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John Barrow, How NOT To Make It In The Pop World

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John Barrow

How NOT To Make It In The Pop World

An interview by Neil Sharpe
Images:John Barrow w/ Swinging Laurels, Fun Boy Three

What does a dust clogged C melody, adisastrous audition, and a street full of broken milk bottles get you?

How about The Clash, Boy George, CultureClub, Iggy Pop, and top ten chart success!

Not bad? Right?

Lots of fame and fortune?

Not quite.

Dedication, hard work, and lady luck mightget you a chance to nod hello to the first, but put one large hold on the second.

That’s according to John Barrow, in How NOT To Make It In The Pop World, a fascinating, insightful guide to themagical, dream driven, roller coaster, shark filled world of rock n’ roll. Howagainst all odds, a young sax player’s dreams came true but with one large price.

Rehearsals in a closet with an elderlyneighbor pounding on paper thin walls, a lucky ad, life out of a suitcase,topless dancers, adoring fans, broken marriages, shattered egos, agentsdrenched in gold jewelry, hitting the big time playing a song that wasn’t quitewhat it seemed to be, in a band that wasn’t quite what it seemed to be, with apay cheque that never was what it should be.

And that was only the beginning.

Although the first part of the bookprovides a fascinating overview of the growing pains every musician goes through, the book’s real strengths are John’s hard-woninsights about the music business- and what a ruthless beast it can be. Thesetips, about what to watch out for and why, should be considered mandatoryreading for every young musician aspiring for a career in the music industry.

"If it was all just about making music thenfine but when you are saddled with all the legal and contractualtechnicalities, it gets as far removed from music as you could possiblyimagine….it’s enough to knock the creative stuffing out of any young aspiringmusician”.

Which brings us to the core question in John’s book.

If, as John writes, "Music is 10% exhilaration and 90% utter disappointment", then what keeps one going?

What’s the gravitational pull?

What is it that causes one to swallow nerves and shyness, climb up on stage, into the spotlight, and say, "Here Iam”?

What keeps one playing 3 a.m. gigs for next to nothing, then reporting to that demanding, 8 a.m. job the next morning?

What makes one happy to be jammed shoulder to shoulder, equipment piled high on all sides, in a cheap, bitterly cold,exhaust fume filled van?

What makes one willing to live in a brutally demanding way oflife, through all the twists and turns, the friendships and betrayals, with no guarantee of either success or even survival?

If it’s an ambition fueled by an appetite for money, success, and fame, that’sfine. But that tells only part of the story.

If music is your lifeblood, if you are prepared to sacrifice everything for it, thenthat impulse makes everything possible, including moments of transcendence thatcan forever change a life. "I saw friends establish themselves inwell-paid jobs and enjoy the benefits of a regular pay cheque. During my timein music, many of them slogged away in the same jobs, but have any of themvisited Oslo, San Sebastian, Vienna, or even Bannockburn? Money couldn’t pay the stunning times music has give to me."

It can be a magical world, where anything is possible, where one can rocketfrom obscurity to international recognition overnight… and sometimes burn outjust as fast. "One moment you appear to be riding the crest of a wave, only tohave the rug pulled away from you, bringing you back down to earth with asickening thud.”

Musicians who want to soar from zero to the top have to be exceptionally resilient.Failures and setbacks are part of the game, a necessary part of the learningprocess.

John has a unique perspective. He was inthe forefront of the ska, punk, and the "New Romantic” synth revolution in England during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that triggered "a sea change in the way music was played and recorded."

Out of those experiences, John sharesinvaluable lessons on what it takes to get ahead.

"It’s not what you play but what you leave out that makes the difference”, goes to the heart of it.

How many players today, for example, arefamiliar with the great jump blues and rock n’ roll sax players from the 1950’slike Lee Allen and Joe Houston? They could take just two or three notes andtransform them into a sound so memorable that it seemed without limit.

Ultimately, perhaps the most importantfactor of all is the producer, whose mix can take you to the stars or sink youlike a stone. "Sometimes you feel isolated and vulnerable in a studio withheadphones on having to peer at studio staff through the control roomwindow…Often you recorded your parts after waiting around for hours, so it wasdifficult to inject life into it. After several takes, you started to worry anda sort of paranoia set in. You could see the wagging tongues in the controlroom but couldn’t hear a word they were saying.”

The common thread, underlying all of this, is financial survival. In 1979, at the fabled Hope and Anchor pub in IslingtonLondon, one weekend’s lineup featured the breakout bands Madness, The Police,and The Specials. Yet, each band was paid only 20 pounds. Throw in travelingexpenses etc., and bands soon were swimming in red ink. Even top flight actshad to play provincial pubs to pay the bills; "…we were still a pretty highprofile band, still getting good service from the national music press, playinglarge prestige venues to thousands of screaming girlies, yet we were all stonybroke. You only can live on adrenaline for so long; one thing is for sure, itdoesn’t pay the bills”.

Stage success doesn’t always translate intofinancial success. John’s band opened for top acts like Culture Club, but:"People assume that because you have graced the same stage as the star act, infront of thousands, you must be reaping similar financial rewards. This is acomplete fallacy.”

So, be ready to run. It’s a sad truth thatin today’s jazz world too many musicians still play for door money, still haveto drive cab to make ends meet. If youwant to survive as a musician, be prepared to play whatever you can wheneverand wherever you can.

Swinging Laurels

In 1982, John Barrow’s group, the SwingingLaurels hit the Number One on the English independent chart with their debutrelease "Peace of Mind.” The group picked up national exposure on radio, television,and the media. "Releasing a record is only the tip of the iceberg when it comesto the promotion of the product, but you have to play the game if you are tohave a chance of competing in the market place.”

While attention and praise were rolling in,John still had to run for every dollar. In addition to countless live playdates, here’s a partial list of John’s hectic schedule, all powered by hisbeloved 1962 Selmer Mark VI with nickel plated keys:

  • Released the four track EP "A Taste of ... "
  • Played session on the Fun Boy Three hit "The Telephone Always”
  • TV appearances including England’s number one music program, "Top of the Pops "
  • Video produced Ultravox vocalist Midge Ure with appearances by: Bananarama, Madness, and Ultravox
  • Session musician for 2-Tone Records
  • Tracks on an album by Worldbackwards
  • A session with chart toppers Musical Youth
  • Work on the Fun Boy Three hit "Summertime”.
  • Recordings with French act, 24hrs
  • Live work with the band Team 23
  • Supported chart acts, like Classix Nouveau.

Fun Boy Three

And you’d better understand that even ifyou have written and played the greatest song in the world, if the person ontop decides to look in a different direction, no one may ever hear it. "One ofthe major factors that convinced us to sign was that he was a real fan of theband. Now we were faced with the prospect of a newcomer taking control of ourcareers…from the beginning we formed the impression that he wasn’t a fan…Onelapse of judgment can cost and talent isn’t everything. A huge slice of good fortunein needed to make it to the top, and without that element of luck, you’ve nochance.”

In the end, some critics may say that Johnfell short. "Flirtations with the music industry doubtless cost me in afinancial sense…I persevered for as long as I could always telling myself ‘thisis the year’, unfortunately that year never materialized. I came so close somany times…”

But did he fall short? Signing with a majorlabel, chart success, television appearances on England'snumber one music show, and sharing the stage with some of the world’s greatbands, would be called a wonderful career by many musicians.

More importantly, John reminds us thatbefore we criticize ourselves for what we could and should have done, let’sfirst acknowledge what we’ve accomplished and experienced.

John’s great journey may not have resultedin financial rewards, however, his dedication, perseverance, courage, and "thatlump of metal that I call my saxophone has been my passport to someunforgettable experiences and capers. It helped me to achieve many of mychildhood dreams and for that I am very grateful... You see I believe 'If younever try, you’ll never know what you are capable of'."

John Barrow's How NOT to Make It in the Pop World (diary of an almost has-been)
Created: April 19, 2005.
Update: May 27, 2013.
©2013, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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