It’s A Long Way To The Top

Having spent a lot of time recently thinking, reflecting and writing about vulnerability, I want to share a personal perspective with you today. As many of you know, I like to murder a good tune on the guitar now and again. A good deal of my guitar work is carried out in the safety of my own home, and though some of it ends up on Youtube, I’ve gradually become used to the ‘it’s just me and the camera’ approach to the recording process.


A few months back I applied to audition for a busking licence on the London Underground. It did not go well, and I wrote about the train crash of an experience and while I’d like to say I learned loads of great lessons and moved on, this would not be quite true. My failure at the audition stuck with me. Oddly, I learned that I hadn’t passed the audition right after this impromptu performance in Louisiana which went down well, so who knows, maybe I simply overanalysed the London Underground opportunity? Whatever the reason, I was pretty down on myself about it, and for a while I wondered if that was the end of my attempts to conquer my performance gremlins.


Our family is fortunate to be a part of a fantastic summer camp weekend experience organised for the last several years by some great friends. This year, Keira asked if I would perform with her as part of the traditional talent show. I agreed and we practiced a song in secret, ready for the big day. Between you and me, our practices went well and I began to look forward to our opportunity to perform.

The day came, and so did my nerves and I’m sorry to say that there were a couple of times when I suggested to Keira that if she wanted to perform with her friend and let our slot slide, that would be OK by me. Thankfully Keira didn’t see it the same way and so we found ourselves on stage cranking out a version of ‘It’s A Long Way to the Top’, and in that few minutes, you can see we gave it everything we had. The reaction was great and afterwards lots of people congratulated us. I think perhaps these things are made easier when tackled together but I wanted to push on from this experience and see if I could get over my case of buskers block.


I was in luck – an opportunity to play at Matthews Yard in Croydon arose, so I offered my services and to my surprise, was added to the line up. I was given a half hour slot, 2pm on Saturday July 13th. I’d never performed like this before so I took a little time to plan. I drew up a long list of over 20 songs then pared it down by running through each song, checking to see how well I could play it and how each song fitted with its neighbours. I ended up with this set list:

  • Croydon Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
  • Speed of the Sound of Loneliness – John Prine
  • Billy Hunt – Paul Weller
  • Yesterday’s Burrito – Chris Plush, Doug Shaw, Meg Peppin
  • Stand By Your Man – Patsy Cline
  • Human Resource – Neil Usher, Doug Shaw
  • Down in the Tube Station – Paul Weller
  • I Met a Man – Flipchart Fairytales, Doug Shaw, Various Artists
  • It’s A Long Way to the Top – AC/DC

I found the thread of a story emerging at times and decided to work on talking to the audience between each song. Carole helped me and supported me through this process and when I left home on Saturday, despite my nerves, I had built a sense of belief, I can do this thing.

The gig came and went, and so, to a greater extent, did my nerves. Yes I was feeling pretty uptight at the beginning, but I was fortunate to have a few friends in the audience and I think the decision to engage in a bit of banter helped me to calm down, and helped people to enjoy themselves too. This was the first time I’ve ever sat down and performed in front of a bunch of people, most of whom I didn’t know. I did a good job, and the feedback through the set and afterwards indicates that others thought the same too. Later that day, Carole and I talked about how things had gone, and she said something like, ‘Maybe you simply need to give confidence first in order for people to hand it back to you?’

I’ll leave you to take whatever learning you want from my experiences. Suffice to say, I’m glad I didn’t choose to close the busking book on a bum note.

Instrument of Torture

Today’s story is not for the faint hearted or those of a nervous disposition. If that includes you, then before you turn away I want you to know this. Despite the gut wrenching disappointment about which I’m going to write, yesterday also contained a tidal wave of support and encouragement. In the last 24 hours I’ve been described several times as brave, cool and fascinating. Taking risks is uncomfortable, it’s meant to be that way and is therefore not for everyone. And that’s OK. The next best thing to taking that risk is to encourage those around you who are brave, cool, fascinating, scared and stupid enough to try. And that’s vital.

There’s a line in Xtc’s Sergeant Rock that says, ‘Sometimes relationships don’t go as planned’. I agree – sometimes love is complicated, particularly when there are three involved. In this case the three are me, my guitar, and my stage fright. Yesterday, I lost.

I took myself off to my London Underground busking audition feeling both excited and nervous. I know the songs I’d selected like the back of my hand, my practice sessions have gone well, the sun is shining and all is right with the world. I arrived at Charing Cross underground station in plenty of time and via a series of friendly, smiling LU staff I arrived on a disused platform far below the ground. It was a little chilly, and the reception from people was warm and encouraging. I filled out all the paperwork, had my interview then was invited to practice and warm up on the platform. I was enjoying the experience.

‘Next please!’ came a voice from around the corner and I walked through to give my audition. The panel of three people asked me a few questions – we shared some smiles and then they asked me to perform. The panel chose the song London Calling, which I have heard, played and sung only about a gazillion times. I looked down the platform and in my mind’s eye I saw a ghostly train exit stage left and disappear down the tunnel. I turned to face the panel and….nothing. It was as if I’d left the song on the train like a piece of lost luggage, it had vanished. I stood there in awkward silence racking my brain for the opening line and the harder I thought, the faster the ghost train rolled, putting more and more distance between me and the song. It wasn’t coming back and I reluctantly told the panel I’d completely forgotten the song. Cue awkward laughter.

We moved on and I delivered Folsom Prison Blues to a good standard, my shattered nerves not withstanding. And a few short minutes later, it was over and I emerged blinking into the sunlight again. I will learn my fate in a few weeks time. Will this adventure go any further? I doubt it. If I were on that panel I wouldn’t give me a licence based on that performance.

Later in the afternoon, I took solace from reading an excellent post by Steve Boese titled, “I Want To Hate These ‘Lessons Learned’, But I Can’t”. In the post is a reference to risk, “…staying at risk throughout your career, or at least engaging with as much risk, fear, or even unknown as you can manage. Safe is safe, and while it (sometimes) means ‘secure’ it often turns into ‘boring’.” Despite my disappointment, I agree with this sentiment, or to put it another way:

‘You won’t succeed unless you try’. Strummer/Jones – Clash City Rockers


People get in touch with London Underground for a whole bunch of reasons. To book tickets, check for lost property, get travel information, and no doubt a few people complain about the service too. Not me. Back at the start of 2011 I contacted London Underground to ask if I could busk on the tube. Why? Honestly – at that time it just felt like a fun thing to do. London Underground wrote back, thanked me for my interest and said they were not conducting auditions at the moment. They may run more auditions again in 2013 and if so, they would contact me again at that time. I carried on with life – and forgot about busking on the tube.

Earlier this year I got an email from London Underground asking me to apply for a busking audition. First things first, hats off to London Underground for recording my interest (over two years ago) and for getting back to me. I applied and got through the paper sift, and today is the day of my live audition. At every step of the way I’ve been kept informed, my expectations clearly managed. I am a candidate, and so far I am having a good candidate experience. All buyers and recruiters please note: if London Underground can do it – you can do it too.

I’m pleased London Underground got back in touch. As I continue to explore the pathways of creativity I know more and more that music touches many people in many different ways. I’m sure that each and every one of you can call to mind a library of music and songs to describe various points on your life journey. And I read more and more about actively encouraging workplace choirs, getting people together to sing can be a fun, powerful experience.

How am I approaching the audition? Loads of people apply for these licences, so interest in the scheme is big, and being a slightly nervous type, I’m nervous. And I’m also excited. People tell me they like to see me smile, and that is the thing uppermost in my mind right now. The photo on today’s post was taken by Callum Saunders and it proves to me I can play and smile at the same time. The next time someone comes up to you at work with a crazy idea, hold fire on your judgment a while. Let the idea unfold, give it some time and space, and maybe even smile and help your colleague to make it happen. I’ll let you know how I get on. Meantime, keep smiling folks – and have a great day.