I received a lot of emails after my post on the Queen movie and my reminisces on playing in local bands. Much to my surprise, people wanted more band stories. So here we go, by popular demand, a look back at one of the most dreaded events in any amateur musician’s life – that nerve-racking procedure know as the audition.
It is a well-known fact that the only thing harder than keeping a band together is putting a band together. The two are really intertwined. It seems like as soon as you finally get a good group of people who play well together and maybe even like (or at least not despise) each other, someone has to leave. So the life of a would-be musician can seem like an endless stream of auditions; you are either holding them, or going to them.
I have been to more auditions than I care to count. I was rejected by some, and turned down a few. One thing common to most, is the time wasted over “Do you know this song? No, do you know this one?” It is so annoying, that I eventually made an alphabetical list of the 400 or so songs I had played at various times that I would hand out and say pick from here, or just start something and I’ll follow along.
Mostly though, I would say that 80% of all auditions turn out to be a waste of either your time or theirs. Here are just a few of the more entertaining encounters I have had.
Let’s start with one invitation to audition that I turned down right on the spot. I once met a guitarist in Bill’s Music House in Catonsville, MD while I was shopping for a new (used) bass amp. He was hanging out at the store specifically to find new band members. He certainly had the look down pat – tall, skinny guy with long, frizzy hair and a silk shirt open down to his navel. He introduced himself only as “Flash”, and gave me a handwritten business card with his phone number on one side and his name on the other. FLASH was written in all caps, and I’m not kidding about this, in the place of the letter “A” he had drawn a five-pointed star, like this:
Flash had some very definite ideas about the band. First, he wanted to do a lot of Peter Frampton (the “Frampton Comes Alive” double-album was burning up the charts at the time), and most importantly, he would be the sole lead vocalist and center of the band. “After all”, he explained to me, “most bands don’t make it because there’s no focus on one lead, people never know who is singing or what.”
“Yes” I said as I backed away slowly, “that’s probably what held the Beatles back.”
Then there was the promising ad in the Pennysaver I once answered: “Blues band looking for bass player, some vocal ability a plus”. Since “some” pretty accurately sums up my vocal ability and I had just been playing most recently with a jazz band, it sounded like fun. So I made the arrangements and showed up ready to play.
Introductions all around, and the guitarist says “Let’s just jam on some blues for a while to warm up.”
“Great” says I, “what key?”
Blank stare. “Umm, the blues key … “
Oh boy. I couldn’t resist. “Well of course we’ll do a standard one-four-five progression, but do you want to do 12-bar, 8-bar, 16-bar? Minor scale or pentatonic? Chicago style, Delta, Memphis, British, Jazz, or what?”
More blank looks, bordering on panic. “Well, you know … blues!”
Another audition from hell had a band with a unique sound idea at a time when quadrophonic 8-track tapes were all the rage. I couldn’t help noticing all of the amps were stacked against one wall. “Put your amp over there with the others, that way we have a wall of sound!”
Cool. Monophonic pioneers.
Perhaps my favorite encounter with not-ready-for-prime-time players started off pretty well. We ran through a couple of songs that didn’t sound half bad. Then they suggested we play the Cream classic “White Room”. It of course has a rather distinctive opening, that is repeated before the solo:
The drummer gave four beats on his sticks, and we were off. Way off. Different speeds, lurching around, everyone trying to maintain the beat with eye contact.
I helpfully jumped in. “Wait a minute, stop, stop – the intro is in 5/4”. This was met with looks of total incomprehension. “Look, it’s played 8 measures to a five count, then a three count, then it goes into 4/4.” Again, I might have been talking in Swahili as far as they were concerned.
Undaunted, I demonstrated to them how we could all play it together if we counted to five in each measure instead of trying to squeeze it into a four count.
Their reaction was priceless. You would have thought I had just invented the wheel or something. I modestly downplayed it, and politely played a few more songs before making my escape.
It works the other way too, of course. Several times I have thought I found the perfect band to join, only to be told that it was not the right “fit”, or I don’t have the “look” they are going for, or that I “lack any talent or musical ability”. Weak stuff like that.
So is it any wonder that after 35-40 years of auditions, dive bars, bands forming, breaking up, re-forming, and breaking up again that now whenever someone suggests I look for a band to play with I proudly reply, “No thanks, I’d rather to be in my studio playing with myself!”
Wait, that doesn’t sound quite right …