This is a short story from ‘I’ll Tell Everything I Know’ by Dart Travis (a pseudonym for Peter Viney). The stories in the book are mainly about Etcetera, a teenage band in the mid-1960s: Neil- vocals, Steve- bass guitar, Greg- rhythm guitar, Paul- lead guitar and Alfie- drums.
This story has been particularly popular with musicians who have all experienced a similar issue in bands they were in.
There are three more short stories which can be read as samples.
LANGUAGE WARNING: It’s authentic in that everyone swears a great deal.
We ‘ve (not) got rhythm
Late April 1965
‘Guitar, bass and drums! That’s all The Who have got after all!’ Neil folded his arms, confident that he’d made his point.
‘The Who have got a singer too,’ put in Greg slowly.
‘We’ve got a singer,’ said Neil, ‘Me. And guitar and bass and drums.’
‘Greg shook his head, ‘No, we’ve got two guitars … me and Paul.’
Neil looked ceiling-wards, ‘That’s my fucking point. We’ve got two fucking guitars!’
‘We know that,’ said Greg, shaking his head again.
‘But do we need two? I never even hear Paul!’
Greg looked worried, ‘But I told you. Paul started the group. When we used to do Shadows stuff, he was always the lead guitarist. I just played rhythm. Of course he’s got the three pick-up model, I’ve only got the two …’ he indicated his scarlet Futurama guitar.
‘That was OK for Shadows stuff,’ said Neil, ‘But R&B isn’t the same. You don’t have someone plucking out the fucking melody on lead guitar. The whole concept of rhythm guitar and lead guitar is Shadows stuff.’
‘Or The Ventures …’ said Greg, ‘Or The Fireballs, though we found a lot of their stuff was just too fast for us …’
‘We don’t need rhythm guitar,’ said Neil firmly.
Greg looked anguished, ‘But Paul’s our oldest friend!’
Neil prodded Steve, who looked up.
‘Sorry, does this sound in tune to you?’ Steve plucked the two strings on his bass.
‘Yeah, but it’s just like we said before,’ Neil glared at him.
Greg recoiled in horror, ‘You don’t mean you’ve discussed this before the rehearsal!’
Steve and Neil exchanged guilty glances. Alfie looked up from adjusting the bass drum pedal, ‘What do you fucking think? We all think the same.’
‘I don’t!’ said Greg.
‘That’s why we told you last. Look,’ said Alfie, ‘he stands at the back strumming away quietly. None of us even fucking know he’s there.’
‘He always plays the intro run,’ protested Greg.
‘The same one every time, and only for Chuck Berry numbers. You take the solo.’
‘Paul isn’t too fond of the R&B stuff. That’s why I do the solo. He likes playing the intro run … he really enjoys it.’
Alfie shrugged, ‘Because it’s like The Shadows … playing single notes. For fuck’s sake, Greg, it’s not appropriate. And we only do R&B stuff.’
Steve coughed, ‘Um … he has a point …’
Greg looked at Steve, ‘No! Not you too?’
Steve nodded, ‘Sorry, me too. I mean he didn’t even come to the rehearsal today. And we’re playing tonight.’
‘He had to help his uncle,’ said Greg, ‘And anyway, it’s all easy stuff. He said he’d be fine.’
‘If we play it all in A,’ muttered Steve, ‘No, we could do it without him. We’ve got to this afternoon.’
‘And last Saturday,’ said Neil, ‘He didn’t turn up for the rehearsal then either.’
‘Good Lord,’ said Greg, ‘But how would we arrange the songs?’
‘You’d do the solo just like today and last week,’ said Steve, ‘I turn the bass up louder. Alfie beats the shit out of the drums, Neil shakes the maracas or bangs the tambourine. Depending on whether it’s Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry, of course.’
Greg pondered, ‘I suppose I could do more harmonica solos.’
The other three exchanged nervous glances again.
‘Yeah … er … maybe,’ said Steve diplomatically, making a mental note to hide the harmonica.
‘How are we going to do it?’ asked Steve.
‘You tell him,’ decided Neil.
‘Me? No way!’
Alfie kicked the foot pedal loudly twice, ‘I know. We work it out now. We stop at a pre-arranged point, and see if we can hear him. I think the cunt just stands there with his guitar turned off.’
Steve had reached that opinion at their last gig.
‘OK,’ said Neil, ‘What song?’
‘It can’t be anything with stops and starts,’ said Steve, ‘It’ll have to be a song where we’re all playing together.’
‘I know,’ said Neil, ‘Memphis Tennessee, I sing Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge and you all stop on ‘ridge.’ I keep singing, otherwise it’d be fucking stupid,’ he reflected, ‘Actually that’d sound quite good. With just me on my own.’
‘That’d work,’ said Alfie, ‘Only trouble is, I’ll have to listen to the singing for a change.’
Greg was as white as a sheet, ‘Oh, dear! This is deeply treacherous!’
Steve watched the audience drifting in, sitting on the edge of the stage with Neil. Moorside Congregational Youth Club. They’d played there twice before. They’d even gone down quite well.
‘I’m feeling bad about it,’ said Steve.
Neil shrugged, ‘Yeah, because you’re all at grammar school together. I couldn’t give a shit. He’s fucking useless.’
Steve thought. It was comforting to have rhythm guitar alongside you, but he’d truly stopped noticing Paul’s presence. ‘I suppose we have to.’
‘Yeah,’ grinned Neil, ‘And that’s going to mean 25 shillings each instead of a pound.’
That hadn’t struck Steve, ‘OK, but just don’t mention that to Greg, OK?’
‘What gets me,’ said Neil, ‘is I’m sweating my bollocks off, and you’re leaping about and Alfie’s giving it stick … and Greg’s standing like a fucking lemon, and Paul’s skulking around at the back of the stage. But at least you can hear Greg.’
‘Right,’ said Steve, remembering that Greg and Paul had started the group.
‘Did you work out any new numbers this morning?’ asked Paul chirpily.
‘Yeah, we worked on My Babe,’ said Neil. It was yet another song from The Blues Volume I.
‘Right, well, we can do it next time.’
‘Why not do it tonight,’ said Neil, ‘We spent enough time on the fucker.’
‘I haven’t learned it,’ said Paul, ‘But I expect I can strum along,’ his neighing laugh turned into a snigger.
‘No, Paul. We’ll do it on our own. You take a rest,’ said Neil.
‘I thought Greg might want to take a harmonica solo …’
‘We can handle that with just bass and drums.’
‘OK …’ said Paul. He looked around. Steve and Greg were staring at the floor, ‘If you’re sure …’
‘I can’t do this,’ said Greg when Paul went to the bog before they started. Something he always did, ‘Stage fright,’ he’d explained as usual.
‘It’s easy. We just stop when Neil gets to ‘ridge’,’ said Steve, ‘If we can hear Paul, we wait to the end of the line and come back in. We can say … we practised it this morning and it was a joke.’
‘Or better just a new idea,’ said Neil, ‘to focus on the vocal.’
Greg looked straight at Steve, ‘But say we can’t hear him?’
‘So you’ve noticed too.’
‘Well, he does play somewhat quietly. I just think it looks better with two guitars.’
They’d worked out the set list. Neil had insisted Memphis Tennessee closed their first set, ‘So we can sort it out in the interval.’
Steve tried to concentrate on the other instruments. He could hear Greg clattering away on guitar. Greg wasn’t particularly good, but somehow his slight ineptness fitted the R&B numbers. It was inadvertent but it gave an edge of rough-hewn authenticity. He supposed his bass was much the same. They got away with it all because Alfie could keep time, and Neil was an extraordinarily loud singer, bellowing into the mic, and smashing his hand on the skinless tambourine right by the mic. Skins never lasted five minutes with Neil, and they’d given up buying new tambourines. Paul was at the back as usual, tongue out in concentration, strumming gently. The chord changes looked right, but as last week, he couldn’t hear anything.
Neil announced My Babe as the fourth number – it wasn’t written on the scrap of paper on Steve’s amp.
‘You have a seat, Paul,’ he said.
The backing didn’t sound much different to Steve. There was no sense of loss, but this was after all how they’d rehearsed it. Paul looked quite content, sitting at the back, tapping absent-mindedly on the body of his guitar.
‘That was very good,’ Paul whispered when they’d finished, ‘I enjoyed it.’
Neil was starting Big Boss Man. Steve felt a sharp twinge of guilt, and avoided Greg’s baleful glare.
Half past nine was approaching. Time for the 15 minute interval where the youth club sold orange squash and weak tea.
Neil grabbed the mic, ‘Long distance information …’ he began, ‘Give me Memphis Tennessee …’
Steve felt his stomach churning as they battled on towards the line … the three of them stopped together … nothing, in the sudden silence he could hear the distant sound of plectrum brushing wire, but nothing was coming from the amplifier which Greg and Paul shared … Greg bent down with his ear close to it, as if willing noise to come out … Paul looked up puzzled in the silence … then as Neil started the next verse they all came back in.
‘We’re going to take a short break … back with you soon …’ Neil was hollering, and they all stumbled to the side of the stage … the youth club had no dressing room, but the billiard table at the side of the stage afforded a degree of privacy if you sat behind it.
No one spoke at first. Greg had his head in his hands. Neil had an unpleasant grin. The silence stretched. Steve couldn’t bear it any longer, ‘We couldn’t hear you, Paul … when we stopped … um, in Memphis …’
‘I know,’ murmured Paul, ‘I do know.’
‘Why … why weren’t you playing?’ said Steve.
‘I get nervous. I never know if I’m quite in tune, or in time, and … what with one thing and another, I thought it was best to play quietly …’
‘Or not at fucking all,’ put in Neil.
‘I was playing in fact, but …’
‘Your volume control was totally off,’ said Neil.
‘Er, was it off? Yes … I think it might have been that low …’
No one spoke.
‘I suppose you want me out of the group?’
‘No, no, I wouldn’t say that,’ said Greg, ‘Perhaps if you …’
‘Yes,’ said Neil.
‘Sorry,’ said Steve.
Everyone looked at Alfie.
‘Me too. Yes. We’ll carry on with four,’ said Alfie.
‘But finish the show tonight …’ said Greg.
No one else said a word.
‘I’d better go now,’ said Paul, ‘I don’t think I’d be able to play the second half.’
‘Right,’ said Neil.
‘I’ll get my stuff.’
They watched Paul pack up. He phoned his dad to pick him up, and carried his guitar and amp to the vestibule.
The four conspirators sat there.
‘Phew!’ said Steve.
‘It wasn’t as bad as I thought,’ said Alfie.
‘It was awful,’ said Greg.
‘Fuck him,’ was Neil’s conclusion, ‘Anyway, we’d better get back on, and do a really great set. Our first as a four piece! Come on …’
They trooped on stage. Greg stopped and gazed at the space next to the drums. Paul had indeed departed. And so had his Vox AC30, the amplifier he and Greg shared on stage.
‘Oh, Lord,’ said Greg, ‘I haven’t got an amp.’