where were they then?

You are being interviewed by Mr Big Cheese. Nervous? Just remember that it's odds on that he was once the spikey haired bassist in some two- bit pub band

life begins at 40, and that's how old rock'n'roll music is now. As such, it can be said to have a history. Enough time has passed to enable us to log its progress, to chart trends, and to sort the beat from the chaff.

This history also means that rock is no longer a pure form of youth culture. Parents and grandparents are less able to condemn something they were - in some cases, are - so enthusiastic about themselves. If you were a teenager who liked Elvis in the mid-Fifties, you'll now be in your mid- fifties yourself. As the Beatles Anthology hype-overdose proved, Beatlemaniacs now occupy influential positions in every part of society. There is barely an MP alive who will not assert his or her grooviness by listing a Lennon song as an all-time favourite in a newspaper questionnaire.

Some will have gone further. Lots of respectable, responsible middle- aged people used to be in rock bands: Tony Blair and Eric Clapton being the most obvious examples. Everywhere, in every walk of life, people have this skeleton in their cupboard - a skeleton with a bandana wrapped round its skull and eye sockets circled with kohl - simply because the rock success rate is so tiny. Sometimes it seems as if almost everyone has given it a shot at some time or other. But even if they clambered to some level of success, pop music offers little more longterm security than a career as a boy soprano or a kamikaze pilot.

Many people know all along that they will never be Sting, as Giles Smith puts it in his heartwarming, heartbreaking reminiscence, Lost in Music. For them, pop is a phase, a last fling before adulthood. It's perfect memory-fodder, offering the chance to be a rebel. Likewise, it can provide romance unscarred by heartbreak, dreams without disappointments, hedonism relatively free of danger, the spotlight without hard work, and stupidity without regret - because the rockers knew at the time, even if they didn't quite admit it, that there was something a little silly about what they were doing.

However embarrassed they are by their silver lame socks and long/ green/ spiky hair, most former performers still keep a Stratocaster under the bed or a crackly live tape with that daringly great bass line very nearly audible under the chatting of the crowd. Haunted by the ghosts of their younger, sexier selves, they can relate to the keyboard player in The Commitments film who ends up as a GP, but still asks his patients to sing arpeggios instead of saying "ah".

Most of them will tell you that their band was rubbish. Don't believe them. They all think it was better than they let on. In fact, it was worse.

I'm no exception. When I was barely old enough to join Supergrass, I played the keyboards in Nervous Breakdown. I made up the name myself. The initials, I managed to convince the rest of the band, were only co- incidentally the same as my own. Incidentally, I say "keyboards" plural, but in fact we had only one keyboard, a Yamaha DX21. But we had plenty of songs: "My Girlfriend is from Outer Space", "I Want to Destroy Everyone Called Stephen", "(I Feel Like) Buying a Shirt" and "Cannibal Party". Classics all. One day we'll make a comeback. Just you wait.

THE ACTOR

Joe McGann, 37, Then: guitar/vocals. Now: Actor/producer.

I'D BEEN singing and playing in bands since I was 14 in Liverpool - I looked older so I could play in pubs. Then in 1976, I came to London and got a songwriting contract, which was great. Then there was Backchat. It was a group with two guys called Gary and David. We made a great noise for a three-piece. We became very, very close to getting a big deal. We had management, we had two record companies fighting for us. Then the Police came along and we were yesterday's band. The format that we had was very similar to theirs, although we hadn't known anything about them. The ensuing disappointment split us up. I couldn't face going on and finding another band. The music business is even rockier than the acting profession. You think it's a glamorous lifestyle but it's just appalling, doing those student and pub gigs. I'm a bit too old to be wiggling my arse, though I still do a couple of gigs a year.

THE OXFORD DON

Dr Nigel Smith, 37. Now: Senior Dean of Keble College and English Lecturer at Oxford University. Then: bass/vocals.

WHEN WE were about 12 in Potter's Bar, we started to get fantasies about being rock stars, so three of us formed a band that sounded like a cross between Yes and King Crimson. Very progressive. We would never write something unless it was impossible to play and for that reason I don't think we were at all marketable, except to a very small group of deeply tolerant people. We were called the Inshore Trawlermen. We had great song titles, like "The Flat Fish Swim on Their Sides" and "The Lumpfish Boogie". The guitarist was a bloke called Max, who's now a marine engineer in California. He was the one who had the Observer Book of Fish from which we drew our inspiration. I started as guitarist but I was demoted to bass because I wasn't good enough. I thought of myself as a very cool bass player, though. I used to wear a silver dressing gown and not much else, and I could do everything McCartney did, although without the genius. Once I even phoned in reply to a Melody Maker advert for a bass player for Tom Robinson's band. I was given an audition time, but I never turned up. I realised that I wasn't serious about being anything more than a part-time rock musician, and if I'd gone to the audition I would have had to be serious. I quite fancied going to university instead. By then, punk was doing the rounds, but I thought I was beyond it. Henry's now in Brighton, in a band called Dog Hunch, who supported Kingmaker at the University two years ago. I was their roadie for the evening. And I still keep my Rickenbacker by my bed, and take it out in drunken situations.

THE SCIENTIST

Pat Branigan, 26 Now: working on a Masters in Public Health Policy at the London School of Tropical Medicine. Then: Bass/ shouting and screaming.

WE WERE a three-piece band living in Japan, billed as the next great Australian grunge band, which was funny because none of us was Australian. You get paid a fortune out there and you can be pretty much third rate. Basically you have to be Not Japanese. Every single Japanese male plays guitar but they're too shy to get on stage, so you're doing what everyone wants to be doing. It's a good place to be if you want to live a rock star life without getting serious, and it's a great place to play live. The Japanese will be reading quietly, heads down, passive as you like, and then the minute you hit the first note all hell breaks loose. I actually chipped a tooth because someone leapt onto the stage and attacked the microphone. A lot of the venues are very, very small, swimming in beer, and 15 floors up in some building. The Japanese will pay 1,000 or 1,500 yen (pounds 10) at the door for a foreign band who aren't even famous. We made T-shirts as well. Anything that has English on it, they'll buy. You could put "I like eating jobbies" on a T-shirt and people would buy it. Our T-shirts said "No Vacation: have a shit day". They sold like hot cakes. There was a lot of pressure to stay because the band's still going, it's just released this new CD that's being distributed by Virgin. Every now and again I miss it. Every time you see a band on stage you wish you were back out there. But I'm quite happy doing what I do at the moment. The money I made out there paid for my Masters and I sold my bass, too. Mind you, if No Vacation make it big, I'll be on my way back there on the next plane.

THE SALES MANAGER

Graham Barker, 36. Now: Southern Region sales manager for Roland UK. Then: guitarist.

FROM leaving school I went directly into playing in a band. I had my teeny-bop phase, doing records with Jonathan King. That led on to Top Secret - an appropriate name, because no one's heard of us. We played at the Hammersmith Odeon, and Chas Chandler of the Animals produced our album. I also did an album with Slug the Night Watchman. It got very well received, but unfortunately ... it didn't happen. All the bands almost made it, but not quite. At the ripe old age of 30 it was time to take stock, settle down and get a life. I got a proper job, in the music department of Harrods. From there I joined Roland as a sales rep. So I'm still involved in music. I still write and I've got my own little studio. The singer of the Slugs is still writing, and working as a studio engineer. The drummer's an aspiring musician too, but he's a singer now. The other guitarist is touring in a band. The bass player has his own business. He customises Volkswagens. I dare say I'll do a bit more playing when I've got time in years to come, but I don't have any regrets - he says, stamping on the floor, biting his lip.

THE ANTIQUES DEALER

Ian Laing, 56, "going on 17", Now: Glasgow Antique Repairer and Restorer.

Then: Guitar/Vocals.

I PLAYED in zillions of wee bands from the Fifties to the Eighties. We did pubs, clubs, American bases, playing everything - folk to country to rock - you hum it, we'd play it. I was brought up in a small village and there was no music to excite you. It was just classical and Scottish country music. Then skiffle and rock arrived. This was electrifying, it was wonderful, it was so different. You'd hear it, you'd learnt it all in a night, and then you could entertain. It was something you couldn't get at work - getting applause and being recognised for what you were. You had the power to make people enjoy themselves. To begin with they'd hate you but by chucking out time they were like seals clapping for fish. But I don't really miss it. It was awful hard work, and you'd get back at two, three in the morning. Quite a lot of the guys still play, though. One of them, he got himself a nice Roland synthesiser, but he's losing money to karaoke nights. In the middle-to-late Seventies you could play seven nights a week, and on lunchtimes at weekends. Then the recession hit the social clubs, and now that's all gone, and it'll never come back.

THE PRESS OFFICER

Kas Mercer, thirtysomething. Now: Head of Press, Mercury Records. Then: vocalist/ multi-instrumentalist.

I WAS in a few bands, and put out four good singles, three with the Carringtons. I was watching a lot of Dynasty at the time. I have my own record label called Dex Discs, because I liked Dex best. The last single, "Halcyon Daze", was five years ago. We had videos out, we had a deal with Revolver, who were quite big distributors, and I was interviewed in the NME, Melody Maker, the Standard, Record Mirror. For 15 years I played every toilet from up North to everywhere in Europe. You wouldn't do it if you didn't think you were going to be massive. The reason I stopped is because I don't like seeing older people leaping round stage looking undignified. There's this dodgy, awkward middle period where you're still looking quite young, but when people look at close-ups they think, ooh, they're getting on a bit. My partner in the Carringtons, Jim, became a psychiatric nurse, and now he teaches guitar in Cornwall. He could be a star, but he can't be bothered. I've still got the label, it's still registered, in case when I'm 50 I decide to put out some more records.

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