Saturday, 24 January 2009

Slowly Slipping Into History Feel Us Go...

The well publicized closures of two old and contrasting `indie' stomping grounds are part of the latest chapter in an endless tale of woe about the gradual death of the music industry as we know it. Both of them hold great memories for me.

The Astoria in Charing Cross Road, literally in the middle of London (Centre Point tower is opposite), served for years as one of the 'biggies' to play alongside the Kentish Town Forum a few miles up the road. It had a capacity of 2000 and you pretty much felt like you'd arrived if you played there. The bouncers were intimidating thugs and the drinks were served in atrociously overpriced cans which could have been bought round the corner for a fraction of the cost, but the trick was to arrive late full of ale, see the band and leg it back to the pub (usually the Pillars Of Hercules). In fact I seem to remember us making an early exit to the pub after about two songs when the Manic Street Preachers (or was it Blur ? possibly both) played there, but that's the luxury of guest lists for you. A decent pint becomes more important than a band if you haven't paid anything to get in.

It will be sadly missed by the indie kids of old though. It was one of the best `moshing' venues around. Its sticky floor a heady mixture of beer, ground-in fag ash and bodily fluids as testament to hundreds of nights of stage-diving abandonment and joy at volume levels which will no doubt be illegal very soon, along with enjoying yourself.

Now on the same patch of ground, they'll be building a new rail link, mainly so that businessmen can get to the continent more quickly. How marvellous for them, it'll be nice when they finish it years behind schedule and no doubt several billion pounds over budget, that's if there's any business left to be done by then. How totally irrelevant to the person of culture, taste and low funds who doesn't give two hoots about business, but just wants to boogie their face off on a Friday night while high on recreational substances. What could possibly be wrong with that?

I played there in October 1990 with the Honey Smugglers as the grand homecoming on our first UK tour as support to the mighty Eat, who were among the best live bands I ever saw. It was a joy to see and learn from them night after night throughout our glorious adventure through the windswept town centres of our fair country. When the Smugglers hit the enormous Astoria stage it was early and the place was nowhere near capacity, but we'd been invited by Eat to join them on their encores, by which time the place was full. They all doubled up on percussion, so with plenty of instruments to hand, I found myself hitting Timbales for all I was worth in a power duet with their human dynamo drummer Pete Howard, while our singer Chris danced deliriously alongside Ged on tambourine and Steve C on Organ. This was in front of nearly 2000 swaying people and I wanted that moment slap bang in the centre of London to last forever. It was certainly the place to be that night.

By contrast in terms of size (300 capacity) but not in atmosphere, is Leicester's more modest but equally legendary Princess Charlotte, which is 99% likely to close any time now because it's gone into receivership. A roll call of big names such as Stone Roses, Oasis, Arctic Monkeys and er, Pete Docherty (or Doherty or whatever the dismally untalented creep calls himself) have all passed through this unassuming city centre pub on their way to the top.

More importantly, this venue was a vital component of the affectionately known indie `toilet circuit'. From Southampton (The Joiners) to Hull (The Adelphi) and at least a dozen points inbetween, an abundant variety of groups on the verge of their big breakthrough, with a single in the shops, would slog their way through the provinces in battered vans of dubious provenance. The locals having read about them in the music papers (remember them ??) could check them out first hand for a few quid, and a following could be slowly built. The Charlotte was typical of these venues which were often unloved and unlovely, but somehow belonged to the kids who frequented them. The best ones were where the pub landlord had given over an under used function room to a keen young promoter, let him call it `The Electric Whirlpool' or the `The Psychic Pig' and enjoyed the greatly improved bar takings that the gigs brought in. There was no need for stringent security, your indie kids were generally a good natured intelligent bunch, and as long as a blind eye was turned to the odd spliff then there was no trouble from anybody.

The first time the Honey Smugglers saw the Charlotte was on a wet Monday in March 1991, and we initially wanted to turn round and go back home. The dressing room was painted entirely black with a single light bulb hanging in the middle. There was nothing resembling furniture as far as I recall. I was amused to see a poster advertsing The Mercurys (my brother's band) who had already beaten us to it. Leaving these somewhat dismal surroundings after soundchecking we went for pizza in town.

On our return an hour or two later the transformation was total. The place was buzzing with young indie kids. The bar was serving up fine ale and all was suddenly well with the world.
A venue is brought alive by it's punters, and to see the place busy made the band want to go on and have a good time too. We played a great gig with excellent sound, to a fine reaction. We celebrated what was our 100th gig in real style.

Two years later I was back drumming with my new band TV Eye (which included Paul and Max Noble from Eat, I was going up in the world) and this time we had a proper tour bus with a CD player and video (ooh get you !), as we rolled up outside the Charlotte. The trip itself had been a hoot because our singer Paul Kaye (pictured right on that very journey) had been on incredible form, and no doubt assisted by the several joints we had smoked on the way we had hardly stopped laughing. He's made a hell of a lot more people laugh since, but there was a time when we had him all to ourselves. You really had to be there to see the "Oh no lads I've stuck a Rizla to my hand by accident...the gig's off" routine.

On this tour I was now signing into guest houses as `Beeb Fader', my newly acquired alias, after my skills on the mixing desk had been noticed by Paul during a recording session. He was now `Jack Cake' and on the rare occasions we were required to give autographs, his sign off was "Have a slice of me". Jack's persona was known to occasionally take over in rehearsals and sing of "going to get me some ice-cream" or "we are toast" instead of the somewhat more serious matters in hand.

As we carved `TV Eye' lovingly into the wall of the dressing room at The Charlotte, we wondered if that light bulb hanging in the middle of the room had been changed in the two years since I was last here, the gig was great, intense and loud and we went down well in front of Thousand Yard Stare's audience, but the episode which sticks strongest in the mind was during the pre-gig pint and hanging around time in the bar of The Charlotte.

I stumbled into the middle of it having been out to find food. Basically Louis Jones our bass player was on the floor in such convulsions of laughter that he literally couldn't breathe and was begging for Paul K to stop, whilst emitting a high pitched whine in between gasps for air. "Stop what ?" I hear you ask. Paul had captured the exact characteristics of Louis helpless whine and was relaying it back to him pitch perfect, making him lose it even more. This was punctuated with declarations of "nothing to see here" in high nasal upper crust tones , and with a suitably daft face for good measure staring at Louis from close range he had the power to virtually hospitalize our poor bass player with split sides.

It was amazing to see the Kaye in action. Without doubt the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. From then on he attempted to "light Louis' cummerbund of fire" at every available opportunity, including throwing himself down a motorway embankment, but that's another story.

Those great times have gone, now many of the places where they happened are going too...

Honey Smugglers `Need' @ Princess Charlotte 18/3/91 : Download here

T.V.Eye `Wow' @ Princess Charlotte 25/4/93:Download here

Pictured Above: Paul looking like he's just about to set Louis off again. (Oxford April 1993)