During the last month I have had conversations with three different people (people I had never met before) during which the subject turned to music in the 1980s. I told the same stories three different times, which is the kind of thing that prompts me to draft a piece for this Blog. If a story is worth telling more than twice it might be worth writing it down too.
It is over 40 years since I first saw a band playing live (Pilot, who were supporting Sparks at the old Hammersmith Odeon in late 1974). Gig-going has been a regular feature of my life since then, though it’s not so regular at the moment. There’s a big summer of live events in Hyde Park and I’m likely to miss all of them, and it’s over a month since the last pub gig I went to. The late 1970s were a much busier time.
In August 1978 I went to 20 gigs in and around London, and went to the Knebworth Festival too, where Frank Zappa was headlining. The Tubes were second on the bill but went on last, while it was getting dark, so that their light show would be more effective. It was the final month of live shows at the old Red Cow pub in Hammersmith and though we were all under-age a few of us went there many times to say goodbye to the place. John Otway played 7 shows and I went to 4 of them.
The 1980s were different. There was never a month in that decade when I went to 20 gigs. By the end of the 1980s the handful of acts that I went to see were mostly people I had met and seen in Cambridge, people like Andy White and John Wesley Harding. I saw the Jesus and Mary Chain a few times and had seen the Smiths a few times earlier in the decade, but they had split up by 1988. One of the conversations that I mentioned in the opening paragraph, at a local street party, was with a girl in her 20s who wasn’t born when the Smiths disbanded. She and a friend are big fans of the band and are on a mission to see all four of them perform, at some point. They have seen Morrissey (singer, successful solo artist) and guitarist Johnny Marr (with his band The Healers) but seeing either member of the rhythm section (Andy Rourke or Mike Joyce) will be more of a challenge. They don’t perform much these days, which is a shame: they were one of the great rhythm sections. One of them, she told me, does a DJ set in a Manchester club and she and her friend plan to travel there just to see him perform that way. We agreed that it would count towards her target: it’s a member of the Smiths playing music in public.
During this conversation, and for the third time in under a month, I recounted my experiences of seeing (and missing out on) Smiths performances. In the early 1980s the Lyceum on the Strand hosted Sunday evening gigs that were similar to those at the Roundhouse in the 1970s: three (or occasionally four) bands, all listed on the posters in decreasing font sizes. In August 1983 I saw Howard Devoto (former singer with Buzzcocks and Magazine) headline there. SPK (German industrial metal, in the same vein as Einsturzende Neubaten) were second on the bill and the Smiths opened the show. I went with a couple of old school friends. We had heard some good things about the Smiths but spent too long at the pub and missed them. We arrived in time to see SPK. Did I imagine it or was there a chainsaw grinding through metal as part of their set? It was very loud. Howard Devoto was great.
The following month I went with a friend from university to see the Gang of Four’s Farewell Show. The Smiths were second on the bill this time and we planned to catch at least part of their set, but we stayed in a pub for one more drink and arrived at the Lyceum just in time to hear the applause in the seconds after they left the stage. I might have caught a glimpse of the retreating figure of one of the musicians, but we didn’t hear a note of any of their songs.
Early in 1984 she and I travelled down from Cambridge to see the band headline at the Lyceum one Sunday night and didn’t miss a note. We had heard and bought “This Charming Man” by then and knew they were good. With different timings (and less time spent in pubs around Covent Garden) I might have seen them three times in under six months, progressing from third to second to top of the bill at the Lyceum, but at least we managed to see them within a few weeks of the release of that first single. I saw them a few times after that but my main story about the Smiths is how I missed out on some early performances.
At another party, in June, I was chatting to someone around my age when the conversation again turned to 1980s music. His favourite band are The Cure and my story about them is in direct contrast to my Smiths story. As far as I know I saw their first public gig, at The Moonlight Club (a room in The Railway pub in West Hampstead) in the late 1970s. They were supporting a band called Local Operator and one of them (it might even have been the great Robert Smith himself) was so nervous that he was throwing up in a sink in the Gents beforehand. He told one of my school-friends (a group of us had gone to see the headline act) that this was their first proper gig, and that’s why he was so nervous. The only song I remember was their first single “Killing an Arab”, based on Albert Camus’ existential novel “L’etranger”. It prompted me to read the book soon afterwards. It’s the kind of thing we did in 1979. I also got a badge (made of cardboard, with an image of someone getting sick) which evoked admiration from one of my brother’s old school-friends when he became a big fan of The Cure a few months later.
It’s possible that this wasn’t their first proper gig but that’s what we were told, and it’s how I recall things. I’ve been telling the story for over 30 years. Phrases like “post-fact” and “post-truth” have emerged in recent years to define the kind of world we’re living in. If it turns out that I didn’t really attend the first Cure gig and that this was really their second or third public appearance I will issue an immediate apology but in the meantime everything that you have read in this piece is true.