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Fanzines and Webpages: When you become naked – performing Revolution #9 acapella

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For a couple of years in the 1990s The Durham Ox in Leicester was one of those legendary pubs where musicians gathered, bands were formed and plans were hatched. The landlord, Dave Dixey, ran his own record label, played great music all day, put gigs on in the tiny window booth on Sundays, and most importantly had regular lock-ins – all of which were big draws for the local indie bands.

During one of these lock-ins Dave and I decided to put on a monthly gig night to showcase some of the acts from his label alongside bands from out of town. We agreed that we didn't want it to be “just another gig“ and, after a lot of discussion and a lot of draught Bass, we realised that what we needed was a house band. This would be different from the usual house band though, this would be a vocal choir made up of the people who actually drank in the pub, both indie types and regular drinkers, and it would draw it's repertoire entirely from the pop hits of the avant garde. We would start, of course, with The Beatles’ "Revolution #9."

Normally this would have been just another Pub Idea, the sort that sounds brilliant at closing time but would have disappeared by morning. However, Dave worked in the pub, and I was drinking in it almost every day, and so this particular Pub Idea survived, only growing stronger when other people laughed at it. Everyone assumed that we’d just be standing around making silly noises while someone said "Number 9" occasionally, but I intended it to be much more than that. I loved “Revolution #9” and was convinced that there was an underlying structure to the piece which we could recreate. Over the next couple of weeks I listened to the track over and over again, and quickly realised that I was right. It might have been improvised during recording but it was clear that there was deliberate composition at work, born from both John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s natural sense of structure and creation. This was not just a load of noise, this was a carefully curated work of art, and we were going to do justice to it.

Of course, it's also possible that listening to "Revolution #9" for two weeks solid sent me a bit doolally. Either way, I identified the structure and began work on arranging it for our new six-piece vocal group, who we called The Durham Ox Singers. I wrote it as a script with overlapping sounds and phrases, beginning with me and pub regular Ann discussing a lack of claret. As it went on my schoolfriend Paul joined in singing "ding ding ding", Dave went "La la la", barman Gary shouted "Wahey", and my old bandmate Neil screamed "Aaaah!" Our contributions changed along with the record, with highlights including all going "RIGHT!" at the same time out of the middle of carefully developed chaos, the quiet moment before "we are standing still", the "Number 9" refrain being shared around between us and, of course, the big climax of all six of us chanting "Block That Kick!"

We had our first rehearsal in a room above the pub and I was delighted to find that it sounded bloody amazing, and also relieved that everybody else shared my enthusiasm. It sounded like a genuine piece of music, or maybe theatre, or maybe both, and the more we practiced it the more confident we became, and the better it sounded.

It sounded pretty incredible by the time we actually performed it at the first instalment of the regular gig night – now with the rather excellent title “LollopaLeicester” - at the start of December 1998. The stunned faces of the unsuspecting punters during our set told us we'd come up with something special, and the rest of the group were so enthusiastic that they started preparing their own arrangements of other songs for future gigs. Over the next six months we performed covers of songs by The Doors ("Horse Latitudes"), Pink Floyd ("Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast") and The Beatles again ("What's The New Mary Jane") amongst others. The best show of all was when we supported Alternative TV and performed their song "The Radio Story" in front of a clearly moved Mark Perry, who had written the song two decades earlier. I wouldn't want to say precisely how he was moved, but he definitely was.

High on our success we went into the studio and recorded "Revolution #9" as a single - you can find it on Spotify if you fancy it - and later in the year an album called "Mute Nostril Agony". This had our full live set, including both Beatles covers, plus a conscientiously accurate version of "4'33" by John Cage. It's on Spotify as well if you want to hear four and a half minutes of not quite silence in three movements, performed by some half-drunk people trying not to giggle.

Our final gig was only ten months after our first, at the "Off The Tracks" festival at Castle Donnington. We performed to an utterly astonished folk audience who were aghast to find that this was definitely not the kind of acapella singing they were used to, and we were unceremoniously booted off stage before our final song. Unabashed we headed out into the courtyard to perform for nobody, enjoying our carefully choreographed whoops and screams while worried folkies gave us a wide berth. It was a perfect way to bring it all to a close.

Listening back to it now, that "Revolution #9" single is one of the things I'm most proud of creating. It’s exciting, it’s unlike anything else, and you can hear how much fun it was to make – just like the original.

Originally published in The Teatles Book #7 in February 2021.
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