100. Prague, Vystaviste, 23rd August 2009

I’m standing outside the Prague Vystaviste with a hot dog in my hand. As I cross the car park in front of the deserted art nouveau industrial palace, I receive a text message: ppl stood up – open soon – hurry!

I speed walk through the first set of gates, past a line of empty flag poles and a block of pavilions, there are several restaurants but all the doors are locked. There’s a weird sign that says something about a “Sausagefest”, the hotdog is gone but I hardly tasted it.

Behind the glass palace are fountains, which my guide book claims are spectacular, but today they are switched off. This place is part deserted fairground and part soulless convention centre. Like Blackpool, like Birmingham, but today the sun is shining.

I recce’d the site a couple of days ago when I first arrived in Prague. My hotel, carefully chosen to be nearest the venue, is a short walk away. While I’ve been here, the stage rig has been rising from a pile of scaffolding on a dried out lawn. A Heras fence around the perimeter now prevents access without a concert ticket.

My phone beeps another text: Everyone’s standing up.

Trying not to run, I follow the path down the park side of the complex. Just before I reach the turnstiles, I stop at a small portacabin where a young crop-haired woman with a laminated pass around her neck presides over the guest list. I have a ticket bought months ago, but as this is a special occasion I’ve asked my contacts for an after show pass. I say my name to the woman and she asks who’s list it is on. The band’s, I say, smiling. For once feeling confident that it will be there. For once not having to spell out my name before it’s found on the print out. She hands me a small white envelope with the words “Aftershow x 2” written underneath my name. I lift the gummed flap, peeking inside as I walk away from the booth. A rush of satisfaction as I bury two triangular fabric stickers marked with today’s date deep in my bag.

The crowd looks denser than it did when I was here an hour ago. Then they’d been sitting on the ground on bits of card or picnic mats, or just on their coats and jumpers; now they’re all standing up facing the turnstiles, like runners poised at the starting gates of some weird horse race. This ritual started hours ago, some of these people have been here since the early hours. They have done this many times before and they know what to expect but it doesn’t lessen the tension. Part of me hates queuing, but today I know that it’s the only way to assure even the possibility of the experience I crave. Today my “support staff ” are here, friends who know what to do to get my through. They know the drill, they are prepared for the fact that I’m not going to be calm.

I’ve done this before, I know that you don’t really need to pitch up in the early hours of the morning. Some fans arrive very early, almost as a point of pride, but you can still get a pretty good spot if you start at a sensible hour. Over the years I have developed my own system, I make a deal with some of my co-queuers: I won’t start ridiculously early but I will bring supplies and guard their spots on the ground while they go for drinks or bathroom breaks. I don’t have the patience to sit for hours getting cold and anxious, so I step in as a relief queuer, rewarded with my own place. I understand some fans’ compulsion to start queuing before it gets light; maybe they feel they are earning the show by making this sacrifice. It’s a way of showing their loyalty, their love.

I reach the back of the huddle and try to find my friends who are somewhere near the front. I shout a couple of names, but they can’t hear me. I stand on tip toes. I try ringing someone’s phone but before they pick up they see me and a hand extends towards me through the throng. I take a deep breath, head down, dive in. Apologising as politely and as Englishly as I can, talking to my friends the whole time, so that everyone else can see that I’m not pushing in, rather returning to the spot I had previously occupied for several hours.

As I forge my way through the crush, I feel a swell in the already palpable excitement. Security operatives take their places at each of the half dozen turnstiles and test the barcode readers that will scan our tickets. There was a rumour that the doors would open at four o’clock. It’s almost 4 now. The atmosphere changes, people stop talking and start concentrating on the gates. Once they are open there will be no time to think. This is the moment to focus. Until now people have waited patiently, but the stress is starting to show. The lucky ones have traveled from across the world to be here. They are experienced and driven individuals, their whole day is geared to reaching their goal. The earliest of them arrived outside the venue at 4am, they waited as the weather got warmer, they held fast as fences and signs were erected around them, they dodged trucks and cherry pickers. They arrived before the venue staff, before the turnstiles were put in place and long before the tour buses even parked. We all have our own well-honed tactics for survival. We distain meals and refuse excessive liquids as these would necessitate strategic planning in order to visit the Portaloos.

I unzip my shoulder bag and tie my jumper around my waist to facilitate a quick search at the gate. People are dumping bags of picnic food, obeying some of the instructions on the detailed signs illustrating what will and will not be allowed inside. Powerful cameras are secreted in clothing, bottles and cans are being emptied or placed on the ground. It feels like someone should blow a whistle to signal the off. The security staff move as a single high-viz unit and release the turnstiles. The crowd ripples and pulls into separate lines behind each gate. Tickets are gripped in sweaty hands as we filter through one at a time, still in orderly fashion but primed to sprint as soon as we need to. I hold my bag open to be examined. The scanner beeps the barcode on my ticket and I’m through.

My friends are in front of me, already round the corner at the next gate where tickets must be shown again and wristbands applied to allow access to the magical ‘Zone 1’. I catch up with my companions and someone grabs my arm. A security guy studies my ticket as his colleague wraps a paper band around my wrist. I’m standing still for this operation, but an over eager young fellow who doesn’t want to wait his turn pushes me. Clarabelle stares him down and pulls me by the hand through to the other side of the traps.

Inside zone 1 everyone is running the 100 metres to the barrier rail. There is already a line of people there, but it’s only one or two deep. I catch up with my friends again, they’re right in the middle, just behind a trio of fans who make it their mission to stand at the very front for every show having earned that right through traveling long distances and turning up several hours earlier than anyone else.

Breathless, excited and relieved, I find I’m in the second row in front of the stage. This will be the 100th time I’ve seen my favourite band, I’ve been doing this for nearly half my lifetime but it hasn’t got any less exhilarating.

People continue to arrive all around me, they run in from the entrance turnstiles, we watch them have their tickets scanned, their bags searched, watch them become irritable with the perceived slowness of the stewards. They push and shove a little but are on the whole polite and respectful of the queuing hierarchy. With a few places at the front still left open, there are displays of sprinting that would not be undertaken under any other circumstances. They swoop in like birds joining a roosting colony and hug each other when they land.

Carefully selected tunes test the sound system. Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up, some James Brown, some dub. I’m bursting to work out my pent up frustration, dying to dance but I know I should conserve my energy, so I sit down on the ground and stake out my territory.

I am greeted by old friends and acquaintances, some of whom I only ever see at these gigs, some of them are people whose sofas I have slept on, some of them are people who until now have only existed as a name on the internet. This part of the day has become almost as important to us as the performance. I’m jumpy and anxious, but I’m part of this strange community now and they understand what I’m feeling.

We have reached The Barrier. We will have an unfettered view, we will take the best photos and we will hang on for dear life. We will be the most completely immersed in this performance. We are all grinning.

Only another 4 hours to wait until Radiohead walk onto the stage.


Steve Reich Radio Rewrite: Part Two: Steve Reich In The Afternoon

The second part of my Steve Reich odyssey takes place five days later in Glasgow. He is here for one of the Royal Concert Hall’s UNESCO Inspiring Encounters, but first there is time for a late addition to the programme. My Name Is… (1967) several members of the audience say “My name is” and their first name into a microphone.

Steve Reich at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Ensemble member Joby Burgess demonstrates how far technology has come since the work was conceived by immediately converting the sampled speech into a version of a piece that used to have to be meticulously pieced together from spliced tape. The names dissolve into a wormhole of repetition, words become noises, losing then regaining their sense.

Steve Reich warms to this theme and talks about how technology has caught up with his ideas. Dead pan, he talks confidently and assuredly about his own process. Clearly from a “classical” background, it’s interesting to hear a contemporary take on the art of composing from someone so clearly aware of his place in the musical lineage. Reich is a good talker, a harsh self-critic and disarmingly human for someone who takes their work so seriously.

He offers the invitation to the listener to get lost in the web of counterpoint. His phased work is all about patterns of rhythm, small variations make the sound ambiguous and the ear reassembles the patterns in different ways. There is some relationship to meditation, but he refuses to simplify his ideas to suit preconceived notions.

To a rock listener’s ear, it is a leap to contextualise this music without it being the soundtrack to a film. The grammar of performance is so different. Drumming, an epic piece involving tuned bongos, marimbas, glockenspiels, a piccolo and two female voices, is performed by The Colin Currie Group.

The resonance of the rhythms is such that I find my ringing ears have started to fill in the sound of instruments that aren’t actually being played. I swear I can hear horns. The intensity of the piece is a truly transformative experience in a way that rock performances have the potential to be, but so rarely are.

World famous composer, Steve Reich
Steve Reich in Glasgow. Image: Angela Catlin, thanks to Glasgow Life.

If you get the chance to see it, the BBC series The Sound And The Fury is a great introduction to 20th Century composers. I’m currently working my way (slowly) through Alex Ross’s epic history of 20th Century music, The Rest Is Noise, which I’d also heartily recommend.

Steve Reich Radio Rewrite: Part One: Everything In Its Reich Place

Last month I went down to London to hear the premiere of Steve Reich‘s Radiohead-inspired piece Radio Rewrite at The Royal Festival Hall.

Image: Angela Catlin
Steve Reich. Image: Angela Catlin

My crash course in the music of Steve Reich begins in London. My visit is to attend the premier of his new piece inspired by the music of Radiohead, performed by musicians of the London Sinfonietta.

We live in an age of musical convergence, and it seems only fitting that the man described as “the single most influential composer of the late 20th century” should bridge the gap between contemporary and popular music in such a way.
This is not the London Sinfonietta’s first association with Radiohead. They collaborated with Jonny Greenwood (along with Thom Yorke and the Nazareth Orchestra) for 2005’s Ether Festival and have often performed Greenwood’s pieces for orchestra, Popcorn Superhet Receiver and Smear.

It was a meeting with Greenwood that sparked Reich’s interested in Radiohead’s music. The guitarist performed the composer’s Electric Counterpoint at a festival in Poland. Impressed by Greenwood’s interpretation of his work, Reich found time to listen to Radiohead and was drawn to two songs in particular: Everything In Its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place.
It is fitting for me to be back at the Royal Festival Hall for this performance. This is the same stage on which I saw Radiohead perform material from Kid A at 2000’s Meltdown Festival, the first UK performance of those songs.

Kid A draws on electronic and minimalist musical influences and is regarded as a breakthrough for a band who transcend simple description as a “rock” act. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, after all this is the band that used Olivier Messiaen’s stark Quartet for the End of Time – written when the composer was held in a World War Two concentration camp – as intro music for their shows way back in 1995.

To my rock-trained ears Steve Reich’s precise, tightly notated works, performed in the rarefied atmosphere of the symphony hall, seem a little clinical. Clapping Music, using the technique of subtly shifting the phase of rhythm, is deceptively simple; Electric Counterpoint, here performed by Mats Bergstrom, is made up of shimmering guitar chords over a prepared backing; 2×5 plays with a rock band format while fitting into the Reich’s classical music lineage.

There are sounds that remind me of Tortoise and other “math rock” bands in 2×5 yet it is “chamber music for rock instruments” driven by bass and piano rather than drums. For Double Sextet, Reich mans the mixing desk in his distinctive baseball cap.

Radio Rewrite comes in the second half. I can catch the melodies more easily than the harmonic progressions, there are shadows of the Radiohead songs as it moves from slow to fast, from Everything In Its Right Place to Jigsaw and back. Threads of the songs remain but they’re hard to spot. These are not two songs I would have linked together, but certain chords ring out as similar to Reich’s other works, there are moments where you can identify Radiohead but as channelled through Steve Reich’s ears.

My experience of Everything In Its Right Place is as a visceral live concert closer. I’ve stood in a huge crowd numerous times and clapped the off-beats to Phil Selway’s drums and it’s astonishing how the same piece of music can inspire such utterly different reactions and interpretations.

Steve Reich talks briefly about the work at the end of the show, the structure of the song, the way it is dissonant while still having a tonic… I don’t have enough theoretical language to explain it but I understand what he means. It is EVERYTHING.

Top Tips for Band Promo (from a PR perspective)

I’ve had a great response to this post, which I published on my old blog Little Raindrops, so I’m going to re-host it here.

I’ve been putting together information on the line up for a festival’s new website, collecting photos and what I’d call bios (i.e. short informative descriptions of each band) to go with an external web link for each artist on the bill. I thought this would be a straight forward task…

A lot of bands make this easy and have PRs to deal with requests for such things, or have great websites with all the material someone who is trying to spread the word about an event that the bands are involved in might need, but there are some who seem to need a bit of help…

Here’s some important things I’ve noted, if you want people to find out about your band:

  1. Have a name that is Googleable! 
  2. If you use MySpace (really?), Bandcamp and Facebook they will likely show up top of a search,  so make sure they’re up to date. If you don’t want me to listen to your old demos, take them down. If it’s the first time I’ve heard of you I won’t know which page you want me to use, so…
  3. Have your own website – even if it’s just a place to cluster all your links. It would be better if it were more than that – you’ve got a great opportunity to control your image, please use it.
  4. Unless you’re super well known and too cool, write something about yourselves. How do you want to be presented? Please God, not just “indie rock”. I don’t have time to listen to your entire back catalogue, watch all your videos, read all your press. Condense it.
  5. Have an easy to find contact email. If you have a PR working for you, lucky you! Why not make it easy to find them so they can do their job!?
  6. Even better, have a nice high res picture that is downloadable from your website.
  7. While you’re at it, name that picture file with your band name and if the photographer wants a credit, stick their name in there too. 
  8. When replying to emails that are requests, please check that you’re sending what’s being asked for – a list of hot shot record company flunkies who might be interested in your band, a list of platforms where you’re releasing your single and some gigs you might have coming up ARE NOT THE SAME AS A BIO!
  9. A bio is this: Who are you? Where are you from? What do you sound like? What’s your website?
  10. That photo – is it a picture of three or four disinterested blokes standing against a wall (or worse, train tracks)? IT DOESN’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT YOUR BAND and you’re wasting an opportunity to make me interested. 
  11. When I Google you, do I find your best, most representative song? WHY NOT?
  12. On Facebook, which shouldn’t be your only web presence, have you filled in the contact details in the ‘About’ section? This is a quick reference and should help people to describe you (yes even if you’re so wildly and fantastically original that your music defies categorisation sometimes it’s necessary to use, you know, WORDS). Failing that it should let me email the people you pay (or owe favours to) to do this for you. OR let me email you and ask you for what I need.  
  13. Nominate a band member to deal with this stuff, bass players often have a lot of time on their hands…
  14. Finally, when you’re emailing someone who is obviously dealing with a lot of artists sending them stuff, remember to mention the name of your band in your message so they know who you’re talking about.


Nickelback against the wall
Come on, you’re not all like Nickelback are you?

There’s tons of advice out there from places like HypebotMusician Coaching and Fresh On The Net

Anyone got any more to add? I’d be interested to hear what you think. And don’t get me started on gig listings!