You Can’t Always Play What You Want


Nice thoughtful piece here from Pete from what he calls “the land of political unrest”.

Dave, Seeing all these people dying recently that I had never listened to their music and following the blog talking about bands and musicians I had never heard of got me thinking.
Like most bands we had to play what was really considered Top 20 material at our gigs. No real choice since club owners and Party throwers did not want to hear some obscure personal preference material or even originals. Even into the 80s playing Weddings and Country Clubs we ended up playing stuff like Beat it by Michael Jackson and other top 20 material like Careless Whisper (Shudder).  It got me to thinking just how many of us never really got to perform the material that we so loved in our personal lives. I know that for us in the early 70s we took a break from the gigs and went and learned a whole evening of David Gates and Bread Material.  We just loved learning it and playing it in Rehearsals but actual paid performances we lasted 2 gigs as nobody wanted to hear it and much of it you could not dance to anyway. So all that work went out the window and songs like “Take Comfort” and “Diary”were replaced by “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” and “Indiana wants me”.
We learned from that experience and never again strayed from a tried and true set list.  Phil put a link in his post to Democracy by LC and I wonder just who of our band of weekend warriors would have actually done well performing that at the “Kings Arms” or the “Dog and Duck”.  So the question is who really got to perform songs by non mainstream artists and made money out of it?
We had a saying over here in the early 80s about the wedding gigs we were playing. “For 99% of the audience their sense of taste is in their mouths…… The other 1% are musicians on their way to their own gig who snuck in the back to get some free food”  In fact no kidding we used to see that a lot.
All the best
Cheers Pete – I have some thoughts but others?

Author: pompeypop

University lecturer, longtime local musician and recently historian of popular music - especially in and around Portsmouth. My blog is entirely about that topic

27 thoughts on “You Can’t Always Play What You Want

  1. As your blog site token dj who has never played a musical instrument in his life but quickly learning how to play my newly acquired banjo/uke in the style of the great George Formby who despite his strange looks and now current hair style was a good player as you musos would say. Over the near 4000 gigs I did with my two turntables in clubs, service venues etc working , as one did years ago, with bands on many nights in the month I read with great interest Pete`s comments. Apart from the Cromat (progressive music nights) at the Tricorn it was the covers bands or established acts that did the best and were mostly re booked – Young Mr Phil Freemans`s group The Image for example did excellent covers of tunes we mostly knew and proved hugely successful. When I worked with Mud for example they stormed it (though I understand the modern phrase is Smashed it!!) but when they split Ray Styles , now in the Hollies ( back now with Rob Davies doing live Mud gigs) kept going with Mud with a female vocalist doing mostly original material. The crowds went to see them but weren`t happy not knowing hardly any tunes until the end when they did you know what. Running an entertainments agency for nearly 30 years I dreaded “function” bands sending me in their studio recorded demo songs- because they had studio time no way were they going to do covers of Yellow River,Tie a Yellow Ribbon and the like – nope it was originals they mostly did and when I suggested a band for a Wedding, Masonic whatever and was asked for a demo tape(that little old cassette we used to use) I sent them off and most times the clients didn`t want the band as they didn`t know the songs. Forget the saying Everybodys original is somebodys elses cover doesn`t apply to the commercial market. Yes indeed original songs can get recording contracts, bands playing what they like can do wonders in pub gigs where people don’t pay to get in but when it comes to what function bookers want it`s always down to covers.I know you wont want me talking about “lists” but if I was on Room 101 on the telly “list`s would be in there – I receive endless lists each week for the dj`s I book to play at , mostly, weddings. The worst this year was for 40 Five Hand Death Wish tracks to be played at a Fareham Wedding- the dj downloaded them (and paid for them please MU note) -on the night he died beyond belief – twenty tracks in Mother in law comes up and nearly attacks him, Grandad explains how rock and roll was better and the younger section informed him “your f..crap mate -get some up to date on!” the tattooed Bride and Groom that requested Five Hand Death Wish actually danced to one tune all evening “Macorina”- so yes young USA Pete covers bring in the money but can make you frustrated wanting to do better- there end the Buckland letter!!! Doctor Dave would have a different slant on this as he has never played a song I know but seems to have done well

  2. He’s so lovely that Buckland boy. In Harlem Speakeasy we played whole sets of 60s Motown and Soul that he knew very well and in the 1980s I was in three successive local bands playing R&B covers like Route 66, No Particular Place to Go and Hoochie Coochie Man. I don’t think he’s ever seen the Southsea Skiffle Orchestra, but Rock Island Line? Freight Train? Putting on the Style?

    I think it depends what you want from life. My first degree and my career was in painting and drawing. Very occasionally for specific reasons as a student I made copies (covers) of well known paintings but generally speaking we don’t expect painters, or authors or playwrights to ‘cover’ other people’s stuff, so in the end I’m not sure why we assume musicians have to. I don’t mind if they do and I know why they do, but while I’ve never made any money out of music I’ve had 50 wonderful years playing and for most of that time, BECAUSE I deliberately had a separate income/career I played what I wanted, with the only compromise being with the other guys in the band. But I always do my best to entertain and think about what works live, with the sort of people likely to seek out my stuff.

    Incidentally I don’t doubt Pete’s experience of weddings or the success of Mud but I won’t play weddings/parties precisely because people wouldn’t like us. I’d rather play once a year than do gigs like that. On the other hand, as a musician and a punter I’ve been to many gigs in my life (over more than 50 years) where Mud might not have been so well received (to put it mildly). Horses for courses I guess.

    However (as with Harlem Speakeasy) I think it can be very valuable experience for young guys to learn by playing covers rather than assuming they have interesting things to say and sounds to make at 16, but if the Beatles or Smokey Robinson or Buddy Holly or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or … (etc) had stuck to playing covers, we’d have had a lot less fun over the years.

  3. Heh Heh…Pete’s five hand death wish story rang bells with me. Mainly in the odd requests that we would get for the 1st dance of the bride and groom. It is the focal point of the reception and everyone is paying attention. Got some strange ones over the years until in the end we would recommend they select from a few popular love songs of the moment. The most bizzare request that comes to mind was REO Speedwagon… The lyric “Heard it from a friend, who heard it from a friend, Who heard it from another you’ve been messing around” Needless to say they were divorced a few years later. Dave this topic could be stand alone. But to keep it on track it’s not really just about being able to be “Bookable” to have to play covers but really if you want to play out at all. Few places to play (unlike your music scene) and they are very picky. The weekend gigs we did over the years just supplemented my income and bought us more toys and vacations but I ran it like a business with equipment depreciation etc. I think in retrospect that When I listen to any kind of music there is a part of me that can pick the commerciality. Play me an album and I can tell you which 2 tracks are winners. Having said that give me headphones and David Gates Clouds Suite blasting and I am in heaven. I can see in many ways now why I missed so many of the bands and songs that I now get to hear of on the blog.
    Its an interesting topic and I hope some more of our bloggers chime in. I know Marc heads to France and plays Gypsy music but does he play that on gigs around town?

    • Cheers Pete – good thread this. What I would say is that there are different scenes and audiences. In 20+ years in Reet Petite & Gone we were hardly ‘commercial’ – a bit skiffle, lots of pre-war blues & jugband, a few originals and even a version of It Mek featuring banjo and kazoo. But there were years when (because we had jobs) we almost gigged more than we wanted, especially a local pub residency (back room not bar), folk clubs, folk and music festivals even alternative cabaret – what’s more, in the summers we toured the country – Middlesborough, Glastonbury, loads down in Kent, London, Leeds all over – and twice on BBC Radio 2 – one blues show and one Sunday morning religious show! But really never in what you would call mainstream venues/events. Even my wholly amateur Southsea Skiffle Orchestra works fairly regularly – three in the next month but we don’t do weddings (yet)!

    • Indeed he does and the punters appreciate it and occassionaly request it. Pete, without sounding critical, did you make a conscious effort to keep up with music through the decades and perform it ? I get the impression and please correct me if I’m wrong, you may have got yourself stuck in a wee rut ie loved the 60’s which we all did but switched off from the 70’s onwards ? Marc and I are now in a band called Tuxedo Junction which possibly encompasses all these past genres and influences we performed way back, we still remember them and some often come to the surface which we happily perform without too much effort. For anyone starting out in music, my advice for what it’s worth is listen to everything and anything, absorb, try and not get too focused on one particular genre, just take it all in, I’m convinced it’s the way to go….

      • “Indeed he does” here is a response to Pete’s question about Marc playing ‘Gypsy Music’ not to my second comment. Thanks for this Rod – lovely thread. More please …

  4. Thanks for pointing that out Dave, I can’t work out why it should have got out of sequence, perhaps a few hints and tips please ?

    • If you click on reply to the post you’re answering, as I’m doing here with yours, it appears immediately underneath it. If you ‘Comment” below it, someone else might do the same first and the sequence looks odd

  5. Can you play what you want and make any money as a semi pro musician ? Well i would argue yes you can but maybe its a little bit dependent on what genre of music your into. For me it was country rock and it was from the moment the Byrds first dabbled in it back in the late 60’s , but it took a while before i was involved in a band who were prepared to take risk. Portsmouth has never been a good place for country music of any kind and what specific country clubs which did exist in the area, and they’ve all gone now , were ‘conservative ‘ on their view of what country should be. There were exceptions noteably the Wildwood South in Southampton and the Silver Dollar in Swindon, but apart from them it was difficult to convert traditionalists close by, so we travelled all over the south /midlands/ London and in particular East Anglia . Yes it cost money to get there but they did tend to pay well as the clubs were run by enthusiasts and we shared that enthusiasm by accepting the ridiculous times we’d get home (plus had to leave to get there). However where we did rather well locally was most Legions and working mens clubs would have country nights….now we would fatten the act out with a handful of country classics they knew, the rest of the time we slipped into our higher energy mode of rockin country tunes courtesy of people like the Burrito Brothers and New Riders of the purple Sage and generally people had a good time . Our authenticity as a ‘country and western band’ was never questioned as we had a pedal steel on stage!
    As a final comment i admit the amount of cash involved set against the outlay for gear and rehearsal (and we rehearsed weekly ) was small, but having done the social club scene as well in cover bands there really wasn’t much in it and the opportunity to play what you want was there.

    • Nice post Phil. When I said I’d never made any money I didn’t mean I’d never been paid rather that what I’ve spent on gear, travelling etc over the years, can’t have matched what I’ve earned. I’m doing a local pub gig soon, six-piece band, three x 45 mins and £120 which is in fairness, probably all they can afford. So if I take no expenses, my (probably) four hours of work will earn me about £5 per hour which is about 65% of the minimum wage. I use six different harmonicas and if a reed goes in one, my £20 will pay for half a replacement! It’s a good job I’m an eccentric millionaire!

  6. Hi Rod. No I certainly stayed with the music and in fact still do. Of course enjoying it and performing it are two different things. When I wound up our Semi Pro band in Dec 87 we were playing a mix of current Top 40 all the way back to Moonlight in Vermont and Foggy Day with a smattering of everything in between. It made us very successful as a Wedding/Country Club Band. We never even bothered to learn a song unless we thought we could get some use out of it It was 1992 before we formed the band that just played for benefits and that ran until about 5 years ago. We played a mix of 60s/70s/80s/90s/00s venturing into Kenny Wayne Shepard, The Derailers and Gary Moore. And yes we even did As Time goes by. Of course being the age we were and the target audience we played a lot of Southern Rock. Current favorites although I no longer play out include Foo Fighters, Five Finger Death Punch, Zac Brown Band and a plethora of Country music. I really like Trop Rock and have done for several years and that is doing well finally. Our local area is very limited in the assortment of music being played. It is so limited that all the bands seem to play the same set list. I think you guys are lucky with Portsmouth and the diverse music on offer. I agree with you that when starting out you should open up your mind to all the different styles out there. There is a great Country song out at the moment called “I want to be your song”. There is a line in that that hit me up the side of the head. it is “Every Life has a soundtrack” wow how profound. Must run I need to crank up a little AC/DC “Highway To Hell”……

    • Well, I can see Pete in a completely different light now….Moonlight in Vermont…..I suppose you played it in the written key with plenty of minor flat 5’s ?

      • Dunno Rod. You are getting all technical on me now LOL. I played bass on the cocktail set. Had a couple of good keyboard players over the years and we went from the sheet music which I threw out about 6 months ago.during a purge of clutter. Actually nice and simple from a bass players perspective and fun to try and imitate that style of vocals. Me imitating how I remembered my Dad imitating the originals. Had to keep myself in check tho. “A cigarette that bears it’s lipstick traces…An old french letter that we used for ages….” Oh how my !@#$ still stings ” These foolish things Remind me of you”
        I think that outside of an old folks home there are few punters still alive that would want to hear a whole evening of that music these days. Much like your Tuxedo Junction the ability to mix it up and play some divirse stuff makes a band very marketable from a booking agents viewpoint.

  7. Wrong, we’re a once a month band possibly down to not playing Sweet Caroline and Yellow River for the more discerning listeners……methinks not !
    I’m into my 25th year as an entertainment agent and if I can’t get many gigs, what chance is there ?? We’re doing a bar/restaurant this afternoon in Southsea, can’t wait, time to dust off a few Steely Dans….now we’re talking music !

  8. In the banter between Rod and I, I missed responding to Phil and Dave regarding pay. So Thinking back for the typical wedding in the mid 80s as a 4 piece band we were getting About $350 – $400 for 4 x 45min sets. That included all the MC work on the day. In the party season we typically charged $450 – $500 or more. If we worked through an agency (and we did for the Friday and Saturday Gigs at the Local Officers Clubs/NCO Clubs/Yacht Clubs and Country Clubs) we got about $250/275 a night but then the equipment stayed in place which was a plus. Mind you we did those gigs 1 weekend a month and even managed to fit in a wedding gig in the daytime. We were so booked up that we had to plan our vacations and down time a year in advance. Downside is lugging equipment in 90F in the summertime. Looking back to the late 70s the average cover band musician got $30 a night while we made $50 each. The very sad part is that as the top 40 music became tougher to play the DJs moved in and undercut the bands in a big way. Couple that to the fact that many of the local musicians looked and acted very badly live music in our “cultural armpit of Florida” took a big hit. When we wound it up in Dec 87 I was still getting calls to “please do our wedding for almost a year”. What amazes me is that today the average musician will be lucky to get $50 for a 4 hour gig. And then they have to have all kinds of computer backing tracks. Most times the only chance to play in front of an audience is to sign up and take your turn on an “Open Mic Jam night”. Very sad.

    • Us Brits would appreciate those fees in pounds and pence please ? I’ve never recovered from the first time you went over to Florida to see the “lay of the land”, returned after a few weeks with an American accent ie Gee, hi Ruddy (American for Roddy), it was sure hot over there….priceless.LOL !!!

  9. Pete,as my buddy(a homicide detective in Norfolk Virginia) used to say ” some days you eat the bear. some days the bear eats you.

    Well,i have followed this brilliant thread with interest and decided I should make a contribution , and of course it is mostly relevant to
    ‘how it was’
    1964……………The Conchords needing a vocalist , my starting block. Joining a local band playing the standard R & B of the day….
    Until I landed the vocalist /harmonica/marracas gig ,these guys were ‘on my radar’ from particularly , those Saturday morning sessions at The Savoy.
    How pleased was I (as an alto voice in Technical High School choir) to be given the chance to become involved in live production of what was the ‘popular’ music of the day. Although I loved all the stuff that I was growing up with ,Howlin Wolf / Sonny Boy Williamson / Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed and of course the great Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee etc ,just around the corner and hot on the heels of this R & B ,was the ‘next big thing’ in my opinion…….SOUL MUSIC
    This was a wake up call to me ,and I was responsible for pushing the rhythm guitarist into the purchase of a ‘Tenor for a tenner’ (second hand saxophone which when repadded and re sprung was fine),which gave us a ‘change of direction……
    Constantly turning up at the pub practice room with soul tunes (some not even released in this country at the time) to put on that Dansette player and add to what I believe was a fair repertoire of great tunes…….Was this the new thing and did we enjoy playing it ??……………………………..YES and YES
    And so The Soul Society were now out there and becoming quite busy with lots of gigs at the then numerous youth clubs /naval & army bases and clubs that existed at that time..So i guess we went in the right direction as far as playing what we (and they ) wanted, Fees varying between 12 of those guineas local to sometimes two or even three times this for some of those out of town gigs.
    A couple of years on , it became evident that home produced soul bands were on the increase (again reflecting on the popularity of this genre of music) , and that part of this new wave of product relied a lot on use of a keyboard (Hammond ) to enhance the product…..Enter our old mate Mick Cooper in August ’66
    Somewhere during this period was probably the first time I became aware that our ‘public’ may not all be loving the night out with Soul Society as their ‘cabaret’…..At one of those naval base gigs , I remember being asked a leading question (which in all fairness was uttered by a ‘squaddie’)
    “Can you play Hava Negila with a drum solo?”
    Well no actually . Why would we ???
    Reflecting on the monies earned for the privilege of performing those favourite tunes,and then distributed amongst us ,there was the time when dropping John Davis at home in the early hours ,another never forgotten phrase was born……”All that way for two quid” !!!
    Yes indeed , but on that basis after a few of those two quids in a week ,you were doing fine…..Werent you ???
    My move to IMAGE and the seven piece soul band I so craved ,proved again to be a success on the basis of playing ‘the covers’ of those club favourites care of Stax / Atlantic and Motown..
    Working enough to become professional was a big decision, and not exactly easy to justify….£20.00 a week for over a year was to say the least a struggle ,but we were playing what we wanted ,and apparently what the public wanted

    There was again one of those occasions that might put doubt into your beliefs , when again I had punters asking if we played any Reggae music…………….Well………….No !!!! But as a bit of a piss take , we did lean Return to Django , but only ever got half way through it as we filled an old microphone with ‘flash powder ,linked it up with a stage maroon back of stage and at a certain point in the brass part fired both and explained that” Reggae obviously doesn’t work for us”
    Toward the last days of Image , we took a bit of a deviation from the soul train ,and went a little way down the ‘progressive’ road , as it seemed it might be the way forward…This was probably not the best move , as selectively, what we considered ‘good tunes’ were becoming harder to find and our very limited efforts of self penned songs failed to produce anything of significance
    And so right now , I believe that if you are selective about what you want to put into that repertoire as a ‘covers’ band , you can still PLAY WHAT YOU WANT…….(as long as you enjoy it !!!!!!!!

  11. APOLOGIES BLOGSTERS…………………After all that …….Second link ,and the first step down ‘the other road’ should be here

  12. not doing good am I ??????? i’ll find it in a while

    • I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused, I repeat myself when I get confused,.


      • I find I confuse myself when I keep repeating repeating repeating repeating#########…..enuff uff uff uff uff..!!!!!!

  13. Riverboat Queen is out there somewhere ………HONEST

  14. So type in the link yourself smartypants…………………….Tis one (hopefully and finally reflecting the first step in the other direction…….
    Shit , I was 21 about this time I reckon !!!!

    https://youtu.be/1RcWRh9cHSE that’s it

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