Monday, 10 January 2011

Adventures in Rock’n’Roll: the Grimwade’s Syndrome years (1989-1991)

It won’t be the last time I mention this, but I had a bad Eighties. Don’t feel sorry for me, it was necessary. I’m referring to my experiences with music, strictly speaking, as it would be a terrible generalisation and something of an injustice to my nearest and dearest at the time to say that this most formative of decades for me — the one that straddled the period of my adolescence entirely  — had nothing to offer a growing boy.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that I spent a great deal of time in that garish, unsubtle decade trying to find decent things to listen to. I often wonder how I made my decisions, and have never really tried to quantify why I like the music that I do. It would be a blog entry all to itself…hmm. I may yet do this in the coming days. Until then, let’s crack on.
By the end of the Eighties, as indeed my teenage years also hurtled to inevitable conclusion, my tastes were gelling, refining, crystallising. For me, music was all about guitars and no small degree of volume. Synthesisers simply would not do. My heroes were David Bowie, particularly  in his Ziggy Stardust persona, his glam-rocking rival-colleague Marc Bolan, the Sixties psychedelia of Syd Barrett and his Pink Floyd, the Seventies psychedelia of Hawkwind, Rush’s 2112 album and the general all-round magnificence of Ian Anderson’s Jethro Tull. I had become a fully paid-up, card-carrying Rock Guy. 
I was not alone of course; Chris and Rich, my oldest friends, who I knew way back to the Convent we attended as Primary School, were also getting into their own respective musical bags and we found plenty to discuss, swap and argue over. Moreover, for once, the world seemed to be in tune with us on this — or perhaps we were coming into line with the world? No, it definitely felt the first way round, dammit. The triumphs of 1970s rock music were working back into the public consciousness — albeit not always in desirable ways. Jimi Hendrix, nearly twenty years dead, was advertising jeans on TV with Crosstown Traffic, but thankfully being reassessed again thanks to Cornerstones, a brand-new compilation CD reissue that was doing brisk business in the shops. My main man Bolan had also been the beneficiary of some recent dubious denim-clad deification. Even so, it was oddly self-validating to see and hear these snippets of sadly departed musical brilliance in the air once more, even if they were peddling some stonewashed kecks. 
But that was only the half of it — new, exciting music was emerging all around too. We eagerly absorbed anything that seemed like it had some guitars and balls to it. The Cult, while not my particular cup of tea, were frequently on the lips my friends. A band called The Black Crowes had just delivered a promising debut album. Metallica were still a thrash metal band, a genre we found faintly ludicrous at the time — but I was starting to admit grudgingly that they were the best of their kind. Best of all, we had Guns ‘n’ Roses and Appetite For Destruction. It had been unanimously hailed a stone-cold classic on instant release in 1987 and we were not about to argue. Not only were G’n’R the band we could all agree on, we felt sure the best album by Guns ‘n’ Roses was going to be their next one, already legendarily long in the making. 
The next step was inevitable. The time was right: we wanted to join a band. Let’s do this — better still, let’s form one ourselves. Great idea, yeah.
And lo, there was rock. No, really.
Rich C: guitars, vocals
Paul A Murphy: keyboards, vocals
Chris P: drums and percussion
So, could we play? Ah. Well, maybe a little: Rich had just recently got a guitar and was learning fast. More importantly, he looked like a less-wasted version of Izzy Stradlin out of Guns ‘n’ Roses, who in turn looked like a less-wasted version of Keith Richards. Chris was quietly confident that he could play drums, although he’d never touched a kit. We had long learned to trust Chris’s quiet confidence on anything over anyone else’s actual experience. Me, I found myself in the interesting position of not having to lay down any muso credentials: since 1987, I had started to record little bits and pieces of music onto cassettes; it was the only way to preserve ideas. Eventually I had enough ideas to fill a C60 tape, which I called Paul Murphy & The Bishops: 1988! I’ll tell you about this tape in greater detail some other time. Threat. The others had heard it time and time again, for their sins. It was all I needed to prove my worth as a putative band member and that was that.
But could we write? Hmm…Rich had allegedly written a song called Be Mine, although none of us ever heard it and oddly he was unwilling to share it with us. My 1988! cassette consisted of tinny, extended wannabe-space-rock-type keyboard noodling, interspersed with ponderous cover versions of Syd-era Floyd songs and T. Rex singles.  Chris wanted to be a drummer. So, nothing at all between us, really. No matter. We had hours of fun trying to think up names for ourselves and that’s what really counted. 
Paul Murphy & The Bishops? No, we didn’t want to defer to a frontman (especially me). 
The Tasty Vicars, then? Nuh-uh, too silly, Paul. 
GSG9? Nah, that’s the name for the German SAS, isn’t it, Chris? 
Black Velvet? Er, probably been done already, don’t you think, Rich? 
Grimwade’s Syndrome? 
Yes indeed, Grimwade’s Syndrome…we kept coming back to this one repeatedly. Grimwade’s Syndrome was a fictional disease, mentioned in a classic Doctor Who story called The Robots Of Death. We were all fans of the story, it was of suitably geeky, obscure provenance and seemed to fit the bill. So it came to pass that in the week between Christmas 1989 and New Year 1990, with a glorious new decade ahead of us, pregnant with promise and anticipation, a decade we knew would remember our names and mighty deeds before it was out…Grimwade’s Syndrome was born.
We spent the first six months of 1990 doing nothing but talk about the band. If you’ve ever been in a band, particularly one you’ve just started, you know this period of ‘hanging out’, discussing potential ‘material’ and ‘songwriting’ is arguably the most idyllic time in any band’s existence;  until you do anything, everything is all potential, everything is achievable and the best is always yet to come. It’s hard to let that time go to exchange it for the stark reality of rehearsing, playing together, securing gigs, recording songs…little things like that.
Chris, Rich and I left our respective schools in that pleasant summer of 1990. I had gone to a different school to the other two, but we’d had a surprisingly consistent and rousing two years in Sixth Form indulging in an unsubtle but inventive blend of mayhem, laziness, table tennis and coffee. Consequently, we’d cocked up a little on the A-Level front. Further Education didn’t seem a likely option, so we spent several carefree weeks in the Sedcopian sun before we had to decide what jobs to go after. One such amusing afternoon spent in Rich’s parents’ garage yielded the one and only ‘live recording’ of Grimwade’s Syndrome. We opened with our slowed-down, Hendrix-inspired version of Wild Thing — all three chords of it — to an audience consisting of some neighbours and Rich’s mum.
Shambolic is one word. ‘Bolic’ is very nearly another, more accurate, word. We had previously jammed together I think, oh, nearly once during the six months or so that we felt we were a band.   Our tiny crowd applauded appreciatively, nonetheless. My memory is a little hazy in certain respects, but I suspect the audience left some way into the second number once they realised that it was our slowed-down, Hendrix-inspired version of Wild Thing again. The third number was too. Just before the, er, fourth and final time, Rich shouted out to the tape recorder and posterity — but by now, no-one else: “this is the last time we’re going to do this crappy song!”
Could we salvage anything from the experience? Well, Chris demonstrated that he could play the drums, after a fashion, from the moment he sat behind his (borrowed) drum kit. He said he’d practised simply by sitting upright at home alone in his room, and by visualising the positions of all his drums, mimed his way through the songs. Well, it worked and that was a start. Rich knew the chords and owned his own guitar. I found out that day that I needed a decent keyboard: perhaps I should have mentioned earlier that I played on a mini Casio of 1984 vintage. On the harpsichord setting.
Several weeks later, considerably emboldened by our debut and the arrival of Chris’ first drumkit we decided to try recording some tracks. Chris’ stepdad had a four-track (four tracks!!) cassette recorder, professional microphones, a slightly better keyboard than mine and a rather nifty Peavey unit that created all sorts of exciting echo and reverb effects — and all sitting idle in a spare bedroom. The only problem was that he wouldn’t let a triumvirate of teenagers anywhere near this precious equipment This was easily remedied: he didn’t have to know we used it anyway. It helped that his work kept him away from the house for long periods in the daytime, so as long as we put everything back precisely and replaced the dust on the boxes, he’d never realise we were the only people to do anything productive on his expensive gear.
I shall not trouble you with specific details of these tapes. Know simply that we recorded that crappy song Wild Thing — even slower, if anything, than before. Next up: Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door with Rich on vocals; his nerves requiring Chris and me to leave the room while he laid his soul bare. Finally, half of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. You can guess what this all sounded like. It taught us a few things about recording practice though, and showed up that we needed some additional instrumental muscle. Enter Dave, Chris’s younger brother. 
Dave P: guitars
Dave was persuaded to play mere three chord plods for us when all he probably wanted to be at the time was Kirk Hammett from Metallica, dazzling all in a blur of fingers and sound. Additionally, he could play any Slash solo note-for-note along with Appetite For Destruction. He was good, he made us look like tortoises — although we were probably doing a good enough job of that on our own. We’d previously not considered him simply because ex-Sixth Formers don’t tend to like having lead guitarists in their band that are fourteen years of age. 
One of the best bits for me was designing the band logo.  I’ll say little to add to the self-evident magnificence of the image.

Love that ™. 
Our idea of promotion was to trawl the music shops along Tottenham Court Road and Denmark Street, go in and play the instruments until the helpful but dubious-looking sales assistants inevitably sidled over. Whereupon I’d give them little red cards with the GRIMWADE’S SYNDROME logo emblazoned upon them: no contact number, no information, nothing. I want to say that we thought we were cocky young snipes with cheek to spare, whistling up Tin Pan Alley for a break, but you know as well as I that we didn’t have a clue. We really thought that people would just know of us out of thin air. Four ex-Convent boys. Oh, by the way, did anyone notice that we lacked a bass guitarist? What a band!
Then eventually we did nothing. Rather, we all did some things, but separately. Rich had joined another band consisting of ex-classmates. There was no sense of defection, of betrayal, since the band he was leaving had never really existed in the first place — and we knew it. Rich’s new combo were called Mary Jane. They had Pink Floyd, The Clash, The Cult and Guns ‘n’ Roses as points of reference. Well, of course they did. They weren’t bad either, and at one point, briefly — very briefly — I was in with them on keyboards. Mary Jane shuffled and reshuffled into different lineups and band names. Rich was in most of them.
The brothers did some thrash with bands consisting of Dave’s younger mates: Anti Massacre, Tapestry and Io Pan being three of the names I can recall at this time (of the bands, silly, not the guys in them), but Chris was mostly happy just working out drum patterns alone in his room. He got good quickly. He had a nifty way with a snappy, bitter lyric as a sideline. Dave continued to practice, practice, practice: he remains to this day one of the finest musicians I know. 
I finally bought a decent keyboard and ended up doing tunes either alone or with Chris, making further illicit use of his stepdad’s facilities. I retained the name of my musical alma mater, and so Grimwade’s Syndrome, such as it was, continued to plod along. I made tape after tape of tunes, scraps of tunes and riffs; often it was the same handful of songs redone time and again, either fine-tuning an idea, improving my ability to play the damn things and most often working things to death. These tapes went under self-important titles: 
Grimwade’s Syndrome: The Grimwade Syndrome 
Grimwade’s Syndrome: The Undiscovered Country
Grimwade’s Syndrome: ‘Let Him Have It, Chris!’ etc. 
The tunes similarly rejoiced under rather pompous names: I Grow Tired Of This, Don’t Disturb My Friend, I Like To Take My Clothes Off And Henry Round The House…great stuff! Occasionally, something I could describe as a good riff, or I daresay even a decent melody, would emerge. This would then be hived off and worked on in itself, repeatedly. I’d spend hours at the piano, trying to create interesting chords to harmonise with the melodies, or bolting riffs together to create a piece. That still works for me as a compositional method as well as any. I remained unable to write music down; to this day, I still can’t. The jury’s still out on whether that’s a problem or not.
I look back on this time in my life and remember nothing else if not much affection and humour. It was terribly innocent and fun. We had laughs and even if we made precious little decent music, the tapes are frequently amusing. Given that we’d all make further forays into music making, I like to think we all learned something from it, even if it was only that we still had so much more to learn. It was the starting point and for that, I’ll always be a little proud of Grimwade’s Syndrome, the first band I was ever in, even though it really existed mostly in our minds…except briefly — and hilariously — for one sunny afternoon in Sidcup. 
Currently listening to: 
Music for an Anglo-Saxon Christmas (Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge/Mary Berry, 1992)
At The Drop Of A Hat (Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, 1960)
At The Drop Of Another Hat (Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, 1964)
Think Tank (Henry Rollins, 1998)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No 9 "Choral" (Philadelphia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti, 1988)
Currently reading: 
Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Rob Young, 2010)
Currently watching:  
House, MD seasons 4 and 5, (Universal/NBC, 2007-2008)
Doctor Who: Meglos (BBC, 1980)
Sherlock (BBC, 2010)


  1. I should add that our months of planning the future of the most infamous rock back of our generation included album titles and concepts. After leaking stories of fighting among band members, it was planned that a press release would announce the untimely death of the band's keyboard player, but that the band would continue. The following album was to be called, "Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish". The idea proceeded to detail Paul's victorious return during a concert à la Nigel Tufnel. Of course, it was all inspired by the Beatles, but with a twist. I think we had more fun creating the ethos of the band than actually picking up an instrument and writing a song. How middle class of us.

  2. Amen to that, Chris! How could I have forgotten about my death?! Already we were thinking the world would want to know everything we did.

    We wouldn't have lasted five minutes in the Facebook age. Oh, hold on a second, we didn't! Hahaha!