27 Jan The Last Gig in Wonderland
My latest novel, The last weekend in Wonderland, features 88 bands and artists, 28 songs, 22 albums and countless live gigs.
Although a work of fiction, I’ve interwoven the story of two lifelong friends with a backdrop of my 52 years of gigging. I’m often asked what’s the best gig I’ve ever been to – this is an impossible question to answer. What I can do, is start with what top 10 gigs I’d return to if someone miraculously invents a time machine.
Firstly, I’d head back to Wembley Pool as it was known in 1972, where my sister took me to see Alice Cooper supported by an exciting new band called Roxy music. The whole experience inspired me to want to get to more gigs, and next on my list would be my first live music experience with mates; Lou Reed and the Tots at the Sundown Edmonton (now a Lidl!).
We’d read in our Bible, the Melody Maker, that Lou and his former band the Velvet Underground were a big influence on our new hero David Bowie. I didn’t know any of Lou Reed’s songs and was in shock when I heard the wall of noise emanate from the stage. I was seduced by his look, all in black with a red guitar. I went on to see him a further 21 times but that first sighting will always be my most abiding memory of him.
I had to wait a while before going to see my musical God David Bowie but unfortunately, it was at the worst venue I’ve ever attended – Earls Court. The view was terrible as was the sound, but I’ll never forget the sheer excitement of seeing the main man in the flesh. Again, I’ve seen him a few times since, but nothing beats the first time.
Ironically, it was David Bowie that reignited the career of my favourite band Mott the Hoople, who I would see many times, but it was a random gig at the London College of Print that I recall with most affection. The last weekend in Wonderland is punctuated by many Mott the Hoople tales, so no spoilers here, but the circumstances that led to me obtaining gold entry to this tiny sold out gig made the evening probably my most memorable gig ever! The band I’d followed from pub band to the big time were for one night, up close and personal, playing the songs I loved.
Without doubt one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen were The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and their ‘Sunday night at the London Palladium’ concert is another unforgettable night from the seventies. Visually SAHB are without doubt the most stand out band I’ve ever seen. The stage settings, their clothes, dancing girls and of course, guitarist Zal Cleminson with his clown face and posture – they had one of the most iconic looks in rock history.
I had a bit of a lull in the mid 70’s as the bands I loved either split up, or became over bloated and passed their best, particularly the prog rock bands. I was now working and desperately seeking a girlfriend! Gigging took a back seat until the summer of ’77, when I happened upon The Jam at the California Ballroom in sleepy Dunstable. Again, this jaw on the floor moment is covered in detail in my book but from this moment I was back in the Saddle spending every weekend either at the Roundhouse or the Nashville, or both. The Clash, Damned, Stranglers were all seen regularly. Seeing Weller, Foxton and Buckner blast into the Batman theme in their black and white suits and red guitars remains right up there as the moment I realised gigging was for life!
When the ‘80’s and the New Romantics arrived, my salvation was The Boss and I saw him at Wembley arena in 1981. Springsteen played a near four-hour set and was joined on stage by another of my heroes, Joe Strummer for an unforgettable encore of ‘Should I stay or should I go now’.
It would be over two decades before felt that buzz again! Paying the mortgage, kids, life in general made the ‘80’s and ‘90’s my wilderness years in terms of gigs but in the early noughties a friendship with Paddy ‘the plank’ Callaghan, the legendary minder for Frank Zappa and latterly, Elvis Costello, reaped dividends and he invited my wife and I to a box at the Royal Albert Hall to see The Who. This was to be John Entwistles last UK show and they played hit after hit; it was an absolute masterclass in classic rock.
Around this period both my daughters were at Uni and we decided to take advantage of our new-found freedom from parental responsibilities by regularly attending festivals. I’ve seen literally 1000’s of bands at festivals and one-day concerts. These obviously include some of the most stand out performances I’ve witnessed, but I will cover these in a future blog.
To my great delight my younger daughter got herself a job at the Roundhouse which meant the occasional complimentary tickets. In 2016, I was inundated with requests from younger friends desperate to get their hands on tickets for Richard Ashcroft which had sold out in minutes. My daughter called me on the afternoon of the concert to say there were four guest tickets for me and I was able to make at least three friends very happy indeed. I was obviously familiar with The Verve classics and had read about his problems with stage fright, but I have to say, I was completely blown away by his performance. His band were magnificent, and his solo material was outstanding. Many of the audience were in tears during ‘The drugs don’t work’. He has one of the most unique vocal styles I’ve ever heard.
With the arrival of the pandemic and the forced hiatus of live music, I thought I’d never add to my list again but all that changed in October 2021, when I was a guest of the legendary music guru Edmund Vitali for Patti Smith at the Royal Albert Hall. I’d seen her at a couple of festivals but never understood what all the fuss was about and at the age of 74, I assumed she was way passed her prime. How wrong I was! My jaw was firmly stuck to the floor from beginning to the incredible ending, when she morphed into a cross between Pete Townsend and Sonic Youth and literally broke the stings of her guitar as she trashed her way through a mind-blowing cover of ‘My generation’!
It has been an unexpected pleasure to have to once again reassess my top ten live gigs. In my next blog, I’ll be looking back at gigs that don’t need a time machine; they are stuck in my memory for varying reasons, time and place, who I was with, and unexpected connected events.