38. Coming To Get You (Elephant Song)
S.Rhatigan/J.F Morrison © 1999
Tonight was perfection. Everything slotted effortlessly into place. A lock through a bolt a foot in a sock a spontaneous symbiotic moment in time. And yet… I’d planned it all my life…
Do things just happen or do we make things happen?
For years I’ve tried to make things happen with my music: I’ve hung out, I’ve schmoozed I’ve stuck my neck out, sucked my stomach in, played the game! In the mid eighties when I moved to London age 21 I was totally fearless, armed with my demo tape I literally banged on doors. I was like a hunter, ready to seize my moment at every opportunity. I would turn up at recording studios and eye up my prey…
The Receptionist. The most important person in the building. I’d ask her to listen to my demo. I knew even then how important the follow up is and it held no fear for me. I would call by regularly, hopefully during a quiet moment, get to chatting, leave another demo, eventually the phone would ring. I was in. Some of my most lucrative jobs as a session singer came directly through my relationship with the studio receptionist…
It’s simple really, in this business you need an advocate, that person who says to the others… ‘you should listen to this’. It’s very hard to be heard above the clamour of ‘wanna be’ when it’s just you saying you’re great… I’ve been very fortunate at times in my career to have just such people on my side. Many doors opened, many opportunities gifted. Yet as you might expect, plenty of opportunities missed due to bad luck or bad judgement!
Most of the connections I’ve made through the years have been engineered to one degree or another; a favour pulled for a chance to be seen or heard, a good support slot, a demo passed along etc etc. But by the mid nineties having done all the big record deal, big flop stuff with Imago, I was starting to feel like I was running out of second chances. It was getting harder to connect to new people who could respond to the music without knowing the history! Putting in those follow up calls was getting harder and harder too, but with the Late Developer album we really believed we had something special. There was nothing for it, we would have to go hunting or at least make the follow up call!
Late Developer had been released in early ’96 on Org Records and despite an initial buzz around the record by summer it started to fall away. We lacked resources for the kind of promotion and support we really needed. We needed an advocate, a manager. I remember John and I sitting in my flat trying to figure a way forward… lets think of one manager we would really love to have. We thought of bands at the top of their game and one immediately sprung to mind. Radiohead. So we decided to approach Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge of Courtyard Productions who looked after Radiohead and Supergrass at the time, aim high eh! We popped a copy of the album in the post.
That was as far as it went and like so many demos and flyers we had sent around previously we might never have followed up. However this was part of our strategy. We decided, that fateful Monday, that unlike all those other occasions, this time we would follow up. So a week later we sat together and I made the call.
Much to my surprise Chris answered the phone. I nervously explained who I was. “Sorry to hassle you”, I said “but I just want to know if you got the CD we sent? The bands name is Rhatigan, the album is Late Developer.” I said nothing else. There was a brief silence and he said “yes, I think I saw that lying around here somewhere”. “Good” I said, “that’s all I wanted to know. I hope you get a chance to listen to it, I won’t be calling back. Thanks, bye.” I hung up. I don’t think I threw up at that point but it was damn close. We switched off the phone and got on with recording or something when an hour or so later the answerphone clicked in and we heard Chris leaving a message. Following my bizarre phone call, they decided to dig out the album and put it on and yep, they liked it. They liked it a lot actually.
Things moved along quite smartly, we met up, they came to a few gigs, gave us time in their studio to demo some new material. Everything was going swimmingly. They talked about signing us to their production company and releasing us through Parlaphone just one last piece of the puzzle, we were to set up a gig, to which they would bring the relevant players and bish bosh bang… Deal!
Now ‘Rhatigan’ was ready for this, buoyed in our confidence with our new found advocates and having gigged regularly and practiced our asses off, we were tight as the proverbial knot… so when an opportunity to step into a cancellation slot at the Monarch in Camden came up, we didn’t hesitate to grab it. We rustled up an audience at short notice and a couple of days later our game changing gig was upon us.
That morning I awoke excited and confident until I noticed a soreness on the side of my nose, a pimple but not a pimple, nothing a bit of make up wouldn’t cover. I headed off for a swim. I was determined today was going to be perfect. By midmorning the pimple was more like an open sore and a bit, weepy, I was starting to feel a wee bit anxious….
When you look back over events and the way things pan out you see more clearly the opportunities you had along the way to alter the course you were on, but of course you don’t see those opportunities at the time. So when Bryce called me that afternoon with the guest list and asked me how I was, I jokingly described my disintegrating nose, to which he immediately suggested canceling and I said…“Cancel, that’s a bit extreme. Nah we’ll go for it, a bit more makeup it’ll be grand”.
By five o clock the seeping sore had spread in a crescent shape around my right nostril and formed a thick scab. Despite my efforts with makeup the best look I could achieve was a bulbous crusty protrusion a blind man on a galloping horse couldn’t miss. My nerves were gone. My judgement was clearly impaired. I decided, in my hysterical state, that the best option was to surgically remove the scab with my trusty Stanley knife, then quickly douse the open wound with powder and slap some makeup on, which I did, ignoring the searing pain, so determined I was, to make this gig work. But even before I left the house 10 minutes later the prosthetic had slid off and new yellow and green septic puss was crystallizing around my nose, growing exponentially! So, ever the pro, I brought the blade with me and performed the procedure again in the toilets at the pub minutes before I went on stage…
No matter how well prepared you are, shit just happens.
Despite my best efforts to ensure the best possible outcome for this make or break performance, self mutilation being just one, I had also, last minute, decided to change the strings on my guitar, to try and at least reduce the chance of string breakage, a regular occurrence due to the ferocity with which I assaulted the guitar. In fact we were constantly beset by technical mishaps at gigs and I wanted to do the best I could to avoid the gremlins tonight. However, I hadn’t allowed enough time for the new strings to settle…
I’m on stage, I’m not feeling great, there’s no turning back. I peek out from behind my hair, long enough back then thankfully, to partially cover the horrific car crash that is my nose, and I can see the room filling. Some familiar faces near the front and the silhouette of industry turn out shuffling around the other half of the room eying each other up. The tension is palpable there’s a lot at stake…
It’s the moment of truth, nerves shattered, festering sore to the fore, I launch myself at the opening chords of the 1st song… but far from the solid confident guitar intro we had rehearsed endlessly, a discordant clang, rings around the room. I look and sound like a demented zombie as I grapple to get my guitar in tune, half blinded by my hair, which by now is stuck to the septic oozing on my nose. John and Bryn play on heroically as I randomly squawk and screech my way through the first 2 tunes. It’s all over the place, a complete mess.
Our loyal rent a crowd cheer furiously, urging us on, their enthusiasm simply not commensurate with the appalling shambles they’re listening to. Then half way through the 3rd song something clicks… Fuck it… The rest of the set we’re on fire, but it’s too late. In that same moment I see the back of the room dissolve. The guest list has heard enough. They don’t wait for the moment when the challenger gets up from the floor and wins the championship fight with a knockout blow. It’s over. Our one shot… in the foot.
I’d like to comfort you and myself by telling you that particular debacle was a one off in my show case/gig history, but alas it’s not, there were more, many more, not quite so gruesome perhaps, but none the less disastrous! I won’t lie and tell you I bounced back from those setbacks even more determined and thick skinned. No. But, bounce back we did. We were bowed but not broken on that occasion for sure, but much more music was to come from Rhatigan as the band changed and expanded over the following few years. Fact is in life sometimes, you stick your neck out you get your face slapped, it’s how you come back that matters.
Still, the compulsion to sing and write and make music and to try to find an audience for that music pushes me out the door and into the bars and barber shops of Dublin on piss awful winter/summer days and nights to play. It’s a win win situation really. First, it makes me feel good, (I can’t stress the importance of this enough). Second I get to play my music and hear other music, and maybe one time, one person might hear something they like and that person might make a difference!
We wrote Coming To Get You aka (Elephant song) a few years after ‘nosegate’ by then Paul had replaced Bryn on drums and an ever evolving horn and string section were occasionally thrown head long into the fray. I love Paul’s shuffling drums, John’s brilliantly simple bass from which the song was written, and Jacqui’s Elephant trombone. This was one of those recordings I’ve always felt slightly frustrated by though. Like most of our output it was recorded on 8 track in Cushy Studios, my basement flat in London, and it felt to me like the track was constrained too much by the confines and of my living room, surrounded as we were by irate neighbours… So I recently updated the original recording with some more horns, guitars, BV’s and drums, and I’m quite pleased with the results, yeah quite pleased. I definitely sound like I’m up for the hunt, maybe be it’s time to go a hunting again!
PS: That wasn’t quite the end of the story with Courtyard, I’ll fill you in on the ‘finale’ soon!
PPS: I get to try it all again on Friday night November 27th when I play an opening set for the wonderful Dr Millar upstairs at Whelans in Dublin onstage 8:45pm X