THE spotlights dim and a reverential hush falls over Glasgow’s famous music venue, The 13th Note. The city’s rock cognoscenti have donned their most lived-in denim, suede and leather for what promises to be the gig of the year: an unforgettable night of tight-trousered twanging and banging, the mother of all guitar extravaganzas. They’re all here... Hendrix, Clapton, Slash, you name ’em. It can only mean one thing - the UK Air Guitar Championships are back in town.
Dozens of fleet-fingered axe heroes from around the country have left their bedroom mirrors behind to participate in the Scottish heat of a competition that requires more brass neck than bottleneck, more histrionics than electronics.
Jumping up on stage and playing imaginary guitar to a favourite backing track may seem even less demanding than, say, the average Travis release, but I can personally vouch there’s a lot more to it than mere self-mortification. With the winning entrant progressing to next month’s grand final at London’s legendary Electric Ballroom, every facial contortion, every pout and sneer and elongated tongue was going to count.
I asked promoter Brendan O’Hare - ex-member of Teenage Fanclub and Mogwai, no less - what it’s all about. "This is even more embarrassing than karaoke. You’re not up on stage singing, you’re making a complete tit of yourself. It’s very un-British in a way, but great fun and becoming more popular every year."
A 13th Note barmaid, who wished to remain anonymous for reasons that will immediately be apparent, said: "I was going to enter for this, but I put on some weight recently and my PVC trousers burst."
Any performing tips? "Angus Young [AC/DC guitarist] is the guy to copy, but he really nicked all his moves from Chuck Berry, didn’t he? I suppose this kind of guitar thing is associated with penis extension and all that, but you might be surprised at the type of people who go in for this."
Pre-gig research revealed some startling facts about air guitar demographics. It is attracting increasing numbers of 30 and 40-something men grappling with that dreaded affliction, the mid-life crisis. According to leading therapists, these men are attempting to recapture lost youth by inventing a parallel identity more exciting and adventurous than the one they present to friends or co-workers.
It may seem a harmless enough practice, but the anti-air guitar lobby claim it is the first step on the road to adultery, buying a Harley Davidson or fleeing one’s family and career to go white water rafting in Peru.
Christian Northam, of Marriage Counselling organisation Relate, disagrees. "I would encourage men to take up air guitar if that’s what they want to do, so long as they talk things over with their partners first. It’s important to retain a sense of fun and playfulness, because turning 40 can be hard for men. It’s a big marker in their lives, and renewed interest in old hobbies is quite common. Air guitar is certainly less harmful to relationships than having affairs with younger women."
Psychologists have already identified and labelled the type of person in question as something rather disparagingly called Glastonbury Man: a stressed-out, uptight white-collar worker in his thirties or forties, married with kids and hamstrung with a mortgage who appeases his midlife crisis by cavorting at music festivals and experimenting with soft drugs. Glastonbury Man typically seeks belated fulfilment in life through music - re-buying all the old vinyl he slung out years ago, for instance - and, it appears, letting it all hang out at air guitar nights.
Indeed, the most striking thing about the 13th Note bash was the preponderance of greying hair, expansive girths and dodgy shirts (as it transpired, first prize went to a man with all three). This was not your average rock crowd of spotty adolescents or 20-year-old headbangers: the air guitar gig had inspired a more wizened bunch to put away their lawnmowers and Nick Hornby novels for a night of unbridled exhibitionism.
In a spirit of suck it and see, I signed up for an air guitar slot under the pseudonym Raymy Rotten (in name AND performance). It seemed a good idea at the time, clowning about on stage to the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and getting an insight into the whole mad business of musical mind over matter.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Let me assure you, this was one of the toughest gigs I’ve ever blown. Tuning up, mentally speaking, was difficult enough, but before going on I realised I’d left my plectrum on the tour bus (a No. 62 actually). Sack the roadie.
Right then: 1, 2, 3…"Iiiiiiyyyam an anaaaarkiiiist, Iiiiiiyyyam the anteeekrrrrriiiist". Punk’s not dead, it lives on in the minds of ageing impersonators and makes an arse of itself at air guitar competitions. But how to win over an expectant, hairy-oxtered audience becoming steamier by the minute. In this air guitar business you’ve got to confront them, project yourself - let punters know you’re a legend in your own mind, if no one else’s.
I sneered and scowled, windmilled and duckwalked, picked and plucked and remembered that Pistols guitarist Steve Jones - you know, the guy who wore a hankie on his napper - was a master of the old legs-akimbo bum-wriggling manoeuvre.
It might have looked cool in ’76, but it was clear from the crowd’s reaction I was going to be eliminated at the first stage. They were politely dismissive, you might say, although I could have done without the "get off, you’re shite" heckle. Perhaps my middle-fingered salute to the audience halfway through the Pistols act was a bad idea, after all.
It was time for the pros to show the pretenders how to really rip it up. One by one they got up on stage and for three minutes lived the dream. The chosen music was predominantly heavy rock of a certain vintage, in keeping with the age group (30 to 40 years old) of many competitors. Free, Led Zeppelin, Cream… it was like being teleported through time to Woodstock or Knebworth.
The best early act was a guy who whipped his shirt off onstage while he gyrated to Guns ’n’ Roses, revealing some eye-catching tattoos that immediately won the crowd’s approval.
But not even this cleverly choreographed piece of showmanship was enough to upstage the eventual winner and proud owner of the title Scottish Air Guitar Champion 2004. Elmo, a computer programmer in his forties who is married with two children, exactly fitted the profile of a successful air guitar exponent.
He had clearly been practising his licks, because the audience lapped up a bravura performance of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ followed by ‘Duelling Banjos’, the theme tune from redneck chiller Deliverance.
What really wowed the judges (ie the audience) was Elmo’s gesture-perfect rendition of Hendrix setting fire to a Fender Stratocaster during his infamous appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Carefully dousing his guitar with petrol and imploring the flames to rise up, Elmo then brandished the red hot axe - well, you’ve got to use your imagination haven’t you? - above his head.
Best laugh of the night occurred moments later when he ‘threw’ the imaginary instrument at a member of the audience who, either mesmerised by the performance or minced with drink, put his arms out to catch it. Priceless.
After taking a post-gig bow and being cheered from the stage by his adoring public, Elmo unwound in the upstairs bar of the 13th Note, still high as a kite following his triumph. Fending off autograph hunters and well-wishers, while busy arranging a Big Issue splash ("Elmo: the man behind the myth"), he spoke to Scotland on Sunday about his remarkable talent.
What is the appeal of this air guitar lark, I wondered? "I think the big attraction for me is that there’s less gear to carry than in a regular band. Although I’m pleased with tonight’s results I felt some of my playing was not up to scratch. I should really have been playing left-handed and tuned to E flat. Still, this could be the break I’ve been looking for."
His wife was more cautious about what success in the air guitar championships might bring. "I better not find him in bed with any air groupies," she said. "Yeah, particularly not the actual blow-up kind," agreed Elmo.
It was time to ask that difficult question about midlife crises. "You can tell just by looking at my shirt I’m going through some kind of crisis. But I think air guitar is one of the safer options at this stage of life. It’s cheap and you’re less likely to damage yourself or your family," said Elmo.
Before the night was out, there was a lot of excited chat about promotional tours, merchandising and product endorsements. Elmo explained: "I should really be signed up by an equipment manufacturer, because I would be able to endorse the quietest amps on earth."
For now, our new champion can look forward to an all-expenses-paid trip to London’s Electric Ballroom on September 12, where he will compete against fellow air guitarists from as far afield as Belfast and Cardiff for the coveted UK title.
He can hardly wait. "By a happy coincidence, there’s a Hendrix exhibition at the Marquee in London around that time, so I’ll get to see it on this trip."
After such a thrilling and rewarding night, there’s only one thing left to say: crisis, what crisis?