Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Conceptual Art: Gentleman Gip & The Skiffle Orchestra

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

For the final installment in the series, Skif tells the tale of a chancer riding the wave of an unexpected musical revival...

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Jack Collins (known at school as ‘Gip’ due to his constant, and bafflingly elderly, complaining about aching body parts) had been in bands before. In his mid-teens, when he wore his hair long over the eyes but not quite past the neckline (betraying an only recently acquired command over his own hair styling), he had played sagging bass in spirit-over-skill metal band Grunt Leg, playing exclusively in his dad’s garage. A "weekly residency" Jack called it.

Ordinarily, his audience would be his mum (well, for those moments that she happened to be getting a Tupperware box of pre-prepped scones out of the chest freezer), their bemused puppy (who, having being given carte blanche on the name, Jack had christened "Jason Newsted") and three nosepickers from the school youth club, assuming the invite commensurate to popularity.

As he progressed through his teens, twenties and early thirties, he worked through a number of bands, each less "röck" than the last. "Expanded horizons" he called it. Contrariness tended to be the view of the musically different guitarists and singers he discarded like flappy-soled brogues on an almost biannual basis. One vocalist, Tizzo, he couldn’t get rid of quick enough; her Shakira-like grunty stresses sounding like the last air dispelling from a fat bagpiper dying in harness.

You’ll note no mention of drummers, but there was one, Arn, in their monkey-eyebrowed dad rock effort, Desperate Vespa. Arn, however, had a few anxiety issues. So tense was he, you could have stretched his skin over a cake tin and made him his own snare drum. For gigs (by this stage, Jack’s bands had graduated away from the space next to his dad’s oil cans) Arn had to be rolled up in a beach towel and carried behind the drum set, else he’d never have left his dressing room sobs.

Naturally, constant musical shifts did nothing for Arn’s nerves and eventually he left. With all these problems, Jack vowed never to work with a drummer again, rather he would make do and mend with regards his percussion, particular as his interest in electronic music was increasing year-on-year. He went through a succession of drum machines that, as it turned out, he did have to punch the information into more than once.

All the technological problems and unreliable musicians meant that come the end of 2009, Jack felt that he couldn’t put up with the disappointments any longer and that a professional music career was never to be within his grasp after all.

On 31st December, whilst out at a typically depressing New Year’s Eve bash, Jack experienced an epiphany that would change everything. Whilst relieving himself (having consumed rather too much cask ale) he stared down at the urinal bowl and noticed something. There looking up at him was a single hair, specifically a pube like a hiker’s bootlace. It was the kind of thing you’d have to put real effort into growing, rubbing a bit of plant feed into your corduroy cap underflap each night and so on. Looking at that, Jack had his eureka moment, suddenly thinking that his vision just had to grow bigger, more impressive. Sod the three blokes and drum machine gambit - why not have six/twelve/eighteen bodies all creating a big sound, a magnificent, spirited, unexpected sound.

As he had been going through his late grandfather’s 78s recently, in advance of an assault on eBay, Jack had been quite impressed with the skiffle records: The Vipers, Alexis Korner and Bob Cort skiffle groups all skipping with polite energy from the crackle of the spinning shellac. He liked the atmosphere of the records but found these frugal groups with their tea-chest basses and ramshackle set-up a little lean. However he thought if he could get enough bodies, work up the scuzz a bit and add a few keyboards and electronics, he could get wall of sound effect going and bring the skiffle mood into the twenty-first century.

Even better, of course, he still didn’t need a drummer, just a couple of fellas who could fit some thimbles on their fingers and work a washboard like a bad-ass mutha rather than an 1850s mother. Getting together all the players he knew in the local area, he assembled a crew of fifteen players, booked some rehearsal time and a few weekends were spent getting together the sound and the name. With a couple of old school friends on board, his old nickname came back into popular usage and the XV became Gentleman Gip & The Skiffle Orchestra.

Nine months later and an album, Things We Made And Did, was recorded and self-released, his contacts from previous bands helping with a minor distribution deal. Timing is of the essence in music and Jack had caught the 1950s revival of 2011 spot on, as milk bars sprang up across the nation, replacing boarded up Starbucks and Costas, and the ironing of a shirt re-asserted its importance to the sartorial turn out of young men everywhere.

Universal picked up on that debut LP and re-released it, with a bonus disc compilation of material from all of Gentleman Gip’s previous acts, thus putting Grunt Leg, Desperate Vespa, Bullets Like Nipples, Burnt Orange, Arbitrary Thing & The Juxtaposed Adjective, Lilliput Beast, Imbibe, The King The Cute and Assuage 89 on record together for the first time, much to the pleasure of virtually no one, least of all Jack. The main record however more than made up for it, attracting effusive reviews.

"Entertaining as a cat in a Stetson", said the Independent, "pioneers leading the nu-skiffle scene sweeping Shoreditch and taking on the world" said the NME, while the Daily Telegraph heralded the, err, "return to old fashioned musical values". A follow-up, Songs About Railways And Meeting Girls’ Mothers, was also met with 10 out of 10s and increasing sales.

However, as the band’s success increased, and the demands for long tours came along, the difficulty of spreading the cash fifteen ways, particularly when Jack had written all the songs, started to eat into the pleasure of getting out on the road in a double-decker coach. Tensions started to build, and relations weren’t helped by Heat magazine, which in its typical form (of being as subtle as a port hole in a toilet door) insinuated that the married couple (buglist Linda and washboard wrangler Pete the Taps) in the orchestra had been engaging in extra-curricular bed fun on the different levels of the tour bus simultaneously but unbeknownst to the other.

Before this could come to a head, Jack called time on Gentleman Gip & The Skiffle Orchestra, issuing a press release ripping apart the interests of the modern media, and defiantly retiring from the music business. He lived as a recluse for years after, creating an enigma for himself that meant the two records continued to sell to connoisseurs and trend-chasers for many subsequent years. Jack had enough money to live in mid-range grandness but instead saw out his time in his by-now deceased parents’ house; the garage left as he liked to remember it, with rusting oil cans and chest freezer intact.

* * * * *

Thanks Skif. "Songs About Railways And Meeting Girls' Mothers", eh? Sounds like an early White Stripes album...

And that's a wrap! If anyone else fancies having a go, drop me a line - depending on interest, the feature could always be resurrected for a second run at some point in the future.


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