(No they don't. They live in England)
It was 1990 and Swing Out Sister were featuring in charts all around the world with their infectiously cheerful and upbeat single “Breakout”.
The attendant tour took us to all kinds of far (and near) flung countries and here we were in Japan, giving it large on the bullet train.
It’s always nice to be touring while you have a hit record. For one thing the hotels are nicer and the people are friendlier. Particularly those people who work for music equipment companies whose name happens to be splashed across the front of their gear as you play it on the telly.
Now, I must tell you that as far as blagging free gear is concerned, at that time the trumpet was a dead loss. It’s different now as there are so many small trumpet makers that are all competing for profile. But then...... no-one gave a monkeys.
At any given rehearsal, bepony-tailed guys would turn up bearing boxes and boxes of gifts for drummers, guitarists & keyboard players, but the trumpet manufacturers were most noticeable by their absence.
Anyway, here we are in Japan and I’m determined to make the most of being in the top ten in a country where you are knee deep in electrical goods and raw fish (you can keep the latter for me, by the way).
So, in a moment of inspiration I got the tour manager to ring up the Fender factory in Tokyo and spin some yarn about “the second guitarist in Swing out Sister thinking about changing from Gibson to Fender.... and would they be interested in facilitating this change by dint of a free guitar?” (or 2).
Anyway, bugger me. With almost embarrassing alacrity, they said yes – send him in and he can take his pick.
It was a day off so the tour manager & I trundled off to Fender HQ in central Tokyo, with me expecting to just pick up the guitar and get Dave (said tour manager) to drop it back at the hotel while I got on with a bit of shopping - Japanese stylee.
We pulled up in a taxi around 11 am at the factory, which is on the top 3 floors of a scruffy building situated in a not-so-salubrious part of Tokyo. We announced who we were to the concierge, he rang upstairs to tell them we were here and directed us to the lift, telling us to go up to the 4th floor. So far, so good.
As we stood in the lift I explained to Dave that we would pick up the guitars, he could take them back to the hotel while I popped off to the local ‘shoppingmöru’ for a spot of retail indulgence. “Shouldn’t take more than half an hour or so and then I can be on my way”, says I.
Well. Seems I was in for a shock.......
As the lift doors opened, there, standing in a long row either side of the corridor, was the ENTIRE STAFF of the factory, all genuflecting to within an inch of their lives - bowing & scraping in that way only the Japanese can.
It seems they had all turned out to marvel at one of the guitarists in a band currently riding high in the charts. A band with a reputation for poppy, jazzy music full of fancy licks and elbow-twisting chord shapes. It’s at this point I should explain that, if I concentrate really hard and stick my tongue out as far as it will go, I can just about manage ‘House of the Rising Sun’.
The full welcoming machine swung into action. I was given a complete guided tour of the factory – this is a plank of wood, then we do this and add this.......etc. After about an hour of this I was starting to get mildly irked and was worrying about getting my kids “daddy’s home” presents .......but Dave had something else on his mind. He knew what was coming!
After the guided tour came the full Japanese tea ceremony complete with reversing acolytes and funny smelling PG tips.
I was keen to get this over with (especially as there wasn’t a hobnob in sight) so Dave, in a border-line genius piece of subterfuge, explained to the boss-man that we had radio interviews to do and needed to get going.
So, we were ushered in to a side room followed by what looked like 3 clothes racks from Top Shop but which were actually festooned with guitars – every conceivable model, shape, colour and size, all swinging freely (free-ly, geddit?).
Anyway, as a fully paid-up dolt, I still hadn’t twigged what was going on - until in filed a string of long haired, grungy Japanese rockers. And suddenly - it dawned on me.
THEY WERE EXPECTING ME TO PLAY!!!
In my mind every one of them instantly turned from subservient plank sanders to Nippon Yngwie Malmsteins – and they were waiting for me to blow them away with some real fancy shootin’ fretwork. Now what?
Now, as I’m sure you can all appreciate, choosing a guitar is a very personal and difficult decision – one which requires much soul searching over which particular instrument will enhance your playing style and bring out the best in your performances. That magic instrument that will allow you to fully express your personality.
I had indeed been through that tortuous and soul-searching process and finally had made my decision.
I wanted a black one.
So, having made my choice it only remained for me to convince the 15 or so axe gods in the room that I wasn’t really a Geordie trumpet player trying to blag a free guitar. As if!
My only option was to play it cool and keep them hanging on a knife-edge of anticipation. Perhaps if I did this long enough they would all get bored and go back to their lathes - or perhaps the lunch bell would ring and they would all file off for sushi & pickle sarnies (no crusts). Or maybe I would get found out horribly and be forcibly ejected from the building. In the end it was a combination of the two.
I spent a good 20 mins looking up & down the neck of the guitar (I tried a couple of others before going to the black one, just to make it seem a bit more authentic) carefully testing the octaves, running my hands up and down the neck, searching for some almost invisible imperfection that only a guitar god like me could spot.
After a while I began to enjoy the experience of having a group of would be rock legends (lock regends?) ooh & aah at my fannying around – so much so that I started to showboat a bit.
Now that’s where I should have left it but no, not Johnny. I was getting in to it. It got more and more ridiculous, me peering up & down the neck like I was sharpening Excalibur.
Dave – being an old trooper - realised it really was time to go when I started trying balance it on one finger – with that finger being on the headstock. Mercifully, he jumped in and reminded me of the urgent shopping… er, radio interview we had to do and so, with much groaning from the assembled throng, we bid our fond farewells and departed with not one but TWO beautiful new fender Stratocasters – both of which I still have.
I’ll never know for sure whether or not they rumbled me but... I don’t know - maybe I’m being paranoid but I’m sure I heard one of them mumble “plick” as we walked out.