Music

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.

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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?

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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