In 1997 JUMP toured the UK supporting FISH on his Sunsets on Empire Tour. In the course of those gigs, we played Blackwood Miners Institute and a rumbustious night was had by all. He referred to it from the stage as like playing the Thunderdome. It wasn’t. This was. This story is all true…
Thief was a three-piece band with a drum machine and a less than tight grip on what constituted good sense in the face of odds that were stacked so high against us, they might have been the very cliffs of Mordor. Experience is a wonderful thing and it should have rung some loud bells but such is the way of ambition, that even experience, with all its finger-wagging, head-shaking common sense, was sent to the back, to sit behind wishful thinking and hope. It was very late in the 1980’s and the rock clubs were dying but the congregations in South Wales, at least, still came to pay homage to the last twitches of the nearly-corpse. We weren’t metal, we weren’t getting anywhere and in all of these package-tour, circuit venues, we weren’t welcome either.
But we still did them.
At Tonypandy Royal Naval club, the throwing of objects at the bands was strictly forbidden, as was swearing by either audience or band. Joan, the diminutive MC of advanced years, reminded all concerned and went on to declare that she liked “The Thief” and given that she had delivered the likes of Iron Maiden in better days, the throng behaved. Sitting at extended trestle tables and consuming volumes of snake-bite with a hollow-legged relentlessness that would have paralysed dray-horses, the rules were observed and an air of bizarre restraint prevailed. Joan had warned, in our pre-gig pep-talk, that a number of bands of late had met with disapproval and she had consented to the practice of rolling empty cans toward the stage by means of offering a ‘thumbs-down’. Apparently some unpopular bands had witnessed the construction of can-towers at the front, modern art installations fashioned by the locals to mark their dissatisfaction. During our set we received only one such rolled can. I saw it as a token-roll that said “you’re not shit but you shouldn’t be here” and spotting the roller, rolled it back to him. The gamble, much as it had six years before with the dancing man of Aberystwyth, paid off and whilst the denim clad throng must have been utterly indifferent to our drum-machine-propelled barrage, they appreciated a joke at the expense of one of their number. There was applause, laughing and they even cheered when we left the stage (that may well have been ‘because we left the stage’… but no matter).
And thus we were lured into that most heinous of band crimes, the graveyard of many an aspirant – the false sense of security. What would happen twenty four hours later was not even a nano-speck on the radar of our self-regard.
We spent the night sleeping on the upstairs floor of a semi-derelict pub after a drinking session with a few locals who marvelled our surviving of the RN Club “dressed like that” and were keen to know what our itinerary had in store. At the mention of Newbridge Memo, they appeared mildly surprised and then gave us a “I suppose you must know what you’re doing isn’t it?” kind of look. Events took a dark turn in the early hours when someone was hit by a taxi on the soaking street outside. Sleep was fitful and in the morning, the rain kept falling.
My recollection is of a fairly straightforward set-up. The stage was high, coming out of a corner or to one side and had a mural depicting a tropical paradise on its back wall – or at least, I think it did. The dressing rooms were up some stairs and although a little echoey in the empty hall, soundcheck was fine. The gremlin, though, always hides till showtime, hides to inflict the greatest pain and humiliation, although in the face of what followed, even the gremlin might have stayed at home if he’d known.
At around 7pm we’d eaten some sandwiches and wondered out loud whether anyone would actually come to this old barn on a Sunday night. Half an hour later, with the dressing-room door ajar, the sound of a tumult of biblical proportions was howling in the hall below. Taking a last opportunity to visit the facilities (none en-suite) I slipped downstairs and edged my way through the throng. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people off their faces at 7.30pm on a Sunday. All of life was there in an unholy communion and still, I didn’t twig. In the Gents, the scene resembled a modern version of any number of renaissance depictions of hell. ‘Trainspotting’ which came later, looked, by comparison, like a parental advisory short film about fooling around. I took my turn and then gingerly stepped over and around the human debris to report back upstairs. Whilst the scenes were quite shocking, they weren’t so much new as highly concentrated. We had all this in Bangor but not all in one place and not at a gig that we were about to play.
I’m pretty sure we went on at 9pm to do an hour and I think, on the other side of the hall, was a man doing a ‘disco’. Still confident that in spite of arriving on the set of a Mad Max spinoff, we would just chalk up another gig and go home, we swaggered down the stairs and took to the stage. The three of us were six feet plus, wore boots that made us even taller snd sported much leather, hair gel, paisley and shades. As we strapped on our instruments (I was responsible for a slew of distorted middle-ground on second guitar) it began to dawn on me that something wasn’t quite right. The hallucinating mob had taken enough stock by now to register that amongst the equipment on stage, there wasn’t a drum-kit in sight.
The brief lull before the first song allowed disembodied cries of “where’s the drums, you wankers?” and “fuck off now, you’re shit” to rise in the now almost airless atmosphere. Carl hit the footswitch and the Alesis HR16 kicked into life the thunderous door-knock of a now long-forgotten song, The Midnight Click. For a few seconds, all I could see were mouths wide open in genuine shock, as though the drugs and alcohol had fused in a perfect storm and rendered the consumers as stone. From where I stood, I reasoned that Berenice had decided to take the sting out of things by giving us a few more decibels to shut out the hecklers but as the song wore on, I felt like a glider pilot who wakes from a dream to find he’s flying a Tornado jet. Every so often an enormous wave of sound would come rolling back over us from the hall. At my feet, a small crowd of ‘alternative’ punters were contorting themselves into wild shapes and grinning maniacally, in the middle of the hall people were shaking V signs and at the back there was hysterical shouting that we couldn’t hear. No-one could hear anything but the gremlin.
Something had gone horribly wrong with the mixing desk, with the result that, intermittently, everything on the desk turned itself to full volume. This, of course, we didn’t find out till much later. We ploughed into song number two. Aptly entitled ‘Weird Days’, it triggered the first projectile. The bottle arced from somewhere in the middle of the hall and hit the tropical paradise, shattering with terrible irony on the image of a palm tree. Rob looked at me with the expression of the Tornado pilot’s untrained navigator and mouthed the age-old maxim applied to extraordinary circumstances.
“Fer… kin… ell!” Two more ‘in-coming’ bounced near the amps as the song finished and as I approached the microphone, the sound of vitriol (if it can have a sound… this was it) engulfed me.
“Well, good evening” was my futile offering. “Fuck off!” they responded. “This song is… ” (my voice sounded like God over the Himalayas) “Shite!” they chorused. Carl hit the switch, a bottle of Newcastle Brown was launched into the howling, hit the mic from the stand in front of my face and the foolish assumption whose seed was sown in 1982, was blown to pieces in Newbridge Memorial Hall. The drum-track had started its bass-drum pound and Apollo 13 wouldn’t have been heard if it had been launched next door. The realisation was now upon us that we were in genuine physical danger. It was time to hit the ejector seat button. Pilot, navigator and tail-gunner grabbed as many possessions as possible and abandoned the jet in mid-flight. The bass-drum continued its monumental boom and we wedged the dressing-room door shut with a stand. Down below, back there… in hell… the drum stopped abruptly and there was a loud animal cheer. The disco fired up and the jockey re-started proceedings with “OK folks, that’s enough of that crap innit?”
In the aftermath we cautiously opened the door to find a crush of people waiting outside to slap our backs and invite us to parties. After the events of the last half an hour, this just added to the surrealism of it all. Apparently, our being bottled off, in the eyes of some, elevated us to a higher plane(!) where we could stand shoulder to shoulder with other forerunning battle-scarred comrades. To general mirth, one eager punter put it like this:
“Maaan, tha’ was brilliant! The las’ band that got bottled off in year was the Boomtown fuckin’ Rats!”
Could that be true? Much further up the road I had the pleasure and privilege to open some gigs for Midge Ure but I’ve never met Bob Geldof… although we share a bond…
Needless to say, down in the office, the committee of Ancients, in ties, blazers and car-coats offered a refusal as flat as their caps when it came to settling the fee.
“You d’in finish innit.”
“Perhaps if they hadn’t been throwing bottles?”
“Contract do say an hour boyo.”
We settled for half the fee, on the grounds that Berenice was not going to go quietly if we left empty-handed. Muttering, disgruntled and adamantly telling us we’d never play there again (indeed!) they escorted us to the door. Outside there were shades of Apocalypse Now, as too many punters and too few taxis maintained the crazy vibe. We kept Rob’s 1.1 Fiesta out of the way, lest we be besieged by determined customers and sitting on a wall, incognito in jeans and t-shirts, watched the throng, by turns, drag each other out of cabs and throw each other around like tripping rag dolls.
It’s a long way from Newbridge to Llanfairfechan. It’s not as far as Carmarthen is from… anywhere… but the journey was time-consuming and relatively quiet. We rolled along over the roof of Wales trying to find the positives in the trauma but I began to get the feeling that my desire to conquer the known rock and roll universe (whatever the cost) wasn’t shared by the other two. We performed more shows in more desperate toilets. From Barrow in Furness to Bradford and Clynnog Fawr to Amersham, we kept on serving time and paying dues. We got lost in the Lake District, squirted mustard in our eyes after drinking Special Brew at RAF Valley and watched a man in Cemaes Bay leap onto the roof of our van, fall off and break his arm. Perhaps Thief’s finest hour was at The Lion in Warrington where, fed-up of being hard-stared by past-their-sell-by-date, poodle-permed, leather-men, we took a coach-load of Llanfairfechan’s finest punters. A lunchtime in the pub followed by copious cans of Breaker on the bus and then special-offer cider at the venue, conspired to create a fine atmosphere. The ‘fans’ stood, as though in a football ground, chanting “Thief, Thief, Thief!” each time a song ended, much to the obvious disdain and equally clear discomfort of the room’s hairy periphery.
In the end, there are only so many dues you can pay before you stop owing your admirable but horribly misguided personal fantasies, a living. You’ve either got to get something back or you just pay forever. Thief’s last gig was on Llandudno Pier, opening for a band called Hungry Touch. No-one threw anything, the applause was desultory and the novelty of hammering away on the rotting heavy metal circuit, to which we were utterly unsuited, finally gave way to the stark naked truth. We shook hands on Thief. It was over.