This has been a strange series – seems like very few of the Americana UK writers started their gig life with anything even remotely resembling a genre artist. And there’s been a disturbing amount of prog-rock. The very thought. Surely someone started with Steve Earle? Well, mine isn’t quite as on-genre as that but at least comes from the closely adjacent modern folk strand. It also seems that these first gigs launched a life of musical debauchery – or at least regular gig going – for most people, and I can’t claim that either. I look back at old music magazine listings and realise what golden opportunities I let slip by, but there are plenty of other obsessions for teenagers to pick up on, and at that point alongside music I had other things on my mind. So I missed out on seeing live any number of people whose records I was at the same time avidly buying, as funds allowed. Well, so it goes.
Whilst I do recall the first gig I went to there are a few things about it that are a bit hazy in my memory. The year. The venue. The full line-up. Luckily I bought the programme. Ah – a gig with a programme. I could probably give the full line-up and everything if I could just find it. I remember framing it in an A4 clip frame. It must be here somewhere. No? Nowhere to be found? It’ll turn up about 30 minutes after this piece goes live, naturally.
It was in a London theatre, and it was a charity fundraiser organised by Ralph McTell, or, as sometime multiple folk club organiser Bruce Dunnet had it: “that fucking Ralph McTell you like so much.” Which wasn’t really all that disparaging – the first words I recall hearing this slightly intimidating man utter were “John – you are a bollock“, fortunately not actually aimed at me. It does, though, add some perspective – this was a little after Ralph McTell’s chart hit glory days, and with the new career path taken with the children’s TV song-series ‘Alphabet Zoo‘ and ‘Tickle-on-the-Tum‘. Christ on a bike, you really had to like Ralph McTell in the early 1980s – he didn’t exactly make it easy to be cool. Cool. Jesus. Friends were less than enthusiastic, I got that, and so, undeterred, I found myself heading gigward nonetheless, albeit very much on my Todd. This was, after all, “that fucking Ralph McTell [that I] like so much“, so still pretty exciting.
Why Ralph McTell, though – how did I get onto that particular path? Well, back when money was short and vinyl expensive the aspiring folkie might find that the bargain records section of Woolworths was a particularly useful hunting ground. In amongst the Music For Pleasure releases of cobbled together Beatles and Monkies collections there were also the double LP in a simple cardboard sleeve releases by Castle Entertainment which included such collections as Best of British Folk (Ralph Mctell, Gryphon, Pentangle, The Humblebums) and Best of Folk Guitar (which also included Ralph McTell alongside John Renbourn and Bert Jansch amongst others). These were all culled from older releases on Transatlanctic Records. So in the early 1980s it was possible to get really familiar with the current folk scene of…oh…1972-ish. Well, it was a start – and a good one in the end as I’d go on to see many of the featured musicians and bands over the years and not regret it one whit.
The other difficulty with the gig was getting a ticket – seat prices varied and as I recall the Box Office was only selling by post – and asking for payment by a cheque. Slightly too young to have a cheque book of my own I had to ask my dad, who, for some reason I just couldn’t fathom, baulked at the box office’s request for a signed but otherwise blank cheque which they would fill in with the available ticket price as the allocations got used up. Surely this must be perfectly normal I reasoned. Perfectly normal if you want someone to clear out your bank account he responded. These were simpler times – eventually a cheque for the cheapest seat price was sent, and it all turned out ok as a ticket duly arrived. As I recall it was a pretty good seat – in the balcony and up against the rail. I have no memory at all of the audience, but I suspect that I was atypical.
As a charity event it was very much a case of Ralph McTell and short sets by ‘friends’. Those that I remember include Earl Okin, Juan Martin and Gallagher and Lyle. As I recall Okin was a bit jazzy and comic for my taste – perhaps I’d have appreciated his wry humour had I had a few more years under the belt. Juan Martin just blew me away with his guitar prowess – he was already regarded as one of the finest flamenco guitarists of his generation. His playing was dazzling as he strummed and picked and beat out percussion on the body of his guitar – and on reflection I think this is why I don’t much appreciate the dullness of artists who build tracks endlessly with little loops. If you want to sound like two or three guitars and a box-drum then why not just learn to play as well as Juan Martin? Needless to say I rapidly acquired albums – when I could find them – ‘Picasso Portraits‘ and ‘The Andallucian Suites‘ are well worth anyone’s time. Gallagher and Lyle, I recall, had broken up as a duo some time before the gig and were announced as making their first performance since that breakup. With just a pair of acoustic guitars and harmonizing vocals – and I think, if the timelines permit, familiarity with the song ‘Heart In New York‘ from the Simon and Garfunkell ‘Concert in Central Park‘ – they did come across very much as a Scottish Simon & Garfunkel. Other songs that I seem to recall are the big hits ‘Runaway‘ and ‘I Wanna Stay With You‘. As someone unfamiliar with their previous life as part of Apple and with Ronnie Lane I only had the late 1970s soft rock to recall, but I do remember thinking how much more effective the music was presented in this stripped down way. I think Dean Friedman also did a couple of songs from the piano – if it wasn’t here then I don’t know where I saw him. And since I recall ‘Lucky Stars‘ that sort of pinpoints the date to around 1982.
You’d think that Ralph McTell’s set would be burned on my mind – but to be honest it wasn’t. I must have enjoyed it enough that I wanted to, and would go on to, see Ralph McTell a couple more times at least in the next few years and quite a few times subsequently. I’m pretty confident that the set included ‘Streets of London‘, but my recollection is that there was not a lot of the ‘early stuff’ that I was familiar with. Did he play ‘Michael in the Garden‘? Maybe. And of the newer stuff, ‘Water of Dreams‘? Again Maybe.
As a portmanteau gig it was plenty enjoyable – I was glad I’d gone even if I hadn’t built my street-cred by much. Not much. But there were no great on-stage acrobatics, no fist fights or knives drawn, and the only illicit substances were alcohol and ice cream. This may well have been the gig that cemented in my mind that ice cream was not rock and roll. That, then, was the stuttering launch of my gig going career and it was so worth it, I already liked Ralph you’ll recall, and now I had Juan Martin as well. Gallagher and Lyle I have to admit I remained less impressed with on record – two acoustics and no keyboard backup had been great live but the studio material was too sweetened and middle of the road in presentation. ‘Heart In New York‘ is still a good song, and ‘I Wanna Stay With You‘ has a nice Andrew Gold simplicity. Earl Okin not so much, and everyone else that I’ve forgotten…well I’ve forgotten. Gig going did get better once university arrived – dozens of barely recalled folk club gigs with barely recalled bands in a tight music scene, as well as big gigs on campus: I’ve mentioned BB King before but obviously The Long Ryders was a big impact as was the riveting Suzanne Vega – a poet and a wonderful stage presence. But generally uni’ was a bit hand to mouth moneywise so lots of bands got missed – I look back at the lists and wonder how did I not go and see REM for £3? Well, I guess £3 was food for two days.
I was tempted for this piece to bend the rules just a little bit, call this gig I’ve just described a charity event and then perhaps be able to look a bit more sophisticated in my musical tastes – my second gig, you see, was an all dayer at Wembley Stadium in July 1984 – Paul Carrack, UB40, Santana and…Bob Dylan. With special guests like Van Morrison and Chrissie Hynde. What a day. Well, apart from UB40 who had abandoned social and political commentary like ‘Food for Thought‘ in favour of chart topping fodder like ‘Red Red Wine‘ and would much better have been at the Reggae Sunsplash which was running on the other side of London on the same day. That was a real eye-opener of an gig in more ways than just the music. But, in all honesty much as I might want it to have been, that was not my first gig, and there’s no advantage in rewriting history or making minor achievements seem like major ones just to puff oneself up – that’s the way it was, and that’s the way it is.