Tuesday, May 15, 2007

An early career crisis

Supertramp played Newcastle City Hall as part of a thirty date sellout for their Crisis? What Crisis? tour in 1975/76.

I don't recall the exact date, but I know I was only a few weeks away from my Mock "A" levels in the upper Sixth Form so it was probably November.

(There is a Supertramp time line online here but it has gaps in it).

The reason I remember it so vividly is because I was offered the chance to tour with them as road crew. Let me fill in the story some more...

In 1974, Supertramp released their seminal Crime of the Century Album and it rapidly became a favourite album amongst those of us at school into progressive stuff (ELP, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Rick Wakeman even). Many of our school colleagues were into much heavier stuff (Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix) and to them Supertramp was a bit too "soft rock" but to those of us with an ear for sensitive melody and thoughtful lyrics, Supertramp were a delight.

They followed it up with the Crisis? What crisis? Album, the quote being (wrongly) attributed to Jim Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, returning from holiday into the midst of industrial strife in the run up to the eventual Winter of Discontent. The album cover featured someone sunbathing under a yellow parasol in what looked like a burnt out industrial wasteland.

I had bought the new album a few weeks before the gig and was getting nicely into it. I had been looking forward to the Gig ever since I had seen it listed on Moose's typed bookings list as Crime Of The Century was still my favourite Album at the time.

In advance of the Gig, I was told about how Supertramp were not like other bands. Most shows hired in the sound and lighting from the big name tour production Companies arranged by the Promoter as a package, generally with Edwin Shirley Trucking for the logistics and sometimes with a catering Company. Supertramp, however, owned most of their equipment in order to contain costs and paid the crew directly rather than through others. (Roxy Music were another Band that did something similar, they had a their own PA).

Come the day, the get-in was a fairly regular affair, although they also rigged a black backing drape (a curtain) with screen behind. Once the humping had finished, I offered to stay on, hoping to see the Band appear and sound-check in due course. Sitting near the mixing desk whilst the channels and speakers were checked out, I suddenly realised that the people nearby with Wives and Children were the mainstays of the Band, Rick Davies and Rodger Hodgson. They both had beards and Rodger looked rather Jesus-like despite wearing Jeans and a T shirt. They were also cool enough to say hello. (Contrast that with those of massive ego who insisted on the venue being cleared before they would sound check- Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Paul MacCartney).

Suddenly, they realised that they had a mini-crisis. As well as an electric Piano, Rick had a touring hammond Organ with a large traditional Leslie speaker in a polished wood cabinet and the Leslie had big problems making graunching noises. A Leslie speaker is a full range phase effect unit which contains spinning horns and sound drums to vent the music out from the speakers producing a distinct spacey sound via the doppler effect (where the pitch of a horn changes in an oncoming car that passes you). It is the mainstay of blues organ (Think Booker T & the MGs) and it was essential to Rick Davies' sound on certain songs. Someone from a music shop in the Handiside Arcade was summonsed and offered much Wonga to put it right again.

I then leant a hand focussing the lights onstage, holding a large metal A-frame ladder whilst the lighting designer (the Lampy) nipped up and fine-tuned the positioning. In the middle of this, as time was pressing, the band decided to come on and sound check around me. Dougie Thomson, the Bass player, was standing right next to me tuning up and was fingering various riffs. In the middle of it I recognised the distinctive sound from hide in your shell which is only four repeated notes (Dah-Dohw-dah-Dooooooaaaaaaooowww) but really deep and compelling. I gave him a big grin, he winked back, then suggested to the others they check using Hide in Your Shell so I was in near rapture holding this ladder in the middle of my favourite supergroup playing my favourite song!

All too soon they cleared the stage and we carried on focussing. We continued to gingerly move the ladder around the stage. I was just about to step back when the lampy said "Freeze!" I stopped, looked behind me and saw that I was about to stand on a badly positioned guitar... That could have been very career limiting!

We were relaxing afterwards and we were talking about lighting design and what a pile of poo the house rig was. He then made me an extremely generous offer- If I wanted to I could light the support band from their front of house lighting desk (an Electrosonic Rockboard, complete with Cigar lighter, a de-facto desk of the 70s) and using the House Follow Spots. Was I up for it? I couldn't believe how generous he was being. We had got on OK but I was just a 17 year old kid with a lighting obsession. Was I up for it? Course I was, even if I wasn't getting extra money for it (as it happened, I did get the show rate). He limited me to a number of presets (the back truss washes) so as not to use up all of the visual effects but that was fine, the other crew members were up for it as well on the follow-spots.

He then dropped his second bombshell offer- the road manager came over and asked if I would be interested in coming along for the rest of the tour? They were one short on the stage crew and I'd just be a dogsbody but I seemed to know what i was doing and if we liked each other, there was the chance to tour with them worldwide in the Summer...

I have to say that I thought long and hard about it for a few minutes. This was my favourite band and if I wanted to work in show business then crewing with a band at the peak of their success was a great leg up, rather than doing all that bottom feeder stuff like theatre in education and the Krankies do Pontins. I then thought about the down side. Life on the road is hard work, stressful, disorienting, insecure and full of risk. I had seen so many roadies turn up out of their heads on hash (or harder) and not knowing what City it was. I was also in the run up to my mocks and to give up school then would have effectively thrown away my 6th form and chance of going into higher education. I was planning to do Electrical & Electronic engineering at Newcastle Poly which would have meant that I could hopefully have continued being on the City Hall Crew for several more years. Also, whilst I loved rock & roll, by real love was theatre rather than concerts. I swallowed the bitter reality pill, sanity prevailed and I said "Thanks, but no thanks".

By now, it was nearly time to let the punters in. I asked about the support act- a Band called Joan Armatrading and the Movies. They suggested that I go and talk to them so I made my way to their dressing room and asked what kind of lighting they would like. The Movies were indulging in a rather dodgy home made cigarette (sickly sweet smell...) and Joan Armatrading looked extremely uncomfortable with them doing so! (She probably wasn't endeared with the idea of sharing a dressing room with six blokes either...). She seemed pleased that someone had actually taken the trouble to ask her what she would like and the Movies were too busy worrying about where the Mars Bars were to offer an opinion. Mellow, smooth, blue for a particular song were the directions.

Anyway, the first half passed without incident, a very good set tastefully lit my Moi, ably assisted by the CSI guys up top. I don't recall very much about it now other than that I thought Joan Armatrading had a great voice, a great guitar talent and would go far (and indeed she did). It felt very strange sitting out front in the middle of the audience to light a show, I had been used to being in the Wings or in a Control Box at the back of the balcony.

At the interval, my job was done and I could enjoy the main show. Supertramp didn't use Follow-Spots, although they had asked if it was OK to use one as an effect at the end of a particular song (Not quite right, a song about mental health). They might not get round to using it they said but we were fine. Just before the House Lights went down, one of the crew came on with a large yellow parasol and raised it behind the drum riser, that got a big cheer...

The show was superb, clear sound and tastefully lit. When Not Quite Right came on, I nipped up to the back of the balcony to strike up one of the CSIs, just in case they used it. (They take a minute or so to reach full brightness). Spot on time, one of the crew appeared to do the cue. It was tight on Rick's hands as he did a piano playout riff that went a bit awry, then the beam did a sort of St. Vitus dance up the backcloth and was extinguished as the cuckoo notes were played. Succinct, visual and clever!

Whilst the show was brilliant, there was one downer- John Anthony Heliwell, the Saxophonist. He was the voice of the band and he came over as a bit of a tosser, a cross between Timmy Mallett and Alan Partridge. At one point he sung the Alphabet Song wrapped in Tivoli lamps and his lighting cue was "Turn me on man!" He was a great horn player though...

The final song of the show was "Crime of the Century" and this included a video sequence. (Actually 16mm film, video projection was in its infancy in the mid 70s). As the song built up to its long and laborious climax, we drifted through a star field of unknown space. Eventually a small blob appeared and resolved itself as we got closer into a pair of hands at the bars of a celestial cage. This expanded to fill the screen then we were through and into space again, a real tingles down the spine moment. (I have a more recent supertramp DVD and they still use this visual effect, although it also includes other Supertramp motifs like tightropes and shears as part of the progression).

They may have done an Encore, I don't recall. The crowd left ecstatic but of course we still had work to do.

The get-out was unremarkable and rather tiring. As the truck doors were closed and they were ready for the off, the crew wished me well and hoped to see me again.

Unfortunately, next time they came in November 1976, I had been sent to Coventry, but that is another story...


Crushed by Ingsoc said...

The Logical song is a personal favorite, but alas, I was not even a bit of glit in 1976.
I notice that of your listed groups only Black sabbath and Rick Waterman are unrepresented in my CD collection.

james higham said...

Ah, Ian, you mention Roxy Music, which them brings to mind Brian Eno, which then brings to mind John Cale and so on.

Delicolor said...

Crushed- Rick Waterman? a misprint, or are you thinking of that supergroup Brian Stock and Richie Aitken?

(Inspired by Stills, Novak and Good...)

James, are you playing Word association Football? Although how I got from Efteling to Perry Como via Captain Pugwash is one of the joys of the Internet.