Friday, 16 May 2014

Rock 'n' roll star???

For a short while, I was in a band myself. I’ve never been much of a musician, though had I stuck at it, I could have been a half-decent piano player. When I was growing up, our next door neighbour was a retired music teacher who gave me free lessons. I stopped going when I was 15 using the excuse of school work and exam pressure. A year or two later, I bought my first guitar. I was much better at piano than I have ever been at guitar, but I wanted to rock. I wanted to be Angus Young or Jimi Hendrix, not Elton John or Billy Joel.

I taught myself, but always struggled beyond the simplest elements of rhythm guitar. I tried to avoid playing anything that involved F or B-flat chords, and lead riffs were way off my scale.

Having never failed to impress others with my total lack of guitar-playing ability, I nonetheless joined Shrug sometime in 1996 (I think). Shrug was a four-piece indie band that specialised in upbeat pop songs influenced strongly by the Smiths, the Wedding Present, Echo and the Bunnymen, etc. I already knew a couple of guys in the band – drummer Stu and I had ‘done’ Reading together in 1992 and were now flat-sharing; while bassist Penfold had previously been in a death metal band who I had written about during my time at the local rag. I got to know Jim and Gary, Shrug’s founding members, one evening over a pint when they approached me to ask if I would consider becoming their manager. My knowledge and enthusiasm, along with my contacts list, were ideal attributes for them. I liked them too and heard enough in their songs to believe we could work together.

Shrug: Stu, Penfold, Gary; Jim (front)
What they really wanted was to play a decent music venue rather than the pubs and function rooms they were used to. My first mission – to get them a show at Exeter’s Cavern Club – was accomplished within a matter of a couple of weeks; a support slot with Flyscreen, a band hailing from Newport, the south Wales town that would become my home some years later. South Wales, Newport in particular, was on the crest of a wave in terms of musical coolness at the time. ‘Cool Cymru’ was the music press’ preferred label; bands like Flyscreen, 60 Foot Dolls, Dub War and Feeder all received regular features in the media, and the legendary TJ’s was regarded as one of the ‘must play’ venues on the circuit. So as expected, the Cavern was very busy; Shrug played to their biggest audience to date, a great time was had by all and I won several kudos points from the band and their followers.

My job as manager continued for a few more months before a bombshell was dropped – Gary was leaving owing to family commitments. This was a disaster. Gigs were on the horizon, and I had booked studio time. Where could we find a guitarist to step in at short notice, preferably one who knew all the songs? In spite of my inability to play much more than half a dozen chords, and having never played with a band, or in front of an audience, I agreed to step in on a temporary basis until a replacement could be found. A replacement was never found and I remained Shrug’s lead guitarist for 18 months, to this date one of rock’s biggest jokes!

Shrug v2.0
That's me crouching, with Stu, Penfold & Jim
Gary had agreed to see out the upcoming shows which was a relief, until… one evening, Jim turned up to rehearsals with his arm in a sling. Rugby injury. He couldn’t play guitar. Gig at the weekend. Trouble! My debut with the band was going to be much sooner than I had anticipated. The show was at The Globe, one of our local pubs in front of a home crowd who knew the band. So, they might be rather forgiving. On the other hand, they might not, and I’d never live it down.

You learn fast when you’re in a band. I certainly learnt the set in double-quick time, even how to play Fs and B-flats. I also learnt another thing on the night – I can’t drink and play. Even a couple of pints for Dutch courage proved excessive. My fingers were all over the place, and at one point I couldn’t remember whether I should be playing F-C-Am or C-Am-F. An exasperated cry of “C! Play a fucking C!” from Jim soon put me right. To be fair, it wasn’t an unmitigated disaster. The audience cut us some slack owing to the circumstances, but I was left with little doubt that there was some work to be done. There was also no doubt I was the least musically competent member. What I did have however was boundless enthusiasm and loads of ideas. 

TheRobster rehearses his
mandolin part in the studio
during the 'Hubris' sessions.
Fuckin' poser...
During my time in Shrug, the band’s sound evolved to become more complex and adventurous. Our venture into the studio (my first, the band’s fourth) was a real education. Even though the other guys had recorded before, this time we worked with someone different in a completely digital studio. Alex Duncan, the studio owner, producer and engineer, was open to all our ideas and totally indulged us. We made a half-decent demo entitled ‘Hubris which also included a cheesy Europop remix Alex did for us for a bit of fun, and a funky new logo designed by MrsRobster's stepdad (see top of page).

Our live show also became tighter and tighter, and we weren’t afraid to try new things. My highlight was my debut show back at the Cavern. It’s a tiny place, dark and dingy, but perfect for live music. Each band always got a good soundcheck and the audience always gave you a chance, drifting away from the bar for at least a couple of songs to check you out. I loved playing there, and that was the night I realised playing on stage in front of an appreciative audience was actually way better than being in the audience. I felt almost god-like. Seriously, when you walk onto a stage with a guitar in front of people, they jump about like mad things and you play one of the best damn shows you’ll ever play, very little can beat it, you’re on another level entirely. Plus, I can also genuinely say that I have played on the same stage as Muse, Mumford & Sons and Coldplay. Just not at the same time…

By contrast, my final gig with Shrug was horrible. There were already tensions and I had been considering my future with the band prior to that night, but the final straw was right back where it began: the Globe in Torrington. It sticks in my head for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind going into it. TheMadster was just a few months old, MrsRobster was ill with a mystery liver complaint and family stresses were mounting up. In the band, I had never seen eye-to-eye with Penfold. As much as I liked the guy, I felt he had very little respect for me as a member of the band and our bickering at rehearsals had intensified week on week. I also knew we weren’t up to much as a band. There were egos where egos had no right to be (we were still playing pubs, for chrissakes!), our material was stagnating and our general enthusiasm was waning. I was a simmering pot before we played. And then something happened which made me boil over.

Shrug live at the Globe.
Just look at the determination on that guitarist's face!
As gigs go, it wasn’t wonderful. Sure, we were playing in front of friends who would have loved us even if we decided to play a set of free-form jazz on makeshift instruments made from kitchen utensils. But it just wasn’t great, something was lacking. We had rehearsed a little ‘surprise’ for the audience. For a laugh, we decided to throw in a cover of I Will Survive. Up to that point in the set, I was (unusually) the only one who hadn’t yet made a mistake. Stu had missed a beat at some point and even Penf hit a bum note. But these things happen right? You just carry on and hope no one noticed; luckily no one did. So I hit the opening chords of I Will Survive as Jim sang: “First I was afraid, I was petrified…”. The audience chuckled and cheered at our little joke and all seemed well. But then, at the point the whole band joined in, Jim pulled up and stopped us in our tracks. He turned to me and yelled: “Will you fucking tune your guitar up, it sounds awful!” I hit a chord. It sounded perfect. I hit another. Spot on. Jim strummed one. Shit. He was out of tune, not me. Everyone noticed. That’s when I lost it. On top of all the other friction in the band, the assumption that if someone screwed up it was more than likely me, and I should be shouted down in front of the audience – I mean that’s bad enough. But it wasn’t me who screwed up. I knew at that moment, this would be my last gig with Shrug. I reluctantly played on, quietly seething, but I longed for the end. As the last song ended, I threw my guitar down and strode out of the Globe. I felt humiliated and let down, yet justified in my anger. I wandered through the streets for a bit to cool off before heading home.

The next day, I went to help pick the gear up from the Globe. Other than the expected “where did you get to last night” questions, Stu huffily informed me that I “owe some people an apology”. What for? What about my apology? I picked up my stuff and never looked back. I let the guys know I had quit a day or two later and that was that. My brief flirtation with rock & roll glory was over.

With hindsight, quitting was definitely the right thing to do even if I really did miss playing with the guys. What was a mistake was the way I left. Hell yes I was pissed off, but that was as much my problem as anyone else’s. And while it wasn’t fisticuffs at dawn Liam and Noel style, it was rather petulant. What I think left a bitter taste in their mouths was the article I published on the band’s website (yes, we had a website in 1998!) which revealed ‘The Truth’ about being in Shrug and why I left. It was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but they seemed to take offence. Some years later, I found a backup copy of the site on an old disk and re-read that piece. I understood then why the boys were a bit miffed; it wasn't written terribly well and I came across as a bit of a twat with an axe to grind. Sometimes when you detach yourself from a situation and look at it from someone else's perspective, you really do see things differently. 

Shrug during the good times
If I could turn the clock back, perhaps I would have done things differently. Although we remained friends, I got the impression they held what happened against me. Truth be told I never felt I really fitted in with them, but after I quit I sensed some resentment towards me. I never bothered to ask for sure. Shame really as we had some good times.

Shrug continued as a trio for a little while but eventually called it a day. I put my guitars away and have barely touched them since. In fact, I sold most of my gear when I moved to Wales, keeping only my beaten up old acoustic and my prized mandolin. Both deserve to be played properly, but probably never will.

  • The Decision Was Mine - Shrug (from ‘Hubris’)[1] - will re-up by request.
  • Buttman - Shrug (from ‘Hubris’)[2] - will re-up by request.
  • Factory Gates - Shrug (from the Fluid Emissions compilation ‘Junior 2’)[3] - will re-up by request.

[1] One of Shrug's best songs, even if it does sound very Smiths-esque. But then Jim was a Morrissey obsessive. I play lead guitar and mandolin on this track.
[2] One of my faves on 'Hubris'. We actually didn't intend to include this one, we just laid down the basic track one afternoon as it was a brand new song we wanted to practice. For some reason, we kept coming back to it, adding bits until we thought 'you know, this doesn't sound too bad'. The lo-fi intro was my idea right at the end of the production stage and it works really well I reckon. Buttman also features my finest ever guitar solo. Yeah, it's pretty bloody rough, but it was the best damn solo I ever played!
[3] Shrug's signature tune. I don't play on this, it was the last track recorded with Gary a year or so before we recorded 'Hubris'. Live, we played it faster and louder and it never failed to get people going. In fact, such was the song's appeal, several other local bands used to cover it! Had Shrug ever recorded a decent version of it (I don't rate this take of it at all), Jim in particular could have made quite a few bucks in royalties. I remember him getting quite pissed off when the Beautiful South released Don't Marry Her as he felt it had an almost identical chord sequence. He had a point...


  1. Hah ... you should've left the stage in a Paul-Simonon-on-the-cover-of-London-Calling style: now, THAT would have told the blighters where they really belong!!

    Will download the tunes later today, Little Loser is away overnight ....

  2. Ha ha ! Great story. There's got to be a documentary made about your time with the band. Get some actors to re-enact those moments.