I feel I should begin this anecdote by explaining what a 'dep' is.
The term is a shortened form of the word 'deputy', and in the music
biz it means a stand-in, a musician who takes the place of a regular
band member - usually when they've fallen ill...or more likely got
a better paid gig on.
Sooner or later every band makes use of a dep, and some players
make a respectable living out of doing nothing more than acting
as a stand-in.
It can be both an exciting and a perilous craft, and it's often
forgotten that the dep quite often has to be rather more accomplished
as a musician than the regular he or she replaces.
I've done a fair amount of dep work myself over the years - and
in some cases it's led to my being asked to replace the regular
player on a full-time basis.
I've had some triumphs, and some disasters too. The triumphs aren't
nearly as funny, in retrospect, as the disasters.
I once got a call late one evening from a bandleader who needed
a someone to take the second alto chair in a big band. I could tell
straightaway that it was an urgent request...given that I could
hear the chink of glasses and the sound of musicians tuning up in
the background. Being in a good mood, and having nothing better
to do that evening - and being somewhat tempted by the offer of
a few quid, I hastened off to the gig.
It's a sad fact of life that some people will use any opportunity
to gain the upper hand, and in this instance there was perhaps a
degree of rivalry going down. At that time I ran my own big band,
and the guy I was depping for was effectively a competitor.
Now, I may have been being a tad over-sensitive but when you book
a dep - particularly at the last minute - you quite often have to
make adjustments to the set in order to maintain the overall quality
of the band. Most half decent players can put a shine on a piece
given a few hours rehearsal time, but even the best players will
find it tough going to sit in with a band on a complex piece without
the benefit of ever having seen it before.
Sounds reasonable enough - and on the whole it's the generally accepted
practice. It allows the dep to do their job, and it allows the public
to hear a band that sounds every bit as good as it usually does.
So I was a bit surprised when, halfway through the set, the bandleader
calls out 'Four Brothers'.
This particular piece is a saxophone feature - and whilst it's a
great number it's by no means one to be taken lightly. With multiple
saxes playing ensemble, and at speed, even the slightest mistake
by any one of them will muddy the entire piece.
It's precisely the sort of piece that you'd leave out of the set
when you had a dep in, or at the very least ask them if they knew
I looked up from the pad, somewhat surprised at the call, and my
gaze was returned by a grin from the bandleader. It seemed clear
to me that he knew what he was doing, and I assumed that he was
waiting for me to call out that I couldn't hack the part.
However, what he didn't know was that I played this exact same arrangement
with a rehearsal band, and the exact same part - and I think I caught
him by surprise when I called out "D'you want us to stand up
for the header?".
I don't think I've ever played the piece quite so well in all my
life, every note seemed individually wrapped in smugness to the
extent that my only regret was that I wasn't wearing a dapper padded
smoking jacket and didn't have a cocktail handy to really set the
And then there are times when the calls you get on stage are just
plain, well, weird.
I got booked to dep with a small function band - standard line-up,
rhythm section, coupla vocalists, and me.
I was a bit miffed not to have been given a set list beforehand
- I like to do a bit of research...I'm quite happy to 'vamp' (i.e.
make up) horn licks, but I much prefer to have the chance to listen
to the original and make the right licks on the gig.
I even use the might and power of modern technology - a laptop and
printer rescued from a skip, along with a music notation program
and a stack of midi files means I can prepare horn charts in advance,
only needing to transpose them at the press of a button at the soundcheck.
Another press of a button and I can print off a setlist ready for
when I get back from the pub.
I did, for a time, think this was perhaps overkill - until I depped
on a gig with a regular trumpet player, who saw me printing out
a setlist and asked me for a set for the trumpet. I said surely
he knew his parts already, and he replied "sort of, mostly
- but if you're gonna be playing all the right notes in all the
right places then I'm gonna look like an arse". I printed him
off a set.
Anyway, back to the function band.
So there I was, on stage, doing my thang. When not actually playing
this largely consists of posing. I have several poses - one with
sax in hand, another with sax in hand and ciggy on the go - and
yet another with sax in hand and beer on the go.
Being something of a showman I like to vary the ensemble - so you
might see me with no sax in hand, but ciggy in one hand and a beer
in the other. I can tell you're impressed.
The key to it all is knowing when you're not going to be doing anything.
So, to lounge around in the middle of, say, 'Midnight Hour' is just
plain madness - you'll be caught with your pants down in no short
But I think just about any horn player would consider a number like
Deep Purple's 'Smoke On The Water' as being the cue for a spot of
general relaxing in the horn section.
And so I relaxed as the band ground (yes, ground) their way through
this seminal, but otherwise turgid, anthem.
It came as a huge surprise then when, following a traditionally
loud and piercing guitar solo, the lead singer announced "Saxophone
What the...??!!?? On 'Smoke On The Water"??? This is about
as unfeasible artistically (and ethically) as whipping out a kazoo
and making large with a chorus from 'Roll Out The Barrel' during
one of Bach's Brandenburgs.
I can't quite recall what I did for my solo - I think I probably
made lots of farty noises. What else can ya do?
I thought perhaps it was an aberration, a simple mistake - but when
the exact same thing happened during a rendition of 'Albatross',
I began to get very nervous indeed.
I spent the rest of the gig on edge - and had to drop at least one
of my poses in case the loony singer shouted out for a sax solo..which
he did...in several inappropriate numbers, including (ugh, pffft,
Generally speaking, once you find a group of deps that are up to
the mark you tend to stick with them - they get to know your set
and how you run things, and it makes for an easier time all round...but
there are times when you just have to make do with whatever you
can get, and this is the position I found myself in one Saturday
afternoon having just taken a call from my drummer who'd informed
me he couldn't make the gig that evening.
Frantic ringing around proved that I'd left it too late to book
any of the regular deps, and so I embarked on the slippery slopes
of following up leads from people who had a friend of a friend who
might know a drummer.
And thus it was that I eventually booked a gentleman who sounded
disconcertingly elderly (we were a 'youth' big band).
Come the evening I was to be found outside the venue unloading
the gear from my car, when the dep arrived.
I'd been right, he was elderly - by anybody's standards. Still,
I figured that with age comes experience, so there shouldn't have
been too much of a problem. What I didn't bank on was his drum kit
- which turned out to be even more elderly than him.
He opened the boot of his estate car and pulled out quite the biggest
bass drum I'd ever seen.
Normally this would be a good sign. A large bass drum should mean
that the drummer likes to give it plenty of welly - but this was
big in rather a different way.
You know those old 1920's hotel foyer bands - with the brylcreemed
singers and the aspidistras? Well, it was that sort of bass drum...about
a yard in diameter, with a dinky little cymbal fixed to the top.
This got me worried. We were a 17 piece big-band. Our repertoire
covered numbers from bands like Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Billy
May, Count Basie, Ted Heath etc... and in the latter half of the
evening we'd switch to a James Last style pop repertoire.
That's why we were popular - we catered for a wide range of tastes,
and just about everybody could find something to dance along to.
But, a band like that needs a versatile drummer to drive it, and
that drummer needs a versatile kit to drive. What came out of that
car, both in terms of artist and kit didn't look at all versatile.
Even the car looked a bit past it!
I offered the guy a pad (the folder with all the scores in), but
he said he'd just wing it...and just to give him a nod for the solos
There were dark mutterings among the ranks, but I assured the
players that it would be alright...after all, he couldn't be THAT
bad...could he? We didn't have time for a run through - it was an
early start, so we'd barely finished setting up when the curtain
was ready to go up.
Most big-bands have a signature tune - and we'd chosen Ted Heath's
arrangement of 'The Lady Is A Tramp'. The first few bars of the
intro were a belter, and the quickstep tempo made it an ideal and
exciting number to kick off on.
Thing is, after those first few bars comes a couple of bars drum
solo before the whole band swings into the melody.
I shouted over to the drummer to let him know what was coming, then
counted the band in.
The curtains parted, and seventeen musicians blasted off.
It was always a great intro, that one - and although the drummer
has only a couple of bars solo, it's the sort of number that they
can really let rip on.
Unfortunately our dep hadn't really got into the swing of it - and
after the huge brassy intro came the most twee drum solo I'd ever
heard. It caught us all by surprise - and I felt a sort of universal
cloud of dread drop over the entire band.
However, let it not be said that I'm ungracious...the guy was at
least spot on tempo-wise.
And so the evening wore on.
It wasn't quite so bad on the slower numbers, like the foxtrot and
the waltz - in fact it lent the band a degree of decorum and refinement
The thing is though, we were all of us peering ahead into the looming
chasm of potential disaster that was...the pops section.
As a big-band we seemed to take a lot of stick from other bands
because we 'deigned' to play this kind of stuff. I didn't really
mind - I'd seen, and played in, plenty of other bands that had loftier
ideals, and quite often the band had outnumbered the audience...on
one occasion by two to one.
We never had that problem - in fact I'm hard put to recall a gig
where we played to less than 200 people, with 350 being the average
Good music is good music, and I can assure you that playing a Stevie
Wonder number is every bit as (if not more) challenging as a Count
Basie number. It's just a different style of playing, that's all.
It's also a LOT more fun playing in a band where the audience dances
and cheers for more...and that's really unusual for a big-band.
And so it was that the end of the first set approached and the
pops section that would close the set drew nigh.
We liked this point in the evening. The waltzes, foxtrots and quicksteps
were fun - but the pops stuff was when the dance floor really filled
up. It was also when the younger members of the audience took to
the floor - and I think I can leave you to figure out the implications
First up on the trio of the pops section was the ever-popular 'Village
Now, you may scoff - but consider the intro to 'YMCA'. Now consider
the intro played by a big-band....four trumpets, four trombones,
five saxes. That little phrase 'baaah da-dah, ba-dup ba-dup ba-dah
daah' sounds awesome - especially with the lead trumpet player playing
up the octave. It's a screamer - and come on, be honest now, it's
a party classic!
Of course, with such a powerful number you need...you guessed it...a
I think it's worth pausing to insert a pertinent analogy here.
Picture yourself sitting in a huge auditorium. The giant stage before
you in the low light oozes dry ice smoke from beneath its lush and
ponderous curtains - and as the lights go down even further and
the sound system cranks into life with the intro to Carmina Burana,
you pretty much expect that whatever's behind those curtains when
they eventually rise is going to be quite spectacular.
Imagine then the curtains rising, the music welling so much that
your ears almost bleed - you watch as the dry ice cloud spews forth
through the ever-increasing gap - you squint your eyes in pain as
the searing spots flash into dazzling bright life, you draw a short
breath in sheer anticipation...the music wells to a crescendo -
and stops abruptly. This is it! This is what you came to see!
And in the dead centre of the stage stands a little man in a cardigan,
holding a banjo, upon which he strikes up with 'When I'm cleaning
And thus our thunderous intro pounded inexorably towards..the drum
It was sort of a relief when it came. I think by that time we all
knew what to expect - I guess we just didn't count on the enormity
of the contrast.
We hit our final unison note of the intro - and as a man the entire
At this point what you should have heard was the sound of a drummer
beating the crap out of his kit - every solo should tell a story,
but a good rock drum solo should kick you in the nadgers and threaten
your mates afterwards. What we got was the sound you might have
got from a vicar dropping the collection plate into a box of teacups.
I can sort of sing it for you - it went something like this.
Bompity bompity bomp, donk-a-bonk-a-diddly-thunk. Bonkitty chink-a-bink,
It gets worse - because this chap had a set of those curious coconut-type
things that those old drummers used to have. I'm not sure what they're
called, but they do rather remind me of the sound you get if you
tap a hollowed out coconut shell. I believe they used them a lot
in Laurel and Hardy shorts - every time Ollie got a bop on the bonce,
there'd be the sound of one of these coconutty things being hit.
Bokka-a-bokka-a-tock, a-tockity-bock-de-bock, a-bomp-a-chack-a-ching,
And as if that wasn't enough, the entire solo was roundly finished
off with an 'almighty' crash on the 6 inch cymbal that sat atop
the big bass drum...which went sort of 'plish' - with not quite
so much 'pli' and precious little 'sh'.
If, dear reader, you are by now creased up with mirth, imagine
how we felt - and then imagine having to follow that!
To simulate the difficulty of blowing a wind instrument whilst trying
desperately not to laugh, try blowing up a party balloon whilst
a (very close) friend tickles you where it tickles most.
The Village People Medley was by no means the rockiest of our pops
numbers - but it was all played to the accompaniment of the huge
bass drum and the bock-bocking of the coconuts.
At the end of the gig my embouchure was shot to buggery. You just
can't grin and play at the same time, and that kind of situation
breeds laughter that's infectious. It's damn hard to stand up for
a solo when, from behind, you can hear the trombone section laughing
If the drummer seemed unaware of the laughter I think it was because
he was patently having the time of his life.
I remember the guy with affection now, simply because after the
gig he came over to thank me for the booking. He'd had such a great
time - it's not many people that get to play in a full blown big-band
- and he really wanted to do it again.
Alas, he never did - at least not with us...but I'd certainly do
it all over again, and this time I'd record it for posterity.