It was the moment that brought members of The 400 to tears…
Jarvis joined the JAMs. And by the JAMs, we mean the sublime JAMs Choir…
Special guest writer, Lee Ashcroft was an esteemed member of The JAMs Choir and gives us an insight into rehearsals, working with Nick Coler and performing a KLF classic…
Follow Lee on Twitter.
You Join The JAMs – The internal monologue of a JAMs Choir Member
You can’t sing.
That’s what you’ve spent your whole life telling yourself.
Your girlfriend disagrees.
Your girlfriend thinks you can sing.
She tells you this on Saturday, when you watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show together. According to her, you manage to hit around half of the songs in tune.
So, when you see the list in the Dead Perch Lounge on Tuesday, where you receive your wristband and will eat many pastries over the coming days, you find yourself drawn to the question about singing. After all, you definitely can’t draw, or play bass, and you’re neither 5’ 5” nor a strong swimmer. Really, this is probably your best option.
You stand on a manhole cover in Matthew Street, in the shadow of the Cavern Club. You feel nothing.
You sit nervously with 399 other ticket holders/volunteers in Constellations on Wednesday. “What are you, stupid?” As the selection process becomes clear – impartial lottery – you quickly realise the chances of getting the job you applied for are slim to none. You are far more likely to be collecting ragworts or nicking traffic cones. Before long, the man in the suit announces the selections for ‘Choir Members’. You see the woman in the hat (she was selling merchandise at the Dead Perch Lounge yesterday) pull a fourth name out of bucket two. You get a gut feeling.
You pump your fist, before quickly collecting your card – “JAMs CHOIR MEMBER”. It reads, “You will sing in the choir. Meet Nick Coler in the bar now.” Your excitement is quickly tempered: “You will be fired at the first rehearsal if you are not good enough.”
Your confidence may have just betrayed you.
You approach a man in a flowery shirt. You know his name – it was on the sleeve notes for The White Room, after all – but you have no idea what he looks like. You luck out. Nick is warm, friendly, and seems quietly nervous about what’s about to happen. He is far less apprehensive about the threat of sacking than you are.
Within sixty hours, you will call him a lying bastard to his face, (his wife accepts your apology) before hugging him and asking for a selfie.
(Rules are meant to be broken.)
He offers you a lyric sheet to photograph on your phone, asking you to memorise as much as possible. It’s ‘Justified & Ancient’, with mysterious new lyrics. There are references to becoming “MuMufied,” and something called ‘The People’s Pyramid.’ A name stands out.
‘JARVIN TALKS VERSE 1’
‘JARVIN AND THE CHOIRS SING’
You don’t think to ask who Jarvin is.
You mistakenly think you’re somehow involved in Badger Kull, apparently missing the selection of the four bass guitarists while talking to Nick, and the few faces you recognise amongst the 400, who also miss that selection. Consequently, you end up having a photo taken with one of them – a designated “Badger Kull Hardcore Fan.” The picture goes viral. You will feel guilty about this.
“A lot can go wrong in three days.”
You look bored out of your mind sitting in Constellations on Channel 4 News that evening.
You return to the manhole cover on Matthew Street. You feel something.
You duck out of ‘Grapefruit Are Not The Only Bombs’ at the Bombed-Out Church – an event bringing a whole new meaning to the term “book reading,” – to follow the card’s instructions. Despite everything that happens in the following 36 hours, you will come to regret missing out on this, though you do contribute a prototype of a cardboard Pyramid Blaster hat, later mass-produced by a collection of prologue and epilogue page-holders called, “The Renegades,” (you are Page 7), a hastily rewritten parody of ‘Back In The USSR’ called ‘Turn Up The Strobe’, (‘Fuuk The World’ it ain’t), and a single phrase – “mysticism and bullshit.” You feel these three words sum up your page, the book, Welcome To The Dark Ages itself.
At midday on Thursday, in a small back room of the Dead Perch Lounge (where the DPL ends and the Static Gallery, Liverpool, begins?), you, Nick, and twenty-four other card holders congregate. Apparently, there were supposed to be twenty-seven – by the end of the day, there are only meant to be (yes) twenty-three. You pretend not to notice the plans laid out on a desk for a pyramid. You ask yourself, is this what the lyrics were referring to?
You expect some warm up vocal exercises to take place. You’ve done public speaking before; you know what to do in order to relax and project your voice. But there’s no time. In a few hours, you need to have recorded backing vocals for that song your mum used to do aerobics to in the early 90’s. This version, of course, sounds nothing like that one. This ain’t Tammy Wynette time, darlin’ – this is church organs, angelic choirs, melancholy, tribal drums, and triumph. This requires every ounce of your effort.
But you’re tired. You arrived at your Airbnb on Tuesday, having driven five hours from Essex, only to find a hostel sandwiched between a Job Centre and a dive bar, and opposite a bonfire. It’s grim up north. Your room smells of must, which is impressive considering how little there is in your room – only a bed and chest of drawers. You don’t resent buying a can of air freshener though – you’re only paying nine pounds a night. You had a late night on Tuesday, reading the opening chapters of ‘2023: A Trilogy’. You had a late night on Wednesday because, holy shit, this is actually happening.
“You will be fired at the first rehearsal if you are not good enough.”
“You got at least half of those songs note perfect.”
You know how important this moment is.
You peruse the lyric sheet on your phone. Amidst talk about the song’s ever-changing tempo, and the crucial instruction to strictly follow the on-screen bar count, one question rises above all others amongst the twenty-five.
Nick tells us, “oh, he’s some Indian guy. He’ll only perform it once apparently.”
That puts that to bed.
You gullible twat.
Initial plans to separate the Choir into sections – tenor and soprano – are quickly abandoned, as it becomes clear that order has already been found among the chaos of twenty-five aging hipsters trying to Gareth Malone their way through a pop classic. There are high pitches, low pitches, and mid-tones – the mix of the three is apparently perfect. Or as close as Nick was likely to get in four hours.
Your instructions are clear – restrain yourself. The first two verses should be sung gently, delicately, leaving somewhere to go later in the song. By the third verse – “make mine a 99” – now you can raise your voice. Bring yourself down again for a bridge between verses, then go full throttle. You consider the words of the late, great Shooby Taylor – “lift every voice and sing!”
“Mu Mu Land, Mu Mu Land, all bound for Mu Mu Land…” This never-ending refrain feels like a victory lap.
You decide to make yourself indispensable to the Choir. If 8% is up for the chop, you need to do something nobody else can. You remember Gimpo’s suggestion the night before to get somebody too pissed to sing, and choose to ignore it. (You’re glad to see him though. You joined him on two M25 Spins in the past. You are already discussing your third.) Instead, you decide to go falsetto. You remember the operation you had at 16 to have a cyst removed from your left testicle. You remember just about coping with the pain. You go home from the hospital, and gently lower yourself onto the sofa. Your dog jumps on your lap.
You go falsetto.
When you’re found singing to yourself in the days and weeks to come, you realise you don’t sound half bad.
One verse at a time, you plough through the song. You sense the gentle frustration on Nick’s face as the Choir repeatedly fails to sing in time with the bar count. See, the opening section features no backing music at all, so the only guide the Choir has is that number on the screen. You’ve worked with Digital Audio Workstations for years, countless hours spent following tempos and bar counts on screens, so you know what’s expected, but the temptation to follow the masses overpowers you. Eventually though, it clicks. Nothing is said or done, it merely seems a group epiphany is reached. Chaos, magic, and…
“Between the click and the bang.”
You can’t believe how quickly you and your fellow singers have gone from a disparate bunch of acid house casualties to a passable Choir. You know there are some singers and musicians amongst the group – you saw one of them perform a blinding set of modular techno earlier in the year as part of the duo TR-33N – but you find yourself taken aback by how good the group sounds after such a relatively short period of time, singing a song familiar to everyone there, but in a rhythm and meter unfamiliar to anybody. The only real stumbling block is the point at which the Choir comes in on the third and fourth verses, owing to a very sudden tempo change during a moment’s silence in the backing track. Practice makes… well, the moment is perfect, even if the performance isn’t.
During a coffee break, you photograph the pyramid plans when nobody’s looking.
With every part of the song nailed down to a level satisfactory to Nick, the JAMs Choir makes its debut recording. You run through three times, with performers moving around between takes to create a larger sound when layered on top of each other in the studio – on record, this song will effectively have seventy-five backing singers. During the third take, somebody leans on a door, and a creak is clearly heard. You feel the pain in Nick’s face. Will the Choir have to retake?
By 5pm, the recording is complete. Nick has a long night ahead of him. You sprint to the Bombed-Out Church to attempt to reinstate yourself in The Renegades. But that ship has sailed. Instead, you find space on a bench, collect a cup of soup, and discover what you missed out on. In your absence, The Renegades have planned a twenty-three hour space opera. Pangs of regret. You watch a Choir member be taken away in the Ice Kream Van. Pangs of jealousy. The following day, he will not confide in his fellow singers.
The soup doesn’t fill you. You find an Italian restaurant on Bond Street.
You grab a pastry from the Dead Perch Lounge on Friday morning, and bump into Jimmy. He tells you that the Choir sounds amazing. You do a little happy dance in your mind. You tell him you’re on your way to the Florrie to rehearse. He suggests you have plenty of time, until you tell him what time it is, 10:15am, and what time you need to be there, 11am. He agrees, and wishes you well.
You needn’t have worried about the time. It will be well past midday before Nick or the crew are ready for you. You take a few moments of quiet reflection, contemplating what’s already happened to you this week, and what might be about to happen. You notice two Badger Kull flyposters on a wall opposite the Florrie. You steal them. A man approaches you, explaining that he was meant to be in the Choir, but couldn’t make the rehearsals yesterday, and do you think he’d still be allowed to sing? You don’t know, but assume not, directing him to Nick. You later find out he has been recast as stage manager. You think, good for him.
You re-join the Choir, and ascend the stairs of legendary community centre the Florrie into a grand hall. You are reminded of school assemblies. Three large vertical screens above the stage show images of the Shard in a field. In front of these screens, you take your place close to the middle of the back row, to the audience’s right. In the distance, you can see the bar count on a screen high above the audience.
Technicians position microphones in front of us. When they are ready, Nick leads a rehearsal. You sound magnificent amongst a Choir of twenty-four (one didn’t turn up – you like these odds). Nick introduces you to his children, probably in their twenties, who are to conduct the Choir. In reality, this means they will be swinging their arms in approximate time to the music. You will ignore their arm movements, retaining your full focus on the bar count.
The woman in the hat approaches the Choir – you now know her as Daisy Campbell, daughter of Ken, and the one directing this whole thing. She explains that the Choir will lead a procession through the back doors of this room onto the stage, and that you need to remain in symmetry throughout the entire ceremony. This is practiced. Once completed to her satisfaction, you head to the green room to receive your costume. You recognise it instantly. It’s one of the yellow robes from the Rites of Mu videos. Discoloured, apparently due to problems with storage. Alan Partridge comes to mind. (That could be the words “JUST SACK PAT” written on the whiteboard though.) Yet it fits you perfectly.
No, you can’t keep it.
You spend far too long moving across Liverpool, getting buses, moving cars, pleasuring the Fitbit you don’t own. You somehow forget to have lunch. When you return to the Florrie, there is a hive of activity. Why does everyone have their face painted like a badger? Are we to be kulled?
You order a much-needed burger and hot-dog from the van outside, but before your order is completed, you are told to enter the Florrie immediately for a lockdown. No exceptions. You grab your meat in haste, and enter the Florrie. That night, you realise the “special guest” probably entered the building at this point.
You put off having your face painted. You don’t admit it to anyone, but you’ve long had a phobia of having your face painted. You decide to speak to Daisy about it… if you can find her.
Finally, after lockdown, the Choir is called for a dress rehearsal. The green room is packed as you wriggle into your robe. It’s going to be warm, so you leave your shirt on the floor with your umbrella. You had no idea there would be so many performers involved.
There is turmoil rumoured among The JAMs. Jimmy thinks a Choir of twenty-four is fine. Bill insists it has to be twenty-three. Or is it the other way around? One thing is clear – there are only twenty-three robes. Suddenly, you understand the threat of sacking. “PAT” is nowhere to be found. It’s too late to improvise a twenty-fourth robe. Could somebody buy a yellow bedsheet? Yes, probably two hours ago. But it’s too late now.
You hear a suggestion: “maybe someone could be naked.”
In that moment, you know exactly what went through Bill and Jimmy’s minds when they thought of burning the money.
You remember the questions at the Dead Perch Lounge. You know you’re not “good at saying no to people.”
It’s a statement that sits on your back, and refuses to be shaken off. Are you really going to put yourself forward for that? That would transform your story of the week into something quite different. You’re not a natural exhibitionist though. You’ve made some breakthroughs with your body confidence recently, sure, but this is something else entirely. Wouldn’t your presence threaten to overshadow the Rites? To undermine them? Turn it into something it’s not meant to be?
One of the singers is wearing a yellow hoodie. He offers to wear it instead of a robe. The fact it features a bastardised version of the Colman’s Mustard label on its front concerns nobody at this point. (You wonder, is Alan Partridge a secret agent of the JAMs?) Your mind relaxes. You tell nobody about the journey your mind has just taken.
But the pressure is building. You cannot find an opportunity to speak to Daisy about the face paint. She is, understandably, too busy to give you time to discuss your ridiculous neuroses. You take the plunge, and take your seat. As the whitened pad finally hits your face, you realise that, hang on, maybe this is okay. Maybe all that worry has been for nothing.
Then the black brush hits the side of your eye.
You start to panic.
You start to cry.
You involuntarily grab your knee, and your breathing becomes shallow.
Then it ends.
You load the camera on your phone. To your surprise, there are no tear stains marked against the white paint. In fact, with the hood of your robe covering your head, you look good. You fit in. And you breathe a sigh of relief.
Daisy calls everyone together. The order of the procession is confirmed. The dress rehearsal is about to begin. One more thing – “when you know who the special guest is, PLEASE don’t say anything on social media until after The Rites of MuMufication. We don’t want to ruin the surprise. Thanks.”
You wait for your queue – the JAMs’ recording of ‘Jerusalem On The Moors’, B-side to the single ‘It’s Grim Up North.’ When everyone is in place, the backing track begins. A grand introduction, then we begin to sing.
You instantly recognise that voice.
“…and they’re ancient…”
Holy fucking shit.
“…and they like to roam the land.”
“Some Indian guy.”
“They called me up in Sheffield town. They said “Jarvis, stand by the JAMs”.”
The next ten minutes are a blur.
Or, indeed, a Pulp.
You send your girlfriend a text.
“You won’t BELIEVE who I’m singing with today. I’m embargoed from saying anything until afterwards though. Text you later xxx”
And you wait.
And you wait some more.
You wait for the audience to come in.
You wait for the smoke alarm to be turned off.
You wait in the lobby.
You wait on the stairs.
Daisy tells you what you’re missing out on – you’re missing the film ‘2023: What The Fuuk Is Going On?’. But you’re also missing the dancers. You’re missing the man in the suit, now known to you as The Invigilator, read from the liner notes of ‘It’s Grim Up North’. You’re missing Rupert and Claire Callender explain MuMufication. You’re missing the hymn.
You’re hoping someone’s recording all this, and that that someone will release the footage. You think it would be absolutely crazy for this event to remain undocumented. Then you remember who’s in charge.
Daisy tells you that Bill and Jimmy will explain what you’re missing out on later. “Meet them at the Ice Kream Van this evening.” You know enough about Bill and Jimmy to know that any explanation won’t be sufficient.
You wait even longer.
You wait longer than even Daisy expected you to wait.
Finally, the doors open, and you hear ‘Jerusalem On The Moors’.
You follow the procession.
You take your place.
You fulfil your volunteer role.
Your life has changed forever.
You’ve joined the JAMs.
Best hundred quid you’ve ever spent.
You leave the Florrie. The Ice Kream Van is waiting to be pulled. The Choir have a space near the front of the Great Pull North – over three miles of traffic-baiting procession through Liverpool. You take your place, and attempt to comprehend the last fifteen minutes of your life with your fellow singers.
You want to hear it again straight away. You want it on download, on CD, on vinyl, tape, 8-track, wax cylinder – you need something tangible. Because who would ever believe this really happened?
“What the fuck is going on?”
You tell your girlfriend. The words aren’t there yet, but you want to thank her for everything – the little bit of courage you needed to say “yes” to question two on Tuesday; her acceptance of this bizarre journey you knew nothing about, other than that you needed to be there; the setting into motion a series of events that led to singing on stage with one of your musical heroes, at the behest of two of your artistic heroes.
You love her.
You remember your shirt and umbrella are still on the floor in the green room. With haste, you rush up to collect them. You walk out of the front door of the Florrie.
A finger points in your direction. It is attached to a man in full Scottish regalia, holding a set of bagpipes.
“WHA’ YOU DOIN’?”
You are taken aback by his thick, threatening accent.
“Just grabbing my shirt.”
“Right, cum ‘ere. Stick this on ye, you gonna play along wit’ me, right?”
A giant bass drum is strapped to your shoulders. Someone takes your shirt and umbrella. You’re handed a pair of drumsticks. You’re good to go.
You can’t drum.
To be continued…
In memory of Irving Rappaport. This is not how the twenty-four should have become twenty-three. RIP.
All photography and videos courtesy of: L. Ashcroft except Justified & Ancient lyric sheet courtesy of S. Tiley.