This was the first opportunity to see the band in what for me was to be something of a pivotal gig. Three of us made the journey up from my hometown of Burgess Hill (incidentally scene of a very damp, low key date on the 2000 ‘Alone and Acoustic’ tour, a gig I am sure JJ would rather forget, if he has not done so already!). My travelling companions on the day were Adam McCready (an old school friend and a Damned fanatic to boot) and Steve Tyas (with whom I was reunited through the back pages of Strangled after meeting at the Reading Festival appearance the previous August).
Taking the tube from Victoria into the centre of town, a search for a cash point took us round the back of the Centre Point building at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road. It was here that our paths crossed with another group of people who, judging by their attire, were in the area for the very same reasons as us. Amongst this group was Owen Carne, with whom I became friends then and to this day.
As fans started to congregate, we took ourselves off to ‘The Tottenham’, a pub whose facia boasted that it was in fact ‘The Only Pub In Oxford Street’. Of ‘The Tottenham’ even though logic says this must be the case, I would say that it is also the worst pub in Oxford Street and yet in the years to come, it became a regular gathering point for Stranglers related events (I suspect that the pub’s proximity to the Dominion Theatre where the band played five consecutive dates on the Aural Sculpture tour is the likely reason it was used).
This was going to be a late one as the doors to The Astoria were not due to open until 11pm. And so it was that we had the chance to make the most of the available licencing hours. This of course meant that the majority of the audience that night were perhaps less ‘clear thinking’ than perhaps they would be for a normal gig. Either way it seemingly gave the venue security (let’s call them ‘Bouncers’ here) all the excuses they needed in order to apply their heavy discipline with impunity. The violence at the hands of the bouncers is my enduring memory of this gig, both before and during the Helmet’s set. A succession of punters were manhandled down the steps to the right of the stage to be delivered into the hands of more bouncers who delivered further blows before ejecting the bruised ‘miscreants’ through a rear door and onto the street. A similar fate almost befell Steve Tyas. In the gents toilet (also down those same stairs) Steve has emptied a soap dispenser to respike his hair (those were the days!) and on leaving the loo, a wobble must have caught one of the bouncers eyes. Apparently reading this to be a sign of imminent trouble, a wide-eyed, soapy Steve was picked up (we were all young and skinny then) and hurled through the back door. I am not brave so I can only assume that it was dutch courage, I started to argue with the bouncer to get Steve back into the venue… and somehow it worked.
Nerves were a bit frayed by the time the band eventually came on at about one in the morning. However, tiredness and the early onset of a hangover were swept away with the opening bars of Sam The Sham’s ‘Wooly Bully’. ‘We are The Purple Helmets… coming from our hearts into your heads’ announced Alex Gifford. The set was great, it being, with one exception, a track by track run through of the recently released ‘Ride Again’ album, with an additional ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ thrown in for good measure.
It is worth pointing out here that whilst I was familiar with some of the songs, many of them were completely new to me (after all I was just 19 and most of the bands of the sixties were as obscure to me as the Stranglers should have been to my own teenage son, were it not for an intensive programme of indoctrination followed from an early age!). The Who and The Kinks? Yes, yes. But The Nashville Teens and Them?
After about an hour the evening’s (or rather morning’s) entertainment came to an end and with no possibility of getting back to Sussex we headed around to the stage door in the hope of having a word or two. Sometime later, JJ and Dave emerged and duly signed autographs for the gaggle of ardent or stranded fans (both in my case) still loitering by the exit. This was the first time that I had met any of The Stranglers and at the time it was an immense thing. I recall at the time I was struggling with the bass line to a song, ‘Strange Little Girl’ it was (how so you say, but I was never any good!). JJ gave it some thought, then fingered out the notes on his forearm. This was really something for me, a personalised, albeit brief, bass lesson from Jean Jacques Burnel no less!
JJ at the Astoria stage door.
Sadly, the music press of the following week were less complementary about the lads efforts!
Well, you can't win 'em all!