Just by chance, today is Halloween and also Johnny Marr’s birthday. How many more reasons do you need to celebrate? More for the latter, it’s a good day to finally finish and post this. Enjoy! (Or suffer through, as the case may be.) Friday, November 12th, This Charming Band will be playing Café Du Nord to celebrate our anniversary. We’ll be joined by our old friends Depeche Mode tribute “For The Masses,” who played with us many times in those first couple years. I hope you can make it out to join us in reminiscing and reliving some fond memories. Come party like it’s 2006 (when we were ourselves pretending it was 1986).
November 16th, 2010 will mark five years to the day since This Charming Band first took the stage. As I look back on five years of my life, it seems like an appropriate time to sum things up, tell a few stories, and see what we’ve learned. You’ll have to forgive me if I get a little lofty or dramatic. What can I tell you? I take this stuff seriously. And apparently I have a lot to say about it. I don’t know how it will come off to you when you read it, but I just felt like telling some back story for anyone interested. And by the way, these are all my own thoughts and don’t necessarily reflect the feelings (or memories) of any other member of TCB, past or present.
The irony is not lost on me that we’ve now been around as long as The Smiths were, and that’s hard to accept. Should we be proud? Ashamed? I’m not sure. In those five years, TCB has gone from practicing acoustically in living rooms to headlining big venues all over the country and playing for hundreds of people at a time. Our intentions were pure. Our mission was simple. But we started in a city that — unlike Los Angeles — didn’t have the automatic audience of a huge “out” Smiths fanbase. We were going to have to carve out a niche for ourselves. We were going to have to twist some arms and play our balls off to make people pay attention. And to our amazement, it happened even sooner than we could have hoped. In our time together so far, we’ve played 101 official shows, along with some radio and acoustic appearances. Performed 67 of the Smiths’ 72 songs, as well as dozens of Morrissey solo numbers. Had two singers, two guitarists, five bassists, and one drummer. Visited seven states. Stayed in more hotels than I care to remember. With that many shows and almost as many road trips under out collective belt, there are more fond memories and inside jokes than I could ever hope to recount here. But I’ll do my best to give you as much as you could possibly want to know about This Charming Band.
A Brief History Of TCB
In April 2005, I happened to be looking on Craig’s List trying to find a band to join. I was settled in the city and finally felt ready to take on a musical project. I had never been in a band before, and there was so much I didn’t know. I wasn’t looking for a tribute band, but I must have been searching for “Smiths” to find a project I would fit in with. But when I saw an ad for a Smiths tribute band that was trying to start up, the wheels started turning. Why hadn’t I thought of that? I knew in my bones that this was something San Francisco desperately needed. I answered the ad and met up with Orlando. Originally he wanted to play guitar and get our local Moz-alike Tom to sing. But the way it worked out, Orlando decided to take a shot at fronting a band, and I took a shot at just being in one. After a couple of meetings at my apartment to run through a few songs I thought I knew how to play, we found a bassist in Wally. Super solid player, able to handle Andy Rourke’s craziness. Not to mention the most mature and level-headed member TCB has ever had, to this day. A few more living room sessions later, we started trying out drummers. No luck until Nick came along. I didn’t know it at the time — I was green after all — but Nick was a rare catch. A real pro, lots of experience, perfect time, and encyclopedic knowledge of pop music (and culture). Within a few weeks, we’d also unexpectedly picked up Isaac and Peter. Isaac being a trained pianist who gave us early renditions of “Asleep” and string sections where they were called for; Peter, a second guitarist who turned out to be the author of much of the internet tablature I’d been working from! We picked a band name, and it wasn’t long before the six of us were ready to take on the city…
Our second show was Popscene, a break which I gather is unheard of. From there we played some smaller pubs (like our home away from home Ireland’s 32) and some bigger places like (San Jose’s Blank Club). Even in those early days, we were fortunate to rarely have to open for anyone, or even share a bill withanyone. It was easy to get spoiled, and the boys kept telling me not to get used to it because this was not how things normally went for a band. I had nothing to compare it to, but I did my best to absorb the message. Of course we did (and do) occasionally open for bigger bands at bigger venues, but it makes sense in the tribute band pecking order. Zoo Station and Stung were good to us in those days, and we shared a lot of bigger bills with peers like For The Masses and Japanese Baby. In just that first year, there were so many adventures. Some unforgettable trips to SoCal. But by our year anniversary, Isaac had left to pursue jazz (keyboardin’ in a Smiths tribute is a strange gig) and Peter had bowed out too. This left us as a lean and mean four-piece band, and it left novice me alone to face Johnny Marr’s legacy. In December of 2006, we played our Brixton anniversary show, recreating the Smiths’ final concert song-for-song. It was my trial by fire to see if I could handle guitar duties alone. I was rough in those days, no question. I shudder to think what I sounded like. But in any event, we were forged as a foursome and never looked back. Just after Troubadour a month later, Wally and his voice of reason made their exit. He recommended Cameron to us. A nice guy and excellent bassist (who eventually went on to play with Rogue Wave). After his departure, we took on another bassist Dave for the remainder of 2007.
Now 2007 was an interesting year for us. By this time, we were coming into our own. Orlando was finding his feet when it came to really working the crowd, and he knew it. Nick was spreading his wings as a tenacious booker, getting us amazing shows and really building our success in a way that other tributes couldn’t match. Here we were, a tribute to the relatively obscure Smiths, and we were playing shows that tributes to world famous acts couldn’t get. I myself had played enough shows that I was gaining serious confidence. My playing was improving all the time, and it was even getting a bit old hat for me. We had a summer of great shows, venturing out to Vegas and Arizona and making a name for ourselves in Sacto and Fresno. We were getting our foot in the door at big time venues like House Of Blues and Bimbo’s 365. This was the year I started to feel like we were invincible. We weren’t.
As 2008 got rolling, Dave departed and Cameron came back for a short while. TCB had always had the occasional argument, but we started having some serious knock-down-drag-out fights around then. You’ll have to wait for the “Behind The Music” to hear any of that dirt from me, but suffice it to say that we all got into it with each other for different reasons many times. The cracks were starting to show. We were fortunate enough to find Paul when his Joy Division tribute opened for us at Café Du Nord in May. By July, he had cut his dreds and was playing with TCB and has been ever since. Great player, super nice guy, and a real positive energy that we needed to balance out my stone stage-face.
Just after Paul joined us, my nerves cracked. I barely made it through our August 2008 Slim’s show (our biggest headline in S.F. to date), and in fact we only played two more shows that year. Things gradually picked up in 2009, but we didn’t do any real travelling again until Portland and Seattle in May. By that time, we were back up to a good clip of shows, and hit a lot of our old stand-bys. Still bringing out fans locally. Still finding new hamlets to visit. The SoCal market had cooled considerably. Band fighting continued over 2009 and through the first half of 2010. Ultimately, this all culminated with Orlando’s departure following our 2010 Morrissey birthday show — clearly the most significant change to our lineup ever. We were left with original members Nick and myself, as well as our longest-running bassist Paul. We continue to search for our new frontman, but in the mean time we’re aided by Virgil, the excellent singer in San Diego’s Smiths tribute “Still Ill.” We’re less tense these days, and the chemistry is stable. And to my ears, we sound better than ever.
For all the shows we’ve played, the scores of hours spent promoting, and the thousands of people who’ve seen us, there are still many Smiths and Morrissey fans even here in San Francisco who’ve never heard of TCB. I meet them all the time. It’s just hard to get on their radar, I guess. And to be fair, I guess I never really thought about tribute bands either until I joined one. The “market” for tribute bands has ebbed and flowed in the last five years. At the moment, the economy is sucking air, and Morrissey isn’t touring. We’ve seen better times and worse. But as long as you guys keep coming to see us, we’ll keep doing our best to keep the flame alive for the songs that saved all our lives. This has been one of the most worthwhile things I’ve done in my life, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity each and every time I get to step on a stage and help play the music I love for the people who love it too.
Everyone has their own story, but for me, I can’t tell you what The Smiths and Morrissey meant to me. I didn’t grow up with them, but when I did discover them, I immersed myself almost to the exclusion of all other bands. But I thought I might be the only one. Living where I did and with no connections to hip crowds of any ilk, my only glimpses into other fans like myself were in dim gossamers on mysterious websites. The world of Smiths super fans seemed unreachable. It wasn’t until I found a kindred spirit in Jessica that I realized maybe I wasn’t the last of my species. She was from the O.C. and was hooked into that loose network of Smiths fandom. And from there, I was able to branch out further and further until I found my place (such as it is) in our small community.
I imagine a lot of Smiths fans have that experience. Feeling like they’re the only one. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, Smiths/Moz super fans are by and large a catty/skeptical/snobby bunch. We all feel like Morrissey somehow belongs to us a little bit more than anyone else. Like he’s somehow speaking to me more than the guy next to me, who happens to also have a pomp and dress like me, and knows all the words, and is also singing along. No no, somehow I’m the outsider and the insider, the one who really “gets” Moz. But the sense of community is still here, maybe partly because that mentality works on another level to make us all feel like brothers and sisters who love Moz together against the rest of the world who doesn’t.
The way I always saw it, TCB was a band of Smiths fans for Smiths fans. We wanted to help bring those outsiders together to find other outsiders like them. To help gather a community in San Francisco (which the Louder Than Bombs dance night was also doing around the same time). And even more, we wanted to try to demonstrate the fire that exists in this music when played live, to introduce the uninitiated folks (and those who never paid attention to The Smiths the first time around) to the best band that ever lived. And we wanted to do it respectfully and withclass, so that long-time Smiths fans could relive some of the excitement of a live Smiths show. Quality control is always key with us. Put simply, “good enough” isn’t. We treat this music reverently. We’re working with a paying audience’s precious favorite songs, and we take that awesome responsibility seriously. I don’t mean to sound like a religious zealot, but it is kinda like that. You can still go see U2. You can still even go see Morrissey. If you want to go see them live, you can. But The Smiths are gone. And if you want to see them live, you need someone like us. In a way, I feel like TCB is a public service. Keeping a lost tradition alive and preaching the good word. Bringing the message to the people.
It was also important to be humble (yes even me!), at least with respect to keeping what we’re doing here in context. No matter how popular TCB has been or will be, what little notoriety there is to be had isn’t ours. We are not the stars of the show. The Smiths are the stars of the show. People are there to enjoy the music of The Smiths and share in a group experience of celebrating it with others. TCB is merely a vessel to try to make this happen. Do I have pride in the TCB and the job we do? Of course! But I always keep in mind that for the most part no one is there to see Benjamin. They’re there to see fake Johnny Marr, who just happens to be played by Benjamin. (Except maybe a few friends who are actually there to see me. :)) I have no illusions about the fact that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants here, and I only hope it’s clear that I got into it and stay with it for noble reasons. Would I be headlining Slim’s with some shitty little original project? Not bloody likely. We’re extremely fortunate to get to play to the crowds we do at the venues we do. It’s something a lot of bands never get to do, and we have The Smiths and their fans to thank. We only hope we’ve done justice to their memory.
Of course all of the rhetoric, practice, and promotion really just comes down to one thing: the shows. Behind the scenes, it’s arguing about the content and order of the set list. It’s showing up early and loading in, sound checking and dealing sometimes awesome sound guys and sometimes… not. It’s getting cleaned up and ready for the stage. Sitting in the green room and trying to mellow out. Watching the opening bands and monitoring the crowd. How’s the turn out? Are my friends here yet? It’s the lights going down and the intro music* playing. Nerves grabbing you, walking out to (hopefully) some cheers and an energetic crowd. Kicking into an upbeat number to start off, and a few more after that. Then taking it down a notch. Peppering in the deep cuts among the hits so we don’t lose the more casual fans. Ending the show with a few huge danceable songs, and then possibly a quiet ballad to send them home with. (The mix-tape approach to set list making, I guess?) It’s floodlights and flowers. A noose for “Panic” and a picket sign for “The Queen Is Dead.” It’s tambourines and maracas for the crowd. It’s a crowd-controlled Kaossilator for the bridge of “Suedehead.” It’s cupcakes for birthday shows. It’s two and a half hours of the band playing our asses off and Orlando connecting with the crowd. Saying we’re here for you, this isn’t our music, it’s all of our music, and this is your stage. A whole room dancing and singing together, throwing flowers, grabbing the mic, sweating, drinking, laughing and yes even crying. By the end of the night, people would be on stage dancing and singing along. If there was time, we’d do our best to take requests and keep playing until the club made us stop. We’d say hi to our friends, occasionally weather some drama or break up a fight. We’d sheepishly ignore the flower petals and stems that had exploded all over the stage. After packing up, we’d inevitably all end up with friends at a nearby Denny’s (or rarely, another 24 hour place), “This Charming Slam” being the preferred menu item. (This is a “Moons Over My Hammy” sans the hammy.) And then it was home or to the hotel. There you go, one exciting night in the life of TCB.
*Intro music is another tricky thing. We’ve done the Smiths’ own “Montagues And Capulets” as well as “Dance Of The Sugar Plumb Faeries.” We’ve done Elvis and nods like Twinkle’s original “Golden Lights.” We’ve done a relevant clip from the film “Rock Star” about tribute bands, and even Moz’s approved “Imperfect List” from the 2007 tour. We’ve even considered making our own imperfect list naming our own enemies, but oh well. My favorite was sadly botched during the last Slim’sshow, but we may try it again next time: kicking off the show with the full movie clip that spawned “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty” and jumping directly into a live “The Queen Is Dead.” A clever and epic intro that we didn’t quite pull off. Doh!
I thought about doing a timeline of significant shows and moments in the band’s history, but I think that’s maybe too much. Instead, I’ll just mention some of my personal favorites. Our first show was definitely our most humble. A shared bill at El Rio that included a one-woman Huey Louis tribute called “Huey Louise,” as well as The Cock-Tees and a number of other questionable acts. Then was Popscene which was amazing, not to mention that Aaron, Omar, and Nako were great to us and we’ve gotten to work together many times since. I had seen The Cardigans and Loquat there the year before there, and to my suburban mind, Popscene was about the pinnacle of hip culture in S.F. It’s where I first heard Franz Ferdinand, The Postal Service, Pulp, and many others. Coming from where I had, to find myself on that stage was unreal. Ireland’s 32 was always one of my favorite places to play since it was so laid back. We made a lot of friends there, and in fact I believe that was the birth place of The Choir Boys — a lovable group of Bay Area Moz fans who have befriended and supported us over the years. Returning to Ireland’s 32 for my 30th birthday show in 2009 was such a great idea, and it’s among my favorite TCB shows ever. Going to SoCal that first time was probably my favorite road trip of all time. The first night, we got to play “Suedehead” with Alain Whyte himself! The second night was a massive 500+ person sell out at The Hully Gully (another of my favorite shows ever). The third night and introduced us to Club London at Boardner’s (my fave place to play down there) and to the famous Moz Krew — a lovable group of SoCal fans who have given us huge support and travelled all over to see us. San Jose’s Blank Club has been another home-away-from-home for us, and there are tons of great memories there with the South Bay’s amazing fans. I think my favorite show there has to be the St. (Steven) Patrick’s Day show we did, where the Moz Krew showed up in green Moz Krew shirts. They wanted “Sing Your Life” and our bassist didn’t know it. We improvised. The Troubadour was another big show for us, one of our first with top-notch lighting and sound. Plus so much history at that place… that was good times. Slim’s is the biggest place we headline in San Francisco, and of course that’s always a big event for us. With a crowd that size, it’s hard not to have a great show. And speaking of big crowds, I have no complaints about the few times we’ve been fortunate enough to play The House Of Blues. We got a huge crowd at that New Wave City show for the Brixton anniversary, which was another crazy night I’ll never forget. Playing out doors in Las Vegas was a great change of pace. And then surprisingly, Fresno’s Club Fred is among my favorite venues we ever get to play. The audience there is just as good as it gets in terms of love and energy. OK, that’s probably enough. There are just too many memories to mention. For a while, I was in the habit of trying to chronicle the details of these shows and trips in my old blog, but it’d take forever to get through it. You’ll have to check back on those yourself if you want the details.
As for me, remember this was my first band ever. So I was completely green starting out and had much to learn. I was terribly nervous before every show in the early days. My hands would shake and seize up, which isn’t helpful for live guitar playing. Chewing a toothpick, the blank face while playing, all of those aspects of my on-stage demeanor came from trying to zone out in an effort to calm my nerves. Doing my best to look cool as a cucumber even though inside the panic was raging. It was a good kind of nervous though, and of course in time it subsided almost completely. These days, those habits have stuck with me, so that even though I’m relaxed up there, I still end up looking disinterested or even angry. (I promise, I’m not!)
What else? I do my best to not wear the same shirt to a show ever if possible, or at least never to the same venue twice. Always a darker color so as to hide sweat. That’s all Sus’ influence. I know tee-shirts aren’t exactly dressy, but the hidden reason is that I need something with a smooth front (no buttons) so I don’t scratch up my guitars. That’s the real story behind it. Though in all these shows, I’ve gotten a few nicks and scratches on some of my most precious guitars (none my fault, sadly!). I even had someone accidentally break the head off of my #1 guitar earlier this year! Experiences like that, painful as they were, have helped me relax a little bit about damage to my gear. It’s just a fact of life I guess. Along the way, I sure received an education in equipment. You can see in the picture below (on the beloved Ireland’s 32 “raft” stage), I started out using a pair of turquoise Epiphone Casinos — which at the time I thought was a pretty slick signature look, ha ha! (The aforementioned danger of damage is exactly why you never see me with it these days… my remaining Casino took a beating and now it’s not allowed on stage anymore.) Over the years, I’ve tried many guitars, amps, and pedals as I’ve honed my sound. I’ve also improved my playing quite a bit (I hope), and become more comfortable on stage as I mentioned. It all came together in the end, didn’t it? What an arc from the nervous little me of 2005 to the veteran I am now, with monster tone and serious six-string expertise. Not.
In terms of theme shows, we’ve had a few. We’ve done “album” shows for The Smiths (eponymous), Meat Is Murder, and Strangeways, Here We Come. The idea always sounds good, but in practice, I think lots of people have trouble sitting through all the less popular album tracks. We did a rockabilly show where we played an entire set of all and only rockabilly-influenced Smiths and Morrissey tunes. We did a little acoustic show which included some different takes on songs (my favorite being our bossanova Bigmouth immortalized here). My favorite theme show though has to be our December 2006 New Wave City event where we celebrated/mourned the 20th anniversary of The Smiths’ last ever concert at the Brixton Academy on 12/12/86; we played their exact set list from that night. There have also been some other themes we’ve kicked around but have yet to do, such as a chronological night that follows the history of the Smiths and Morrisseysolo, hitting the high points and performed in chronological order. We thought about a live karaoke night where we have a bunch of songs ready and people from the crowd sign up and sing for or with us. We considered an outdoor “tribute-palooza” where we’d gather the best and brightest tributes we know to play an all day event maybe in Dolores Park or something. Could be free or supported by vendors maybe? Oh, and then there’s my secret plan to have a marathon of either a Fri/Sat/Sun night trio or a three consecutive weekend residency where we play one set of 24 songs each night, adding up to all 72 Smiths songs. Can you imagine playing The Smiths’ entire catalog live in one weekend? No? Too much? Some ideas are bigger than others.
We’ve had guest musicians to add cello here or keys there. We’ve brought back former members like Peter and Wally to join us for “reunion” shows. We’ve had merch on rare occasions, which is to say we’ve made large orders of green/pink shirts and later brown/orange shirts but been so lazy about selling them that over time we’d just give most of them away. The band and a few close friends also have limited edition black/white and black/pink shirts. Each had the TCB logo on the front and a different lyric on the back. But yeah, we were never really a merch band. Let’s see, we’ve raffled off a Morrissey painting from one of our flyers. Once upon a time, we’d meant to do a promo video to parody the video for “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before.” We were all going to dress up in hats and glasses like Orlando and follow him around on bicycles. I think it would have been hilarious, but since he’s no longer with us, I don’t see that happening.
We have some massive shows these days, big sell outs, tons of fun. But I do sometimes miss some of the shows in the good old days. There seemed to be a golden era of tributes around 2006-2008 where people were discovering it for the first time and we could do no wrong. Things are different now. Could be the economy. Could be a reduced public interest in Morrissey for the moment. There is more competition for us out there. We can’t play L.A. without some other Smiths tribute playing the same night across town. Its’ all slowed down a bit. And I guess things aren’t as new to me as they were in that era. At that time, every show was such a brand new and mystical experience for me. Every show was prom night. Things are different now of course, but different isn’t always bad. Our mission remains the same, and I’m confident that we’re still helping to bring the Smiths to a new audience.
One of the most valuable things that has come out of This Charming Band is the amount of quality people we’ve met. My bandmates were new friends themselves, then I met their friends. And then every show we’d meet new people. All of them Smiths fans. I guess maybe that’s what being in a band is always like, but again I didn’t know that. It just seemed like I was meeting new people all the time which for a shy boy like me was quite a switch. This holds true even today, and I continue to marvel at what a great way it’s been to socialize.
I’m tempted to start listing off all the great friends I’ve made directly or indirectly from my relationship with TCB, and though it would include some of my closest friends to this day, I know I would inevitably forget dozens and then feel like a jerk. So my blanket statement is: you know who you are, and I’m glad that because of TCB or otherwise, you came into my life. Bay Area fans (including The Choir Boys), SoCal fans (including The Moz Krew), and everyone else… thank you!
But there are two people who require special mention. Sus and Shel came to our third show (at Edinburgh Castle, not one of our best), at which time I met Sus. Then our next show (at Blank Club) I met Shel officially. The two of them went on to attend nearly every one of our shows up through 2009, present at something like 78 of our first 80 shows (I forget the exact figure, but that’s not far off). One or both of them travelled with us to SoCal many times, Las Vegas, Scottsdale, Portland, Seattle, Reno, and more. It just doesn’t feel like a TCB show unless I look out and see them in the crowd. They’ve become two of my closest friends, above and beyond the endless support they’ve given to the band. Tireless advocates, helping us spread the word, bring people in, make travel arrangements, and even feed us. Sus has captured video of almost every song from every show we’ve ever played including nearly every video you see of us on YouTube. Shel’s photography skills have helped us capture so many moment on stage and off over the years and make up almost every picture you see on our website. (They’ve done all this for free.) There have been countless post-show Denny’s meals. And beyond just our band, there have been untold concert outings, movie outings, roadtrips, Morrissey shows, brunches… well, one paragraph isn’t nearly enough to chronicle all they’ve meant to me and to TCB over the years. They’re woven tightly into our history. Thank you both for all you’ve done and for being such a big part of my life these last five years.
I remember the second TCB show ever. We were at Popscene, a club which at the time intimidated me as it was. Add to that it was TCB’s second show ever. It was my second time on stage ever. And after having practiced all these songs with Peter on second guitar, for some reason he couldn’t make it, so I’d be playing alone. We took the stage, and I was plugging in my guitar, double checking my cables and all, and a couple of guys about my age came and stood directly in front of me. They crossed their arms and one of them said, “alright, let’s see it.”
That experience helped form and now sums up my attitude about playing the music of The Smiths. Most people are skeptical of tribute bands in general, and snobby Smiths fans especially so. If you play the guitar and you like The Smiths, then no doubt you’ve spent some time trying to work out a few of Johnny Marr’s tricks. And if you’re like most people, you eventually throw up your hands and give up. I did, several times. It’s hard and unusual music to figure out, and there are few guides out there to give you a starting point. And even those are mostly wrong it turns out. So with all this in mind, I try to imagine our audience. I think to myself, if I were out there, what would I be focusing on? And I realized that I’d be watching the guitarist and waiting to see how far he got learning before giving up. I’m sure the reality is there are maybe one or two guys in the crowd at any given TCB show that actually fall into this camp, but those are the guys that I’m personally trying to win over. Those are the guys whose respect I’m trying to earn. The guys who know guitar and know The Smiths, and know what it means to get this stuff right. The guys who inevitably aren’t expecting much from any Johnny faker, and instead get damn near the real deal. Or at least that’s what I’m shooting for.
I’ve spent more hours of my life than I care to admit analyzing Smiths songs and the guitar work of one Johnny Marr. Don’t get me wrong, every song was a labor of love. I won’t bore you with the process (which I discussed at length on Morrissey-Solo once, if you care), but I’ll just say that each song involves a lot of research in many areas (books, articles, interviews), as well as a lot of time spent poring over studio and live bootleg audio and video. We’re talking hours and days for some songs. All in the name of absolute accuracy. Friends have pointed out that unless you’re a guitarist and super fan, most of our audience isn’t going to be able to tell the difference between my 100% accurate version and some other band’s 85% accurate version. And that might be true. So then why bother with all those details if it’s lost on most of the crowd anyway? In short, because these songs deserve it, and because the details do matter. If I were in a tribute for virtually any other band, sure, who cares? But this is The Smiths. Every note is golden. The guitar work of Johnny Marr is like a magic spell. And if you want the spell to work right, you have to get every little word right. I still believe that even if the crowd at large can’t put their finger on it, the overall effect of TCB is more impactful because of that attention to detail. And I admit my ego is involved in this quest too. It’s important to me to feel like I’ve got these songs down. Not just “close enough,” but seriously note-for-note. That’s one of the few areas in my life where I have a competitive streak. I want to know that I’m doing my job here better than anyone. And if you think you know of a fake Johnny Marr in any other tribute band or YouTube video who’s more accurate than I am, I’d like to know about it.
At the time of me writing this, I have learned and deciphered (to my exacting standards) 70½ of the 72 Smiths songs and will probably finish off by the end of the year. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. My compulsion will be fulfilled. What then? Even though it was a huge time commitment, it’s made me a better player by leaps and bounds. Part of that is the playing regularly with the band, but most of it is all the technique and tricks that I’ve picked up from trying to be Johnny Marr. And this quest even led me to learn piano from scratch! In fact the only three songs I know on piano are Asleep, A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours, and Oscillate Wildly. And though I am completely untrained, I still strive (and hopefully achieve) note-for-note accuracy even on the ivories. Amazing, but true.
No discussion of learning Smiths songs would be complete without a tip of the hat to Peter, former guitarist with TCB. He is the only person I know who shares this Johnny accuracy madness with me, and that we happen to live in the same city is uncanny. I privately doubt there is anyone on the planet who knows some of this stuff better than Johnny, Peter, and I. (Damn, there’s that ego again. Sorry!) Over the years, we’ve traded hundreds of emails, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings to argue over open B’s vs. fretted B’s, and all other manner of minutiae concerning Smiths recordings. I bet Johnny himself didn’t give as much thought to some of his own slides and ghost notes as Peter and I have. Seriously, no compromises. Someday when I’m out of the tribute circuit and no longer consider them trade secrets, Peter and I will combine our notes and publish to the world our meticulous transcriptions. More often than not, whatever I’m playing was the result of a combined research effort by both of us, so he is due half the credit. Thanks for all the years of friendship and consultation, Peter!
It came at a price though. Learning and deconstructing Smiths songs to the extent I have is a little like looking behind the Wizard Of Oz’s curtain. Before TCB, I would listen to a Smiths song and, as a novice guitarist, be absolutely baffled by what I was hearing. My ears couldn’t make sense of it. It didn’t sound possible. It was this incomprehensible magic, right in my ear holes you understand. I don’t know what made me think I could ever recreate that. The ego of my 20’s I guess. But in time, little by little, I started to unravel those mysteries. In an effort to understand, and from a desperate desire to emulate, I dissected those songs in excruciating detail, one by one. And in the end, yeah I can play them. And I’m proud of that of course. But when I listen to a Smiths song now, I don’t hear it the way I used to. In the same way a magic trick isn’t the same after you know how it’s done. I still love those songs. I just appreciate them in a different way now. But sometimes I miss what it felt like to hear “This Charming Man” and want to just put down my guitar forever.
Actually, I should add to all of that — and Peter will attest — that in truth this is a never-ending journey. No one ever really knows every little part of a Smiths song completely. I don’t purport to have Johnny Marr all figured out by any stretch. There’s always a note or a part to refine and argue about. Until we can lock Johnny in a room and make him tell us all his secrets, there will be no shortage of work to be done learning Smiths songs.
Morrissey’s solo work was a different animal. With Johnny, after learning enough of his songs, I started to feel like I have gotten into his head a little bit. I kinda know some of his tricks and could anticipate certain things when learning a new song. But with Moz solo, there were so many different writers and guitarists to contend with. The music is less complicated and easier to work out, but it almost always requires two guitars to execute appropriately (as opposed to Smiths stuff where Johnny wrote guitar parts with a “one man orchestra” approach). I love Morrissey solo stuff too, and there have been some killer guitar parts no doubt, but it doesn’t always have the same magic of The Smiths. And in general, I was often less jazzed about the task of learning a new Moz tune than I would be taking on something new from The Smiths. Interestingly though, I found that dissecting and learning a Moz solo song would typically give me a whole new appreciation for it. I can’t tell you how many times I started loving a song only after I learned to play it. Contrast that with what I just said about The Smiths and killing the magic. But that’s how it goes.
On Being Clever
If you know me, you know how much I value cleverness above all else. That theme crops up at a few different points in this retrospective, but I wanted to focus here on just the music. I’m always pushing for ways we can do something special for each song, even if it’s something that only the most die-hard Smiths fans will pick up on. In general terms, it could be that the chorus was played slightly different on the album than it was on the Peel Session / Hatful Of Hollow version. So I might alternate, playing the “album” version the first chorus and the “Hatful” version on the second chorus. Little things like that to show that I’ve got all the bases covered. Sometimes we do the “live” versions of songs, and sometimes we stick to the studio. Usually the live version’s influence just shows up in how we intro and/or outro the song (too many of those to name), but there are tracks like The Draize Train, Meat Is Murder, and Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others where we pretty much just mimic the live version start to finish. We’d do the medleys The Smiths did like London / Miserable Lie, Rubber Ring / What She Said, His Latest Flame / Rusholme Ruffians, and even Ouija Board / November Spawned A Monster for Mozsolo. Then we also had some experimental medleys like throwing in Blondie’s “One Way Or Another” into the middle of Sweet And Tender Hooligan or Chic’s “Good Times” into Barbarism Begins At Home. We started and ended songs with the appropriate sound samples (the Salvation Army Band on Sheila Take A Bow, the animal cries on Meat Is Murder, etc.). And in case you missed them when we played, here are a few of the more obscure nods we’ve snuck in over the years:
- Back To The Old House — This was always a hybrid of the studio, radio session, and live bootleg versions, all of which had significantly different picking patterns.
- The Hand That Rocks The Cradle — We’d start off playing it straight like the album, but quickly jump in to the completely different original version from the Troy Tate sessions, which is rare even by Troy Tate bootleg standards.
- Jeane — For a brief period of just a handful of live shows, Johnny played The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” riff in the bridge. I do that too.
- Miserable Lie — During the Meat Is Murder tour, Johnny added a pretty little descending line to the intro. We do that too.
- Pretty Girls Make Graves — We play the bouncier Troy Tate version, which is easier to find now but was still a rarity when we started playing it.
- There Is A Light That Never Goes Out — On rare occasions, we’ve added the line “there’s a light in your eye and it never goes out,” which we got from an early demo version of this song where Morrissey was more explicit about its meaning.
There are other things we’ve intended to do, but haven’t gotten around to yet. The next time we play “Asleep,” I’ve got part of the original full sound clip that “you are sleeping; you do not want to believe” comes from, which should make a stellar intro. At some point I’d like to do the original intro to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.” Then there’s an extra verse in a long lost demo of “Paint A Vulgar Picture” that would be nice to slip in (as it explains the title of the song). When we get around to doing “Wonderful Woman,” it might be fun to perform it a few times with its original lyrics as “What Do You See In Him?” And given its genesis, “Panic” is just begging to have a few lines of “Metal Guru” added.
The old me would have been paranoid about our competition stealing these ideas (as they have others in the past), but at this point, I say fuck it. I don’t have anything to prove anymore. And if you’re a rival about to nick one of these ideas for your own band… well you and I both know where you got it, don’t we?
Creating our flyers is work to be sure, but doing them is also one of my favorites on the (surprisingly long) list of “all the things you have to do to keep a band going other than just play music.” Between the logo and the flyers, I always felt like TCB had a recognizable brand. Clearly the main influence is the body of Smiths single and album covers. We’ve tried to glean some of the class and relative obscurity of those Morrissey-designed sleeves, choosing pictures that capture a poignant moment, using people that meant something to Morrissey or meant something to us. And there were subtle nods to those of you who looked deeper. Like a boxing Elvis for our big Troubadour show in the heart of our competition’s territory (here). The full image from Morrissey’s “Interlude” single for our show with a Siouxsie tribute (here). Morrissey’s original choice for “The Headmaster Ritual” single which graced our last Café Du Nord flyer (here). A quiet tribute to Dennis Hopper, using a picture he took himself, which you may also recognize from a certain singles compilation (here). For adjacent shows and mini-tours, we’d recolor the same image or use complimentary halves of one image, not unlike The Smiths did with their singles.
Somewhere along the line, I started including song lyrics which struck me as somehow fitting for each picture. Innocuous enough, but I’ll confess that they often doubled as vague statements about what was going on in my life at the time, or comments on memories associated with that city, or even occasional indirect missives to certain people I know. And on rare occasions, it was all three. In addition, I tried my best to never reuse the exact same color scheme on any flyer, and in 101 shows, I think I’ve succeeded so far. But show #102 is our five year anniversary, and so I specifically revived the colors from our first flyer. (Another subtlety that no one but me likely noticed or cared about, ha!) Anyway, I hope what we’ve ended up with is a style that’s aesthetically pleasing, decidedly “Smiths,” but also recognizably “us.” (And in fact we have seen that TCB style imitated — to put it lightly — on several occasions in other tribute bands’ flyers, websites, and artwork. But a great man once said “genius steals,” right?) In the last year or so, we’ve moved to a new format which is a little easier to work with, is more standardized, and leverages our full logo… but retains the essence of the early flyers.
Along the way, there have also been a number of guest flyers. In the early days, a handful were well done by Peter, in a similar Smiths-esque style. Nick’s brainchild was the Manchester / Sgt. Pepper tribute for our Rickshaw Stop show (here), which has too many sly references to list, but have a look. Can you name everyone and everything in that picture? Then for our big Slim’s shows the past few years, we’ve brought in such ringers as Jenny Wehrt and even R. Black (here) — which to me was just the coolest thing ever. I’d long been a big fan of concert poster art. I’ve got them hanging in my house. I’ve collected many books on the subject. But to see our band’s name on these professional flyers by a respected artist… little old us… well, it was one of the many “I never thought I’d be here” moments that color my whole experience with TCB. That artwork later adorned one of Nick’s bass drum heads, succeeding the previous TCB logo one.
When we were first starting out, we were aware of a few of the big Smiths tribute bands out there. We knew we were upstarts, but we had the idea that we could do a better job than what we’d seen. But the intent was always to be friendly with the “competition” since we all presumably have the same goal. There’s no reason to fight each other. Hell, we might even find ways to work together, or at least keep a positive relationship. We reached out on several occasions and got no response. And in time, we heard things. Smiths fandom is a small community, and we share a lot of the same friends. We work with the same bands, clubs, and bookers. The same fans that see and talk to them also see and talk to us. It became clear in no uncertain terms that we — and perhaps all newcomers — were not welcome by the competition. That there was a sense of entitlement that left no room for any other Smiths tributes in California. Aside from the issue of who the better band is, it’s just the attitude that kills me. I would (and have) happily befriended any other tribute out there doing their best, be they better or worse than TCB. But the attitude of entitlement when this music doesn’t “belong” to any of us, it boggles my mind. I can’t and won’t recount all of the peculiar run-ins we’ve had both directly and indirectly with a certain established tribute band to the south, but I feel confident in saying that in my experience they appear to be every bit the bores people paint them as. At least such fans as have not drank the proverbial Kool-Aid.
Now I’ve written and said much over the years on this topic. Often in searing indictments against other Smiths tributes that I feel take their audiences for granted, honor themselves above The Smiths, and generally fail to treat the music with the respect it deserves. Those that seem to see themselves as above their fans… instead of united among their fans in the greater love of The Smiths. I’ve long said that if I felt the existing tribute bands had been doing it right, I’d be going to their shows instead of playing my own. I guess I was always the militant member of TCB. Our ministry of defense, as it were. I wrote in many old blogs and Moz-Solo and its forums discussing various angles of my views on all of this stuff. It’s tempting, but I won’t try to dig them all up now, or even try to quote from them as I don’t know if I even really feel the same these days. But you can go find them if you’re interested. I think I made a pretty strong argument on those occasions. You can see, even here I couldn’t resist taking a few shots. I’m only human. But I’m also old and tired, and I care less about what people think. People are free to prefer the lesser band if they so choose.
TCB always tried to focus on the music and the shared experience with the audience. We didn’t get caught up in the dress up component, so there was no Morrissey drag involved. That aspect seems to be the main focus for some other bands, perhaps at the expense of the music. Some people liked that we didn’t dress up, that it gave us credibility and kept us from being silly. Others missed that aspect and thought we looked silly because we weren’t dressed up. Whatever our formula, it seemed to work for us. We were able to connect with fans in a way I would have never thought possible. From my perspective, it seems like we blazed some trails with respect to that audience participation, our attention to detail, even our flyers and website. Thanks to Nick, we’d travel to all corners. Towns and venues that no tributes played, we would go there and carve out an audience. We’d ferret out the Smiths fans hiding in the woodwork. And before long, other tribute bands (Smiths and otherwise) would start trying to get in there too. That must sound pretty pompous to make all these claims, but I’m just telling you what I saw. They’d try to force the crowd interaction that developed organically for us. They’d follow us to the venues we “discovered.” They’d try to devise their own artificial “army” in a Petri dish to match the Choir Boys and Moz Krew that just happened naturally at our shows (though those groups happened on their own and were not “ours”). Their guitarists would watch our hands. You get the picture. The old guard trying to co-opt the fresh ideas of new blood. I guess if nothing else, I think we made everyone up their game.
If you actually read this whole retrospective, bless you. I had no idea it would end up so long. Hope it was worth it.
TCB may have saved my life. Maybe that’s dramatic, but I think it’s true. Where I grew up, there wasn’t a scene of any sort, or at least none that I was hooked into. All the cool clubs and cool kids you all have grown up with… I mean, I liked good music I think, but I was pretty alone in my little world. I moved to San Francisco with my best friend, and didn’t branch out much. A year later, he left the country and I was facing a potentially lonely existence in a big city where I knew almost no one. That’s the exact moment TCB came into my life, and not only did it help to open me up, but it gave me an opportunity to meet a number of quality people with similar interests. Many of my closest friends have come from my relationship with this band. Without it, who knows how long this introvert would have lasted in S.F.? I may have moved back to the ‘burbs, never to be heard from again.
Being in a band is funny. I used to go see live music and the people on stage appeared to me as untouchable. I never thought I would ever get there. What magical creatures must these people be to be worthy of taking the stage and having all these people come to see them? Somehow in the last five years, I have ended up on the other side of that looking glass. It has its highs and lows and sacrifices. I’ve spent Saturday nights on stage at The House Of Blues, and I’ve spent Saturday nights at home with a guitar, a Smiths bootleg, and a notepad. And it’s changed the way I watch a show. I go see someone at The Fillmore and I look at them like a colleague more than anything else. They’re just people. They’re arguing about set lists and dealing with crappy sound guys and looking for water in a dirty green room just like me. So I guess it killed some of the magic for me there too, but that one I don’t mind.
Things I could have never imagined have happened to me directly or indirectly through TCB. I’ve gotten to play venues and even turn down (!) venues I used to see my heroes play at. I’ve seen Morrissey front and center, shaken his hand, been given his microphone, appeared in his video, and owned a shirt scrap. I’ve shaken Johnny Marr’s own hand, stolen his pick, and accused him of making his songs too hard. I’ve played a song on stage with Alain Whyte and met Boz Boorer in a casino after a show. Hung out a bit with Gary Day. A recording I played on appears on a CD you can buy at Amazon and Amoeba alike (which reminds me, somewhere there is an mp3 of 3/4 beat “sea shanty” outtake version of TCB doing “Hand In Glove” which you will probably never get to hear). Anyway, I don’t mean all that as a bunch of name-dropping or bragging at all, but I want to illustrate the stark contrast. In just over five years, I went from being a secret Smiths fan who felt more or less alone in that, to joining a community I never knew existed and meeting heroes that may as well have been unicorns to me before. So whatever magic I may have lost along the way, I got back in spades. I became, in my own awkward way, one of the cool kids.
I’ve got so many wonderful memories of playing shows, hanging out with the band, travelling, and making great friends. It’s an absolute honor to play this music, and I can’t thank enough all of you who made it possible… bandmates past and present, friends who supported us every step of the way, and most of all the fans who love this music as much as we do and have found our efforts worthy of their time and money for the past five years. The queen is dead. Long live The Smiths.