In praise of the ‘Skeptics in the Pub’

The last – and only – time I took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was in 2015. Irrespective of title, content etc., I kept it under the radar. I kept it under the radar for two reasons: it wasn’t ready, and took a good while to get anywhere near cohesive in its orientation; I also wanted to get an idea of how the whole Edinburgh experience worked. I say ‘I kept it under the radar’… let’s just say beyond attempting to get people in, on a daily basis, I didn’t go out of my way to court publicity, or achieve some sort of greater recognition.

If anything, the experience only served to confirm what I believe to be the biggest obstacle in relation to promoting an Edinburgh show: a lack of readiness. Whatever befalls the situation thereafter, taking to the stage having billed a show as a complete entity, and knowing that the idea is far from it, is a far more depressing scenario to serve unto oneself than any amount of negative feedback on the part of others (be it press or otherwise)… chances are, they’ll confirm this for you, anyway.

The 2015 experience highlighted that it can take an entire run to even begin to shape an idea to the point of satisfaction i.e. a consistent set of narrative ideas and/or themes throughout, with plenty of punchlines to spare.

So what are the potential solutions to the problem? It’s either case of running material in, over the period of year’s performing in the clubs, or get a really good load of previews leading up to the festival. Clearly the latter is the preferable route as themed shows tend to contain ideas that do not readily lend themselves to the club circuit. Getting ‘preview time’ is in a thing-in-itself though, with amounts available standing in direct correlation to perceived notions of profile, on the part of promoters.

To provide further clarification, one time – in my own capacity as a promoter – I offered some ‘preview time’ to a comic on-the-cusp of becoming a household name, which they were able to decline on the basis that they already had thirty previews in the book; not to mention the fact that they were also likely to be running in some of the more accessible bits via guest appearances at the clubs as well. Basically, if your star’s in the ascendant, the offers will so much more readily available: ‘to they that hath, shall be given’.

I should also mention that prior to 2015, I had previously succeeded in touring a show about teaching, which I took around the country’s various arts centres and theatres; in some instances on more than one occasion. I was able to do a certain amount of preparation via other festivals, and also through some of the events I promote under the ‘Barnstormers Comedy’ but nonetheless the show was considerably different by the end of the process, and – obviously – in much greater shape. A comedy idea is never finished really: it can always be improved and enhanced by continual performance and reflection.

So what is the point of going to Edinburgh without an idea that at the very least stands up (no pun) to a reasonable extent at the outset? In my opinion, none really… but happily, I feel justified in going this year with something that I feel is already taking shape to a very satisfying extent, and it’s no-small-part thanks to an organisation called ‘Skeptics in the Pub’.

I first came across the ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ back when I was living in Sussex. Scouting around for gigs in the locale, I noticed a fellow comic (of an arguably more polemical persuasion) was performing for the Worthing branch. Further investigation revealed the ‘SiTPs’ to be a worldwide concern that was very big on the business of debunking ideas across a broad range of religious and pseudo-scientific issues; and played host to many of the great and the good on hand, to facilitate the process.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that here was an opportunity to create something pertaining to my own past as a Religious Studies teacher, and – more recently – Humanist affiliate.

A few phone e-mails later, and I had a number of engagements in the book, on the basis that not only were the ‘SiTPs’ keen on a bit of comedy, my background as a Religious Studies teacher would – hopefully – make for an interesting Q&A, which always follows a performance/talk.

And needless to say – fast-forwarding to the present day – it’s been great process, developing the idea in conjunction with the organisation: not only have I been able to write about stuff that really interests me, I’ve also had space to breathe: there isn’t the pressure to conform to the three-or-more laughs-per-minute dictates of the club circuit.

Not that I didn’t want to get plenty of laughs all the same. I’m a little wary of individuals who bill themselves as stand-up comedians when what they do has more to do with ‘infotainment’ than comedy. By which I mean, if you stack a set-up with loads of information, the audience will forgive a weak punchline as they’ve already got a stack of educational nourishment, in the telling. The unfortunate flip-side, from a focussed comedic perspective, is that if the ideas aren’t working, it can seem – from an audience perspective – that they’re in the midst of a strange lecture from an individual who doesn’t seem to realise they’re relying purely on a continual stream of odd non-sequiturs, with little-to-no grasp of the linear process.

But, as suggested, it’s been a great experience. Sure, there were clunkier gigs – mostly – earlier on, but they’ve invariably been rescued by a very fulfilling Q&A in the second half: there’s plenty of interest out there, about the way in which the business of religion is taught in our schools. And that in part, is the thrust of the show: raising the question as to how best to teach the subject.

So thanks ‘SiTPs’. Thanks first of all for providing an excellent platform for discussion and investigation more generally, but also – in my case – for allowing me to present my ideas in such a way that I can be free from the expectations of the usual comedy set-up, and therefore free to succeed or fail on more relaxed terms. And apart from having met a stack of great new people, I can also go to Edinburgh with that little bit more confidence at the outset, and that alone has made the experience invaluable.

For more information regarding my Edinburgh show: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/kevin-precious-unholier-than-thou-the-non-believing-religious-studies-teacher

For more information regarding ‘Skeptics in the Pub’: https://www.skepticsinthepub.org/

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The Former Religious Studies Teacher’s Love Of Film

Given that teaching Religious Studies can be a tough gig at the best of times, I found that one of the better ways to engage children meaningfully and get past the obvious reluctance on the part of many of them, was via the medium of film.

When I say ‘obvious reluctance’, I should point out at this stage, that my own approach to teaching the subject was that of a Humanities teacher, striving to shed light on the socio-cultural aspects of religion; as well as questions relating to life and meaning, more generally. I wasn’t on any mission to make a convert of anybody.

I’ve got absolutely no religious axe-to-grind whatsoever, and tend towards the view that it’s the Religious Studies teacher’s duty to enhance the children’s outlook on the world around them, thus increasing their awareness and understanding: teach the children ‘how to think’ not ‘what to think’ in a nutshell.

At the very least, it also gives the individual a means and the knowledge to formulate their argument, should they wish to agree or disagree with the religious perspective, further down the line.

Nonetheless, the subject carries a certain amount of baggage in its wake, and preconceptions as to what a child might anticipate in relation to Religious Studies persist on both the part of the children, as well as their parents: in most cases, they go hand-in-hand.

A Religious Studies teacher often has to go that extra yard when it comes to creating inspiring lessons, and as such, films are a great way to illustrate a religious story or shed further light on an ethical discussion.

Here then, are a few of the films (by no means all) that I found useful in the course of my own teaching.

 

East is East (1999, Dir. Damien O’Donnell)

I’ve watched this film more times than any other. It fell nicely into a GCSE module on ‘Religion and the Media’ and in the course of my four years as a Head of Religious Studies, I saw no reason to change it. The fact I was teaching in a part of the country that had a high percentage of Muslim families (as well as Hindu) meant that it made good sense.

It makes even more sense when one takes into account that the main thrust of the film revolves around the children of mixed parentage – she’s White, Irish Catholic; he’s Asian, Pakistani Muslim – adapting to the business of growing up in the UK whilst paying suitable deference to their father’s religious demands.

Okay, it’s possible to suggest that the characters of the siblings are painted largely in broad strokes: there’s a gay one, a straight-laced one, a rebellious one, a devout one, an artistic one, a tomboy (i.e. a solitary female) as well as – by way of comic relief – a younger child whose role centres almost entirely upon the idea that he’s been overlooked in relation to the business of circumcision.

Having said that, there’s a lovely pace to the proceedings overall, laughs-a-plenty, and a few poignant moments in there as well: just to remind everyone that there are serious issues underpinning the whole thing.

In some ways, ‘East is East’ takes on a further level of poignancy when one considers that it first arrived in 1999 i.e. before things really got divisive, and it’s this innocence that really cuts through, and reminds us that there was a time when such matters were taken significantly less seriously.

It also did a grand job of us introducing us to a bunch of actors who have subsequently gone on to become regular features within a variety of UK film and TV outlets, including the guy who plays Dev on Coronation Street. ‘East is East’: so much to be thankful for…

 

The Prince of Egypt (1998, Dir. Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells)

This was a very useful film when it came to the no-small-task of introducing an incoming Year 7 to the subject of Religious Studies. Having, in some instances, only previously engaged in an occasional primary school RS lesson – often created by individuals with less subject knowledge, combined with genuine concerns about upsetting people – what better way than to begin with a spectacular animated version of the story of Exodus, courtesy of DreamWorks?

Sure, there are plenty of liberties taken with the storyline, in the interests of dramatic tension – assuming we take the original story in the Book of Exodus as a basis for authenticity – but it’s a sure-fire attention-grabber: what with the excellent graphics, all-star cast, and hugely memorable musical score.

A great means then, of providing a foundation for the study of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, in particular – and all of it shown piecemeal, so as to keep the focus from one lesson to the next.

And just in case anyone of a more sceptical orientation would wish to chuck in a barbed comment or two, not only did I take the opportunity to flag up the inconsistencies between text and screen, I also had a documentary on hand that suggested the biblical plagues were caused by series of naturally occurring events, focussed primarily on the presence of an excess of red algae in the River Nile (Rivers of Blood?); a theory which is also worth a ‘google’ of anyone’s time.

It might say Religious Studies on the tin, but that’s not to say there isn’t a little room for Scientific Theory and Rational Argument in there as well.

 

Jesus of Nazareth (1977, Dir Franco Zeffirelli)

A classic case of something working well once, and repeating the trick, I took pretty much the same approach with the Easter story as I did with that of the Exodus: break it down into episodes, and show an appropriate film piecemeal, to back up the ongoing teaching process.

I use the term ‘appropriate’ because there is a good range of cinematic material available when it comes to the subject of the Messiah, and while some are undoubtedly better than others, it’s pretty much a rule of thumb that you’re going to want to avoid the likes of ‘The Passion of The Christ’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’.

I went with the televisual epic ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, not least of which because it sticks fairly religiously (ahem) to the source material, and presents a family-friendly accessible Jesus, that reflects – in a relatively straightforward manner – the stories presented in the Gospels, back at the audience.

That’s what comes down to basically: we’ve all got an idea of the narrative, so how is the director going to play with the symbolism and the meaning? Another reason for not going down the Mel Gibson or Martin Scorsese route – apart from the certification, obviously – is the reliance on a need for a deeper understanding of the story, before tackling their respective interpretations.

Be aware however, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ is one heck of a ‘luvvie fest’ with pretty much everybody who was anybody at the time, taking on a role; a veritable galaxy of talent, coming together at a time when the notion of a ‘Hollywood star’ still carried massive weight, and the objects of our adulation still appeared as untouchable otherworldly beings set before us… aptly enough.

One can only ponder the sheer volume of anecdotal material the endeavour must have generated, as those gathered, attempt to outperform their equally lustrous contemporaries. Special mention must go to Rod Steiger who brings no small amount of method to the role of Pontius Pilate and in so doing is unwittingly hilarious.

And of course, we ought not to fail to namecheck the star himself, Robert Powell who would never again radiate such beauty, not even playing a hapless Brummie detective alongside Jasper Carrot. Although, he did marry Babs Lord, the focal point in a line-up of Pan’s People that wasn’t exactly struggling for focal points, so he can probably afford to be philosophical.

Did I mention that we all had an idea of the story? One assumes as much but an undoubted highlight for me came during the scenes when Pilate ordered his men to take Jesus outside and give him a sound thrashing. It was at this point that one of the students, without an ounce of guile, asked : ‘Sir, do they kill him?’

Just goes to show, one can’t take too much for granted, and how important the job of the teacher is when it comes to pointing out the significance of something as seemingly straightforward as the cross; as opposed to the whip, which – to my knowledge – plays little to no part in Christian symbolism. Unless, of course we refer back to those naughty old-fashioned clergyman who always seemed to be getting caught in some sort of compromised flagellation scenario – courtesy of the Sunday newspapers – and were a source of stereotypical amusement to all.

 

Dead Man Walking (1995, Dir Tim Robbins)

I can’t quite remember the context for using this particular film, but given that the GCSE Religious Studies syllabus I was teaching had a strong ethics-orientated basis and was very much structured along issues-focussed lines, it’s a safe bet that it would slot very neatly into a ‘Crime and Punishment’ module.

Based upon true life events, the story details the relationship between a Roman Catholic sister and a death row inmate, as she seeks to act as his spiritual advisor, in the period leading up to his execution.

And what an emotionally draining experience it all is? And I mean that in the most positive way possible. Utterly absorbing with all manner of themes thrown up, once one starts digging below the surface: Old Testament retribution versus New Testament forgiveness; the possibilities for both redemption and remorse; personal responsibility for one’s actions; and – not least of which – the moral ambiguities surrounding the idea of the Death Penalty as a means of societal justice.

In addition to which, you’ve got a whole bunch of side-orders going on, including: faith, and the need to question one’s own motives in relation to the attempts to save others; as well as the inherent unfairness ascribable to the American judicial system – insofar as the acquisition of a suitably affordable representative can result in the difference between a life or death sentence.

The ethical issues don’t just begin and end with the film either. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the relatives of the victims weren’t consulted when it came to the business of adapting their stories for both the film, and the book that preceded it. A question also arises as to what extent writers have an obligation towards the source material when it comes to creating – albeit well-intentioned – fiction for commercial consumption?

Worth bearing in mind, particularly when one considers that somebody saw fit to turn the whole thing into an opera as well. The mind boggles. From my perspective, I can only imagine something quite awful and not un-akin to that of the work found in ‘The Producers’ by Mel Brooks; although I’m always prepared to have that view corrected.

 

The Ones That Got Away…

To Sir with Love (1967, James Clavell)

Shown during a down-period – or two – to an extremely challenging group of Year 10 girls in my first year of teaching, who having subscribed to the subject on the basis that they would be taught by my predecessor (something of an older sister figure who had departed in a self-induced huff) were not in the least bit enamoured with my presence.

The moral would appear to be that just because one’s own personal history was enhanced by a particularly brilliant film, don’t narcissistically expect others to buy into the same experience. ‘How about we make one of you?’ was one such comment heard on the way out, ‘We could call it ‘To Sir with Hate’’.

It’s a great film nonetheless… and the theme tune is worth the admission price alone.

 

Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)

This pretty falls into a similar category as ‘To Sir with Love’: I was making the same assumption that because I thought something was brilliant, the kids would be inclined to do so, also.

I decided to show it in tandem with a module on Buddhism as co-writer director Harold Ramis (a practicing Buddhist at the time) was almost certainly inspired by the idea of reincarnation… or eternal recurrence if you’re a bit on the Nietzschean side? The idea being that you keep ‘coming back’ until you get it right… with a whole bunch of philosophical perspectives explored in the interim.

The class I showed it to couldn’t find their way past the exposition, without which – of course – the whole thing falls down. Oh well, there’s always another time.

 

Inherit the Wind (1960, Stanley Kramer)

A film about evolution, and whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, as exemplified by a true story of a teacher attempting to do precisely that in 1920s Tennessee.

There’s only one problem: it’s in black and white. And in no circumstances, were the children I was teaching prepared to watch something in black-and-white.

Ironic that the protests were far in excess of anything one might expect in relation to the subject matter contained therein. Doubly-ironic that the children I taught, have clearly evolved to the point that watching anything other than colour in relation to the moving picture, suggests a more primitive un-relatable state-of-being.

Had I investigated further, I would have become aware that there are a couple of colour remakes. This one’s the classic though.

 

Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

This is just wishful thinking really. I wouldn’t even attempt it. It’s a great favourite of mine, which is the first no-no. And also, it’s in black-and-white… so we’re already starting to go off the scale.

Still if you’re looking for a classic expressionist film wherein a psychotic preacher chases a couple of children around the countryside in pursuit of their father’s ill-gotten gains, having murdered their mother, this is your baby.

 

I’m sure there’s plenty more where this lot came from, so if you’ve got a further RE-related filmic suggestion, feel free to comment.

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The Extrovert Bass Player

Back when pop music was more or less in its infancy, there was a cliché attached to the business of playing the bass guitar: it was the default option of the worst guitarist in any place where three or more guitars gathered, to create a beat combo.

This was a belief that eluded me. My interest in the instrument was piqued due to an inability to identify its presence immediately in the context of the songs that provided my formative initiation into the world of pop. Being able to hear other components such as guitar, drums and vocals was fairly immediate but checking the credits on those early vinyl purchases suggested there was something further I should be looking out for?

Having said that, you’d be hard pushed to miss an individual like Steve Priest of The Sweet, with his odd-shaped Dan Electro, excessive make-up and Native American-style feathered headdress. Or for that matter, Slade’s Jim Lea who, it was quite apparent was one half of the team behind the hits. Only a fool would dismiss either as the poorest musician in any outfit.

Further investigation would confirm this, and reveal that Steve Priest had quite the singing voice, while Jim Lea’s compositional skills extended to writing some fantastically ornate bass lines to add to the mix; as well as having both violin and piano in his armoury. Witness if you will, ‘How Does It Feel?’, a high point in Slade’s already impressive back catalogue and a prog-pop classic that ranks as one of the stand out tracks of the whole ‘Glam’ period.

Anyway, after a period of propping one’s ears too close to the tinny speakers, attempting to decipher the low end rumblings of the mystery component, I set about the business of badgering my parents with a view to making a purchase; a purchase which was consolidated by a promise to pursue Double Bass lessons at school, and thereby counterbalancing an opposing view that a bass guitar wasn’t much cop on its own.

Purchase complete, and lessons installed, progress was nonetheless slow. No doubt, in part due to the lack of anything with which to fully latch on to, in terms of a musical affiliation. But I needn’t have despaired, for things were about to get interesting… very interesting: punk was about to happen.

 

1 Bruce Foxton

‘In the City’ constituted my first album purchase with regard to the punk rock phenomena – The Jam were not punk, strictly speaking, I know – based almost entirely on the look of the front cover; although in fairness it was drummer Rick Buckler’s glasses that held the most appeal.

Remember when we used to buy things on spec (no pun intended)? I’d already taken a similar approach to buying ‘God Save The Queen’ and was therefore exhilarated by the possibilities, posed by the Jam’s debut.

Needless to say, The Jam didn’t disappoint. Not only was it conceivable to hear what Bruce Foxton was doing within the context of the outfit – they were a three piece after all – I correctly ascribed the ability to do so, on the basis of his choice of instrument: a black Rickenbacker4001, according to the back cover.

Copping a feel, if not the actual licks, and applying the confidence-boosting DIY ethos of the punk movement, I decided I too was going to be heard, and further down the line, did precisely that in the context of a working men’s club band in which I inherited a place; executed on the requisite trebly-sounding black ‘Ricky copy’, naturally. This I did, much to the chagrin of my fellow band members who, if the truth be told, would have preferred something a little more subdued and ‘traditional’ in the bass department.

 

2 Jean-Jacques Burnel

Prior to that however, I had formed a punk band with a couple of classmates, and a more able guitar-wielding chap who was a year above us, at a time when a school year really made a difference.

Given that the guitar-wielding chap and I lived close by to each other, he set about the business of teaching me a variety of Stranglers’ bass lines, so that I might provide him with the more musically proficient accompaniment not attainable within the confines of our group. As a consequence, the Stranglers became my new favourite band.

Bless the Stranglers. More musically able than the punks they found themselves tarred with, they also delighted in winding the unwitting up, with their ‘near-the-knuckle’ lyrical content, alongside an all-pervasive air of violence largely manifest in their karate-kicking bass man: a threat made good on the two occasions I saw them play.

Nonetheless, Jean-Jacques became the very model of bass extroversion that I sought to emulate, out front and audible, and like Bruce Foxton, he was quite happy to step up to the mic when it came to handling a bit of lead vocal.

While there’s many a Stranglers track I could have showcased, here is one that feature’s a particularly prominent bass line (as well as a stripper when it came to the live show… different times etc…):

 

3 Chris Squire

So, having accelerated one’s musicality beyond the restrictions of punk rock, what does one do next, in order to expand the bass palette? Commit heresy, that’s what.

Despite the fact, a whole swathe of punk luminaries, had a declared a ‘Year Zero’ with regard to much of what had come before musically, it was obvious – given their respective ages – that many of them were all too familiar with that most taboo of musical entities: Prog Rock (something they were only able to admit later on, after the potential for a witch hunt had subsided).

Guilelessly, I ignored the ban, seeking further bass enlightenment from friends’ older brothers, and sixth formers alike. It wasn’t too long before I found myself in the company of Chris Squire and Yes, he being the bass ‘Numero Uno’, in a field hardly devoid of capable musos.

Once again, we’re talking Rickenbacker-induced, trebly out-front bass-playing here but, this time, we’re also talking bass lines of a most intricate nature wedded to odd time signatures as well; along with the ‘no small business’ of contributing to the delicate vocal harmonies which are so much a feature of Yes’ music.

Given that it is impossible to isolate Chris Squire’s contribution to Yes from the music itself, I ended becoming something of a fan, and subsequently, I can never understand why somebody would want to criticise something as monumental as ‘Close to the Edge’.

Admittedly, the success of CTTE led Yes to travel beyond the edge into – arguably – excesses that didn’t stand-up to the same extent musically, but check out this glorious title track on the album of the same name. First and foremost, it’s a song! A song with all of the features of any song: verses, choruses, a middle section and various instrumental sections; a longer song but a song nonetheless.

Suitably influenced, I was now in a position to start adding top end frills and spills on my black ‘Ricky copy’ to the club gigs I was performing at. A bit galling for my bandmates no doubt, having to deal with the bass man soloing over the likes of ‘Feelings’ by Charles Aznavour but hilarious looking back.

Probably, one of the many reasons, I got the sack… I mean, it’s pretty much a given that there has to be at least one idiot in any band, and in the absence of such, I was obviously happy to volunteer.

 

4 Bernard Edwards

If checking out ‘Prog Rock’ constituted a form of heresy in relation to the punk rock manifesto, there was also something similarly transgressive about pledging anything in the form of allegiance to the late 70s Disco movement.

‘Disco Sucks’ went the middle class white rocker’ slogan du jour; a slur as much laced with racism as it was with snobbery, albeit a slogan that seemed to carry more racist weight in America than the UK, where disco was more the terrain of working class kids letting their hair down at the weekend.

Coalescing around the success of ‘Saturday Night Fever’, the form was purpose-built to feature extrovert bass lines allied to a straightforward drum pattern, and songs such as McFadden and Whitehead’s ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now’, Narada Michael Walden’s ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’, and The Whispers’ ‘And The Beat Goes On’ are fine examples of the genre.

The undisputed king of the ‘Disco Bass’ however, had to be Bernard Edwards who, in partnership with guitarist Nile Rodgers created some of the most memorable tunes in the history of popular music; let alone disco.

While it goes without saying that ‘Good Times’ is quite feasibly the best bass line ever written, I’m equally partial to his playing on more straight ahead stuff as well, like ‘Spacer’ by Sheila B. Devotion. As it stands, I’ve gone with ‘Everybody Dance’ featuring his self-styled ‘chucking’ technique… whatever that is?

 

5 Jaco Pastorius

Start getting a little flash in your approach to your instrument and sooner or later, someone is going to chuck the ‘J’ word into the equation which, in this instance, would more obviously suggest ‘Jazz’, but for a bass player, more equally, a man synonymous with the form: ‘Jaco’, as in Jaco Pastorius.

When people talk in terms of a single individual revolutionising the approach to a particular instrument, the list of greats suddenly gets smaller. To provide specific context – and to reiterate a cliché – what Jimi Hendrix is to the guitar, Jaco Pastorius is to the bass: pulling up the frets to create an entire new sound; incorporating harmonics and chord voicings as a means of providing a mid-range accompaniment; along with a tendency to create tremendous staccato-orientated sixteenth note funk grooves, and thereby fulfilling a more traditional bass role.

‘Larger than life’, and – as his career progressed – increasingly challenging to work with, largely due to what would now be more straightforwardly diagnosed as a bi-polar disorder, his life was tragically cut short during an altercation with a nightclub bouncer in his home state of Florida.

Nonetheless, he left a massive musical legacy, a whole load of copycats in his wake, and the awareness that there was a way of approaching the bass guitar as an instrument prior to his arrival, and an entirely different one after it.

There’s any number of Jaco pieces with which to indulge oneself, from his solo work, through to his tenure with ‘Jazz Fusion’ giants Weather Report and notable collaborations with the likes of Joni Mitchell. I’ve opted for ‘Punk Jazz’ from the Weather Report album ‘Mr Gone’ which – as a first purchase on my part – resonated to a greater extent than its more acclaimed predecessor ‘Heavy Weather’.

 

6 Louis Johnson

Now, if all of this wasn’t enough in terms of intimidation by virtuosity, a new phenomenon was boring its way into the lives of the hapless guitar shop assistant (albeit belatedly, in this particularly corner of the world): Slap Bass. And the role of the ‘worst guitarist in the band’ would never be the same again.

Here at last was a guaranteed, cast-iron, sure-fire method by which the previously unassuming low end merchant could step out from next to the drums and into the spotlight of the centre stage. So much so that, the rest of the band now had a battle on their hands controlling not only the excesses of the lead guitarist but those of the bass guitarist as well.

Fun to execute, and not nearly as vigorous as it appeared (once one had established that the left-hand played nearly as an important role as that of the right), slap bass could make a track in the 1980s, or – indeed – ruin one.

And it was all thanks to Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham who devised the method back in the 1960s as a means of adding extra percussion to accompany his mum, in the absence of a drummer. Little did he realise at the time, his innovation would give rise to bass tutors at Berklee College of Music having to teach to the accompaniment of a hall full of individuals operating akin to a massive ‘Typing Pool’; amongst a multiplicity of other side effects, ‘music-shop assistant ire’ amongst them.

So, if one is going to pursue such percussive matters, where to start? Well, the first thing to really grab my attention in relation to the ‘Slap Bass’ beast was the solo plum smack in the middle of ‘Stomp!’ courtesy of the Brothers Johnson; and that’s before we even factor in the already fantastic accompanying line sitting in the rest of the track.

Nicknamed ‘Thunder-Thumbs’, and one of the frontrunners in the whole of the ‘Slap Bass’ universe, on ‘Stomp!’, Louis Johnson demonstrates in solo form that which he’d previously consigned to creating the most excellent grooves with his older brother, such as on the magnificent ‘Get The Funk Out Ma Face’.

And if further non-slap proof should ever be required in relation to the man’s groove credentials , that’s him laying down one of the most famous bass lines in pop history: Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’.

 

7 Mark King

Fired by the possibilities, I’d pretty much reached a conclusion that a funky approach to playing the bass guitar was where it was at, and decided that a subscription to ‘Black Music’ magazine would therefore equally be where it was at.

Aside from discovering the delights of reggae into the bargain (Black Uhuru’s ‘Red’ is one such purchase, BM inspired me to make), I got to know a great deal more about the burgeoning Brit-Funk movement, in amongst which I developed a thing in particular for a band called Linx, featuring David Grant (better known nowadays, as a vocal coach and star of kids’ TV); or more specifically, in my case, the bass player Peter ‘Sketch’ Martin, who – to my ears – had something of the ‘Bernard Edwards’ about his playing.

However, the guy who ‘stole a march’ on everybody – by a significant margin – was Level 42’s Mark King. If we’d previously only got sneak previews of the ‘Slap Bass’ technique, Mark King put it right out there for all to see (and bear in mind, we’re talking a pre-internet age whereby such sightings were rare, and given that it was hard to discern the technique by listening alone, any visual was a bonus). And not only that, he was singing at the same time. A sickeningly capable individual.

It became quite the thing to malign Mark King later on – as the band hit the commercial heights – suggesting there was some sort of content over style thing going on (i.e. lots of notes, and little groove) but have a listen to the Level 42 debut album for starters, if you will, and there’s plenty on there, to suggest otherwise.

 

8 Mick Karn

Despite the ongoing funk immersion, if you’d have asked me at the time who my favourite band were, I’d have probably said ‘Talking Heads’. I’d kept up an ongoing commitment to the post-punk cause, despite having deviated from the rigour of the ethos, and as far as I was concerned, the arthouse leanings of David Byrne and co, were right up my proverbial.

They were also becoming very funk-orientated themselves, into the bargain, initially on the standout album – for me – ‘Fear of Music’, and ultimately, on the more ground breaking, ‘Remain in Light’.

And if artsy-funk was floating my boat, it was only a matter of time before late developers Japan were battling for equal billing on the ‘favourite band’ front as well; particularly as they possessed in Mick Karn, an astonishingly original and flamboyant fretless bass player.

Demonstrating all that the fretless bass had to offer in terms of slides, tone and vibrato, he also threw a few Eastern-type scale ideas into the mix, due – one assumes – to his Turkish-Cypriot heritage (as well as the abiding interest in all things Sino-Japanese that characterised the entire group). Live, he was also something of a front man – given David Sylvian’s obvious reluctance – moving geisha-like across the stage, whilst all the time never missing a beat.

As far as the selection is concerned, ‘Visions of China’ might have been a more obvious choice from the point-of-view of an up-front signature bass line, but I’m rather partial to the ‘The Art of Parties’ in its original funkified form, on which he still plays an absolute blinder.

 

9 Francis Rocco Prestia

And that was me for the time being. Having devoted most of the 80s to co-writing songs, I’d decided that the bass role was pretty much along the lines of supplying a funky accompaniment to a soul-orientated finish; the sort of thing in truth, for which ABC – more than any other 80s outfit, in my opinion – had already laid down the template.

However, as the 80s became the 90s, my interest in the bass guitar as an entity was renewed via a combination of joining a jazz class at Kingsway College in Camden, attending the Musician’s Academy above the Bass Centre in Wapping, and hanging around the fringes of the Rare Groove/Acid Jazz scene, centred to a large degree around Muswell Hill (for some reason); all in London, of course.

All of this served as means of investigating and absorbing new – or in many cases, old – sounds and styles… all of it amazing, but none more so – from the perspective of this particular bass player – than that of ‘Tower of Power’, and the extraordinary Francis Rocco Prestia.

Not only does ‘Rocco’ possess jaw-dropping capability when it comes to the continuous flurry of sixteenth notes that constitutes his technique, the fact that he allies it to the most astounding ‘pocket’ (‘tech speak’ denoting ability to provide a groove) is nothing short of breath-taking. It’s pretty much a given that Jaco Pastorius’ own approach to the ‘groove’ was inspired by the man.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to see him live, and even in a band that contains the level of musical accomplishment that ‘Tower of Power’ does, he still gets the most sustained response to the roll call at the end; to the point that you can detect a real measure of humility on his part, in relation to the sheer length and level of the adulation that is heaped upon him.

Here’s the signature piece:

 

10 James Jamerson

And finally, by way of coming full circle, I got around to the serious business of checking out the Godfather of modern bass playing, and the man to which pretty much any bass player worth his salt must defer: James Jamerson.

I’d always had a huge love of all things Motown – who doesn’t? – but never really taken enough time out, to investigate fully the stuff of which the grooves were made; such is the overall effect, it’s so easy to be distracted by the amazing performances, melodies and other parts of the arrangements anyway. Well, a certain 1989 publication entitled ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ altered all of that.

Up until that point, it had been possible to pick up on some of what Jamerson was doing but due to the recording technology of the time, much of it merged with everything else that was going on, and would take some serious wearing out of vinyl records or cassette tapes to catch the bass in great detail; not aided by his incredible ability to embellish lines as the song progressed.

Well, here at last was a means by which the hitherto hidden could now be revealed, in all of its magisterial finery.  ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ not only provided a biography of the man, but also transcripts of his playing in painstaking and wholly accurate detail; all of which was executed to a high level of performance by some of the top players of the day.

Something of a tragic figure – he died in 1983, aged 47 due to complications related to alcoholism – James Jamerson has more latterly received the full recognition that eluded him in his lifetime i.e. as an individual, and not just as part of the ensemble. ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ is therefore a fitting tribute and a must-buy for all bass players.

There’s so many tracks one might have chosen by way of demonstrating Jamerson’s greatness, not least of which the likes of ‘(Reach Out), I’ll Be There’, ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ but I’ve opted for ‘I Was Made To Love Her’. It’s performed by Marcus Miller in the book, and provides a great demonstration of many of James Jamerson’s technical capabilities: sixteenth note flourishes; raked open strings and passing notes; as well as an occasional muted string. It’s a study in itself, and worth bearing in mind that it’s far from the hardest piece in the book to execute.

 

Honorary mentions go to: Stanley Clarke (first two ‘Return to Forever’ albums), Michael Dempsey (‘Club Country’ by the Associates? What’s going on there?), Larry Graham (place in history assured, thanks to the ‘slap’ technique but check out his work with ‘Sly and the Family Stone’ as well); Mike Kerr (Royal Blood fella and first bass player to make me sit up in a while); Phil Lynott (bass playing frontman and poetic champion composer); Charles Mingus (double-bass playing legend and writer of genius); Dee Dee Ramone (simplicity itself… but another wayward poet); and Norman Watt-Roy (all Blockheads output, but if he hadn’t created the definitive ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, somebody else would have had to).

Did I miss anybody? Over to you…

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Wither the UK travelling pop song?

I’m currently engaging in the business of putting together an Edinburgh show.  While I don’t want to go into too much detail, mainly because at this stage, it is – as one might expect – undercooked, I can say I am attempting to create some sort of an atmosphere around the process, in the interests of evoking the sort of theatricality that tends to be a part of the Edinburgh process.

To that end, I’ve been looking towards books, films and music that inspire similar ideas to those contained within the show.  We’re talking open space, wilderness and notions of it taking a long time to get anywhere. As a result, I’ve ended up hovering more around American and Australian popular music, rather than Brit stuff.

I’m sure I’m not the first to suggest as much, but we just don’t seem to do a good travel song as far as this country is concerned. It might exist in the folk tradition, harking back to times when it took a few days to get anywhere, and there was a risk of the occasional highwayman robbing you and leaving you for dead (coupled with the prospect of a suitably accommodating barmaid nursing you back to health, and then dying in childbirth… or some such), but look for such material in the field of pop music, and the offerings are – predictably – thin on the ground.  Songs containing UK place names even more so.  Somehow, ‘By the Time I Get to Sidcup’ doesn’t have quite the same resonance.

If you want to access a truly astonishing version of ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, check this out:

 

In truth, there are probably loads of English places that would sit well in a song lyric (a simple google will soon alert you to the presence of number of places in the UK named Phoenix or thereabouts), it’s really got more to do with scale. Such is the size of this place and the accompanying infrastructure that by the time you’ve set off for anywhere, you’ve pretty much arrived, before any sort of interesting yarn can take place. As far as I’m aware there’s yet to be a song adequately communicating the business of putting another rail passenger straight in relation to their anti-social behaviour, on a two hour trip from Doncaster to Kings Cross. Or more appropriately, tutting loudly thoughout the journey, in the vain hope that this will somehow rectify the situation.

Even bands originating in this part of the world seeking to explore such ideas, end up paying homage to the good ole US of A. The Rolling Stones have built an entire career on doing as much, and similarly – although we’re talking Ireland – U2’s big breakthrough came via the same means. Setting an entire album against the backdrop of the American desert brought forth tunes such as ‘With or Without You’, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, and its logical counterpart ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’; the latter two giving rise to the idea that the overall theme might have less to do the vast wilderness, and much more to do with the troublesome vagaries informing the life of a rookie postman.

Just one of many Rolling Stones inspired by life on the road in the U.S. (and a classic to boot):

 

Personally, It’s one of those things I’d like to do a bit more of i.e. travel.  Sure, I’ve been to quite a few places outside of Europe, but I’ve yet to do the big ‘set off on a long adventure’-type jaunt so redolent of the student types I used to run into, when I was but a mere whippersnapper myself. There was a time – for me at least – when one couldn’t escape rank-pulling phrases such as inter-railing, backpacking and gap-year. So much so that, fuelled by class resentment, I could often be found countering with a few of my own: ‘poverty tourism’ and ‘rich parents’. But I was a bit angrier back then.

Not that I haven’t tried to give the big travelling number a go. Having met and developed a brief friendship with a pal of some students I was living with in South London back in the 80s, I thought it would be a great idea for me to play Sal Paradise to his Neal Cassady and set off on a hitch-hiking jaunt across Europe; he had just returned from a similar trip across America, after all. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, lots actually, and needless to say, it was all a bit of let-down. Although I was the older of the two, I can’t claim to have been the more resilient. The trip largely consisted of sleeping rough, initially on old war time bunkers in Calais, surrounded by rats, and ultimately, a protracted period, sleeping in a forest in Holland for far too many nights; having spent an awful lot of time walking from one place to the next rather than hitching. No one – it seems – would give us a ride. Any why would they? We must have looked pretty unappealing.

Bowie or Jacques Brel would have been much cooler… but hey, we are talking the 80s after all:

 

We did manage to get one memorable ride, however. Whilst heading out of Dunkirk, a car suddenly juddered to a halt, and offering the following:

‘You’re English aren’t you?’

‘Yeah, how did you know?’

‘You’re hitchhiking on the fastest part of the motorway. Get in’

And with that we headed off to Amsterdam in the company of a bloke called Piers and a mate with an equally posh name that escapes me, to spend a wild night partaking in some (some, not all) of the delights on offer in that much feted city; the culmination of which saw us sleeping it off in the back seat of their motor. Very glamourous, very ‘On the Road’.

Ultimately, the whole trip a bit anti-climactic and upon our return (having got as far as the German border), I eventually lost touch with my travelling companion amidst a flurry of letters – remember when we used to correspond in that way – which basically consisted of the two of us ripping our respective tastes in music  and literature to shreds.  Subsequent internet searches have proved hopeless given the relative anonymity of the chap’s name.

One thing I do remember from that brief period however, is my mate’s devotion to the Australian band ‘The Triffids’ (I seem to remember going along to see them at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town, during the same period) prompting me – in the midst of writing this – to check them out again. Here’s a fantastic song, if you can get past the 80s production values, courtesy of a great Australian songwriter that died way too young, and was way too underappreciated. It also serves to draw a neat line under the whole discussion.

 

Of course, if you do know of any half decent UK travel pop or rock songs, feel free to comment below.

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Nocturnal Mission: The Punky Reggae Party

In his much celebrated pop-psych manual Outliers, journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that ‘genius’ and the outstanding achievement that goes with it, is for the most part, governed by explainable circumstance and hard work; rather than the idea that some sort of privilege has been bestowed upon an individual, specially chosen by the gods, fate or any other mysterious factor at work in the world.

In one particularly memorable section, he posits the idea that the majority of high profile Canadian hockey players are born in what constitutes the first few months of the school year, which according to Wikipedia is ‘because children born earlier in the year are statistically larger and more physically mature than their younger competitors, and they are often identified as better athletes, this leads to extra coaching and a higher likelihood of being selected for elite hockey leagues’: a phenomena he refers to as ‘accumulative advantage’.

Apparently, there are parallels with high achieving English football players as well, but as I’m unlikely to commit to the same levels of effort in researching said phenomena, as Mr Gladwell – who it transpires is born at the beginning of September and would therefore be one of the oldest students in his year, had he studied in a UK school – I can’t confirm the veracity of such an assertion. And I’d be more than happy to have it suggested by Mr Gladwell or any other reasonably informed individual, that any such research-orientated reluctance on my part has something to do with me being born in what constitutes the UK spring term, and therefore lacking in the sort of tenacity required for such matters.

Had I realised however, that I could have ascribed a semi-scientific theory to my own youthful veering away from the beautiful game, rather than the self-conscious belief that it might have something to do with being pale, thin and being in possession of a greater than average smattering of ginger genes, it would have been a source of comfort. Particularly, if one compares oneself to those early developers who, not only sustained a place in the school team, but stood around the changing rooms, replete with mutton chops and the sort of Y-fronted pose that could only be found in the form of a Marshall Ward catalogue model. But then I probably wouldn’t have immersed myself in rock‘n’roll to the same extent. Marshall Ward or Marshall Amplifiers, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Rock’n’roll is of course, the natural habitat of the wan, and from the early teens I took to the form with aplomb, picking up a bass guitar in the process, and learning via the means of punk rock: which conveniently stipulated that ability was no barrier to expression. And naturally, as all stories of this description go, my grades – which had previously been sufficient to convince anyone I had been born on the very first day of the school year – suffered in the process. But it wasn’t all bad: I formed a band with some school friends, we learnt a load of punk covers (Ramones, Pistols, Damned…), played a gig in a church hall, and one of our contemporaries even took the trouble to gob on us. Not only were we easily pleased, we were also keen to catch hepatitis, it would seem.

Shortly thereafter, in punk terms, I sold out. Not only had punk rock inspired a little bit of confidence in me, it had also given way to a little bit of competence as well, and it wasn’t long before I was invited to take my place in a school band that were playing the working men’s’ clubs, and – in so doing – had provided a platform for a number of other individuals to pass through the ranks before me.

My turn had come around, and before long I was catapulted into an adult world consisting of the occasional drink (lager rather than mild, in my case, and sometimes more than occasional), the occasional proposition from middle-aged women (declined in a terrified state, on every occasion), the occasional fight (women again, invariably), and the occasional stripper (always women). All of which took place against a backdrop of ‘Play That Funky Music’, 50s rock’n’roll and a disproportionate number of Eagles’ songs supplied by our good selves. The downside? Having to smile endearingly and wear the sort of stage gear that would cause any self-respecting punk rocker to vomit in disgust.

But I was getting paid to have a good time, and if that meant dodgy stage-gear and Eagles’ songs, so be it. And, if we had two gigs in any given week, not only did it pay, it paid well. Added to which, I managed to pass my exams with little to no effort – a conceit that would come back to bite me on the backside at a future juncture – and if  I had to pay a visit to the headmaster’s office once or twice, to answer his concerns about my lifestyle, it seemed like a sacrifice worth making. The fact is I was learning something that school could never teach me. I was learning that is not only is it possible to do something you enjoy, and do it outside of normal working hours but also, it’s possible make a living in the process; providing one could resist the temptations that come with the lifestyle, obviously. By which, I don’t just mean the middle-aged Mrs Robinsons.

Overall, my working men’s club period lasted about nine months, before I was replaced by a factory lad who the others were training up and bringing to the gig on a regular basis, so he might learn the music, and take over the role. I’d got the impression that the remnants of my punk rock sneeriness weren’t being too well received by my bandmates; along with a misjudged inclination on my part, to play trebly bass fills on a black Rickenbacker copy a la Bruce Foxton, at every available opportunity: particularly galling – or gauling, if you will – during a rendition of Charles Aznavour’s ‘Feelings’, I would imagine. In the end, I couldn’t say I blamed them. If I was in their position, I would have sacked me as well.

And that’s been pretty much the defining feature of my adult life i.e. the desire to do stuff be it music, comedy or otherwise that permitted a lifestyle that chimes with the nocturnal hours; as opposed to getting sacked on a frequent basis. Don’t get me wrong, I like a sunset morn as much as the next individual, but it’s possible to like it even more so when seen from the perspective of having stayed up all night. This is something that has caused me to wonder Malcolm Gladwell-style whether in my case – apart from the obvious wan-ness – whether having been born in the wee small hours of the morning had any sort of a bearing on one’s overall body clock, and inclination towards the nocturnal life. It’s a thought, isn’t it? Maybe I could research it and write something along those lines and call it Dirt Stop Outliers?

I haven’t always managed to sustain this idealised vision of a lifestyle, however. It was suggested to me further down the line – and rightly so – that it might be a good idea to re-assimilate into ‘normal society’, as there was a legitimate need to get one’s act together, and hopefully get a bit credit-worthy in the process. Thus, I ended up becoming an RE Teacher, if for no other reason than due to a certain amount of night-time consumption of the odd philosophical tome or two. Clearly the nocturnal life was still paying off. The re-assimilation process made perfect sense then, but despite that, it still managed to feel a little like the end scene in Goodfellas; the guns, drugs and killings notwithstanding.

Returning to the business of research briefly, a little while ago I saw that some scientists who, after much investigation, had discovered that people are at their most miserable on a Monday. Really? That sounds like a massively pointless undertaking for all concerned? I mean, whatever I might think of Malcolm Gladwell, I at least give him some credit for putting forward interesting ideas that make for further discussion. This sort of guff sounds as though it was funded by the NSS foundation, whereby the ‘N’ stands for the word ‘No’ and the latter ‘S’ stands for Sherlock (as opposed to the Nation Secular Society, with which I also have a connection). Do we honestly need to pay the over-qualified even more money to work this sort of stuff out? Repeated visits to any London commuter station throughout the process of any given week would be more than enough to confirm such speculative ideas immediately; without any need to invite a single soul into the lab.

Which brings me neatly around to the business of my presiding over the Punky Reggae Party on behalf of Hull Kingston Radio, Monday nights at 8pm. I’m told I’m the third incarnation in terms of featured show hosts so I guess that makes me the Jon Pertwee of the set-up; although the debonair spin Jon Pertwee put on his tenure as the Doctor hardly sits with the notion of punk or reggae. Unless, we fast forward a bit and see his Worzel Gummidge creation as some sort of early manifestion of the trustafarian, which it’s arguable was also in-part inspired by the punk movement?

Anyway, the point is that it covers all the bases. It’s on Monday so we can enliven an otherwise dull evening and put forward the notion of the weekend not having quite finished. It also provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate a brilliant period (or periods), in musical history, in a timeless sort of fashion, without – hopefully – waxing too sentimental. And because, for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be taking place after dark, I’m in my own little happy space as well. Who’d have thought that not making the football team could have proved so productive?* You can listen online as well: https://www.hullkingstonradio.com/

*Readers who have retained an affiliation with football may wish to learn that immediately preceding the ‘Punky Reggae Party’ is an hour’s worth of sport-orientated discussion entitled ‘Talking Balls’.

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I See Tea Time

Anybody who has ever taught ICT in a secondary school context will tell you that there are but a small number of ways to arrange a computer suite, in order to fully facilitate the process of teaching.  Read all of the books on Feng Shui, and Interior Design that you like, but this is one instance where layout serves a much more practical purpose: the teacher has to be able to see every screen from every conceivable position in the room.  Concepts such as ‘harmony’, ‘balance’ and ‘vibrations’ don’t enter into the equation.

Given that this particular tale relates to  a time prior to every ICT teacher having the software to oversee all of the other computers in the room, the best way to achieve the desired effect was to imagine oneself on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, and arrange all of the monitors around the outside, facing inwards: thus enabling the teacher-protagonist to strut around the room, barking out instructions akin to Captain James T. Kirk; complete with imaginary space-vest and space-paunch, should the need arise.

Sadly such precise layouts weren’t always on offer, and given my fairly comprehensive track record of supply teaching, I have found myself in plenty of situations, whereby a lesson was compromised by a constant need to supervise particular individuals prone to downloading games in a bid to avoid the prescribed lesson; as well as, pass the school day in a way more agreeable to themselves. How else might it have been possible for me, to discover the joys of ‘Bubble Shooter’ and subsequently whittle away a certain amount of my own downtime, which I could have used more productively?

So, it was on one such occasion that I found myself covering a Year 10 ICT lesson in a school that I had been regularly attending, and had seemingly – for the most part – ingratiated myself with.  That is, if one overlooks a slight feeling of ongoing antipathy directed towards me, on the part of one of the assistant head teachers.

Of course, it could quite easily have been the case that the individual in question, carried an awkward charge more generally, and subjected any number of other members of staff to the same passive-aggressive demeanour, unwittingly or otherwise i.e. it’s not all about me. It’s very easy, at the time of engagement however, to see oneself as the sole lucky recipient; particularly when one is a supply teacher, with few real allies in the staffroom.

That aside, most of the time, things were just great, with the majority of the lessons on any given day passing peacefully and productively.  Naturally, there are singularly tricky groups in every school, and this was no exception.  As was the case, with the aforementioned Year 10 ICT group: particularly if you bear in mind that I was teaching in a computer suite that had so many nooks and crannies, you could have played hide and seek in there, as well as attempting to conduct the actual lesson. Oh, and did I mention that they were a small group comprising largely special needs students, and individuals with behavioural difficulties? They certainly did.

‘We’re the naughty kids, aren’t we Sir?’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that’

‘Then why is our class called 10w, and all of the rest are called 10a, 10b, 10c, 10d and 10e?’

‘Ah well, there might be a good reason for that. The letters might stand for something. Yours might mean ‘wonderful’, or something like that?’

‘It might stand for something else beginning with a ‘w’ sir’

‘Witty, maybe? I’d say it’s probably best not to speculate?’

Despite the slightly negative deliberations on the part of the students, the lesson went off fairly peacefully, especially if we further consider that it was the last one of the day, and if anything – at least in my experience – things tend to get tougher as the day wears on: the more fatigued one gets as an individual, the more the kids are apt to exploit the ‘chinks in the armour’; more so, if they’ve been exposed to a welter of sugary drinks and snacks over the lunchtime period.

So I was quite pleased that I’d managed to keep them relatively on track with regard to the work, with chastisement regarding the business of looking at sites other than those prescribed kept to a minimum.  So much for the Feng Shui and Interior Design theories.

But such appearances can be deceptive, and rather than congratulate myself on my ability to – not only – maintain order and build a rapport into the bargain, I should have adhered to previously hard won insights along the lines of ‘if a group of otherwise disruptive students, elects to play along to such a degree that it might be deemed out of character, then it probably is out of character, and then there is a deception or a distraction at large’.

And so it was that with about ten minutes to go, until the end of the lesson, the landline in the corner of the room put in an appearance. It was the lady on the reception desk, down by the entrance to the school.

‘Have you ordered some pizzas?’

‘No, why would I do that?’

‘Well, somebody in your name has.  Don’t worry, I’ll get the duty manager to come up there and see what is happening’.

It was at this point – putting the handset down, and slowly turning on my heels – that I became aware of a fully attentive audience eagerly awaiting the next move: an audience, it seems, fully ‘in on the joke’; an audience fully aware of the events leading up to this moment, and excitedly awaiting the next scene. An air of anticipation hung heavy in the room.

‘What was that, Sir?’

I decided to play it down, in an attempt to minimize both the incident, and any potential outcome.

‘Oh, nothing to worry about.  C’mon, why are topping… er, stopping?’

Now I don’t know who the much alluded-to ‘sod’ is, or what business he or she has making laws in relation to the business of stuff going awry, and spinning further out of control, but I think it was pretty much a given that the duty-manager-du-jour would turn out to be the assistant head I had previously deemed somehow resentful of my presence. And sure enough, in that precise capacity, they ‘dutifully’ appeared.

They ‘dutifully’ appeared just as the bell rang, so that the whole episode had the unfortunate look of a pizza-delivery person announcing their presence at the door, and entering to pass their wares on to the hunger-stricken inhabitants therein. I thought it best not to suggest the possibility of a tip.

Assuming an immediate assistant head-style authority over the situation, the identity of the perpetrators was promptly established – it was a fairly small group, after all – and the whole class was dismissed without retribution; a generous move that had little bearing on their need to push things further by enquiring as to whether they might partake of the bounty they had been so instrumental in procuring.

‘Don’t worry’ said the assistant head, addressing me directly, complete with a smile that I couldn’t decide as to whether it was sympathetic or malevolent… or both.

‘I think we can make use of these at the staff meeting’

The response was so low-key that it left me in place where I could only speculate as to the potential outcome, and imagine both positive and negative developments as distinct possibilities. From the school’s perspective, I could easily see the need to add a couple of items to the ‘any other business’ feature of the staff meeting agenda: the need to rearrange the ICT suites in such a way as prohibit access to unauthorised sites, and some sort of review regarding the extent to which the school employs and utilises supply staff.

Ruminating on the latter as I walked home that afternoon, I wondered what I might do, in the absence of further offers of temporary work. And although I didn’t settle upon anything immediately, given the speculative nature of the ruminations, I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling, by way of a cruel irony serving to underscore my plight that I might somehow end up working in a fast food emporium. But presumably, not in charge of the computer?

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Supply Teaching? It’s a bit like Stand-Up Comedy apparently.

A little while ago, I was asked to contribute an article to a renowned Teacher blog and website: along the lines of how stand-up comedy might be compared to supply teaching. It didn’t make the cut. No biggie, really. The exposure would have been nice but given that I work as a stand-up comedian, rejection and failure are an ever present reality. While I can’t claim to enjoy those sensations any more than the next person, they are – thankfully – a minority outcome, and when they do happen, one learns to get philosophical fairly quickly.

In fact, like a supply teacher, as a stand-up comedian you reach a point – in most cases – whereby you see yourself as someone who is doing a job, and if the persons gathered in front of you don’t like what you do, so be it. Unless you say or do something truly outrageous, it doesn’t mean they have a problem with you as an individual; they just don’t like the cut of your jib.  Mostly, they are indifferent to you as a person, beyond the confines of the given environment. Experienced comedians, like experienced teachers seldom talk along the lines of how much ‘they hated me’ unless it’s with an ironic after-the-event-type-smile. They talk in terms of how the situation might be improved for all concerned.

‘They need to shut the place down. They don’t pay me enough to put myself through that sort of nonsense. Not now, not ever.’

Setting facetiousness aside, are there genuinely any links that can be made between stand-up and supply teaching, however tenuous?

If anything, stand-up comedy is easier. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had people say to me ‘Stand-up comedy? I couldn’t do that. That’s so brave’ but think about it, a comedy audience have paid to see you, and have an expectation that you will justify their investment. That’s a long way away from the potential ‘Great, we’ve got a cover teacher, let’s create mayhem’ outcome that is an ever present possibility at the outset of a day’s supply work. I know which the trickier situation to negotiate is by far.

And anyway, conflating the idea of stand-up comedy and bravery is a trifle excessive, is it not? While there have been instances of boundary-breaking comedians who set out to challenge convention, broaden the cultural palette, and in so doing faced a great deal of hostility, in the majority of cases, stand-up comedy is populated by a certain type of – albeit talented – narcissist who’s initial motive is an abiding need to have their existence validated in the immediate moment, by virtue of laughter.  The better ones are aware of this of course, and concentrate on getting good at the craft.  Whether they regard themselves as brave or not is a matter for the individual psyche, but I’ve yet to see a stand-up colleague featured on ‘The Pride of Britain’ awards; unless they’re the one presiding over the event.

Given then, the accepted belief that that we have a relatively short amount of time in which to make an impression, my experience suggests one is much more likely to receive a heckle from a student in a ‘supply’ situation rather than an audience member in a comedy club, irrespective of how much confidence is being exuded: ‘Sir, you look like Billy Connolly’ being a frequent contribution at one time, in my case. I don’t but what are the chances eh? And I’ve lost count of the number of times my surname has inspired a succession of poor but good natured Gollum impersonations.

In a comedy setting any dissent (i.e. heckling) is dealt with in the form of highly amusing spontaneous counter remark, or in many cases, a potentially brutal put-down. You can’t do that at the beginning of a day’s supply.

‘Sir, you look like Billy Connolly’

‘In which case, so will you one day, given the extent to which I know your mum’ (I assume we understand the thinly veneered and highly ‘hilarious’ comedy subtext being implied here?)

Any retorts, witty or otherwise at the start of the school day are likely to backfire. It’s too early, you haven’t won over the kids sufficiently, and anyway, you’re not being employed to provide entertainment. No, the approach that is required is to respond with an air of relaxed but controlled authority, and do your best to avoid clichés along the lines of ‘It’s your time you’re wasting. Any time we lose now, you will have to make up for, at break time’. If for no other reason than you don’t want to talking in terms of surrendering your own break time already, in the process.

And what of the material you might ask? Well, in a comedy situation, much of what one offers, is a bunch of ideas you’ve taken around the place already, polishing them as you go. Which is why, whenever I get complimented and an audience member asks me if I just made it up off the top of my head, I always tell them ‘yes’. I wouldn’t want to disappoint anybody.

Conversely, on a supply job, if the plans you’ve been handed by a helpful TA – always an asset – are any good, you’ve got about 10 – 15 minutes, in a primary situation, to reduce the first lesson to a series of bullet points, before the kids come in, and you have to hit the play button. Less so, in some secondary situations whereby you might have to absorb them at the top of the lesson, with the students already present in the room.

If anything it’s more akin to the semi-spontaneous skills required of the comedy MC: the individual who performs the thankless task of keeping the audience on track between the acts, and when not being met with indifference, meets with suggestions along the lines of ‘You were pretty good as well. You should have go at it’. Duh!

Teaching supply can also be like the role of the MC in that you to have to keep going back to the scene of the awfulness, if you’re having a rubbish time.  If a comedian ‘dies’ on a gig, they’re out of the building. Dying as an MC is much worse: ‘Hello, it’s me again. Yes, I’m still terrible, it would seem’. And so it is with supply. Start badly, and not only is there a chance that will continue, the likelihood is that it’s only going to get worse, as the kids get more animated, and you get more tired. And that’s before we factor in the possibilities of the high sugar content lunchtime, and ‘difficult to control’ open spaces such as drama studios and fields. Yup, there’s nothing quite like arriving at a supply job, and realising that there’s a lesson or two of PE on the agenda. If you ever thought PE teachers looked vaguely ridiculous encircling the throng with their whistles and their tracksuits, you want to try doing the same in a suit.

Overall though, in the case of both stand-up and supply teaching, it’s true to say that if you do well, you’ll get invited back. Obviously, there can be an element of ‘the face don’t fit’ in both instances but, for the most part, merit wins.  So much so that in both areas of endeavour, you can build up a bit of a portfolio of potential work outlets, and choose how to balance the two, or further, choose one over the other.  Over the same period of time, you may even get to grips with the sometimes trickier business of negotiating both the dressing rooms of the comedy world and the staff rooms of the teaching world. But those are a couple of other comparisons entirely.

 

 

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