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
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
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 the part.
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
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 scene off.
And then there are times when the calls you get on stage are just plain,
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
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 order.
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 solo!".
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, bleeugh)
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
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 and endings.
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
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
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 in
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
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 crowd.
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 of that.
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 powerful
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 stand a little man in a cardigan,
holding a banjo, upon which he strikes up with 'When I'm cleaning windows'.
And thus our thunderous intro pounded inexorably towards..the drum solo.
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 band
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
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 audibly.
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.