I’m not sure of the date – middle of 1974 possibly. I was back in Orpington spending time with my mate Mark, on the street where we’d both grown up, now aspiring rock stars at the heady age of 14. Mark had upped the ante by getting a black Les Paul copy, a 15w amp that had dire mains hum, and a Cry Baby pedal. The only thing holding either of us back from stardom was a total absence of talent plus in my case, a total absence of an instrument. Several of Mark’s mates had formed a band, and we spent a day watching them practice. Mark seemed enthralled no doubt hoping to be asked to “sit in” whilst I was bored out of my gourd, manifesting a thumping headache born out of becoming massively de-hydrated (refreshments were only for the band, OK?). The only thing that made it interesting was the presence of a local guitarist called Kevin who had agreed to watch, play a little and offer a few tips. He was slight, friendly if a little distant, perking up when I mentioned Frank Zappa. It was clear that Kevin could really play and keep time, which put him well ahead of anyone in the band (particularly the drummer). I assume his main advice to the band was to jack it in, because that’s what the band did within months. The band’s name has long been erased from my mind but my brief meeting with Kevin Armstrong sustained. Even if it didn’t make the book.
Armstrong was in Bowie’s band for Live Aid, played on “Dancing In The Streets”, and gigged and recorded with Tin Machine, and the book (naturally) is puts this front and center. Despite being a Bowie agnostic, I found the book a really entertaining read and a fascinating insight to the evolution of how a musician for hire makes a living. His background is similar to that told in numerous other rock biographies – alienated at in school, distant from his parents – but there’s a refreshing difference as his story isn’t tied to the ascent and then inevitable descent of “that” big name band – the book describes him as “the world’s best least known guitarist”. Although signed age 21 by Charlie Gillett and releasing two albums, the chance to be make a living working as a sideman turns out to be career defining.
Armstrong’s cv is a smorgasbord of work with the so called “A” list – Bowie, Iggy Pop, Sinead O’Connor, Fergal Sharkey, Grace Jones, Paul McCartney – as well as an abundance of others, some familiar, some less so. The variety and length of his career has left his with some golden insights and anecdotes from his time with Thomas Dolby, Alien Sex Fiend, Spizzles, Prefab Sprout, Max Splodge, Keziah Jones, Kevin Ayers, Sandy Shaw and even Steve Nieve as part of the house band on Jonathan Ross’s talk show (where they get to play “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” as pneumatic Brigette Nielsen comes on). His affection and respect for Bowie, Pop and Dolby shine brightly, and throughout there’s some delightful candor (and mostly love) about his time with the others. He even spent 7 years Brian Eno’s singing group, The Elgins, who also included David Byrne, Paul Simon, Jerry Hall and Emily Young (the inspiration for “See Emily Play”) from time to time.
As a guitarist for hire, it’s evident that Armstrong excelled at making contacts with all manner of musicians and managers, trying to be phlegmatic and diplomatic when the big names decide to move on with new band members, but ready to hop in a taxi the next time Bowie or Iggy Pop call, finishing some days with months of work that he had no inkling of when he’d got up that day. He acknowledges it’s life on a “tightrope”, uncertain about money, but also never sure if you are really good enough. How do you define yourself as a musician when all the work you do is for someone else? He turns down a permanent gig with Prefab Sprout so that he can pursue a career as a record producer, opens a studio called Laylow in the Portobello Road, taking guitar playing gigs as and when they appear, by then a dad with 2 kids to feed.
The studio is sees him work with Transvision Vamp, Howard Donald (ex Take That) and Youssou N’Dour who was accompanied by Peter Gabriel. There’s an astounding number of musicians mentioned in the book; his memory is impressive given that he admits he was no stranger to the occasional chemical tipple..
The latter stages of the book detail the further shifts in his career, once owing a studio no longer financially viable, leaving London to live on the south coast. Always an early adopter of new technology he’s commissioned by various A&R men to jump on the remix and mashup bandwagon kicked off by DNA’s hip hop mix of “Tom’s Diner” remixing songs by Gang of Four and That Petrol Emotion which he describes as “pretty awful records, frankly, but at least I learned a fair bit about sampling and mixing while ruining perfectly good songs for money”.
He even tries his hand at writing music for adverts. “It’s all twats strumming ukuleles and whistling Kev. You could be one” says his wife. And she was right. One £17 ukelele later Armstrong makes his biggest money earning piece of work to date – 12 bars of music that has been used over and over to sell everything from toilet cleaner to insurance. It leads to other ad work which he describes as “a world so steeped in bullshit and doublethink that it beggars belief. A tawdry realm of shifting, insecure employment and fleeting glimpses of high reward for supposedly little effort. A world where the strings are pulled by complete cretins while those who work hard at the creative coalface are at the bottom of a steaming dunghill of vacuity, broken dreams, and empty promises.”. Ouch.
But the good news is that there was still work to be had gigging with Thomas Dolby and Iggy Pop. And in a perfect example of the unpredictability of Armstrong’s working life, a foray into the world of thrash metal, discovering just how difficult it was to “shred”, replicating Slayer riffs leading a band who provided a live soundtrack to screenings of a gothic black-and-white movie called Gutterdämmerung. And, obviously, Grace Jones performing “Nightclubbing”
The book closes with some essays on a variety of topics (a rant about people asking for guest tickets shines a light on what clearly gets to be a source of lots of irritation) and more profound reflections on how he gave up trying to be a band leader recording his own songs to being a sideman to some very big names. He acknowledges that it’s left him with a sense of missing out, but has returned to making music, making himself happy. His “inner critic who never shuts up” may not have left, but it sounds like he’s not as loud as he had once been.
Length of Read:Long
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Time well spent for any fan of Bowie or Iggy Pop. Or indeed anyone who is fond of a music anecdote
One thing you’ve learned
Never, ever take a dump on the tour bus. Ever.