A.J. Walker


Smithdown: A Brief History of Timing

Have always loved music. I find people who don’t unnerving. How can you not like music? Its in our genes, our bones, surely. The styles we like vary which is great; we couldn’t all like the same songs or the same genre it wouldn't work like no-one can paint the perfect work of art. Someone would write the best song ever and no one could aspire to it again. And then there’s me. Ah well, this listening and appreciating is a whole different ball game. This is the story of the short-lived folk rock combo from the early 90s: ‘Smithdown’

When I was very young Mum wanted me to learn music by playing the piano. I took the ‘No’ from piano and said I’ll play footy with me mates instead thank you very much. Years later I wish I’d learnt to play and learnt to read music, but at the time a regular kick about was more appealing. Hind sight.

So my sis' learnt to play piano, learnt music and went on to play trombone. Me, I played nowt. I’m discounting the recorder and triangle from school. Oh my.

Then following uni I heard Jimi Hendrix version of Day Tripper and I decided to get myself an old guitar and learn how to play that riff. And I did. After a fashion. Open chords. Strum. Strum…. strum. I learnt using books and Tablature so I didn’t need to teach myself to read music. ‘Tab’ is a visual representation of the strings (so six lines) with a number on then to show where on the fret board you should be pressing down: Guitar for Idiots. Maybe, but it’s simple and it works.

And my aim was to one day be able to be comfortable enough to play in front of someone. Any one. One person. One day. Long in the future.

In 1991 a couple of years after uni I ended up working in an environmental consultancy in Liverpool. The company was young in age and philosophy. A real great group of lads and lasses. Then they gave us a post-Christmas party - a ceilidh - in the Alicia Hotel by Sefton Park. A meal, cheap bar and a ceilidh band. Great. They were playing two sets. There would be a break and some bright spark after one too many Guinness’s in Kitty O’Shea’s came up with the idea of putting a company band together to play two or three songs in their break.

Okay. One person. One day. I suppose a group of people I knew and worked with wouldn't be as scary as an unknown audience. Umm.

Cue a couple of weeks crammed into a kitchen practicing a few songs. Kev, Mark and me on guitars and no less than three singers! It was a little chaotic but mad fun. On the photos off the performance of The Waterboys ‘Bang on the Ear’ I can be seen trying to stand as far away from the rest of the group as possible. My one day performing in front of someone and I didn't want to be there. We were no group. The line-up of singers to instruments show that. But we’d done it. And I’d achieved my one goal I’d set myself for playing the guitar. Job done.

But no. We wouldn't let it lie. Kev, Mark and myself carried on playing. We’d go around to Kev’s capacious flat at the weekend and play a few tunes and drink a few cans. One day we’d find ourselves a singer and then maybe play a pub or two.

We didn't find a singer next. We found Helen, my second cousin, who I hadn't met since her Christening when I was knee high to something very small. She was at Uni at Liverpool and I promised my mum I’d look her up. Then when Mark and I were on a job in Cleethorpes we looked her up again there and went for a curry. Mark hit it off with Helen straight away and we promised to keep in touch for drinks and Irish pubs in Liverpool. She played violin. And soon her classically trained violin was to become a fiddle to fit with our aim. To play some gigs in Irish pubs in Liverpool. Once we found a singer.

In our initial practices no one sang. No one had a singing voice or wanted to put it out there. But it was easy to get lost in practicing the songs when no one is rattling out the verses. In the end I ended up with the shitty end of the stick and garbling the songs out.

We all promised to keep our ears to the ground for a singer. Of course finding a singer who wouldn't take it to seriously i.e. expect us to be any good and go from strength to strength, may not be that easy; ‘Wanted one good singer. Don't expect much. Fun only.’ was a tough sell.

One day when I was working on a site in Lancashire I got an email from Mark. ‘Got a gig!’ Brilliant! I must have missed the memo on us getting a singer. He must have found a singer and the singer has got the gig, right? Wrong.

‘Er, well you’ll have to sing. You’ve been doing it in the practices.’

‘Yeah, ‘cos no one else will do it.’

‘Well, we’ve got a gig. I’ve said we’re playing and your singing.’

Oh boy.

And this first gig. Where and what? ‘Well, it’s Helen’s mate’s 21st. It’s at his flat above Kelly’s Wines on Smithdown Road.’ Who? What?

Flip! We’ve got a gig. Now we need a name. Ah. We hadn’t even thought of that; which shows what our gig expectations actually were at that time. We all put a couple of names out there. I suggested Life of Riley with our Irish musical roots and Smithdown as my second choice as we lived and socialised around Smithdown Road - and of course our gig was to be on it too. Everyone picked a different name as their first choice but everyone’s second choice was Smithdown. So we ended up with a name not one of us voted for. Bloody stupid voting system; that’s how you end up with coalitions innit!

So our first appearance was in the corner of flat at Gareth’s 21st/Coming Out party. His parents were over from Norn Iron and how we didn’t get lynched for mutilating some of those Irish tunes I’ve no idea. Kev and I had never met any of that crowd before. But we found ourselves some new friends that night. Our musical inabilities hadn't put them off.

Which brings us nicely to what we played. At this point with Mark and I on electric guitars, Kevin on guitar and mandolin and Helen on the fiddle we played a mix of Irish trad and modern songs and recent covers of bands we liked; Pogues, U2, Saw Doctors, Waterboys, REM and the like. When we started it was about 50:50 but the more gigs we played the ratio of none-Irish songs grew.

With that ‘gig’ under our belt the search for a singer seemed to go on the back-burner. ‘We’ll keep one eye open.’ Oh yeah, of course!

Mark was now the man with the bit between his teeth. He approached the pubs and got us the gigs. We played Kitty O’Shea’s (my favourite Irish pub in Liverpool - now long gone) first and ended up playing there five or six times. Playing on a Monday night assured not many peeps in and we made sure it was well known at work. So in the event we took lots of our mates in and Kitty’s were happy with the trade on a usually slow day while we got a sympathetic crowd.

Kevin was to move away from guitar happy that Mark and me could get by-ish - and with the requirement for a) a bit of beef behind us and b) some better timing (Mark and I had some strumming issues) - he moved on to his beloved drums (via banjo); Kevin could play anything (Jealous? Me? Yep). We played a pub up near Smithdown and four gigs at the Slaughterhouse and a few odds and sods elsewhere.

Our two biggest gigs though were organised by us when we played the British Legion just down the road from Kelly’s Wines. Claim to fame: the Beatles played on the same stage. Oh yeah. And then we organised a Christmas gig in the now closed down (there’s a theme here) Liverpool Irish Centre. That was nerve racking. We had to guarantee at least 100 people or we’d have to pay for the hire of the room. We organised and cooked the food (well, largely Helen and Mark did). We booked a DJ and another band; the Hooley’s. They asked for £150 or else a free bar. We’d seen them drink. We paid them. And then there was us. That was our most fun and biggest night. The crowd did come including family, friends and colleagues. It was a great night.

Amazingly other than the gigs we organised we actually got paid to play. Usually £100 or so. But to get me on stage I needed me some dutch courage as I really can’t sing and I know that when I’m sober. So I probably laid out most of my £25 to a) get on the stage and then b) celebrate having got through it without being bottled off.

Mark, Kev and I also played together on a stage after midnight in our hotel bar when we were working in Villahermosa in Mexico. So yes, I played in an international touring band. Yes, I did.

Our last official gig was at Mark’s leaving do when he was moving office to Durham. With Mark gone our cohesion and impetus went away and Kevin in any case moved down to Reading too. I’ve been left with a few fliers, some set-lists, dodgy photos and great memories of daft times.

Kevin is still playing drums in a blues band in Ilkely. Helen and I don’t pick up our instruments enough these days and as for Mark the last I heard was he was in Africa. I hope he's strumming Waterboy’s hits to some unfortunates right now.

As a nice coda to the story, Helen, who of course didn’t play at my first performance as a) I didn't know her and b) she didn't work with us, actually got married in the Alicia Hotel a few years ago. It’s funny how circular things can be. She left her fiddle at home and I took a camera rather than a guitar to the hotel.

Every now and again I think I should give it a go again. It would be good to sit and play my Takemine in front of someone. Just one person. One day.