There is something about the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, everything takes on a strange hue and an almost dream like quality. The class room with its cheap tinsel glamour and excitable kids swapping Christmas cards (posh shiny card ones for those you like, crap paper ones that won't stand up for those you don't like or forced by guilt to write one for) seems like a different, better place. Maybe it's down to the fact that they let you wear your own clothes for the day, and all those tightly wrapped egos and identities that get trapped underneath the horrifically homogenised rigidness of the school uniform are released swan-like to an unflinching world. The girls looking at least three years older out of their uniform and in their make up. The boys cocky and looking like they're going to a football match, all track suits and bright Adidas t-shirts. Maybe its because, with the fortnight away from the little bastards and a lunchtime trip to the pub in mind, the teachers almost approach something resembling being human, and if you look deep and hard enough, you may see just a hint of a twinkle in their eye.
Amongst the tinsel (its remnants staying under a stray drawing pin in the ceiling for decades) and a sprig of holly drawn neatly in yellow chalk on the board, there is almost unbearable excitement. I'm sat on one of those little brown chairs next to Trigger.
Trigger (so called after getting concussed in a football match that left him sounding dopey as the Only Fools and Horses character) is a lad I've started hanging around with recently. Bursting with barely concealed excitable energy, he's someone I find myself wanting to be more like. Someone who pulls off the enviable trick of being popular with his co-students whilst being charming to the grown ups. My mum loved him. He was always bright as a button, with an exaggerated 'Ow do Mon!' and way of rubbing his hands together that made you feel anything was possible.
Trigger and me, this final day of term was more special than most. Not only did we have the teacher we all had a crush on for the last lesson, a Yorkshire girl not an awful lot older than us, who had cheeks the colour of the middle of a custard cream and teasing, testing cuddly legs that sat in white tights beneath a heartstoppingly short tweed skirt, we also had tickets to our first proper gig. It was December the 18th 1992, we were 15 years old. And tonight we were going, hormones and all, to see Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at the Civic Hall in Wolverhampton. Glamour, it would seem, knew my name.
It ( ’It’, I suppose, being everything) all started with a chance conversation in the form room during a dull dinner break, the kind where we would drink cans (they had recently introduced 'supercans', a tin of pop that was almost twice the size as normal and impossible to drink fully without feeling sick) of cola whilst the intellectual set would discuss the current world of football, while the remaining boys would burp as loud as they could, and when that got tired would hold each other in panting, grinning red faced headlocks before using some unfortunates hold-all as a football.
About a year earlier, I had seen on the telly a promo video for a track by a band called Jesus Jones called 'International Bright Young Thing', where the theme was band members, all hair and skateboard clothing, leaping up at you from various globes and maps. But it was the song, an aural jumping and punching the air of a record, that switched on a light somewhere in the dimness of my young mind. The essential life of the song seemed to dart out of the speaker of the black Grundig and agreeably grab me by the throat. It seemed, and I suppose still does, to be full to the brim with breathy vigour and a sense of youthful urgency. It was like spending 15 years in a cheap bottle of lemonade, shaking it furiously, and then quickly unscrewing the top. It was that kind of song. As I sat eating my tea - half a fish finger on a fork held half heartedly to my open, O shaped mouth, my mum suggested that I should perhaps buy the record. This seemed like a good idea.
So purposefully I trot off, pocket money in the pocket of my jeans and my head and heart full of young day dreaminess. I pushed open the door to Rainbow Records (surely named during its hippy heyday), took a deep breath and unknowingly walked over the threshold from being a boy to being an adolescent. The shop was tiny, dimly lit, and absolutely crammed with records and tapes. Racks of them, in every corner and eye line. There were even more stuffed in brown cardboard boxes under the counters. Winningly, it also had t-shirts suspended from the ceiling that brushed against the top of your head when you walked around.
There were only three other people in there. A friendly looking man in a white doctors coat behind the counter, who looked like a cross between a chummy young headmaster and Beaker from the Muppetts, and two plump, balding middle aged men in leather jackets. Even at 15, I was pretty sure they were the kind of men who would never get married. Covertly, I watched the men flick rapidly through the racks of the 7" singles, suddenly stop, look at the back of the sleeve, then replace it and the whole process would start again. The shop smelt of old smoke mixed with an almost sweet dust and had the sleeves from vinyl records stuck to the walls. These ones I surmised were rare records, as the prices written in Biro and tucked into the dust sleeve were astonishingly high. Trying to look like I did this all the time, I took myself to the rows of cassettes marked 'INDIE' and flicked through. Being a bright lad, I soon worked out that they were stored in alphabetical order. My fingers ran over the spines. Throughout the H's of Happy Mondays and the Housemartins through I's of Icicle Works and Inspiral Carpets, through the J's of James, Janes Addiction, Jasmine Monks, Jesus and Mary Chain... and there it was. The purple spine of 'Doubt' by Jesus Jones.
I pulled it out and flipped it over to look at the track listing (so that's what those blokes were doing) and there I found it. Side one, track three. International Bright Young Thing. The cover was weird, purple with strange grinning face over lapping itself in sort of a paisley pattern. It looked a bit weird and stirringly grown up. I handed over a fair chunk of my pocket money to the gentleman (who mercifully didn't question my choice, though I did notice the blokes viewing my purchase with furtive, furrowed eyes) who slipped the tape into a bright yellow carrier bag and handed me my change. And it was as simple as that. A procedure that took maybe twenty minutes that would be the first of many, many, many more to come. I stepped out of the door and into a bright new world.
"What have you bought from Rainbow then?" asked Trigger. It was a question that shaped my life. The fact that someone had asked me it already put me in a secret club (I saw the other lads in the form room look at us in puzzlement. "Has he bought something form Zippy and Bungle?"). I handed him the cassette, which was pored over. "Not bad them, I'll make you a tape". And so it began. The exchange of compilation cassettes would later in life be nothing short of an art form. It would be used as a way of making friends. Of wooing girls. It would be used to say 'Thank you', or 'I'm sorry'. Or sometimes, just sometimes, 'I fancy the pants off you'.
Right now though, it was an innocent way of learning about new bands. And we had taken to it with some aplomb. We filled the C90's with as much cool and knowledge as we could. I received tapes filled with the obscure and the wonderful. I remember getting one with the sticky strip on one side marked 'INSPIRAL CARPETS-REMIXES'. And that is exactly what it was. Half an hour of the same track, 'Dragging me down' played over and over again in slightly different versions. An alternative edit, a radio edit, a vocal mix and on and on. It was a hard job filling those 90p blank tapes, and I found myself visiting Rainbow more and more buying records and discovering new indie bands.
I discovered some absolute gems. 'Really Scrape the Sky', the lead track off the 'Idiots at the Wheel EP' by Kingmaker lit my teenage life alight. I fell in love with the shambling drum intro, and the four note riff that sounded like a glistening dream coming true, and had constant daydreams of watching it being performed live. The B-sides were 'Every Teenage Suicide', a chillingly frank song about doing oneself in and 'Strip Away' a song I realised after a few listens, as pretty and dainty as it was, was also about suicide. I felt both clever at working it out and chilled to the bone. Taking ones life was taboo, I'd never seen it on television or read about it in a book, and here I was hearing about it on two songs I would listen to on headphones in the dead of night. It felt grown up and secret.
My dad had viewed my new fascination with music with head shaking bemusement. One night I had decamped in front of the TV to watch Top of the Pops, because Ride (another band we had taken a shine too) had finally broken the top twenty with the epic 'Leave Them All Behind'. (This was, of course, pre-Oasis and an Indie band making the top twenty was a big deal. If you had told me a few years down the line that Cornershop and Pulp would be having number one hits I would have had you certified.)
I sat watching those skinny lads with fringes of pure perfection belt out that intoxicating, day dreamy, lemon and honey soaked racket in awe. It sounded like a dream carved from mercury.
“What's this rubbish?” my dad said eating his tea.
“He needs to get his hair cut."
It was a perfect, perfect pop moment, one that has no doubt been played out up and down the country, in between generations for decades. The teenager watching in awe, with the elder watching on in polite puzzlement.
Another day I was playing my latest purchase in bedroom. And we acted out our now familiar little play-
"What's that racket?"
"It's God Fodder by a band called Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, dad."
There was a moment, just a moment of silence, then the most uproarious laughter I had ever heard. My dad was a funny man, the kind that held court in the pub while the rest of the patrons waited for him so say something funny. This was a man who was no stranger to laughter. But I never heard him laugh so much.
"Eh, eh" he called to my mum "guess what he's listening to now!"
He made me repeat it to my mum, who looked at us like we were both mad. He however, resumed his position of being bent over, hands on knees with tears streaming from his face. For a couple of years after, he had a hobby of asking any DJ's or singers at any function he would attend "Have you got any Ned’s Atomic Dustbin mate?" and take delight in their befuddled faces.
But the Ned’s, a bedraggled, student-y, twin bassed five piece from the unlikely birth place of Stourbridge were the first band we really fell for. We found them just as they were about to realise their second album proper, with them being the darlings of 6th forms up and down the country. It could (and has been) argued that they were a terrible band to cut our teeth with, spinning songs like the thrashy and dumb 'Kill Your Television' while the Stone Roses, Smiths et al remained snug and unplayed in their record sleeves. All those and many more to come in the future. We were fifteen, we didn't need or want poetry, beauty or truth. We wanted to grow our hair, drink and jump and down a bit and kiss girls. Perhaps not in that order. Which is fair enough really.
One Monday Trigger came to school, telling us how he had tickets to go see the Ned’s in Wolverhampton. I though it was a wind up. How could anyone at school do anything so grown up? But it was true he assured me. His mum had got tickets over the phone. Sensing that I was more than a little hurt that I wasn't he invited he added "you can come too, if you can get a ticket".
The next Saturday, after begging my dad for the money (he soon relented when he heard who were going to see) I took myself off to Wolverhampton to buy the ticket. This could have gone so wrong. I had no knowledge of Wolverhampton at all. I just jumped on a train and went. Luckily though, the Civic Hall was very close to well signed Civic buildings. If it was as hard to find as, say, the Hummingbird in Birmingham, there is a chance I would still be looking for it now. With great purpose I marched through the grey concrete and now here I was at the counter of the little kiosk at the side of the building that would become something of a second home over the next few years, the woman showing not the slightest mirth as I gave the name of the band I wanted to see and handing over the money. I even got my name on the ticket- 'Mr.Tomkiss'. It was all thrillingly grown up.
The Friday finally came, the last day of term going punishinlgy slow. We were released from class early, the teachers obviously wanting to get away just as much as us, and I raced home and virtually inhaled our tea whilst listening to a long list of do's and dont's of my mum. I darted round Trigs house in my Wonder Stuff t-shirt (which I hoped would at least make me look like I belonged at such a gig) black jeans and trainers.
I was stupidly early, yet found Trig in the same state as me, all dressed up and pacing the floor. His dad was giving us a lift to the venue (un-cool of course. The real giggers would have taken the train, but I was pretty sure the lift was one of the conditions of letting him go to the gig from Trig's mum) and was in no obvious rush to go, having just finished work and happily sat down reading the Shropshire Star.
By the time Trigs mate Jonah (a short, perma-smiling lad from the year above who was into New Order) had come round ticket in hand, we were chomping at the bit. With a defeated shake of the head, Trigs dad told us to get in the car. He was a good sort Trigs dad. A quiet fellow who used to play a bit of guitar around the clubs in his youth and had seen all this music based excitement first hand.
The drive to Wolverhampton was almost embarrassingly adolescent. The three boys doing that ridiculous teenage thing of trying to stay as silent as possible in the hope of looking cool. The older, wiser head trying to coax us into talking, succeeding finally with a chat about the fortunes of Shrewsbury Town FC. All the while, the car powered us away from home, from safety. The suburbia and green of Shrewsbury from the window turning first into motorway then into the grey and black and kebab shops and roundabouts of Wolverhampton. After a brief visit to Molineux to remark how much it looked like it was made of Lego, we parked up. After a short but intense lecture about where and when to meet post 'concert' we were released into the cold, cold midlands night.
It was, of course, still early. The doors to the venue wouldn't open for another hour, so we decided to take a wander. From the steps of the multi-storey car park we caught a thrilling glimpse of one corner of the merchandise stand through the Civic's window. We were bolshy and cocky with freedom. Full of youthful banter despite the bite of the late December chill. None of us had brought coats of course, not heeding to the words of wisdom from our mothers for the fear of looking un-cool.
Strolling around without purpose or direction, we found on railings next to some traffic lights, a half bottle of cider. We laughingly dared each other to drink from it. It was a risk, it could be just as likely a half bottle of rapidly chilling piss than free Strongbow. And being scared young Shropshire puppies, we didn't in fact swig from it of course. But in that bottle is a metaphor. Of being young, stupid but most of all free. There would be no opportunity at home to decide whether to drink urine or not. And there were no parents or teachers to stop us doing it. It was pretty exciting stuff..
After buying some chips from a kebab shop, a move taken just to give us some much needed warmth, we watched through the shops steamy windows trickles of people who were obviously going to the same gig as us. They were thin on the ground at first, kids in Doctor Martens and long sleeve t-shirts, but soon they were everywhere.
Outside the kebab shop we witnessed one of the most ridiculous arguments I've ever heard. An old Scot, clearly pissed out of his head, was telling a dread locked lad in a long sleeve Pixies t-shirt, shorts and cherry red D.M.'s how "fucking daft" he looked, with his bare legs uncovered on a harsh December night. The drink must have made him clean forget he was wearing a kilt.
The steps outside the Civic, empty not on hour ago, were now packed with young people in band t-shirts, beaten jumpers and army & navy cast offs swigging from cans of lager and bottles of cider (not THAT bottle we hoped) and smoking and joking and laughing. Deep in my heart I felt that belonging that would become so familiar over the years. Its an amazing experience being one of a handful of people in a town that dressed a certain way and listened to a certain type of music to come to a city and find you're one of thousands. I fell in love with every girl my eyes fell upon, wishing that even a few of them lived in Shrewsbury, and a small kink for girls in stripy tights formed there and then. All the people here seemed people to look up to, but of course it's just as likely they were from small towns and had accepted lifts in with their dads. But it didn't seem like it at the time, and as a velvet suited old gentleman opened the doors and asked us, in a deep west midlands accent, to form queues, we felt privileged to be standing in the same line as these people.
We dashed to the t-shirt stand as soon as we got in, drinking the sight of box fresh Fruit of the Looms tacked to seven foot high blue boards and purchased new long sleeved goodies to show off in back home. We even managed to get served at the bar, feeling grown up and self satisfied sipping at our pints as a bouncer took a batch of plastic glassed Banks' off a particularly young looking group. The bar buzzed with people and as we heard a guitar being loudly tuned, we walked into the hall.
It was dark and half full as we walked past the mixing desk to get near the front of the stage. The place seemed huge, surrounded by balconies over head. The ceiling appeared to tower a million miles in the air, the huge speakers, lighting rigs and back drop of artwork from the new album making us feel very small indeed. As we got to the front, the atmosphere was electric and full of festive bonhomie, helped in no small part by a Brummie girl in the front row giving out 'Christmas kisses' to any lad who approached her. She asked Trig if he had his Christmas kiss yet, and at his negative reply tried to push her tongue as far down his throat as it would go. I hid behind Jonah. I was yet to kiss a girl properly and didn't want to give up that honour like this. She was a friendly girl though, and I sometimes find myself wondering what happened to the girl we christened 'Dilly from Dudley'.
The support band was Silverfish. The singer, Leslie, was a skinhead Scottish lesbian in hobnailed boots who shouted out her vocals in a manner that made you feel that you were being told off for something. A bloke in the crowd (no doubt full of vim thanks to Dilly) shouted out in a broad Black Country accent "Get yer tits out Leslie!", the resulting instant reply of "Fuck off" endeared her to the crowd immediately.
Half an hour later their set was finished and we watched as the roadies carted off their tatty equipment and brought on the Ned's flash gear. We spotted guitars we recognised from promo videos as the guitar techs tuned them up. The fifteen minute break between bands was like a carnival. We laughed as we spotted behind us, amongst the thousands of heads, a lone pair of army boots as one crusty decided to do a head stand. Whoever did the tape of the warm up music obviously had a sense of humour, as 'One Step Behind' by Madness saw the five thousand crusties doing the nutty boy dance, beer flying in every direction. It was a sight to behold.
Then came that most glorious of feelings as the house lights go down and all you can see is the red glow of the switches on the amplifiers, the music goes down and the cheering starts up, then hand clapping as the band takes its time to come out of the dressing room. We immediately stop being individuals. We are a mass now. An army. An audience. And this moment is a gift for all of us to put inside us and carry around forever. Those two minutes between the light dimming and the band coming on. Nothing matters now. No job. No relationship. Nothing. It all floats away as all of these people, all of these heads which five minutes ago where a collection of strangers standing out. Their individuality on their sleeves. The T-shirt so carefully selected. The extra make up. The new ear rings. All of that gone now. We are one. We all want the same thing and to share the same feeling. This is my moment and it is yours to take with you.
Then there they are, Alex, Jonn, Rat, Dan and Matt. People you feel like you know because you have listened to their records so much. And you hope they play your favourite song, and they do, third song on the set list and school and parents seem a million miles away as you squash your way down the front, a mass of people heading to the back, the crush too much for them. And now you find yourself two rows from the front, alone as you've lost your friends, you could touch the crush barrier if only you could move your arms, but you're squished into position at all angles by people just as squashed as you, and you're all in this together packed tighter than bits of blu-tac rolled into a ball. But somehow you feel safe, knowing if you fall, you all fall together.
And you jump up and down, the whole first third of the hall pogo-ing as one, and you wonder what it must look like from the stage, this living breathing mass of people all jumping up and landing and jumping up again at exactly the same time. And as the stage security looks behind you with a deadly serious face, you know there is a crowd surfer looming, and you manage to free one arm to protect your head from his boots and throw him merrily on his way down the front. Just as the song finishes and you start to catch your breath and wipe sweat away from your eyes, the next one starts, and it's a song you know off by heart, you must have played it a million times, and you've even wrote the lyrics down on your school folder, that's how important this song, this message is to you.
The dehydration is kicking in now, and you would do anything for a pint of water, your legs starting to flag, but there's no time to worry as the singer announces this will be the last song and you get ready to give this one your all, to go fucking ape-shit, even though they will come back on for an encore, and it's the big one, the song you spent a history lesson daydreaming they would play and you recall the tickle in the tummy imagining it happening. And now it is, you're actually here to witness and testify, and there's not a man, woman or child in the building who doesn't know all the words, and you scream them together blissfully and you can forgive the stray elbow you received to the ribs, it could have been anyone.
And you take your t-shirt off during the break as the rest of the hall claps and screams for an encore, and your top is saturated. And after the encore is played and the lights go on you find your flush-faced friends, all sweat soaked hair and smiles and agree, yes, this was one hell of a fucking night. And you will go home and puke up the pint of milk you downed in one desperately trying to put some fluid back in your body. And through the nausea you will touch your new t-shirt and your sweat soaked jeans and pin your ticket stub to the wall and dream of doing it all again. Doing it forever. And now it’s in you. Striking you as pure and as awkward as lightening. Music, holding you belly, your head and your heart. This is music. Please don’t let me go.