I took to Mr Miles, certainly not the electric type that was essential to being in a rock band, I didn’t have any cool clothes, I was pudgy and had a sort of “home-cut haircut” and I didn’t know anyone who either was in a band or wanted to be. This same feeling was coupled with a great urgency about getting there, a slight panic, of being able to be in a rock band while rock bands still existed.
My Mother called every new band or thing I got into “faddy”. That’s what she thought about each and every successive band I declared an undying loyalty to but also to pop music as a whole, that it was just faddy and one day we’d all wake up and suddenly there would be no pop music because we were all now bored with it and were no longer thrilled to be hoppin' and a boppin' to the Crocodile Rock. If my Mother was right, as she quite often was, then Pop music would soon suffer the same fate as clackers and space hoppers, and one morning everyone in all the bands would get a sensible job at the Abbey National or join the ambulance service or something, Radio 1 would have to shut down because it would have absolutely no listeners, and we’d all be back to listening to Val Doonican, Connie Francis, and nightly re-runs of Dick Barton on the valve wireless while sipping our Ovaltine before turning in for the night on our horse hair beds… in the Anderson shelter, by candlelight.
I would not let this happen. The future was quite clearly in my hands. Quite a responsibility for a 8 year old.
On the first day that I arrived at secondary school, the music teacher asked for a show of hands of the people who had already started to learn an instrument. I kept quiet and very very still thinking that it would excuse me from continuing along the musical cul de sac that was the classical guitar. For once I was right, there would be no more guitar lessons for me. It was a short lived victory though, as instead it had simply fast tracked me into the unspeakable domain of beginners violin. Ever the optimist, I told myself that maybe this was a good thing, maybe the violin would be easier, I might be a natural, maybe I could start thinking of it like beginners ELO. Positioned around the music stands in our small tutor groups we launched into “Bobby Shaftoe” for the umpteenth time, my violin playing was uncertain, screechy, tuneless, clumsy and unpleasant. A bit like my guitar playing really.
At some point earlier on in the year, while we were busy, busy, busy running both the band and The Pop Club at the Bull & Gate in London, we became aware of a singer called P.J. Harvey. Reports of her show at The White Horse, the pub venue in nearby Hampstead and at The Camden Falcon had reached us, and suddenly the next-big-thing grapevine was all a-buzz with PJ this and PJ that. What had also reached us, this time via the Royal Mail, was a letter from her mother.
Wait a minute. It didn't seem very punk rock, somehow, to make your introductions via a letter from your mother, and here was someone who everybody thought was cool, actually doing just that.
I listened to the tape, or at least some of it, but I couldn’t find any discernible catchy hook filled choruses, no free sweets in the package (no matter how many times I looked in the envelope), but what was really bugging me, was this letter from her Mother. I just didn’t see how this was cool, and I didn’t have the special prescription lenses available to see this kind of cool, and the letter and the tape just sat festering and un-dealt with, in a pile of stuff on my desk. I kept on thinking about it; if it really was so easy as claiming to be a bit like Patti Smith and having a sort of Anne Frank haircut and be very thin, maybe I’d got the whole Pop thing wrong - except the bit about being very thin, because there were far too many trips to the 5 Star fish bar next door to the Bull & Gate to really allow for the terribly thin part.
What was it about this harmless looking letter? If Talulah Gosh or any of the Sarah Records bands (also regulars of The Pop Club) had sent a letter from their mothers, it would have been funny (it probably would have also been evidently faked with just the right degree of frumpy middle agedness about it), it would have been received as charming and original, or if Liz Naylor had made her Mother write the press releases for OLI it would have been high art and darkly subversive. But this letter wasn’t like that, Mother Harvey came across as being very straightforward and reasonable, likeable even, and all this seemed somehow so completely out of step with “how things were done” that there was something very, very wrong indeed about it. That was really the nub of the matter. She had also enclosed a review of PJ’s band Automatic Dlamini from one of the local papers, which obviously, to me at least, carried all the credibility and authority of a recommendation from the council, or the local neighbourhood watch... or possibly even somebody’s parents. Rule 1 of Punk Club was that parents should not be involved no matter how “cool” they either were, or thought themselves to be. They were not supposed to understand your band at all and there only job was either to stick their head in the sand and ignore you or to wait tutting “told you so” in the wings for every perceived failure and to keep pressing for you to follow their original advice and get that nice job at The Halifax. They were not supposed to understand you, or your friends, or your music, they were supposed to wince and recoil at your terrifying punk rock noise, and they certainly weren’t supposed to write letters to venues for you!
I can only imagine the tone of such a missive from my own Mother… (throat clearing noise)..
“Dear Mr Beast,
Please find herewith enclosed a demonstration cassette by my daughter’s band The Popinjays. The girls tell me that they have both worked very hard to produce these two songs, even though they are not classically trained and, so far, have no formal qualifications in music. Polly gave up her classical guitar lessons many years ago despite our encouragement to continue and the fact that her Father was keen to grant her this opportunity as he had always regretted not learning an instrument as a child himself. I would also like to apologise for her “dress sense” (if that’s what you could call it). If you have the space to include them in one of your programmes then please do.
M. Hancock (Mrs)”
I can’t remember how, I can only assume that someone else probably took care of it, but PJ was duly found a date to play at the Pop Club in November. Posters were made (I definitely remember doing that bit), flyers were handed out, listings were sent, it was all set to be a big night. I was quite looking forward to it after all that, maybe Mother Harvey would be there, at least it might be a bit weird! The great day dawned, and where were we? - off on tour with Cud. The Vote Elvis/Leggy Mambo tour pulled into Portsmouth on November 9th 1990 so we missed the show, but only because we were busy doing one of our own. And no, I don’t think ours was booked by anyone’s Mother. Certainly not mine.
Here’s the ad from the ULU gig that we played with Cud as a sort of pre-tour London date. I’m going to keep this one for an article I’m writing about spelling mistakes. Popinjays never had, and never will have two Ps in the middle, except here, in an ad, very publicly in the NME, for all the world to see. Thanks.