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 liveā€¦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.