Golden Ears is primarily about ‘Dad Manager’ Neil Sparks, a 49 year old travel agent who looks to live out his own faded dreams of becoming a pop star by managing his unemployable son Dorian’s band ‘The Sickness.’ It is also features a ‘Toilet Venue’ (a sadly endangered species these days) called The Black Pig run by an elderly Irish couple called Fergal and Joyce, and a collection of music industry types that lurk in the shadows – live agents, radio pluggers, A&R execs, lawyers all looking for the Next Big Thing. It’s also got a dog in it called Memphis because (1) that’s a great name for a dog and (2) dogs are funny. As are band names. Like Bum Gravy.
Initially, I had wanted Golden Ears to be a clever satire on the music industry, shining a light on the hopes and fears that get stoked up when people might get what they think they want, and how this can bring out the good and mainly bad in people. The plan was to delve into the nature of art, fame and success and unravel the human condition in a funny, compelling and believable way – (cue Star Trek music) to boldly work out who we are as human beings and why we are here. The nature of existence and the meaning of life. Those old chestnuts. But as I embarked on it, I realised that actually, it was more about how some food is funny. Like sausage rolls. Or ‘Sausage Rock ‘n’ Rolls’.
Golden Ears began life about 5 years ago after a stressful meeting with the landlord of a music venue in Kentish Town. I was an eager new music promoter keen to restore the venue to its former glory. The place was on its knees, but it had massive potential and the best sound system in London. The landlord saw himself in me, as he was back in the late 1970s when he had set up one of the first live music venues in London and witnessed the rise and fall of Punks, New Romantics, C86, Mad-chester, Grunge, Brit-pop and Indie. But he had spent the intervening 30 years pulling pints and wanted out. He no longer had the energy or desire to run a music venue. His dreams were for his cattle farm back in Ireland, or for going on a cruise. Peace and quiet. Not the thud, thud, thud of a bass drum coming through the floor of an early evening while he was trying to watch ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ upstairs on TV. We had looked into each other’s eyes, spaghetti western style, and saw that we wanted different things.
“If we could just give the place a clean?” I asked.
“And some of the locals are a bit weird..”
And so on…
Anyway, it was after this meeting, I decided I wanted to try and write something about the grassroots of the music industry. The music industry, in general, is a very serious business, full of conflict and dashed hopes and dreams, and it seemed quite fertile (futile?) ground for a comedy, or a tragedy. A ready-made world full of colourful characters. None more comedic or tragic than the Dad Manager. Or ‘Damager’ as he is sometimes known. After all, I was a dad myself, and I managed bands. Plus I’d been in a band. It was something I knew all about. Before long I found myself doing voices into my iPhone whenever the mood took me and slowly it became a secret addiction. Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, I would pull out the phone go to voice memo and start recording. After a few drinks, cycling to work, in the toilet. Or after a tricky meeting with a live agent or furious tour manager. I even got arrested doing it while driving. Hours and hours of it and slowly the voices in my head became voices on my phone.
Then came the tricky process of piecing it all together into a thing – a situation where these characters could all live and breathe and interact and fight. Years passed with me getting nowhere but slowly the jigsaw took shape and it was time to get in the studio. By chance, an old friend Nainesh and guitarist in a band called Flotation Toy Warning contacted me about his new studio in Forest Hill, fantastically named Snorkel Studios. He wanted to know if there were any bands that needed studio time. Little did he know what he was letting himself in for. We met and after 3 pints at the French house in Soho, I booked a day at Snorkel Studios to record episode 1. The fact the studio was in Forest Hill a few streets from where I grew up made it all feel a bit special like I was going back to my roots. In truth, travelling in secret down to the studio on that first morning felt a bit confusing and adulterous. I couldn’t quite work out why I was doing it. I was too old and what was I going to do with more recordings anyway? By the return journey, 10 hours later, I was on cloud nine. Another studio session followed, and then another. And well, one thing led to another.
I’m still not exactly sure why I have done this. Obviously sneaking down to a recording studio to do silly voices into a microphone in my mid-forties is clearly some kind of mid-life crisis. It also doubles up as therapy and fulfils some needy desire to express myself. Plus I can’t deny a smidgeon of a quest for immortality too. But whatever the reason it has been A LOT of fun, and Snorkel Studio became a refuge where I could get it all out of my system. The guitar riff is from the song ‘For the Dead’ by Gene. I love the slightly melancholic lilting melody and it seemed to fit. Meanwhile the music of Cherry Ghost accompanied me, almost religiously via Spotify, on the overland train from Highbury Corner to Forest Hill while I scribbled final notes before donning the headphones a la ‘Toast Of London’ for a hard days graft ‘doing voices’ with Nainesh at the helm, a bit like Clem Fandango.
Andy Macleod has worked in the conference league of the music industry for about 20 years managing bands, releasing records and putting on gigs. In 2001 he set up club fandango with partner-in-crime Simon Williams of fierce panda records and they had fun putting on early and pivotal gigs with the likes of Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Keane, Death Cab for Cutie and many many more. It is still in rude health and you can visit club fandango here. Before that, Andy was in a band called The Pointy Birds. They had a manager who was going to make them rich and famous. He worked as the Ents manager of ULU. His name was Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately, The Pointy Birds didn’t quite have what it took to make it and split. Andy strongly denies that he has developed an unhealthy obsession with Ricky’s subsequent stellar career in comedy, and rumours that Andy hangs around outside Ricky’s mansion in Hampstead hoping to bump into him so that he will commission Golden Ears for a Netflix TV series (or at least tweet about this podcast), remain largely unsubstantiated.
Recently widowed Neil has a dead-end office job in a travel agency and lives alone with his 26 year old unemployable son Dorian who spends all his days working on the debut album which he thinks will make him famous. Realising that his son’s band has reignited memories of his own forgotten dreams of becoming a successful musician – Neil comes up with a deal: Dorian can use his mother’s savings to try and make it over the next six months after which he has to get a proper job. There is only one other condition: Neil has to be the manager, and what he says goes…
Dorian is facing his own crisis beyond the recent death of his mother – turning 27, the age at which most of his musical heroes have already self-destructed. With time running against him, Dorian is determined to tilt against any pressure to get a job beyond becoming a pop star, especially as he has just perfected the art of interviewing himself in the toilet. A lazy, sarcastic man-teenager, Dorian has a binary worldview with plenty of self-belief but not quite enough hair-gel or talent to match. Hates to be referred to by his real name Ian.
The Gold Brothers Gary and Timmy are unrestrained by any actual affection for music beyond its profit margins, the brothers’ casual interest in Dorian and Neil indulge the falsest of hopes, even if ultimately, they are themselves out of time. Table manners leave a lot to be desired. Meet Gary…
Nervous, bespectacled Simon hides a creative soul that can only be expressed through his keyboard. As an old schoolfriend, Simon remains subservient to Dorian’s dreams of fame although a gradual realisation by all concerned that his talent is crucial to any chance of the band succeeding helps to nurture a hitherto unseen ego. Until then, naiive and prone to car-sickness.
Roy Harddick -Drummer, Shed & Van Owner, 42
Roy finds himself in a band with the others half his age for a number of reasons: he owns a shed where they can practise, he has a van, a printer for flyers and most importantly a complete lack of friends his own age. Appalling musical taste, clothes, hair and political views.
Fergal & Joyce – Landlord & Landlady, The Black Pig, late 60’s
64 year old Fergal and his wife Joyce have spent over 30 years pulling pints at The Black Pig but business is not good. The reliance on Terrible Bands to bring an audience each night and the Thud Thud Thud of the bass drum at sound-checks has led to a growing realisation he has created his own prison and is stuck ‘Behind Bars.’ This is made worse by the repeated slurs that his pub smells like the Gorillas Cage at London Zoo.
His only hope is that his music promoter (and son in law) Donald, who he would love to sack if he was not married to his daughter (and resident sound engineer) Stephanie, will turn things round and get the bar busy again. Then they can swap the Black Pig for a Black Pig Farm in their native Ireland. And maybe go on a cruise. But this requires Fergal to spend some money on refurbishment (and an industrial clean) and hand over control to Donald. Neither things he is willing to do.
Donald ‘Sandy’ Sanderson – Promoter, The Black Pig
Donald could put The Black Pig back on the map if it wasn’t for Fergal vetoing all his ideas. That is until he finds an ally in Fergal’s wife Joyce who not only shares Donald’s passion for rude named bands playing art punk but supports a food-based solution to turn the venue around. Donald also runs a DIY label called Punt to release 7″ vinyl by bands he loves but spends an unhealthy amount of time firefighting Fergals tantrums, band cancellations or requests to give Oliver Bottomly’s Serbian Builder a gig. Voice tends to go up an octave when stressed or in the presence of Fergal.
Oliver Bottomly – Entertainment Lawyer, 39
Zac, Zebedee, Danton, Steve Stallion – Various execs, Pony Records
Sally Sparks – Neil’s deceased wife
Dirty Debs Gold, Manic Monday PR, 33
Julie Lovecock – Bass player, The Sickness, 19
Teddy – Local, The Black Pig, age unknown
Memphis, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, 4