The Best Of 2012: An Olympic story by Frank Turner!
Frank recalls his London 2012 Olympic ceremony experience in an exclusive blog for Rock Sound!
My original plan for this summer was to make a new album. There was just about enough free time between festivals in July and August to run into the studio and lay down some new songs before heading out on tour again. That was plan A. As it turned out, that plan didn't work out - partly because the producer I wanted to work with wasn't free, and partly because I was actually kind of kidding myself about how much time there was for recording. So I ended up, at the start of June, looking forward to a reasonably easy summer with a fair amount of time.
Then we got the phone call.
My manager Charlie called me to say that he'd just got off the phone with someone called Mike, who works with Danny Boyle, asking if we could come in for a meeting. Obviously, our first question was "about what?" but that went unanswered for now. All we knew is that we had to meet them at Three Mills, a film studio complex in East London, on a Thursday morning.
The meeting happened to be the day after I was due to play at Hay-on-Wye festival. Practically speaking, that meant that the day after that show, in Wales, Matt (Nasir, keys player in the Sleeping Souls) and I had to get up at the crack of dawn and drive like hell to get me to Swindon station, to catch a train to London, to get a tube to Stratford, to get a cab to Three Mills. By time I arrived I was feeling pretty shoddy, tired, a little hungover, hungry, all the rest.
On arrival I went into the bathroom. Whilst there it occurred to me that I didn't know what Danny looked like, so I got my phone out after washing my hands and did a Google image search on the guy. I looked up and realised that I was staring directly at the guy whose picture was on my screen - Danny was next to me at the sinks. Slightly embarrassing way to meet someone.
In the flesh, Danny Boyle is one of those people who is contagious with enthusiasm. He's driven and focused, but he radiates his energy in a remarkable way. Charlie and I were taken upstairs into a video editing suite, and shown a mock-up of the opening ceremony, using stock footage, computer animation and the like to get the point across. It was hugely impressive, even with the shonky graphics, to the extent that I was doubtful whether it could actually be done in reality. He'd also already edited in what he saw as my part in the proceedings, using live footage from YouTube and the like, including two songs - Wessex Boy and I Still Believe.
I think the most disarming part of the whole process was that Danny is a genuine fan of what I do. He told me he'd heard me on XFM (the system works!) and had got my whole back catalogue. He suggested those two songs, but said I was welcome to choose any others from my collection. I started thinking it through and quickly realised he'd already done a lot of thinking on the subject and had chosen well.
At the end of the meeting, Danny asked if I was up for being involved. He said there were no hard feelings if I didn't want to, and that I should go away and think about it. In the event, his pitch to me was so involved, so enthusiastic, that I didn't really need to think about it; I said yes there and then.
* * *
It's worth commenting on the politics of the occasion here briefly. Prior to getting the call from Danny, I can't say I had particularly strong feelings about the Olympics either way. I'm not into sports at all really, and I hadn't given much thought to the opening ceremony. I'm not really a flag-waving nationalist either, so while I suppose it's cool to have the event in London, it didn't fill me either with passion or with ire; I suppose my original plan was just to go on holiday to avoid the extra crowds of tourists.
On being asked by Danny, I said yes. This is mainly because it was Danny asking - he's an amazing director, I love his films, and he had such a clear vision of how he saw my music fitting in with what he was trying to present to the world. He wanted music that was inclusive, colective, British, optimistic. These are all things I try to be (though I would personally say English, but hey). It seemed like a great fit.
I was aware that there would be a certain degree of backlash, as there has been. At the end of the day people are entitled to their opinion; mine is that it was a good call, and it's my decision to make. As far as people saying "sell out" or whatever goes, I'd just point out that I didn't get paid, I didn't have any interaction with any corporate sponsors, and I'm still doing what I do the same way I always have - indie label, shoulder to the wheel. I guess there's just a bigger audience now.
* * *
After agreeing, we got dropped into the logistical maelstrom. The first thing was that Danny wanted me to have more than just The Sleeping Souls on the ersatz Glastonbury Tor with me, to boost the collective feel. I enjoyed the opportunity to try and spread the love to some of my musical friends, so I immediately called Emily Barker. She and her band (The Red Clay Halo - Anna, Gill and Jo) have toured with me and played in my band plenty before, so that was a no-brainer. Next I called Jim Lockey, my favourite new songwriter, and asked if he would be involved too. He has three guys in his band as well, so I thought that'd match with the girls. In the end Jim, Simon and Chris were available but Phil was not, so I needed one more person. My old touring buddy Ben Marwood got the call, said yes, and we were a team.
Given that we were playing three short songs (Danny soon asked me to add Sailor's Boots to the setlist) that are regulars on our setlist, the amount of preparation involved was pretty titanic. We all had to be security vetted to check we weren't terrorists, for a start. Then there were the rehearsals.
At first I was bussed down to the stadium with just Graham, my production manager and sound guy, to check out the lay of the land. Setting up a full band on a fake hill (actually not that fake - real grass!) isn't the easiest thing to do. We had to work out how to load the gear on and off, where my monitor guy (Johnny) and guitar tech (Dougie) were going to go (under the hill, as it turned out) and so on. It was a lot of pretty tedious work, and I feel like Graham deserves a special accolade here for working through all the bullshit. Thanks G.
Throughout the whole thing, everyone on team was subject to a Non-Disclosure Agreement - basically saying we weren't allowed to tell anyone about what we were doing, to keep the Opening Ceremony as a surprise. Totally fair enough, but it got a bit weird for me, constantly heading out and telling friends I was off east for "a meeting", or to "hang out" with unspecified people. I did tell my mum, I must admit, but she was sworn to secrecy as well.
In between trips to the stadium, we were heading out into Europe for festival weekends, which started getting a little schitzophrenic after a while - waking up on tour buses parked out there and trudging through the miles of security checkpoints, to arrive in a part-constructed pastoral wonderland. Very surreal. But as the weeks went by the stadium got more impressive inside, and the technical problems got ironed out.
Finally we rolled around to the week of the big event. We had dress rehearsals on the Monday and the Wednesday, both of which were attended by roughly 60,000 people. Before the Monday show I was pretty nervous, hid round the back of the Tor and waiting for my cue. As Sailor's Boots was the first song, I was walking out on my own, and then singing a capella for the first verse. Pretty nerve wracking. I walked out, doing my best to keep myself in check, and stood in front of the microphone. Unfortunately, they were still working on the timings for the show, and they'd sent me out about 4 minutes early. So I stood there. In my ear-pieces I could hear the voice of Johnny, my monitor guy, and I could talk to him without being heard over the PA. So we had a little chat. Probably the weirdest chat of my life, actually - four minutes is a long time to stand still doing nothing much in front of that many people.
Finally my cue arrived and I played the first song. People seemed to be paying attention - though it was hard to tell. One of the weirdest parts of the show was the fact that there was basically no one in front of me. The crowd was all around the sides of the stadium, but directly in front there was a field, with sheep, shire horses and people pretending to play cricket. At the end though there was a slow, soft but escalating roar, the sound of a lot of people clapping. Which, I won't lie, felt pretty amazing.
After that the band and their equipment were loaded on by an amazingly efficient crew, very quickly line-checked, and we were ready for the second part of the performance a mere eight minutes later. The other two songs went off fine, and by time we walked off the Tor, I almost felt like we'd barely started. I usually play for a lot longer, and actually three songs is pretty easy. Our whole team was whisked out the back of the stadium for a quick beer, and then we were given seats to watch the rest of the extravaganza. I know everyone's seen it now, but for the record - wow. I think Danny did an incredible job, all the more impressive given that Britain's best sport is cynicism.
For the week of the show we were put up by the organisers at a hotel in Knightsbridge - which was a bit weird, given that it's on the other side of London. It's not an area I know or like particularly either, and the hotel was very up market. That's always nice until you order a beer at the hotel bar and get bankrupted. Nevertheless, it was fun to be there with my band and crew, Emily, Jim and the rest. It was sort of like a big sleepover party.
Wednesday came and went, and was pretty similar to Monday (apart from a small technical hitch that meant my microphone only started working about three seconds before I had to start singing, which didn't do wonders for my nerves). By now word was starting to leak out on the internet and elsewhere that I might be playing, but of course I had to keep my lips sealed.
Finally the big day rolled around. In the build up I had a quick chat with Danny, who was remarkably calm about everything (Mike, his assistant, on the other hand, looked like he hadn't slept since we first met). I got to hold the Olympic flame for about five seconds to get a quick photo, and Emily Barker managed to make friends with JK Rowling, I think. I spent most of the time pre-show reading my book and chatting with Jim about his plans for world domination (seriously, if you don't know his stuff, check it out!).
One of the strange things about the experience was the amount of rehearsal we had for it. In the live music game, you don't ever really get dress rehearsals, it's always a one-shot thing. By time we were up there on Friday, we'd already done it twice, and it felt pretty damn easy actually. Of course, there were more people in the stadium, and there was the TV angle as well, but you don't really think about that kind of thing. We just played, did our best, and before we knew it we were being rushed back into the backstage for a glass of champagne.
And that was that. Predictably my phone went a bit nuts so I ended up turning it off. I didn't hang around for the ceremony on Friday - I'd seen it twice already and I wanted to hang out with my friends and family to celebrate. And celebrate we did - my hangover on Saturday was pretty fierce, but I felt like I'd earned it. And now, well, it's back to my summer as it was - a little bit of time off, a few more festivals, and then back on the road again come September.
To see where Frank will be playing live next check his Facebook page fb.com/frankturnermusic!