Why joining a covers band was the most punk rock move I ever made.
From 1996–2008 I played in noisy DIY bands. I sat in the back of stinking Transit vans. I drove to Durham in an Austin Maestro to play to a room full of exuberant underage drinkers. I secretly photocopied endless flyers at work. I sat in rock clubs and listened patiently while boys in cardigans told me the meaning of my lyrics. I slept on stranger’s floors. I slept in record shops. I sat on merch stalls. I stood on sofas in packed living rooms at house shows and watched the headliners blow up my amp. I played with all-time heroes. More often than not I played to nobody.
Then one day, I got tired of it.
I got tired of the scene. Tired of the cliques. Tired of driving miles down the M1 on a work night to play to five people. It all made me feel so old. Where was the spark? Where was the energy that made me put every course I could think of at Leeds University on my UCAS form just so I could come here and be a part of this?
Something needed to change.
It all started with our bass-player’s (my then boyfriend, now husband) Auntie Sally’s 50th birthday. As a gift, we offered to be her human jukebox, entirely at her disposal, to play the songs she loved at her party.
We put together a slightly different line-up, booked a practice room and started to learn, well, normal people music. Bryan Adams, Meredith Brookes, Madonna, Rod Stewart. Non-ironically. Straight up. Just to see if we could.
I’ll be honest, we were not great. Pretty patchy, in fact. Playing other people’s songs is hard. The cheesy wedding bands we might have danced to and laughed at for their lack of cool were all light years ahead of us, technically speaking.
But Sally was so delighted with her gift of a birthday band that we decided it didn’t matter too much if we sucked. We put together a slightly shonky set. Then, in the back of Henry Boon’s in Wakefield, we busted out the hits through the decades.
And people danced. DANCED, I tell you. They didn’t stand there nodding their heads, arms folded across their pints. They shimmied and sang along and boogied around their handbags. Having spent the best part of a decade playing to the support band at the Bradford 1-in-12, this felt like we were U2 on a world tour.
We wanted more.
We got a keyboard player. We practised. We got better. We played at our friends Andrew and George’s wedding. The dancefloor heaved. Somebody I’d never seen before fell over my vocal monitor, threw devil horns at me and screamed “YOU ROOOOOCK!”
I’d never known what the “IT” was I’d been missing, but suddenly there it was.
You didn’t need to be cool. Nobody cared about your carefully crafted songs or what hip band you supported last week. You just needed to give the audience what they wanted to hear. Preferably in a situation where everyone had been drinking all day.
It was foolproof. Although, we could see there were traps. A half decent covers band can spend every weekend driving around the country earning money instead of losing it. This was tempting (mostly for me — woefully underemployed at the time), but we agreed that it would get old quickly. Free time was precious.
Instead, we decided to get picky. We only went for the gigs that we knew would give us joy.
And that led us to the best gigs. Ones where the audience didn’t mind a bit of spit and sawdust and loved choosing from our — now slightly edgier — kitschy new wave/80s pop playlist.
We played on a floating stage in the middle of Leeds Dock, in a Cantonese restaurant, at a village fair with wellies being wanged to our soundtrack. We played a bonkersly brilliant wedding in a working men’s club with a papier-mâché crazy golf course, a fireman’s retirement party, and a 40th with full-on fancy dress and cabaret where our front row consisted of everything from dancing lobsters to Cher.
And we played numerous child-friendly matinees where toddlers in ear defenders rampaged across the stage. In fact, in later years, our own three-year-old would approach the stage as Daddy was mid-guitar solo at one of these gigs to tell him he needed a wee.
The little money we earned over expenses went back into practising. And boy, we needed to practice. There’s no room for fluffing when everybody in the audience knows exactly how the song goes. But we also practised because our enthusiasm for expanding our repertoire knew no bounds. We covered everything from Iron Maiden to Lady Gaga.
Then, unexpected musical growth started happening.
Because of this relentless learning and rearranging songs, each of us got better at what we did. As graduates of a punk scene, this was a completely unintended and pleasantly surprising bonus. I ditched the guitar and went from being a reluctant singer to an actual frontperson. I had to learn to own the stage, warm up, use good technique and actually practice vocals. Singing became my instrument, rather than a mumbly afterthought. I got better.
Also, it stopped mattering so much how the audience responded. If the whole room was jumping — and they often were now — then great. But there were times we’d play an entire daytime festival set purely to one little girl in a fairy costume who thought she was Lady Gaga and we were her backing band. And that was just as brilliant too. We had each other for validation, we knew whether we’d played well. Most importantly, we were having fun.
The band have been together for 11 years this summer, which seems crazy. A few years ago I realised how much I missed playing noisy guitar and having the outlet of writing my own music, so I started playing with other musicians in a “serious” way with a view to venturing back out into the world of recording and performing original material. Our drummer and guitarist, Rob and Sam, have their band Holy Homes now too. Only keyboard player Nicky never stopped writing and performing her own stuff and supporting others to do the same, but she’s a notorious creative machine.
The wheel is slowly turning back the other way.
But it feels different this time. I’m much more focused on the process and the playing than the outcome and where it might go.
Obviously, I’m a middle-aged mum now, not a wide-eyed fresher looking for scene points. But I do think the experience of playing covers for so long has made me resilient. Yes, a better vocalist, no doubt (though, devastatingly, I’ll never be a cruise ship singer), but also more confident, more boundaried, less giving of a shit. And always in it for the music.
If the crowd couldn’t care less? I couldn’t care less. And how punk rock is that?
This is article 42 of 52 pieces about number one singles. This week was supposed to be Phil Bailey and Phil Collins’ Easy Lover, which admittedly I have failed to mention anywhere in the article. But it is my favourite song to play in our band. It’s one of the first we learned and really nailed.
For those who may be interested, we have no website. We’re old, tired, and we don’t want to play at your gig unless it’s in a hobbit’s cave or at your heavy metal nan’s 100th birthday. In which case, DM me baby. Here’s my Twitter.