Working Class Love Songs from the Moseley Border
I started Tamworth College in September that year. Another wasted year in another wasted attempt to get those elusive ‘A’ Levels. Through this, we’d started hanging around with Rob “Dosser” Cross and his mate Mark “Paddy” Hynds. We’d seen them around The Rathole, but now started meeting up with them on Sunday nights at the top of the Glascote Road, to go into gigs together. They both loved music as much as I did, and – impressively – each wrote their own fanzines which they’d flog around The Rathole (“Kicker Conspiracy” was Mark’s; sorry, Rob, I can’t remember yours).
One Sunday evening, we set off to watch a newly formed local band called 13th Reunion, who all went on to do much better things. The reason for looking forward to this one was the Tamworth Herald’s pre-gig write up of the band’s principles: they couldn’t play, they couldn’t write songs and were possibly the worst band in history. They weren’t, not by a long stretch, but as selling points go it was a gem.
As usual, we shared a bottle of Thresher’s own version of Martini or Cinzano before we got into town. As our band had got better, we’d incorporated pretty much every Bunnymen song going, as well as the songs they’d covered, into our repertoire. Amazingly, as we talked to Rob and Mark about this, they claimed to not only know some of them, but how to play them as well. I suggested we get together sometime to see if the five of us proved any good. Rob claimed to play rhythm guitar, Mark could drum a bit. Ideal, and I left the thought there, thinking a) we hadn’t got a drummer, and b) if I could drop playing my awful guitar I could try and concentrate on singing a bit more. And on working out how to pose as some sort of frontman.
Ash, Mark, Spencer and I are stood adjacent to the bar, the far end of the room from The Rathole’s stage. Where Rob’s gone, I’m not sure, but we’re checking who’s in as the place starts to fill up nicely, chatting about whoever’s flavour of the month in indie circles at the present. I notice Sonny, Bethel and Lappy over the other side of the room, just behind the mixing desk, and we’re on nodding, if not quite speaking, terms at the moment. Even though none of us have played a gig yet, I know that we’ve already got an unspoken inter-band rivalry going on. And that somehow seems appropriate: even at this early stage I want to trounce the opposition and prove them wrong for sacking me.
Rob saunters over smiling from wherever he’s been with the following announcement:
“We’re going on first! I’ve just sorted us out. We can borrow 13th’s gear. We’ve got twenty minutes.”
I still don’t know how I didn’t drop a pint of Guinness onto the already well-worn, sticky floor.
A predictable chorus of “what the fuck?” goes up, but for some reason none of question Rob’s statement. We have twenty minutes to not only work out a set list (for the three songs we’re going to be able to do) but to drink some essential nerve calming alcohol.
We settle on “There She Goes Again” by The Velvet Underground, Echo’s “Villiers Terrace” and The Rolling Stones “Paint It Black”. The only slight problem being that neither Rob nor Mark know how to play the latter, and we’re on too soon to teach them how. We probably could have come up with something different, but the original three of us knew we did a fairly passable version of “Paint It Black” and – even if the first two songs went tits-up – we’d at least finish on a high.
We figure that we can get by with me instead of Rob on guitar, but that does still leave us a drummer short.
“Ask Sonny,” Spencer and Ash suggest or demand or whatever. Being the one who knows him best and momentarily ignoring our inter-band rivalry, I go over and explain the situation to him. I can see that part of him isn’t exactly keen. After all, we’ve gone from being good mates to people who barely speak to one another. But, I guess, the very idea of him getting onto a stage for the first time appeals to him, so he agrees. The plan is for us to shout him when we need him, assuming he’s still in the room after the first two songs.
The others make their way to the stage to do the mundane tasks like tuning up and getting familiar with the equipment they’re borrowing. Mark, in homage to Mo Tucker and The Mary Chain’s Bobby Gillespie (and possibly because he can’t really play the drums), is going to stand and simply bash away at two drums: a snare and a tom-tom. We stand together at the bar, drinking and fretting.
And then I’m up there. We haven’t used the delightful Rathole dressing rooms, nor have we been introduced by the DJ / MC. This is handy as we know by now that we don’t want to be called Shrine anymore, but haven’t yet thought of a decent replacement. Goth has started to get more of a foothold in indie circles by now, and we want absolutely nothing to do with The Cult or the Sisters of Bloody Mercy.
Vain as I am, I refuse to wear my black NHS glasses in public, so I find myself squinting out from the stage towards audience. There’s probably fifty or sixty in now, but I can’t be sure. Partly this is due to my failing eyesight, but more to the fact that in front of the stage is what passes for a dancefloor. This is only, say, ten yards by eight, but it’s as though a force field prevents people stepping on or over it. Thus the crowd is way back in the gloom from where I’m standing.
I mutter “hello” into the microphone and have the weird sensation of hearing my voice echoing around a big room for the first time. It’s obvious, seconds after Mark shouts a “1-2-3-4” intro, that we’re being a bit ambitious. If you don’t know “There She Goes Again” it commences with a stop-start riff where every instrument has to be absolutely spot on. Not surprisingly we’re not quite there, having never played together before. Somehow, we muddle through it.
I can hear my voice rebounding back at me from the stage monitors (Monitors!), and I think I’m holding something resembling a tune. It sounds a bit muddy and woolly all the same, not as sharp as I’d like. I spend most of the song with my eyes tight shut, concentrating on each individual note. On the occasions I do open my eyes, I can vaguely see people in the distant darkness, blink a couple of times and shut my eyes and concentrate once more.
The song – our first live song – finishes and there is applause. Realistically, this is probably thirty people who can be politely bothered to muster a half-hearted clap. To me, this is deafening. We’ve played them a song, albeit a dreadful version of a not particularly good song, and they’re moved enough to actually applaud us. To applaud me. I’ve seen bands who don’t provoke so much as an ironic slow-hand clap, but we’re not one of them. I feel as though the crowd, the masses, love me. And I know for sure that I love them. This popstar lark is a cinch. Although I do need to do something about the clarity of my vocals.
“Er. Can I, erm,” I begin saying, “can I have some more, er, treble on the vocals, please?”
This is said in a near-perfect imitation of Ian McCulloch’s deep and thick Liverpool accent. Spencer, Ash and I have started to talk like this a lot in general conversation, much to the confusion of everyone I know. If you’ve never heard McCulloch speak, his accent is a fairly impenetrable Scouse drawl, nothing like the Brookside stereotype. And here I am, on stage, doing a cover version of someone’s accent. (I acknowledge how sad this is, but I know of a worse case. A year or so later, Mark Brindley is fronting one of his bands and asks someone, between songs, if anyone wants some of his Ribena. (Ribena! I ask you!) Watching a video later of Manchester band The Chameleons I am surprised to hear their singer do exactly the same thing. Now that is a proper sad cover version.)
We do “Villiers Terrace” next and it’s not bad at all, sounding miles better than any rehearsal we’ve ever had. We’re already getting used to being amplified and, I think, we’re starting to enjoy ourselves. I even manage to open my eyes for several seconds at a time, although I still can’t make much out given the general gloom and my lack of spectacles. I struggle to hit the right notes in the last verse, it being an octave higher than what has preceded it, but I appear to get away with it. I’m not sure how, given that we’re going by the Bunnymen’s live version which Rob and Mark have never heard before, we all manage to finish at the same time. Spot on. And more applause is forthcoming and this really is getting to be a doss now. I’m almost sorry that we’ve only got one more song left. Rob hands me the guitar I’m using and I hit a tentative e-minor. It sounds as in tune as what I’m used to so I leave it as it is.
“Is, er, Sonny out there?” I enquire. And enquire once more for good luck. As Rob and Mark hop offstage, Malcolm walks towards us sporting the embarrassed look of someone who wishes they’d never agreed to do this in the first place. This is the first indication that, perhaps, we’re not as good as Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, which was my assumption up until now. I request yet more treble. The howl of feedback suggests that there is no more treble to be had. Sonny is sat behind the drum kit, and Ash starts the intro to “Paint It Black”.
It sounds great from where I’m standing. Being half-cut and new to this, I guess it would. About halfway through I get a genuine surprise: people seem to be moving on the dancefloor. Have we made such an impression with our Echo inspired set that we’re getting the local kids to shake their stuff? I assume so, and also assume that our stadium tour is just round the corner. Then something whizzes past my ear. It doesn’t connect and I don’t see it, but I know it’s happened. It’s followed by a clunck, that I sense rather than hear, just to my left, something solid arcing through the air and landing between Spencer and I.
When I look down, whilst singing about wanting to paint lines of cars and red doors black, I see a candle. The tossers who are throwing them have now got to the edge of the stage. In a moment of bravado or stupidity, I position myself between the monitors and connect with a kick to one of their torsos. At that moment I realise that it’s Rob and Mark causing the mayhem. Rob probably hasn’t taken too kindly to being booted, but – fair play – spends the rest of the song dancing in the post-goth style: this involves ludicrous arm movements, as though you’re asking the good lord (or an Italian referee) why this is happening to you, whilst quickly twisting about at forty five degrees very randomly.
“I wanna see you paint it, paint it, paint it black. All black.”
The Rolling Stones’ version doesn’t end like this (it fades out, very difficult to do live) but the Bunnymen’s does. Sonny’s seen Echo & the Bunnymen do the song live, so we all sound as though we know what we’re doing. I thank him as he walks past me, back to the safety of his mates and his pint. He nods, looking stern. I don’t think he enjoyed himself.
We’ve finished our first gig and we’ve got through it and people have clapped and everything. Surely now we’re in a band that should be taken seriously. We played better gigs than this one. In fact, we only really played a few that could be termed worse. But I stepped down from the stage that night knowing that I’d got the bug and I could never go back.
Predictably, there was little reaction from the media. Rob, that night, seemed on the verge of getting us a brief review in the Tamworth Herald, but this ran into problems on two counts: 1) It’s quite tricky publishing a review, even when you’re writing it yourself, when you don’t know what the band is called; 2) Rob’s hastily scribbled piece read, in its entirety, “Fifteen minutes of pure headfuck!” Sam Holliday, editor of the Musicbox column, is one of the finest chaps I have ever met. But that was one review he was not going to print.
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