Tying up the loose ends of a life in hardcore from 1986 until yesterday lunchtime

'Punkier-than-thou' - The Wire, June 2013.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Top 10(ish) gigs I've missed

A six-week period of enforced immobility due to an ankle injury that has baffled (or bored) medical science reached its nadir last week, when - in the space of two days - I managed to miss gigs by Lecherous Gaze, Beastmilk and Systematic Death. To soothe my tortured soul, I did what any right-minded person would do in this day and age: I had a moan about it on Facebook. 'You should do a Top 10 review of the gigs you've missed,' suggested Brockley's answer to Atonio Gramsci, my pal Karl. So, given that I wasn't really going anywhere, I did. I didn't include the gigs that I just had a desire to go to but no real plan: Husker Du at Glastonbury in 1987, the Cro-Mags at the Christmas on Earth fest in Leeds in the same year, Bad Brains on the I Against I tour. However much I may have bemoaned on missing out on these in the following years, those excursions did not exist outside the realm of fantasy, because - as a 14 year old - I had neither the money, nous or parental approval to just pack my bags, jump on a bus to parts unknown. (I waited till I was at least 16 for that). No, these are the gigs that - were it not for the pernicious influence of something or someone (usually myself) - I would definitely have been in attendance. And not always for the better, either ...

Nirvana – Reading festival, August 30, 1992

I was never a fan (Negative Creep was pretty cool, but Smells Like Teen Spirit sounded to my smug teenage ears like turgid, sub-Pixies schlock aimed at credulous fools who'd never really heard loud guitars before) but I'm a sucker for an epoch-defining gig (it was to be their last in the UK), so had me and my friend not fried our brains on ridiculously strong acid on the Saturday night, we would have stuck around for their headline set.

Cobain, defying our lack of faith
Instead, following a tumultuous 24 hours that saw our previously healthy stockpile of Buckfast, lager, cash and – most importantly – mental fortitude dwindle to naught, we accepted defeat and decided to retreat back up the road to Glasgow. Besides, our tent had flooded, and, trudging across the storm-ravaged campsite at midday as the wind carried the Melvins' portents of doom from the main stage, it really felt like hopelessness had enshrouded everything here. The rumour was that Nirvana were going cancel anyway because Kurt Cobain had done something or other to himself (rumours that had clearly got back to him, as he mockingly came out on a wheelchair at the start of the set), so we wouldn't be missing out on anything.

That night, one day into a marathon three-day hitchhike home, we slept on a motorway roundabout behind some bushes, after making sure we had enough money in our pockets so we didn't get arrested for vagrancy. Around about the same time, Nirvana didn't cancel, and thousands of indie moppets jumped up and down on the spot to Smells Like Teen Spirit. If you were to push me then yes, I'll concede that I'd would have probably preferred to be among their number.

Madness – Glasgow Apollo, 8th March, 1983

I loved Madness as a child – like most kids in the late 70s/early 80s, I believed it was a toss-up between them and Adam and the Ants as to who really were the kings of pop. I also loved the Glasgow Apollo. I saw my first 'proper' gig there (I say 'proper', as I'd been dragged around countless folk festivals by my parents before that – and saw stuff that would have present-day folkies gnawing their hands in envy: any number of Fairport members past and present; Martin Carthy; Richard Thompson, that sort of thing - but this was The Clash: they had electric guitars, and there wasn't a beard in sight! So aye, proper).

Still got the ticket
I'd also seen the Ants on their Prince Charming tour and, erm, Toyah (who was entertaining enough to my yet-to-be-jaded palate). This was all down to my father, who'd appointed himself pop columnist on the local paper he was working on, and who could lig with the best of them. So the chance to see Madness was tremendously exciting – what could be more fun, more perfectly in my milieu? The Nutty Boys! The Magnificent Seven in the flesh!

When we got off the bus at Renfield St, it wasn't long before we realised something was up. While repeated viewings of the Complete Madness video tape (another otherwise unimaginable luxury afforded me thanks to my father's press contacts) alerted me to their rude-boy aesthetic, I don't think, for the life of me, I ever considered their fanbase would be drawn from the same demographic. They were lovable cartoon characters – surely it would all be kids with their parents, like a Two-Tone TeleTubbies live show! But, unfortunately for us, the stormtroopers in Sta-Prest were out in force, and my parents and I were, in our woolly jumpers and general 70s shaggy hirsuteness, attracting an increasing number of glares and growls as we made our way to the venue.

'Look, they're getting off the bus!'
Unperturbed, my father strode up to the box office to get our press tickets, while my mother, bless her, chose this moment to remonstrate with some spotty young skinhead selling some poorly reproduced iteration of the National Front's youth newspaper, The Bulldog. 'That's illegal. You can't sell that here,' said my mum. 'What's it to yooooou?' screamed some scooter girl in her face.

The situation had escalated far beyond my comprehension and I remember very little other than my mother marching down to a phone box to call the police, while I gripped on to her hand for dear life, my face buried into the fraying ends of her earthy knitwear. At some point, my father reappeared to say that we weren't on the guest list (however strong my dad's relationship with the good people of Stiff records was, their grasp of Scottish geography was less firm: we'd been put on the list for the Aberdeen gig instead) and would have to pay in. We decided pretty quickly that we'd probably be better off going home. Not surprisingly, I never really enjoyed Madness's music quite in the same way again. But then neither did most people, as the album the tour was supporting, The Rise and Fall, was prophetic in mapping out their subsequent decline. A couple of years later, I was listening exclusively to hip-hop and electro. In your face, nazis!

Devo - Glasgow Apollo, 1st June, 1980

One Saturday morning, I was watching Fun Factory, a very poor Tiswas replacement, when a pop video featuring some peculiar men in even stranger headgear came on. The video was intriguing – hinting at some kind of Beatlemania. I knew about Beatlemania and felt cheated that I'd somehow – through a quirk of time and space (and quite possibly gender) – missed out on such an earth-shattering phenomenon. But this video seemed to bear all the hallmarks of such a thing, so maybe this was my chance to get in on the ground floor with these new pop idols. Then the uncomfortable interview with Gary Crowley began – even I could see these weird robot men were ripping the absolute pish out of the presenter.

Halfway through, my father walks in and says: 'Oh, it's Devo. That's who me and your mum went to see the other night!' *Splutter* I beg your pardon? I knew you folks went out that night - I got a pizza and was allowed to stay up slightly later than usual. It was a wonderful, memorable evening – but to see this? How could you, oh, 25-year-old out-of-touch Methuselah, have possibly derived any pleasure from something that was clearly designed to appeal to me and me alone (even though I was unaware of their existence five minutes ago)?

It was the first time in my life where not only did I feel sad for missing something, but I burned with an aggrieved sense of entitlement: I would have enjoyed it more, and understood it better, than anyone else (I was seven years old at this point, it should be mentioned). I'd like to say that kind of insufferable arrogance didn't stay with me for too long, but, yeah … moving on.

Bob Mould Acoustic Set, Sub Club, Glasgow, 1st Dec, 1991

Not as pretty as Curve
I'm still really not sure how this happened. I loved (and still do) Husker Du – and I religiously bought everything Mould put out subsequently, even though eking out the pleasures of those two solo albums was considerably more challenging than from the easy charms of Candy Apple Grey, Warehouse or New Day Rising. But somehow that Sunday night – with money in my pocket and a desire to stand in a room with music played at me – I ended up at the QMU watching Tesco Value shoegazers Curve instead. Inexplicable. I mean, they were alright-ish, but I couldn't hum you one of their tunes if you put a gun to my head.

I'm going to place the blame squarely with my mate, who was never the biggest Husker Du fan, but was definitely a fan of Curve's singer (as most young men were at the time, it has to be said.) And, as immediately as the next morning, I knew I'd made a massive mistake. Later, I bumped into an acquaintance on the street who'd made the correct choice. 'How was it?' I inquired. 'Life-changing!' he beamed. 'Oh, fuck off!' I replied.

Larm reunion, Trashfest, Hoogeveen, 25 June, 2005

One of my favourite tales in the estimable hardcore zine Hardware details the anguish of the author when he realises that, having dipped out of a CBGBs matinee to get something to eat, he's managed to miss an impromptu reunion by his favourite band, Straight Ahead. It clearly tickled me to the point that I unconsciously copied it to an almost uncanny degree (Larm and Straight Ahead even appear on a record together – that's how uncanny.) Wearying of Trashfest's relentless blasts of noise, myself and my friend Tom decide to go and get some pizza, giving ourselves a good hour and a half to
make it back in time for the highlight of the day – a very rare reunion of Larm's original lineup (or so I'd been led to believe). The pizza place is beyond ridiculously slow – a flurry of … oooh …. half a dozen orders means their normally glacial pace of making one pizza an hour is being ruthlessly challenged. So we wait, and wait, and wait. I start getting antsy and make arrangements to meet Tom back at the venue and half-jog/half-stride in order to catch some righteous Dutch thrash in its purest form.

In the original Straight Ahead tale, the protagonist bumps into his friend coming out the venue, reeling from what he'd just witnessed. My gods go one better, and just as I get to the foot of the stairs leading up to the gig floor, I'm confronted with the sight of Larm bass player Jos, drenched in sweat, descending the steps. 'Please tell me you haven't just played,' I implore. 'You mean you missed that?' he replies. I howl expletives at the ceiling while Jos fixes me with a look of detached disappointment usually reserved for so many Dutch schoolchildren. The pizza was fucking dreadful, too.

It wasn't the first time I missed them either – back in the 80s, when the networks of DIY touring were less entrenched, Larm found themselves in the seldom regarded Glasgow satellite of Paisley while on tour with Heresy and Belgium's Heibel. I knew nothing about it at the time, but speaking to Kalv and Steve (of Heresy) about it, it seems hardly anybody turned up due to a bus strike. A few folk I've since become friends with in the Glasgow scene made the trip through (I think they had a van), but back then I didn't move in those circles, so I was blissfully ignorant of it (rather than cursing the existence of all Glasgow bus drivers). Which brings me neatly to …

Gauze - Scotland 1989

Gauze, not at Scotand
Gauze played in Scotland. I'll repeat that. Gauze played in SCOTLAND. Now, I realise that you have to be into Japanese hardcore and be Scottish (and there's about 12 of us) to appreciate the significance of this, but – if you are neither one nor the other – then let me explain: it's an “Elvis Presley at Prestwick Airport” kind of deal. Now I know very little about the details, other than there is recorded proof in the form of the 'Live at Scotland' tracks on their third LP. I don't know when it happened (other than the year), I don't know where it happened (although someone told me it was in Falkirk, which raises it to an even higher level of surreality), and I sure as fuck don't know how it happened.

All I do know is that, as I was alive, breathing and capable of sentient thought for the entire duration of 1989, had I known Gauze were playing in Scotland, I would have gone to see them. (I wasn't any kind of authority on Japanese hardcore or anything – but I had the Pusmort sampler, and I'd seen enough pictures of Lipcream and GISM in Thrasher to know that, if there's a chance of seeing some straight-up, uncut Japcore, YOU DO NOT PASS UP THAT CHANCE!

Thrash Till Death
But, as alluded to earlier, I didn't move in the kind of circles where this information may have been passed on to me. But this wasn't some kind of hardcore kid/crust punk schism, where never the twain shall meet. There was the Glasgow punk scene – and then there was me and my best mate sat in my bedroom drinking tea and listening to Infest and Youth of Today. For some reason our little world refused to collide with their bigger and better-informed one. And that's why I never got to see Gauze.

25 Ta Life, Underworld, London – sometime in early 2000

I think it was about four or five years ago that I realised I fucking hated going to gigs. This breakthrough came as a bit of a shock to me, as it was something I'd been doing on average three nights a week for the past 15 years. But there it was – this 'passion' of mine was actually making me miserable, due in no small part to all the hours spent standing around, fighting my way to the bar and, most crucially of all, dealing with other, disgusting, humans in their most uninhibited form. (What is it about people that think just because they're in a dark room with some instruments being battered semi-competently that this is now their cue to regress to a bestial approximation of their very basest instincts? That's the band's job, pal. So keep your fucking clothes on and shut your stupid, boring face).

Me and Rick in happier times
This particular near-miss took place well before that epiphany, as – had I seen Rick Ta Life's cartoon cavalcade - I would have set a new record for gigs attended in one week (and, believe me, that was the sole reason for attending) – taking the total to nine in seven days. It's incredible to me now, but this didn’t seem like time wasted. Integrity and Unruh were some of the more notable performances I caught, if memory serves. So I clearly thought I was enjoying myself, even if it only became obvious to me much later that I was living a lie.

Not having accounted for the Underworld's newly-adopted policy of starting gigs at around lunchtime so as to accommodate whatever shite indie disco they were putting on later, I arrived about 10 minutes into the band's set at – what? - half-seven, maybe?

'Box office's closed,' grunted the man in the wee box at the top of the Underworld's stairs, as I proffered a tenner at him. 'Um, how about you just take the money and let me in?' I bargained. 'Camera's everywhere,' he sneered, the syllables barely making it out of his pinched, sweaty lips. 'So you're telling me I can't even pay in? That's fucking ridiculous. Can I just walk in then, if it's nearly over?' I couldn't believe I was having to beg to get in this stinking shitehole with its choking aroma of open trenches only occasionally masked by the smell of stale beer and cheap bleach. And to see 25 Ta Life?!?!

'Try getting past him first!' he smirked, gesturing to a massive hulk of a man with a head like a phrenologist's nightmare. I snapped. 'You know what? You're a fucking prick, pal!' I shouted.
As if triggered by a motion sensor, the lumpy-headed sentry stirred and lumbered in my direction just as I felt a hand on my shoulder. Seamus, handing out flyers for a Throw Bricks At Coppers gig, had been watching the whole exchange, and – mercifully – came to intervene just as things started to go a bit awry. I only barely knew the man at the time, but his interjection of 'Don't waste your time with these cunts. Let's go and get a pint' was advice I was happy to take, and we spent a good portion of the rest of the night supping Guinness and chatting about Celtic. Cheers, Seamus – and fuck you, Underworld, you reeking cloud of airborne toxins. So my record for attending gigs in one week still stands at eight, and is unlikely to be broken for the reasons mentioned above. I can live with that.

The Business – Water Rats, London, 1997

It probably looked a bit like this
A week or so prior to this now infamous gig, Madball and Ignite played the Underworld (yep, that place again – central to so much misery in my gig-going life). It might have been due to one of the supports, or it might have been Madball's Agnostic Front connections, but there were a lot of dodgy skins and other assorted hoolies in the venue that night, certainly more than I've ever seen at a HC gig in London, even a Madball one, since. 'Watch your back,' said one friend. 'I think there's a bunch of Chelsea Headhunters in.' I rolled my eyes. Aye, right. Twats.

As it was, with my shaved head, Get-A-Grips and black flight jacket, I was unlikely to draw any unwelcome attention to myself (how long ago that Madness debacle seemed). If anything, I was subject to a bit of target marketing from my bald-headed brethren – a friendly entreaty to a secret, invite-only Last Resort gig ('No politics,' he said. 'None of that … ' I nodded, my immediate thought being that 'no politics' tends to mean 'lots of politics', almost exclusively of the straight-armed variety), and I was given the address of a man setting up a one-stop shop for skinheads: 'The good stuff, y'know, that we're not allowed to sell in the shops …' Hmm, do they not have the British Standard Institute kitemark on them, perhaps?

During Madball's set, the Club 88 types (or the Chelsea Headhunters, I never got close enough to have a good look) started singing 'No Surrender to the IRA' as well as chants about the UVF and the like. Incandescent (and ever so slightly drunk), I replied with shouts of 'Fuck the Queen' and 'Up the 'Ra!'. Well, I tried to, but I was restrained by my less drunk and more clever St Pauli-supporting friend from Germany, who clasped his hand over my mouth whenever I looked like I was about to shout out something a bit feniany. I conceded defeat, but – after being handed a flyer for the upcoming Business gig at Camden Water Rats on leaving the venue, and still fizzing with Republican anger – I turned to him and said: 'Right, fuck these orange nazi bastards. We're going to this gig with our Celtic tops on. They can shove their No Surrender up their arses.' He didn't look convinced. But I was undeterred. I probably even ranted about it to whoever would listen when I was getting rat-arsed on the eve of the gig: 'Bloody nazi UVF scum …. grumble grumble …. I'll show them …. mutter …. chucky ar la and that, ya bass …. etc'

Getting so hammered that I couldn't move out my bedroom the next day, let alone make the trek to north London to see a band that I was, at best, only moderately keen on, was probably the best thing I've ever done. I doubt I would have worn a Celtic top, but I was determined to have some sort of representation of my hastily cobbled-together terrace politics on my person. A St Pauli patch with Gegen Rechts on it, perhaps – or even just a green-and-white scarf.

I would have been a dead man.

Bowie on his way to Water Rats
The gig (and everyone in attendance) was attacked by a mob of Combat 18 bullyboys (quite possibly the same mob that were at the Madball gig) in probably one of the worst instances of far-right violence at a UK gig since the Rock Against Racism days of the late 70s. I know a couple of folk who were there, and – despite being no stranger to a bit of direct action themselves – they made it very clear just how terrifying an experience it was. Apparently, there was a guy who was picked out for wearing a Plymouth Argyle top, purely because there was a bit of green on the shirt. Yep, I would have been toast.

This wasn't the only gig they smashed up around that time. They stormed into the Dublin Castle when The Special Beat (a short-lived amalgam of the two ska bands) were due to play a few days later in a similar fashion. Coincidentally, I was sat around the corner in The Good Mixer with a couple of mates, deciding against going because we couldn't be arsed, and, well, we've just bloody sat down, haven't we?

In the end, it's the not taking part that counts.

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