Sunday, 28 November 2010

Sons Of The Stage Part 1: The Band That Kept Changing Its Name

Back in 1989, I was a fifteen-year old kid with no idea of what I was going to do with my life. The only careers that appealed to me were writing and playing in a band. (As it turned out, I've ended up doing both these things, although not at a level which would justify using the word "career"). With a view to the latter, I convinced my folks to shell out for some guitar lessons at school, as well as a nylon-stringed acoustic on which to learn.

The school's guitar teacher was a pretty cool broad called Sheila Stubbs. At this point, I was no good at gauging people's ages if they were older than, ooh, 20, but the pictures in my memory suggest she was in her late 40s. She was quite short, Irish and hipper than the rest of the school staff put together, despite the fact that her husband, who was one of the full-time music teachers, once got so incensed by an advertisement for the first Manic Street Preachers album (featuring a close-up of part of Richey Manic's naked tattooed body) that I expected steam to start coming out of his ears, Beano-style. Sheila rocked a vaguely gothy look, and certainly had enough of the dark side to her that she once invited Jehovah's Witnesses into her home and proceeded to freak them out by going on about how she was a highly experienced witch (when the cat entered the room, she apparently declared "And there's my familiar!"). She also agreed that, once we'd been through the songs in 'The Complete Rock & Pop Guitar Player' and done some blues, she'd procure a Heavy Metal book so we could learn some Metallica.

So the next stage in my journey to musical stardom was to get an electric guitar, which made it to the top of my next Christmas list. I chose a guitar with a black and red crackle/lightning finish, which I thought was the most metal design in Yeovil's guitar shop. This impression lasted until a Sixth Form girl described it as "tortoiseshell". This guitar was to last me for years, albeit in an ever-decaying state - in 2003, a band we were supporting asked to borrow a guitar when they broke a string mid-set, but when handed mine, the guitarist actually refused to use it as it was so knackered after years of abuse.

I don't remember whose idea it was to start a band - OK, it was almost certainly Dominic Fry's idea, as he made the lion's share of the decisions - but I certainly needed little encouragement. For a boarding school, our place of learning was surprisingly amenable to the idea of its inmates starting bands, with portacabins outside the music building available for rehearsals, and occasional "gigs" in the assembly hall or music building. Ambient techno outfit Spooky were alumni of the school (as were Derek Jarman and the guy who invented Connect 4, apparently), but by the time I got there the premier outfit were a metal band whose name is, I'm afraid, lost in the mists of time. I do remember that they advertised a live performance with a poster featuring the cover artwork for Megadeth's Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? album, albeit with their name inscribed on the sign old Vic Rattlehead is leaning on. I think they also put up some individual photos of the band members, including a shot of the drummer (who I believe was called Hamer-Hodges) sticking his tongue out while playing the drums - he was clearly a very metal gentleman indeed. I went to see them play their set in the main room of the music school (in a lunch break, I think?!), where they played a bunch of thrash covers and an instrumental called Music To Gargle At. I took it to be their own creation and quite admired the bold diversion away from Bay Area thrash that it represented, but later discovered that it was almost certainly a cover of an Ozric Tentacles tune. It probably says something, both about the early '90s music scene and about my school, that a band would consider back-to-back Metallica and Ozrics covers.

Mind you, my band's repertoire was to become a pretty broad thing. I should probably introduce the band first, though, right? We've already met Dominic Fry; I was in quite a few classes with him and, if I could be said to have been in any social clique at school (which I'm not sure I was), then it would have been one which included him. He played the bass and was the band's de facto leader. I was on guitar, obviously. On the drums was one Tom Horsfall, who was easily the most handsome member of the band and was therefore closer to the school's mainstream than the rest of us. On vocals was Ben Rowlett, an enigmatic fellow with a wonderfully dry sense of humour. At some point, Keiron Maguire joined on second guitar, though I think the arrangement was pretty much that he'd show up whenever he could be arsed. Keiron was probably the most free spirit in the whole school and gave the impression that his life moved in its own unique way, while the rest of the school or, indeed, the planet, was stuck in boring old linear time and space. The flipside of this was that there was sometimes something slightly unnerving about him, as if he was privy to some cosmic joke that nobody else could possibly understand. Kieron is still playing music, as you can hear here:

We started with covers, including Flower by The Charlatans, Transmission, No Love Lost and She's Lost Control by Joy Division, U-Mass by The Pixies, Head On by The Jesus & Mary Chain and a version of Hole's Teenage Whore (yes, with Ben on vocals - and he did it justice, too). We also covered a song by an unsigned band from Petersfield or somewhere similar called The Lovelies. The tune was called Hippy Trippy and we'd heard it because one of the members of the band was the older brother of a kid at school. I think this kid once asked us not to play it any more as it might put people off his brother's band. Undeterred, we recorded our one and only music video for it, which involved us emerging from the music building's fire doors and miming badly to it. Influenced by a surreal, no-budget Pavement video I'd seen on 'The Chart Show', I wore a velvet jacket and put coat hangers on my guitar head. Before the song was even over, a teacher who lived opposite the building has emerged to bollock us for ruining his Sunday afternoon. If anybody reading this has a copy of the video, please upload it to YouTube.

You'll notice that up until now I've not mentioned the name of this band. The thing is, we kept changing it. I think we started as Middle-Class Grasp, which was probably supposed to be a political statement - you'd have to ask Dom - but was obviously rubbish (not to mention the fact that people kept thinking we were saying "Middle-Class Grass"). There is now a band called Middle Class Rut, which is just about acceptable, although they sometimes shorten it to MC Rut, which makes me think they should be hyping the crowd at a drum'n'bass night.

Anyway, our next moniker was Captain Swing, and this was definitely political, Captain Swing being the name used to sign threatening letters sent out to landowners during a period of anti-threshing machine riots in rural England in 1830. Yes, we were paying attention in History classes, and, no, none of the tunes we played were remotely political. Unfortunately, we realized that, unless you were in our history class, you'd assume that the "Swing" in our name referred to a jaunty musical quality, making this as bad a name as, say, Colonel Funk or Lieutenant Groove. Here's a link to show you which kind of band might name themselves Captain Swing...

Clearly tired of the soapbox, but not of eminently stupid names, our final incarnation was as Nine Inch Snails. We thought this was pretty fucking funny.

Along from our video shoot, we did manage to make some other public appearances. We played the school's annual gig in the immense assembly hall - still the biggest stage I've been on and likely to remain so, I fear - alongside Manifest, a band from the year below who specialized in covers of the big rock/metal bands of the day (G'n'F'n'R, Metallica, Black Crowes, that sort of thing), who were clearly much better at their instruments than us and took things a good deal more seriously too. There was a strange policy for the night whereby each band would play half their set, then let the other play half of theirs. (I think there might have been a headline band from outside the school, maybe Bournemouth shoegazers Flood, but that might have been a different year.) Anyway, in the gap between our two half sets, Ben was busted for smoking by one of the teachers. We were all seventeen or eighteen, but while Ben was legally allowed to smoke in the real world, such activity on school grounds was liable to get you detention or early morning litter duty or some such. When he returned, he inserted a stream of freestyle invective against said teacher into one of the tunes (I think it was either No Love Lost or Teenage Whore), in place of the actual lyrics. Amazingly, we didn't get immediately shut down; in fact, I'm guessing that nobody in authority was really paying close attention to what was going on - it's all noise, anyway.

The only other Nine Inch Snails show I can remember was a smaller scale affair towards the end of the Sixth Form. There was, barely credibly, an actual bar in the school grounds, probably to prevent kids from going out into the surrounding towns and villages to sample their wares with no teachers on hand to monitor their alcohol consumption. Obviously, loads of us went to pubs in the surrounding towns and villages, but the Sixth Form Bar had its advantages, principally the cheapest drinks I've ever paid for. There was a limit on how much we could drink - a mere one pint for the Lower Sixth, or two for the Upper Sixth. However, somebody had made the fatal flaw of allowing Upper Sixth Form boys to work the bar alongside an actual adult, so if it was your mate they simply wouldn't put a mark next to your name when serving you a pint, so long as the adult barman's back was turned.

The bar itself was a prefab building with two rooms, one with the actual bar and some seating and the other with some form of table-based sport entertainment and a stereo. It was in the latter that Nine Inch Snails made our last stand. By this point we'd actually started writing our own material; the tunes I can remember were Inertia (written by me, pretty shoegazey) and Cicada's River (written by Dom and quite PJ Harvey-influenced), though I think we had another two or three tunes. I remember feeling it was a shame that we were inevitably splitting up, what with us all off to different unis in the autumn, as we were actually starting to come together as a band rather than a bit of a lark. I'm pretty sure that most of the kids out that night stayed in the other room, though.

Well, that's a suitably downbeat place to leave things. Future blogs will deal with the rest of my musical output, starting with Southampton University's one and only Carp Fever...

Thursday, 18 November 2010

1988-1993: School Days Revisited Part 2

1991 starts on a high. I'm not talking about my New Year celebrations, which I can't remember - unfortunately I don't mean this in a "God, I was so wasted" way, but because spending the night at home with my folks watching telly didn't generate any noteworthy memories. New Years would pick up from 1992/1993, when a bunch of us descended on Bournemouth town centre, but that's a story for another time, as it doesn't really involve music (although at one point I found myself round someone's house watching fractal patterns on a telly while some acid trance played in the background - RIP BenoƮt Mandelbrot, btw).

No, the reason I was properly chuffed at the start of 1991 can be traced back all the way to the last week of 1990, when Iron Maiden released 'Bring Your Daughter...To The Slaughter' as a single in their usual selection of fan-friendly/chart-influencing formats. Never mind that it was a below-par offering, originally a Bruce Dickinson solo jam from the soundtrack to Nightmare On Elm Street Part Who Cares before being re-recorded for the Maiden's first disappointing album 'No Prayer For The Dying'. And never mind that it contributed to the arsenal of cliches so beloved by metal's detractors, as illustrated in the mid-00s when I described my (metal) band The Gilamonsters to a friend's brother, to be met with the query "So, do you do all that slaughter your daughter stuff?" Nope, the most important thing is that in the first week of 1991, it becomes Maiden's first (and, to date, only) UK number one single, and to add to the thrill it does so by deposing Cliff Richard's execrable 'Saviour's Day', a record so smug it has the catalogue number XMAS90. It should, perhaps, be pointed out that, nearly two decades before pleased-with-themselves commentators pointed out that Joe McElderry and Rage Against The Machine were both effectively signed to the same label, Cliff and ver Maiden provide EMI with two number ones back-to-back.

Having returned from the New Model Army show in one piece, my folks prove more amenable to the idea of me going to shows. My dad agrees to drive me to Taunton to see Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine in February (N.B. I might not have told him their full name). Unfortunately, a heavy snowfall makes the roads too treacherous, a turn of events to which I react by shutting myself in my bedroom and playing Metallica's 'The Call Of Ktulu' on my electric guitar over and over again. We'll return to Carter USM later on, but I'd like to point out that, to this day, my dad has never gone to a rock show with me.

Happier times come in May when I go to see Curve at Exeter University. I've only heard a couple of their tunes -at this point they'd only just released their second EP - but I've been on the look out for any shows a reasonable distance from my Somerset locale, and great things are being predicted for Curve in the music press. They've been tied into the emerging shoegaze scene alongside bands like Lush and Ride, partly due to their one-syllable name but also as a result of the influence of My Bloody Valentine, but their sound has a greater emphasis on electronics and is therefore more clinical and icy. I've always felt that Garbage owed a lot to Curve, albeit presenting their music in a more obviously radio-friendly format. The show is great, but possibly a bit much to take in with very little in the way of familiarity to latch on to and a dense, wall of noise quality to the sound. It's significant too, as the first time I go to a show on my own; I'll do this plenty more in the future in Southampton and Brighton, although often at the kind of shows where I know I'll run into familiar faces.

Confession time: at some point in 1991, I'm pretty sure I go to see Kitchens Of Distinction at Exeter Uni, but I can't remember a ruddy thing about it. This might be because my mum picks me up afterwards and I have to leave early. The word you're looking for is AWESOME.

Enough of this norman no-mates stuff. Either more kids at school are getting into music or our excursion to see New Model Army the previous year has reached such near-mythological status that the next outing to a show in Portsmouth sees our number swelled by the addition of Ben Moores (definitely this time - I've checked), Chris Hook, Matt Gerry (I think), Alex Trewby and Andrew Cumming, a young man who has been saddled with the nickname "Lumpy", a monicker as unfortunate as it is inappropriate - as far as I can recall, there was nothing remotely lumpy about him. I sincerely hope that his 35 year-old incarnation has long since said goodbye to this appelation, though I fear that his surname may have supplied ample opportunity for alternative piss-taking possibilities.

Now, while Lush are a far hipper name to drop than New Model Army, their appeal can't justify a place the size of Portsmouth Guildhall, and so on the 29th of October we are introduced to the chlorine-scented joys of leisure centre-cum-music venue the Pyramids Centre. It's a perfectly acceptable place to go and see a band, though it arguably doesn't quite live up to being named after one of the seven wonders of the world.

The first band of the evening are a pretty average indie band called Passing Clouds. Everyone sits on the floor to watch them which, even with my limited experience of rock concerts, I recognize must be a fairly dispiriting experience for the band onstage. I muse on this while remaining seated. Anyway, I need to conserve my energy and attention for the next band, London's Gallon Drunk. I've heard some of their tunes on John Peel's show (including a cover of Dick Dale's 'Miserlou', a good few years before the original was rediscovered thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack top Pulp Fiction), and also seen footage of one of their gigs on Snub TV, a fantastic BBC2 series which remains one of the few examples of decent music television.

I think what fascinates me most about Gallon Drunk is that I can't immediately place their music into any defined scene. Even with my limited experience, I can tell that there's something pretty retro about them, both in their rockabilly basslines and their attire, all winklepickers, quiffs and suits, but there's also an element of unruly noise, largely emanating from frontman James Johnston, a man who's able to sing, play guitar and play organ all at the same time by tuning his axe to an open tuning and simply whacking it against his mic stand. (Note: with apologies to musos, this is about as technical a sentence as I'm ever gonna write.) I guess I've heard The Cramps by this point, who I can see are similarly influenced by rock'n'roll but in a much camper way, but it'll only be when I finally dig backwards to The Birthday Party that I see Gallon Drunk's real roots, a debt acknowledged a few years later when Johnston joins The Bad Seeds.

I watch Gallon Drunk's set wide-eyed; this is the most incendiary rock show I've yet seen, and will remain so for some time. It connects with me in a more primal way than anything I've seen so far, impressing upon me that you don't have to know a band's material to be physically and emotionally moved by some seriously righteous noise. When they've done, I rush to the merchandise stand and buy a Gallon Drunk t-shirt, which on closer inspection turns out to feature an image of a naked woman removing the head from a hawaiian-shirted man. I then proceed to find the rest of my friends sitting behind a pillar with their backs to the stage. They unanimously declare Gallon Drunk to be the very worst band they've ever heard.

Soon after the gig, I will write to John Peel and ask him to play a Gallon Drunk tune. Good egg that he is, he plays them and dedicates the song to me. The next day, Giles Warner approaches me at school to tell me he heard my name on the radio. "Yeah," he points out, "that song was shit."

Lush make a rather better impression on the rest of the group. Several years before their Britpop-era hits like 'Single Girl' and 'Ladykillers', their 1991 sound is part way between their MBV-influenced peers like Ride and the more etheral sounds of Cocteau Twins, whose Robin Guthrie is their early producer. In their favour, particularly to a bunch of 15- and 16-year old boys, is co-frontperson Miki Berenyi, whose exotic background (part-Japanese, part-Hungarian, it says on Wikipedia) and - look, I'm going to have to use the phrase "flame-haired" here, alright? - foxy, flame-haired image make her a cross-genre sex symbol. Around this time, it's not unusual to see members of Obituary or Napalm Death wearing Lush shirts, and I genuinely think this is less an attempt to show how musically open-minded they are and more a way of publicly declaring their love for Ms Berenyi.

Speaking to Ben more recently, he said that his experience of the Lush show was similar to mine with Curve in Exeter, but for the most part we come away from the Pyramids happy, bearing posters and t-shirts. Something which defined this period for me was waiting nearer the end of the year however...

The music historians amongst you will note that 1991 was the year of 'Nevermind', Metallica's black/self-titled album, 'Screamadelica', 'Blue Lines' and 'Loveless', and we certainly dug all those records.* It would, however, amount to revisionist history for me to brush under the carpet the fact that the key bands of 1991 for me and some of my friends, notably Simon and Ben, were Ned's Atomic Dustbin and Carter USM. We weren't alone in what may now be regarded as folly - NME gave the debut Neds album 'God Fodder' 8 out of 10 and described them as "The Beatles for the student bar generation", while a year later Carter would score a #1 album with the appropriately-titled '1992 - The Love Album'. However, by the time we actually became part of "the student bar generation", in 1993/1994, both bands had massively fallen from grace, their hooded tops hanging unloved at the back of thousands of late teens' and early 20-somethings' wardrobes. This encounter with the fickle nature of indie fame means I'm now rarely surprised to find, say, The Kaiser Chiefs or Franz Ferdinand struggling to maintain their intial impact past their second album.

I'm getting ahead of myself, of course. After the New Model Army gig in late 1990, I remember sitting in Simon's house reading a piece from Sounds to Andy which suggests that, while supporting The Wonderstuff on tour, the Neds have been blowing the headliners offstage on a nightly basis. "Well," replied Andy, "that's exactly the kind of thing Sounds would say." To this day, this remains the pithiest critique of music journalism I've ever heard.

In March 1991, the Neds achieve their first proper hit with 'Happy', a tune which I recently discovered still makes me, er, happy when it was played on 6Music. As a direct consequence, a man who goes only by the name Rat gets to go on Top Of The Pops.

The Neds aren't a million miles from their Stourbridge predecessors The Wonderstuff, but are somewhat bouncier, thanks both to some influences from the US alt-rock/hardcore scenes and the presence of two bass players. Their image is also more kid-friendly - with hindsight, it's probably a blessing in disguise that my school doesn't allow crimped hair, or coiffures which are short at the back and chin-length at the front, but I certainly decide that long shorts are the coolest way to (half) cover one's legs.

'God Fodder' follows shortly after 'Happy' and rapidly becomes an album to which we know every word. This proves useful when we get to see them in December at Portsmouth Guildhall. I think Irish band Power Of Dreams are the support, but they haven't lodged in my memory in the slightest - we're only there for one band. This is my first experience of a certain type of gig and audience, one where you spend the entire evening jumping up and down, pressed tightly into a pogoing mass of bodies, bellowing along to all the words for as long as your breath can manage it. It's an exhilarating evening, and one which again ends with the by now almost mandatory purchase of a t-shirt.

The Neds become the first band we go and see twice, nearly a year later in November 1992 at Poole Arts Centre. By this point, they're touring their second album 'Are You Normal?', which doesn't quite capture the country's imagination like its predecessor, but actually stands up rather better in the present day. This gig is notable for my being ejected from the venue due to what I maintain must have been a case of mistaken identity (no, it was nothing to do with my apparent resemblance to Mick Hucknall). Having watched countless crowdsurfers throughout both Neds gigs, I decide that I should have a go myself. Unfortunately, when I go over the barrier and begin the walk back round to the audience, a bouncer points at me, says "I've warned you before!" and hustles me out of the fire exit. I can only imagine that floppy/curly-haired 18-year olds in black band t-shirts are hard to tell apart for a member of the Poole Arts Centre bouncer massive. On another date on the same tour, a kid gets hospitalised when bouncers actually push him down a fire escape, so I guess I don't come off too badly - I even manage to regain entry to the venue, after missing a handful of songs, by waiting until a large group of people go into the auditorium at once and darting through while the door staff are overwhelmed. I've learnt my lesson though - to this day, I've never crowdsurfed again, unlike Matt Ross, whose Glastonbury 1995 crowdsurfing experiences will be detailed in a future blog...

On to Carter USM, then, a band who were fond of describing themselves as a cross between AC/DC and the Pet Shop Boys, the former due to their love of a raucous rock'n'roll riff and the latter because they used synthesised basslines and drums and, er, there were two of them. To be fair, this was a description which both over- and undersold them. On the one hand, they could never aspire to the timeless greatness of the 'DC or the majesty of early Pet Shop Boys (and if you dispute that last phrase, go listen to 'West End Girls', 'It's A Sin', 'Rent' or 'Left To My Own Devices' - winners all). But Carter did have a very individual charm, irrespective of any vague similarities to other outfits. Their music was charmingly ramshackle, while their verbose, pun-heavy lyrics dealt with socially-conscious subjects (bullying in the army, scummy landlords, domestic abuse, alcoholism) which were largely lacking in indie bands of the time. Their tendency to invite a portly gentleman called  Jon Beast onstage immediately prior to their performance may, however, have hepled prevent them from ever being taken seriously. If you're ever at a gig and people start chanting "You! Fat! Bastard!" at some unfortunate, it is largely Carter's fault

Their songs were also incredibly fun to jump around to, which is exactly what we find ourselves doing in May 1992 when we see them at Portsmouth Guildhall, a venue which is now becoming something of an old friend. The support band are The Frank & Walters, a band so whimiscal and twee that any one member of Belle & Sebastian could easily beat them up, but who we dig immensely at the time. The Carter experience is largely similar to the Neds show a few months earlier, albeit with more complicated lyrics to shout along to. An unfortunate memory of this show involves me grabbing a fanzine off someone outside without paying, which I excuse both to myself and to the writer when I belatedly posted him payment as a result of being handed various flyers and just assuming he was offering me more free gubbins. As the zine is an A4 publication which is thick enough to have writing on the spine, I suspect the real reason was simply that I'm drunk and cheeky. It was called Wake Up and was a cracking read, split between politics and politically-minded bands (including Carter). Hopefully sending him payment and then buying the next issue absolves me of my crime.

We go and see Carter again in December 1992 at the Bournemouth International Centre, as a result of my winning a competition on The Evening Session. At this point, and for a few more years, I will enter any competition going, a bit like an indie/metal equivalent of people who habitually enter competitions in Take A Break magazine. I will go on to claim such magnificent prizes as a Pendragon 12", the soft rock compilation 'Leather & Lace', and a Joyrider t-shirt and set of drumsticks. The t-shirt will eventually be thrown out, although not before a subsequent girlfriend tells me how much she hates it; the drumsticks may well still be on the windowsill of my room in my parents' house. However, unlike my Carter tickets, none of these prizes arrive with a fantastically cheesy signed picture of then Eveniug Session presenter Mark Goodier. The show is the biggest we've yet been to, and comes on the back of a great year for Carter. You'll note that for a whole year we've only been to see two bands, and that sums up what Neds and Carter mean to us at this point.

Actually, there is another show I go to around now which I find impossible to pin down to a particular date. A fairly under-achieving indie band called Bob play in Ilminster, the nearest town to where I live iu Somerset, and I go along on my own. Fired up by my Neds/Carter experiuences, I go down the front on my own and jump around to the first couple of songs before leaving because - you guessed it -my Dad came to pick me up. I can only imagine how the band must have felt when the only person who appeared to be enjoying them upped and left; no wonder the show isn't on the official gigography on their website.

Speaking of Somerset, in late 1991 I'm listening to John Peel when he announces that, among other delights, his show will feature "an exciting new voice from Yeovil". I'm not even sure I've heard him right, but it turns out he's talking about PJ Harvey, whose debut single 'Dress' he goes on to air. It's absolutely fantastic, and it's not any regional bias which makes me say now that hearing this record is a defining point in my musical growth. Like Gallon Drunk before her, PJ Harvey is clearly doing something outside the indie mainstream, but which immediately grabs my attention. I buy 'Dress' from Acorn Records in Yeovil, a fantastic record shop which is still there to this day, and in which I will later bump into PJ Harvey bassist Steve Vaughan. John Peel will go on to play tracks from the debut PJ Harvey album 'Dry', and the day after hearing some of these I bump into the lady herself in Yeovil. I'm afraid I almost certainly open the conversation with "Excuse me, but are you PJ Harvey?" I tell her that I've heard and enjoyed some of the tunes off the album, which is a cause of some concern as they apparently haven't even been mastered yet. She's enormously polite and, if anything, even shier than I am, and if she notices the fact that I'm carrying a copy of Metal Hammer with Joe Elliot on the cover and a free tape by It's Alive, then she's too polite to mention it.

I go on to buy 'Dry' in a Woolworths in Torquay, and then follow-up album 'Rid Of Me' - still one of my favourite records of all time - in Square Records in Wimborne. By May 1993, my friends and I are itching to get out of boarding school and have more fun elsewhere. I plump for university in Southampton, but some four months before I start there I go to my first gig in the city, when Ben Rowlett, Dom Fry, Kieron Maguire (maybe) Andy Bell and myself go to see PJ Harvey at Southampton Guildhall (another city, another venue with the same name - seriously, though, never confuse Portsmouth and Southampton - people get angry). She/They (at this point, Polly is still insisting in interviews that PJ Harvey is a band name - she will back this up by replacing the other two members before the third album) are supported by another Yeovil outfit, Gutless, and our old friends Gallon Drunk, who go down better in this context than they had done with Lush 18 months earlier. This is the tour where Polly Jean dresses in a strange leopardskin coat/shades combo, but no wardrobe decisions can detract from the fact that she is absolutely brilliant tonight.

In later years, I will discover that several future friends from Southampton were at this very gig. All of which makes it seem like I'm leading on seamlessly into my Southampton years, but I'm not done with school days just yet. My next chapter will deal with the ever-changing names of my first band, and after that we've still got to deal with 1993: The Year Crusty Broke. Fun times are, clearly, ahead.

*...although not without reservations. I remember people being aghast at the bad job the Primals did of miming 'Loaded' on 'Top Of The Pops', perhaps because the tune was clearly the result of remixing and studio reconstructions rather than a livepiece. Later, Simon asked a grov to pick him up a copy of Motley Crue's 'Primal Scream' on cassette single from Square Records in Wimborne, and was none too happy when they returned with the Primals' 'Don't Fight It, Feel It'. I seem to recall his exact words were "What's this Technotronic shit?" I'm confident that Simon would rather listen to Primal Scream than Motley Crue these days.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

1988-1993: School Days Revisited Part 1

It's October 1990, I'm in Portsmouth Guildhall and I'm beginning to think we might be a little out of our depth. But I think I need to go back a little.

Autumn 1988: Smash Hits has led on to Record Mirror, Kerrang!, Raw and pretty much any other metal magazine. Iron Maiden have superceded Def Leppard as my favourite band, and I've now started getting into Metallica and Anthrax. Acid house is about to blow up in the charts and the tabloids. 

The next stage of my education has begun, and I'm now boarding full-time at a school near Poole in Dorset. On the first night, I ask the other kids in my dorm if any of them like heavy metal. This query is met by stony silence, although it turns out David Jones-Cooper likes The Cult. My contemporaries seem to be listening to a lot of Tracy Chapman and Bob Marley, mainly due to the influence of Steve White-Cooper. Steve is the biggest bloke in our year and, more importantly, has two older twin sisters who are apparently models. Older sisters are a big deal, as our school is single-sex until the Sixth Form, at which point a small number of the fairer sex are released into the school to cope with the attentions of a hundred emotionally-retarded teenage boys. I seem to remember a story that one of Steve's sisters once turned down the advances of Mick Hucknall, although I concede that this may be the sort of urban myth that gets related about somebody's older sister in every school in the land.* For all I know, it may well have actually happened to someone's older sister in every school in the land. 

Speaking of redheads, everyone gets into Guns'N'Roses within about a week of starting term.

Older kids at school seem to like The Cure and Pixies a lot. I see one of them in a 'Death To The Pixies' t-shirt and can't work out whether he's a fan or is expressing a rather hardline opinion about a band he despises. Another one takes the piss out of me for wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt, although the situation is probably rendered worse by the electric blue jeans I'm wearing at the time. One of our jobs as "shells" (the official school term for kids in their first year) or "grovs" (the unofficial and therefore more commonly-used term for the same) is to deliver magazines and newspapers to the rooms of older boys in our house. Some of them subscribe to 2000AD, which I latch on to as a hip alternative to Marvel or DC comics. 

Ben Moores mentions Sabbat and Bolt Thrower to me. He's heard them because he's into role-playing games and flexidiscs of these two have been given away with Warhammer magazine. I notice that the latter band's name crops up as graffiti in the backgrounds of stories in 2000AD, along with Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, Electro Hippies, Pop Will Eat Itself, Sonic Youth and various other exotic monickers. I don't fully understand what it's all about, though I suspect it might have something to do with skateboarding.

During the course of the school year, I delve into the world of thrash metal. I get a flexidisc of Bristol thrashers Onslaught free with Raw magazine, and get into them so much I'm given the nickname Onslaught, later shortened to 'Slaught. In all ill-advised attempt at humour, I kick Mark Oliver in the balls. His pained response is "Onslaught, you Sabbat!" I'm not making this up.

Autumn 1989: I return to school for the second year (confusingly named the Fourth Form) having narrowly missed out on going to my first gig. Onslaught, Annihilator and Horse (London) played in Bristol in July, and I pestered my Dad to be allowed to go. He agreed on the conditions that he should take me, and that we should get seated tickets in the upper circle, my father plainly not keen on the idea of getting caught in a mosh. Sadly, the venue isn't opening its upper seating area for the Onslaught show, dashing my hopes (and, I can't help thinking, relieving my dad no end).

The summer also saw the release of the year's best single, 'Fight The Power' by Public Enemy. History records that it only got to No.29 in the charts, a full 16 places lower than 'Do The Right Thing' by Redhead Kingpin and the FBI. Meanwhile, 'French Kiss' by Lil Louis made me feel slightly uncomfortable when listening to the Radio 1 chart show in the car with my parents.

A bunch of us are by now well into our indie. Andy Bell's reading broadsheet music reviews, Simon Hildesley is getting a bunch of good music off his older sister, and I'm geeking out on music magazines, TV and radio. The Wonder Stuff, Pixies, Pop Will Eat Itself, The Wedding Present, The Sundays, The Fall and The Sugarcubes have all started registering on our radar, and in November the now-famous 'Top Of The Pops' featuring The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays turns the world briefly baggy, leading to such momentous events as Spike Island, Bez becoming the most famous non-musician in a band ever, and Dominic Fry buying the first New Fast Automatic Daffodils album. 

At some point in 1989 - I haven't been able to check the exact date, though I suspect it was in the autumn - Arena broadcasts a series on heavy metal which includes great archive footage of Led Zeppelin alongside more recent interviews with and concert recordings of Metallica, Guns'N'Roses and Slayer. The whole series is fucking brilliant and fully confirms that I am on the right path. Napalm Death are featured prominently - I admit now that I really didn't know what to make of them intially, but, as previously discussed, this has often been something of a guarantee that I'll eventually become a convert. In fact, I'm wearing a Napalm t-shirt as I type this. The interview with Napalm Death is conducted in one of their bedrooms and the footage of these surly youths is absolute television gold.

By the time 1990 starts, I'm reading the weekly music paper Sounds and listening to John Peel's show on Radio 1, which over the next decade and a half will introduce me to more new and exciting music than any other source. Thanks, John.

Autumn 1990: I return to school for my third year there (which, it won't entirely surprise you to learn, is called the Fifth Form) clutching 'Get Me Out', the new 12" single by New Model Army. I'd previously heard the singles from their album 'Thunder & Consolation', and even gone so far as to buy 'Green And Grey', which I maintain is a fine song. But 'Get Me Out' was somehow more accessible, sounding both more contemporary and more urgent than their other, occasionally dour, work. My friends and I get substantially into this tune and are chuffed as hell to learn that they're playing Portsmouth (where Simon Hildesley lives) in October (on our half-term week).

And so, on the 22nd of October 1990, I head to my first ever gig alongside Simon Hildesley and Andy Bell (I don't remember whether Ben Moores was there, although I can't think why he wouldn't have come - sorry Ben!). Now, I was almost certainly wearing a metal band t-shirt, but in general it felt like we were the proverbial sore thumbs, sticking out a country mile with our sensible trousers and received pronunciation in what I remember as a veritable sea of crusties, goths, hippies and punks, many of whom were wearing clogs. Hindsight tells me that many of these people had almost certainly come from the same social strata as ourselves, but with a few years headstart they'd managed to get better at disguising their semi-posh origins behind the warpaint of their tribal allegiances. 

The support band is the Levellers; as this was before 'Levelling The Land', none of us has heard them before. One of the band has become a father that very day (terrifyingly, this sprog is about to turn 20 in the present day, and as the Levs are based in Brighton may well walk the same streets as me), they play an acoustic set, which is good enough to encourage me to buy a t-shirt. Closer inspection of the childlike artwork on it reveals that it includes a crude drawing of a punk sticking two fingers up at a policeman.

Between bands, NMA's violinist Ed Alleyne-Johnson does a brief solo set, playing the sort of violin-with-effects pedals stuff which he'll shortly leave the band to concentrate on, making a reasonable living selling his solo albums to the sort of people who wear a lot of velvet and buy crystals.

When New Model Army come on, we're still sat on the seats at the back of the hall. But one song in, I feel the need to head down into the crowd, where I spend the rest of the evening attempting to figure out how I'm supposed to dance at a gig, surrounded by people forming human pyramids and doing that goth dance where you wave your arms around in front of your face in a way that's supposed to be dramatic (if you're a bloke) or alluring (if you're a lass). Nobody gives me grief or beats me up, although I might have been stepped on by a clog or two. New Model Army play all the songs I know and quite a few I don't (yet) and are as exciting as I'd hoped my first gig might be.

Simon's mum is waiting for us in the foyer when the gig finishes. Fantastically, she's been chatting to a crusty fellow who'd been stretchered out after getting injured while crowd-surfing. She declares him a fine young man and doesn't appear to have developed grave concerns for our well-being despite his condition.

The next morning, I get on a train back to Somerset at Havant station. A girl about my age gets on the same carriage wearing a New Model Army t-shirt, which inevitably elicits various hand symbols and coded messages from my friends which roughly translate as "Get in there, my son." Surprisingly, I make conversation with her (I'm afraid I almost certainly broke the ice with a comment along the lines of "I don't think I need to ask what you did last night") and it turns out she's heading all the way back to the same station as me. We make conversation for the next couple of hours and then never see each other again.

I suspect that's your appetite for nostalgia sated for now. Next time, my excursions to gigs slowly rack up and we encounter the support band nobody else liked, more offensive t-shirts, Neds and Carter-mania and an exciting new voice from Yeovil...

*In late 2009, I was to board a bus in Brighton with wet hair to be met by a barrage of cries of "Mick Hucknall" from some ill-mannered young men a few seats behind me. This kept them fully entertained until the end of their journey, at which point one of them decided to have one last crack and actually came up and asked me for my autograph. I broke my silence to say "I'm not the cunt you think I am", which he fortunately interpreted as a mild rebuke rather than an act of outright aggression.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Prologue: Welcome To The Terrordome

If she'd known the course that VCR would send me on, I suspect my grandmother would have chosen a different present.

It was Christmas 1986, and there was a very specific reason why I wanted a video recorder. At this point, I was a weekly boarder at a local private school. This arrangement meant that I boarded between Monday and Saturday, but could go home every weekend (apart from the first and last of term, presumably for the sort of arcane, lost-to-the-mists-of-time reason which fuels most such boarding school traditions). Television consumption was strictly rationed to set times at the weekend; I remember being allowed to watch Casualty on a Saturday night, but only the first half, enabling us to play the classic game of guessing which characters were going to get electrocuted/impaled through the shoulder/lose a limb without finding out whether they ultimately pulled through. This is almost certainly why I now put so little value on human life. (N.B. If there was a "humour" font, I would have used it for that last sentence, OK?)

Lack of medical drama closure aside, it seemed to me entirely unacceptable that I should be denied access to the many wonders of weekday television. With the video recorder set up in my bedroom, I was able to leave for the new term in January 1987 safe in the knowledge that my Dad now had a list of all the unmissable programmes I wanted him to record in my absence. I recall that this included Lenny Henry's show, which I was pretty sure was the funniest entertainment imaginable, this being a long time before he started advertising mid-price hotel chains.

I also asked for Top Of The Pops to be recorded. Now, I'd shown a little bit of interest in music before this. Like any early-'80s schoolboy, I'd been devoted to Madness and Adam & The Ants - although, for "devoted to", you should probably read "knew up to two of their songs and found the accompanying videos rather entertaining". Subsequently, I'd request volumes of the 'Now That's What I Call Music' series, on satisfyingly chunky double cassette, for birthday and Christmas presents, which my folks would often supplement with service station-type cassettes along the lines of 'The Boston Pops Orchestra Play The Hits Of Stevie Wonder'. In truth, it would be years before I heard the arguably superior original versions of, say, 'Masterblaster' or 'He's Misstra Know It All'.

But, more recently, somebody had smuggled a copy of 'Smash Hits' into school - magazines being dangerous contraband and strictly forbidden in such an environment, with the exception of more educational tomes of the 'National Geographic' variety - and it offered a curious glimpse of another world. On the cusp of my teens, I had an inkling that there might be difficult and confusing times to come, and figured that a working knowledge of pop music might come in rather handy. This opinion may well have been formed a couple of years earlier, when, while staying with my godparents in Essex, I went to a house party being held by older kids where I saw actual teenagers actually getting off, while somebody asked me my opinion on Scritti Politti, a band name they managed to pronounce without any hint of the letter T. (I should probably point out that this was around the time of hits like 'The Word Girl', rather than their earlier, agit-prop period, which I suspect hadn't made much of a splash in Saffron Walden.) Something else which had piqued my interest were the Iron Maiden albums an older kid at school had in the junior common room; my most significant interest at this point was American comic books, and the gatefold LP sleeves of 'Live After Death' and 'Somewhere In Time' were tailor-made to reel in anyone reared on Marvel and DC Comics.

Watching Top Of The Pops became a weekly ritual, with my brain initially absorbing the rhythms of the charts, with their new entries and non-movers, highest-climbers and rapid fallers, like the changing allegiances and rewritten continuities of characters in the comic book universes I was still reading obsessively. The poppiest tunes made the initial impact - it wasn't until August that I actively disliked a Number 1 single (Rick Astley's 'Never Gonna Give You Up'). But over time, it became apparent that the songs I initially found disconcertingly hard to understand, perhaps even slightly frightening, were the ones I kept rewinding to (gotta love the period detail, right?). Depeche Mode, The Cure, Sisters Of Mercy, Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Mission all had hit singles in 1987, and they were all covered in 'Smash Hits' (which I was now getting my folks to buy me every fortnight) that year, a surprisingly large number of them as cover stars, which shows how inclusive pop music could be in the days before boy bands and girl groups came to dominate the medium. Years later, I would be accosted by a youth on a Southampton street accusing me of being a goth. At the time, I felt this was a groundless claim, but looking at that list I can concede that there's certainly a degree of gothery in my musical DNA...

It wasn't all back-combed hair and kohl eyeliner, though. In parallel to the aforementioned bat-friendly hordes, I was being exposed to all sorts of other stuff. The Smiths and New Order would lead to the world of indie, a phrase I didn't really understand for ages, but developed a sort of instinctive taste for. House music was having some pretty serious hits, like Steve 'Silk' Hurley's 'Jack Your Body', which 'Smash Hits' hilariously and dutifully transcribed in its regular song lyrics feature, like it would any other chart smash ("J-j-j-j-j-j-j-j-jack your body", anyone?). Hip hop was beginning to make its claim as pop music's dominant strain with chart appearances from the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and, by the end of the year, Public Enemy. And, perhaps most significantly, The Cult and Def Leppard introduced me to heavy metal, the latter's 'Hysteria' becoming the first album I bought with my own money. As my taste in metal progressed into heavier territories, I would sometimes feel a little ashamed of this, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying their set at Download in 2009 - even the point where a man lumbered out of the crowd to point at my Napalm Death t-shirt and exclaim, "You shouldn't be enjoying this!"

Throughout the rest of my time at this school, music rapidly replaced comic books as my priority obsession, to the point where I would spend mealtimes "treating" my friend Charlie Minogue (no relation - he checked in '88) to constant pop quizzes. Overhearing this led my headmaster to fear that I was seriously odd, apparently lamenting that I was more interested in the pop charts than anything more sensible like, say, cricket. My only regret about all of this would be if Charlie now has some sort of phobia about pub quizzes.

As I draw this episode to a close, you'll note that I still haven't got to my first gig. Technically, I did see The Yetties in this period, a sub-Wurzels outfit who once played at my school and who were probably considered a dangerous compromise for a headmaster who was once heard to opine, when faced with a Sunday supplement article about David Gilmour, Roger Waters, et al, "Who is this Pink Floyd? Is he some sort of drug dealer?" You'll forgive me for not considering this a proper first gig, given that attendance was mandatory, it was in my school's assembly hall, and, look it was the bloody Yetties, OK?

We'll get to New Model Army next time.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

An Introduction

At the risk of stating the obvious, this blogging lark is a rather narcissistic endeavour at the best of times, and this is going to prove no exception. My intention in this enterprise is to tell the story of my life, or at least the part of it which has involved going to gigs and playing in bands. Clearly, I'd have to be some sort of monumental ego-twat to assume that this is the kind of thing anyone is likely to want to spend their precious time on this planet reading. So what's the ruddy point? Well, I guess it's significant that it's now been twenty years since my first proper gig, while I've also been influenced by a bunch of autobiographies and music books I've recently read or re-read, not least Ian Glasper's 'Trapped In A Scene' and John Peel's (and Pig's) fantastic 'Margrave Of The Marshes'. Additionally, I think I've had some experiences which might prove entertaining to recount, and want to get them down in some form before my already-shaky memory deletes them.

On that subject: I'm going to assume that if you've made it even this far, you probably know me, and if you've been to a gig with me or been in a band with me, there seems to be a pretty good chance that you'll either get a mention or at least come across events which you were involved in. I'll do my best to avoid being libellous (although I reserve the right to be critical - unsurprisingly, in two decades of gig-going, I've come across some bands who don't exactly deserve to be garlanded with bejewelled accolades), but cut me some slack if I get any details wrong - although I'd certainly welcome any comment, particularly as it will demonstrate that this isn't just a colossal waste of time.

Standing on the brink of some memory-trawling blog action, I can't honestly predict how often I'm going to write new chapters, but I can promise that the first proper post will cover the awakening of my music addiction due to a Christmas present in 1986, and will almost certainly progress from there to cover the remainder of my school days, incorporating such awe-inspiring subjects as the first gig that never was, sensible trousers at a New Model Army concert, the support band nobody else liked, a temper tantrum at not being able to see Carter USM in Taunton, being thrown out of Poole Arts Centre, the accidental purchase of offensive band t-shirts, the band which kept changing its name and 1993: The Year Crusty Broke (incorporating The Summer of The Ozrics and Puking Out Of Simon's Car, Part 1). Dare you miss it?