In 1977, my young adolescent mind was shaken quite vigorously by the spectacle erupting on a weekly basis from Thames TV of the fringe theatre-esque series Rock Follies. Aside from introducing the nation to the singing of Julie Covington, Rock Follies provided the occasional glimpse of Breast Nudity, the appalling sinfulness of which would result in my dad sending me, my sister and often my mum off to bed, leaving him to contemplate this new decline in British moral fabric all on his own. The series sought to tell its tale of the ups and downs of camp-rock 70’s showbiz on sets so cheap and flimsy that the design department at Crossroads were left slack-jawed in disbelief. As well as Ms. Covington’s voice and the various bosoms, as a nation we were introduced to the concept of the Achingly Trendy Party. As a family in our living room in leafy Purley, we too were introduced, but on a more intermittent basis on the whim of the censor.
All this left a bit of a lasting impression. Funnily enough, the thing which lasted most deeply in the brain was the Achingly Trendy Party, perhaps because every so often, I get a call to attend one in order to operate a musical instrument for financial gain. I’d say that the hallmarks of an Achingly Trendy Party, as with most things Achingly Trendy are that mild discomfort, inconvenience and tedium are repackaged as incandescent fun and sold on for rather too much money to an inexplicably enthusiastic clientele. After a fairly uneventful week, enlivened mainly by bouts of hay fever related sneezing, I found myself at just such an Achingly Trendy do this last Friday. If I liken the inside of my skull to the Bridge of the USS Enterprise, I’ll own up that the Achingly Trendy Party warning light by Mr. Spock’s console had been flashing for most of last week. One of the reasons was that I’d been told that I’d need to wear an all white suit, requiring the dusting off of the school cricket whites and a purchase of a pair of white espadrilles at Poundland, another was the fact that I couldn’t be told the timings or the venue, and the third was the use of that most dreaded term- “Jazz Flash Mob”. Back on the bridge, Sulu had fixed up the forward shields, and Scotty had set the engines to half impulse, so we were proceeding with caution.
Wisely, the client came up with an address and a start time just as I was having my mid-morning Horlicks and anchovies on toast at the Gables on Friday morning. The exclusive and secret venue, after a quick blimp at Google Earth turned out to be an old wharf just east of the Docklands. This now stank of aching trendiness, and I wasn’t disappointed when I parked the Volvo at the appointed place, which for all the world looked like a kidnap scene from Minder with boarded up warehouses and high Victorian brick walls. Feeling a bit vulnerable stepping out into a dark cobbled street, dressed as I was as an utter twit in my motley collection of white togs, a genial but clearly trained-to-kill security chap asked me if I was going to the White Party. Given the togs and the saxophone I’d have thought that that would have been a bit of a given, but you can never tell. Perhaps there was an utter twits party in the next warehouse along.
Following the directions to the end of the wharf and turning right by the big yellow crane – it hove into view – right out in the open air, which by that time was veering towards the arctic, was the Achingly Trendy Party I’d anticipated. I’d say there were around four hundred beautiful bright young things there all dressed entirely in white, and all sat at long bench tables eating packed lunches, albeit in white cardboard packaging. The weather in London this week has revealed a decidedly autumnal snap, and even during the early stages of the evening, a chilly wind was introducing an unexpected flavour of Fun In The Urals to the proceedings. In order to stave off the cold, the beautiful young Eloi were putting away a healthy amount of Champagne – perhaps if drunk in sufficient quantity it has the warming effect of a nice cup of Ty-Phoo. It was proper Achingly Trendy, and as such was in a venue (In this case a few hundred square feet of concrete next to the Thames) which was never designed for revelry, and consequently there was no provision at all for the purveyors of said revelry to go and lurk before our part in The Most Amazing Night Ever was due to be played. There was a bandstand though, and I noticed that just behind it was a white plastic garden chair, partially shielded from the elements by a section of the P.A. rig. It was a way off from the nice comfy room with big sofas and a kettle in which I had had in my mind’s eye whilst being stuck in the gridlocked traffic like Shackleton’s ship in the pack ice on the way, but I reckoned that sitting down in the Antarctic fun would probably be more enjoyable than standing up in it. That will be my bandroom, I thought and so I made a beeline for it.
In my personal pre-performance relaxation and reflection facility, or chair, I was a sat next to the chap doing the sound, who informed me that we’d go on to do our spot after the Pole Dancer. Now, there’s a sign of the times. Like Urban Graffiti, Pole Dancing’s standing in the social order has changed markedly over the last fifteen years or so. As it seems that they are here to stay, both have been re-packaged as art and, like the Achingly Trendy Party itself, sold on at a healthy profit. Shortly, a very thin woman in white underwear and two chaps in combat fatigues were erecting a portable pole dancing rig on the ground just in front of the stage. Consisting of a round base made from interlocking segments and, well, a pole, it had the look of camping equipment to it. Within seconds, the woman, her knickers and her bra were up the pole and put on a display of revolving, descending, and revolving with descending. The demographic of the audience was interesting- mainly female. Maybe the chaps in the audience were wisely staying away from the revolving and descending knickers and bra for fear of a subsequent evening of “You Were Looking At That Girl” tension from their loved ones, but I got the impression that the ladies watching were really rather keen on the whole thing. Noisily egging her on, they were. As soon as she had completed the contracted amounts of revolutions and descents, the a gaggle of hooting and squealing women made a bee line for the pole and soon were posing on it themselves, whilst iPhone images taken by their colleagues were being eagerly uploaded to Twitbook. It seems that nice girls these days want to be burlesque artists. Perhaps it is our post-Twitbook culture in which everyone feels laid bare to everyone else, and that from this a sort of league table of who’s best can be drawn up. The near-naked activity of clinging to a pole whilst revolving and descending combines elements of sport and exhibitionism in equal measure, and thus forms as good a framework as any for the necessary self-grading forced upon the easily led by social media. I shall buy a copy of Marie-Claire, and after a period of study, get back to you on this one.
During all the hooting and Twitbooking, I had a chance to speak with the dancing lady, who turned out to be a nice posh girl called Jacqui. My suspicions about pole dancing having shifted as an art form from the seedy to the mainstream were confirmed by her disarming attitude to the work she did. I initiated the chat with a remark about the cold to which she replied “Oh, this one’s not so bad, I got to keep my bra on”. Given that the bra in question looked as if it had been made from a small segment of knee bandage, I personally wasn’t convinced as to its thermal properties, but she seemed quite happy with it all. The big thing though was when I asked her who made her portable pole and stage for her, which had by now been dismantled by the two roadies and packed into a very reasonably sized small canvas bag. Expecting something along the lines of “My Uncle Ron has got a mate who’s a panel beater” etc etc, I was flabbergasted when she explained to me that these things are easily available on line, and that there pole dancing accessories all over the net. She was right. Upon my return to The Gables, I got online and in about thirty seconds had found exactly her piece of kit. Here it is-
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Platinum Stage, available for £516 from MyDancingPole.co.uk. Apparently it can support a dancer of up to 114 kg, which is quite a few kg bulkier than your jaded scribe here. The site boasts a number of other pole dancing essentials, such as special hi-grip stilettos and pole oil. It’s gone so mainstream that it won’t be long now before Pole Dancing’s practiced by the WI, just before the singing of Jerusalem, you mark my words. I tell you something else- if my Dad was prime minister, most of Britain would have been sent to bed by now.
Back to the gig. A cock-up in the booking process had occurred. We were booked to play quiet jazz standards, with a line up of sax, double bass, guitar and lady singer. As the hooting throngs of pole dancing wannabes dissipated, the Chap In Charge came bounding up to us and said that we really needed to Rock The Joint, Fill The Floor From The Word Go, and Really Hit Them Hard. We had no drums. Apparently, the venue (or area of windswept concrete) management won’t allow drum kits on the grounds of noise. They seem to have not minded the sounding of a gramophone record for the lady dancer with a drum track on cranked up louder than any drummer I know can whack a set of tubs, but that’s by the by. No drums for us, no electric bass and no keyboards too, giving us the dance-floor filling hitting power of a small sponge. We were booked to play bossa novas, and now we had to somehow magic full-on party functioneering out of somewhere. As they say in The little World Of Don Camillo, miracles can occur if really need them to. Nervously, we started up with as raunchy a version of “Route 66” as we could muster, and within seconds, the dance floor was packed. Of course! This was an Achingly Trendy do! No-one is allowed to not explode with pleasure however cold it gets, or luckily, in our case, however under-equipped the band is. Great demonstrations of bacchanalian ecstasy exploded before our eyes- people on peoples’ shoulders, people pogoing, and screaming with enthusiasm at the ends of the numbers. It was as if the cast of a film about the workings of St Peter’s office had all turned up to Glastonbury. Pissed. Realising we might get out of this alive we managed to eke out the feasible list of get-out-of-jail-free party wildcards available on the instruments we had to hand. Very long versions of “Valerie” and “I Will Survive” were the result, and before we knew it, our hour was done, and I was back in the heated seat of the Volvo speeding back to the Gables.
One last point- on the way there, I had to call in at the Beeb to be interviewed for a show on Radio 4. The topic of this show is to be the nature, forms and uses of silence, and I was there to illustrate how silence can work in different ways as part of music, and particularly in the big band. Given that this is the week where the same Beeb has axed its own big band and big band show, there’s a bit of an irony there. If the BBC has axed its big band, there is an implication that Big Band music is not seen as culturally relevant in this country. Please send the Beeb an email asking for the band to be re-instated. I don’t mind that pole dancing has become mainstream, but is it too much to ask that the existing mainstream can be left where it is?