Jay Stapley

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Tubular Bells Anniversary Shows: First shows

First show: done and dusted in the strangest of circumstances.

Today began with a rainstorm of biblical proportions. I had planned to walk into the West End to go to Foyles bookshop, but the underpasses were imunderpassable, filled with ankle-deep water and the rain just kept on falling. I eventually took the Underground which was surprisingly empty – as indeed was most of London. I made it to Foyles and walked back through Soho, scene of my training as a session musician though most of the studios are gone now. We had a 1.00pm call at the Festival Hall for a dress rehearsal but as I came down the stairs from my dressing room (yes, I have my own dressing room)…

A Place of my Own

A Place of my Own

…I heard running water and came upon a scene I’ve never witnessed in over 40 years of gigging: water was pouring through the ceiling next to the stage right access point. and several worried-looking people were gathered around discussing how they were going to deal with the ingress of such large quantities of water. I’ve done stadium shows in the rain, but raining indoors was a new one for me. In the end the stage manager called a postponement of our dress rehearsal for a couple of hours. Most of us headed out of the back of the hall to the food festival stalls behind the venue, only to be summoned back to the hall because a determination had been reached that it was safe to do the show and we could resume our soundcheck. The dress rehearsal didn’t happen but we knew we were as ready as we would ever be given the short rehearsal period.

As showtime approached, I started my new preparation routine, first step of which is to take a selfie…

A Musician Prepares

…followed by 30 minutes of Pilates stretching and breathing exercises, and 30 minutes of what I’m told is meditation. I’ve never formally studied meditation (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) but it’s a habit I developed in the 1990s on stadium tours when the madness was running high. I lie down, close my eyes and other inputs and empty my mind. I’m fully aware of what’s going on around me but I don’t respond to it unless it’s a threat, which in the pampered environment of the artistes’ backstage area is unlikely. This activity was the cause of huge disappointment to Jens Lehman (German goalkeeper formerly of Arsenal) when he visited a show of ours in Berlin. He’d asked me a few weeks before the show what went on backstage, clearly hoping to hear tales of debauchery and chemical experimentation, and was equally clearly disappointed when what he found in reality was a bunch of middle-aged men having a nice nap.

Anyway, I felt much more limber and alert after my self-indulgence and wandered off to the stage to check my equipment and collect my radio receivers (one for guitar, one for the monitor mix and click) before the doors opened.Having ascertained that all was well, I hung about for a bit watching the audience come in. I like to get a whiff of them: it’s part of my way of making the required connection.

I Can Smell 'Em!

I Can Smell ‘Em!

A quick dash out to the craft beer stall behind the hall for a half – yes, really! Just a half!- of Keller pilsner and back to the wings to pace (althoughh I actually sat down) and wait for our cue from the excellent stage staff…

in the wings with tech crew

Still Life With Crew

…and we were off.

Do I get nervous? Not after all these years, no, and to be honest I’ve never been nervous since I was a schoolboy because I know how to do what I do. There is s certain frisson, a tingle of anticipation, and I daresay if I ever stopped to consider the enormity of what I’m about to attempt some element of fear might creep in, but I started gigging at the age of 17, playing 6 or 7 shows a week up until my early 30s. It’s where I feel most comfortable, most in control, and I’ve missed it badly in the 18-month hiatus because of Covid. I will happily admit to a slight moistness (around the eyes, dears, the eyes) as the houselights went down and the energy from the audience embraced us.

The show went well with the inevitable couple of small mistakes on my part (nothing major, happily) but some unusual phenomena. The audience decided to applaud the acrobats at the climaxes of their cunning stunts and it was slightly disconcerting to hear applause breaking out in the middle of the musical passages, but we were pleased that the acrobats’ contribution was well-received after the skepticism evident on the social media fan groups. It was also frustrating to be limited to movement within an area the size of a paving stone: not much shape-throwing tonight! Technically all was fine except that in the Ambient Guitars section I lost the click track and vocal cues, both of which run in my left ear. There is one cue in this section which is vital for the guitars. The key changes from E minor into E major and when you are basing your improvisation around the minor scale, getting it wrong would sound excruciating, which is why listeners may notice that towards the end of this section (which is far too long to keep track of by counting) I start to avoid the 3rd. I explained my predicament to fellow guitarist Maxime and he agreed to count me into the key change while our guitar technician examined my in-ear receiver and plugs to identify and fix the problem. It turned out to be that the left ear-plug itself had failed. I was given a spare set the next day, which exhibited an alarming tendency to sound great when I held my head up but disappeared when I looked down at my fretboard… which was disconcerting. In the interval I swapped them for my own ear-plugs and for the first time since rehearsals was able to hear myself and the click and other musicians properly.

Another strange phenomenon was the lack of panic which is normally a feature of first shows, however well-rehearsed you may be. Our rehearsals had been somewhat limited by budgetary constraints. When we did Tubular Bells II Live, we had 5 or 6 weeks rehearsal. For this show, we had 3 or 4 days. On reflection, for me, the feeling of detachment caused by the in-ears had some influence on this: I felt detached, isolated from the energy flow between stage and audience. Once I got my sound sorted out, I took the right ear plug out and immediately felt much more involved in the proceedings. I could also hear my guitar singing in the room and began to find its resonances.

Day 2: the ‘note-for-note’ question.

Social media comments described us as a tribute band but said that we rendered the music faithfully. Really??? One of my favourite quotes on this subject is “excessive reverence for the canon leads to tyranny.” (I don’t know who said this but they should be forever blessed for having said it.) During my research for this show I watched countless videos of Mike playing Tubular bells I and realised that he had very little reverence for his own work, assigning themes and melodies to instruments other than those that played them on the recorded version and throwing in harmony lines and improvised bits at will. This cheered me up no end, as I knew that it gave me the perfect response to those who I expected to tell me “You didn’t play it like the record!” My obvious response would have been “Well, neither did Mike.”

Robin Smith…

the loneliness of the long-distance arranger

…’s arrangement sets out to render the music, to create rather than recreate, and this is to my mind the best approach to take. How would it be possible to recreate exactly in a large echoing hall the sound of painstaking hours of polishing performances in a sonically-perfect recording studio? Surely it’s better to deliver the spirit of the music? Obviously the main themes and structural elements have to be played, but there is a surprising amount of room for manoeuvre, and so it should be. To the note-for-note purists, I offer this thought: the only time a living thing (and a piece of music is in my view a living thing) stops changing is when it dies, the corollary of which is that by insisting on preserving a piece in aspic, frozen in its original state, you kill it. It becomes fossilised, ossified, like much of the classical repertoire has become. In Mozart’s original solo piano pieces, there was always a passage marked ‘improvisation’ in which the performer could let their musical imagination run free. Over the years, some of these improvisations were written down and  became the Authorised Versions, always to be played that way. The self-appointed Keepers of the One True Flame policed this constraint rigorously and continue to do so. If you want to kill a genre of art, let the purists take control of it.

Modern vernacular music (“pop” music in other words) contains significant amounts of improvisation and so-called “tribute acts” should have the courage to respect this. When I joined Roger Waters’ band in which we played a lot of Pink Floyd material, he specifically told me not to copy David Gilmour’s solos but to play my own solos in the same style, which is what I do naturally. There is a repertoire developing in vernacular music and just as the London Symphony Orchestra can be said to be a Beethoven tribute act one week and a Mahler tribute act the next, projects like this Tubular Bells Anniversary experience are performing exactly the same function. The reason such acts are successful is that people want to hear the repertoire and by and large don’t care who is performing it as long as there is a base level of competence in the performance. Indeed, some tribute acts are technically better musicians than the acts they are tributing!

Any road up, we’ve got a few shows under our belts but I’m home for a couple of days contemplating lighting the log-burner even though it’s mid-August!


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