A Ska Tonic

By Laura Betts

Monday to Fridays I work in the city. I get up at 6.30am and I travel up to London from the suburbs. I get home at 8pm, if I’m lucky. I eat (if I have time), I sleep and then I repeat. I work hard, and I am exhausted most of the time.

At the weekend, I have another job – I’m a singer in a band. There are 9 of us – we manage ourselves – we graft to get gigs and sell tickets – we lift heavy equipment up unforgiving staircases – we get changed in tiny rooms and toilets, and we bicker sometimes. It might not sound very rock and roll – and a lot of the time it isn’t. It’s less about groupies and throwing TVs out of windows – and more being in random places far from home, feeling tired and grabbing whatever fast food we can on the fly.

Sacrifices are made. You can no longer go out with your partner on Saturday night. And if you don’t have a partner, you struggle to get one, because you’re always gigging. It gets frustrating when family celebrations are scheduled on a date when you have a gig – but the gig was booked in last year – so you can’t cancel. So you have to make compromises.

You learn new songs over and over that sometimes don’t make it into the set – you save up your own money and invest in expensive equipment which sometimes breaks, or you lose, or quickly gets past its best. You leave yourself open to criticism on social media.

Would I change this? None of it.

Nothing beats getting 9 people together – whose paths may not have crossed otherwise – brought together with a common interest and goals in mind. And we laugh, boy do we laugh, until our sides hurt. We have our differences sometimes, but like family, you kiss and make up and come through the other side wiser and greater friends.

Nothing beats having an excuse to explore new venues and towns, some near, some really far, some we’re not sure we will return to, and others we class as our second home! We see people at our gigs who come regularly and we form great friendships with them.

Nothing beats writing lyrics to a small acoustic guitar riff – to then hear the song a few weeks later with a full band and 3-piece brass section added to it. To then play those songs and see someone dance or smile, or buy a copy and ask you to sign it. Well that’s priceless.

This thing we do once or twice a week brings us musician’s great joy and escapism… And what’s even better is that what we do brings joy and escapism for others too. There we are, all huddled together in a tight room for 2 hours on a Saturday night, sweat dripping from the ceiling, singing so loud to our favourite tunes, we’re not sure we’ll have voices in the morning. For those couple of hours we all feel truly alive and we forget our problems.

So how cruel when Coronavirus comes along. Overnight, the town turns into a ghost town, and the bands, quite literally play no more…

For a lot of us the pubs, clubs and venues are our churches. And they’re now closed. We can’t see our friends and families, and we have to stand at least 2 metres away from everyone else. We feel alone. We crave that feeling of unity again. We want to play and hear live music. And we feel angry.

As a band, we were really starting to find a flow, we had our biggest headline show due to happen in March, we’d sold 300 tickets and they were still selling. We were one of the first bands I saw that had to announce such a big a gig cancellation, the government advice to avoid venues was announced just a few days before. We were heartbroken and sad to disappoint people, and we weren’t even sure at the time if we’d even done the right thing. 

We did do the right thing. As the situation has unfolded and we learn more about this cruel virus, it’s apparent that we do have to sacrifice this, what we love, just for a short while. And once we are through this we can come through the other side stronger than ever.

We’re entertainers at heart, so we’re trying to find creative ways to still perform. We’re writing songs, we’re learning new instruments and perfecting our current ones. Our trumpet player Elaine played ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ in tribute to the NHS and key workers on her street. We’re using trial and error and utilising new technology and apps to record at home. We’re sharing moments of us rehearsing at home.

We’re posting these videos and people are watching them, and seem to be enjoying them. We’re bringing new people to our page that hadn’t heard of us before. And we’re hungrier than ever to perform live again.  

We tried to organise a live gig on Zoom, but due to sound issues and delays, it didn’t quite work. Maybe there’s an app creator out there that can make something for musicians to do this, maybe this can become part of the musicians remit to host such events online, or even use it as a new way to rehearse.

Being in a band is hard work – it can be intimidating and frustrating at times, but that doesn’t mean for a minute we wouldn’t do it. You hear about the music industry being tough and unjust. But if you want to make serious money or quit your job, then don’t do it. Do it because you want to challenge yourself, experience new things, see new places, meet like-minded people and make people smile. Never more have we realised this than now.

We will get through this. The gigs will be rescheduled and we’ll all be together again, and it’s going to be one hell of a party!

(c) mrssvj.co.uk

Laura Betts is one of The Skatonics, a 9-piece ska band from South East England. With a complete knock-yer-socks-off brass section and male and female vocalists, the Skatonics can cover the full range of the 2-Tone era plus easily stepping into Trojan numbers and performing their own original tunes.

The Skatonics have supported Madness, The Beat, From the Jam, The Dualers and Bad Manners plus many more, and were recently signed to The Dualers music agency ‘Sunbeat Records’. They are often credited as being ‘one of the UK’s must-see ska bands to ‘see live’ on the circuit.

Geno Washington simply said “you’re not supporting me again you’re too F****** good”

Follow The Skatonics on Facebook, Twitter, and Insta.

Thanks to Laura for writing exclusively for Mrs SVJ – the community blog of Sue Vincent-Jones. Sue is a journalist, editor, and communications specialist who blogs about Barry – and her life in the wider world, through the eyes of a quirky, and queer, girl done good.

Please contact Mrs SVJ here, if you’d like to feature on the site as a Guest Blogger – all fellow writers are welcome.