Gabba Gabba Hey! Nick Langley’s first experience of worship team rehearsals
Keep it to yourselves, but Sheena, is a punk rocker! Believe me, it could be a lot worse! I would like to take you back to New Year’s Eve, 1977. I was 11. At the Rainbow Theatre in London, four New Yorkers took to the stage and began a set of what can only be described as blistering. You may be asking how I know this. 11 is a tad young to be going to rock concerts, particularly 200 miles away from home. The answer is simple: “It’s Alive”, the seminal* live album by the Ramones. Packed to the rafters with the legendary punk band’s signature songs, the longest standing at 2’ 55”, the shortest at a mere 1’ 14”!
They don’t hang about this lot. Most of the tracks are around the 200bpm mark. Joey Ramone, the lead singer (not his real name), barely utters a word to the audience. Tommy Ramone, the band’s drummer (not his real name!), however, introduces every song with a rapid fire “One, two, three, four” … and they’re off. “Thank you.”, “One, two, three, four” … and they’re off again. And so on it goes, four solid sides of Tommy’s counts, a couple of minutes of some of the finest punk anthems written and then another count off and another song. Brilliant.
My first rehearsal with the Worship Team was very reminiscent of this album. There were some subtle differences. Nobody ever counted songs in. The Worship Leader started playing, the rest of the band drifted in as and when they felt like it, and before you know it, we’re all going hell for leather thrashing out exactly the same chords, oblivious to what’s going on around us. “Gabba Gabba Hey!” indeed. I was almost too shocked to say anything. Nobody seemed to notice the rapid increase in tempo. Either that or they didn’t care! What I didn’t realise at the time was that most of the band were ill. They were suffering from a terrible disease that rendered them “immune” to tempos, they barely noticed they were there to be honest!
It’s a strange one this. I come across it all the time in the studio (I earn my living as a studio engineer). Despite teenagers spending 90% of their waking hours consuming music, there’s a lot that seems to go right over their heads. One is that most contemporary songs don’t have 80 second intros, and the other is that they tend to end at exactly the same tempo they started out at, not 40bpm faster! I’m self taught, but one thing I learnt early on – and God bless whoever it was that told me this – was always practise to a metronome. (Admittedly, I began my musical life as a drummer so I suppose there was a greater emphasis on time keeping). Not just that metronomes were a good idea, it was, quite simply, how you practised! I was also blessed during my professional career to work with a band that consisted of three girls – two singers and a pianist – as a songwriter. They had signed a publishing deal with Chrysalis Music which gave us access to the in-house studio at The Chrysalis Building in Bramley Road, West London. We would spend a week or 10 days there every couple of months. My job was to write songs, present them to the girls to chuck in their ideas and then record the backing tracks as well as some manly backing vocals. This was always done to drum tracks, sequenced by myself, so I spent over two years doing nothing but playing to computers. Prior to that I’d been in a twee indie pop band. Our drummer was a human metronome (still is). He’s previously been in a very successful band from Hull with insanely catchy hooks and pithy, political lyrics (Go on, have a guess!). He always cringed whenever he heard the outro of their No. 3 hit single of the summer of 1986, as he claimed it sped up over the closing bars, something I always dismissed as him being over critical. Listening to it recently, I’ve only just noticed he’s right – 25 years it’s taken me to spot it! Another friend of mine recently spent the day in the studio with me. I asked him to play through the song whilst I marked the tempo. Tapping along on my phone, the tempo didn’t change from 128bpm for even a beat and the first thing he said to me was, “I bet the timing drifted, didn’t it?”. Er, nope!
Another difference was that the stage on which the Ramones played that night was littered with monitors so that the whole band can hear themselves and each other. In the Worship Team, we weren’t troubled by such things. During services, one, yes that’s one, was usually plonked in front of the Worship Leader but the rest of us were unencumbered with such technologies. Services were very similar to rehearsals: Worship Leader starts, rest of band drifts in, tempo builds. The temptation to shout “One, two, three, four” in between songs at the top of my voice was HUGE!
I broached the subject of monitoring with the team. There was a general sense that it was unnecessary, “20 years I’ve been in this band and I’ve never been able to hear anything other than myself”. This would go a long way to explain why, in those days, we were so shambolic. It was exceedingly rare for everyone to arrive at the Middle 8 at the same time. Or a verse, or a chorus for that matter. How could we? The only chance you stood of finding out what was going on was to stop playing and scrutinise the cacophony going on around you.
“How do you know that what you’re playing is appropriate if you can’t hear what the person standing next to you is playing?”. It was a question I asked on numerous occasions and a perfectly reasonable one in my opinion. It was usually met with a shrug of the shoulders and an indifferent look that said, “I don’t really get your point!”. I’d asked the acoustic guitarist to show me what they were playing in, say, the Middle 8.
“Why that?”, I’d ask.
“Because that’s what it says on the Lead Sheet.” would come the reply.
“But the electric guitarist is playing exactly the same thing!”
“Yes. And the pianist is as well! And the pianist playing exactly the same bass line as the bassist! And the flautist, the vocal melody! Why? Why isn’t anyone listening to each other?”
“Because we can’t hear each other.”
Lead Sheets are, to me, a double edged sword. Used properly, they’re a brilliant resource, but in my experience of my Worship Team, Lead Sheets are confused with Scores. To quote Wikipedia:
“A lead sheet is a form of music notation that specifies the essential elements of a popular song: the melody, lyrics and harmony.”
It is NOT a prescriptive score, it is a guide. With the exception of the vocal melody, Lead Sheets DO NOT contain individual parts for instrumentalists. Harrumph. It’s a bug bear, in case you were wondering. Look at the chord progression, write a part and, more importantly, listen to what your band mates are playing!
Eventually I came up with an easier way of illustrating my point. We have about 30 people in our Worship Team working on a rota basis. On any given Sunday most of the team are in the congregation and therefore able to listen to the band. I would use mistakes the band made as examples of where we were going wrong. After the service I would collar specific musicians who hadn’t been playing and talk to them about how they felt the Worship had gone. They would invariably notice the mistakes and then I would be able to talk to them about how they had come about, what could have been done to avoid them and what we could do in the future to avoid similar errors. Over a period of time, attitudes changed, minds were opened, progress was made and we are now a considerably better Worship Team!
I say “attitudes changed”, but on one very important level they didn’t. Everyone’s, and I do mean everyone’s, heart had been spirit led right from the off. We all wanted to praise Jesus, we all wanted to serve Him, we all wanted to serve the congregation, it just took a while to figure out how to do it as effectively as possible. And we haven’t stopped. We recently held a training day at church for the Team which was a massive success and, to boot, very enjoyable! We had biscuits. ‘Nuff said!