Welcome to a new series where AUK writers look back on the first gig that they ever attended. Clint West kicks off the series by reflecting on not just a gig, but a whole formative experience.
In 1975 I was 14 years old. The two main venues in my hometown of Ipswich were the Gaumont Theatre which hosted medium ranking artists and the Manor Ballroom, where smaller acts performed. Over the next few years, I was to be a regular at both. Looking back now I realise how lucky I was – many years later my own son was to be regularly frustrated by venues that have ‘over 18’ door policies. I had no such problems, and it would appear in hindsight, incredibly liberal parents. Me and a mate went to our first festival at Reading in 1977, the pair of us having only just turned 16. I note this merely to illustrate that going to my first gig, with school friends and not an adult in sight when I was 14 years old, was nothing unusual in 1975.
My musical education up to this point had been a fairly standard one for that time. I watched Top of the Pops when I was young and recorded the chart run-down on a Sunday evening, wrestling awkwardly with the record and pause buttons to try to edit out presenter Alan Freeman’s voice as he annoyingly talked through the first few moments of each song. Freeman presented the show between 1967 and 1972 but later became better known for his rather bombastic Saturday afternoon rock show which I caught occasionally when I wasn’t attending Portman Road. Of the chart fodder on offer at this time it was the likes of Slade and T. Rex that were my favourites.
My move away from Radio 1 and the charts came about through a number of events. In 1973 Argent released ‘God Gave Rock and Roll to You’ which went to Number 18 in the charts. I played it over and over again for a week until the following Sunday when I tuned into the chart show fully expecting that the nation would have shared my enthusiasm and that it would have gone shooting up the charts. As numbers 20-18 were revealed my hypothesis seemed to be working out, numbers 17-11 came and went with no sign – my god it was in the top 10! Sadly not, as the numbers continued to count down a realisation that it might not be there at all fell upon me, although I continued to hope. Once the new number 1 for that week was confirmed it was also confirmed that Argent had dropped out of the charts altogether. I felt cheated, how could this be? Looking back with hindsight, it wasn’t even a particularly good record, but the whole episode made me question whether this chart thing was for me.
The friend who I later attended the Reading Festival with, pointed me in the direction of The Old Grey Whistle Test, and I immediately fell under its spell, watching religiously each week and comparing notes at school the next day. At the same time, I found Radio Caroline broadcasting off the Essex coast and former Caroline DJ Andy Archer who was doing an evening rock show for the independent Suffolk and North Essex station Radio Orwell. Each of these outlets exposed me to ‘serious’ album-based music. My lifelong obsession with music had begun.
My record buying habits changed too. I was brought up in a pub and every fortnight a man would visit to change the records on the jukebox. There was a counter which showed the ones that had been played least and they were taken off to then be replaced by the latest new releases. The man would have a selection of new singles to choose from with my dad invariably ignoring my advice to choose the new Nazareth record in favour of one by KC and the Sunshine Band. In retrospect, he was probably right.
I was able to buy the discarded records for a very small sum rendered affordable by my weekly pocket money allowance. Hence my record collection began with an ex-jukebox copy of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’. I’d built up a nice little collection, but I was a big boy now – I needed to buy albums. This was a bit trickier, there being no ready supply of cheap ex-jukebox copies. I had to save up more and for longer. The process of buying a new album, taking it around to a friend’s house to listen to and also hear the latest things that they and other friends had bought was to become a teenage ritual. There were lots of great albums that I could have plumped for but disappointingly I clearly wasn’t as cool as I thought I was, so I chose Paul McCartney and Wings’ ‘Band on the Run’.
The next step of the musical journey was the live show. So it was that on Thursday December 18th 1975, I made my way to the Ipswich Gaumont to see Hawkwind. They were touring in support of the album ‘Warrior on the Edge of Time’ which had been released that summer. Other than my mum dragging me along to see Tommy Steele at the same venue as a young boy, I’d never been to a gig before, certainly not one anything like that which I was about to experience. It might be argued that Hawkwind is a pretty cool gig debut and I’d like to say that the choice was entirely down to me – but it wasn’t. I knew ‘Silver Machine’ a song that along with Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ and any number of Status Quo singles was regularly played at school and youth club discos to appease the small band of ‘rockers’ within the congregation, but other than that I was really going in blind on the suggestion of others.
I don’t recall who the support band was, or even if there was one. Hawkwind themselves were arguably just coming to the end of their prime period between 1971 and 1975. Lemmy had been kicked out in the summer following his drug arrest in Canada which threatened the band’s entry to the USA. He was replaced by former Deviants and Pink Fairies bass player Paul Rudolph. However, Robert Calvert, Dave Brock and Nik Turner were all present. The band had two drummers at this point as Simon King was joined by second drummer Alan Powell. Simon House, who had contributed greatly to the sound of ‘Warrior on the Edge of Time’ was on keyboards, synthesisers, and violin.
The band kicked off with ‘Assault and Battery’ which segued into ‘The Golden Void’ both from ‘Warrior on the Edge of Time’. The rest of the set was largely made up of songs from that album along with some taken from previous albums. There were even a couple from Robert Calvert’s solo work after he had re-joined the band that year following a two-year absence. The evening inevitably concluded with ‘Silver Machine’. However, I do not wish to dwell too much on the set, but rather to concentrate on the experience. The first thing I remember and which for some reason I hadn’t been prepared for, was the visual experience. The strobe lighting and dry-ice through which this motley band of freaks and weirdos occasionally appeared was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The dry ice mixed with the sweet-smelling clouds that the audience were themselves generating adding to the potency of the evening. Then add in the hypnotic music and I could see all around me people being transformed into a trance-like state where the cares of everyday life were dispensed with for the evening in favour of an escapist multi-sensory experience. As I soaked it all in it dawned on me – I had found my people, and life would never be the same again.
An additional and totally unexpected aspect to the whole experience was the appearance of Stacia, the band’s interpretative dancer. Now how good her interpretations were I don’t recall, but what I certainly do recall was that they involved her being largely naked. This was quite an eye-opener for an impressionable 14-year-old boy who had never seen a naked woman in the flesh before and sadly wasn’t to see another one for some considerable time afterwards. It was certainly the most prominent part of our post-gig discussions and review as I recall. Stacia left the band three gigs later at the end of the tour, but despite that we did return to see them again the following year.
So it was that I immersed myself into the life of a gig-goer, a habit that some 47 years later I’ve still not kicked, nor indeed do I wish to. I’ve been lucky enough to witness some great performances as I have journeyed through my musical adventure. One that has led me ultimately to a passion for this thing we call americana. Yet despite that journey I still have a wad of Hawkwind albums in my collection which have survived various culls over the years, and tonight might just be the right time to dust one off and give it a long overdue spin.