In a subterranean Middle Eastern restaurant in central London, I'm watching Bassekou Kouyaté whip up a storm with his band from Mali. In his forties, the world's best n'goni maestro has been playing Penfold to a succession of DangerMice for more than two decades, with Taj Mahal, Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré among those recognising that he could blow them offstage with his talent but relaxed in the knowledge that he never craved the limelight. And so they reaped the rewards. But now he is hellbent on making a name for himself. "It's my time," he says. Only trouble is, his singer (and wife), Ami, has "it", and when she takes the stage next to him, in the crowd's mind he evaporates.
But if the qualities that make a great frontbeing are indefinable, then what makes a sidekick is a thoroughly subjective affair. It's not the singer or lead guitarist, that's for certain. Well, most of the time. Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley is the perfect example of a singer who was clearly baggage, and Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump withers in the shadow of his ubiquitous bass player (bass player even!) Pete Wentz.
Here's one possible formula: if the band broke up and reformed, who would be essential? Zeppelin and The Who, despite what Pete and Roger might think, were clearly equals; The Clash were a three-man gang and their drummer; the three-piece R.E.M. would not be significantly worse if simply called Stipe. Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce have proved themselves to be utterly sidemenish if only because the other two Smiths still have egos that force them to try to still look like pop stars.
Fact: no true sideman has ever found themselves in the position of being 45, leathery of skin and plastic of septum, and still having to keep a ridiculous Britpop haircut better tended than the greens of Augusta. Some are and do, but they haven't realised their true position in life yet. For many, it comes as a shock: Alan Lancaster formed the band that would evolve into Status Quo in 1962, and resorted to the law 23 years later when he learned that he hadn't been invited on the reunion tour.
But Lord help us if we were in a world in which every member of every band was a James Brown, a Kevin Rowland or a Mike Scott. It's time those whom the NME once labelled "Sleeperblokes" got their due recognition. Who are the greatest inessential heroes of our times?
I'll offer one, and wager you'll be hard pressed to beat it. I once received a press release for the debut single by a member of Boyzone. It stated: "Mikey Graham has always played a back seat role, which benefited the band." Surely not even Andrew Ridgeley was as unnecessary as that?
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