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Illuminations from the throne

Musical memories.

Music fans at a concert.
Photo Credit: Jay Wennington

Whether you’re fighting for your life at the front of a Smashing Pumpkins gig or sitting comfortably in a corporate box where no one is blocking your view of the Rolling Stones being parodied by - hang on, I think that might actually be Mick and Keith down there, who’s got the binoculars? - there’s nothing quite like watching live music.

There was a time when barely a week would pass without me donning a black t-shirt and heading out to see a band. My gig going days are far from over but these days, certain things must be taken into account before I throw myself to the mercy of a mosh pit.

Will I be able to summon the required energy? How are my knees holding up, perhaps a seating option might be more sensible? Am I happy to go on my own if I fail to persuade anyone else out of live-music-retirement? Then there’s the jaw-dropping ticket prices to contend with.

If I ever need to justify spending so much, I remind myself that I used to be.....how shall I put this?.....a slightly over-enthusiastic music consumer, who may have stumbled onto a P2P site now and then and may have.....borrowed.....an album. If such a thing ever did happen, perhaps I’d have slightly less right to complain about artists charging a wedge to see them play live.

I’ve amassed a treasure trove of memories from 30 years of moshing, headbanging, pogoing, screaming out lyrics and, on occasion, just standing quietly and listening. In this article I’m going to prove, to myself if no one else, that I can actually remember some of them.

First concert

It's a question that’ll be asked many times over. Who was the first band you saw live? Milestones like losing your virginity or passing your driving test can't compare with such a momentous occasion in any music fan’s coming of age biography.

Thankfully, I never did ask my mum to take me to see Kylie, which means I'm able to claim a creditable initiation into the world of sweaty bodies, sticky floors and beer showers. My first band was Little Angels.

For a period in the early 90s, before Britpop arrived, Little Angels were considered the best band in Britain, although I now know that such an honour depends on the magazines you read. Kerrang! and Metal Hammer were my bibles. If you read Smash Hits or Just Seventeen, I suspect they would've nominated other candidates for the accolade.

According to setlist.fm, it was 5th July 1993 when my friend Julie and I took the bus to Newcastle City Hall to see them. I don’t remember anything about the show but I must have loved it. I doubt it would have been the first of hundreds otherwise. Unusually though, I do remember the opening act that night because I knew them. Sort of.

Me and some guys from school had a band, you see, and believe it or not we tried real hard. Our guitarist was actually very good and I was a decent enough drummer. Thinking that a lame attempt at one Guns ‘n’ Roses song would actually impress anyone, we entered a talent competition. We didn’t win. A band called Small Town Heroes did. They must have deserved to because there they were, sharing a stage with the best band in Britain.

Little Angels, in turn, went on the road with some genuine rock royalty: Van Halen, Bon Jovi and Extreme among others. The point I’m making is, as a result of my band’s position on this particular support act pyramid, it’s perfectly possible that David Lee Roth, Jon Bon Jovi and Nuno Bettencourt know who I am and are aware of my drumming prowess. Furthermore, as my parents still have the same landline number, it’s perfectly possible that I might one day get a call should any of them require a new drummer.

‘Jam’, Little Angels’ most successful album, was a forgotten favourite until I played it recently and realised I could still sing along, word for word, with the entire record. The brain’s capacity to recall lyrics from songs you haven’t heard for years is quite astonishing. Please, take the time to check out ‘Too Much Too Young’ or ‘Young Gods’ on Spotify. Classics from my rock ‘n’ roll teens that make me wish I still owned a drum kit to thrash at wildly.

Best support act

As you attend more live events, one thing soon becomes clear. Support acts tend to be support acts for a reason. I’m not talking about established bands on the bill with monster stadium gods. I’m talking about the thrill of discovering an unknown gem opening for the headliner shortly before making it big themselves. An extremely rare phenomenon in my experience. Most support acts are, in truth, utterly forgettable.

However, the law of averages states that “future events are likely to turn out so that they balance any past deviation from a presumed average.” In other words, if you endure enough shitty bands, eventually you’ll see a good one.

I first saw The Subways supporting Ash at the London Astoria. Indeed, the first time I saw Ash they were themselves a support act, opening for Elastica.

What struck me about The Subways that night was how reserved they were on stage. But I enjoyed their set so when I saw their name on a festival lineup a year or so later, I made a point of going to see them again. They’ve certainly progressed, I thought, as I watched them tearing around the stage, putting on a great show. They've become one of my favourites.

Most disappointing concert

If I was Zeus of the music gods (Meus?) and given the opportunity to put together my dream rock band, comprising any musician from any period in history, alive or sadly missed, for one most excellent night of rock hedonism, I wouldn’t hesitate to take my time and think very carefully about who to include. I mean, think of all the illustrious artists you’d have to discard!

But I'm Meus, don't forget so, even though I’m only allowed one band for one night, I am allowed to change my mind. Today I’m going with Freddie Mercury, obviously, and Taylor Hawkins on drums.

For pure bass playing pedigree, I would add John Entwistle but an awesome band needs awesome songs and awesome songs need an awesome songwriter. A Beatles era Paul McCartney gets the spot. As a genius singer-songwriter there’s a tendency to overlook his ability as a bass player. Nevertheless, he’s great at that, too.

My guitarist would be John Frusciante. His spectacular playing lights up what would otherwise be, in my opinion, mediocre Red Hot Chili Peppers albums. Watching him play live would surely bring out the goosebumps.

Well.

Now that I know Red Hot Chili Peppers use their live shows as an excuse for extended, unrehearsed jam sessions, I’ll never have to stand through two hours of that tripe ever again.

Most surprising concert

Work wasn’t going well on this particular day. A couple of problems stubbornly refused to be solved and I was settling in for a long night. Then, in the space of about 10 minutes, things turned around. I had a breakthrough on one project and the manager of another decided to stall it for a few days. I would have a free evening after all.

That gratifying 10 minutes wasn’t over. My wife texted to say some friends couldn’t go to a concert they had tickets for that night. Would we like to see Bryan Adams?

I instinctively snorted. Bryan Adams! Yeah right. So uncool. I didn’t know I had friends who were fans of Bryan Adams. I didn’t even realise that Bryan Adams was still touring. How old is that guy now anyway?

But then I thought, why not? I had no other plans and besides, ‘Summer Of ‘69’ is an undisputed classic. I could just hang out at the bar while waiting for him to play that.

Well.

Unlike most legacy artists who’ve completely lost their songwriting chops, haven’t released any new music for generations and charge hundreds of euros to watch a fat efforgy of themselves barely managing to hold a guitar, Bryan Adams fucking rocked. And the new album he was promoting sounded really good. I bought it the next day. And his Greatest Hits.

Best Venue

I haven't been to The Waterfront in Norwich for donkey's so I can't say if it's still worthy of the crown but during my student years, when I was a regular attendee, it was one of those legendary UK venues with a reputation for hosting promising new bands. Whenever somebody asks why I ended up studying in Norwich of all places, I tell them The Waterfront was a deciding factor.

In my first year at UEA, when it was in danger of closing, our Student's Union held a referendum to decide if they should take over the management. I voted in favour and they still run it today.

Best Concert

Like trying to choose your favourite album, pinning down the best concert you’ve ever been to is practically impossible. Often it’s specific moments during a show, rather than the whole event, that prove memorable.

Fran Healy standing on a beer crate in the middle of the audience singing without the P.A., Bono sprinting around the heart as ‘Bad’ morphs into ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, Stevie Nicks performing ‘Black Magic Woman’, under the stars with no sense of irony whatsoever, First Aid Kit singing ‘Songbird’ acapella in tribute to Christine McVie… these are the spine-tinglers you never forget.

But I will attempt to answer the impossible. My favourite album is The Joshua Tree and when it was announced that U2 would be performing the whole album on a 30th Anniversary Tour, I lived in fear of missing out until the day I secured my ticket. Suffice to say, that show was everything I hoped it would be.

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