I was in a band when I was 18. We played covers at parties and at a local bar in a room that sagged precariously over a river. Despite being rather less than good we all, I think, harboured secret dreams of pop stardom. Then the guitarist stole my girlfriend, and that was that.
If you told me then that I would be in a band when I was 48, I would probably have made the same face my children make when I tell them I'm off to play a festival, an expression that betrays a mixture of pity and embarrassment. But it's true: 30 years after my retirement from the music industry, I am an unashamed member of a middle-aged man band.
Before I joined the band, I saw them play: four guys on the cusp of 50 with two guitars, a mandolin and a fiddle, standing on a tiny stage. It was their second-ever gig. One of them was a mate of mine, and my attendance felt like a good deed. I was, I thought, being tremendously supportive. Who but a loyal friend gives up a Thursday night to watch old men play music in a pub?
By the end of the evening I wasn't just impressed, I was jealous. The four of them were clearly having a very good time. I think a lot of the men in the room probably felt the same way. Here were four guys doing exactly what most of us had, at one time or another, dreamed of doing — at an age when most people had long since let go of those dreams. And they were transparently not making fools of themselves in the process. They were good. 'It's sort of inspiring, isn't it?' said the guy standing next to me. I nodded, but I was after more than inspiration. I wanted in.
I tried to think of a way to shoehorn myself into the group, but there was an immediate problem: their songs were plaintive, sweet and a little haunting. And I played the banjo. There was an even more immediate problem: I didn't play the banjo very well. I'd owned it for two years and its intricacies were still largely a mystery to me. But a couple of weekends later I met up with James — the band member I already knew — and we played together for a bit. By the end of the evening we had written a song, based entirely on one of the four little phrases I could play. By the end of the week I'd been invited to a rehearsal. Within a month I was practising for my first gig in a school hall in Devon. The band didn't even have a name yet, but we came up with one in a hurry: Police Dog Hogan. Don't ask.
If I was bewildered by this speedy turn of events, my wife was openly alarmed. She thought I was having a midlife crisis. 'Where did you get that hat?' she asked. 'It's a band thing,' I said. 'We wear hats.'
The band grew to incorporate a bassist and a drummer, and became instantly louder. I started playing the banjo constantly, even at my desk when I should have been working, in a desperate bid to keep pace with six proper musicians. Eventually we built up a repertoire of about 15 songs, largely our own material, and began playing regularly. After a ragged but well-received set at the Chelsea Arts Club, someone approached me at the bar. 'The thing I like about you guys,' he said, 'is that you don't take yourselves too seriously.' 'You have no idea,' I said.
For us, the point of the project is to take the whole thing way too seriously. Overall it's no different to when we were 18. We bicker endlessly about song titles and set lists. We fiddle with arrangements for hours and discuss gigs for days afterwards. Untroubled as we are by success, we find ourselves in the luxurious position of being able to do what we like.
In some ways, of course, it is different. At our age there's a lot less ego floating around the rehearsal room, and a lot more claret. When we have mechanical problems we're usually in a position to throw money at them, but the biggest technical hitches come when no one remembers to bring reading glasses. And sometimes, when we're loading amps into the back of a Volvo estate at midnight after warming up for some 19-year-old Swedish death-metallists in a pub, we have our doubts. But when I lie awake at night thinking about the band, it's not because I think I might be too old for it, or because I'm wondering if I've traded what's left of my dignity for a foolish dream. It's because I'm afraid my wife will make me stop.