Geraldine Brennan talks to Phil Collins, one of the judges in the TESYamaha Rock and Pop Awards. Every would-be rock musician needs a teacher who can sell them a drum kit at a very good price and report back from last night's gig at the Marquee.
Bruce Roland was a key role model for the young Phil Collins, who went on to become probably the most famous drummer in the world en route to his solo career as a singer-songwriter. Roland taught at Collins' stage school by day and spent his nights playing at the Marquee, the Soho venue at the cutting edge of rock.
"I used to go round to his house and listen to tapes and talk endlessly about music," the TESYamaha Rock and Pop Awards judge said. "I didn't need much encouragement - I had been playing drums since I was five - but being taken seriously was important. It was Bruce Roland who first told me I should stop drumming and sing." Roland went off to Woodstock to play with Joe Cocker, Collins joined Genesis and the rest is rock history.
For his earlier musical education, the passionate drummer relied on records - the Beatles, the Shadows, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. Until he left his west London grammar at 14 to play the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, his future career was pursued at home. "Even though we had a hip music teacher, rock or pop music was not seen as a serious option in schools then - it was not thought of as something that would last. Now it's so much a part of life that it's inevitable that schools have taken it on. Even if it's not a particular teacher's cup of tea, they have to realise that it is what speaks to the kids of that generation."
Stage school offered the chance to form his first band. "It was great - I had the time and freedom to concentrate on it. We went to gigs at the Marquee at night and came back and tried things out.
"It's important that kids get the chance to have a go at making music that they like. Learning a tune - 'Stairway to Heaven' or whatever - is more likely to hold their interest in the early stages than learning scales."
The songwriting work in schools which the Rock and Pop Awards aim to promote is the natural extension of the Collins philosophy. "I've heard tapes of 50 kids in a school hall singing a song they've written with a teacher at the piano. The youngest age group in the contest might not be able to arrange their own music but they're expressing their ideas. That could be happening in every school in the country."
The Rock and Pop Awards, now in their third year, are intended to tap new songwriting talent from eight to 18-year-olds. "Rock and pop" is open to wide interpretation: entries are welcome from any category including reggae, house and the wilder fringes of indie. Entries from three age groups will be judged initially by the Music Education Council, then shortlisted tapes will be passed on to the judging panel: Collins, rock impresario Harvey Goldsmith, Virgin Radio's Richard Skinner and Virgin Records' director of press and publicity Jeremy Silver.
"We're not looking for someone who can become a pop star, but someone with the talent and the voice to put their ideas over," Collins says. "And you have to stop yourself judging by how a song sounds on tape. If a kid is good with keyboards and technology or if the school can spend money on it something can be polished up and made to sound much better, but it's the ideas in the words and music that's important."
Technical expertise can be injected later for the winners in three age groups who will perform at an awards ceremony in Earl's Court in September. However, Collins is keen that all the participants should gain from the experience. "Everyone gets a critique of their work and are told how they could improve it. The contest is still in its early days, but we're looking for ways to do follow-up work."
He is now looking forward to this year's tapes. "It's exciting listening to new work in its roughest state. You hear a tape from a school in Brixton with three or four solo voices and you just know if Phil Spector had been around he'd have made them the next Ronettes."
The path to mega-stardom has become more pitfall-ridden since Spector's day. Collins' advice to those who want to follow his act is: "Hang in there, but be prepared for a bumpy ride in a cynical business". Openings in production are "probably more common than they used to be, because there are so many more studios" but performance is another story.
"When I started all you had to do was play your instrument. It didn't matter what you looked like, after the late Fifties and early Sixties when you had to look like Billy Fury. Now the image concerns are undermining the music. It wasn't like that in the early Seventies. Some quite ugly people were doing well then."
The closing date for the TESYamaha Rock and Pop Awards is June 24. Entry forms and more details from David Jones or Mavis Kaye on 01908 369219.