I've been wanting to get into the inner-workings of the mind behind Big Toe. Alasdair was kind enough to dodge most of my questions.
I was still a young man when I was born, so it wasn't until I reached the advanced age of 6 or 7 that I first started picking out tunes on the family piano by memorising the colour code in a children's music book. It was all downhill from there. I'll spare you the sordid details of my life in cathedral choirs and music schools in Belgium and Scotland, and I'll refrain from the horrors of my brief flirtation with the Alan Parsons Project. I will, however, note a meeting that had a great impact on the future course of my musical career: at the age of 12, I met Madness, then on their first proper UK tour. They played soccer with us, and Suggs generously permitted me to score against him. My life would never be the same.
Nonetheless, my musical taste remained somewhat dodgy until that defining moment in the studios of WSMC radio.... Suddenly tired of listening to Freebird, Dream On, and In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida again, I started pulling records at random from the obscure college music bin. This mind-expanding experience, about which I still have the occasional flashback, led to the ever-widening musical horizons that I experience today.
Hmmm.... yes that was the imaginatively titled "Sex at Your Parent's House" by the immortal Half Japanese on 50 Skidillion Watts records. The album [Music To Strip By] is one of the few pieces of vinyl I still own.
It's hard for me to find the necessary words to do Classical Ugandan Music full justice, so I won't try, but that classic band did indeed encompass my first tentative steps into the world of "gigs" and "live music". Today I prefer to remember it as an experiment in performance art including avant-garde atonal jazz improvisations, but a more accurate recollection would probably admit to a combination of Cure, David Lee Roth and Aerosmith covers. The Cure song included my first ever live solo, while the Aerosmith song reduced me to playing the cowbell part - no wonder that at the end of the latter I tore my sociology notebook to shreds, hit the bassist over the head with the remnants, and then threw my leather boots into the audience. I only ever recovered one of the boots. But I do remember that we inexplicably finished tied for third with Big Max Guerin's Guitar Army in the Battle of the Bands, leaving the only semi-respectable outfit performing [the Boyz] languishing as the only band that failed to win anything.
Yes, I do remember spending some time in Ted Team Studios working on what was to have been my major oeuvre up to that point: "100 Ways to Skin a Unicorn". This title was custom designed to upset all late 80's rainbow and unicorn obsessives. It worked.
Unfortunately, "...Unicorn" (or "Fish", to call it by its rather unrelated working title) proved to be an abortive project. Basic keyboard parts were laid down for a couple of instrumentals that, in retrospect, combined the worst elements of Rick Wakeman and Mike Oldfield. Also, I was making it up as I went along.
For some strange reason, I felt no inclination to record the only 3 songs that I had actually written properly up to that point: "Polynesian Fantasy" (A misguided attempt to write a pretentious pseudo-Dylanesque song about wanting to escape to Polynesia after watching a bag-lady), "Watching People Get Stoned" (Self-explanatory, and equally misguided) and "The Last Love Song" (Not only not at all misguided, but really rather quite good, and still performed from time to time).
Alcohol? Seriously though, Geoff Wright (guitar) one day decided that he wanted to be in a Ska band. This seemed a rather whimsical spur-of-the-moment decision given that Geoff had only been playing the guitar for 6 months (not that this stops a lot of ska bands...). He asked me (keyboards/vocals) and Josh Shaffer (trombone) whether we would like to be in his ska combo. Josh and I both said yes, little thinking that this would ever be a serious proposition. Anyway, nothing much happened for the next week or so, until one day, out of the blue, Keith Richmond (drums) came up to me and said, "I hear you're starting a ska band.... Do you need a drummer?" Who knows where Keith had heard about the as yet nameless and frankly rather nebulous band, but with a drummer suddenly volunteering, we just as suddenly had the viable nucleus of a proper band. At that point, all we really needed was a bassist and a name.....
That's simple. One day, Josh looked down at Geoff's big toe, and said.... "My, what a big toe you have". To which Geoff replied, "what a great name for our band!". The rest was history. Well, sort of, anyway.
To this day I'm not clear on all of the details - Chuck's arrival was something I had nothing to do with. The bassist at our first ever rehearsal (in Caroline lower left's bike storage area) was someone called Kevin. I can't remember anything else about him other than that he wore a red shirt, had a biggish nose, and was short. It was announced to me one day that we had a new bassist - one Chuck Rainville (real name Gerard Rainville). I assumed that it was someone that he was a friend of Josh's, but it turned out years later that Josh had only met Chuck (the bassist in the John Renal band) earlier that same day. It has to be said that in those early days of mayhem, he caught the spirit of the occasion quite well. But with Chuck on Bass, Keith on Drums, Geoff on Guitar, Josh on Trombone, and me on Keyboards, Big Toe was suddenly a reality - albeit a reality without a set list or a set lead singer.
This is actually a misconception. Geoff was a skanking skinhead, while his girlfriend (Cathy Ray Weeks) - now wife (Cathy Weeks Wright) - was similarly familiar with the genre. Meanwhile, I had been a huge fan of, and directly exposed to, the British ska revival of the late 1970's.
On the other hand, it would be fair to say that - other than Keith - no one in the band had any real experience playing ska. But then, no one other than Keith and I had much experience on their chosen instrument, which did affect the sound (I had learnt piano in music school as a pre-teen. Keith was a quite handy musician on several fronts, although even in his case, the drums probably weren't his best instrument at that time).... During the bizarrely shambolic performance of "Louie Louie" that ended Big Toe's first ever performance, we probably could have all switched instruments, and the quality of the performance wouldn't have improved.
That said, one of ska's salient qualities is its simplicity, and an occasional complicated keyboard twiddle aside, there wasn't much call for anything vaguely resembling a virtuoso performance. We would have to wait for John Irvine for that.
Big Toe's first performance was at the very first Lower Charles Hall Open Mic Night. This marvellous forum for St. Mary's talent was initially organised by the rockin' John Renal Band, ostensibly as campus-wide entertainment, but realistically as an excuse for showing off John Renal's "talent" ("We're songwriters! We only perform our own songs!" - "Then why does this song have precisely the same lyrics as Bob Marley's 'War'?"). To be fair, compared to the nascent Big Toe, the JRB was overflowing with talent. I can't remember all of the songs we performed that first time. I know that we started with the Specials' "A Message to You Rudi" and ended with "Louie, Louie". Well, sort of ended with "Louie, Louie". What actually happened is that the Toenails (our loyal and dedicated fans) refused to stop cheering until we played an encore (one can only assume that they were A) tone deaf or B) mad). So I ambled back on stage, started playing the chords to "Louie, Louie", Keith attempted to drum along while Geoff and Chuck floundered intermittently. As an encore, it was an unmitigated disaster, as an omen it was inauspicious, but we were fun to watch, and on that basis we carried on.
Initially Geoff would send me his ska albums, and I would be charged with working out the chord sequence (other than Keith, I was the only person capable of doing so), and then deciding whether or not it was easy enough to perform. Hence "...Rudi", and at some point Bad Manners' "This is Ska" plus one or two others. It was only after I started writing songs for the band that we had a proper set list, however. As far as the singing is concerned, in the early days, about half of our songs were instrumental, so it wasn't much of an issue. After some early experiments with Geoff and Chuck, however, it soon became apparent that Josh and I were the only people who could sing, and that I was the only person who could both sing and play his instrument at the same time. Thus I eventually became Toe's lead singer by default. Still, as far as that first performance was concerned, it was largely a case of muddling through regardless...
Ah yes, on the classic "Ska'd for Life" bootleg from my last performance with the band....
Well, we need to step back for a minute to answer this. As the year wore on, we added John Irvine on trumpet, but lost Josh Shaffer on Trombone. After this, Big Toe performed in a St. Mary's Hall Talent Orgy and - on the strength of the premiere of that instant Toe classic "Kill Yourself" - beat the John Renal Band into second place. It helped that John (Irvine) was quite a talented musician in his own right. John Renal was furious, especially considering that after thrashing us in a battle of the bands the previous year, he thought it was his divine right to rule the SMC band "scene". Well, Renal had a contract to perform at the Fisherman's Inn on Solomons Island, and he decided to give us our comeuppance by inviting us to open for him. Let's just say that your average Fisherman's Inn customer wasn't your typical Big Toe listener. On top of that, it transpired that the owners daughter had recently OD'd, which sent me into a frantic last-minute attempt to rewrite the lyrics to "Kill Yourself" as "Clean Your Room" - the epic tale of the battle between Mother and Son. Keith was sure that we were going to be badly embarrassed, but it turned out that we had the last laugh. We added Cathy Weeks (now Wright) on Keyboards for the first time that night, which allowed me to do my best David Byrne impression, but the factor that really worked in our favour was that 90% (perhaps nostalgia magnifies the percentage) of the audience were there to hear Big Toe! At first the owner didn't want to let anyone underage into the bar, but when he saw the huge queue, he relented. Big Toe performed their set (sans "...Rudi", which in retrospect was a mistake), now composed almost entirely of originals, left the bar, and the audience mostly left with us.
John Renal was suddenly left with the realisation that he had been eclipsed as the top SMC band (to be fair, Big Toe shared that title with our friendly rivals Absolute Value). The Fishermans Inn owner told Renal never to invite us back. He didn't. The audience level plummeted thereafter, and the JRB's contract was revoked after only three performances. Members of Big Toe were also far more influential than John Renal in subsequent Open Mic Nites (remember the Rugburn satire?). Sweet revenge is best served petty.
Very different than it is today? To be honest, it varied from song to song. If I remember correctly, "Kill Yourself" was written immediately after losing to the John Renal Band in a battle of the bands. John was particularly unctuous and condescending afterwards, and I was particularly angry. I ended up remembering my roommate's graphic novel "Return of the Shadow" which featured a punk band singing the lyrics to what essentially became "Kill Yourself", although I did some trimming around the edges to make it fit 4/4 time.
From that point on, it was simply a matter of finding chords. Back then, I would simply thump out a chord sequence, usually in a minor key (I believe that "Kill" is mostly in A minor, with a brief change to D minor in the middle of each verse) I liked to play a ska beat and then start humming a melody over the top. Nothing too complicated at that point! And indeed, perhaps part of "Kill Yourself"'s popularity is its simplicity.
I was asked. John couldn't perform on one open mic night, so members of Big Toe, Absolute Value and the John Renal Band grouped together as "Rugburn", essentially a John Renal satire act. I only performed on one song - "Jump into the Fire". Now "Fire" encapsulated everything that was wrong with John. It was silly. It was pretentious. Live it was daft. But John took it utterly seriously. He would start curled up on stage whispering the lyrics "The temperature is rising/The place is heating up" before he would unfurl the full length of his inelegant frame to the refrain "Jump, jump, jump into the fire". It was ripe for ridicule, and so ridicule it we did, even if I did have to write the lyrics on the back of my hand. I'm sure word of the event made it back to him, and to be frank, I care even less now than I did then.
Well, first of all, I have been advancing my dark plan for World Domination. Soon all of my minions will bow before the indomitable will of Alasdair: Imperator, Princeps, et Rex.
In my spare time, however, I've been working as a professional archaeologist on both sides of the Atlantic, and am currently working on my PhD at the University of York, England. But I still find time for music and songwriting, as evidenced by last year's Tedtastic Ted Team collaboration "Less than Perfect" by the Carparks.
And, it must be said, I still find time to contemplate on the essence and meaning of that thing called Toe.
As I said, I've continued to write songs after I left Big Toe. Most of them are bitter and twisted love songs, which tells you a lot about the state of my personal life. Most of them are also rather power pop. In any case, I wanted to try and record one or two before I returned to Britain, and who better to help than that master of modern musical mayhem, Ted? So the Carparks were me (keyboards and vocals) and Ted (guitar, percussion, programming). To be honest, I think that "Less than Perfect" is a cracking song (apart, perhaps from the weedy intro).
Well, it's hard to say after all of these years. After all, one might just as well wonder about the existence of traditional Yorkshire fish and chip shops in Hong Kong, or perhaps even the meaning of life. Sometimes the great imponderable questions remain out of our reach. And isn't that how it should be? But if you forced me into a corner and demanded an answer, I'd recall the words of Viv Savage, a keyboard player himself, but in his case a keyboard player for one of the greatest bands in history, for Savage tickled the ivories for none other than Spinal Tap. So, in his immortal words, this is what Big Toe meant: "Have. A. Good. Time. All. The. Time".
Then again, he was probably drunk at the time.
10/97 - 11/97