Summer of '14 - PART 1

An edited version of this piece first appeared in Pro Sound News Europe July 2014 edition.  

The Summer of ‘14

Doesn’t have the same ring to it as the ‘Summer of ‘69’ really -  it feels like this could be something to do with World War 1, and if it rains at Glastonbury there could be some distinct similarities, but as I write this initial installment of ‘Simon’s Sonic Summer’ it’s set fair for a corking Glasto and hopefully everything that follows.  My role at Somerset’s global village fete has become one of ‘overseer’ rather than full-blooded festivaleering, having recommended a change of PA system for the Pyramid Stage this year – I’m fortunate enough to be able to ask my friends to rig and operate it so I can swan in and say ‘a bit more on delay 4’, and grease a few egos at FOH.  More of this later.

A regular customer for me is Wales’ principal export Katherine Jenkins.  Working for her is akin to being a heli-vet – gigs come in all shapes and sizes in all kinds of places.  A KJ show can be anything from a vocal to track for a  corporate in front of a privileged few to a full symphony orchestra in a stadium, or anything in between.  I guess my summer started with a trip to Istanbul at the end of May for a ‘corporate’.  It was in fact for our lovely government, who were schmoozing the Turks with all things bright and British with a view to increasing our exports.  In a series of events staged by Jack Morton Worldwide under the moniker GREAT BRITAIN, the great and the good of Istanbul were treated to a display of cutting edge British technology and design, and that was just the canapés.  To kick the evening off, Katherine performed three songs to track on a postage stamp of a stage that featured the Bosphorus for a backdrop – a more stunning location would be hard to find, but this one was quite hard to see, blocked as it was by two inappropriately huge stacks of Adamson that had been locally sourced just for our bit.  My heart sank when I saw it, as I’m a fan of a tidy system that fits a space visually as well as sonically, but alas I have only myself to blame.  Due to a slight misinterpretation of an email on my part, I ended up with the Adamson system when I could have had a much more suitably proportioned D&B Q system, and the punters would have got to see the Bosphurus, but that’s not the point.

About a quarter of a century ago I used to do a great deal of work in the corporate sector, and among the good friends I made was a certain Geoff Eaton, barrow boy to the stars and extremely competent audio engineer.  As is the way of these things, our careers careered off in different directions, and we didn’t see each other for ever.  I go to Turkey, and who is there to look after me but Geoff, 25 years on and EXACTLY the same, whereas I am wider, greyer and altogether more ‘comfortable.’  It seems that whilst the rest of us have been growing old, Geoff has been keeping a self-portrait in the attic.  It was of course a great opportunity to catch up, but that was going to take a while, as we had 25 years worth to do.  Best thing?  Get the gig out of the way and find a restaurant sharpish like.  Three songs to track – easy – until the playback machine won’t play .wavs and my instant access software, recently installed on my shiny new Mac decided it wasn’t interested either.

It was one of those situations you could never have envisaged, but I won’t bore you with the details.  Needless to say the show happened, thanks to my old mate Geoff who rode to the rescue like a s***e in shining armour.  KJ was of course charming, grown men swooned and after Geoff and I scarpered as quick as you like to a restaurant down on the front, where we drank Turkish beer (Efes, really good) and did some serious reminiscing whilst the young and the beautiful of Istanbul cruised pass in their Lambos, Alfas and Ferraris.  We both decided that it was better in the old days….no surprises there.

Now I know a thing or two about mosques, having done my time at the Baital Futuh mosque in Morden designing and installing their not insignificant systems around the complex and also for the Amaddihya community’s annual gathering in Sussex.  But my concept of what comprises a mosque was totally changed by my visit to Istanbul.  Due to some considerate scheduling by those nice people at Jack Morton, I had the day to myself before the show in the early evening.  What’s more, they had the foresight to hire a private tour guide for the touring party, who nobody else wanted to make use of.  Having realized my luck, I took full advantage of the situation and was given a guided tour of some of the most incredible architecture I have ever seen, all of it properly ancient.  The Blue Mosque, and its neighbour Agia Sofia, are incredible examples of mankind’s resource, creativity and artisanal skill.  I’ve decided that when we finally get the new bathroom at home, I’m going to get some old Turkish Muslims to come and tile it.

In this industry, it is so often the case where we get to visit extraordinary places and never see them.  I have heard so many crew members sounding off about how they have been here there and everywhere, but the truth of it is that for all they saw they could have been in Hull, and let’s face it you can get drunk almost anywhere.  I have left some of the most beautiful cities in the world with a feeling of real disappointment, hoping that some day I will get the opportunity to come back and discover what all the fuss is about.  Not so in Istanbul, an incredible mélange of East and West, Christianity and Islam, Asia and Europe.  I am fortunate indeed.

Back in Blighty and I was next due to look after KJ again for her appearance for Soccer Aid at Old Trafford, singing ‘Abide With Me’ before the kick off.  We do a few of these kind of events every year – last year it was the American football at Wembley, a surreal experience if ever there was one – but this was more familiar. Football for me these days is pretty cursory – I masochistically like to watch England but I’m not about to get punchy if I miss a match – Rugby though, is a different matter altogether.  However, when I was about 7 I so wanted to be George Best.  I had the signature side-lace boots, my room had various Manchester United memorabilia and I had a subscription to GOAL magazine.  The last time I played with any commitment was for the crew against the dancers on Lord of the Dance backstage in Brisbane in 1997 (I think we won, nobody got hurt).  Old Trafford has always been a special place to me, and here I was not only being paid to go there for the first time, but also getting down to the pitch side.  The show was live vocal to track, very simple, and all over in moments, but that was not what made it for me.  The pre-match kick about was a chance for players and player/celebs to loosen up and get a feel for the pretty electric atmosphere of a 65,000 crowd all looking to scream at a) Robbie Williams (for mums), b) Ollie Murs (the kids) or c) somebody I didn’t recognize (who knows?), depending on their age. So there I was checking out the talent (John Bishop and Olly Murs looked pretty handy) when out of the sky came a stray football, like an inconvenient meteorite.

What was a man to do under the circumstances?  Duck, run, look away nonchalantly, or risk looking a total arse in front of 65,000 braying punters and hoof the thing for all it was worth?  I went for it of course – Old Trafford, a capacity crowd, all those memories of centre spreads of Besty and Charlton doing what they did best.  It was one for the grandchildren (trust me, it won’t be long).  I let fly, connected beautifully and the ball curved gently over the heads of the assembled glitterati into the centre circle to be received by somebody like Japp Stam or Jamie Rednapp, who no doubt were left wondering why I wasn’t playing.

As if that were not enough, no more than two minutes passed and the ball came thundering my way again!  This certainly counted as meaningful participation surely - I trapped deftly, took aim at the nearest celeb and caught it on the half-volley to send the ball at chest height screaming across the pitch into Gordon Ramsey’s mid-riff.  The crowd cheered, I bowed and tried to not to look smug.  This was no dream.  This was real.  48 years later than expected, this was my Old Trafford debut.  If only Sir Matt had been there.

It took a while to come down from that, at least the length of the journey home in the car that had been provided for me by the TV production company.  Living in the far South West, I often get the feeling when I’m asked about travel expenses that I’m having a laugh – especially those who are very much London-centric in their thinking, like most TV production companies.  (It’s actually no different to living in Yorkshire or the East Midlands).  Endemol, bless them, provided me with a driver to drive me from Plymouth to Manchester and back again in the same day.  This was great!  I could do something meaningful with my time during the journey, and face the next day not feeling like my head had been minced.  My man duly arrived at 9am on the Sunday morning, and off we went.  He seemed sane, so I asked him where he had come from, expecting maybe Bristol, Exeter or even Plymouth – would have made sense.  Essex.  He had set off at 3am from Essex.  He was driving me to Manchester, and back again after KJ had started the match at around 8pm, and was then returning back to Essex.  I was going to die.  If only I had known that when I waved to my beautiful wife it was the last time I would ever see her.  All those promises never met, things left unsaid, plans unrealised, kitchens untiled, all destroyed amongst the twisted metal of a wrecked people carrier, smouldering on the central reservation of the M5.  Visions of weeping children, confused friends and relatives crowded my head, and to think Gordon Ramsey would never have experienced the full force of my right foot.  Somehow, we survived.  I have never seen anybody consume so much Red Bull and Relentless.  He himself was very red when we arrived back in Plymouth at about 1:30am, his blood sugar level beyond critical for sure.  I’m sure I could see his head actually pulsating with the force of his heart struggling to cope. Whether he made it back to Essex I’ll probably never know, but I wished him well on his way and fell through my front door almost weeping with relief.

A trip to Copenhagen to be drip fed Carlsberg at the expense of DPA Microphones (probably the best microphones…in the world..) was a welcome distraction before a visit to the Southbank and James Lavelle’s Meltdown Festival.  The show featured the Philharmonia Orchestra playing live to Max Richter’s eclectic score for Ari Folman’s unique animated documentary film Waltz With Bashir.  I have never seen anything quite like this film before – it is I think quite unique, and for an animated work is decidedly harrowing, focusing on the director’s own experiences of rediscovering his lost memories of his part in the war in Lebanon in the early 1980’s.  Musically it swings from banging electronica to beautiful, melodic orchestral passages interspersed with solo piano, with some OMD and PiL thrown in to make sure everybody understood the where and when of the piece.  I loved it, and enjoyed deploying SFX speakers in the Royal Festival Hall boxes and playing with the L,C,R to give maximum imaging to the dialogue against the soundtrack and orchestra.

As I write, I am in the middle of a demo of Martin Audio’s remarkable MLA Mini system for an ex student of mine.  His regional PA company is providing sound services for Teignmouth Folk Festival in the seaside town’s seaside theatre.  It is fortunately the last event they will be staging in the Carlton Theatre, a shrine to corrugated iron sheeting and asbestos that would appear to be held together with rust and guano.  The home of Muse, Teignmouth is a beautiful place to be on a hot, British summer day, and they are soon to be getting a shiny new Carlton Theatre on the same site, and not a moment too soon I would suggest.  And as we are in the midst of a series of hot, British summer days I have absolutely no problem with driving across my home county to step out into blazing sunshine, stroll along the promenade and dive into a small, hot, black hovel to play with the best small format PA known to man.  I just think they should move it outside.

And, then, next week it’s Glastonbury, the Pyramid Stage and significantly more MLA than Teignmouth, where I shall be wearing two hats as MLA advocate for Martin Audio and the face of R G Jones, now in their seventh year as providers for the iconic venue.  This is a two part diary, so once it’s done there’ll be much to say on the subject from the viewpoint of somebody who is brave enough to tell the festival that they need this system.  Whether I’m right or not remains to be seen – check back next month to see if I survive…

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