“You know when people say they hate someone so much they wish they were dead?” asked Dean.
“Yeah.” replied Jimmy.
“They don’t really mean it. You know when they do?”
“When they pull the trigger.”
Jimmy sat on a bench seat in Franks recounting the conversation. Franks was a burger joint in Brixton, London a crude place popular with the antisocial and unemployed. The staff canteen was frenetic. Workers on their lunch break milked every second; speed snoozing, cramming an hour’s worth into thirty minutes.
“That Dean is weird.” said Jimmy.
“He’s not ya know.” exclaimed Simon. ’Happiness is a Warm Gun’ played through tinny speakers. “Listen, hear that? Fucking cuckoo. Lennon wrote that, you wouldn’t say he’s mad would ya?”
“Not you too. Dean’s nuts. Are you chums now? Is that it?”
“I like the stuff he says. And you know the best part?” Jimmy shook his head.
“He plays drums.”
Jimmy and Pra were in Kael’s band Funkenstein. Without a drummer they were going nowhere fast. Their old drummer left for a rival band, De-Funkt, because unlike Funkenstein, De-Funkt had gigs. Drummers were hard to come by as to play you needed either a deaf neighborhood or cash for a rehearsal space. Simon had volunteered to manage Funkenstein so the task to find a replacement fell upon him.
He eased Dean forward for consideration. “He’s a session drummer.”
Jimmy was taken aback, suitably impressed. “He wouldn’t be interested in us.”
“Ah, I thought he was nuts?”
“Yeah, alright you got me. So what do we do now?”
“Leave it up to me.”
Dean worked at Franks to top up his pay. Session work was light on the ground, not much call for funk drummers in Peckham. It was the 80s, Electro and New Wave Romantics had taken over. Most bands packed 808 drum pads or if you had the money the ubiquitous Linn.
“He’s a purist, hates playing on shit tracks for money,”
“A purist working at Franks, give me a break.”
“I’m serious. He loves JB, Funkadelic, Monk.”
“Monk, shit. Kael will love that,”
Jimmy was the lead singer, a slick dude, easy going. If Elvis was Caribbean he’d look like Jimmy, tall dark and absurdly good looking. Simon was short and stocky, hard as nails, a British bulldog ruggedly fierce but could turn on the charm when need be. Pra, the bassist, was as honest as the day is long. He took no non-sense unless it was from the boys. A Kenyan born Indian, he was a refugee, orphaned and brought up as a foster kid from the age of five.
Simon booked a room at a youth club off Tottenham Lane, an old crumbling prefab marked for demolition. The rehearsal space was tatty, cluttered with archive boxes, twitchy amps and a drum kit. Jimmy and Kael arrived early, keen to get started.
“Can he play? I mean what do you know about him? ” asked Kael.
“Si says he’s good, no worries if he’s shit I’ll swing the ax myself. Heaven knows he’s not here for his personality.”
Dean marched in blinkered, on a mission. He parked himself behind the kit on a low stool, took out his sticks and stunned; grinding a meticulous beat. He stopped for an instant, twirled his sticks, stooped his Ray Bans and beckoned, daring them to join in. Kael smiled wide and dived in adding funky stabs on keys. Jimmy nurtured the scream and whistles from his guitar as he ground the pickups against a battered Vox Amp. He stepped up to the mic improvising words and melody. The room glowed white hot. Pra peeped through the door and jumped in on bass nodding approval. He harmonized slipping falsetto on top then Kael jumped in adding the upper fifth. They looped the groove, reading thoughts, working as one, then broke
after their hour was up. “That was the shit. Man, I don’t know who you are but you’re ours now and if you leave I will fuckin kill ya,” exclaimed Kael.
Jimmy and Pra stepped forward. “Nice playing,” added Jimmy.
“Welcome to the band,” said Pra shaking his hand. He paused. “Sorry, what’s your name?”
“Dean, my name’s Dean.”
They de-camped in the Ivory, a Rockers’ bar, opposite the overhead Train station. Empty carriages clattered by as they gazed out the window hopeful.
“You got any gigs lined up?” asked Kael.
Simon responded, zipping up his flies fresh from the boys’ room. “Don’t worry about that, soon as your demos are done, I’ll slide you in. I got HQ’s and Phasion lined up, but I need a tape.”
A rival band entered, kicking up a fuss.
“Who’s that?” Dean sneered.
“De-Fucked,” scathed Kael, polishing off his pint.
“Ignore him, Dean. They’re De-Funkt, New Wave Electro,” said Simon.
“New what?” said Dean siding with Kael, drumming the table with his fingertips in willful ignorance.
“Exactly, New what?” said Kael. “- another one jumping on the band wagon.”
“Don’t knock it,” asserted Simon, ruffling his copper red mullet. “You can learn a thing or two from them. They’re gigging, making money.”
“They’re a sell out?” said Pra.
“Who are you? Debussy. You’re in a funk band,” said Simon.
Kael squared up to Simon in support of Pra. “They nicked our drummer and the singer’s an arsehole.”
“You got that demo yet, Kael?” mocked Simon effectively closing the argument.
Kane, De-Funkt’s lead singer looked rugged to say the least, a square peg in a round hole, clad in an army tunic and culottes, struggling to pull off the look. Kane’s girlfriend, Anna walked behind, a platinum trophy blond in PVC thigh high boots and lace bodice. Their drummer, Andy was conveniently absent.
Kane approached. “You still hanging with these losers, Pra? Andy misses ya. Remember, if you ever want to join a real band look us up,”
“Fuck you,” said Pra casually flipping the bird. “You’re a fad.”
“You’re extinct. When’s your next gig?” mocked Kane.
“When’s your last?” said Kael. The boys laughed it up, feeling on top.
Kane shot a glance at Simon. “Good luck getting a slot for this lot,” As they rumbled, Jimmy stared at Anna trying not to make it look obvious.
Kane kicked back feeling smug. For all his talk there was a lot of truth behind the bluster. Things were going well for De-Funkt. Funkenstein was formed before them but were streets behind. The boys knew it but talked it up regardless as they believed they held the moral high ground for not selling out.
As Jimmy looked around the table, he sifted through the past. The All Saints, Kael, Simon, Jimmy, and Pra were buddies from school. They went way back; music was the glue that held them together, but their bond ran deeper still. Underrated and cast aside as failures they held belief to the contrary and were determined to prove the world wrong.
Jimmy went outside for some air. He stood by the railings next to a bar table and sparked a cigarette. Anna unexpectedly joined him. Jimmy offered her a smoke. She lit it and blew the smoke skyward.
“Are you entering the contest?” she asked.
She placed a bright yellow flyer on the table. “Battle of The Bands. It’s at the Scala. Last year’s winners got signed to Epic.”
“I don’t know, not really our kind of thing,” dismissed Jimmy preoccupied, plotting his next move. He made a play for it. “Are you going to be there?”
She pulled on her cigarette then stubbed it out on the floor with her boots. “You should enter.” She said smiling indulgently. She checked over her shoulder for Kane and left. “I’ll see you there.”
Anna intrigued, a siren reeling him in mysterious and dreamy. He felt a connection, a feeling he had started something but with Kane on the horizon dismissed it as mere fantasy.
Jimmy pinned his hopes on the bands success and wanted to make a career out of it. He looked over at Kane flying high and felt Simon was right. Being in a great band was no good if no-one knew you exist. He stared at the flyer, picked it up and studied it closely. The words called out to him teasing prospect. He was reluctant to follow Kane but deep down knew it was just the kick they needed.
The next day they returned to work at the burger hut, Franks.
“Turn lay twenty,” shouted Imran the head honcho, a frosty vile piece of work.
Simon stood hunched over the grill, the smell of toasted buns merged with the waft of seared beef. Jimmy stood behind filling the ketchup gun, resenting every minute.
They bunked off when Imran wasn’t around. The choices were limited to the outback, where you could see daylight but had to tolerate the stench of the waste bins. - The freezer room; most staff could bear only ten minutes before they froze. Jimmy went with option three, the loft space. He climbed a set of spiral steps and caught Dean crouched in the dark having a smoke.
Dean exhaled. “What would you do if you found £1000?”
“Not again. You got to stop asking random shit, people will think you’re –“ he paused as Dean held up a tan wallet.“ – crazy.”
Dean pulled out an ID. “Mr. Brooks, this must be his rail card. I found it in the Men’s” He took out a wad of notes. “£1025 exactly, no change; he must have drawn it out specifically.”
Jimmy gaped. “Shit, what you gonna do?”
Simon burst through the door. “Get your arse on the grill. Imran knows you’re skiving; it doesn’t take thirty minutes to change the syrup.” They were both silent, staring at the money. “What’s up?”
Jimmy filled Simon in. “Shit, what you gonna do? If you’re stuck, I know a strip bar in Soho,” suggested Simon. Dean remained button-lipped. “Please say you’re not going to hand it in.”
Dean flashed a picture on the inside. “Must be his kids?”
“So what?” mocked Simon “- my Dad had kids, didn’t stop him getting crazy after a skin full. For all you know he could have planted it to fool ya?”
“Come on Si?” said Jimmy.
“Alright, do it like a pro then. Take the money and drop the rest.”
“You’re all heart,” mocked Jimmy.
“Life is shit mate; this is a gift.” Simon looked at Dean.” What were you doing
in the toilet before you found it? Tell him Dean… I’ll tell ya, on cleaning roster, picking cigarette butts out a urinal. Your folks would be proud?”
“Shut up,” said Jimmy.
“Imran taught you did he? Pick it out with a load of paper towels, right?”
“Least he didn’t make me use my hands.” said Dean.
“Oh yeah, he’s a real hero.”
Dean knew he was going to hand it in as soon as he found it, but he wanted to test them.
“What goes around comes around, Karma my friends.” He smiled, the way he saw it, he was lucky, he would gain good karma.
No matter how many times Simon nagged for a demo tape it failed to emerge. Kael was a perfectionist and the music had to be just right before he would commit. Simon saw it as an excuse for something he was hiding. Without the demo they could not book gigs. Life was hard for Simon and the band was his ticket to easy street. Kael was holding things up. He grew frustrated and rang him to get to the bottom of it.
“You’re lucky.” said Simon.
“What me? An out of work black man living at home with his Mum, you sure?” replied Kael.
“Your Mum’s loaded.”
“I live on hand outs.”
“Wish I could.” He sparked up a Gitanes. ”Why are you stalling on the demo?
“I told you the music ain’t right.”
“Come on man, your jams are better than most singles. What you afraid of?”
“I ain’t afraid of nothing.”
“Then get out there.”
Kael blew a fuse. “I told you I’m working on it. Just leave it will ya. ”
Kael wouldn’t let on but he had failed before. He put his music forward to a record company and was rejected. He was crushed by the experience and swore to get it right next time, but try as they may, nothing was ever good enough.
Simon was getting nowhere so changed tack.
“I’m telling you now, Jimmy and Pra may stick with you but Dean will leave, he wants to gig. Andy left because of it and he will too. We need that demo.”
“Okay I’ll get on it.”
“Nah mate you won’t, I don’t trust you. I need £40 and you’re going to give it to me.”
Simon seized control, hired an 8-track and converted his bedroom into a studio. The plan was to record three tracks in succession.
The boys assembled, locked away in his flat, Simon barked orders.
‘I don’t care what you got planned. No-one leaves till it’s fucking done.’
Huddled in his bedroom, squeezing past equipment and mic stands they worked around the clock in shifts. Simon kept the industrial strength coffee and Prozac coming to keep them awake. No one dare leave. Piles of empty pizza boxes and beer cans stacked up high on the floor. For three days straight they laid tracks, mixed and remixed the tape till it was perfect. Finally they had the goods a BASF chrome cassette. Simon proudly marked it, Funkenstein Demo.
True to his word Simon landed their first gig at HQ’s, a chic club off Mare Street in Hackney. This was the real deal. They were playing to a paying crowd.
The venue was small and intimate, the crowd a mix of soul boys and rowdy new age hipsters. The lads were back-stage pacing around the dressing room, smoking and drinking hard. Jimmy went out front and gazed at the stage. He felt fine, then not so good. Anxiety crept up stalking him slow then slammed a bag over his head and stuffed him in the trunk. He felt wretched, knocking on the lid gasping for air. He ducked out and rushed back to the dressing room toilet. A dab of brown bitter fluid inched up to the back of his throat. He sat with his head between his knees trying to get a grip.
Simon pushed the dressing room door open. “You’re on. Let’s do it.”
Jimmy heard the call and slowly rose to his feet. He untied the knot in his stomach and made still his quivering hands.
The adrenalin surged as they stepped on stage and looked down onto the baying crowd. The sheer mass of people shrank them small. Dean kicked off raw, rumbling low on the bass drum then cracked the snare, cueing the rest of the band to dive in. They launched into a blistering instrumental and the crowd lapped it up unreservedly.
Jimmy stepped up to the mic and followed through with their first song Mister Tibbs, a thrusting energetic number with a killer hook. He raised the roof. The crowd was buzzing, sloshing pint glasses, swaying this way that. They rolled from one track to the next, each one building in intensity. Funkenstein were in the zone delivering the goods when suddenly there was a loud spark and pop from Kael’s keyboard.
A power surge wiped out all the pre-patched synth sounds. Nothing sounded as intended. They were knocked off balance. Kael fumbled with the patches searching for a fix without success. They cut it short and retreated back to the dressing room, deflated, ready to give up.
Simon rushed back and burst in fixing concerns. “What are you doing? Get back out there.”
“The Keys are down, It’s sounds shit,” said Kael.
“Fuck the synth it don’t matter. The crowd is going mental. Do you hear that?” The audience was chanting ’more, more, more’ stomping in time with their feet. “Insane. The manager has already invited us back. Now stop fucking about and get out there.”
They backed off the ledge, downed quarts of JD and went back to rapturous applause.
The pressure was on to keep the gigs flowing. Simon sent out tape after tape, shipping in friends and family. He did anything to get bums on seats. If you could guarantee twenty people the gig was yours. Inevitably they’d impress. The reputation built and within a few months, they were snapped up by every venue, bar one, Ronnie’s.
Ronnie’s was a prestigious venue. Only the cream could play there. Simon sent a demo tape but heard nothing back. He took it upon himself to call them direct. The promoter said he would call if a slot became available. It was the classic brush-off, and Simon knew it. He was disappointed but persisted. If the band was going to reach the next level they had to play in Ronnie’s.
Jimmy got Simon onto Anna’s suggestion and persuaded Kael to enter the contest - Battle of The Bands. Kael agreed, not for the prize but to beat De-Funkt, to prove they were better. They pulled up opposite Scala, an Art-deco white brick building on the corner of Pentonville Rd. There was fierce competition; it was no mean feat getting this far. Out of thirty bands only ten remained.
New Romantic, Blitz kids, circled the block forming a disorganized spectacle. The chatter was loud, the dress flamboyant. Lipstick and liner were passed between boys and girls alike. This was fashion at its whimsical best, a transient statement made by a generation more interested in image than form. Funkenstein rejected all attempts by Simon to adopt the look, choosing to remain true to themselves. Jimmy and Pra had frost-tipped spikes, Kael an Afro the size of Pluto and Dean was the white guy in the back on drums.
Simon fought to go on last with little success. Instead, much to Kael’s frustration, they watched as De-Funkt effectively headlined by claiming the last spot. De-Funkt stood lifeless, electro-pop robots plinking keys and tweaking knobs. Kane bumbled around singing flat, mumbling words. It was embarrassingly bad.
Almost immediately, without fuss, the Compere announced the results. Much to their disbelief De-Funkt won. Kael stomped around in disgust, and Jimmy hit the bar, drinking just enough to stop caring.
He roamed aimlessly backstage. Half-conscious he sloped onto the floor. A stage hand kicked his boots and told him to move on. He looked up and caught Anna coming out of a judge’s room pulling down her chiffon skirt.
Jimmy felt more disappointed than angry, not at the fix, but with Anna. Why did she lead him on knowing full well what she had planned? Why mention the contest at all? He had been led on before; set up to no end. But this time it was different. Something didn’t sit right and Jimmy was determined to get to the bottom of it. He kept it to himself till he had more to go on.
The after party was held at The Arches, a chic nightclub in Kings Cross. The place was cold, steely blue with an industrial feel. Mosaic sheets of blue and green LEDs cascaded from the ceiling onto exposed brick walls. Anti-punk androgynous wannabes posed around in skin tight latex posing, trying hard not to smile.
The boys went down for the hell of it. The booze was free for VIP pass holders so they flashed their cards and drank the bar dry.
Simon looked over at Kane and his band laughing it up and felt cheated. He kicked up a stink, shouting into the crowd agitated, trying to incite a riot, but it fell on deaf ears. The crowd liked De-Funkt, they had the right hair so let it slide.
He shot a dismissive glance at Dean. “You see what you get for playing it straight?”
“Maybe it was their time,” said Dean, throwing it back in his face.
“Don’t be soft. It was rigged.”
“No one else is complaining.” Dean turned his back on him.
Simon swiveled his stool back round. The booze took over. “Fuck it, Dean, look around. You think the crowd give a damn. You think Kane’s on the level? You’re so naive.”
“You’re a doom monger.”
“You’re a sucker. Look at you. You think you’re something special. You ain’t nothing.”
“That’s it, I can’t be around this anymore,” Dean got off his stool and left in a huff.
“That’s right. Go on fuck off,” yelled Simon.
Dean had gone. Simon shrugged it off, proclaimed him a diva and sat back supping his pint.
“Well done Si,” said Pra.
Jimmy was on the prowl anxious to track Anna down and soft soap a confession. He spotted her in the VIP bar, a velvet lined suite with pink neon’s and glass block seating. When she was alone, he entered and sat opposite.
He raised his glass. “Congratulations.”
“You should save that for Kane.” she said looking down at her feet.
“He’s not here. Anyway if I say it to you it’s the same thing? You’re his girl.”
She looked up. “What makes you think that?”
Jimmy was baffled. What he didn’t know, was Anna was from Russia. She’d come over on a fake student visa which expired a year ago. Kane helped her out so she could stay. He showed her sympathy and put her up in his home. He treated her kind then gradually pulled her in to a life of dependency. Kane had a sinister motive, a way to pay the rent and promote his band fulltime. He blackmailed her into working for him as an Escort. If she refused he would shop her to immigration and send her packing. It was a fate far worse than the one she suffered at the moment. As far as she was concerned she had no choice.
Jimmy was unaware, innocently intrigued. “So what is he then?”
“A minder.” She hinted at the truth to test his response. She was at bursting point, secretly looking for an ally. She needed someone that could help her, someone she could trust. Jimmy realized he had been given a clue but didn’t understand why.
“I can’t talk now.”
She slipped him a piece of diary paper with her number on it. “Can I have yours?” She told him to speak it out loud as Kane was coming over. They quickly broke it off before he returned with his entourage.
Jimmy was intrigued, not convinced that a girl as scheming would up sticks and switch sides on a whim. She repeated the numbers over and over in her head till committed to memory.
Jimmy went back to the guys playing his cards close, but unbeknown to him, Kael saw him chatting.
“What are you doing with her?” asked Kael.
“Talking, that okay?”
“It’s up to you.”
“I was trying to find out the truth,” he said rubbing his chin warily.
“What did she say?”
He shook his head “Got cut short.” Jimmy was caught in the middle not wanting to let on till he knew for sure. “Anyway does it matter?”
“Yes it does, whose side you on?” asked Kael.
“Just let it go man. What’s the point? It won’t change nothing.”
“Well just so you know Dean’s left the band.”
“Great, that’s all we need.”
Simon cancelled rehearsals and gave everyone a week off to cool down.
Jimmy knew there was something serious going on with Anna, but couldn’t figure out exactly what. She was constantly on his mind, drawing him in unawares. He got a cryptic call from her. They arranged to meet along painters’ wall off Kensington Gardens. Jimmy wore white 501s and a denim jacket; Anna a Lacoste crop top and black leggings.
Rows of Artists sat perched on stools, etching faces on white canvas. They strolled along the wall and stopped to catch one at work.
“I used to have a stand here; I’m an artist,” she said.
Anna led Jimmy into Momo, a Moroccan restaurant serving couscous and tagines of lamb. The interior was dim lit with lanterns, the ceiling low, softly furnished with cushions and silk throws. Anna’s white musk mingled with nag champa incense placed in holders on the table.
They picked at flatbread and chugged half bottle of Merlot making small talk. Anna deliberately ng the gig worried Jimmy might take offence.
She smiled politely. “I invited you here ’cause,” She paused; “This is a bit difficult for me.”
“Go on, just say it.”
“I’m a student from Russia I came over five years ago to study art. My visa has expired.” Jimmy became anxious; things were getting unexpectedly heavy. “I have no reason to stay now unless.”
The waiter came over and poured mint tea into gold rimmed shot glasses and left.
“Unless I get married.”
Jimmy choked, positively asphyxiated. He knew something wasn’t quite right but didn’t see that coming. The mystery resolved itself abruptly. He buried his head in red wine and hot pitta bread.
“Didn’t you know? Why do you think you’re here?” asked Anna.
“I had no idea.” The truth is, he was a typical male, vacant, his brain on idle till forced into gear. “Why won’t Kane marry you?”
“It’s complicated; let’s say he’s not the marrying type.” She kept it a secret, playing the odds. If Jimmy knew the truth, he could do something stupid. Kane had already made it clear what he’d do. She dare not put it to the test.
“I can pay you, not much.” Jimmy looked unimpressed. She compounded the indignity. “You will get…ya know benefits!” He was both surprised and put off, his brain so behind the run of events he did not know where to begin. He excused himself went to the boys’ room and smoked a cigarette. Jimmy tried to piece it together but was left with more questions than answers. It didn’t add up; he couldn’t understand why Kane wouldn’t marry her.
She lied about Kane to protect herself. She claimed to be a student, but only held a fake visa, and she was most certainly never an Artist. Anna was full of deceit but not without purpose. She was forced into a life of prostitution, working for a sex ring in Russia. She was treated like an animal by the mob, a ruthless crime syndicate whose only concern was profit. She lived in a country that afforded little opportunity. People starved, queuing at empty shops for rotten fruit and veg. She managed to escape her captors and with some help smuggle herself to England.
The thought of deportation filled her with dread. Inevitably it would mean a return to a life she despised. Kane tricked her, and now she worked as an escort. That was her lot. She managed to squirrel a little away, something she could use later to buy an exit. Kane kept her on a tight leash, but occasionally gave some latitude when it suited.
Jimmy returned; he sat and watched her lips move but could not comprehend a single word. His mind was thrown, his thoughts muddled. He tried to think straight but all he could see was a beautiful girl who desperately needed his help. He wanted to help her for humanities sake but the cynic cast doubt. He held firm and said he needed time to think. The truth is he needed more time to uncover the truth.