Wednesday, 2 February 2011

University Year One, Autumn Term: Southampton Calling

Regular readers with a keen eye for detail will note that up to Autumn 1993 I didn't go to that many gigs - I probably listed more in my end of 2010 round-up than I attended in the first three years of the Nineties. This is fairly understandable given that for most of my teens I spent two thirds of the year at boarding school in Dorset, and the other third in a village in Somerset, neither of which exactly threw up regular opportunities for the thrill of live rock music.

However, things were to change when I moved to Southampton to go to uni. At this point, given enough money and stamina, it would be quite possible to go to see bands every night of the week, although you'd probably have to be prepared to see the likes of Mother's Ruin (rock metal, according to contemporary listings) or Necropolis (indie rockers, no less), neither of whom let a little thing like sharing a name with a multitude of other bands the length and breadth of the country get in the way of gigging Hampshire silly.

Initially, though, I rarely made it as far as town. Both my halls of residence and the main campus were situated in the Highfield area, a bus ride or long walk away from the city centre, and consequently a lot of social activity centred on the university bar. It was here, then, that I went to my first show as a student.
It's pretty much mandatory that any discussion of Chumbawamba is prefaced by a reference to their faintly ridiculous spell as pop stars on the back of their much-despised hit Tubthumping. This gig was clearly a few years prior to them getting knocked down and then getting up again, but they'd already had a pretty strange journey. In their very early days they were acolytes of anarcho-punk figureheads Crass, and the ideals of that band formed the backdrop for much of what they went on to create (though clearly not their mildly embarassing decision to sign to EMI). Musically, however, they swiftly diversified, incorporating more post-punk influences as well as folk and pop; in tandem with this, they used sarcastic humour to parody the political and pop culture of their time. I first heard them when somebody copied me half of their Slap! album, the point where they began to move into the dancier sound which would ultimately lead to Tubthumping. In 1992, their sample-heavy album Shhh earnt plenty of John Peel play and therefore my attention, and the following year they released a collaboration with Credit To The Nation called Enough Is Enough. Though it's catchiness would be eclipsed by Tubthumping a few years later, I nevertheless reckoned that this anti-Nazi anthem was sure to be a hit. In fact, it made it to the giddy heights of #56. Oh well - at least John Peel's listeners voted it No.1 in the Festive 50 that year.

The two bands went on a joint tour following the single's release, calling in on Southampton students on October 16th. Opening band The Sea were a reasonable crusty folk band in the Levellers style, and Credit were on their usual form, but Chumbawamba's live show was a spectacle quite unlike anything I'd previously encountered. With elements of cabaret, pantomime and music hall at play, the band found new ways to make their many points, with Alice Nutter and Danbert Nobacon (the latter still a few years away from emptying an ice bucket on John Prescott at the Brits) the ringleaders and principal agents provocateurs, whether decrying homophobia or pretending to crucify Cliff Richard for charity. On the strength of this show, they became my favourite band for a while; I even headed up to see them in Brixton at The Fridge on December 5th with my new girlfriend Sophie, where the great supporting bill included indie band Sidi Bou Said and prominent Brit rappers Gunshot.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves... back at the start of term, my second Southampton show, on October 28th, also required only a short walk to the University. Since I'd seen them a couple of years earlier, Curve had released two full-lengths, and I was therefore much more familiar with their stuff and enjoyed their set way more than the Exeter show. However, it was their support band who left the more significant impression on me that night. Swervedriver had been lumped in with the shoegazing scene, largely on account of their Thames Valley origins and a love of effects pedals (and the fact that they supported bands like Curve didn't exactly put people off this false scent, clearly). However, their psychedelic fuzz-rock was a very different beast, its car-fetishizing aesthetics (key song title: Son Of Mustang Ford) locked in on the romance of the desert highway. Closer spiritually to Motorhead than Slowdive, they were enough of a rock band to have been invited on tour with Soundgarden and Monster Magnet in the US, although I recall that particular jaunt ended badly after Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin publicly denounced Chris Cornell for some casually homophobic remarks the latter had made onstage at the previous show. Anyway, while they lacked the glamour and precision of Curve, their music ultimately had more depth, and I've noticed over the years that they've become quite the cult favourite amongst those in the know. I'd definitely recommend that people check out their album Raise and the single Never Lose That Feeling.

While applying for universities, it had occurred to me that a few years of reading the music press from cover to cover meant that the name of any major town in the UK immediately made the name of its pre-eminent music venue jump into my head. You say Hastings, I say The Crypt. You say Dudley, I say JBs. You say Newport, I say TJs. You get the picture. Well, clearly, if you said Southampton, I wouldn't have said The University. Nope, the venue I really wanted to get to was The Joiners. The only snag is that it was in an area, St Mary's, which those with local knowledge were keen to flag up as a little dodgy. I was also aware that I couldn't yet find my way around Southampton too well; after leaving alternative club Marshall's on my own, it had taken me an hour and a half and a couple of wrong turnings to get back to my halls, which I later understood should have been a 40 minute walk, tops.

Essentially, then, I was waiting for someone to want to come to a show with me, and was pretty gutted when I found out that a new friend of mine, Jason, had been down once already, to see industrial/noise band Oil Seed Rape. However, my luck changed when Sophie agreed to venture with me into the lawless environment of St Marys Street to check out Northern Irish band Compulsion on November 8th. Aside from the Bob and Gutless shows I'd been to in Somerset, my gig experiences thus far were restricted to university refectory/theatre-sized venues, so it felt exciting to be in a place the size of the Joiners, a feeling which was only enhanced when I realized that the dudes playing pool in the front bar, one with bright red hair and the other with his long hair in schoolgirl-like plaits, were actually guitarist Garrett Lee and drummer Jan-Willem Alkema. My research suggests that local ska/punk band Smog UK supported, but I'm pretty sure I didn't see them until much later. Compulsion were great, though. The press had lumped them in with the terribly-named New Wave Of New Wave movement, but in reality they were closer to a blend of grunge and pop-punk, with a particular debt owed to the Pixies, and as such were a fine band to welcome me to the Joiners, and I always thought it was a shame that they never really got their due. That said, I doubt Garrett Lee has too many regrets with the way his career turned out, given that he's now producing stadium-indie bands like Snow Patrol...

There was one more show to go to at the Uni in that first term, namely Teenage Fanclub. These amiable Scots had sort of shuffled their way into the indie big leagues, largely through the charms of their 1991 album Bandwagonesque. By this point, its follow-up Thirteen was out, and while it couldn't compete with the hit rate of its predecessor, it still had some zippy tunes like single Radio. Having seen them at Glastonbury that year, I knew they'd deliver an entertaining set, and the only disappointment I can remember from that night was when some nitwit called for support act Juliana Hatfield to "get her tits out". If I ever turn into one of those people who bangs on about how gigs used to be better back in the day, just remind me of that.