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Simon Says – So You Want to be a Sound Engineer?

In the summer of 1979 I walked in to a Job Centre in Streatham High Road. I didn’t know what job I wanted, I didn’t actually really want a job at all – I was going to be a rock star and rock stars don’t have jobs. On the boards were jobs for office clerks, jobs for cleaners, jobs for miners (not really, Mrs Thatcher was in power), in fact all kinds of things that were dull and pedestrian – I was totally disinterested.

I scanned the cards vacantly, feigning eagerness for the benefit of everyone else present. I recall another jobseeker being particularly vocal about the garbage on offer, sharing his views with me whether I wanted to hear them or not.

It was then that I noticed a neatly typed card amongst the biro scrawls, advertising a position for a ‘Rigger Driver’. I could drive, God knows what the rigging was all about, but what drew me in was the phrase ‘Sound Equipment Hire Company.’ The concept of driving around some sound equipment sounded ok, I could handle that and I could do with learning my way around my new home town of London.

The job was advertised by RG Jones (Morden) Ltd., and I soon found myself going for an interview, something I was totally unprepared for. My private education taught me many things, mostly unacademic, mostly bad for my health, and it certainly hadn’t prepared me for the world of work. I was clueless, a fact borne out by my interview attire – dirty jeans and a green and white shirt that would have looked shit on a clown. I was on my way to a gig with some mates, who remained in the back of my Morris 1000 van (no brakes, covered in crap graffiti) whilst I was being interrogated inside a funny little single-storey 1930’s building with Crittal windows at the end of a cul-de-sac in Mitcham. People would kill for those windows these days.

Either RG Jones (Morden) Ltd. were desperate, or my 20 year old self had something going on, because I got the job. Robin Jones asked me when I could start, and asked me how much I thought I should be paid, to which I replied, ‘oh I don’t know, £50?’, thinking that would be a week, because that was how things worked in the 70’s. I’m still staggered to think I was SO stupid. I was paid £50 a month for starters, and I was grateful (and too naive to do anything about it).

Within what seems like a very short time, I found myself enjoying my new-found responsibilities, no matter what I was being paid. I would drive to BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane weekly to deliver and collect loudspeakers that were being used for Top of the Pops – this was rock and roll! There was a studio where famous people made records – not that I had anything to do with it but there was some reflected glory to be had for sure. There were little systems to be delivered around South London and Surrey that took me to some beautiful places, and there was some pretty funky gear in the warehouse (stores back then) to stare at, wondering what it all did. And there was a team of people who took me under their wing and taught me the ropes – Frank Brown, Geoff Boswell, Bob Caple and Chris Long, the latter two still being great friends. And not forgetting the legend that is Andy Lawrence, who if nothing else was really great at having a good time!

Without realising it, I had found my calling. I hadn’t planned it; I hadn’t chosen it. I think it chose me, because over the ensuing years I wanted nothing more than to drink it all in, learn about all the gear and become good at this invisible thing called sound. I also was fortunate enough to have landed a job at one of the best possible places to learn this unique and engrossing craft.

42 years later I’m still at it, so I must have got something right. There have been immense sacrifices made along the way, and with hindsight I might well have chosen to do things differently had I known what some of the consequences of being a workaholic would be, but amongst all the travelling, the shows, the trucks and the speakers the one thing that holds everything together is the people. People make all this happen, and I have made so many great friends and had so many shared experiences with them. I can think of no other job that could offer the same depth and variety, at least in civilian life.

Sound engineering is a vocation. If you want to be good at it, you need to understand that you have to find a balance between the demands of a job that offers very little in the way of regular working practices. The hours are crazy, the work can be difficult and stressful. The rewards can be everything from incredible experiences to crashing disappointments, and you are only ever as good as your last gig. My 22-year-old son has recently joined this extraordinary company, and I hope that he gets as much out of it as I have, but with the benefit of my experience to guide him. The impact it can have on those you hold dear can be traumatic and extremely taxing, but if you are able to find that balance and make the right choices, you’re in for a wild ride!

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Category: Simon Says

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