Saturday night in downtown Norwich is a pretty wild affair down by the river. According to a local JP (sez our taxi driver), 75% of plod in Norfolk is gathered in this 200 yard stretch on a Saturday night into the wee hours.

So it was a quite lovely thing to tie the boat up and leave it to whatever fate had in store for it whilst we headed for the opposite side of town. The Arts Centre is one of those old, ecclesiastical buildings which, although wonderful, begs the question ‘what do we do with it?’ So ‘turn it into a multi-purpose performance space’ seems an excellent solution all round.

First up on an ‘all mod cons’ card, Squire. A tidy little three piece who have worked hard to earn that most unwanted of tags – ‘nearly men’.

As the 70’s tipped over into the 80’s, there was a collective sense of ‘what the hell do we do now?’ for the trad guitar drums and vocal set-up. Punk – the ‘commercial’ bits of it anyway – had morphed into power pop, amongst many diverse other things, ska was busily rejoicing in a second coming and electro and new romantics were just starting to make waves.

Glen Matlock, newly fired from the Sex Pistols, formed The Rich Kids with Midge Ure and had a couple of hits. The Undertones headed in a ‘poppier’ direction than was suggested by the crunching guitar on ‘Teenage Kicks’ and one of the weirder abominations of a very confused time, The Pleasers, a bunch of pretend Beatles in preposterous 60’s suits and shoes signed to Arista records, if memory serves me right, for stupendous amounts of money, none of which would be coming back once the punters had seen through the trick. And in the States, The Knack was pulling off a similar trick with the admittedly irresistible ‘My Sharona’.

And as Ska dragged Trojan-style reggae back through the door for a welcome reprise, The Jam’s massive success, fronted by the massively influential ‘modfather’, Paul Weller, meant that all and sundry record company A and R types were running around like headless chickens looking for bands who could straddle the 60’s retro, mod, power pop, post punk power vacuum. And as The Knack had shown, taking “Sharona” to Number 1 and staying there for the best part of a couple of months in the USA, if you got it right, the rewards were beyond human comprehension.

With me so far?

Right. So…

Squire so very nearly ‘made it’ to the top table, they really did. Two singles, “My Mind Goes Round In Circles” and particularly “Walking Down the King’s Road”, became big airplay hits and so very nearly delivered that elusive hit that opens all the doors. Recorded for the same label which pressed Secret Affair’s cuts and indeed produced by Ian Page and Dave Cairns, the two main men from the above mentioned, they were in the right place at the right time for teenage music fans looking for that smartly-dressed retro thing. However, much though their sound chimed in with the mod’s second coming, they were actually more a cross between power pop and that paisley-shirted Californian sunshine pop sound. Anthony Meynell’s jingle-jangle Rickenbacker is solidly backed by a really crisp rhythm section, especially enhanced by the fab harmonies from the bass player and the onstage sound is really ‘clean’; and all the tunes, be they from singles, album tracks or recent stuff, fit together in a coherent and very listenable way.

But the problem now was the problem then; there’s no ‘killer’ track to provide the hit which then opens the floodgates for less memorable tunes to do the heavy lifting to sustain the ‘career’ and get the airplay to sell more albums. So, they will probably always live in that unenviable box marked ‘nearly men’; but for all that, they were a really pleasant listen, and you could see why the Secret Affair lads felt they were worth the time, back in the day and indeed now.

Anyway, Time for Action.

On troop Secret Affair and once again on the occasion of a celebration of 40 years of their hit album ‘Glory Boys’, we are reminded 1979 is a very long time ago. In their sharp mohair suits and stylish shirts, they look like a bunch of retired London gangsters fronted by a grumpy deputy headmaster. But you can’t help that, that’s what happens.

But the sound. It is AWFUL. Off we go with “Dance Master” and “Walk Away” and it’s just a muddy mess with Ian Page frantically gesticulating to the backstage (or as frantically as super-cool mods gesticulate) to give him more volume. Dave Cairns repeatedly peels off into the wings to fiddle with various bits of kit and the keyboard player just seems to be swamping everything with great doomy chunks of Procol Harum. Things hit something of a stride when Page lets rip on Smokey Robinson’s mod anthem “Going To a Go-Go” but even then the phrasing seems a bit odd and he sings like a man who can’t quite hear himself and to be honest, stir in a three piece horn section blowing up a somewhat unbalanced storm and, well….

The horn section finally got working on “All the Rage” and from this point on, things started looking up. A quicksilver solo from Dave Cairns, a proverbial master of the Telecaster, dovetailed neatly into a tidy faux-Hammond solo with distinctly jazzy overtones and you could be forgiven to thinking these lads have definitely ‘grown’ in terms of musical ambition and accomplishment. The band’s cover of Junior Walker’s “Roadrunner” is another interesting one. As a very young man, as he was when the hits happened, Ian Page’s top-end foghorn of a voice was strident to a fault and could catch the attention of the terminally hard of hearing on the worst radio in the world but at the best part of sixty, his voice still has that hard, steely edge which means that, on songs like this, he sounds in part like an old style blues and soul ‘shouter’, but with slightly strange phrasing, which means you either like or actively dislike their cover of this song. I will admit I liked it but not as much as the crackling, stomping ‘dance hall’ version of arguably the greatest gem in the Northern Soul vault, Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You” which was famously condemned to the Detroit dustbin having ‘sold’ about 3 copies ‘back in the day’. Now TV commercials fight over the rights. You just never know.

‘No Doctor’ sees the band getting seriously warmed up for the sprint to the finish and then indeed comes the four – card trick to guarantee the encore.

First of all it’s a gripping version of their hit “Sound Of Confusion”, which seems, in the strange way that this sometimes happens, as fresh and as relevant now as it did then. The church-style keyboards at the beginning give the whole thing a sort of gothic shadowing, which works well on stage. And then – straight into the anthemic and authentic mod call-to-arms, “Time For Action”. Page can’t help but laugh as the crowd, who by now are moshing away merrily in significant numbers in this standing-only venue, sing all the difficult bits for him in a time-honoured call and response stylee. And at the end it’s all ‘Oi! Oi! Oi!’ and gloriously messy, as the original single. What a joy it is to have a genuine ANTHEM in your locker.

This morphs into a personal fave of mine, “Let Your Heart Dance”, the hit follow-up which I got as a picture-sleeved demo. During the thunderous tom-tom breaks on this one, Page leads the crowd on bits of “Land Of A Thousand Dances” and, inexplicably, “Let’s Twist Again” (Let’s not!) before blasting towards the finish line.

The band knows they’re on the home stretch now and the show starts to glow with that sort of joy in performance which has been conspicuous by absence so far. And at that point they pull a rabbit out of the hat. The main man from the Purple Hearts, another ‘nearly but not quite’ band if ever there was one, leapt onto the stage and led the band in a spirited and stirring blast through their two mod nearly-hits, “Jimmy” and “Millions Like Us” before Page takes back the reins and drives it breathlessly home for their probably most remembered ‘pop’ hit, “My World”, which once again and in fairness has aged very well. In a ‘retro’ sort of way.

Off they go and back for a rather forgettable encore of title track “Glory Boys” and “I’m Not Free (But I’m Cheap)”. But by that time they’d delivered the goods in a well-judged half hour which had punters smiling on their way out into the rain and in many cases I suspect to a big Northern Soul DJ mash-up at Carrow Road as part-celebration of Norwich’s return to the Premiership.

Sound of Conclusions? It was pretty good, but the messy, uncoordinated early section of the gig compromised things for me more that a bit. And Squire? Well, yes, all very lovely but they needed that ‘killer tune’ in the set for the rest to coalesce around and in the fatal words of the A and R man for many a band’s career, ‘I don’t hear a single’. Which you can’t say for Secret Affair. And the Mods still love them. And why shouldn’t they? And if for no other reason, Secret Affair should be congratulated on surviving ‘King’s new clothes syndrome’ back in 1979 to still be in a position to celebrate 40 years of “Glory Boys” in 2019 with such aplomb. And that, in itself, is no mean feat.

Steve Jenner, (with Quiz Of The Week – live from Norwich!)

The Southside Johnny gig Commandments; they’re important, and you should always abide by them.

1st Commandment – Watch the support band. In my experience of, ahem, one or two Southside gigs, the support is always worth watching and Curse of Lono had been on my radar for a few years. Most of the audience followed the 1st Commandment and made the early start to catch Curse of Lono doing their second Southside support tour.

2nd Commandment – To reinforce the 1st Commandment, the support band(s) always get the same level of sound and lighting support as the Jukes.

3rd Commandment – Get to the venue early. You have been paying attention, haven’t you? The support band(s) are going to look and sound great. Trust me. Curse of Lono played at a ridiculously early time but a bunch of powerful songs (“Valentine” was a standout) delivered by a locked-in rhythm section (Neil Findlay and Charis Anderson) while Felix Bechtolsheimer’s vocals were underlined by Joe Hazell’s creative guitar lines and the keys of Dani Ruiz Hernandez. It’s a big sound it’s hugely appreciated by the gathering crowd. That’s another band on my ‘to watch’ list. Which leads me to…

4th Commandment – Show your appreciation for the support band(s). Jukes followers are fiercely loyal, but they’re music fans and if a band is good and gives it a bit of wellie, they’ll get right behind them. Which meant a great reception for Curse of Lono.

5th Commandment – Expect the unexpected. Bear with me while I digress. 42 years ago I saw the first incarnation of the Steve Gibbons Band touring on the back of their Top 10 hit “Tulane”. I was a fan. I got the band to autograph the lyric sheet of my copy of “Any Road Up”. I discovered Steve Gibbons at about the same time I discovered Southside Johnny. And the unexpected bit? Two days before the gig I discovered that the latest incarnation of SGB had been added to the bill for the Empire show. Which, added to the fact that ‘Our Man Oop North’, Steve Jenner, had reviewed a Steve Gibbons gig in Leek for us a few weeks ago, added an extra layer of weirdness.

The band played in the way that you would expect professional musicians with a few miles on the clock to play. They were tight and assured, allowing Steve Gibbons to get on with what he does best. And he’s still got the voice; the man is his seventies and he can still do it on the big stage. It was a relatively short set featuring original material, covers of rock ‘n’ roll classics and, of course, some Bob Dylan. It was a bit of a strange experience hearing “Watching the River Flow” covered in the same style I’d heard it covered 42 years earlier. And then it’s time for Jukesville.

6th Commandment – Ignore the setlist. It’s a standing joke with band and fans. The only reason it’s there is to give the fans at the front a chance to gamble on how far the band get down the list before taking the scenic route (usually two or three songs, if you ever want to place that particular bet).

7th Commandment – Prepare to be entertained. This is a phenomenal bunch of musicians. They deserve to be namechecked individually. The Asbury Jukes are: Tom Seguso (drums), John Conte (bass), Jeff Kazee (keys), Glenn Alexander (guitar), Chris Anderson (trumpet), Neal Pawley (trombone), John Isley (sax) and Southside Johnny. And let’s not forget Joe Prinzo and Hood who hold it all together. I haven’t mentioned vocals because they all can, and do, sing. Check out the harmonies on “Walk Away Renee”.

8th Commandment – Show your appreciation. These guys are seriously good players. As an ensemble they build a solid platform for Southside to deliver his honey-over-gravel vocal, but everyone gets at least one solo during the set and Jukes fans show their appreciation of the solos in the same way the audience in a jazz club would. And it’s always well-deserved.

9th Commandment – Expect the unexpected (I know, but it’s worth repeating). The band doesn’t know what’s coming next, so why would the audience? There are some songs that you would expect to hear every time (“The Fever”, “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and probably “Walk Away Renee”) but the rest of the set’s up for grabs. Southside has a huge back catalogue to choose from and the band has a phenomenal repertoire of covers to call on, so the set includes seventies classics like “Love on the Wrong Side of Town”, “This Time Baby’s Gone for Good” and “Without Love”, “Cadillac Jack” and “Woke Up This Morning” from the blues album and “Spinning” from “Soultime”. Throw in the covers; “Ride the Night Away” (J Geils Band) and the Willy DeVille song “Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl” and you’ve got a great night.

10th Commandment – It’s all about the band. In Johnny’s opinion, this is the best incarnation of The Jukes (watch out for the interview in a few days) and the partnership with Jeff Kazee is a huge part of that. Both have superb voices and the combination of Jeff’s high tenor and Johnny’s rich baritone is a thing of rare beauty. And that’s before we even get to the quality of the playing.

And that was Friday night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire; I can’t think of a better way to spend a Friday.

There was a fleeting reference in the interview I did before the soundcheck to retirement. You never know if any given Jukes gig is going to be the last you’ll see, so make the most of it. Next time they’re in the UK, I’ll see you down the front.

What a wonderful thing it is to be able to go, ‘yeah, I’ll have a bit of that’ when you’re in your local having a pint. So happens the promoter of the local folk club was in. So happens he’s a long-time mate of Steve Gibbons. Turns out he’s persuaded him to play an unplugged solo gig upstairs at the intimate but absolutely luverly (if we overlook the early-closing bar) Rainbow Room at the Foxlowe Centre in my current and I suspect final hometown of Leek.

I haven’t seen him in 42 years, ever since I did the support rock ‘n’ roll themed disco and compere duties on a gig whilst he was touring Scotland just as his cover of Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” was in the top forty, having briefly made it into the top ten.

So, yeah, I will have a bit of that, thank you very much.

Said promoter, Dave Rhead, is also opening for SG tonight. This is brave of him as he has just fallen base over apex, stone cold sober and in full public view, over a local pavement. He’s well banged up and does well to hobble through “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and Anthony Toner’s lovely “Always Meeting my Cousins at Funerals”. To add insult to injury he managed this just outside Specsavers. Maybe he should….

When I last saw the Steve Gibbons Band they were absolutely in their pomp, top of their game. Huge great P.A. system, all the paraphernalia of a band signed to a major record company with a hit single and album in “Rollin’ On”. And he’s just finished a tour of parts of Scandinavia with a full band, so his trip to Leek for this solo low-key ‘unplugged’ set was clearly going to be something of a ‘gear change’ for him.

But he’s a trouper, is Steve Gibbons. His Dylan Project has kept playing gigs, he still packs them in on full band gigs, has played a number of big festivals in recent years, as well as solo and unplugged events like these. He is, to quote Pete Townshend, ‘road-worn’ but he cuts an elegant and dignified figure as he sets up to go.

First song is one of his early ones from the sixties. He was around in The Uglys and The Idle Race and the Dominettes before that – and the Dominettes can trace lineage back to 1960. This guy has been at it All Day. As far as I can discover, this is his first song recorded for a major label – “Wake up my Mind” was out on Pye back in 1965. Didn’t do much over here but went top twenty in Australia. They all count.

He then heads off into “The Chain” from “Maintaining Radio Silence” and “Wild Flowers” where the Dylanesque phrasing comes through and a lovely love song for Valentine’s Day, “Still in the Dark”. Can’t Get Next To You, Babe. The mystery of relationships and all that malarkey. “Graffiti Man” was an amusing aside from his observations of Birmingham life, and “Down in the Bunker” was a song that indeed took me back.

“I Got Chuck In My Car” finished off the first half of the set with more than a little nod to Jerry Reed’s “Tupelo Mississippi Flash”, a former hit single of his (apart from the fact that it’s a song about Elvis). More about that one, though, later.

Time to reflect.

The Steve Gibbons Band hit serious paydirt for probably the first time in the period 1976-1979; and he was by no means a young man by then. He was the right man at the right time, in many respects; rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly were enjoying a resurgence, even amongst home-grown acts, and his energetic and fleet-footed reworking of Chuck Berry’s “Tulane” sort of bridged the gap between rock ‘n’ roll revisited, punk energy levels and pace and the (by then) rapidly fading pub rock scene. Also; it kind of fitted the zeitgeist. The Fonz. Grease was just about to hit VERY big. “American Graffiti”. Showaddywaddy selling truckloads, and here comes Shakin’ Stevens…..you get the picture.

But he was a whole lot more than that. In the second half of the show he began mining the rock ‘n’ roll roots as only someone who had been playing music and listening to all that amazing stuff first time around can. I honestly believe you don’t HAVE to be American to understand how great rock ‘n’ roll works (but it helps) but if you’re not, what helps a very great deal is if you were ‘around’ when these great, great songs were new to the world. And for that you really don’t need to be born in the fifties, like me; you need to be born in the forties, like Steve Gibbons. And through most of the second half of the set, he showed us how true that is. Starting with “Hey Buddy” dedicated to Buddy Holly, “Memphis Flash” (please see above!) dedicated to Elvis including a sneaky peek at “That’s Alright”, the drug mule song “Mr Jones” the roots of American rock ‘n’ roll music are laid bare by the dry, dust-bowl voice and the simple but authentic guitar chops.

The problem is – if you were born in the forties, you’re knocking on a bit now, and whereas age might have done really interesting things with his voice, he freely admits it hasn’t done him any favours in the memory department, so there are occasional meanderings and excursions, sometimes between songs, sometimes during a song, but on the rare occasions this happens he manages to scrape it all back together again and keep moving.  Be under no illusions; his performance wasn’t perfect – as you might expect from someone carrying very many years on his back. But what he brought to the party meant you were absolutely forced to overlook that and to do otherwise would just be plain churlish.

This guy was more ‘Americana’ than many who currently wave that particular flag decades before anyone so much as mentioned the word. A point which is subtly underlined when he swoops into Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, Bo Diddleyfies “No Spitting on the Bus” (which might sound like Americana but is about as English in content as a pint of mild) and “Man in the Long Black Coat”.

Bizarrely, events are interrupted by the drawing of a raffle, before he draws the evening to a conclusion with a moving rendition of Rick Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou” before being called back for an encore during which he wanders amiably through Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee”. Somewhere I imagine Dave Berry has neglected to start his gig with “Memphis Tennessee” but has decided to sing “Tulane” instead. The universe must be kept in harmony.

Yes.

Speaking with him afterwards was an absolute delight. He signed my 45s and indeed the page of our book where the Steve Gibbons Band gets a mention so I’m well chuffed. So the guy who toured America with The Who, and has shared stages with the likes of Lynryd Skynryd, ELO and Little Feat quietly packed his personal kit away, no doubt already contemplating the next stop on the seemingly endless road in whatever incarnation presents itself to him. Because that’s the deal.

Steve Gibbons is one of Britain’s last real troubadours who link directly back to the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll in the UK – had hits during (arguably) its most turbulent and explosive times – and yet whose voice and presence recall a world and a culture many miles removed.

If that moves your soul, catch him while you can. If not, well, your loss.

Well, what do we have here? An ‘intimate’ venue just off the main city centre which may not be big but it is clever. Great, wide stage, fabulous sight lines, fairly shallow standing-only area, nice uncluttered bar with efficient staff and fair prices away to the side but in the same room.

Perfick.

You come to see a band here – and they are In Your Face; so it really lends itself to ‘you’re having it’-type performances.

Which is what we get from The Skids from the get-go. Support band Borrowed Time are well-chosen for the task and get the crowd seriously warmed, especially with their song “Borrowed Time” which I suspect struck a chord with quite a few in the room.

But, The Skids.

Oh My Goodness.

On they come – and on guitar, Big Country main man Bruce Watson. I had seriously not done my homework on The Skids – I figure sometimes it is best just to go out, grab a beer, and see what you get. One of the great pleasures of doing this gig, for me, is not being over-prepared and therefore, everything comes as a surprise. And for me, this was a gig full of pleasant surprises – and because I hadn’t done my homework I wasn’t expecting that because This Lad Can Play A Bit. Last time I saw him, he and the Big Countryfolk were being supported by The Osmonds on the night when the toothsome pair for some reason neglected to go ‘whinny, whinny’ during “Crazy Horses”.

But I digress.

Richard Jobson is, first of all, in great nick. Whilst no longer in the first flush of youth, he still has great bundles of energy and seems to have taken care of himself down the years. Self-deprecating to a fault, though; rips it out of himself for terrible dancing – and then hurls himself about the stage all gig long, just as he did ‘back in the day’ as a sort of cross between a Northern Soul floor cruiser and a demented Highland flinger – and he’s a big lad to be doing that kind of thing. And the voice; if anything, this guy sings better now than he did then – and his voice is a quite fabulous vehicle for the anthem-rich body of work which is The Skids songbook.

And we get them all tonight and more besides.

“Animation” kicks off and it is so full of hooks even if you hadn’t heard it before you’d still find yourself attempting to sing the lyrics. Followed in breathless short order by “Of One Skin”, which came into my life one day via a demo 4 track EP entitled “Wide Open” and is a real stunner; you didn’t get many ‘punk’ songs back then which had changes of pace, complete ‘breakdown’ sections etc, etc and STILL a killer hook. And straight into “Charade”, another hit tune which got them loads of Radio 1 plays and folks like me up and down the country playing it whenever the opportunity presented itself. You just couldn’t not play it. The hooks get in, you can’t get ‘em out. It’s an earworm at a time when there were plenty of bands with ‘attitude’, and some who could actually play, but not many who could write a live anthem that was a turntable hit as well and not have some people accusing them of ‘selling out’. Now that is a clever trick – and to perform it 40 years on or so with so much venom and bite is nothing short of exceptional.

From “Burning Cities”, their latest on No Bad Records “Kings Of The New World Order”, and “One Last Chance” slotted well into the set, definitely sounded like ‘Skids songs’, and didn’t let up on the momentum one bit. Quite a few ‘heritage’ bands could learn from Jobson and Co about the fine art of introducing new songs into a set. Many musicians of a certain age publically bemoan the unwillingness of live audiences to ‘accept’ new songs in a set which is largely nostalgic – but The Skids proved it can be done, it can be done in such a way that the new tunes can be used to add interest to a set and engage the audience even more – so let’s have no more of that negative talk, eh? The new ones went down well here tonight in Derby and they deserved to do so.

Then a stunningly-performed triple; the breakout track, “The Saints Are Coming” – and after this you could be forgiven for looking to the skies to see if indeed they were – the amazingly prescient “Working For The Yankee Dollar” – a sort of “Not Born In The USA” for us careworn non-Americans who grew up still paying off the lend-lease bill; and “Hurry On Boys” – singalongajobbers in turbodrive on this one.

A couple from “The Absolute Game”, “Woman In Winter” and “Circus Games” were served with the awesome top 20 hit “Masquerade” as a chaser. Once again I fail to see how anyone cannot fall under the spell of this thunderous track, played, once again, with strident freshness and verve. Word here for the rhythm section. You didn’t know they were there. In a good way. Not a foot wrong all night.

And the ground rumbled (OK so I just noticed the rhythm section) and Mr Jobson declares, ‘well, it’s now or never…’ and doesn’t, surprisingly, launch into what would have been a highly incongruous version of the Elvis Presley classic, but the Greatest Hit, “Into The Valley”. Lyrics are so obtuse you can’t really sing along to this one but hey, it doesn’t stop you trying. La la la la la, la la la la la. Rock classic? Yep. Should it be on more ‘drivetime classic’ CD compilations and playlists. All Day Long, my friend. Sometimes the ‘labels’ we put on things don’t help and don’t work. Sometimes our compartmentalizing of stuff leads to miscarriages of justice. This should have been a number 1 hit.

I did my bit. Virgin had stopped sending me free stuff by that time. So I bought a copy. If you were ‘around’ then – and didn’t – I blame you, personally, for the fact that this didn’t happen.

“Happy To Be With You” and “TV Stars” bring the contractual part of the proceedings to an end and rather than head off to the back of the building for no apparent reason just to traipse back on again, the band elected to stay put and deliver a rousing encore without the need for a breather; and, seemingly just for the hell of it, the band run with my ‘Elvis’ idea and produce a killer version of the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” and The Buzzcocks’ “What Do I Get?” before finishing with “The Olympian” and a spirited reprise of “Of One Skin”.

The two-guitar attack of Bruce and Jamie Watson combined with the rock-solid rhythm section and the strident vocals of Richard Jobson are an incredibly strong proposition. If you haven’t been to see these guys in a long while, then you should. They are the Real Deal and can and do deliver the goods as they should be delivered.

Backstage after the gig and briefly reminiscing with Mr Jobson about a gig they did in Dundee where I was compere and DJ guy back in ‘78, I suggested to him the band really should be playing far bigger venues than this. He smiled wryly at that; the band have played many large festival gigs in this incarnation but it is quite clear they feel happier – much happier – when playing indoors, to be playing the kind of gig where the crowd are right there, right down the front and totally free to leap all over each other, throw beer all over each other and enjoy the sheer joy in this stuff.

And long may they continue to do so.

The High Fives feature just wouldn’t be the same without a contribution from Our Friend in the North. Steve J has been a very busy man this year, reviewing loads of gigs for us while working as a radio presenter in the Peak District and somehow manging to publish a couple of books as well, “On the Radio” with his brother Paul and a solo effort, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight”. They’re both cracking reads (subtle stocking-filler hint here) and our totally unbiased view is that you should get hold of a copy of each for your nearest and dearest. In the meantime, here’s Steve’s reaction to hearing some of his classic 45s (ask your nan) performed live.

High Fives. This year has been the year of classic singles – LIVE!! So I’ve picked my fave live performances of five classic singles that I’ve experienced this year, bookending from ‘I’m Not In Love’ to ‘Is This Love?’ See what he did there? Certainty into uncertainty. Metaphor for the year, n’est-ce pas?

 

“I’m Not in Love” – 10CC

A beige, plastic-labelled 45 on Mercury Records. A night out at The Opera House in Buxton. Nearing the end of a storming set and the lighting changes. Suddenly, I become aware of an effect which has been more or less redundant all night…a cutaway mirrorball, throwing darts of seventiesesque silver light in elderly lovers’ eyes and randomly piercing the sudden dark blue wash which had swallowed the stage. And with stunning clarity and instant recognition, the keyboard strikes up for one of the most perfect, flawless and in a way, perplexing lurv songs of all time. And it’s all there. The ambiguity in the title, suggesting despair or disdain or something in between (Disappointment? Disenchantment? Take a look into this lovely audio mirror; see what bounces back) and all wrapped up in that rich electric keyboard swirl which at times sounds like it is emerging, dripping, from between the trees. And can the CCs pull off the stunning build up of layer upon layer of vocal harmonics before it all dissipates in a crystalline sprinkle of sparkly synth? Sure can. Sure do. Four or so minutes of suspended animation. Perfect.

 

Travellin’ Band – John Fogerty / Creedence Clearwater Revival

Ain’t nothing fancy about this; a UK-release blue-labelled Liberty Records mono 45 cut like the San Andreas Fault and heavily worn with spiral striations due to jukebox wear (the arm skims the toast rack of records, reaches down, grabs, makes a wear imprint and over time, your 45 will fade from shiny black to shimmering grey) with a stomped-out middle and a triangular black centre piece. And a night out in the former Millennium Dome in London. But what a way to start a set. This ain’t no polite calling card; this is a ‘blow the doors off’ statement of intent. John Fogerty rips into the opening tune with the ferocity of a storm-force wind. Rasping and what even for then was uncompromisingly ‘dated’ sax gives way to the foghorn honk of Fogerty’s amazing vocal. You can read millions of pages about what it was like to live the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle; or you can listen to this for about two minutes twenty seconds and get the whole story. You’ve paid for it. And you’re having it.

 

2-4-6-8 Motorway” – Tom Robinson Band

Red and salmon pink-labelled EMI demo 45 stamped ‘Factory Copy; For Demonstration Use Only’. And as tended to happen with the ‘airplay’ samples, it’s a Porky Prime Cut alright, tyre-wall black and uncompromisingly deep. Wherever it plays, it cuts the air like a knife. Pop tune meets rock anthem meets The New Wave (sort of). Probably the most out of context of all TRB’s output (with the exception of a few plain duffers on the second album) it is the Show Closer all century long, ensuring an enthusiastic crowd stick around for the encore and are Up For It. As a song it just screams to be hit hard, and sung with lust for life and played with drive and passion. And at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, that’s what it gets as the Tom Robinson Band roll back the years and suddenly we’re all somewhere else, sometime else.

 

“Rock ‘n’ Me” – Steve Miller Band

Another beige plastic-labelled Mercury Records 45. Another drivetime classic meets live anthem. But this one is very ‘American’ as we return to the Drearydomeydrome, London, once more. This just ‘drives’ along on vinyl, with the singer’s voice sounding as artificial and as ethereal as Fogerty’s is to sound ‘real’ and very much Of This World about half an hour later, same place, same night. This is as much a tribute to the fine art of producing recorded sound as it is to it being a mighty fine, well-arranged song. And after an early evening where the sound sold Steve Miller and the Millermen seriously short, it was good to hear the whole thing come together and produce three minutes of unadulterated joy, which evoked top-down, hedonistic, Californian sunshine of various kinds just as vivaciously as the little unassuming vinyl disc did when it first lit up my grim Scottish tenement flat as I first played a demo copy to myself on a horrible little autochange record player way back in (I think!) 1976. Keep On Rockin’ Me, Baby.

 

“Is This Love” – The Wailers / Bob Marley and the Wailers

Island records multi-coloured label 45 with the lurid green palm tree in the foreground, and with the centre knocked out for use as a Jukebox copy, my “Is This Love?” is a well-travelled audio file. I’ve taken it out on more gigs than The Beatles, The Stones and The Who have played put together and sure enough it bears all the scars of wear, tear, spilt beer, exposure to sunshine on outdoor gigs, grit in between the single sleeve sides, greasy buffet fingers and sub-zero storage. Old-school DJ abuse, in short. As do The Wailers, who continue unsteadily but utterly charmingly into the future, carrying Bob Marley’s live legacy with them. Both on the 45 and in the Manchester Academy, the song and the way it is delivered contains enough space to walk around in. Space. Clarity. No clutter. And those chord progressions and the odd squirt of squealing lead guitar every now and then. And that drummer. Live, just as on the record, strolling, loping along as if it’s the easiest, most natural thing on earth. (Try it some time! I stand in awe of most musicians due to my own limited abilities but reggae drummers….well.) On stage as on vinyl, sunshine, but more than that, a hope bordering on a belief that love can indeed triumph over all, and that peace will be the outcome and unity will be the end result; which lasted about as long as it took for me to walk outside into the typecast Manchester rain and for some bloke half my age and twice my size to attempt to kick me swede in whilst waiting for a taxi. And the compliments of the High Fives to you, too.

It would be an understatement to say that this has been an eventful year for the Music Riot team. Steve Jenner has had two books published in late 2018, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight” and “On the Radio” (with his brother Paul) and we thought it was a perfect opportunity to showcase some of his past Music Riot escapades and demonstrate the sheer quality of his writing, not to mention his enthusiasm for and knowledge of Popular Music. Just sit back and enjoy some effervescent music writing.

 

Setting the scene

Here’s an example from one of the books published this year, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight”, a collection of live reviews, some of which initially appeared in Music Riot. This was from a review of a Brian Wilson show:

‘My mate can drink 3 pints of lager through a straw in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.

According to some, this makes him a ‘legend’.

Brian Wilson is regarded by many as a ‘genius’.

I would argue these labels have caused problems for both men and have probably influenced their behaviour and probably not in a good way.

Sheer enthusiasm

It’s a prerequisite for membership of the Riot Squad that you’re enthused to the point of obsession about popular music. The wordplay’s quite impressive as well:

Elvis Fontenot – an explosion of manic cajun and punk–zydeco energy. The outside area at The Cock is long and quite narrow and so if you find yourself at the front, they are In Your Face in a big way. A gurning bundle of leering, squealing, careening, lurching riot, they are Big Fun. Combining the pace of a Ska band and the intensity of punk with squeeze box and scrub–board tricks and tuneage born on the bayou, this was full of vivacious kick and naughtiness but with extremely high standards of musicianship and let’s hear it for the sound man who kept the whole thing in beautiful balance. Absolutely the best thing at the Festival so far. Mama’s Got A Squeeze Box. Somebody Sign These People – Now.

Photo courtesy of John Hayhurst.

Hilarious similes

Steve has a very creative turn of phrase. This reference to the drum sound is from a piece about the John Fogerty gig at the O2, referring to some ‘issues’ the sound crew was having during Steve Miller’s set. Steve made the comment during the set, then gave it a quick road-test later when we were backstage talking to the band. You know it’s a good line when it Makes The Band Laugh:

The keyboards, which would play an increasingly important part in the set were virtually absent; the guitars lost in a quite horrible swamp of all the things I do not appreciate which sometimes seems to be ‘the way it is done’ when an American band plays a stadium rock gig. The drums sound like someone is throwing an empty filing cabinet down a lift shaft; the bass is an intrusive, rubbery Audio Prevention Scheme.

Social campaigner?

A very serious point made in Steve’s grumpy, irascible old codger voice. It’s an old technique, sing humour to make a serious point, but he does it so well:

Venues, promoters and bands themselves often bemoan the relative lack of female punters and offer various socio – politico – entertaino(?)- reasons for this. The truth is much simpler. There are not enough bogs for women. It is not rocket science. As a bloke you cruise past, cheerfully unzipping before you so much as reach the door, whilst the queue for the ladybogs has already lit a campfire and are preparing a bivouac for the night. And it’s not even a good chortle for the average bloke; they’re tricky blighters, these women. I know. I’ve been kept by one as a sort of house pet for the last forty years or so. As a token bloke, they hold you personally responsible for all life’s discomforts and they take it out on you as a representative of the foul brood who have brought them to this ignominy. Please, ye great and ye good, if you make one resolution this year, it has to be more ladybogs in music venues. And High Five to you, too.

The important things in life

If you’ve read any of Steve’s work, you’ve probably seen a reference to beer. He enjoys a beer; proper cask-conditioned, hand-pulled beer, not cold, fizzy gnat’s pee. He enjoys a single malt as well and I could tell you a story about drinking Jack and coke after a DJ gig, but I think that has to wait a while. Anyway, back to bitter:

Now, when I go out to see a band, I like a beer. To be honest I like a beer when I don’t go out to see a band as well which is why I also have problems with 4 (Tight seats in venues – Ed). But for the sake of the good Lord, why, why oh why do some venues insist on dishing up five – count them – five – draught lagers AND NO BITTER? WHY?? Take the O2 Indigo as exhibit A. Gorgeous venue. Excellent sight lines, marvellous acoustics, washroom facilities you could picnic in – and NO BITTER! My most recent visit there was to see Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul and what a breathtaking gig that was. But it also happened to coincide with the night when the Guinness was ‘off’. (What does that even mean? It was past sell-by? It was giving off a sulphurous odour? WHAT?) And so we were offered a wide range of near-identical fizzy light brown chemical substances which could loosely be described as ‘lager’ (and don’t even try to tell me British Bud isn’t ‘lager’). I wasn’t expecting an array of twelve real ales and a couple of nice porters, but – not even John Smith’s, the last refuge of the scoundrel? Bah and humbug.

We’ve given Allan some interesting assignments this year and he’s also managed to blag his way into a few others. He’s had an interesting year and he’s desperate to tell you about some of the highlights. Why don’t we just let him get on with it?

 

 

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight” cover

It’s not a big secret but, in case you didn’t know, our live reviewer from Up North, and myself have been friends since meeting on our first day at University. We’ve had a lot of interesting times together and separately but nothing quite like this year (Steve’s party piece is to almost, but not quite, get us into conflict with people that look like they could kill us just by looking at us).

Steve’s an unashamed rampant enthusiast; once he decides to tackle something he makes Norman Hunter look like a six-week old kitten (70s football reference – Ed). This year’s big project has been writing and publishing. Skip back a sentence and you’ll see the word enthusiast; even with adjective ‘rampant’ to help it along, it’s not the full picture. He’s a force of nature; a hurricane or a whirlwind maybe. So it’s no surprise when he announced that he was publishing not one, but two, books at the end of 2018. “On the Radio”, co-authored with his brother Paul, which is autobiographical and takes us from Steve’s birth to the point where Steve and Paul are granted the licence for High Peak Radio; it’s a great read. The other book, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight” looks at live music from the viewpoint of someone got the bug in the 70s and has been a fan ever since. Many of the chapters initially appeared as Music Riot reviews, but that’s not the reason it’s one of ‘pinch myself’ moments of 2018. 

In May of this year Steve gave me the commission for a cover shot for the book. As luck would have it, three days later, I saw exactly the shot he needed backstage at a Talentbanq gig (more about them later). Anyway after all the publication issues were resolved, I was able pick up a book with one of my photos on the cover. It was quite a moment.  

Martin Belmont photo 

I’m a big fan of Graham Parker – always have been. The strange thing is that I’ve seen him more times in the last 3 years than I ever did when he was at his commercial peak in the 70s/80s. When I discovered that he was touring with a band and The Rumour horns, it went straight into the diary – twice. Once at Islington Assembly Hall and once at The Picturedrome in Holmfirth to tie in with a weekend at Leek Blues & Americana Festival in Staffordshire with Steve Jenner and his wife Sue (also a friend since University days). 

I published a few shots from the Wednesday Islington gig on social media directly after the gig and made my way Up North the following morning to shot the Leek festival, head over to Holmfirth on Sunday and back to London on Monday. When the pace slackened a little, I checked to see the response to the photos on social media. One shot of Graham Parker’s guitar player Martin Belmont had been seen and shared by Martin and was getting a lot of attention. When I checked, I recognised a lot of the names that had liked the picture, but I was gobsmacked when I saw that the collection of loves for the shot included Charles Shaar Murray and the rock photography legend Chalkie Davies. I’ll just leave it at that.

Talentbanq @The Shard 

I mentioned Talentbanq earlier. If you go to gigs in some of the cosier venues in London, you’ve probably heard of Talentbanq. For those who haven’t, it’s an organisation promoting unsigned acts across London and it’s fronted up by Ray Jones, formerly of Time Out magazine. There are two things you need to know about Ray – he knows everyone in hospitality and the media in London and he’s fanatical about live music. Just the person to organise the first open-air live music performances at the top of the tallest building in Western Europe.

And the opening day, August 4th, was an absolutely perfect summer day in London; no clouds, brilliant sunshine and perfect panoramic views over London from a height of nearly 250 metres. It was an honour and a privilege to be there, watching incredibly talented artists playing to people who had no idea that live music was part of the package.

And just to add a bit of interest, Julia Gurry, from the incredible Belle Roscoe, announced in the Green Room, just prior to performance, that she was terrified of heights. She still did the show and here’s the evidence:

Claudia Fontaine tribute gig

 Gig photography; it’s really specialised and you would imagine it must be incredibly competitive. My experience is that, unless the tabloids are involved, there’s a huge amount of mutual respect between gig photographers. Most of us are doing this because we love it and we respect that motivation in others. Take a look in the photo pit next time you’re at a gig and you’ll see camaraderie and mutual respect; gig photographers will congratulate each other on great shots; it’s a privilege to be a part of that community.

That’s a long-winded introduction that partly explains why I was invited to photograph an event this year where Annie Lennox made a guest appearance. The photo gig should have gone to the fabulous Emma Jones but she couldn’t make it and recommended me as a replacement (see, told you we look after each other). The gig was a tribute to the late Claudia Fontaine (just Google the name; you’ll be amazed) and Annie had agreed to appear. We did all of the megastar liaison about photographic restrictions and eventually came up with shots that Annie was happy with. Unfortunately, for contractual reasons, I can’t illustrate this with an Annie Lennox photo, but I hope this pic of the wonderful Beverley Skeete works for you:

Stone Foundation with Paul Weller, Kathryn Williams and Graham Parker

You may have noticed the occasional mention of Stone Foundation in my random typings. I’m a huge fan and I’m not alone there. They’ve attracted a lot of celebrity attention from the likes of Robert Elms and Craig Charles and from musicians including Dr Robert, Graham Parker and Paul Weller. When they announced a tour in November to support the latest album “Everybody, Anyone”, I was at the front of the queue for tickets; the photo pass was a bonus. No three songs and out this time; the pass was for the whole gig, so something special was happening. There was a bit of a clue when Derek D’Souza (long-time Weller photographer) showed up in the pit (no egos, mutual respect and handshakes all round).

So, to cut to the chase, Kathryn Williams supported (along with Michelle Stodart) and during Stone Foundation’s set there were guest appearances from Kathryn Williams, Paul Weller and Graham Parker. Apart from the really obvious stuff like the band doing “Tear Your Playhouse Down” with Graham Parker, I have no memory of the gig. I do have a few good pix:

For some reason and lovely though it is, press tickets for Buxton Opera House invariably mean you are crammed up against the lighting rig way up in Ye Gods. It’s not the most comfortable way to spend an evening, I will cheerfully concede.

Support act Smith and Brewer wander on and are a competent and pleasant enough listen, with some interesting lyrics and quality acoustic picking. There’s a lot of it about, but you could spend half an hour in significantly worse company, even when they do the Buxton Water Gag (Buxton famous for bottled water, every band has one on stage, congratulates audience on very fine water, everyone goes ha ha ha politely).

10CC have always been an enigma. Their run of chart success, both singles and albums, suggest they should be up there with Queen etc etc but somehow, the mass adulation, instant recognition and media frenzy they managed to evade. So despite number 1 UK hits, a spectacular run, memorable records and huge sales, they remain a sort of large-scale minority (!) semi-guilty pleasure.

Probably because they never had a defined front person, a definitive ‘star’ or focal point in the pack. They were a band – and an art-rock band at that. You never knew quite who you should be looking ‘at’.

History has simplified things considerably in that respect and the only remaining member of the original ‘gang of four’ currently in 10CC is Graham Gouldman. I could at this point make the crack about it being 2.5CC or whatever but in fairness, drummer Paul Burgess has been playing with the band since 1973, which is pretty much the duration of, and lead guitarist Rick Fenn has been with them since about 1978 or so. Which is a while.

So, Graham Gouldman is de facto band leader, and the band do indeed take their cues from him, and the ‘act’ as such, is, as it should be, built around him. That said, he’s a bass player, and, well, you know. Bass man he don’t call for no glamour. Then again, Tom Robinson, etc etc…..

A strange and stagey start to the gig with the band coming on to the audio backdrop of a Graham Gouldman song about…being Graham Gouldman; with squirts of Hotlegs’ “Neanderthal Man” stirred into the mix. This is actually quite evocative and relevant, for Gouldman’s story is a strange one. Few are as prolific and successful as songwriters; he wrote “For Your Love” and “Shapes Of Things” for The Yardbirds, “Look Through Any Window” and “Bus Stop” for The Hollies, “Pamela” for Wayne Fontana and “No Milk Today” for Herman’s Hermits amongst many others. He went to live in the States for a while to churn out ‘bubblegum’ hits for the likes of Ohio Express and Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. Strange Days Indeed, before Hotlegs who got to number two and sold two million and then, 10CC.

And straight into “Wall Street Shuffle”. Band don’t look overly enthused. It is clinical, but not in a good way; then “Art for Art’s Sake”; and they’ve burnt two classic 10CC 45s, both big hits, and neither audience nor band look particularly engaged by the proceedings so far. And at this point Mr. G and the rest of the band start to talk to the audience and this helps a bit and slowly but surely, they start to ‘unstiffen’. There’s tight, and there’s uptight, and that’s how it looked and sounded early doors, but as the set progressed, matters improved in this respect and that’s a good thing.

Still the hits kept on coming, “Life Is A Minestrone”, attributed to some misheard radio DJ. We have a lot to answer for, it appears. These are Clever Lyrics. And that also can have the effect of driving a bit of distance between the audience and ‘the turn’, but as the band warmed to the task and ultimately the mock-profound lyrics, and the sumptuous layers of sound started to turn things around. “Good Morning Judge” followed, once again reflecting Gouldman’s time in and understanding of aspects of the American experience, in lyrics but also in the chunky country feel this one seems to exude. Another top ten UK hit. Gouldman’s voice didn’t seem altogether ‘there’ on this one, though, which is strange because elsewhere he was spot on.

The band is outrageously talented; various members swap from bass to guitar, keyboards to guitar, percussion to key boards, guitar to bass without any great fanfare, almost just because they can. Indeed Gouldman seems just as happy waving a Telecaster about as he does his bass –and he has a few of those to choose from as well.

Yet another and very interesting hit follows – “The Dean and I”. It is such an effective pastiche of Beach Boys-stylee American youth culture of a time ten to twenty years removed from when it was written – counterbalanced with all the ‘fun’ of being a grown-up, and all that that entails. Perceptive, sharp-eyed and yet still affectionate in a strange kind of way, an early highpoint of the set.

Off we go into the album tracks and – good call – “Old Wild Men”, 10cc’s tribute to Bowie’s “Rock n Roll Suicide”. And the irony was not lost on the band members, especially GG, now 72. Of course, you only get to ‘old’ if at some point you manage to get a grip on ‘wild’, combined with a certain amount of good fortune. This was followed in short order by “Clockwork Creep”, which still has the theatrical power to shock, as we are invited to consider the curious dialogue between aeroplane and explosive device. The theatre, timing and delivery of this really was something else which had the effect of making the following “Feel the Benefit”, a classic Northern expression derived from being forced to take your coat off inside the house, sound a bit ‘baggy’ and prog-rock, really. Which is where a number of 10cc’s album-buying fans lived; in the prog rock bubble of interminable album tracks bereft of hooks, charm or justification. It wasn’t that bad by any means but….some did indeed enjoy it. In a set where they didn’t play “Worst Band In the World” and “People in Love” I struggle to understand, but, fair enough. In a body of work of this size, you aren’t going to get all your faves.

And to be fair, they reacted like they knew this and sweetly harmonised their way through a gorgeous “Things We Do For Love” which FM radio just embraces and celebrates. Very nice camp 70’s hand claps, too.

”Silly Love” then launches itself with careering, skittering intensity and great guitar work. Another high point is reached a few minutes later as “I’m Mandy, Fly Me”, complete with lovely jangly acoustic is announced by the correctly-mixed sample from “Clockwork Creep”. And for most of the time, the harmonies have that sumptuous, layered, multi-tracked gloss they need to bring this off. Can’t be easy to recreate this live even with today’s technologies. Very well done indeed, chaps, especially Paul Canning and Keith Hayman who absolutely shone on this.

And, just as I become aware of two stationary glitter half-balls towards the back of the stage, the band strikes up with “I’m Not in Love”. Recorded around the time of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, when musicians were waking up to the possibilities of multi-layered technologies, this remains one of the most awesome radio tunes ever. And dance floor ‘gnight ‘n’ thangyou’ tunes ever, as well. A number one all century long, it was co-written by Graham Gouldman, and many of the assembled gentlemen sent a silent prayer of thanks towards the stage for something which many will have their own ‘story’ about. I cheerfully predict this tune has not reached zenith point yet in terms of global ‘reach’ and impact. In many years time, this will turn up as THE theme tune to a Massive Film. Even more massive than the last one. And it is played with great accuracy and regard to the original even down to Gouldman’s curious bass meanderings under the girly whisper. One of the greatest UK number one hits ever, recreated beautifully. And what a way to finish your set – with a loose and bouncy chunker-chunk through “Dreadlock Holiday”, another number one hit, finished with ‘I don’t like Buxton – I Love it!’ Beats the generic ‘water’ gag of earlier, I’ll tell thee.

I would have been quite happy to go home at that point but no, the deserved standing ovation brings the encore, and a reflective “Ready to Go Home” leads into a stellar acapella version of the first 10cc hit, “Donna”. This was always a doo-wop pastiche just waiting for this treatment, but the success of this type of treatment depends on the quality of the delivery. Done badly, it’s awful. Done as well as this, it is a guaranteed show-stopper. Brought the house down. As did the only truly ‘rock out’ tune in the repertoire, the rubbery, sinuous “Rubber Bullets” which went all the way to number one in 1973. Standing ovation reprised, band take selfies, all look a bit stunned, which is such a distance away from the reaction and indeed my feelings two tunes into the set, after which I got the distinct impression it was going to be a Long Night For The Riot Squad.

Which it wasn’t.

I have got a bit of an apology to make to Tom Robinson. I bumped into him, literally, in the foyer of the Empire early doors and the best I could manage at short notice was ‘Hi Tom. Blimey! Haven’t seen you in years!’

A statement to which there is truly no adequate response beyond vague mumbles about a better optician, etc etc.

No – what I really meant was me and the McKay bloke with the camera here were once doing a DJ / compere gig at the University of Dundee in 1977 in support of a brand new EMI signing called the Tom Robinson Band, whose first single “2-4-6-8 Motorway” had just shot up the charts to number 5 that very week.

The Band were nervously assembling in the wings when we returned to the backstage area having done our ‘bit’ and Tom asked us if we could get a Uni scarf for him to wear as he went out. We quickly procured one and out he went with the rest of the Band to produce one of the most barnstorming sets I’ve ever heard at a British college gig.

Kids wanna rock.

But that was a while ago and you could hardly blame him for not being overly déjà vu’d.

It’s been a while treading the boards for Moston Manc Lee Forsyth Griffiths as well, and by all accounts the last few years have required a degree of fortitude; and this is evidenced by some extremely introspective songs of love and of loss. Lee cuts a small, pained, but defiant presence on stage and his voice, a well-worn piece of kit bearing the scars but capable of quite alarming tenderness at times, weaves through a selection from his latest album; starting with “Crazy Times” and the surprisingly homey “Nowhere Like Home”, the everything-left-bare of “Love Is” and a couple more before the extremely arresting title track “Silence = Death”. He’s probably a bit of a ‘Marmite’ artist – but I must admit I found his songs certainly stood a listen and the pain of loss in his voice at times was sometimes very, very, stark. Have a listen to the album and/or go see him live and make your own mind up about this one.

Tom Robinson is by his own admission 68 years old now and cuts a solid, rather scholarly, professorial figure as he comperes his own show (well, that’s me out of a gig there, then!) and tells a few stories before strapping that old bass on and as soon as he does, he becomes transformed as the band, who, it is immediately clear, are extremely handy, whip through “Up Against The Wall” and the exhilarating youthful capitalist celebration of the joy of property ownership which is “Grey Cortina”. Alright, yes, I am only kidding. But there’s not a good socialist alive who hasn’t coveted his neighbour’s Cortina, I’ll tell thee.

For this is a celebration of “Power In The Darkness”, the album which followed the aforementioned single up the charts and went gold in both the UK and Japan; which for a ‘new wave’ band was indeed none too dusty. EMI must have been rubbing their hands, albeit in a slightly uncomfortable way given the edginess of some of the subject matter for the time. For a young man in his twenties, some of the writing seems very far-sighted; “Too Good to be True”, assisted in the live context by extremely authentic keyboards and a guitar break which did indeed evoke the spirit of original guitarist Danny Kustow, has aged very well. TR showed with his comments during the show that he knew damn well that some of these songs had stood the tick-tock test; and others had ‘yellowed’ a bit – and so he did what could have been awful but actually worked brilliantly; he changed/added some new lyrics at various points.

“Ain’t Gonna Take It” had an anthemic quality then and indeed it has lost none of this with the passing of the years. It is strident and is delivered in 2018 with venom and attack. Similarly, Robinson contextualises “Long Hot Summer” for an audience who might or might not have known it was written about the NYPD’s regular habit in the late 60’s of kicking three shades out of various members of the gay community in order to bump up their ‘figures’. Until the Drag Queens fought back…and from that into the “Winter of ’79.”. At the time, it really did feel like the next couple of years were going to be a paranoiafest – and for good reasons. He might have got the year slightly off but he wasn’t far out with the violent outcomes described in the song; and this one still sounds utterly convincing told by a bloke in his 60’s. He was there, with the rest of us, peering over the abyss.

“The Man You Never Saw” is played with power and considerable pace and, once again, is a paranoia song. It’s pretty clear when he wrote this stuff, he was used to feeling he was being Watched. And he probably was.  

“Better Decide Which Side You’re On” always struck me as a bit of a slogan masquerading as a song and this performance didn’t really convince me otherwise but “You Gotta Survive” is a quite graphic post-apocalyptic vision for the generation which did expect to wake up with eyeballs fried to the back of heads which gives TR the chance to show, once again, that his voice is a fabulous weapon, capable of a surprising range. And finally for the album, the title track “Power in the Darkness”, delivered with funky suppleness which the keyboards certainly gave a real boost to and a strikingly effective reworking of the ‘spoken’ section; where Robinson’s original Home-Counties ‘Colonel Blimp’ character is replaced with a different kind of ‘old git’; the ageing socialist who looks around him and sees the accelerating lack of kindness, decency, understanding, tolerance, generosity….and in these the decline of ‘traditional British values’. It is, put simply, a brilliant turning of the tables; it seems less strident and clumsy than the ‘original’ mock-hectoring tone; and the audience buy into it because it is warmer, more humane – and therefore more accessible – without cynicism.

Throughout, we are treated to anecdotes and stories, involving subjects as diverse as Alex Harvey, Robinson’s own sexuality, Eddy Grant, second album syndrome, and the perils of audience participation. What marks the difference that the years have made is not so much ‘the message’, for the song pretty much remains the same; but the tone. It is less dictatorial, more rueful; less furious, more appalled; less angry, more amused; less an immediate call to action, more a call to think, to consider and then yes, if you feel so moved, to act.

This slightly less ‘megaphone’ approach works sooo well during the encore as we leave the scripted tracks from the album and finish the set with a cluster of TRB classics. “Martin” always was a great ‘brother’ song, even if and even at the time I remember being moved to wonder how I’d feel if it was my car that was being nicked, my brother who was the ‘copper’. And what a singalong vibe it generates, and at the Empire, it briefly returns to being a Music Hall. Those Were The Days.

And speaking of singalongs, “Glad to be Gay”. Even fully paid up members of the hetero club, then and now, can’t and couldn’t resist this one; and Robinson does give us a welcome opportunity to actually look back and see how much has been achieved in terms of tolerance, understanding and the right to celebrate who we REALLY are; but also to remind us that nothing is ever Safe in this respect, nothing can be assumed, no state of affairs is a permanent and foregone conclusion which doesn’t need protecting and nurturing. 

It has always struck me as weird, then, that a bloke who wrote so many protest songs should come up with arguably the nearest-to-perfect British drivetime tune ever written (possible exception “Road to Hell”, Chris Rea.) In retrospect it is a very good thing “2-4-6-8 Motorway” didn’t turn up on “Power in the Darkness”. It would have had all the contextual integrity of putting “The Birdie Song” on “Deep Purple in Rock”. And the band plays it, if you don’t mind me using the word here, straight. If you’ve got a stadium anthem, play it as a stadium anthem and let it happen as it should. And that’s what they do. And it brings the house down, in my experience for the second time in 41 years and as it has undoubtedly done a few times in the intervening period as well.

TR then tells us a little story about his journey through big initial success, flop second album, losing his record deal, bad business, losing the plot, losing the lot…and starting over, as an independent. And hitting the centre of the target again in the eighties, as the band treated us to an extra encore of the ‘comeback hit’ ‘War Baby’. Me? I would have liked to hear “Atmospherics” but I’m just a radio geek and appreciate I’m probably in a minority and to be fair I can’t see how he’d have worked that into the set, so I won’t gripe. And a real, hard-earned and sincerely felt standing ovation for a quite terrific performance. I really hadn’t expected it to be THIS good.

No, I emerged into the damp and chilly night air and headed for the tube feeling I owed Tom Robinson a bit of an apology. I bought into the whole radical socialist thing and railed against the stuff he railed against back in the day. It was all about personal politics as well as ‘macro politics’. And it was a fairly easy time to be an ‘angry young man’ in 1977. There was plenty to be angry about. But as the seventies gave way to the eighties, and Thatcher, and the pits closed and my home town had the heart ripped out of it…..I began to feel like I’d been ‘had’. I began to feel like for a short while, a ‘middle – class kiddie’ had briefly had me ‘manning the barricades’. Won’t Get Fooled Again. Meet The New Boss. Same as The Old Boss.

However, I can now see that he was – and still is – sincere. With a few tweaks and a spirited live performance to ‘sell’ them all over again, the songs have stood the test of time. Despite the clear advances which have been made, the old dragons are by no means dead. And the “Power in the Darkness” tour is a timely reminder of this from a man who is, I predict, on his way to National Treasure status.

Doreen Schaffer 26/10/18

Oh, ‘tis my delight on a Friday night…..to find a smallish, intimate venue where there’s something interesting going on. Especially after the wide open cavities of the O2 on the previous night.

And there is something interesting going on here, period. Approximately 300 people big when rammed I’d guess, they’ve got anything from the aforementioned jazz and blues to The Sweet, and Steve Harley coming up. Eclectic, you might reasonably conclude.

And tonight, it’s Ska night – and how. Tonight’s headliners – The Skatalites, who had a bona fide top 40 hit back in the day, a day which was a very long time ago when the world was new, with their Skatalitic version of “Guns Of Navarone” and were band mates, stable mates and studio mates with the likes of Prince Buster, Jackie Mittoo, Toots and the Maytals, etc. Bluebeat is pretty much what it was, but they have broadened out and have reggae’d the whole deal up a fair bit as time has gone by, styles have changed and the world woke up to those off-beat rhythms.

Faada Ras 26/10/18

Tony Alli 26/10/18

And, none of your messing about here – The Majestic is playing in support and they soon prove to be an extremely effective unit. Once the sound desk had woken up to the fact that the singer would be best heard with some access to a live mic, they play tracks from their album “Unequivocal Love” and a handful of other songs with discipline, affection and conviction. They are led by Faada Ras who bounces, cajoles and drives the band through the set making certain the audience is completely engaged with what’s going on. Bass player Tony Alli is as solid as a rock but really, this isn’t about any individual; they are a very well rehearsed, very tight unit which actually plays like a band who do a hundred gigs a year or so. They have some good, slick-sounding material as well, especially “Too Cool” and “Free Up Your Mind”. Keep an eye out and an ear open.

They also formed an appropriate and affectionate platform to ‘launch’ The Skatalites. The wonder of these guys is they pack a full three-part horn section of tenor sax, trumpet and trombone – the archetypal full band brass section, but absolutely spot-on for Bluebeat and Ska.

And what they did was really, really interesting and complex. The ‘legacy’ of this band is the stuff from the Bluebeat and Ska era; their original period of peak creativity was around 1963 to 1965 or so; but then they ‘sort of’ split then reformed years later, by which time music had pretty much moved on, the way it tends to. And so, to survive, they adapted and took influence and inspiration from other, later reggae styles – and why not? As individual band members they played alongside the likes of Jimmy Cliff, Ken Boothe, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Peter Tosh. Not only have they earned the right the hard way, how could musicians of such talent be expected to stand still, just because their ‘moment’ happened a long time ago? So in 2018, and still with some, how shall we say, more venerable band members such as drummer Trevor ‘Sparrow’ Thompson and oh-so-solid bass player Val Douglas, who find themselves sharing the same band vehicle as other younger members with other influences, such as stratospherically-talented sax player Azemobo ‘Zem’ Audo and guitarist Natty Frenchy who has been in there with the likes of U-Roy, they present an absolutely fascinating hybrid which seems to zap backwards and forwards from just post-Laurel Aitken and Prince Buster through to much less jagged and almost ‘rocky’ reggae tunes, the kind of thing that Peter Tosh might have been knocking out back in the day.

But it really isn’t the sort of audio train crash it could conceivably have become. These people know exactly what they are doing and move seamlessly between genres without clumsy ‘gear changes’. The trombone really ‘bosses’ the ‘older’ ska tunes, especially the likes of “James Bond” and the pop hit , “Guns of Navarone”; but the guitar easily drives the band along with the more fluid and sinuous songs in the set. Special mention for Ken Stewart on the keyboards as well, who shifted with the deftest of touches from the hard, rhythmic ‘piano’ sound needed on occasion to the more soulful, Hammond-like offering which was also on occasion called upon.

Azemobo ‘Zem’ Audo 26/10/18

The high spot for me, apart from the fabulous instrumental groove of the indeed mighty ”Guns Of Navarone”, was the point where the generally-acknowledged ‘Queen of Ska’, Doreen Schaffer, took to the stage to take us through a clutch of hits from those times. The crowd positively revelled in the warmth and togetherness she generated; Feel The Love, indeed. The fact that she left the stage to even greater acclaim than she arrived to was suggestive not only of the respect and admiration in which she is held – but the fact that she can still Nail It. Which she did.

Doreen Schaffer 26/10/18

Whole place was rocking by the time the band drove hard to the finish line which I think was either a quick blast of the “Nutcracker Suite” or a reprise on “Guns” but to be honest by that time I wasn’t counting. What a joy that was. Great venue, excellent performances. Joyful. I really felt that I’d lively upped myself, and that doesn’t happen every day – and an object lesson in how a band can, with dignity and no loss of credibility, keep true to their roots, but take themselves forward into the future, and still be a relevant and entertaining force of nature. And that’s not an easy trick for anybody to turn.