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on Wed, 19 Dec 2018
A well-respected film critic, journalist and musician, Mark Kermode this month takes to the stage at Birmingham Repertory Theatre to talk about his ‘foolhardy’ attempts to become a pop star - and the inspiration he took from some of music’s finest...
It takes some nerve to walk on stage at one of London’s most prestigious venues and play the theme from a critically acclaimed European movie on an instrument that you’ve never played before.
But for film critic, broadcaster, author and musician Mark Kermode, this is just one example of his undying faith in the concept of simply ‘having a go’ - a faith he’ll be talking about in Mark Kermode: How Does It Feel? when he visits the Birmingham Rep this month. The new show has been inspired by his book of the same title.
“My whole ethos to do with music is, how hard can it be?” explains Mark. “The book starts with me on stage with the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in London, about to play the theme from the film Touchez Pas au Grisbi on the chromatic harmonica, an instrument which I could not play,
“It was a concert that was being broadcast live on BBC Radio Three to a packed Hall, and the book starts with me on stage, thinking, ‘How on earth did I get here?”
Kermode’s show focuses on a musical journey that began at school with a passion for an iconic Midlands rock group: "I saw Slade In Flame, which is a film that I absolutely love - and that’s where the title of my book and tour, How Does It Feel?, comes from; it’s a song that Slade do in the film. Slade guitarist Dave Hill had these weird-shaped guitars - one of them was shaped like a machine gun and one had the words Super Yob written on it.”
The teenage Kermode, inspired by Hill to get his hands around a fretboard, quickly realised that his meagre pocket money was unlikely to stretch to a trip to his local music store to belt out Smoke On The Water.
“I wanted an electric guitar, but I couldn’t afford one, so I got a copy of a magazine called Everyday Electronics, which was 20p, and there was a plan in it of how you could build an electric guitar for £12. It said that you could do it with really simple things and it would take two months to build. Well, it actually took two years, but I did it. I built an electric guitar completely from scratch, but by the time I’d finished building it, glam rock had gone out of fashion and everybody was into punk, so the guitar was already outmoded by the time I started playing it.”
The guitar was modelled on the Gibson Flying V - the weapon of choice for axe heroes like UFOs Michael Schenker and Wishbone Ash’s Andy Powell at a time when the punk movement saw rock music as anathema.
Mark’s homemade instrument may have been unfashionable, but that wasn’t about to stifle his musical ambitions: “I played that guitar in a couple of school bands - the first band was with David Baddiel - and it made me realise that you should never be scared of musical instruments. Once you’ve built a guitar, you go, ‘Okay, well, it’s not magic, it’s literally just bits of glue and string’.
“I kept hold of that guitar, which was worth nothing at all, and years later my flat got broken into. I also had a Fender Stratocaster which was worth about £2,000. They stole the guitar that I’d built and left the Stratocaster behind!”
Kermode was inspired to build his guitar by the guitarist who’s most associated with playing a homemade instrument - Queen’s Brian May.
“I thought, well, if Brian May can do it, anyone can. I was always encouraged by the story of May’s father taking the top of the fireplace off to give his son a piece of wood to build the guitar out of. Brian May ended up making an instrument that’s become a classic, and I ended up making an instrument that’s probably currently being used as a cricket bat by somebody who stole it because it just looked a funny shape!”
So three years after Kermode’s last stage show, The Movie Doctors - in which he was joined by Simon Mayo, his presenting partner on BBC Radio Five Live’s weekly film review programme - what can audiences expect from his latest theatrical offering?
“It’s me on stage for 90 minutes. I take questions from the audience and I attempt to demonstrate that anybody at all can play a musical instrument, as long as they’re enthusiastic about it. You don’t need to be technically proficient, you just need to have a lot of front and not be scared of failure.
“We’ve been getting people out of the audience to play blues harmonica and theremins. It’s a really good, fun show about the fact that nobody should be frightened of musical instruments, and that if you’ve got enough chutzpah and a following wind, anyone can play anything. You may not be brilliant at it, but it’s easier than you think to be adequate.”
Are there any instruments that Kermode would like to tackle in the future?
“The theremin was the thing for ages. I’ve now got two theremins and still can’t play either of them, but it doesn’t stop me from trying.
“I have this rule of trying to learn a new instrument every year, at least to be able to play one song decently on a new instrument every year, and the saxophone is down for next year. I look at those old pictures of Little Richard, when he had the three saxophones, and I’ve always thought it was an incredibly cool instrument, so I’d like to be able to play that.”
Mark Kermode: How Does It Feel? shows at The REP, Birmingham, on Monday 21st January