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Thank You For The Music


During lockdown, lots of people have been doing this 'name your top ten albums of all time' stunt on Facebook; and I've been very tempted to put up my choices. Yes, it's come to that: between the online teaching, the gardening, the catching up with friends I haven't seen or spoken to for years, the thinking about life in a deep and profound way (not) and the chasing sleep, lost practice time and watching boxed sets of everything...there are the endless games to be played on social media.

Problem about this particular task is that I love music from all corners of the musical firmament, and I find it impossible to rate my choices into ten neatly defined slots. Even the thought of trying to do so freezes me into a kind of deer-in-the-headlights reaction. My desert island is going to be inhabited by elements as far removed from each other as Bach and Keith Jarrett. Although come to think about it, I think Johann and Keith would have rubbed along really well...

I have always had cyclic phases of intense passion for particular pieces or genres of music, which may last for days, weeks, or even months - my children still recall the insistent replaying of music I fell in love with over and over again, whether it was a piece of Scriabin or the latest from Steely Dan. The repeat button on the cassette machine or CD player was pressed endlessly until even I became bored with whatever 'it' was. The moment when my two-year old son started singing a Randy Crawford song loudly in Londis was when I realised that sublimal mind-drenching was an actual thing.

I can carbon-date my life with the tracks that have accompanied moments of musical magic, or perhaps less comfortably, moments of despair and mayhem. Of which there have been plenty. The point is, music for me is a constantly evolving force, with artists for any and every occasion, and I just can't pick out 'moments'. Eras maybe: the first time I heard Rachmaninov; the first time I heard Steely Dan...but it doesn't distil easily into convenient slots.

With regards to my working life, the musical narrative there has often had a rather unscripted feel to it: like all musicians, I have played what I was paid to play, often not musical choices I would have made without the essential, driving ingredient of needing to earn a living. It's never been as easy as 'I love this music, that's what I'll play'. Sometimes though, in that process of learning a piece I had no appetite for, I have discovered the love for it. Starting from indifference, or even dislike, It's the most humbling of experiences to arrive at something of an accommodation. Something of a musical arranged marriage.

The point is, you have to step up to the mark for whoever is paying you, regardless of what you think of the material.

I first learnt this seminal lesson about pleasing the piper-payer the week after I stopped being a student: at the end of July 1983 after I graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, I received a phone call from the manager of a post-punk band called Zerra One. He told me that he wanted a cellist to play with this band on the John Peel show.

I had no idea how my number fell into this unlikely pair of hands; and I had never heard of Zerra One, but I had certainly heard of John Peel, and although rather terrified, I agreed to do the job. It seemed a startlingly long way from four years of learning how to play the Elgar Cello concerto, but equally, it sounded like a welcome change from my routine.

The conversation between me and the manager took place on an old-fashioned corded telephone at my family home in Barnes, where I had lived all my life. I can still see the mustard-coloured phone now, and remember how I used to poke my finger through the curly cord, bending the wire into different shapes while I talked. I still remember what it felt like to receive that first offer of work...and I still remember how very exciting it was.

What I was not prepared for was the rehearsal remit: in my world, rehearsals were in rooms at the RAM at (mostly) civilised times of day. You turned up with your part, which you had (mostly) learned, and the people you were rehearsing with were (mostly) easy to work with, and you all (mostly) spoke the same musical language.

My instructions for the Zerra One rehearsal were to go to a studio on a wharf at London Bridge. At ten o'clock...PM. That alone had me wondering.

In those days, London Bridge and its surroundings were far from the über trendy, fashionable area that it now is; and the converted wharf-house/studio where I had to go was more like a bunker than the splendid residence it no doubt is today. I parked my aged Fiat somewhere nearby and wandered into a black building with a corrugated roof, with more than a small misgiving.

Inside there was a ramshackle reception area, with a punk-styled girl behind the desk. All around, insanely loud and disconnected sounds of wildly amplified thumps and bangs emanated, and to say that I felt out of place would be the biggest understatement of all time. I suspect I would have needed to be Siouxsie (of the Banshees) to feel at home at that moment. Certainly not a nicely brought up girl from Barnes. Somehow I felt that the new pink leg warmers I had bought for the occasion just didn't quite cut it.

Painfully shy, and nervous as hell, I asked the girl behind the desk if she knew where I should go. She looked me up and down: 'Are you with Becky Bondage'? she asked in estuary-inflected tones. 'I don't think so' I replied, momentarily forgetting who the hell I was with, and now terrified that I might be an accessory to whoever Becky Bondage was.

Once it was clear that I was there to rehearse with Zerra One, the girl pointed in the direction of a large black door.

'Froo ver', she said, going back to twizzling bits of her purple mohican into razor-sharp edges with her pen.

I opened the door into the studio, and with cartoon-like rapidity, moved backwards as the wall of sound from within hit my ears like a sledgehammer. It was almost completely dark in there, and as I gradually picked out four black-leather clad figures, all with spiked up hair, all about four times my size, my desire to run very fast back to my Fiat and disappear home to Barnes very nearly overwhelmed me.

The funny thing is, they were really nice guys: not quite what I had expected (what the very f*** had I expected??) but the minute they talked to me in extremely strong Irish accents, I was at home. However, I was there to do a job, and the moment of reckoning came when I unpacked my cello, sat on a chair, and waited expectantly for them to give me the music.

Only they didn't. They looked at me expectantly and waited for me to play.

Some moments later, after it became apparent that in communication terms, I was speaking French and they were speaking Swahili, the following dialogue occurred:

Me: 'So where's the music?'

Them: 'What music?'

Me: 'The music I have to play?'

Them: 'Oh yes - well we thought you'd just play. You know...play what you want...along with us?'

Me: 'No. I always play with music'. Them: 'Yes, but can't you just play along?'

Me: 'No. I need music'.

And there it was: four years at the Royal Academy of Music, and I couldn't 'just play along'. In fact, I was fuck all use unless someone gave me a score, showed me the downbeat and told me how loud/soft to play. At that moment, the utter futility of having spent the last year learning a little-known concerto by Arnold Bax became intensely clear to me: this was a job, an actual job, and I had no idea how to do it.

There was a short silence - not long, because these guys were Irish - and then we worked out a Cunning Plan: they played through the song, show me the chords on the keyboard, and I wrote down a cello line for myself.

We rehearsed it. They seem pleased. I headed off home around midnight, having quite definitely turned into a pumpkin somewhere around Clapham Junction.

It came to the following week, and I had to turn up at the BBC studios in Maida Vale to record the session. In my dreams, John Peel would have been there, I'd have shaken his hand, he would have been all things wonderful...but of course, this was just another recording session to be released later, and as it turned out, a really horrible one: the lead singer had fallen out with the engineer/producer before I got there, and all communication was being transmitted via the drummer. Somehow, in the middle of all this, I allowed myself to be overdubbed three times, which would have attracted extra fees, had I known such details at the time, but since I didn't, I played on and on, more and more alarmed by the not-so-latent anger in the studio, and finally escaping after a couple of hours, in a state of nervous exhaustion.

All that said, it was probably one of the best moments of my life when I heard John Peel announcing my name live on Radio One alongside the names of the band members - talk about a stowaway - and I still have the recording from that show all these decades later. Hearing that flat, Liverpudlian voice intoning my name still gives me a shiver up the spine. I remember making my parents sit through the entire John Peel show on the day the track was played so they could hear it. They dutifully did; and after it was played, my father said:

'it's just like early Florentine opera - a basso continuo. And rather dull'.

It's undeniable that this experience taught me more about The Business that I was entering, than any experience before or since: no one at the RAM had suggested to me that in the real world of earning money from music, I would have to adapt so fast to learning an entirely new language. It had never been suggested to me that I would ever be asked to play anything other than the scripted notes on the page that I had spent so many years trying to pin into place. No one had ever suggested that i would be asked to 'just play'. Indeed, any lack of musical inhibition had been severely educated out of me. Once having experienced the awful feeling of being 'found out', I never wanted to go through it again. Which was entirely true until the next time...

I was rung a few months later (same mustard-coloured corded phone) by a cellist who was part of the pit band at the RSC: could I deputise for her in the production of Cyrano de Bergerac?

Well of course, I jumped at the chance.

What I hadn't factored in, was that the pit band full time members were all rehearsed and prepped over time with the production as it was formed; and a person who 'jumps in' gets no rehearsal. Furthermore, I had to appear onstage at the beginning of the show in costume (a bulky, boned crinoline affair) as well as making my various musical contributions during the show. Quite apart from being entirely new to costume, I was also a theatre novice: perfectly happy to hide behind my cello and play to dozens of people. Completely spooked at the idea of 'acting'. Particularly in a production starring Derek Jacobi.

When you think about it, making your theatrical début at the RSC is pretty enviable; but at the time, all I felt was sick with fear: I had sat through the show once to try and get to know it, but really, you only learn how these things work when you are part of them and can memorise the moves.

The show began with an overture, performed in the Barbican Theatre band box, several levels down from the stage. After the last note had been played, I had to get in the lift with my cello in one hand, crinoline hitched up uncomfortably with the other: it was a race against the clock to get to the auditorium to be onstage for the opening scene.

Once at stage level, I was straight into the opening crowd scene, where I had to locate a stool to sit on, hitch a piece of music to a conveniently positioned music stand, and start playing.

On my first night in the job, I completed the race up in the lift, found my stool and music, and sat with pounding heart, desperately trying to fade into the background. I assumed that all the company members would be completely absorbed in the show, until two actors in gloriously abundant periwigs sidled up to me: 'You're new here' intoned one in a fabulously exaggerated stage whisper.

I almost dropped my bow with shock. Somehow I thought I Method Acting would be the order of the day; but no - I could have been in a pub in Kilburn.

After that, my name mysteriously appeared on a list of string players who were happy to play with Indie bands of the time: I spend part of 1984 in a studio in Amelia Street Walworth rehearsing with a band called Days At Sea: they had been given a publishing deal by Duran Duran's management company as a kind of 'top tipped' band for the year. I enjoyed the experience of 'just playing' with them a lot, especially as they had really interesting ideas about using a cello sound as an integral part of the group, not just as a supporting treacly noise in the background.

We had a lot of fun, and I still have photos taken by a Vogue photographer for the release that never happened...but in the end, my life was too rooted in the classical world, and I was too wedded to my commitment as a cello purist to throw in my lot with them. I had just won a scholarship to study with Pierre Fournier in Geneva at that point, and it was very much a case of having to make a choice. I never regretted it, but I have always wondered what happened to those groups.

In lockdown, I've looked up every one of them:

Zerra One have a wikipedia entry, showing some early promise and then a total demise in 1987.

We don't need to worry about the RSC and Derek Jacobi - they have done perfectly well without any reference to me.

Days at Sea split up years ago, but the lead singer and drummer are still operating as a group called Stereo MCs.

I still have the recordings of all these things, including the John Peel show, and one of these days I'll get them transferred onto a CD. In the meanwhile, I'll keep remembering and probably procrastinate about my album choices for months after lockdown has finished.