In order to supplement whatever part time job I had at the time, and to top up my lager snakebite fund, during my ‘A’ level years I would meet up in town with friends and we’d take over a patch of pavement and busk. Sometimes I would be half of a duo, but mostly I’d play in a string quartet. It was the best kind of part time job – going to work with good friends, having a laugh and a chinwag and making music together. Our preferred quartet busking spot was in front of the clothes shop, C&A. The first player to arrive would be relied upon to bagsie the pitch by planting themselves resolutely in front of the shop, together with instrument and busking paraphernalia, and not moving an inch until more of the quartet arrived. Then a couple of us would pop to McDonalds to buy breakfast McMuffins and cups of tea, times four, whilst the others stood guard, set up music stands and music and dug out clothes pegs – insurance against music escaping in a breeze.
Due to the popularity of this particular patch of concrete the only way to grab it was to be the first musicians there. No licence needed. As long as we didn’t obstruct the ining and outing of the shop or obscure the window display too much, everyone was happy. Well, apart from a rather grumpy saxophonist who wasn’t so keen on the ‘first come first served’ way of thinking, particularly if he wasn’t there first! We were rather a hit with the C&A staff; sometimes they’d pop out of the shop to have a look and a listen. They even took to donating a stool from their changing rooms for our ‘cellist to use, saving his arms the extra burden of carrying furniture into town. We were, after all, a rather sound-catching way of drawing people to their shop front! The very early hour of the day meant that breakfast at home was forgone, a necessary sacrifice in order to not miss the bus or prime busking territory – hence the need for fast food, al fresco.
After a morning of energetic playing I think we’d probably worked off our unhealthy start, in any case we were always ready for our jacket potatoes come lunchtime. Looking back, it seems that food was pretty important in our busking day… There was a kiosk style jacket potato shop nearby which offered great value in enormous cooked-to-perfection potatoes, with a suitably impressive ‘toppings’ list. The morning’s takings were plundered for this potato pleasure, and we’d sit on the pavement – beans, chilli, tuna and cheese spilling over the sides of our spuds, with our plastic forks and cans of pop, eating and gossiping.
It was rather a lovely feeling, to bring a smile to people’s faces and stop them in their tracks with the power of music. Some threw coins into our open violin case as they passed by, others stopped to listen first, forming a pop-up crowd around us, clapping when we finished playing. Later, when sharing out the cash, cream eggs and flowers – our audience was generous in different ways – we would always be thankful. Even in the colder months, with frozen feet and Michelin man style clothing to delay our fingers seizing up, busking with friends was always fun.
Some musicians are the more traditional kind, favouring evening dress and a concert hall and an audience that know the rules about clapping. Others only love to play jazz – classical concerts being most unpalatable, unless extraordinarily well paid with very few notes to play. I love the enormous surround sound of playing in a symphony orchestra; love the intimacy of a string quartet and the darkness and unpredictability of an orchestra pit. Pit playing has rather a clandestine aura about it. The blackness, the inability to see the audience, or the stage – we’re a hidden entity reliant on one another. In the dialoguey passages above our heads, when the band rest their arms and mouths, there may be raucous laughter from the audience, or hushed silences, and one can only imagine what may be happening on stage, nothing is certain! During these interludes I tend to wander about in my own thoughts, or scribble some words and eat pick ‘n’ mix. Many of the players dip their heads to their ‘phones, perhaps swishing through Facebook or doing the weekly shop, or maybe they are coordinating a jewellery heist, it’s impossible to tell. Sometimes debris drifts down onto the band from the action above. Feathers, rose petals, ribbons – I quite like it when such things find their way to us secret lot in the dark. Unfloaty objects like bikes and books and people falling onto the orchestra is no fun at all, and not what one would class as a top gig.
Some gigs are more exciting to play in than others, some are better paid than others, and some are more mind boggling than others – especially the kind that take place in an enormous penthouse bar and the genre of music is ‘House’. Floor to ceiling windows tipping out at an angle gave one the feeling that the ‘Classic House’ event might actually be taking place on an enormous cruise ship, one that was created just for partying. The hundreds of expensively dressed people gathered for the evening quaffed complimentary Veuve Clicquot as they milled around, taking pouty selfies and letting the throbbing electronic beat take over their limbs. As the orchestra wasn’t due on until later there was ample time to goggle at the party antics unfolding around us, and to have one’s face decorated with glitter. The glitter-artist lady was fabulous, speedily dipping brushes into tiny pots of shimmery sumptuousness and expertly dabbing them into position on my face. As she worked I took a moment to admire her minimalist uniform, hearing my dad’s voice in my head admonishing his daughters to cover up their kidneys and ‘put a sweater on’. I did hope she had a big coat to wear home, her small pink pants and tiny top weren’t much protection against the night air. Five minutes later, sparkly disguise in place, I was ready for my foray into a penthouse rave.
Although the music for the playing of ‘Ibiza club classics’ was not the most interesting, the spectacle that went with it certainly was. The orchestra was set out on a tiered stage, bright ever changing back drops flashing about on screens behind us. The petite DJ lady, unrecognisable from the earlier sound check, resplendent in blond bobbed wig and dominatrix style attire, swiped her fingers over her hi-tech ‘desk’ authoritatively, singing as and when required. Female dancers, scantily clad in scraps of turquoise fabric and feathers, strode through the crowd on stilts and, upon climbing down, were a particular hit with the fast dancing older gentlemen in the audience. They were quite a distraction for the orchestra. My chap, sitting next to me on stage, omitted a bar or three of music due to the proximity of one such lovely lady and her feathers.
The tightly packed boisterous crowd guzzled overpriced drinks, their inhibitions depleting by the minute. Some swayed to the music with closed eyes, hands in the air as if physically touching the sound vibrations. Others danced as though their bodies were stuck on an invisible ‘fast-forward’ button. Broad chested security men stood with their backs to the orchestra, looking out, poker-faced, into the throngs of gyrating bodies, discouraging them from joining the musicians on stage. Rather thrilling really, although as the night unfolded, the predictably unpredictable behaviour of the intoxicated made the presence of the bouncers more of a necessity. One particular party animal shouted over the heads of the burly guards, heckling the violinists and singers enthusiastically. I caught the eye of my chap. ‘Full idiot!’ we both thought.
All in all it was a pretty surreal kind of gig, and if I hadn’t found shards of glitter in unexpected places the next morning, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d dreamt it.