The very last waltz...why you're never too old to rock

Most middle-aged desk jockeys should have abandoned dreams of rock stardom long ago. Why, then, are so many greyhairs getting the guitars down from the attic to strut their creaking stuff for one final gig? Please welcome on lead vocals... David Thomas
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The Independent Culture

The lights go down. The crowd applaud. The guitarist hits those oh-so-familiar opening chords to David Bowie's "Starman". And then my stomach clenches, my knees start to shake and my body prickles with sweat. Because any second now, it'll be my cue to sing.

I have nightmares like this, when I'm up on stage and I don't know the words, or no sound comes out. But this is no nightmare. I'm a genuine lead vocalist, facing a small, but packed club, backed by four amateur musicians. Our average age is 43. Three of us are losing our hair and none of us is exactly scrawny. But we don't care. We are here to rock. For we are Weekend Warriors.

The concept of Weekend Warriors was developed in America. Middle-aged musicians who used to play in bands but gave up, or who wanted to play but never dared, are encouraged to strap on their guitars and step up to their mikes.

They attend recruitment sessions, hand over a £95 fee and are sorted into bands. Rehearsal space and gear are provided for four rehearsals, before playing a concert, just like the one I'm about to start now.

The Warrior concept is huge in Australia too. Now it has come to Britain; it was launched late last year and is rolling out across the country in participating music stores. As Paul McManus, 45-year-old chief executive of the Music Industries Association explains, there comes a point in a man's life when he gets, "a Harley, a guitar, a mistress - or all three". McManus went for a bass-guitar. "My lifestyle was freeing up a bit. I had a bit more time, a bit more money, so I've gone back to playing in a band," he says. "We're called Unfinished Business, because that's what it is." Of course, the motives behind the scheme aren't entirely charitable. If the music industry can persuade affluent fortysomethings to step back into their rocking shoes, there's big money to be made for a business that already sells some £700m's worth of instruments, amplification, sheet music and accessories in the UK every year.

"The population is ageing," says McManus. "It's a no-brainer." It's also a no-brainer in another sense: you have to remove your brain before you agree to take part. For what sane human being would risk the humiliation of making a public prat of themselves in a massive DIY karaoke session? Answer: I would. I have no instrumental ability whatsoever. But I am the perfect Weekend Warrior guinea-pig. I'm 46. I'm mad about music. I can just about sing in tune. And I've always dreamed of strutting my stuff without ever doing anything about it.

Now I've volunteered to join a pilot Warrior scheme being run in Reading, home of the legendary rock festival. This is actually the second British trial. The first was in Stockton-on-Tees, where 200 people turned up to see five Warrior bands in action.

"You were watching people being reborn onstage," says McManus, coming over all evangelical. "Children were seeing their dads in a totally different light. I got quite emotional watching guys come off stage with huge grins on their faces. They'd had the time of their lives." I'm getting quite emotional, too, the emotion in question being sheer, naked terror. McManus insists I have nothing to worry about. "This is the best audience you could ever have," he says. "They don't mind if you're not note-perfect.

"There was one band doing the old Eagles song "Take It Easy" when the singer suddenly stopped half-way through. He just went, 'Oh booger! I got t'words wrong. Start again, lads!' It was wonderful. Everyone was willing them along." Well, that sounds reassuring enough. So, on a rainy Sunday evening, six days before the big concert, I drive to Reading. The Weekend Warriors are rehearsing at Plug'n'Play, a small studio complete with a club-size performance space, located in the less-than-glamorous surroundings of a local industrial estate.

I will be joining a four-man band that has yet to decide on a name, but has selected a set-list of six hoary old rock classics. I've already spoken on the phone to Keith Paskins, a 46-year-old internet technology salesman, who is the group's guitarist, singer and musical director. He has graciously agreed to step aside so that I can take the vocals on two songs: "Tush", by ZZ Top, and "Starman".

I was 13 when "Starman" came out in 1972 and I've loved it ever since. "Tush" is a foot-stomping blues-rocker that's guaranteed to get a crowd going. But there's just a tiny catch.

Bowie borrowed the chorus of "Starman" from "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". So there's a full octave jump between "Star" and "man", just like the octave between "Some" and "where". Basically, you've got to go from low to high - instantly.

"Tush", meanwhile, requires the singer to hit an incredibly high, incredibly loud climax in the middle of each verse and then h-o-o-old it while the guitars chug away beneath him. For the past few days, I've been practising whenever I'm alone in the house and there's only one way to sing "Tush". You just have to lean back and bellow, top volume, full-tilt.

On a good day, this results in vocals so powerful they make Noddy Holder sound shy and retiring. On a bad day, nothing comes out beyond a cracked, croaking squeal. Now I know why Keith Paskins is happy to let me sing it.

Not that he's lacking in the vocal department. Looking uncannily like the Crystal Palace FC manager Ian Dowie, Paskins is a big lad, whose torso strains against the confines of his Rolling Stones T-shirt. But he's got a proper rock voice and he knows how to handle a guitar, too.

To Paskins' right stands Bryan Shaughnessy. Floppy-haired and bespectacled, Bryan, 35, spends his working hours making gizmos for spacecraft at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. One of these craft was the ill-fated Beagle mission to Mars.

"I sat in the control centre at 3am on Christmas Day, waiting for it to beep at us and nothing happened," Bryan says. "It was really gutting." "Well," I quip cheerily, "Let's just hope we don't crash and burn, too!" Bryan is not massively amused. Odd that.

On bass is Ian Germer, a 47-year-old product developer for Orange. "I played in a couple of rather self-indulgent bands when at school, and I've played in various folk bands since," he says. "I wanted to try being a rock star now that my parents can't tell me to get a proper job!" Finally we come to James Davey on drums. At work, James tells British Airways which of their planes should be where and when. His rock-solid beat keeps the band in the right time and place, too.

James is 41 but looks about 17. Aptly enough, when I ask him what made him sign up to be a Warrior, he admits that, "The movie School of Rock was a bit of an inspiration!" These four men met for the first time barely a month ago. This is their fourth rehearsal. But it's obvious from the moment they start playing that they're seriously good. They're also having a great time.

Being middle-aged, Weekend Warriors don't have the testosterone-fuelled raging ego of your average young rocker. The atmosphere is supportive, rather than competitive. We spend the next three hours playing good, old-fashioned rock'n'roll. It's brilliant fun.

Of course, there is the odd glitch. Keith and I keep having a problem with the chorus of "Starman", which always ends up with both of us trying to sing so high only dogs and bats could hear us.

Still I leave the rehearsal feeling quietly confident that catastrophe may be averted. Now there's just one thing to worry about: what to wear. Rock'n'roll makes a girl of every singer. You start fretting about clothes and weight and wondering if there's time to go on a diet before you step on stage.

By Friday, everything's fine, and then - disaster! I wake up on Saturday morning, 12 hours before the big gig with a burning, larynx-strangling sore throat.

To the immense delight of my family, I adopt a strict no-talking, no-singing policy, so as to protect my precious vocal chords. I concoct a soothing, hot drink of lemon, honey and ginger. Then I pray.

By the time I get back to the Plug'n'Play venue in Reading for the gig that evening, clutching a thermos filled with my lemony ginger concoction, my throat has calmed down a bit. There are about 100 people in the audience, and even though they're mostly family and friends of the bands playing I'm not the only person there who's feeling the pressure.

"On a scale of one-to-10, my nerves are at seven, but I'll be up to 12 by the time of the show," says Lynne Dalzell, an Environment Agency officer who is Reading's only female Weekend Warrior. A tall blonde bassist, Lynne is playing with a group named Four Candles in honour of the late Ronnie Barker.

They've gone for a more modern sound, with songs by the Dandy Warhols, Stereophonics and, Lynne tells me, "Alien Ant Heap". "It's Alien Ant Farm!" says her drummer. "Well," shrugs Lynne, "I've never heard of any of them."

At least my band have now chosen a name: Capable Jake. But they, too, are wrestling with matters sartorial. "I've brought a couple of different outfits," Keith Paskins announces. "I think the Man in Black look should do it." There are three bands on tonight and we're on second. The first lot, Back to the Future aren't bad. But I'm a competitive little so-and-so and I reckon we can have 'em.

The adrenalin's starting to pump. I've forgotten about my throat. My only concern is the size of the stage. It's tiny and I want room to strut my stuff. I'm going to dance and shake and pout and ... freeze. At the first notes of "Starman", my body goes into lockdown. I can get the notes out all right. I remember the words, no problem. But my body is as immobile as an Easter Island statue.

By the end of the song I'm beginning to unwind a bit, but then I have to leave the stage so that the rest of Capable Jake can get on with what is, after all, their set without having me trying to hog their limelight.

I return to help with the choruses of "The Boys Are Back In Town" and then comes the big moment. Time to sing "Tush". Keith and Bryan hit the guitar riff, Ian and James pile in, we get to my first line, and... I nail it. Oh yeah, now we're rocking! My muscles are loose, my throat is working and I'm ready to let the ladies in the house know that I'm a singing sex-machine.

Tragically, however, the only sex-machines the ladies care about are their own husbands. The gorgeous, elfin blonde that I've been eyeing up as an ideal rock chick turns out to be Ian Germer's missus, Rebecca. "I think he's sexy," she swoons. "He's in his element up there."

Keith's wife Annaliese is equally impressed by her man. "I love him!" she sighs. "Keith loves his music and it makes me happy to see him enjoying it." Lynne Dalzell's band, Four Candles, finish the show, coming off frustrated after two of their amplifiers blow up mid-set, leaving them sounding a lot less impressive than they had done at their sound-check a couple of hours earlier.

For Capable Jake, there are no such worries. I reckon we stole the show. And I am reliably informed that while both lots of English Warriors were way better than their Aussie counterparts and arguably better than the Americans, the Reading contingent were better than the lot Up North.

Call me an immodest swank-pot if you will, but I reckon that makes Capable Jake the finest Weekend Warriors in the world. At last, I've proved what I've always secretly known. I am a rock star. The only surprise is that Capable Jake don't appear to have asked me to perform with them subsequently. Either my invitation got lost in the post, or they're just scared of being seen as my backing band. m

If you fancy being a Weekend Warrior, contact the Music Industries Association: www.mia.org.uk, 01372 750600

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