A couple of Saturdays ago I gate-crashed a wedding. Well, perhaps gate-crashed is too strong a word. Like Miss Pamela, I was With The Band, and I tried to make myself useful, or at least look as if I was being useful, standing at the back with a contemplative look on my face as if gauging the quality of the sound mix, then making a gesture that was intended to convey that the drummer’s vocal mike was too low or the violin was inaudible. Either way I think I succeeded in disguising my true intention, which was to observe Rollercoaster, Surrey’s finest ‘function’ band, at work, and then write about them on my blog.
Time for a disclaimer. As a general rule Just Backdated concerns itself with the music and careers of artists that headline Glastonbury, Wembley or the O2. However, just to ring the changes, I am stepping out of that rarefied zone and into a different – but not necessarily inferior – one, and all because one member of Rollercoaster, the guitarist, happens to be a friend of mine. It’s also an interesting story.
Imagine, if you will, that one of our most popular and successful groups, anyone from The Who to Coldplay via The Smiths, fell by the wayside after their second album, and instead of scaling the heights became just another also-ran, left with a few press cuttings, a few cult fans and fond memories of a time when the future seemed bright and blazing. Nevertheless this group is equipped with the same vocal and instrumental skills of those that did become rich and famous, of those who have headlined Glastonbury, Wembley or the O2. What to do, they ask themselves. They have no interest in becoming plumbers, middle-managers or even working in guitar shops. They are, after all, musicians, and good ones too.
So they grit their teeth, cut their hair, put on suits, change their name and become a function band, one of the best in the business and, when they ply their trade, performing immaculate covers of ‘Twist And Shout’ or ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ or ‘500 Miles’, the wedding guests or corporate clients on the receiving end have the time of their lives, little knowing that the group on stage has another identity and could, if they were so minded, abandon the covers and become a different group entirely, and play original material that to my mind sounds a bit like Nirvana crossed with Radiohead, not that it would go down anywhere near as well as ‘I’m A Believer’ or ‘Pretty Woman’.
That Saturday night, as Rollercoaster, they could be found in the barn adjacent to a 16th Century stately home near Guildford, playing one of the 70 or more weddings and corporate events they do each year. Depending on requirements they can appear as a trio, quartet, quintet, sextet and more besides, and can even provide music during the ceremony, maybe a Bach cantata, as well as rock up a storm after the reception. On Saturday they were a quintet: guitar, bass, drums, violin and girl singer, who happens to be the wife of the bass player, though the fact that everyone sings at one time or another gives them a choral reach any band would envy.
Their repertoire is as broad as it is eclectic. It can veer from fairly conservative country music – ‘Nine To Five’ – to the carnal delights of Kings of Leon – ‘Sex On Fire’ – and takes in fifties rock’n’roll – Chuck, Elvis – and ‘classic’ rock – Beatles, Stones, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ – and ballads, first waltzes being a specialty, at this particular wedding Elton’s ‘Your Song’. Since everyone dances when wine is flowing freely, R&B is another specialty, so Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and Amy’s ‘Valerie’ go down a treat, as does anything with an Irish or Scottish flavour, being as how Rollercoaster’s violinist isn’t the only man in the room wearing a kilt tonight. The other one offers us a swig from a hip flask containing malt whisky that’s older than himself – or so he says – and a lady of advanced years who looks like she’d be more at home in a pew at tomorrow’s Matins seems to know all the words to a Killer’s song. Old folks these days, tut tut.
So what’s the story here? How come musicians as technically accomplished as this lot are grinding out covers on a Saturday night for an upmarket wedding knees-up. How come a band as tight as this isn’t performing their own songs in front of 10,000 fans somewhere? How come, how come, as the guitarist used to sing when he covered that Ronnie Lane song in The Hurricanes, a duo that performed in my local when I first settled in these parts and where we first encountered one another.
The Rollercoaster story begins 30 years ago when two teenage boys, Alistair Cowan and Rob Blackham, met at Bishop Vesey Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield. Both were hooked on rock to the exclusion of everything else, so Alistair took up the bass and Rob the guitar. By the early nineties they had teamed up with Alistair’s guitarist brother Angus and Guildford-born drummer Chris Hughes in an alt-rock group called Redwood that was active for the rest of the decade. Alistair sang lead and, with Rob and Chris on back-up vocals, they released an album called Colourblind in 1997 and a second, Redwood, in 2000 before splitting up amidst the usual mountain of debts that bands without fortunes accumulate. After briefly changing their name to Lazydog, they stopped working together and did their own thing, a bit of production here, a bit of session work there and a solo album from Alistair. Then Alistair and Chris saw the financial wisdom of aligning themselves in a function band and, eventually, Rob – who’d been playing in a CSN&Y tribute band called Goldrush – came on board as well, thus effectively bringing Redwood back together under another name.
“Redwood has always been there and never disappeared,” says Alistair, known to his mates as Al. “The problem is that Rollcoaster gigs come up all the time and they pay the bills.”
Al has a businesslike demeanour that befits his status as the group’s de facto leader, the lead singer and the one who takes care of business. With his neatly trimmed beard and dapper blue suit he reminds me a bit of Gary Lineker. He does the deals – charging clients an average of £2,000 a night, depending on the type of show they want – and he runs a tight ship. Only he seems concerned that my presence might in some way displease tonight’s clients, the wedding party, which it does not, but the lack of food – agreed in their contract but not forthcoming – certainly displeases his wife Holly who sings with the band and hasn’t eaten for hours. She is very hungry and bit peeved.
It is the hiatus between the set-up, a complex two-hour task that involves connecting dozens of cables, amps, speakers and coloured lights, and the show; the time when speeches are made, and the band has nothing much to do. Holly and violinist Jason Dickenson, he in the kilt, disappear to drive to the nearest petrol station to get food. Al, mindful that maintaining cordial relations with the clients is only marginally less important than singing in the right key, is loathe to complain. He seems a bit stressed, upset that his wife is upset.
Rob strums idly on his acoustic guitar. “Every wedding is unique but essentially exactly the same,” he says enigmatically, and Chris the drummer nods. In his pork pie hat, dark suit, white shirt and shades, Rob looks a bit like one of the Blues Brothers, and it’s fitting that on stage he plays a Cropper-like cream Telecaster. Chris, a wiry fellow, doesn’t say much but like Al and Rob he is very techno-savvy and as well as playing the drums, a hybrid kit with electronic cymbals, and singing, he triggers pre-recorded keyboard parts or synth washes into songs. This results in Rollercoaster’s instrumental backdrop sounding virtually indistinguishable from that on the records of the songs they play, only much louder and with a live feel. The vocals and guitar solos vary a bit, of course, but not much. Wedding guests don’t want too many surprises.
“That’s the truth of it,” says Al, agreeing with Rob’s inscrutable logic. “We’re lucky to be able to do this. We know that what we do in Redwood is good because it’s taken us 30 years to get that sound, but it’s Rollercoaster that pays the bills. It’s like any job this. I mean, I didn’t particularly want to come along today but there are some moments in the gig when, well, it’s worthwhile and not just for the money.
“What we have in the normal set is really rocking versions of sixties and seventies tunes. In the history of the band we have played hundreds and hundreds of different songs but it all boils down to certain songs that just work. They’re gonna want ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Once you’ve played the 40 hits there’s really not much room for anything else. We have to do things like ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ which I would happily never ever play again but people really do like it.”
He’s not wrong there. The old Foundations chestnut, a number two hit back in 1968, seemed as popular with most of the twenty-something guests as anything Rollercoaster serve up from the past five years. Maybe it’s because it was on the soundtrack of There’s Something About Mary.
“Sometimes you end up learning something and it’s a waste of time,” continues Al. He thinks for a minute. “What was that song we did?”
Rob: “Lightning Bolt?”
Al: “Yes, Lightning Bolt by Jake Bugg, a massive, massive song. We put a lot of effort into learning that and you think its going to be really good but no, didn’t work.”
This is the reason why they discourage requests, cunningly – and cleverly – segueing several songs together so that guests can’t get a word in edgeways between songs. In the unlikely event that someone does request a song they cannot perform Chris has access to a computer, one of many on stage, from which he can select just about anything to play in the break between sets.
“The thing is,” says Al, “we know what works and sometimes a request doesn’t work.”
“When you book the band you get our expertise in knowing how to do it properly,” says Rob. “The core of the band is the three of us that were in Redwood together and we’ve been doing it for years. We know how each other plays, how we work, and now there are bolt-on options. Ideally we’d do all 70 gigs a year as the seven piece… that’s the aim because we have to progress or it gets stale, and it’s more fun with more of us on stage.”
Holly Cowan might not appreciate being described as a bolt-on option but there can be no question that she’s a huge asset to Rollercoaster, sometimes singing lead, more often back-up, always with sass and style. A session singer and MTV model, she looks great in her short black dress, arms waving away like a Supreme, a match for any girl band member you care to name. Still, she’s careful not to outshine the bride, a terrible faux-pas for any wedding band.
Rob, Holly & Al
Al is keen to stress that Rollercoaster isn’t all he does. “I manage the band as well. I run open mic nights, I work with Holly and I write library music, which is really creative, music used in films and TV. Still the main thing is Rollercoaster but we never intended it to be.
“As an original band we used to sneer a little bit at covers bands but when you look at it realistically, how many people in a band that’s touring actually write the songs? If you don’t write the songs you’re just playing covers anyway. We didn’t write the songs we’re playing tonight but when we do an Elbow song we’re doing the same job as Elbow, and if you think about it, in that respect there actually isn’t much difference between us – just that we’re playing everyone’s songs and not songs by one act, like a tribute band.
“At times it’s work but then you have to remember that some people get up at five in the morning and catch a train into London. It’s not a bad life, well sometimes you don’t get the meals you’re promised…”
He looks around. Holly still hasn’t returned with the food. Al grins sheepishly.
“… but people want a rock’n’roll band, not a band that behaves like rock and rollers. We conduct ourselves properly. The clients like us. We’re, I guess you could say, a high end function band but there are levels that are even higher. We’ve played at Old Trafford, Sandown, even Gleneagles. We know that function bands are not cool so the art of marketing it is to associate it with Redwood. The thing is that one thing allows you to do the other and although sometimes we feel Rollercoaster is a bit of a pain you have to remind yourself that it’s better than catching that train to London every day.”
We are outside behind the barn on a warm, sunny evening and when Holly and Jason arrive back with sandwiches everyone munches away. Then Rob picks up his acoustic again and for no apparent reason plays the chords to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, and Holly, much happier now that her appetite is settled, sings along until she forgets the words. There is a bit of a delay as the speeches take longer than anticipated but the clients want to synchronise the cutting of the cake with the first waltz, so after a sound check that takes slightly longer than usual because they’re using a new, computerised monitor set-up, Rollercoaster take up their positions. The chords of Elton John’s first hit ring out sonorously and the bride and groom take the floor. “It’s a little bit funny,” sings Al, and the coaster is rolling.
“It’s a warm night so they’ll be outside for most of the first set, but they’ll come inside later,” Al had told me earlier. He was only half right. The older guests do head outside, probably to escape from the noise, but the younger ones dance away in between trips to the bar. At one point, though, he is 100% right, and I’m the only one listening. Then everyone comes back in a rush, probably because they recognise a song they all like – I think it was ‘You Really Got Me’ or maybe ‘Summer Of ‘69’ – and when the group takes a break there’s a collective groan because no one wants them to go.
During the half hour break between sets Rollercoaster do get fed, bacon baps as it happens, so everyone’s smiling again and so are the clients and their friends who by now are gagging for the band to return. Before the second set Jason of the kilt demonstrates how to do some Scottish reeling which gets absolutely everyone onto the floor while Al, Rob and Chris vamp away in 4/4 time. Jason acts as a caller – ‘gentleman turn your partners’ – but it doesn’t really work because the floor is far too crowded, so it’s back to rock and pop, this time around a bit more extreme than before.
‘Mak show,’ Bruno Koschmider used to yell at the apprentice Beatles on stage in Hamburg, and Rollercoaster do the same as the night draws on; Al bopping away in the centre with his Fender Precision, looking as though he’s finally beginning to enjoy himself; Rob stretching out here and there on his Tele, a touch of the guitar hero that inspires some air guitar histrionics from at last one wedding guest; Chris snapping his kit in perfect time, unfussy like Charlie in the Stones, and taking a measured vocal as required; Jason fiddling away in his kilt, his tall stature adding a touch of the absurd as he swoops down from time to time; and Holly, smiling like a sunbeam, dancing on the spot, heels tight together, cool as hell, like all the best girls on big stages everywhere.
About halfway through their second session, perhaps sensing that romance was in the air, Rollercoaster take the tempo down slightly and play a simply gorgeous arrangement of ‘My Girl’. Listening closely to a song I’ve always loved, I would defy any group, and that probably includes whoever nowadays comprises The Temptations, to perform as harmonically satisfying an interpretation of this spectacularly beautiful song as Rollercoaster do tonight. The subtlety of their four-part harmony was probably lost on the wedding guests, but for me it was the highlight of the evening. Chris, the drummer, sang a high lead, joined on the chorus by Al and Holly, all three interweaving with Rob who added a bass harmonic – ‘talking ‘bout’ – before playing that tidy little octave riff, and to cap it all Jason added a touch of the orchestral strings that grace the Tempts’ 1965 original.
And then it was back to The Killers and, finally, ‘500 Miles’, the perfect closer, which accelerated wildly until it reached a break-neck climax. This inspired the wedding guests to form a circle, dashing around the bride and groom, quite dangerously so, all of them singing along at the tops of their voices. Watching from the back I couldn’t help but think that these deliriously happy men and women in their wedding suits and designer dresses don’t look like the kind of people who go to many rock gigs, so the fact that it’s Rollercoaster and not The Proclaimers who are ‘coming home to you’ doesn’t matter one iota to them. It sounds like The Proclaimers so it might just as well be – and that’s the whole point of it. It’s a gig they’ll all remember for a long time; the bride and groom for the rest of their lives.
Rob & Al
You can visit Rollercoaster's website here: http://www.rollercoasterband.co.uk/
You can visit Rollercoaster's website here: http://www.rollercoasterband.co.uk/