My best friend Rich and I decided to take a short break from our failing music careers and go on holiday. Recharge our batteries, catch some rays, that sort of thing. Abject poverty being part and parcel of the ‘aspiring’ musician experience, however, our options were rather limited. ‘Staycations’ in the UK are obviously rubbish, but a glance at our collective coffers suggested the closest we’d get to a jaunt overseas was a trip on the Woolwich ferry.
But as so often, a heady mix of naivety and chutzpah prompted some out-of-the-box thinking. ‘We barely survive making music in London,’ Rich sagely observed. ‘Why not barely survive making music in Europe?’ We like to think that, at the very least, we’re handy enough musos to amuse the average pedestrian, so we decided that a fortnight busking around the Continent would be a laugh.
Smashing it outside Sacre Coeur
Our busking mise en scène is basic but effective. Rich is your classic flop-haired troubadour, combining an arresting tenor with a neat, understated guitar style. My own weapon of choice on the road is the melodica: a handheld plastic keyboard you blow into, and which looks, I’ll admit, like a cheap kid’s toy.
I may come across like a numpty playing it, but its novelty factor reels in far bigger audiences than a plain old singer-strummer can by themselves.
Once those punters have stuck around for a song or two they’ll usually lob us a handful of pity-shrapnel. Plus – believe it or not – the melodica genuinely sounds cool. Damon Albarn uses one in Gorillaz. So nah.
Setting up on our first day in the sparkling Parisian sunshine, we passed a cheerful afternoon entertaining fellow tourists on the steps of the gleaming Basilica of Sacre Coeur. The steady tinkle of coins into Rich’s open guitar case had been encouraging, but it was hard to say exactly how much we’d earned until we retired to a nearby bar terrace for the big tot-up.
‘There’s over 300 euros here!’ We’d surpassed our wildest expectations on day one. Breakfasting on dry baguettes in our dingy hostel on day two we resolved to save some money for the next leg. Though thwarted by an epic thunderstorm that afternoon, by the end of the fourth day we were able to march into a Paris bus station, plonk several kilos of grubby coins on to the incredulous cashier’s desk, and walk away with our tickets to Brussels.
Down and out in Brussels
Brussels is surprisingly gorgeous, and the foot-traffic outside Central Station certainly looked promising when we pitched up on day five. Alas, the seemingly endless procession of whey-faced Eurocrats proved immune to the charms of our Bob Marley hits. A friendly passer-by tipped us off about a prime spot near the busy shopping street of Avenue Louise.
There we whipped up a brisk lunchtime trade until the resident busking fraternity (there’s always one of these, no matter where you are) expressed its displeasure at us muscling – or musselling, perhaps? – in on their patch. We decided to cut our losses and set up instead in a quieter spot near the pretty Parc de Bruxelles. It went okay-ish, but it was some relief when, after three days, we made enough dosh to get to Cologne and sleep in comfort.
Honing the act in Cologne
We never meant to go to Cologne. But a random tourist video of us playing outside Sacre Coeur had been posted on our band’s Facebook page. An old friend from Germany saw it and invited us to crash at his pad in Cologne on the way home. Cologne is great! With clichéd German efficiency, buskers are legally restricted but still tolerated for the first half hour of every hour. This constant pressure to hone ‘the act’ to a perfect 30 minutes has spawned a thriving street performance culture.
Better still, it turns out that German people love English music (and English accents) so we utterly cleaned up on day eight. Our spirits were rallied as we boarded the coach back home.
The finale encore
Busking around Europe had been among the all-time great experiences of my life. With a modest level of ability and a desire to make people smile, I learned you can go on holiday for gratis. Or, at the very least, make enough loose coinage to get by. As they say in Paree: plus ça change.