Thursday, September 07, 2006

Un-Happy Birthday

Saturday night. It is my friend Hannah’s birthday. She, her friend Carrie, my girlfriend and I have gone to see The Singer and the Song ("A Celebration of Vocal Performance"), and are waiting to see the headline act, Japanese karaoke show Frank Chickens.

Whilst Hannah is in the loo, one of the venue staff starts chatting to us and finds out about Hannah’s birthday. She then reveals her devious ulterior motive. She wasn’t just being friendly, the conniving witch, she was trying to get people to sign up for karaoke. I am shocked by her underhand tactics. Carrie, my girlfriend and I all look at each other. The woman pleads. She cajoles.

“You could sing your friend Happy Birthday”, she finally suggests.

I don’t want to do it. I have a terrible singing voice and hate any kind of public speaking. I know that my girlfriend doesn’t want to do it either. But Carrie looks like she isn’t sure. We don’t know her very well and I can’t tell if she secretly wants to do it, and is looking unsure so that we don’t feel pressured by her to do it, or if she absolutely doesn’t want to do it, but thinks that we secretly want to and doesn’t want to be rude and stop us two doing it.

“I’ll do it if you two do it”, Carrie says politely.

“I’ll do it if you two do it”, my girlfriend says politely.

“I’ll do it if you two do it”, I say politely.

This was probably how the Third Reich got started.

We find out that none of us want to do it, but only after we've filled in the slip of paper.

The karaoke starts, and the bar is immediately set very high with an excellent rendition of Van Halen’s Jump that includes air guitar, air drums and air keyboards, obviously lovingly rehearsed. The next man sounds great too, and has even brought his own sparkly gold jacket.

But as the evening wears on and I have a few more drinks, my hope that they don’t get round to us fades. I’ve been in restaurants where one table starts singing Happy Birthday to somebody and usually at least half the other tables join in, so at a show like this, actually dedicated to amateur singing, I am sure that the audience will help us out.

By the time we take to the stage I am feeling confident. We wait for the opening bars. I hear the opening bars. The opening bars of this*.

There is a split second of nagging puzzlement before the bowel-liquefying realisation that a simple, but significant mix-up has occurred.

I look at my girlfriend and Carrie. They look back at me like rabbits caught in the spotlight on the Mastermind chair, having just been told that their chosen specialised subject has been changed from “Carrots” to “Causes and effects of the Franco-Prussian War”. They each give a panicked shrug and take a half-step back from their microphones. The first lyrics appear on the screen.

I have a choice. I can either make an elaborate throat-cutting gesture to the man who cues up the music, explain the mix-up, then try to lead the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday To You”. Or I can launch into a full-blooded impersonation of helium-voiced Clare Grogan singing a song that I have never even sung in the privacy of my own shower, let alone on stage. I look at Hannah who is staring at me with a beguiling mixture of incredulity, amazement and hope.

My grandfather served in the First World War. My father endured National Service and could have been called up for years to follow. I am lucky to have been born in a time of relative peace, but that hasn’t stopped me wondering how I would respond in a combat situation. Now I knew. This was my D-Day, my Flanders field. There was a Boche machine gun that needed taking out and the rest of my platoon were dead, dying or didn't know how the tune went.

“Happy, happy birthday in a hot bath
To those nice nice nights...”

Some random thoughts as I sing:
(a) So that’s what the lyrics are. All these years I thought she was singing...
(b) ... I can’t remember what I thought she was singing. This means I now have no idea how the verses scan.
(c) Why is my left leg dancing in the way that my central nervous system is asking it to, but my right leg is just wobbling?

But maybe it’s not going too badly. The song only has about four notes in it, and none of them are particularly high or sustained. Coincidentally, my voice has a four-note range, and by a stroke of luck it is pitched an exact number of octaves below the melody. In the second verse I even have a go at the little yelps Ms Grogan does on “I got such a fright”.

And there is so much reverb on my voice that for the first time in my life I can actually hear myself sing. My voice sounds familiar. During the repeated “Happy Birthday”s after the middle eight I try to work out who I sound like. I go though a whole list in my head – Sinatra? Crosby? Nat King Cole? No. I sound like Mark E. Smith from the Fall.

Oh well. But then I look around and see Carrie, my girlfriend and various Frank Chickens all dancing behind me. We’re somehow pulling this off. The crowd cheer - tonight they have been celebrating vocal performance in its most diverse forms, from barber's shop quartet to conceptual art installations, and it probably hasn't got more diverse than this: the world's least convincing female impersonator doing a Fall tribute act. Perhaps I should get measured for a sparkly gold jacket after all.

Afterwards, Hannah hugs me and says, “That’s the best birthday present I’ve ever had”.

Great. What can I get her next year?


* For those of you without speakers, that was the unmistakeable xylophone riff at the start of Happy Birthday by early 80s Scottish New Wavers Altered Images.