Usually, buskers are – to me – nothing more than a mild inconvenience. They generally fall somewhere in the middle of the annoyances that a stroll through a town usually provides. There are a few, and it’s worth listing them here, to put my blog article in context:
Now, for those outside of the know, that stands for Charity Muggers. These are people, generally in green ninja-style ‘low-visibility’ jackets, who ask for a minute of your time, but who are really after a deep conversation about their pet issue – which is always something about which you could not possibly care less – and are also after the contents of your wallet in perpetuity. I have two easy ways to avoid them. First, is the generic ‘just received a fake call on my mobile phone‘ approach. This works far better than just keeping your head down, because if you are approached whilst on the phone, it’s them that are the inconsiderate oafs, and not you. The second way to deal with Chuggers is to identify their cause early on, and then apologise, but say you’ve just signed a petition with their arch-nemesis at the other end of the high street that will get them running off, foaming at the mouth. An example would be: “Excuse me, we’re with PETA, can I have a moment of your time?” “Oh, no – sorry. If only you’d caught me earlier, but I’ve just signed the petition of the Cosmetics / Tobacco / Pharmaceutical company at the end of the street, they are collecting because they have run out of beagles and monkeys…”
Big Issue Sellers.
Now I’ve bought my fair share of Big Issue magazines in the past, but whenever I look through them, there’s nothing there that’s really a big issue for me. To me, a ‘big issue’ is when my Sky TV reception fails, or when the car breaks down on the way to the gig, or even the crazy price differences for Apple goods between the US and the UK. So I’m not a regular purchaser these days, and a recent trip to Edinburgh confirmed why this is the case. I’ve seriously never seen so many Big Issue sellers in one place, and when I discovered that Big Issue has an office there – yet through the window I couldn’t see a single sleeping bag – I realised that if they can afford premises where nobody sleeps, they probably don’t actually need my two quid that much. The mobile phone approach works best, followed by the ‘apologetic smile and shake of head whilst patting supposedly empty pockets‘ method.
Buskers have, in the past, demonstrated that they are at least making an effort to give something back for your hard earned cash. And some are really good – but those will nowadays be found on YouTube rather than on the streets of your town. What’s left is the reason for this missive – the terrible quality of street musicians that is fast becoming a blight on the urban landscape of our once-great nation.
Bad buskers come in many guises. There’s the utterly predictable busker, such as the guy in the underpass with his guitar, cycling round the songs he knows, such as Cavatina, and…. well, Cavatina again. If I hear one more busker playing the theme to The Deer Hunter, I’m gonna start taking my chances on the dual carriageway instead.
Then there’s the ‘one man and his backing tape‘ busker. This is the guy in the rainbow jacket with the Bluetooth link between his guitar, his headset microphone, and his amp. Quite how he can afford something so high tech and still be begging on the streets for a few coppers defies logic. And the danger here is that simple avoidance is harder, as he can follow you at least fifty yards from his base. In his case you just need to keep your focus on the road ahead, or if that’s proving difficult, duck into a shop and then challenge him to follow you. You never know, having a mad busker chasing you around the interior of your local Ann Summers might be good for a few chuckles down the pub later on. Especially if he’s singing “I WANNA KNOW WHAT LOVE IS…. AND I WANT YOU TO SHOW MEEEE….” as he sprints past the furry handcuffs and transparent underwear on display.
Last week I saw two buskers that defied belief. Both in Dorset, which must be some kind of Busker Training Zone. Or maybe Twilight Zone.
First off, let’s call this one Busker A. I have to do that, because I really couldn’t tell whether the seventeen-year-old was male or female, so utterly generic was their appearance. Hair down to the waist and clearly unwashed, sweatshirt, jeans, trainers,you know the type. They were sat on an amp, from which was coming a generic early 80s slow rock backing track, to which they were adding the guitar solo.
Now guitar solos can be great. When they are, I love listening to a guitarist flinging his fingers over the fretboard. What I can’t forgive in this case, was the terrible quality. Not of the playing, because I have no basis to suggest they put a note wrong. Where the problem lies is with the ambition. The backing track never varied. I was in earshot for maybe an hour whilst walking around Weymouth, and the speed and energy never rose above a very slow dirge. And the guitar sound never changed from that typical soul-less Gary Moore whine. And all of this, in public, from a seventeen year old who should at least have been throwing in some Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam riffs.
Sad as this sounds, it was potentially topped by Busker B the following day. Sherborne’s a lovely little town, and a little street music should have enhanced an already pleasant afternoon. However, Busker B (definitely a male in this case) managed to avoid this obvious outcome in a brilliant way. Sat half-way along the High Street with his accordion, he played The Anniversary Song (better known as “Oh How We Danced” and recorded by such greats as Al Jolson, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra) – which should have been lovely. and would have been, if only he’d known the full song.
But no – he knew (and played) one verse. Well – almost one verse. He couldn’t quite finish it off, and so put an improvised ending to the tune, before looping back and starting again. Over and over. And over. And over….
There was a spark of creativity there, however. He managed to get the tune wrong every single time, but in a slightly different way. Just to keep his audience in their toes.
Needless to say, the hats were not exactly bulging with coins at the end, and nothing had been donated by me. Except this review of how NOT to play music on the streets. Which I offer free and for nothing.
Key takeaways? Well, to Busker A, my advice would be to play some different stuff, at different speeds, and expand your horizons beyond Gary Moore. And for Busker B? Learning the one verse of the one song you can play would be a start…