It’s happening to a lot of people these days, but it first happened to me 35 years ago. I was a drummer in the late 70s and early 80s when drum machines first appeared on the scene.
At first no drummers were threatened by these rather clinical boxes because they didn’t sound like real drums and nobody could work out how to use them. I’m photographed with one of the first ones here, the Roland CR78. In fact it’s the very machine that eventuallynicked my job. I say eventually because I hung on for as long as I could by making sure I was the only one in the band who could programme it and that kept me going for about a year.
Then more sophisticated machines were invented, Linn drums, sounding like real drums, but still nobody could programme them. Except for a few of us who got a foot in the door early and weren’t scared by their array of buttons, inputs and outputs. So we kept our jobs for a further year.
Then I thought, “Time’s up. No one wants drummers any more but everyone still wants singers. I’d better write some songs.”
I could hold a tune, had some things to say and I was supremely confident I couldn’t be surpassed image wise. A white man in slick suits with dreadlocks. And they were long dreadlocks, there was no chance anyone was going to catch me there, they took years to grow and picture editors loved me. Sometimes you just KNOW when you’re unique and you have your place in history.
Then, overnight, along comes technology with hair extensions. Aspiring musicians looking for an image woke up with short hair in the morning, got dreaded up in the afternoon and booked their photo shoots that evening.
I was the drummer in Scritti Politti. Let me introduce you to Hayzee Fantayzee and Milli Vanilli. And, of course, Marylin and Boy George.
When technology nicks your job half of your friends will say one thing, half the other.
The people who valued me for my EXPERTISE said, “Why don’t you go and join another band who still want a REAL drummer, or you could just become a session drummer and play with lots of people. You could do session work with drum machines too. You’re name in the business”.
The half who valued me for my VALUES, my imagination and my sense of adventure had very different advice. They weren’t worried about the redundant skills, they were more concerned about how I could stay politically active in the world.
What do I mean by that?
Scritti Politti were pioneers in do-it-yourself music and we helped a lot of new bands get started with the information that we gave them on our record sleeves, in interviews, and by them coming round to our house. There was no email then, they just used to come and knock on the door and talk to us.
Something else we did that I think no other band this done before or since in the pop world, is we used to make up 50% of our songs on stage. This was a very risky thing to do but it became popular with our audience, who would come to gigs and rather than shout out for their favourite song, they would shout out, “Make one up!” It seemed like a political statement at the time.
So this second group of advisers were worried that I didn’t have a platform for social change any more. One particular friend, Simon Emmerson, who now leads the Afro Celt Sound System, understood my predicament well. He knew that I’d done much of the artwork for Scritti Politti, looking after the ‘branding’ without really calling it that at the time. He said, “I think you should just throw a lot of stuff at the wall Tom, and see what sticks”.
It was good advice. As you throw stuff at the wall not only do you find out what sticks but you find out what you HOPE will stick.
For instance, in the year that I did drum machine programming for other groups, I learned a lot about song structure but I also learned that 95% of songs out there I’m just not interested in supporting. The lyrics aren’t interesting enough and I found the personalities of the singers dull in comparison to Green who was a real philosopher. I didn’t want to be in a band, I wanted to be in a BAND.
Here are some other things I threw at the wall.
I lived in New York where I was a furniture designer.
I was a bodyguard for a prostitute who lived in the Chelsea Hotel.
I did some life modelling for various art classes.
I became an ITEC qualified masseuse and Reiki healer.
I designed and project managed the building of a tree house for a millionaire.
I set up a corporate team building company, focussing on The Arts.
I did the first ever corporate drum circle in the Empire State Building.
I ran Peace Flashmobs in Trafalgar Square.
I financed the building houses for poor families in South Africa.
I organised the digging of a well and installation of a water pump at an orphanage in Kenya.
But, as the politicians say, let me be absolutely clear about this. None of the good deeds in the latter part of this list would have been possible without having a nervous breakdown followed by a year long depression. When I left the music business I had to lose everything, even my love of music. There was time I couldn’t listen to anything at all. Bereft and confused I ended up looking for complete silence at a remote spiritual retreat in France.
There, having seen I was on my knees in complete surrender, the groove came looking for me again. At 6am one morning I stumbled over an African djembe drum outside our Native American sweat lodge. With no one around I closed my eyes and tried to play it. When I opened my eyes I was surrounded by naked dancing people. They’d all come out of the lodge to dance in the light of this new dawn.
I realised at that moment that rhythm has nothing to do with record company A&R people, release dates or deadlines. It’s all about spirit and it it’s all about connection. And freedom. For the second time I became an overnight success!
In conclusion, when technology nicks your job it’s best to get creative in the service of your PURPOSE. The scenery might change but hopefully you’ll find your heart remains the same and your life stays interesting. It might even get MORE interesting, mine did. When I got back to London I bought a hundred drums and now I travel the world doing a corporate version of what we did outside that sweat lodge. I always include the naked options in my proposals but I have yet to find a client to bite. Mainly we drum and sing fully clothed and I’m happy with business casual. For now.
So look, technology can nick my job as many times as it wants. I know I’ll just keep walking the talk. My purpose is to support peace, imagination, and justice. There’s always plenty to do in this crazy world.