Dave Holmes

Remembering Steve McManus 22nd September 1965 - 19th January 2014

Remembering Steve McManus 22nd September 1965 - 19th January 2014

Later today, I'll be going to the funeral of a friend and work colleague who passed away after a long battle with cancer. Steve McManus was a fine bass player and very affable chap who worked constantly in the recording studios, tv studios and theatres of London. I was always pleased to work with him because he would combine a totally professional attitude with a sense of fun that was not only entertaining but also helped to diffuse the tension of high pressure performances. I always felt that Steve was someone I could confide in if I was feeling the pressure and he would usually say something encouraging and supportive to ease my nerves. And I was able to do the same for him from time to time. Remembering the countless times we worked together, I'm struck by how much I learned from him. As these blogs are aimed at aspiring professional musicians, I thought I'd share a few examples."City of Angels"One of the first musicals I ever played was an amateur production of "City of Angels". The band were pro players. I was a decent player but hadn't really put my reading ability to the test. During rehearsals, the first run through of the overture passed by with me hardly playing a note. I was annoyed with myself, feeling that I could have done better. Next to me, Steve had completely nailed it. I complimented him and asked "How do you do that? How to you become such a good sight reader?!" He answered that it's as much about learning to operate and feel comfortable in that environment than it is about being able to read the notes. Playing in a pit is more like being in a studio than on stage and quite clinical and intimidating until you get used to it. He was kindly implying that I shouldn't be too hard on myself that I struggled in a real-life situation when I had little experience.Bridging that gap between what you can do in your practise room and what happens out in the real world is all about what's going on in your head. If you can do something at home, you can do it anywhere. It's doubt in your ability that gets in the way. With experience, comes self-belief. If you've played something well 100 times, you're probably not going to worry about playing it for the 101st time. Experience also gives you the realisation that nothing matters as much as you think it does. A 'big break', if it goes well, may help your career but what might seem like a 'reputation destroying' cock up is rarely that and unlikely to make much difference as long as you resolve to learn from it and carry on. Believe me, I know!The last time I worked with Steve was in October 2013, on a televised orchestral concert. Just before the performance I confessed I was nervous about an exposed 'guitar feature'. He put my mind at rest by telling me I always looked really comfortable in that environment."Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing"Many years ago, Steve befriended an engineer at Abbey Road Studios. He gave us some free dead time in one of the smaller rooms one Saturday afternoon and, along with drummer Steve Rushton, we recorded a rock instrumental written by Steve. It turned out ok and we had a lot of fun so Steve suggested a doing a second session to record a cover of Satriani's Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing. Although excited at the prospect of spending more time at Abbey Road, I was horrified at his choice of tune. As rock guitarists know, MPHGT contains a tricky legato arpeggio passage in the 'chorus' section. It involves wide stretches, finger independence and plenty of left hand strength. It raised the bar for left hand rock technique. I couldn't get anywhere near it. But Steve was adamant he wanted to record that tune and that I was the man for the job. I desperately wanted to get back to Abbey Road and didn't want to let him down. So, I set about practising. I can't remember how long it took, but I probably practised that passage and related exercises for about 4 hours a day for a few weeks. Eventually, I was able to do it. I was amazed. I really didn't think I would get there. It showed me just what can be achieved with dedicated, focused practise....driven by a little fear of being shown up!In the end we never did get back to Abbey Road. But I came out of the experience having learned a valuable lesson. Sometimes it takes a gentle kick up the backside by a well-meaning friend.More Abbey Road sessionsIn the early '90's I worked with Steve recording a series of Ballroom dance albums at Abbey Road, studio 2. Each album was a different style eg foxtrot, tango, waltz. We were booked to do three sessions a day with the usual timings: 10am-1pm, 2pm-5pm, 6pm-9pm. Each album was scheduled to be completed in four sessions and mixed live, straight to stereo. This meant that if one of us in the 16-piece band made a mistake, the take was stopped and restarted. No chance for repairs and overdubs. Everyone had to play their part perfectly, simultaneously to get a usable take. Obviously none of us wanted to be the person to stop the take! It's always important to understand the producer's priorities. These albums were for people to dance to, not sit and listen to. Obviously the featured solo instruments like woodwind, horns, piano had to be perfect but minor imperfections elsewhere would be tolerated to ensure the project was delivered on time and within budget. Steve understood this. If he made a small mistake, he'd look over to me with a cheeky grin but carry on til the end of the take. If the producer decided to keep that take, he'd call up to the control room and ask them to check the bass. 9 times out of 10, the error was so minor it was unnoticeable in the mix. Always busy, Steve decided to take the Sunday off and another bassist arrived at Abbey Road to cover the three sessions. This guy was a similar standard but not so experienced doing commercial recording. He didn't understand the producer's priorities and was only happy if his part was perfect. We were tackling a paso doble album that day which involved long medleys of Spanish bull fighting music. At one point I had 8 pages spread across 3 music stands arranged in a semi circle and a revolving chair! We'd nearly got to the end of the take when the bass player called a stop because he'd made a tiny error. Needless to say, keeping up that flamenco style strumming for 8 or 9 minutes is challenging. I was not happy that an otherwise perfect take had been stopped. The trumpets, who'd been screaming high, loud notes all the way through, were livid. This dep bassist came away with a tarnished reputation. Not because of his playing but because he'd not seen the bigger picture, slowed down our progress and made us repeat physically challenging takes unnecessarily. Everyone was pleased to see Steve again the next day. Steve, thanks for the laughs, the encouragement and the lessons. Rest in peace my friend.

Dave Holmes 04/02/2014

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© 2012 Dave Holmes

Dave Holmes