Archives for posts with tag: Ska Toons


And now I’m (not RIGHT now you understand otherwise I couldn’t be typing this or even see) lying in bed with my watermelon pattern eyemask on and earphones plugged in in a rather sensorily deprived and yet enhanced state listening to

The Beatles – Please Please Me
Fontella Bass – Bad Boy
Jazz Jamaica All Stars – Ball of Fire
Claire Martin – Black Coffee
Matty Eeles with Ska Toons – Love Alone
Love – Alone Again Or
Christian McBride Trio – Tones For Joan’s Bones
Hoagy Carmichael – Georgia

When you have time and space to listen to the music, especially on headphones, you can choose how to listen: you can hear the song, the overall sound – you get the feel, the warmth, the fullness and the memories too.

Or you can pick it apart – listen to the bass line, swap to the guitar on the right channel, the nasal edge of John Lennon’s lead voice, his harmony vocal – this is the more detached approach, but very rewarding, the Hammond organ swoops after Clare Martin’s voice, both thrilling. Christian McBride’s slithering bass skitters, his solo punctuated by little piano flurries. The detail in each recording!

And I think – this stuff – music,  in our headphones – transports us, takes us out, beyond… It, of course, separates and divides us from others (in the street, tube, bus) but connects us directly to the human essence: the breath rising from a human throat and the brush of lips on the microphone…

But then you know all this. And I’m high as a kite.

A favourite book: Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald. He writes about every Beatles track (and much more), commenting, pointing up features, drawing your attention to fluffs as well as well as the brilliances. Spend a few weeks with the book, the records, the headphones. Preferably not in hospital.

A lowering sky and squalls of rain. ‘Another fine mess you’ve gotten us into…’ is the received wisdom of the band. Canning Town, London, E16. This is a bit of a wasteland, metaphorically and actually. Canning Town is where the Royal London Docks used to be, and is in the five percent of most deprived areas in the UK. This space is a temporary one before developers move in in five years’ time. And the Canning Town Caravanserai project aims to bring local people into it, to build a local economy: selling their products and sharing ideas from pop-up kiosks. The principle is based on the Caravanserais which lined the Silk Road from Asia to the West, offering rest, food, water, trade and entertainment. Ska Toons is the entertainment.

Silvertown Way is a wide new  road, overlooked by the elevated new station, the new cable-car line crossing the Thames, big old pylons, and the afore-mentioned dark clouds. We’re to provide the music  for the mostly young designers, makers and entrepreneurs gathered to pitch their ideas to the Dragons (as in Dragons’ Den) and win rent-free kiosks. There’s a trade school under a plastic awning, mostly protecting them from the rain. The band is to perform in three kiosks: keyboards in the left plywood box, drums bass and guitar in the middle box, horns in the right box. We have to crane round the partitions to count off a song, and we’re fairly together. Musically, anyway. And we play well, despite our boxed-in-ness. Perhaps we should always be boxed…

People wander in through the oriental-style cut-out gates, attracted by the sound. They don’t come in too far though: perhaps they think it’s not meant for them, though it is. Davey, in West Ham football shirt and Special Brew can, sits by the entrance, nodding, and eventually dancing, and calling out for a Prince Buster song. As he loads his car, Martin is harangued by a local racist, complaining how the area has changed – “it used to be just us” (meaning white people), and leaves with the rallying cry – “Up the National Trust!” (sic).

(He meant National Front, a defunct English fascist organisation. The National Trust owns and manages historic British houses, gardens, coastlines, and is a thoroughly GOOD THING.)

Simon says ‘Breathe in for 5, breathe out for 5’. I do what Simon says. Really nervous: very dodgy stomach. The thing about being a non-reading guitarist (the dots I can’t join up) is that I have to remember – how many verses/choruses? is the form under solos ABA or AB? or do we just go around the 1-6-2-5 progression, and how many times? etc, instead of reading the arrangement from the score, like the horn section (13 of them) do, from left to right. If I or the other rhythm players get it wrong, we could be on collision course. The awful responsibility.

It gets better every year, though. This time it’s really tight and punchy, and though a smaller audience (Chelsea v Bayern Munich: there is no life-form visible on Brighton’s streets), there’s a great atmosphere, and DJ Amma’s got them in the mood with her classic ska selection. Concorde2 has a big high stage that’s become crowded with 19 of us. At and over my feet there’s a tangle of cables, a music stand with my crude charts, spare guitar – yes, I break strings – monitor, and two guitar amplifiers pointing directly  at me.

Once you’re on stage, and playing, the nerves are gone, and the trick is to get the right balance between concentration, performance, attention and sheer pleasurable excitement. I lurch between these – mostly veering towards the latter. Our guest singer, Matty Eeles, steps up and delivers a passionate, belting Diamonds Are Forever over the big horn arrangement, and then we rip into the James Bond Theme at a fast skank.

At 10pm (we’re the early shift) we’re finishing with our big brassy Walk Don’t Run, and the Concorde man in the battered cowboy hat at the back is making evil throat-cutting gestures, and when we finish, the crowd roar and immediately start chanting for more. I look round: the throat-cutting has become more of a sawing-head-off motion, though the crowd can’t see. They just want more…

Apparently the average age of a Honda Jazz driver is 60-something. As if I care. They’ve got a great reputation for reliability and good fuel consumption, and they look quite nice. If I could, I’d have a 1959 Vauxhall Victor de Luxe, but they’re probably not up to Jazz standard, these days. So – I would recommend a Jazz to anyone, and I did, to Wolf. He’s just passed his driving test. I drive him (in mine) to Shoreham to the Honda dealer, and Andy Honda welcomes him warmly. ‘This is my friend, Michael,’ says Wolf, and I try to look more heterosexual, even blokey. Jeremy Clarkson is on the TV, wearing a peaked cap and his legs inexplicably taped together.

We three blokes go for a test drive in a new Jazz. This new one has lots of features that I could never imagine (or concentrate on while Andy’s going through them). But the roof cover slides back so you’re all under glass, like a 50’s vision of a space-age car, which is fun. It doesn’t have that nice upswept-curved rear window that I like so much in my Jazz though (see fig.), but then I’m a sucker for an upswept curve.

At The Snowdrop, Terry Seabrook’s trio is cookin’ (as they say). Tonight’s guest is the excellent Sam Miles. Barely into his twenties, Sam’s at the Royal Academy of Music, and he’s a terrific sax player. Sometimes he plays with Ska Toons, and we’re really not worthy. From his usual unassuming mien, he’s an explosive force of nature in his solos.

And while I’m on the subject: Wolf’s a really good pianist, (he studied at the Guildhall), and sometimes he plays keyboards with Ska Toons too, and he blows us away with his playing. Another jazzer.

Jazz? I’d recommend it.

‘What do ya do when you meet the Devil?’ (no, the answer is no longer Give Him Your Guitar To Tune Up). The question is shouted from the stage of the Plumpton Beer and Blues Festival, organised by the Plough Inn, which is why Beer comes first in the title. And loads of beer – a long row of barrels, my favourite being the coffee beer. Really.

Sadly the big field dwarfs a smattering of blues fans, or beer fans, probably both. When we’d arrived, there’d been a skiffle-kind of act in the beer tent, banjo and percussion and toys, who were really quirky and tight, but the blues band on the big stage reminds me of the Bonzo Dogs’ immortal question: ‘Can The Blue Men Sing the Whites?’ to which the answer is, Not Generally. It’s leaden and lumpen and loud. I can’t help but trot out my history (again!): watching Sonny Boy Williamson on stage, mean and menacing in shiny black suit and bowler, rolling his harmonica around in his mouth; Jimmy Reed, bouncing into the Bromel Club in ruffled shirt and bolero jacket, chunking out Big Boss Man; and John Lee Hooker leaving his English backing backing band adrift with his idiosyncratic changes. And yes, young man, I really did buy him a Scotch.

The blues was, is, a form: 12 bars, three chords, simple – eh? But it’s about feeling, intensity, space and swing. In Chicago in the 50’s they had little amplifiers, a double bass, small kit, and a rough sound. Listen to Buddy Guy’s ‘First Time I Met the Blues’ with his anguished yelps and frenetic guitar, or Howlin’ Wolf growling out ‘Goin’ Down Slow’ – and you get the picture.

Anyway – we (Ska Toons, that is – what were WE doing there?) are in the beer tent: local band. We go on after The Contenders finish their set with a driving version of Talking Heads’ ‘Life During Wartime’, still wondering what this crowd are going to make of an eight-piece jazz-ska band. And, extraordinarily, the beer’n’blues audience tap their feet, nod their heads, drink their beer, a few dance. All smiles. We finish and the sound man signals ‘Off’. We get off stage. The crowd are still calling for an encore. The sound man signals ‘All Right – Encore If You Like’. We blast through a fast ‘Monkey Man’ and leave. And yes, we did play a blues:  ‘Night Train’.

The sky is very blue, and the sea a lovely milky turquoise, glittering in the late May sun. I’m waiting for the Madeira Tower lift, topped with a peeled globe, dolphins and a scaly roof, and it’s taking me down into Concorde2, Brighton’s music venue on Madeira Drive.

I’ve been back in the UK for 24 hours, and I’m feeling fine after the flight from Tokyo. Nervous, though: tonight is Ska Toons’ Ska-Kestra gig. It’s our annual big-band gig, featuring at least twenty musicians, in the Brighton Festival. We soundcheck, and it sounds terrific out front. Then we adjourn for coffee and cake to the café on the beach.

There’s a big crowd queueing at the door, and an excited buzz backstage. Helen’s nervous as well, so we wind each other up, enjoying getting rather hysterical. DJ Amma has got the crowd sweating, and they roar as The Ska-Kestra troops on stage. The band kicks into our opener – ‘Garden of Love’ – with the fifteen horns punching out the tune.  And the crowd are dancing, and they don’t stop.

Finally, Helen and I are cheek-to-cheek, sharing one microphone, singing the rousing closer, All Of My Life, and dancing. Heaven.

The next day, of course, I feel groggy. And the next. And…