It’s 1980 and we’ve just played our first number. I’m on stage at the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town. While the crowd is applauding I look down at the set list taped to the floor by my drum kit. Someone shouts out, “Make one up!”.
He’s in the front row with his black hair spiked up and his eyes are shining with the fire of someone who knows he’s plugged into the revolution. Together we’re going to change the world. Starting tonight!
Scritti Politti, in the early days, used to make up half of our set on stage. We’d do a song people knew then we’d make one up. We didn’t call it ‘improvising’. That’s what jazz musicians did, playing with a song or a theme that already existed. This ‘making one up’ was something no band had ever done before as far as we could see. We would take it in turns to begin and the other two would just have to fall in. So Green might start with a scratchy guitar riff and, once I’d got the shape of it, I’d bring in a beat to fit. Niall would join in too, maybe with a loping Jamaican bass line and we might suddenly pivot the song into a scratch reggae anthem.
We rotated. When it was my turn to begin I would look through the dazzle of stage lights at my gleaming kit and just start hitting things till a pattern emerged. Then I’d repeat it, not so much by sound but by watching my arms and legs dance while the others brought some melody in. That would lock it down, give it some sense, it was quite scary until that moment. Exposed live onstage!
Whatever style the song took we had this uncanny ability to listen to each other and, when about three minutes was up, we’d stop. Just like that, together. We would look at each other and laugh. If Twitter had existed there would have been a veritable Twitter storm about it. At the bar later fans collared us, amazed, saying, “You never made that song up, it was too perfect, you must have rehearsed it!”.
As it is, as I don’t think any of those gigs were recorded, it’s a memory for that guy in the front row and a few thousand people who came to see us.
The groove can be found at the crossroads of discipline and surrender. Yes, we practiced our instruments but that was a small part of it. More important to those performances was the trust between us, built through defining and refining our shared values. Then living them, walking the talk.
What were we being applauded for, musicality? Yes, there was a song there, and often a good song. Green was a real wordsmith and he always managed to find something appropriate to sing over whatever we came up with. But the greater applause, the heart of it, was for our courage. We hadn’t been to Musical Academy, we were an Art School band, quite new to the music scene. But as political activists we wanted to be part of this activist punk movement that brought rock and reggae together. To make a difference. As Green used to say, “to get ourselves in the history books”. I’m on my knees. It’s 10 years later. I’ve lost the groove completely and I can’t even listen to music anymore, let alone play it. I’m having a standard music business breakdown. People call it burnout.
I didn’t think I had a spiritual bone in my body but, at the advice of a friend, I’ve come to an ‘Enlightenment Intensive’ residential retreat in the Dordogne. It’s a ten day programme and this is the fifth morning. Nineteen of us have just finished chanting, naked, in a Native American sweat lodge which we entered at 5am. It’s 6am now and, allegedly purged, we’re off to the Chateau through the trees for a healthy breakfast. The peacefulness of nature is all around us.
It’s still dark and I stumble over an African djembe drum, laying on its side by the camp fire outside the sweat lodge. I’ve never played one of these but I sometimes played the bongos at teenage parties. It can’t be that different. I close my eyes and explore the different sounds of this new drum. Free from the judgements of music biz executives and the demands of the music press to behave a certain way, I sense the long lost the groove flashing like lightning on the horizon. My personal dark night of the soul, which relentlessly demanded silence, begins to rumble like thunder. As the sun rises over the trees my rhythm rings out. I open my eyes and discover, much to my surprise, I’m not alone at all. I’m surrounded by naked dancing people. Everyone skipped breakfast and is letting their hair down big time. The retreat leaders were hoping a drummer would emerge from this group so we could dance for the second half of our time here. And that’s exactly what happens. With this sunrise beat I move from zero to hero.
Two hundred drummers surround me in the Berlin Hilton. I’m not on my knees now, it’s twenty years later and I’m elevated. Wearing a dinner jacket and a headset mic I’m running a corporate teambuilding session. Since my reconnection to the groove in France I’ve been facilitating huge djembe sessions around the globe. Moscow, New York, Paris, Stevenage… you name it I’ve drummed there. In the team building world they call me the Vibe Navigator or the Groove Master. Right now I’m in trouble though. Health and safety. I shouldn’t be standing on this chair with a drum strapped to me right in the middle of these ‘bistro-style’ conference hall tables. EVERYONE is looking at me like I’m mad. Why didn’t I do what I was told, stay on the stage and simply get paid?
Because, d’you know what? We’d get a better team sound, a more fulfilling groove, if we moved all these tables out of the way. We’d be more connected, more tribal. There’s no “i” in team but there is an “i” in tribe and it’s right in the middle. I want this group to FEEL that, not read it on a PowerPoint slide.
All morning I’ve had well-groomed Hilton staff telling me it’s not logistically possible, I’ve listened patiently to onsite event organisers with walkie-talkies telling me they’re not insured for such risks, the Audio Visual crew who politely miked up my drum told me to stay on the stage or risk ear-piercing feedback if I ventured into the crowd. And here I am. The rebel. Two hundred execs looking at a man who spent his childhood living up a dirt road and climbing trees for fun. No one’s telling me I can’t stand on a chair!
As security come forward to remove me from the building I call on the CEO, who I had a word with just before I came onstage, and say, “Jack, you said you wanted the same session as Chicago right?” Jack gives me the thumbs up. “Someone give Jack the roving mic please. And Jack, did we have tables there?” Conspiratorially he says, “No, we didn’t Tom”.
The security men freeze, rooted to the spot. The events manager raises her clipboard to cover her face. “And Jack, if the theme of this conference was ACHIEVING THE IMPOSSIBLE, which it is, do you think it would be a good final day metaphor to move these tables, form three concentric circles like Chicago, and play our drums being able to see each other and connect in a new and memorable way?”
“Sounds good to me Tom. Come on, let’s do it people!”.
Within five crazy minutes the whole room is re-arranged with twenty circular tables hoisted onto the now empty stage or scuttled, crab-like, into empty corners. This is unprecedented and the maverick energy is delighting everyone. The grooves we play are now focussed, energised and bonding. We ARE a tribe. Everyone wants to shake my hand in the bar later, including the CEO.
Like those ‘make one up’ days I’m applauded for my courage and empowering this group to achieve the impossible together. It was all about building trust fast, which gave us the permission to cut through the red tape and innovate in the here and now. Looking back, that’s exactly what Scritti Politti were demonstrating that night at `the Electric Ballroom. I wonder what happened to that guy with spikey hair in the front row. “Hey Jack, did you say you started your business in Camden Town in the 80s?”