|"We're not really background music," John Preston told me last autumn on the phone. We were discussing arrangements for his band to play at Transition Norwich's first birthday party, which I was helping to organise. I thought that meant they were very loud, which John assured me was the case. But they could tone it down and be as acoustic as possible according to the event and venue.|
Both party and band went down very well on the night, and amidst all the event managing and doing a set myself with my friend Andy, I found time for a bop to JPTB's very danceable groove. I was aware too that some interesting lyrics were going on, occasionally catching the dark murmur of "It Costs The Earth" or "In Village Life".
But whilst I saw at the party that the band clearly had style and presence, it was only when John sent me their CD Reduced To Clear and I sat down and listened to it that I got a feeling for what he'd meant when he said it wasn't just background music.
The music itself has a strong seventies punk feel to it with occasional rhythm and blues and even classical elements. And you feel you're in good hands with the musicians, whether it's John's deep, clear vocals (you can hear all the words) or Les Chappel's solid, earthy drums. Carol Hunter, the band's keyboard player, is classically trained and her plaintive, slightly offkey riffs bring a quirkiness to the tunes which match the wit of the lyrics beautifully. Listen out too for Mark Fawcett's splendid guitar solo on Bad Mood.
The melodies are catchy but not so much so that you ignore the lyrics. I grew up in the seventies when punk was born and I have fond memories of X-Ray Specs, for example, with their clever songs about supermarkets, advertising and genetic engineering. But it's one thing being fifteen and listening to a fifteen-year old oracle, a cipher almost, raving about consumerism and identity crisis, and quite another being forty-something and hearing it from a maturer, more experienced artist. In the times we live in now, every consumer choice we make really is costing the earth and most of us are aware of that on some level. And it's that level that these songs speak to.
In "I Believe" (which is also a great dance number), there is an almost Zen-like sense to lines like "I believe in myself, though I don't know what it is." Here is the ego clinging to its idea of separation with this belief in itself, this 'insubstantial self', which can't allow for any uncertainty, because that would "be the end of me."
"If I can't win the conflict then I quit!" begins I Resign. Here again the ego who will be nobody if it can't be Caesar. And "I hope I'm really needed, and not just superseded when I go." Who hasn't felt like this at some point in their lives? Or even a lot?
And yet isn't this 'insubstantial' ego when it's bound up with consumerism on a mass level precisely what has put life on the planet under such great strain? These are the kinds of things that listening to Reduced To Clear provoked me into thinking about.
There is more I could say about The John Preston Tribute Band, but it's probably best to get hold of the CD and listen (and dance) to it yourself.
Feb / March 2010