My Top 10 Live Bands – 1

Iron Maiden

Tremble with terror, ye unbelievers! No recording industry fortress can withstand the unstoppable musical force unleashed upon this mortal realm by the musical alchemists of Albion!

Iron Maiden are so much more than just an astonishing and amazing live spectacle. They’re a living, breathing, libertarian resistance that glories in taunting an entertainment elite that long ago decided such louts were just too uncouth, too incorrect and generally unworthy to tread the sanctified and hallowed halls of the mainstream media complex.

Cast out and denied the limelight that was rightly theirs, Iron Maiden set about raising an army of fans and building an entertainment war machine the likes of which this world has seldom seen.

They have succeeded, and they have swept all before them.

My personal relationship with Maiden began way back in 1986, when I first saw them play live at Hammersmith. For any readers who remember, this was the gig that featured a brief appearance by some hapless kid who was placed there courtesy of Jim’ll Fix It…ahem, moving swiftly on.

I’ve seen them four times in total, roughly once a decade, and on each occasion I’ve witnessed how this insatiable media monster has grown bigger, stronger and ever more ambitious with the passage of time. With musicianship, equipment and a stage spectacle second to none, Iron Maiden have first conquered and then colonised parts of this world where the corporate media machine often fears to tread.

Fronted by the coolest living Englishman, an Iron Maiden gig isn’t just a great concert, it’s a major event. The ground trembles as the beast approaches, accompanied by a roar of jet engines as a customised Boeing 747 named Ed Force One touches down. This is no magic carpet for a spoiled pop princess, but rather a fully liveried workhorse transporting band, crew and tons of equipment to every conceivable corner of the globe. Naturally, Bruce Dickinson himself is at the controls as Ed Force One continues its epic journey to spread the dark gospel.

Oddly enough, the sheer scale of an Iron Maiden gig means that it’s actually best viewed from a bit of a distance. The stage and lighting are of such epic proportions that it’s easy to miss the bigger picture from close up. Naturally, there’s no need to worry about not hearing if you’re further back, as Iron Maiden’s infamous four axe attack can be heard for miles around.

Now well into their fourth decade in the music business, Iron Maiden have managed to avoid the rock ‘n’ roll tiger traps which have turned far too many of their contemporaries into monosyllabic, shambling caricatures. They’re fit, able, independent and spoiling for the next conquest.

Any band that’s big enough to headline Glastonbury but turns it down is a band that deserves our undying respect and admiration. Iron Maiden exist in a parallel media universe which they’ve conjured into existence through sheer force of will (and maybe some dusty, arcane powers) making them the undisputed overlords of all they survey.

Go see the beast on the road, and pay homage to the world’s greatest living rock legends.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 2

Marillion

This is one band I was lucky enough to first witness in their pomp, way back in the 80s while they were still fronted by the legendary Fish and Misplaced Childhood rode high in the album chart.

I already knew that they were all first class musicians, but I had no idea just how tight and polished a band could be on stage. Anyone who bought Misplaced Childhood on vinyl back in the day will know that it’s a full-blooded, unashamed prog rock creation consisting of only two tracks, side one and side two. As it was their latest release, I was understandably looking forward to hearing some album cuts performed live on stage. What I didn’t expect was to witness the whole damned thing! Every last note and nuance, performed live, in sequence, with no breaks and no mistakes.

It was then I realised I wasn’t just watching a kick-ass live band, I was in the presence of true musical greatness. Marillion’s huge but tightly controlled energy dovetailed perfectly with the word-perfect recitals of the audience to produce a potent and mesmerising musical mix.

I’d had my first hit of the Marillion magic, and I knew had to have more…and so I did. I saw them twice more before the world came to an end when Fish left the band. After losing one of the finest lyricists this country’s ever produced, the future looked bleak for the last and greatest performing proponents of prog rock’s hugely demanding yet dying art.

Like many other fans from the Fish era, I wondered if it was the end of the road for Marillion. Still, after four hugely respected, often cited and much loved albums, that ain’t half bad.

But then, something extraordinary happened. Some obscure, small guy from Kendal joined one of the tightest rock bands in history to retool, rebrand and relaunch.

Marillion quickly stepped out of the mainstream spotlight as new singer Steve Hogarth and the rest of the guys set about building a new kind of band, a band based more around audience access and crowd funding than courting the continued goodwill and patronage of the major labels. This was a bold and revolutionary move in the early 1990s, but one that’s proved crucial to Marillion’s continued success and close relationship with its fan base.

So, after watching from afar for more than a quarter of a century, I finally decided to take the plunge and see this “new” Marillion in late 2016.

To say I was blown away is something of an understatement. Time and age seem to have only improved Marillion’s live performances, as focused experience has gradually replaced youthful exuberance. With a hi-tech video system, custom made movies, and the most balanced and powerful live sound you’ll ever hear, Marillion introduced FEAR, their eighteenth studio album to a seemingly insatiable audience.

Marillion are one of the few bands who’ve manage to pull off that seemingly impossible trick of moving with the times while also standing still. As highlights from the ever lengthening Hogarth era were delivered at full power, I realised that the tracks I was hearing could’ve been penned at any time since the late 1980s to the present day.

As I’ve said before, a Marillion gig is a masterclass in layered power rather than raw volume, and its effects on the audience are profound and long lasting.

After a long dry spell, I’m hooked on the M-stuff once again. Wanna try some?

My Top 10 Live Bands – 3

VNV Nation

Once in every decade or so, a musical movement or maybe a movie franchise appears that just looks, sounds and feels like nothing else. Like a brand new branch springing from a mature tree, this unexpected creative offshoot bursts out of the existing cultural body in a completely unpredictable way, yet somehow manages to look like it was pre-destined to appear all along.

VNV Nation arrived in our psyche in just such an unexpected yet predictable fashion during the creative drought of the mid1990s; starting very small, but rapidly evolving into an entire musical sub-branch in their own right. This Anglo Irish duo somehow managed to blend an almost New Wave futuristic synth vibe with state of the art technology to produce a stunning series of auditory sculptures which are often imitated, but never bettered.

Working tirelessly both on the road and in the studio, VNV Nation have built up an impressive album catalogue as well as a hugely dedicated following, and all without the blessing or endorsement of the mainstream media machine.

Having been a fan of their music for quite a while, I was more than pleased to finally have the chance to witness a live performance.

They didn’t disappoint.

Although not the greatest of technical singers, Ronan Harris’ voice nonetheless oozes an authentic and heartfelt sincerity which perfectly matches the more spiritual aspects of VNV’s best work. Meanwhile, the physically imposing Mark Jackson stands like a stylised Soviet foundry worker as he hammers out the industrial foundations of a seemingly endless stream of underground anthems. With two guys working, and I mean working the desk all evening, the sound started at a high point and was absolutely flawless within a very short time. There are plenty of much bigger and much richer acts who could learn a lot from that level of dedication and professionalism.

Illusion, Homeward, Legion, Standing and the majestic, incomparable Beloved were just a few of an ever growing catalogue of firm audience favourites that kept us all jumping pretty much from start to finish. VNV delivered exactly what we all wanted, which was an orgy of hardcore electronic tracks which transcend mere dance music to become something much more akin to audial art.

They were flawless, and the reason for their fans’ dedication and almost obsessive loyalty was clearly expressed in the symbiosis between those on the stage and those on the ground. It was as though the very gods of synthpop themselves had descended to bring us the good news.

Preach it loud!

Like all truly great gigs, I just didn’t want it to end, but all good things must pass in time. However, that’s not before the guys delivered their trademark wind-down of Perpetual, which ekes out the last looping, chiming chords of the gig and leaves the audience both on a high and hungry for more.

VNV Nation have more than earned their success, and their live gigs are a testament to the old showbiz saying which reminds us that, no matter what, talent will out.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 4

Ultravox

If there’s a single band that encapsulates all that’s best about the music of the late 70s and early 80s, then that band must surely be Ultravox. With a dark, new wave undercurrent, superb arrangements and a willingness to step off the pop reservation, Ultravox effortlessly bridge the language gap between mainstream music and the alternative counter-culture.

There’s no doubt that they arrived on the scene with perfect timing, at the end of an era when unconventional and experimental tracks like Vienna and The Thin Wall still stood a chance of chart success. Seriously, does anyone believe singles like those would’ve gotten a look in five years later? I sincerely doubt it.

Like so many talented bands from that brief flowering of analogue alchemy, I wasn’t able to catch Ultravox in their Monument heyday, but I was thrilled to finally see Midge and the boys performing live at Sheffield’s O2 Academy during their highly regarded Return to Eden tour. This was doubly exciting for me as I’m already on record stating that Rage in Eden is my favourite album of all time.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven as Midge Ure strode onto that stage in a silver-sheen suit and proceeded to blast out some serious hard-core guitar chords. Within half a minute those chords had morphed into the opening riffs of New Europeans, one of the great unsung new wave classics. Not only does it sound fantastic, but it perfectly packages the zeitgeist of that struggle between the printing press and the microchip, played out against a backdrop of grey concrete and glaring new neon.

The gig that followed this blinding opener was a nonstop parade of new wave classics, reminding us all just how imaginative and prolific they’d been during that short burst in the early 80s. Although some hair was thinning here and some waistlines thickening there, Midge and the boys more than proved that they could still throw down with the best as they displayed a level of musicianship which, let’s be honest, was all too rare among some of their more readily marketable contemporaries.

With an unassuming stage set combined with sound and lighting to die for, Ultravox re-established their credentials as some of the more serious musicians from a decade that started deep, but quickly shallowed into an identikit ensemble of sickly synthetic pop confections. It’s ironic how those dark, brooding foundations of the Ultravox sound were once a drag on commercial success, yet now they’ve become the very feature attracting a new generation of admirers in this new millennium.

Whilst they may not have been the vaunted megastars of yesteryear, there’s no denying that Ultravox have outpaced, outlasted and out-created nearly all of their contemporaries. There are no humiliating twenty minute slots on some washed-up-by-the-sea revival tour for Midge and the boys, and their enduring appeal is proof positive that substance always outlasts style in the long run. I’ll wager there’s many a big-name from yesteryear who secretly wishes they could still headline in their own right, instead of hitching their one-hit wagon to a burgeoning and cynical nostalgia machine. A lesson for us all methinks.

Though the years may have changed them physically, Ultravox’s commitment to their sound, their performance and their audience remains as bright and youthful as those heady days of top ten success and Smash Hits centrefold splashes. Though they may never again write or perform as a cohesive unit, it’s clear that those New Europeans have more than a couple of ideas inside them still.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 5

Depeche Mode

Every once in a while, an avid music fan is lucky enough to catch a band at the very peak of their pomp. While it’s great to find exciting up-and-coming acts and somehow more real to see performers once the media machine has discarded them, sometimes we hit that sweet spot. Ironically, we’re often ignorant of that truth at the time.

That’s what happened to me when I saw Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace in July 1993. Still riding high on the huge success of Violator and touring to promote Songs of Faith and Devotion, this once plastic synthpop band from the early eighties had somehow transformed itself into a worldwide musical phenomenon.

If I’m honest, I don’t really know what I was expecting because I’d turned out as much to see the Sisters of Mercy in support as I had to see the headline band. After all, that kind of combination doesn’t come along every day and so I jumped at the chance of getting two for the price of one.

As the light faded and the boys from Basildon took to the stage, I quickly realised that I was witnessing something far greater than just a few blokes twiddling with keyboards: this was an all-out musical assault by a band of hardened professionals who’d honed their skills both in the studio and on the touring circuit.

I remember being blown away by the sound quality, innovative use of video and the sheer energy and excitement of the crowd; something I’d only really experience at rock gigs before then. If Dave Gahan was on something that night, it was still during those early days when energy and endurance are enhanced and the piper is still totting up his bill for the user.

It was really terrific to hear all those old hit singles remixed and re-delivered, yet still so comfortingly familiar as to create a slightly disconcerting effect where it was difficult to reconcile the live experience of the moment with the countless years of radio repetition that had burrowed deep into my brain.

For me, the standout moments were the band’s performances of Enjoy the Silence and Stripped, both of which are considered by many to be the finest recordings of those two singles ever made. The video of a hand writing the word “stripped” over and over is one of the simplest and most impressive effects I’ve ever seen at a live show.

Although I’m sure they’re still very good now, I don’t think I’d want to watch Depeche Mode again today. I want to remember them as the conquering heroes who held the world in the palms of their hands, standing high on the crest of a wave that was always destined to crash upon the gently declining shores of age and familiarity.

I know they continue to tour and attract huge worldwide audiences, and so they should, but sometimes a kind of magic chemistry occurs between band and audience. Like a user forever chasing that first high, the wise music fan knows that any attempt to recapture those few golden hours will inevitably end in disappointment.

I’ll leave Depeche Mode as I found them, in a place where age, scandal and mediocrity can never diminish them.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 6

John Foxx & Louis Gordon

Just like my previous posting in this series, John Foxx is another legendary musician I just assumed I’d never get to hear play live. In this case it was a simple accident of birth, with my being a little too young to go out gigging while he was on the road.

By the autumn of 1997 I was well into my twenties, and by sheer blind luck I passed the now demolished Duchess in Leeds and caught sight of his name on the upcoming gig list. Naturally I was through the door in seconds, and I’ll never forget the barman’s world-weary roll of the eyes as he confirmed that yes, it was the John Foxx, and yes, I could buy advance tickets.

Next thing I knew, I was standing on the street with tickets in hand, less than five minutes after first glancing through that window. Needless to say, the next couple of weeks really seemed to drag as the gig slowly approached.

At last the great day came, and I recall an unexpected feeling of trepidation creeping over me as I waited for the maestro of discordant harmonies to grace the Duchess’ tiny stage. Would he be any good? Could he be any good? How could a middle-aged bloke hiding behind a keyboard expect to engage even an expectant and partisan audience like this one? After all, although Foxx is a fine lyricist and a musical visionary, he’s not exactly a rock front man. How would he pull it off?

As the lights dimmed and both Foxx and Gordon appeared in logo-less black polo necks, my questions about how the great man would win us over were instantly answered.

He used his music. What else?

As the first thumping techno beats of unfamiliarity gradually morphed into the iconic Burning Car, I began to realise I was witnessing something very special. This was John Foxx 2.0; remixed, re-engineered and reimagined for the coming millennium. Unchanged and yet enhanced, balancing both the security of the familiar and the shock of the new by creating a perfect equilibrium between those opposing poles.

With a dizzying array of cutting-edge equipment somehow spliced together with older, more outdated devices, firm favourites were remixed and repackaged; new and improved, yet always faithful to the established and trusted brand.

The King is dead, long live the King!

It’s striking that among all the technological wizardry, one of the things that impressed me most is just how well both Foxx and Gordon could sing and harmonise live on the hoof, especially during those oddly melancholy and off-key moments which are his hallmark.

Foxx and Gordon were nothing short of triumphant conquerors that night, reminding an increasingly pushbutton industry that there’s more to electronic music than simply assembling files. Although the output may be digitised for the information age, Foxx’s great strength has always been that his synthesised concoctions spring from the heart and soul of a true artist.

Long may he reign.

My Top 10 Live Bands – 7

Clan of Xymox

Sometimes life grants us a rare second chance; a chance to turn left instead of right, to say yes instead of no, or maybe to see a live band that we once thought had passed us by.

It was April 2008 when I stumbled across just such a rare chance to watch Clan of Xymox at the Whitby Goth Weekend. I’d never been able to catch them in my teens, twenties or even into my thirties, so I must confess I was a little nervous when the opportunity finally came around. If middle-age teaches us little else, we learn that some things belong strictly to our own history, and the tombs of the past are perhaps sealed for good reason.

Ronny Moorings, April 2008

Thus I remember feeling both excitement and trepidation in equal measure as the Clan finally took to the stage some three decades late. It was kind of an odd feeling to see Ronny Moorings face to face at long last, with Old Father Time having made the same alterations to his features as he had to mine; although with a lot less hair dye in my case.

In any event, the Clan’s performance was proof positive that experience always outlasts exuberance. It was a great gig! The sound was good, the atmosphere was terrific and the playlist was just a bursting box of musical chocolates, packed with old favourites and new flavours to tempt the palate. Naturally the most gratifying part for me was hearing such timeless Goth anthems as Back Door and Cry in the Wind performed live at such an iconic event.

My only regrets were the smoking ban and the present-day perjury of plastic glasses, which left the whole thing feeling perhaps a little too clean and sharp around the edges for my tastes. Nevertheless, the sheer unadulterated joy of such a hugely respected subculture band playing live made me glad I’d decided to break out my black eighties duster. The heavy cotton across my shoulders and the intimately familiar soundtrack filling the air soon dissolved those lost decades into the autumn darkness, leaving me at one with the music, the culture and all it once stood for. It was 1986 again, if only for a short while.

All that’s left is for me to say in closing is a big thank you to Ronny and the gang for unlocking the back door and turning a very personal page in my own social and musical journey. What was a routine gig for you guys was something of a milestone for me, and that’s an experience nobody can ever put a price on.

Images courtesy of Paul M Baxter at Baxter Photography

My Top 10 Live Bands – 8

The Cult

It was a cold November night in 1989 when I finally cornered the Cult. All in all it was a strange kind of courtship, filled with false starts and missed gigs, but we finally managed to meet up in (the now refurbished) Wembley Arena.

Naturally I was excited to catch up with the band who’d released the best rock album of the previous year. However, this gig was so much more than that, and it was as though I and the rest of the audience could feel the chill winds of change on that cold weekend. The shadows had lengthened in the empire of the eighties, and the destructive digital compressions of grunge and nu-metal were already buzzing through long-range receivers.

IanAstbury
Ian Astbury, November 1989

But on that night, those things had not yet come to pass, although I think that many of us felt some sense of a last chance of sorts as we gathered to celebrate great music before the landscape heaved and shifted forever.

I hardly need mention that the guys delivered in spades that night, so much so that I went back and bought a ticket from a tout for Sunday night’s performance. Yeah, I’m not proud of it, but that’s the truth. The real problem with doing that is the way that time and alcohol have kind of fused both performances together, melting them into a single, deliriously brilliant musical memory.

The standout moment on both nights was the epic kettledrum intro to Sun King, some percussion bothering I’ve never seen bettered. Hell, none of us even minded when they played Sweet Soul Sister twice for a live recording. I think maybe that ended up on a B-side or something; and if you ever listen to that version, then my voice is one of the thousands.

Here’s the really weird part though. Despite the fact that both nights were spectacularly good, one of my most abiding memories of those head-pounding and heart wrenching performances was the certainty of missing the last connection and being stranded on the London Tube’s semi-detached badlands. That’s how Nine While Nine by the Sisters of Mercy has woven itself into the mix of two hugely memorable Cult gigs.

Anyone who’s been there will know.

Ian Astbury image courtesy of Jon at cultcentral.com

My Top 10 Live Bands – 9

New Model Army

Arguably the greatest of the crusty, dog-on-a-string bands, New Model Army have been rocking their own strain of anarchic nihilism for over three decades now. Often imitated but never bettered.

By some strange quirk of fate, my first encounter with this exceptionally loud, talented and good-looking threesome was Reading Festival in 1989, the day before the Mission’s epic and legendary performance.

NMA were riding high on the back of Thunder & Consolation, their best and most successful studio album when I rocked up a little late to the party. Standing there in that sweaty field, I was struck by the realisation that there were probably just as many people eager to hear New Model Army play as there were waiting for the Pogues to throw down, and the boys from Bradford could easily have headlined that year. No problem. They kicked arse.

New Model Army built a shelter for the refugees of generation punk, as well as their growing brood of hand knitted, skip-diving devotees long, long before grungy activism had atrophied into the squalid, bourgeois gap-year jollies we see today. Just like the Matrix’s Neo, we could all sense there was something wrong with the world, and New Model Army managed to wrap all those ill-defined anxieties around themselves. I still think that Drag it Down and A Liberal Education are two of the finest political songs ever written.

I caught up with NMA again at Brixton in 1991, where I was so very fortunate to catch Ed Alleyne-Johnson in the supporting slot, getting ready for the release of his Purple Electric Violin Concerto. I’ve never witnessed an audience literally dumbstruck by artistic beauty before or since, and I consider myself privileged to have been a part of something so very special. A truly magical experience.

Like so much in life, things are right and true only for a short time. The world never stands still, and although I could easily catch New Model Army again at some nearby venue, I know I can’t go back. It’s hard to justify singing the same tunes about the same things when there are so many new battles to fight. Besides, I don’t know how the worlds of NMA and Health & Safety can ever be properly reconciled.

Still, the bruises have long healed and I’ve got some great memories. Thank you, guys!

My Top 10 Live Bands – 10

The Mission

When viewed from the comfortable vantage point of middle age, I can now say with confidence that the past is indeed another country. Looking back, 1986 was a very different and many would say a better, more hopeful and freer world than the paranoid, obsessively introspective and neurotic landscape we tiptoe through today. There was no internet to spy on us, everyone’s overcoats were way cooler and we were still allowed to smoke indoors. Those simple freedoms we took for granted are viewed with a kind of incredulous horror by the risk assessed youth of today, and I often reflect on just how lucky I was to have come of age before the end of live music’s golden era. At that time there was still plenty big gig game to be hunted by a kid with a sense of adventure and a school leaver’s salary.

I recall a stifling perfume of Spiritual Sky patchouli, poppers, cider fumes and dry ice filling the air when first I saw Wayne and the guys take to the stage at Friars*, Aylesbury. 1986 was probably the year of peak gothic rock in the UK, and I found myself right in the middle of it one dark November night. Wayne looked like an off-duty glam rock star kidnapped from some alternate universe where Marc Bolan had lived on as he stood to deliver The Mission’s good word.

It was real, it was raw, it was most definitely live…and I was hooked. One of my most enduring memories of the night was of that trademark jingle jangle riding a thumping rock baseline with all the polished finesse of a professional surfer.

From that high point where I first found them, The Mission continued to grow until our next meeting in 1989. That year I was fortunate enough to witness their legendary headline performance at Reading Festival. The one with the windmills. Everyone always talks about the windmills.

Nearly three decades later and the band (or brand) is still going strong, although I for one won’t be going to see them anytime soon. Nothing stays the same, and like a beloved but fading friend, I want to remember them as a dying echo of all those lost venues and frozen stations from my Thunderbird-blurred and nicotine-stained yesterdays. Some things can never be re-created, and the centrally heated, LED illuminated, Uber app immediacy of our modern world has stripped the live gig of perhaps its most valuable and enduring aspects. The rituals, camaraderie, and yes dammit, downright recklessness of that smoke-smudged world are fondly remembered with good cause. I don’t envy the kids today.

Alas, there are no really good quality recordings of those near-forgotten glory gigs, but there is a last remnant from that Friars gig still haunting cyberspace, along with a glimpse of those famous windmills, or spider webs, or whatever the hell they really were. Nobody who was there at the time really cared. All they remember is just how awesome the whole damn thing was.

* In fact this was not actually a Friars gig, but big gigs in Aylesbury around that time are still referred to as “Friars” gigs, in the same way that vacuum cleaners are often called Hoovers regardless of their true manufacturer.