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 Benoît 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.