I remember the sheer joy of playing loudly with my band mates. We were considered as an alternative band but with a very pop sensibility. We were also a comparatively quiet band compared to the millions of other thrashers on the New York City club circuit. We didn’t have any big guns in our band. I was the guitar player and in no way matched up to the guitar slingers in other bands. They were virtuosic and I was a journeyman who played creative solos but nothing mind-bending. Yeah, we had a great bass player and a host of drummers and percussionists, but as a whole we lacked muscle. So, while everyone in our little circuit was sure that our band would be signed to a major label because of our inoffensiveness, we as a band, thought we needed to head to the gym.
Although an original band, we would occasionally throw in a cover. Completely revamp the song according to our abilities and tastes and then throw it out to the audience. At one of the rehearsals at my apartment I happened to be playing the Police’s “King of Pain” as my fellow band mates straggled in. There was always music on while I set up the room or cooked for our post-rehearsal repast. The singer in the band, who is a woman, thought that was a cool song and said we should cover it. Even though the Police are a trio, the studio version of “King of Pain” is a very dense recording. And the guitarist, Andy Summers, is no slouch when it comes to creating sonic tsunamis. Alas, I’m a good sport and announced that I would have some kind of arrangement by the next rehearsal.
We already had one “loud” song in our set, but if we were to gain muscle, a # 2 wouldn’t hurt. The original loud song that we had is called “Today.” It’s one of the few songs that we performed that was a collaboration in terms of the writing of the song. It came about during the tail end of a rehearsal and my co-producer and I went to our respective apartments and hashed it out a little bit more. We simply added structure, provided a vessel to pour all of that creative intensity into that had been born out of a jam. “Today” was a great song to close a set with and every time that I played it, I would end up sweating like a horse that had done a full day’s work. Or played really hard for an entire set of music.
So now we had “Today” and “King of Pain.” In playing both of those songs the band soon came to realize the power of VOLUME. Maybe intensity is a better way to put it. Music gets no better whether it’s played loudly or softly, but it does take on a different face when you push it hard. That we had never done and I’d never set my amp above “3” for any song.
We were a little hungry and we wanted to conquer New York one neighborhood at a time. I landed the band gigs at some of the best live music spaces in the city but we wanted to spread the message. For some reason unbeknownst to me I landed in a bar on the Upper East Side one evening. Maybe it was the live music emanating from the front door; maybe I just wanted a drink. I listened to one set of music and asked the bartender if I could speak to the manager about booking my band at the club. The bartender let me know that he was the man who wore all hats and that he booked bands at the club. He was friendly and when I told him the name of my band he said that he had heard of us. Life is starting to look beautiful.
When I told my band mates about the gig they were a little standoffish because we would be playing in the middle of the week and logistically it would be a nightmare. This spot wasn’t near any public transportation and only the lead singer had a car. So that meant taxis which cuts into how much we would end up with at the end of the night. I “sold” the band on the gig by telling them that we would get to play three sets and there was no other band on the bill. Kind of a free rehearsal outside of a cramped studio. “Three taxis to the Upper East side and be careful with that snare drum, please.”
The gig was going ok but we could tell that this place was more a watering hole for locals than a club that regularly offered live music. But it was, as I had promised, a good place to stretch out and work out the kinks that were a normal part of our set. First set went fine and the bartender/owner/manager/booking agent gave us our drink tickets and said he liked our sound. During the break I ran into a young man who had financed my first record. We recognized each other from our past meetings of sitting around a table in my apartment and smoking packs of cigarettes and drinking endless amounts of peppermint tea. We chatted about how some good records just don’t break through but you have to keep pushing. My investor friend told me he had just arrived and looked forward to hearing the next set. We bid each other adieu and I looked around for my band mates to figure out the order of material in the next set.
We decided on our conventional order of songs and to close the second set with “King of Pain.” We’d save “Today” as the finale of our third and final set. A plan is made.
We rolled through that second set a little faster than usual. The drummer was pushing the tempo and the band just seemed way more aggressive than usual. As the guitarist in the band I would be the last one to try and reign in any of that energy. It seemed like we were racing to get to the end of the set. Folks at the bar who had not being paying any attention were starting to look in our direction. Their conversations proved no match for the amount of VOLUME we were kicking out. And for the first time I saw my band mates having fun. We were giddy with the excitement of exercising our newfound power. We were like middle-aged kids splashing about in the pool of dynamics. Then came “King of Pain.”
“King of Pain” starts out very quietly and ends very quietly. The bridge is also comparatively quiet. It’s the chorus that grabs the listener by the throat and starts throwing him around. We hit the first chorus pitch-perfect and rocking as hard as that song allows you to. We settled in for the second verse and that’s when I saw the guy who booked us move from behind the bar. “He needs more ice, he ran out of beer? Maybe he’s going for a smoke? Maybe he needs to use the bathroom? Bartenders have to pee too, right? “
“I have stood here before inside the pouring rain. With the world turning circles running around my brain” so the first part of the chorus goes. At this point, the bartender/owner/manager/booking agent took on a new role. He stood in the audience, center stage, before my band and started waving his arms like a NFL ref to signal that the punt was no good. It was far to the right or far to the left or it had hit one of the goalposts and bounced off. At the end of the day, the kick was no good. Was he signaling for us to stop completely, tone it down? “Pack up your gear and get out of my Upper East Side establishment.” The singer was oblivious to this whole scene because she sings with her eyes closed. The drummer was thrashing away in the back so it was really left to the bass player and myself to interpret what the ref was saying. We looked at each other and instinctively turned down the VOLUME on our instruments. We were like the drivers on two ends of a long train. If we pulled back a little bit, the rest of the band would follow. Everyone except the singer who continued singing at the top of her lungs.
Soon enough the second chorus ended and we were back to a quieter point in the song where everyone in the band looked at each other to see if we would collectively remember our parts on the bridge. The ref returned to his position on the sidelines and I breathed a sigh of relief. Our bassist, while playing, let an open note ring out on his axe and wiped his brow with a towel. “King of Pain” would soon be over and I think that everyone in the band got the message, singer included, that the rest of this evening would be a more subdued affair. VOLUME was a great thing to flirt with, but “Today” would have to wait until tomorrow.

Red Strat in Blue