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Dave Shapton explains why he doesn't play live any more! By Dave Shapton
Published September 2001


Dave Shapton explains why he doesn't play live any more!

At the beginning of my varied and largely unfathomable career, I studied Jean Paul Sartre at University. His works are noted for being impenetrable, and I must say that I quickly came to this conclusion as well. But I remember him saying something like "l'enfer, c'est les autres", which is French for "hell is other people." Strange, then, that JPS, the great existentialist, should make a claim that is so similar to the theme of this Sounding Off column, which is: hell is other people in your band...

For a short period at the beginning of the '90s, I found myself in a gigging covers band. Unlike all the other bands on the circuit, who did it for a living, we did it for a laugh. And you had to laugh when you realised that even if we played every night for 30 years we would never recoup what we spent on equipment. You can always tell the professionals. They have really ropey equipment, as opposed to the rank amateurs with decent jobs, who can afford all the best gear.

For an emotional roller coaster, there's nothing like a band. And, even though we were indeed nothing like a band, some vigorous emotions were generated at every performance. We were all so different. The singer was a former national champion tap dancer, the drummer wanted to "be a professional drummer," the bass player was effortlessly good (and used words like "diatonic" and "modal"), and the guitar player never played loud enough (surely a first?). And then there was me on keyboards, with a vast technical knowledge, virtually no experience of playing live, and a keyboard technique as subtle as a car crusher.

Now, when you play keyboards in a band, there's a constant state of warfare between you and the guitarists. You quickly learn that what is an easy key for them is a serious challenge to you. And, to make matters worse, they'd conspire with the singer, encouraging her to sing in "the best key for her." So, blues in B‑natural, anyone?

And it's not as if there was any notice of these obscure and previously unexplored keys. As often as not you'd just get a straight count‑in, and have to play with the volume down until it became possible to figure out what key to play in. Sometimes the key would follow the countdown: "One, Two, Three, Four, B‑flat"). Sometimes you'd even get the song title in the middle of the count‑in ("One, Two, Mustang Sally, Four"). I'm really bad at lip‑reading, especially on stage in the dark. Which is why I'd often hear the drummer counting us in by clicking his sticks together, and have to enquire, politely and concisely, as to what the song was going to be. Very unsettling when the drummer was clearly looking at me as if to say "you start this one off."

Sometimes I was misled by a false sense of familiarity. Recognising a chord sequence is not the same as knowing a song, a truth I realised at a wedding gig when we were asked to play 'Brown Eyed Girl'. We really shouldn't have done this gig at all, because the bass player couldn't make it, but I was talked into playing the bass on keyboard.

I quickly figured out that the song was essentially a three‑chord trick, but what I didn't know was that halfway through was supposed to be a bass solo. So when we all stopped, I sat back on my stool thinking I'd made a decent job of a song that I didn't really know and which was, in fact, remarkably short. The singer made a futile attempt to restart the song, which only made matters worse.

And it's not just other band members that can be difficult. It's the audience as well, particularly the way they like to chat to you as you're playing. Important stuff like "my sister's having piano lessons." Or "what are all those buttons for?" And the poignant "can I put my beer here on the end of your keyboard?"

Then there was the chap who staggered up on to the stage, grabbed the microphone, turned to the band and said "can you do 'House Of The Rising Sun' for me?"

For once we agreed on a key and kicked off into the sickeningly familiar riff: Dum diddley dum dum dum, Dum diddley dum dum dum, Dum diddley dum dum dum, Dum diddley dum dum dum, Dum diddley dum dum dum, Dum diddley dum dum dum, Dum diddley dum dum dum, Dum diddley dum dum... At which point he leant towards the audience, grasping the microphone in an ultimately futile attempt to stay upright, and began to sing: "Nights in White Satin..."

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB3 8SQ, UK. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address.


About The Author

Dave Shapton has devoted his life to making loud noises from inappropriate artifacts. Work–wise, after several years at the Performing Right Society and a year or so designing digital mixing desks, he began selling digital audio workstations to the likes of Iron Maiden and Labi Siffre. He's now Head of Technology at Online GB, a company specialising in digital media, where he spends all day messing around with digital audio and video.