|Buddy's Tour Diary|
It's one o'clock in the morning. Mic Stoner - Stage Manager, Shane Warne-lookalikey and all-round good egg - is driving the tour bus around and around the car park of our Bristol hotel. Frank is crooning "New York, New York", accompanied by six carousing middle-aged drunks.The louder we scream the faster Mic drives, and as I'm contemplating diving over the partition into the cab of the van, “Just” Jeff Shadbolt comes the opposite way, boots, arms and legs flailing, can of lager spraying Chris Pope and Martin Mason in the cheap seats...Mic brings the van to a rest as the song dies, and The Chords' last ever tour is over. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
A few hours earlier, backstage at the Thekla gig, it was like a bloody mausoleum... Nobody was speaking to anyone; we couldn't even look at each other, just the floor and the walls. There was an air of resignation, loss, a kind of grief. We're not stupid - putting all this together just couldn't happen again. The rehearsals, the travel, the tour bus (and the Frank CDs), the Premier Inns (we never did meet Lenny Henry, despite asking for him at each town), the equipment hire, the medication! Financially, logistically - geobloodygraphically - Billy lives in Japan and comes over once in a blue moon. Impossible. This really was the last time. The ninth gig in twelve days, on a tour that had travelled the length (if not the breadth) of the country. We were completely knackered (again) - the sixth night in a row - I've never played six nights consecutively in my life! And then suddenly it was 9 o'clock, and we trooped out again to the theme from The Likely Lads, as we had each night for the past two weeks, and we gave it our all one last time...but how did it come to this?
We started out in Glasgow at Ivory Blacks, which was a real treat - Scotland had always been a real hotbed of Chords' appreciation, and we were not to be disappointed. Jennie, the promoter, had been the most proactive and enthusiastic of all the bookers, it's just a shame she left my vegetarian haggis in her freezer. Really. At the soundcheck we ran through the numbers that still needed some fine tuning - we'd had just two days to rehearse with Billy - but he'd done his homework six thousand miles away, and had been up and running as soon as his jet-lagged feet hit the practice room floor. We'd sent him some CDs and e-mailed some files, so he knew the rearrangements as well as the old standards. My own favourite Chords’ song, ‘I’m Not Sure’, was virtually unrecognisable. A few hours later - showtime!
The Likely Lads theme came over the PA – why does that song always bring a lump to my throat? - and as we were welcomed with a roar of approval, it felt like where we'd left off in 1980, like we'd never been away. Like putting on an old glove. Credit where credit's due though - we were tight, energetic, in tune, and dynamic. I'd feared we wouldn't be able to get through a whole tour of hour-long sets in the British summer heat, but three things saved us - the work we'd put in at the rehearsals, the bloody awful weather, and most importantly - the fans. Everywhere we played we fed off them, breathed their energy, bathed in their sweat, soaked up their enthusiasm. A few years back I had been lucky enough to see The Wonder Stuff's first comeback tour, and Miles Hunt had looked out at the scenes of pandemonium and worship and, awestruck, simply stated, "This is why we do it." Glasgow gave us that same sense of entitlement and privilege - and it was the same every night of the tour.
This is not false humility or patronising babble - The Chords come from a generation of people who didn't get involved in making music to get rich, sell their wedding photos to 'OK' magazine or launch a range of perfumes. We took the punk ideal of anyone can do it, and fused it with the style and elan of mod, and I believe that's what attracted Chords' fans as they took us to be their band. Special band, special fans. Now these self-same people – grown up, grown out in some cases, were coming along to reconnect with that feeling and this music. One thing has changed slightly from the old days – instead of just getting plastered after the gig, we made a conscious decision to spend as much time as possible with the fans – grinning for photos, exchanging memories, and signing everything from well-preserved single sleeves to parts of the anatomy that should best be described as “comfy”.
At 2 am I was still buzzing (much like my ears) and unable to sleep, despite the gallons of McEwans sloshing about inside me. I asked Billy – “When you get onstage, do you become another person…or is that who you really are, but everyday life doesn’t allow it?” Without pausing a beat, he replied, “Oh the latter, without a doubt.” I silently agreed with him and opened another nightcap.
Friday saw us hurtling out of Scotland at 90 mph in a storm that had the van swaying and all of us nauseous. Or maybe it was the effect of Popey’s socks. They were ripe. We had the best part of eight hours ahead of us and used the time wisely – signing some 500 CD copies of Another Thing Coming, the first Chords’ single in nearly 30 years. It had been well received, and we were rightly proud of it – but after 200 signings even I was getting sick of it.
Saturday August 21st was the big London showcase gig – The Garage in Islington. The nerves were jangling as soon as we walked inside and saw the scale of the place – this was daunting enough, but we were also having the gig recorded for a possible live CD, and filmed for a DVD. Pete Stevens, our fave photographer was there to shoot the soundcheck and the gig – he took over 900 pictures. From the back of the hall the backdrop – a print of the four boys from the British Way Of Life single sleeve – looked fantastic. We were all set. I managed to rush home to de-louse, and coming back on the train I was so nervous I thought I might have a coronary. My mind racing, I rang Billy, still at the gig. “You know it’s Joe Strummer’s birthday? Why don’t we introduce ourselves as a “Garageband? Will they get it?”
They got it alright, and they got us. Despite us possibly falling between the two stools of wanting to put on a show, but also being tight for the recordings, the crowd were simply inspirational. Stunning. I am often accused of not looking up during gigs, of just keeping my head down and ploughing on, oblivious. But I will always remember two snapshots from that night, two indelible images. During the solo in So Far Away I looked up to see Billy silhouetted in the half-light, making circles with his tambourine, a vast audience behind him. Wish I’d had a camera. And later, during the middle part of the British Way Of Life, the house lights were on for a moment, and I could see every one of those 600 faces smiling, beaming, singing, arms aloft, and I said to myself, “Remember this moment – even if you live another fifty years you will never have this feeling again.”
A middle-aged man approached me shortly after the gig. “You won’t remember me, but I just wanted to say thank you for saving my life back in 1980.” It turned out that at that Slough gig there had been the usual running battles between the tribes, and afterwards at the station any mods were getting a pasting from marauding skinheads. Him and his friends had found their way to our hotel, where we smuggled them all in to take sanctuary. “The first thing you did was dismantle the bed and throw the headboard out the window. It’s still the most rock’n’roll thing I’ve ever seen.” I was laughing and tearful – but not surprised. We practised these small kindnesses all the time. They were dangerous times…especially for hotel furniture.
After a welcome day off, we were off up to Nottingham Rescue Rooms. As usual, tour support band ‘The Universal’ were on time, patient and uncomplaining – they are good lads, one and all. Their set was as well received as always, they were a perfect choice as fellow-travellers. I wish them great luck in the future – ‘soft lads’. The crowd proved a tough nut for us to crack, but by the end they capitulated and were as barmy as all the others had been. By now we had two onstage electric fans, so we stopped fighting each other for the right to breathe. At the bar afterwards I was talking to a jewel of a friend I hadn’t seen for 25 years. Our conversation was soon interrupted by Psycho-Mod, dressed to the nines and coked to the eyeballs. “So – are you a MOD then?” he demanded. “Well I play in a band that’s liked by mods, so make your own mind up,” was my diplomatic reply. Psycho was having problems locating his own mind, so he changed attack. “So why now eh? Why get back together now? Is it for all the money? Gonna be rich are we?” “Yeah, you’re dead right, we’re only about two grand down so far.” Before this could penetrate his thick skull he was ushered away by his embarrassed cohorts. Happily, he turned out to be the only complete tool we encountered on our travels.
Birmingham is sometimes referred to as “The Venice Of The North”, and for good reason – it never stopped raining and a gondola would have been the choice of transport to get to the Sound Bar. Unfortunately cabin fever had broken out in the van earlier, and our merchandising maestro Henry was suddenly off the tour after some rancour in the ranks. A sad loss, but an old face then appears – Phil Shaw, the man responsible for our only-ever front cover, Time Out in 1980. He seemed to enjoy the gig as much as the other punters, and as Phil now covers football for The Independent I’m looking forward to seeing my ugly mug gurning out from their sports section soon. One day I hope I’ll get the chance to explain to you my theory of why drummers are like goalkeepers.
Speaking of football, I had been informed that Chris Waddle – my all-time favourite Spurs’ player – had bought tickets for the Leadmill gig in Sheffield the next day. When he was a no-show I was naturally devastated, I had even brought along my Spurs’ shirt to be signed. My misery was compounded when I was beset by the worst onstage sound I’ve ever known. I eventually gave up, turned my monitor to the wall and gritted my teeth for the rest of the set. It was a relief to do my customary walkabout with the tambourine during the first half of “In My Street”, but sadly as usual nobody offered me any money on my perambulations. Next time perhaps I should carry a sign – “Wife and two drumkits to support”. Pound-for-pound this was probably the most exuberant and responsive audience of the tour – have a look on youtube and marvel at how high a fifty-year old mod can pogo!
When the tour began, Martin had been his usual quiet, reflective self, concentrating hard when onstage, typically sensible off it. As the gigs progressed however, he began to come out of his shell, and by the time we reached Sheffield he’d become the party animal of the group - so much so that we christened him “The Reverend”, a term he cherished. Sometimes it seemed he didn’t want the tour to ever end. It was a revelation, and I was glad for him.
Bank Holiday Friday saw us finally head south, accompanied by some much-needed sunshine. It felt like we were on the home stretch. The Coalition Club in Brighton has the worst “get-in” of any venue I know – we had to carry all the gear over four lanes of traffic and down two steep ramps. Not clever. The venue is right on the beachfront, a labyrinth of columns, pillars and gothic arches, necessitating not one, but two soundchecks. Mike Chapman, in the process of making our Chords DVD, had a near impossible job navigating the tight angles and shadowy lighting. But the gig was a stormer, played to a packed house. It was topped off with a rendition of ‘Teenage Kicks’ for which we were joined by a real-life Undertone, Damian O’Neill. After the show there were plaudits all round, but not too many drinks - many of our mates from London had made the journey south, and they proceeded to drink our entire rider of beers in about 30 seconds. Well, I wasn’t thirsty anyway.
Saturday. On the ferry to the Isle Of Wight the boy stood on the burning deck and changed yet another battered snare drum skin – it was so noisy I could make as much din as I wanted to. Chris was wandering the upper decks, proving to all and sundry that the opening line of Secret Affair’s ‘Time For Action’ wasn’t necessarily true. At Ryde the streets were clogged with scooters, the smell of two-stroke choking the air. After sitting in traffic for what seemed like hours, Billy and I abandoned the van and walked to the Balcony Bar gig, marvelling at the designs and variety of the bikes. We weren’t recognised once – proving that either most people here were not strictly Chords’ fans, or that we looked older than our combined age of 100!
The stage was tiny, but the PA man did a good job, and ticket sales had already reached 500 for the night. The only downside was that we’d inadvertently left half the t-shirts back in Brighton – together with all the signed singles. Sorry, Ryde. There was just time to teach ‘The Universal’ how to play football London-stylee – “’Ave it!!” - before heading to the worst hotel on the island. It was my turn to have the “luxury” of the single room – featuring a broken sink, a broken light and a bed that was as firm as a dead squid. And it stank of flyspray – strange because I was sure any resident flys had long since died from food-poisoning. Back at the gig the place was heaving, and we played the longest set of the tour - a full fifteen numbers, culminating in ‘Teenage Kicks’ for no apparent reason other than we’d run out of our own songs. I had one of those gigs where I could hear everything and everybody, and could’ve played all night – I felt inspired. Afterwards, back at Fawlty Towers, I was still full of energy, and talked long into the night with Billy, and our good friend Kyle. He had flown over from Ireland twice in a week, just to sample the delights of being in a van with six flatulent jesters. We talked of books, films, politics, football, travel, families and everything else between. These drunken ramblings are one of the side effects of too much adrenalin with nowhere to go – at least no furniture was harmed – though any trashing here would have provided a marked improvement on the décor.
And so to Bristol – and the aforementioned Thekla, strangest venue in the UK – it’s on the lowest deck of a moored ship in Bristol’s Mud Dock. However, the acoustics were brilliant, and Matt, the PA soundman really knew his chops. The crowd may only have numbered around 150 souls, but the word that this was to be the last-ever Chords’ gig had obviously gone round. They gave us a suitably frenzied and impassioned funeral. Before the last song, inevitably ‘Maybe Tomorrow’, Bill told them that there was a bloke in their midst named Fred Long – and that it had been in his kitchen in south London that The Chords had their very first rehearsal. Sorry about the kitchen table by the way Fred, we never did replace it. But I did tell you it was a dangerous time for furniture. Full circle, 1979-2010.
If you look on youtube, at the end of that revered song, Billy administers the last rites, his voice cracking with emotion -
“I’ll take this memory back with me to Japan, wrap it up and keep it special OK? God bless you, thank you very much.”
Thank you all very much.