You would think that, at his age, TONY CLAYTON-LEAwould be more interested in his tomato plants than in choosing which gig to go to. But, 35 years after he first saw Iggy Pop, he is still enthralled by live musicIS IT 35 YEARS? Don’t be ridiculous. It couldn’t be. It simply couldn’t. Er, actually, hold on a minute: I do believe it is 35 years since I first saw not only my first life-changing gig but also the event that kick-started a cultural revolution in my head. It was Iggy Pop, in London, at a venue that was then the Rainbow Theatre but now belongs to the Brazilian Pentacostalist Universal Church of the Kingdom of God. Not to worry: a religious experience is a religious experience, whatever the venue.
Back then I had short hair and wore straight-legged jeans and Doc Marten boots. NME was my weekly bible of cultural reference points: anything that Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Tony Parsons or Julie Burchill recommended to read, see or hear, I’d do just that. London is a mind-expanding city at any time, of course, but in 1977 and 1978 punk rock hadn’t yet levelled out to become a caricature of itself; there were no ostrich-coiffured punks strolling along Kings Road or Camden High Street tapping tourists for money. The music was the thing, and, in my experience at least, it was as close to the real deal as anyone from a provincial Irish town could imagine.
Seeing Iggy Pop headline a major London venue at about the time punk rock was at its most influential seemed just that little bit more exciting. And, besides, what wasn’t to love about milling into the Tube station at Finsbury Park with several hundred Stooges fans singing Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell?
I recall that gig as if it were last night: from the early 1970s, Iggy Pop’s friendship with David Bowie had given him a new lease of life, and Pop’s proto-punk band The Stooges had attained enviable regard from London’s leading punk-rock acts.
But it was as much Pop as the music that the audience was into: I have never seen anyone, before or since, utilise his body as if it were a pliable work of art. Bowie’s lyric from the Ziggy Stardust album track Hang on to Yourself about moving “like tigers on Vaseline” could have been written about Pop, for he slithered and prowled around on that stage, barracking and beckoning the crowd to do things that, collectively, an audience really shouldn’t.
There is something incredibly compelling about a performer who seems to care little about his physical wellbeing; it’s a car-crash scenario that sucks you in, and, when the performer is as fearless as Pop, an element of danger gets dragged into a mix that includes potent rock music, stimulants of varying kinds and the sense that all the audience members are misfits or miscreants just like you.
I remember leaving the venue and walking towards the Tube station, jostling my way past other fans, and thinking not only how invincible was my belief in the power of brilliant music but also how invulnerable that belief made me feel. Thirty-five years later I still feel the same (performing pop clowns notwithstanding), but I have often asked myself why that is the case. What is it about the live-music experience that continues to scratch at what is clearly a severe itch?
SOME PEOPLE MIGHT THINKthat a person of my age – I’m over 50 and barely give it a thought – would be more suited to worrying about watering his tomato plants than the scheduling on his wall chart; wondering whether he’ll go to Honningbarna or Sea Sessions one night, or Plan B or Body Soul the next. I’m unsure why music can make a body seem as if it can withstand torture (no doubt neurological scientists and academics would know), but there is one thing of which I am certain: try saying that to the vast majority of people my age or younger and they will look at you as if you have two heads.
It’s as if, once you reach a particular age, certain pursuits you once held on to for dear life should automatically fade into the distance. And so when I’m asked about what I did at the weekend or last week I stop myself expressing my true feelings. “I went to see a band,” I say. “Oh, which one?” they ask. “Well, you might not have heard of them. They’re called” – for example – “Spook of the 13th Lock.”
You can see their interest diminish as the lack of recognition registers. “Were they any good?” they ask. Here is when I hold back, replying, “Yeah, they weren’t too bad,” when what I really want to say is something along the lines of how the band fuse postrock, prog-rock and psych-rock with traditional folk idioms, occasionally enveloping songs with shrieks of feedback and Krautrock wig-outs. But I don’t. Instead I ask, “How’s the family?”
It’s a curse, unfortunately, that many people of a certain age think live music is the preserve of those so much younger; the number of times I have heard people younger than me saying they’re too old for rock and pop causes me concern. Don’t they know what they’re missing? Clearly, the cut and thrust of a live-gig experience that isn’t sitting down on chairs on a crisp lawn to watch Leonard Cohen – great though the man is – is something they should experience but don’t, for fear of being discomfited. But, one supposes, in the same way that ardent attendees of open-air festivals gradually transfer their bones from tents to hotel rooms, so the live-music experience mutates from one of excitement to one of indifference.
I don’t necessarily see it that way, and that’s not just because I write about most gigs I go to, and get paid for my time and effort. The reason is that the live-music experience, like theatre and other areas of performance art, is a vital component of contact with a sense of what’s real. In small spaces you can see it in the faces of the musicians and the audience, and there is no better sense of communion than with a crowd that, en masse, understands the music as well as the band. If the space is large, and if the band is good enough, the size of the venue and the audience add to the atmosphere. Whether it’s at Whelan’s, Vicar Street or Croke Park, a collective fit is a sight to make your eyes water and your mouth smile.
As with bands, however, the gig experience differs every time. Occasionally, gigs are awful and ordinary; others oscillate between good, great and out of this world, and touch a part of the human system and spirit that creates what can safely be described as an eargasm.
Inevitably, it’s the latter that mean the most to me, and probably the least to those who have little or no interest in live music.
I understand that open-air festivals functioning under constant showers of rain, in rivulets of mud and with the promise of too many people under the influence, have few benefits. I appreciate that people talking loudly behind you, standing in front of you or shoving past as they spill beer over your footwear is not good for the notion of karma. Yet the blend of voice, music and words, as well as truth, humour and some manner of sexuality and charisma, can be intoxicating. I don’t necessarily yearn to be impressed, thrilled skinny or driven delirious every time I venture into a small venue or an open-air barn, but I won’t say no if it happens.
I’ll be seeing you at the next few gigs, then. Bruce Springsteen, you say? Followed by Madonna? Followed by a lower-profile act you possibly haven’t heard of? Yep, I’ll probably be at those. You can’t miss me; I’ll be the compact fiftysomething guy with short hair, straight-legged jeans and Doc Marten boots. With memories of Iggy Pop in the back of my head and expectations of whoever’s on stage in front of my face. Oh, and would you mind not stepping on my toes?
TCL’s top five Highlights of a live-music life
Top Hat, Dún Laoghaire, 1978
Britain’s premier punk band at the top of their game perform in front of a particularly aggressive crowd amped up on expectation and 1978’s answer (whatever that was) to Jägermeister. The support acts included Berlin and the Virgin Prunes. Speaking of which . . .
White Horse Hotel, Drogheda, 1982
Dragging their gothic bones and thunderous postpunk tunes to a provincial Irish town, Gavin and Guggi traumatised the natives with a sound-and-vision performance that sent them home stunned.
HQ, Dublin, 1999
Bowie performed at HQ (now the Academy), and after a run through some of his best-known songs – Life on Mars, China Girl, Saturday, Rebel Rebel – in front of a celebrity-strewn audience you could have pinched me and I’d have woken up from a very good dream.
BBC studios, London, early 2000s
I can’t for the life of me recall exactly when this gig took place, but I do know that Stipe and chums, in front of no more than 200 people, played the best I’ve ever seen them. When they were this good they were transcendental.
Croke Park, Dublin 2009
It’s easy to be smart-assed about this lot, but their fusion of anthem-sized hits, natural bonhomie, brilliant sound – for a change – and 360-degree stage set was just marvellous.