Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Worst Gig Ever Part 1 - Bolton

With a cover like this, how could we fail...

Ask a musician about the best gig they’ve ever played and you’ll get nothing but head scratching and stumbled words. Ask them about the worst and you’ll get dates, places, times – all in the most minute detail. Which goes to show that we’re a defeatist lot with just gallows humour to keep us going. Everyone has a war story of such terrible magnitude that it’s a miracle anyone ever gets on stage…but we do. I guess we want to be loved, or as Rick Savage of Def Leppard so succinctly puts it…. “Basically it's just down to the fact that we're all posers. We all want to go out on stage, pose, wear dinky white boots, tight trousers and have all the girls looking at our bollocks”. Nicely put Sav…


Here is my war story.

I let the shirt do the talking
It’s 1990. My hotshot Indie outfit ‘Little Red Schoolhouse’ are just about to release an album. We can fill most Pub/Club sized venues in a twenty mile radius of Birmingham; we’ve had John Peel airplay and appeared on local radio so many times, we’re blasé about it. We think we’re hot shit, in other words. We need to prove this to the world, so we do what every other band does and hire a transit van and take our music to the people (maaan). And on this occasion, we take it to the people of Bolton. For any non UK readers, Bolton is a town in Northern England, approximately 80 miles from Birmingham. Now I realise that my American friends would travel this distance to buy a packet of cigarettes and a newspaper, but to us British, this is A Long Way. Especially on a Tuesday night. I’ve spoken to the survivors of this ghastly experience and no-one can tell me why we thought Bolton was going to welcome us with open arms or why we chose this particular venue, but with a song in our hearts, the four members of the band, plus our legendary Roadie/tambourine virtuoso ‘Wildman’, climbed aboard the van and headed north on a cold winters night. A few non-threatening flakes of snow pitter-pattered on the windscreen, but spirits were high. We got to the venue –the name of which has been cruelly excised from my memory - and we unloaded our equipment. The stage area was upstairs. As a rule of thumb, the stage area is ALWAYS upstairs, or in the case of one storey buildings, in the basement. Either way, there are always stairs. So we wrestled the equipment upstairs and surveyed the scene. It was a typical back room of a pub – there was a five inch high wooden platform at one end of the room which was the performance area which would probably been suitable for a small boy playing the accordion but it was still larger than we were used to. Cheerfully, we set up…drumkits were built, amps turned on and guitars tuned – so far, so good.

Eventually, we caught sight of the landlord of the pub- a pimpled youth who looked too young to get served in a bar let alone run one. He was accompanied by an elderly lady we took to be his mother and a barmaid in her early twenties. No one came up to say hello, so we got on with it. After a while, Andy, our lead singer/guitarist went up to the baby faced barman and asked where the PA was. Babyface pointed to two speakers, suspended from the ceiling. ‘Those are speakers’ said Andy, confused… ‘The PA is what you plug stuff into…’ the Barman scratched his head and muttered something about ‘the contract’ which none of us had seen. In fact, the only contact we had had with the bar was a phone call where we were told to turn up promptly and send some posters. The same posters which were sitting unused on a chair on the stage. It was at this point that I began to feel uneasy. I then looked around the bar. The only evidence of any ‘promotion’ for tonight’s event was a chalkboard behind the bar with the words ‘Tonight: Little Red and the Schoolhouse’ which made us sound like the backing band for a local prostitute. Anyway, Babyface was adamant that we should have bought a PA amp and stomped off to try and find us something ‘from out the back’. After about twenty minutes, he emerged with a desk mounted microphone about the size of a telephone directory with a curved horn protruding from it…the kind of thing a 1920s taxi controller would use. When we pointed out that Andy would have to lie on the floor and sing with one finger on the ‘talk’ button, Babyface seemed to think this was a viable option.

Sometimes, one needs to state the obvious.
(It is at this point, gentle reader that I have to tell you a little about myself. When it comes to alcohol, I am a lightweight. Whenever I gig, I treat myself to a bottle of Budweiser to take the edge of any nerves and that’s it. On this night however, I decided that blissful oblivion was the way to go and my single, pre gig beer became two, then three…and so on).

But back to the story…Babyface was dispatched to find something we could use to sing through…at this point, even a rolled up newspaper would have done. He came back with the kind of microphone that came free with a 1970s music centre. The lead was about five feet long and held together with sticky tape. To make it work, it had to be plugged into the spare input on Andy’s Fender guitar amp which gave the vocals a certain ‘Stephen Hawking’ ambience. We also had to gaffa tape it to a cymbal stand, much to our drummer Gary’s chagrin. But we soldiered on. There were about 20 people in the bar when started to play, including the obligatory drooling drunk. Fortunately for me, at a table by the stage were two rather attractive young ladies, who got the full benefit of my ‘hot stage moves’ (cough). We struggled manfully through our hour long set, said ‘Thank you Bolton and goodnight’ and I trotted off to see Babyface for our fee. ‘You ain’t finished’ he replied in a charmless bark. ‘Bands that play ‘ere play for an hour an’ ‘alf…it’s in t’contract”. I replied that we hadn’t seen ‘t’contract’ and that we had an hours worth of material and that’s all. ‘Then ya dunt get paid’ came the reply. I relayed this information to my colleagues and unsurprisingly it was greeted with less than joy. After a brief discussion, we decided that rather than repeat numbers we had already played, we would play the Velvet Undergrounds’ ‘Sweet Jane’ for 30 minutes. 30 minutes exactly. I decided I needed something to make this egregious occurrence slightly more palatable and marched to the bar and ordered two large whiskeys which I downed in about 20 seconds. Now, I was ready.

We lurched into the cyclical chord progression. Andy decided he was just going to sing and left his guitar on the stand and improvised often profane variations on one of Lou Reeds’ finest works, whilst glaring at Babyface, who seemed oblivious to it all. By now, I was steaming drunk and barely capable of playing the incredibly simple bass line. Occasionally, I would stop to steady myself on the drumkit or reach forward and steal the drinks from the table of the two nice young girls, who now looked at me like I was a basket case. Our drummer and guitarist diligently plugged away with murder in their eyes. About twenty minutes into this interminable dirge, I decided I needed a rest and found a suitable place for a lie down…a ‘bench’ about 18” wide. Perfect! I gingerly manoeuvred myself into a horizontal position and continued to plunk away whilst grinning inanely and looking at the ceiling. Something felt wrong…and then it occurred to me that I was lying on the railing at the top of the staircase and to my immediate right was a thirty foot drop to the ground floor. With all the elegance I could muster, I got back into an upright position and carried on, pausing only to yell ‘Sweeetchaynee!’ into the toy microphone. This herculean effort and my lack of multi-tasking skills meant that I had no idea what bass notes I should be playing and had to stare intensely at Derek the guitarists fingers on the fretboard of his Strat to have any idea where I was in the song. After EXACTLY 30 minutes, in the middle of a chorus, Andy yelled ‘STOP!’ and walked straight over to the bar for the fee. But Babyface was nowhere to be seen. Andy asked the barmaid where he was and she opened the door to the stockroom…there was Babyface in the middle of a passionate and noisy clinch with the woman we took to be his mother. It was at that moment I decided I needed another drink. Whilst at the bar, I was slapped hard on the back by the obligatory drooling drunk – obviously feeling I was a kindred spirit – and with his face about an inch from mine he yelled that we were ‘the best thing he’d seen since Hendrix!’ Given that he looked about 30, he was either a precocious gig-goer or, more likely, King of the Bullshitters. Anyway, he bought me a drink and then fell down most of the stairs.

To make matters even more bizarre, one of the twenty punters turned out to be the music critic from the local paper and collared us for an interview. Andy decided he wanted nothing to do with it and sat on his amp, drinking heavily and shouting at Babyface who was still French-kissing his septuagenarian 'girlfriend'. The intrepid reporter placed his portable tape recorder on the beer soaked table in front of us and I immediately broke it. He carried on. Gary and Derek tried to keep it together and said all the right things, whilst I just sang Judas Priest songs into the microphone of the broken tape machine. At the end of this mercifully brief ordeal, he asked for an address to which he could send a copy of the paper. Quick as a flash, I grabbed a beermat and wrote something on it. Obviously not my address as we never saw a copy. Probably just as well.

The next hour is a blank. I have no idea how my gear ended up in the van or if we ever received the £50 from Babyface. My next memory is sitting on the wheel arch in the back of the van feeling cold and nauseous. ‘I need a Pee’ said Wildman. ‘Me too’, said Derek and Gary. Rather than pull into a service station, Andy immediately wrenched the van to the side of the road and flung open the doors. By now, the light scattering of snowflakes had turned into a blizzard and we were ankle deep in white slush. On leaving the van, the three intrepid travellers had to go down a fairly sharp incline to get to the nearest tree to pee against. All well and good on the way down, but due to the weather conditions and the inebriated state they found themselves in, no one could get back to the van. They would get halfway up and then slip down like contestants on some unholy episode of ‘Total Wipeout’. I was alerted to their plight by the screams and profanities which shattered the peaceful night air. I fell out of the van to see what the commotion was, to be greeted by the sight of three soaking, mudsplattered figures yelling at me for a hand. I am not proud of this, dear reader, but I laughed so much at their condition, I was completely incapable of reaching down and pulling them up. Eventually, they scrambled back to the roadside. I think Gary may have punched me, as I found a large bruise on my side at a later date, but my recollections are hazy. Andy stayed in the driver’s seat, fingers gripping the wheel, staring intensely ahead….

We crawled home. We got about ten miles from Birmingham when a pointless argument over some piece of trivia broke out. Wildman, drunk and belligerent started to bang on the metal side of the van shouting ‘let me out you bunch of f**kers’. So at 5.30 on a snowy, windswept winter’s morning, we left one of our dearest friends at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere, safe in the knowledge that he wouldn’t see any evidence of public transport for at least two hours. It took about two miles for good sense to prevail and we turned around and picked him up, still standing at the bus stop, shivering, with just a Sonic Youth T shirt to keep him from hyperthermia. The rest of the journey was travelled in total silence.

Mercifully, I was the first to be dropped off at home. So, at six thirty in the morning – half an hour before I had to get up to go to work – I extracted myself woozily from the van. After removing my amp, two basses and a plastic carrier bag full of leads, spare strings etc, I steadied myself against a rather lovely Oak tree on the traffic island in the middle of my street and puked over my Chelsea boots. Full of self loathing and feeling like I had moments to live, I brought my gaze upwards from my ruined footwear to be greeted by the faces of the postman, the milkman and my next door neighbour, just arriving home from the nightshift. With all the dignity I could muster (i.e., no dignity at all) I dragged myself and my gear (leaving the bag full of leads, spare strings etc under the tree) into my house. I made myself the strongest coffee I could keep down, ironed a shirt and went to work.

On arrival, my colleagues took one look at my deathly pallor and put me on a chair in the stockroom with a telephone in my hand. Here, I dozed all day and if a member of the management team was in the area, I was nudged awake and began barking a non-existent stock order to a non existent supplier. Propped up with Tea, doughnuts and Guarana, I made it through the day. Just.  When I got home, I retrieved my plastic bag full of leads, spare strings and now, melted snow etc, from under the tree, cleaned my Chelsea boots, applied some styling mousse to my hair and got myself ready. Well, I had a gig in Liverpool that night….
The sunglasses cost £1.00

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