OK, so this is fantastically self indulgent, but I could have sworn I’d written about this before. But it appears I haven’t, and it is my blog, so if I want to be selfish, I will.
I have always loved the entire live experience, be it a concert, standup, sport, whatever. There is nothing more wonderful than being part of a crowd and sharing the emotional highs (and in the case of sport, lows) with tens, hundreds or thousands of others. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of some amazing live experiences, from my very first gig (Iron Maiden, “No Prayer on the Road” at the Manchester Apollo), intimate shows in small venues up to stadium rock in enormo-Domes. In my opinion, there is nothing more uplifting than sharing the emotions of live music, sport or comedy with tens, hundreds or thousands of like minded people.
(Of course, the only thing to beat being part of a crowd going deliriously mental is causing it. I was lucky to have a couple of real stormers while doing comedy and surfing that wave from a crowd is wonderfully addictive. But most of all I remember being part of the Match Night Crew revving up the crowd for the Manchester Phoenix and just watching the crowd going bananas after we had built them up. I turned to Richard and said “Is that because of us?” “Yeah.” “Fucking hell“. I can totally understand why people and bands experience such highs and lows in performing – it is really is an unbelievable high.)
Anyway, live, the Levellers are definitely in my top three bands that I have seen, behind Terrorvision andRammstein. In their mid 90’s pomp, they were a fantastically tight live band and the crowds went mad for them. Seeing as I’m going to watch them in Dublin in March, I hope they still are. Back then, I listened to Levelling the Land daily. My friend Dave and I singlehandedly kept the Levellers on the jukebox at our Monday night pool sessions. Into the White Lion in Earby for 7pm, the ritual was a simple “two pints of your finest, barkeep”, several 20p pieces on the pool table and a quid into the jukebox to start the night off withFifteen Years,Belaruse and Steve Earle’sCopperhead Road.
For about two years, 94-96, I went to every single gig they did in and around Manchester. There was the Academy, then a very memorable gig with my good friend Dave at Sheffield Arena for a “Christmas Freakshow” in December 1995.
The Christmas Freakshow was supported by Dreadzone and a Shane McGowan-less Pogues, it was a fun gig despite the Arena’s cramped seating and poor acoustics. Although not what you would traditionally think of as an “arena band”, the crowd was pretty huge. We even did theManchester Storm “cow milking” dance when the Pogues launched into “Fiesta” to the bemusement of many around us. Also, for some reason I remember two students dressed as ballroom dancers and two more with rubber gloves on their heads carrying a big pole.Was it Art? If so, not sure what it was trying to say, apart from “We’ve confused wacky with funny”.
At that show there was another flyer handed out, this time the “World Freakshow” to be held the following February in Blackpool. Dave and I were on it immediately, with tickets in hand. We even decided to make a bit of an event of it, deciding to stay overnight in a B&B. Dave’s friends Warren and Chris (?) came along for the ride. Staying overnight was easier said than done, because even in the depths of a very cold February, B&Bs were quite happy to turn away four lads looking for accommodation, especially when we said we were in town for a concert.
Rooms sorted, we shuffled into theWinter Gardens and realised that we were present for the filming of the first ever Levellers live video. I’ve always wanted to be at one of these gigs, where you can point out to people “I was there!”. (A feat I’ve managed since, being present for Terrorvisions first-ever-last-ever gig in Bradford.) Somewhere in the throng, I got separated from Dave and co and ended up slightly left of centre stage.
(Digression: The album of that Terrorvision gig is one of the hardest listens that I have in my collection, purely because of the emotions it represents. It is funny how the band launch full throttle into what everyone assumed was their last ever gig, but by the end Tony Wright is barely singing and the crowd just carry him through. Terrorvision were probably “my” band, the one that soundtracks my life, the one that was with me from teenage years up to their initial split in 2001. I must have seen them over 15 times, I listened to “How to Win Friends and Influence People” as part of everything significant in my life, from coping with splitting from my first girlfriend, to losing myself countless times to Oblivion in Colnes rock club or Jillys in Manchester. I remember thinking after each song during that gig, “that was so utterly wonderful… and I’m never going to hear them do that again and I’m never going to feel this way again.” I was wrong of course, but no-one knew that at the time. Even now when I hear the recording ofFists of Fury and keyboard player (and five foot nothing of devil horned cute)Josephine Ellul sings “Come on Tone… take ’em home”, it still gets to me.)
A preTubthumping Chumbawamba was the support act and they got the night off to a fantastic start. I had vaguely heard of them and their mix of agit-prop andbounce along fun was the perfect setup. Then the Levellers burst onto the stage and the place went mad. I suddenly realised that I was in the perfect place to be caught under a camera on one of those long arm jib things every time it swung over the crowd.
Watching the whole video back, what is most notable about it is how absolutely nuts the crowd is. Just about every crowd shot shows a huge proportion of people pogoing, jumping around and generally lost in the moment. The band aren’t one for huge pyro and cheap crowd tricks and to be honest, any crowd interaction they have is along the lines of saying “Cheers!” at the end of a song. My favourite is their anthemicOne Way , and each time the crowd is visible, it is a mass of complete joy and freedom. There is no aggressive, moshing, pushing and jostling. Best of all, the band is feeding off the energy, and there are several shots of the guys with wide smiles and looks of astonishment. Energy flowing from band to crowd to band to crowd in a virtuous circle.
When the video came out, Dave and I watched it that night at his house. We had beer and Jack Daniels. I hadn’t eaten and polished off about half of the bottle of Jack on an empty stomach. Whoops. If I remember rightly, Daves wife walked in from work to find us drunkenly dancing around the living room. Double whoops.
The whole thing was enhanced by going “hey! that’s me!” OK, so they might be brief glimpses, but I’m in many crowd shots and lit up. It seems to make the whole thing so much more personal.
About 55mins in the band play England, My Home. The crowd is bouncing along and at the time I sensed the camera had swooped down once more and pointed right at me. For six or so months I wondered whether I would make the cut. And what do you know, lit by the spotlights, front and centre of shot.
My very own 22 frames of glory as the camera focuses in and then pulls away over the crowd. Two things hit me. One, I’m horribly thin. Two… I’ve got shoulder length hair. The famous Landers ponytail was in its earliest stages. I’m bouncing up and down, arms up, lost in the moment.
Several thousand Levellers fans watch that part of the video and see Pogoing Mullet Rakeface but I’m the only one who can point to it and go “that’s me, that is!”. A cameo part in a live video, not a face in the crowd, the face in the crowd. Fucking awesome.
Next song, another bit of glory of sorts. The band begin the intro to the wonderful Battle of the Beanfield and as the thudding drums start in I’m caught at the bottom right, catching my breath. That white spotlighted figure, standing out a mile, number one with a mullet. The video has me doing my usual gig thing, which is singing along. (I always sing along to the band – what with that and the delirious and rubbish pogoing, I must be a bloody nightmare to be next to in a gig.)
This lass is on my shoulders all the way as the band play a ferocious, passionate “Battle of the Beanfield”. As I remember it, I tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to my own, offering to lift her up. Being a scrawny piece of string, I immediately regretted hoisting her up there but out of spite wasn’t going to let her fall down. So it was just my luck that the camera positioning was perfect for it to swing down and capture this shot. I had nightmares about the camera catching my grimace for all to see. Thankfully, all that it seems to have got is my hand waving to the camera. (Funnily enough, until I screen capped this, I never really knew whether that was my hand or not.) When the song ended I lowered her down and said the only sentence I ever said to her… “No offence, but you are heavier than you look”.
The memory of this gig never fails to bring a smile to my face. It was an adventure. The B&B issue. The most amazing gig. If you offered me one day in my life I could relive, then the answer would be my wedding day. Of course it bloody would be, what else could it be?
But second would be this gig. The perfect storm of emotion, happiness, joy. I don’t care if people think the Levellers are overly honest or worthy, I don’t care that they were never a band promoted by the music press. As the rest of the world had Madchester and Oasis and Blur and rave and dance and looked upon Levellers as a throw back, the band and their fans as hippies or crusties. Terminally uncool. I didn’t care. What I did know was that somewhere in a concert hall, singing along to these songs of independence (or rather, yelling in key), a twenty-something who was wondering if he would be trapped in the same crappy small town for all his life felt alive and free to the possibilities of the world.
After the gig we piled back to the B&B, the four of us just utterly drained by the night. Amusingly, during the gig, Dave broke his foot, the funny part of it is that didn’t notice for a couple of days. Next morning, we all went for breakfast in the snow and somehow and ended up at a McDonalds. Being in Blackpool and a bunch of geeks, we found an arcade and took it in shifts to pump coins into a two player Time Crisis until we completed the damned thing, all the time and wondering how the hell a mortal being was supposed to beat this thing on one credit.
One of the best nights ever. Best of all, if the memory will fade as time is unforgiving, I always know it was immortalised in crappy VHS-o-vision.