Do You Ever Feel Like A Plastic Bag? — My Life As A Failed International Rock Star (In The Best Band You’ve Never Heard)
Just like those wisened musical soothsayers The Buggles had iterated, video had pretty much killed the radio star by the time I’d got into the music industry in the mid 00s. Growing up, I’d catch John Peel or Steve Lamacq play indie bangers and noisy clangs on the airwaves, but the institution of radio wasn’t something I held close to my heart in the same way the generation before me did.
Even by the early 2000s, I’d abandoned the curation of radio DJs for the more granular tastes of music bloggers who’d offer limited-time mp3 downloads from ripped demo CDs, and it was from their distinct tastes I’d discover new international bands.
While Top of the Pops and the NME had brought me up, online blogs introduced me to music that went to steer the direction of the musical sourcing for my failed international indie punk band We Are The Physics, and this bespoke curation held more value than the set of classic DJs the mainstream radio stations would wheel out. I think this irreverence towards the medium was something that, once again, speared us on our ascent to the top. And by ascent, I mean perpetual plateau. And by top, I mean gutter.
Regardless, hearing your own song on the radio back then was a real rush of endorphins. The first time one of our songs hit the airwaves, on Vic Galloway’s BBC Scotland show, we were driving home from a gig in Paisley, outside of Glasgow. We wound down the windows of the car and blared it to the passing world, who regarded it with the same disdain they would for the unwanted soundtrack of a car horn being slammed down for 3 minutes and 28 seconds.
But in those early internet days, before constant high quality streaming, the real advantage radio had laid in live sessions — bands and artists going to a radio studio and playing a few songs live on air. There was still a weird dangerous element to radio in that it felt much less controlled than TV. Hearing bands like The Mummies, and Urusei Yatsura, and Man or Astroman bang out high intensity, lo-fi Peel Sessions live on air, still remains exciting.
There’s a bit of cerebral storytelling you have to do when you hear a band perform live at a session that transcends hearing a studio recording, or seeing them perform live on TV. Similarly with a bootleg recording of a live show — you have to imagine what they look like, how they stand, what’s going on in that room, how they’re assembled. When you hear a band member just off the mic say something, or scream, you have to imagine the scenario in the studio that’s caused this and the potential chaos surrounding it all. Something that can be pretty lost now that everything is filmed from multiple angles, and streamed to the world as it happens.
And this kind of unpredictable fiction was something we tried to replicate when we first did Marc Riley’s BBC 6 radio show in Manchester in 2007. While we were huge fans of Marc and his show, the gravitas of going on it was lost on us because we’d almost entirely disconnected from the power of radio as a medium. By the time we were invited to appear on Marc’s show for the first time, we’d done a few of these live radio sessions across the country. But this one was so special to us personally — Marc was, and is, an absolute gem of a human who not only loves music but understands music, and empathises with working musicians, having cut his teeth in — my god- The Fall, of all bands!
Finally meeting the voice we’d heard countless times introduce some of the bands we loved doing riotous live sessions was as close as we ever came to being starstruck. But he seemed taken aback by how young we all looked, and continuously probed us on air about who our fathers were, as if suspicious he might be responsible for one of us.
“Were any of your dads in bands?” he asked
To appease him, I gently offered an agreement, that my dad had been a musician, and he launched upon it.
Who?? When?? What?? Would he have records by my dad’s band??
I didn’t want to get into the fact that the closest my dad got to releasing a seminal record was when he’d tried to batter me with his own guitar, and the sound of the clang against my skull potentially invented a new chord, so I just downplayed it. Incidentally, John Peel would’ve probably played that noise on air.
Radio sessions back then were peculiar setups. The band used to be in the same room, or an adjacent room behind a glass window, to the presenter. You’d set up your equipment like a live gig, drums and all, but plug into tiny little mixers so you could have an independent mix of the sound coming through a pair of big old 1980s Band Aid ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ style headphones.
I continually struggled wearing these big cans because the jerkiness of my singing (see: screeching) would have them gradually slip off, and I’d be left with the blaring, undefined cacophony from the amps in the small room not built with live bands in mind. As a result, many of our radio sessions sounded like we were all playing different things, and that was usually because all of our headphones had fallen off in the first couple of notes after we’d tried to recreate a fictional audible narrative by jumping around so that someone sitting at home might hear the leap, and have that same sense of cerebral awe we had listening to those live sessions.
Marc’s sessions were usually split up into playing one song early in the show, then returning an hour or so later to play a couple more and have a chat on air. After the first song, during which I would turn away from the mic, and screech inaudible words so that someone at home might hear it and try to imagine the manic behaviour unfolding in that room, Marc sat back in his chair and said, “Bloody Nora.”
To have blown him away, or at least rendered him speechless, by the shrieking enthusiasm, was a magical moment. He was in The Fall, for Christ’s sake!
At another session for Marc, we’d lined up in his tiny little studio, ready to roll out a song when my brain somehow collapsed. I have always had trouble remembering my own lyrics, partly because I put a lot of lyrics in there, but I blanked. Completely blanked. I’m unsure how other musicians remember lyrics, maybe it becomes muscle memory, maybe they remember the way those words flow around the tune. Me? I literally see the bit of paper I first wrote the lyrics on, but I see it in my mind. And if I do that, you can imagine other singers do too. Next time you see your favourite singer on stage, injecting every fibre of their being into the emotion of the song, you should wonder about that. If they’re not doing the smart thing by cheating with an autocue, they might just be imagining a big bit of paper.
But on this occasion I couldn’t remember the big bit of paper. I knew why. I’d finished the lyrics to this song on the long metal stairway outside an oppressive loft studio in Shettleston. I’d sat outside in April, letting the chubby Glasgow rain pelt off my hood, knowing I had to record the vocals to this song in 10 minutes. And I’d just had to scribble it all down, but it got rained on. In my mind, all I could remember were the words being washed away in front of me. Pen dripping off the page, words cascading into my lap.
We’d played the song countless times live. At this point, we’d come back off a month-long tour, and we’d played this song every single night. But playing songs live is easy. Half of the time, I wouldn’t sing the actual lyrics, just an approximation of them. When your lyrics were delivered as fast and yelped like ours, you could get away with all manner of sins. Among the volume and speed and immediacy of it all, nobody would ever notice.
But this was on the radio, people would hear this. And this was a live session. The sort of live session we’d listened to on John Peel. The sort that eventually became so legendary, they were released independently on CD, or replayed years later. I couldn’t just bluff through it.
Just before we went on air, I thought I’d try to write the lyrics down on a wee pad. But I couldn’t even remember them then, my brain was in the toilet. I sat quietly in the corner, scratching my head, panicking over this blank paper in front of me. I must’ve let out a wee frustrated yelp.
“You alright, pal?” said Marc, behind his desk, headphones hanging off one ear like he was in Band Aid.
“I’m an idiot,” I said, and Marc just nodded as if it was evident, “I can’t remember the lyrics.”
“Is it your song?” he asked.
I gave a wee chuckle, ashamed, and said it was.
“Is it on the album?” he said, never taking his eyes off the computer screen in front of him.
“Yeah,” I said, “I know, I should know it. I just have trouble remembering lyrics.”
Marc’s hands disappeared under the desk, and he then pulled out his own copy of our album, and held it aloft like the Cup of Christ, “They in the booklet?”
“You are a genius,” I yelped. He flung over the booklet, and I opened up the page with the lyrics printed in tiny, tiny lettering. I folded back the page and said, “I’ll get you a new one!”
He just smiled and nodded.
What an absolute gem of a man. What a saviour. He came to my rescue, and I swerved embarrassing myself on nationwide BBC radio.
The first thing that gem of a man did as soon as we went live on air was tell the nation I was having to use the lyric booklet from his own copy of our album.
“Marc, that was between us!” I howled on air, and he just laughed, the bastarding gem of a bastard.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time I was embarrassed on the airwaves. Something that became common in the world of live sessions, perhaps because of the weird popularity of BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, was that bands should be expected to play a cover version during their performance on air.
We’d always kind of weaved away from that demand, similarly with playing acoustic shows in record shops, and tried to avoid playing covers as much as possible, partly because we thought it best to showcase our own material, and partly because we were so insecure about how we sounded that if people could compare our performance to a real song, they’d realise the fact we sounded like shit wasn’t by design.
But one session came with the assumption we’d play a cover, and by the time we realised what we’d agreed to, it was too late. We’d become complacent and bored of ourselves, and bored of this rigmarole, and just had to go along with it.
The session was taking place on 5th November — Bonfire Night in the UK- the commemoration of the failure (or the attempt, depending on who you ask) of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament, or (depending on who you ask) the hanging of a Catholic. We figured we could maybe do some sort of firework-related cover that we could quickly wheel out to fit the theme of the day. ‘Firestarter’ by the Prodigy was an early choice that would’ve been a million times more understandable than what we ended up with.
‘Firework’ by Katy Perry.
Four boys, playing guitars and drums, none of whom with any discernible musical talent, taking on a massive dance-focused pop anthem by an iconic singer who has, let’s face it, an incredible set of pipes.
Of course we can do that. Find yourself a band with the confidence of four white males who haven’t ever played a song before deciding to play it on national radio.
Our drummer, Michael Drum, who never displayed any outward emotion ever, winced when we decided on that track. For him, this minuscule expression of emotion meant he truly was having an internal crisis. We’d recently got home from tour, driving back into Glasgow in the dead of night, to find that the top floor flat of Michael Drum’s tenement building was on fire, and all his stuff was ruined. I looked at Michael that night as the image of his home engulfed in flames came into view, and he didn’t display an iota of an emotion. He simply tilted his head and raised his eyebrows, while the dancing fire reflected off his big pupils. But he physically winced when we said we were going to do ‘Firework’.
“I hate that song,” he said, dryly, “And 5th November is my fucking birthday.”
“Happy birthday,” I said.
When it came to the night, we were able to run through some of the tracks in the studio to get the sound levels right, the headphones dangling off our heads as usual.
“And what about your cover?” asked the studio sound engineer.
“Hmm?” I said into the reverberating mic, hearing my ‘hmm’ repeat like I’d shouted it into a cave.
“The cover version, have you told the team what it is?”
“Yep,” I said, “It’s ‘Firework’, by Katy Perry.”
“Wow!” they wowed from behind the glass window, astonished, “This’ll be something!”
I laughed through the mic, and it sounded like a thousand laughs. Ironically, what was about to happen had a similar effect.
“Do you want to rehearse it first before we go on air?” asked the engineer.
At certain points in your life you’ll get asked a forked question like that. In retrospect, you’ll realise the answer was obvious all along. But there’s something propelling you down a road towards this fork that makes you take a sudden turn in the opposite way.
I glanced at our guitarist Chris, who looked worried. I glanced at our other guitarist Michael Guitar, who looked worried. I glanced at Michael Drum, who looked like he had never had an emotion in his life.
“Nah,” I said.
Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. Nah. It echoed about in my ears, confirming that it was negative. Nah. We don’t need to rehearse the song we’ve never tried before.
As the show started, we played through our own songs, then it came to the cover, just after a little chat with the host Vic Galloway. Vic was, and remains, Scotland’s very own John Peel, in terms of his ability to find and showcase the country’s brightest and most chaotic new artists, giving them airtime on a national level no matter how shambolic their recordings may be.
“And you’re going to do a special themed cover tonight, lads?” asked Vic, his perennially pleasant and comforting tones hyping us up.
“Yes! We’re doing ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry,” I said, confidently.
“And are you fans of Katy Perry?” he asked, sincerely.
I left a beat of a pause, “Yep.”
Vic laughed as if the answer was loaded, but in actuality the beat was just a gift from the universe, allowing me a moment to realise what I was doing. I was about to try to sing a Katy Perry song I hadn’t practiced on nationwide radio.
What the fuck was I doing? Katy Perry had won MTV Awards, Billboard Music Awards, a Brit Award, fucking Grammy awards. I’d won the Egg and Spoon race at my primary school sports day because the egg I’d been randomly given was unusually flat.
So, we started playing.
Michael Guitar valiantly emulated a synth with his guitar, Michael Drum stoically pounded away at a song he couldn’t stand. On his fucking birthday. Chris waited for his cue, shaking his head, to kick into the distortion we’d agreed the chorus should probably have, because we didn’t have any other option.
But there was something else. Back on Marc Riley’s show I wasn’t able to remember my own lyrics. So how the fuck was I supposed to remember Katy Perry’s?
As the intro started to draw closer to the first verse, where Katy’s luscious, velvet voice would slide in and introduce you to the melody, I realised I had no idea what the lyrics were.
Something… it’s… it’s something about a plastic bag. It exploded into my head, ironically, like a firework.
“Do you ever feel,” I sang, “like a plastic bag…”
But, what came next? It was too late for more divine intervention. So, I just said it again, following the melody of the song, but repeating the lyrics.
“Do you ever feel like a plastic bag…
Do you EVER feel like a plastic bag…
Like a plastic bag.
Like a plastic bag?”
I threw my eyes across the room and Michael Guitar was staring at me, his face trembling with laughter. Chris was blinking at me, about to crumble. Michael Drum looked as if he had never felt emotion in his life.
I steadied myself. Okay, you got through the first verse. What next?
“Do you EVER feel… like a plastic bag?”
Our tour manager Gary frantically burst in the room, slid along the floor like a ninja, and dropped a piece of paper in front of me with the hastily scribbled lyrics he’d been getting from his phone. He was writing them down in front of me as I sang, but it was too late. I was committed to this plastic bag story arc.
“Do you ever feel, like a plastic bag!?”
I tried to shoehorn in some of the lyrics I could make out, but sometimes the plastic bag line just made more sense than the hieroglyphs being sketched in front of me. Luckily the chorus was coming up. Michael Drum rolled on the snare, and I knew this bit. We all knew this bit.
“Cos baby you’re a firework!” and we were into the chorus, thank fuck.
Oh, wait. No. Katy Perry is an award-winning singer, and I’m a fucking fraud who has lucked his way into this position. There I was, on national radio, singing a song I didn’t know, repeating the first line about a plastic bag, and realising I couldn’t hit the high notes of the chorus, while a grown man lay on the floor in front of me, scribbling things resembling words on a piece of paper. And to top it all off, my headphones fell forwards, meaning the headband holding them together was now directly in front of my face like some sort of new wave Star Trek visor, so I couldn’t even see the words Gary was frantically penning.
Still we continued. As it came back to the verse, I now had some idea of what to expect. But I thought I had to address the elephant in my throat.
To the melody of the song, I sang: “Why did I choose a song, that’s too high for me?” and Michael Guitar lost it. I could hear him howling with laughter in the corner, and that was it. It was over. There was no recovery to this. Gary had given up since I was staring into the dark abyss of my headphone headband. We dashed through the remainder, and then, upon realising we had no idea how to finish it, we dove into a live special. A rocked-up version of Orinoco Flow by Enya in which we’d kick into a chant of ‘sail away, sail away, sail away’ like rock dads. A truly pathetic performance that dribbled its way through the denouement with all the fervour of a long death.
Vic, politely, gave it a huge laugh and applause. But he never mentioned it again, and I would’ve liked that to have been the end of it. But over the next few months, DJs across the station, and beyond, would play the cover on their shows. Utterly creasing with laughter. Michael Guitar’s aunt texted him to say she’d heard it while in a doctor’s waiting room. In the way that live sessions became iconic independent releases that outgrew the confines of their recordings, our version of ‘Firework’ became its own legend. And I was absolutely mortified.
Years later, I ended up making a music video for Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ in which I just repeated the first line over and over — ‘Are you hanging up your stocking on your wall?’ The video ended up going viral on social media, racking up millions of views. It was something that got talked about on TV, on the radio, and it still gets wheeled out every December like the original record itself. It was a video that even Noddy Holder from Slade allegedly saw, and I was reliably informed he ‘pissed himself laughing’ while watching it. It was a video that contemporary indie pop icon Sam Fender went on record to say was part of his yearly Christmas tradition, and there was even footage of him belting it out in his local pub.
But it all started with that fucking plastic bag.