The Astoria is gone now, but my memory of my first visit there lingers on and thankfully there is the video to mark the event.
Those are my arms; God, the director must have hated me. The mosh is alive, it’s moving so much and is so tightly packed that I literally couldn’t get my arms back down… and I had a compulsion to stretch out and reach for the sky or the stage and feel every note, and watching it now, in those early songs I still do. Ed is trying a little too hard, what with the flowing white shirt and jumping on the riser before the first song is even over. Phil’s got his little hat and Colin has a ponytail for goodness sake. But Thom, who starts nervous, comes alive as the set unfolds. Jonny is all hair and lips; they both look so brittle and skinny. The whole gig is as tight as Jonny’s arm brace. So much tension. There were a couple of moments where I thought I might die that day, and I wouldn’t have minded.
I was bruised from the two gigs in two days they’d already done and I was running on very little food or sleep. But we’d had a lift with Thom in the band’s old van to get there and I’d been in a dream-like state all day… He wouldn’t talk for most of it, resting his voice, nervous as hell because MTV were filming the gig, the first time they’d done a whole show for cameras. We’d got into the compilation tape in the van, my first real introduction to Nick Drake, Syd Barrett and a load of newer stuff that I already recognised. A tape I’ve tried to recreate from memory several times since.
As we pulled into central London, Thom put his sunglasses on and went back into himself, psyching himself up. Val and I withdrew to Tottenham Court Road where she forced me to eat something despite the fact that I had no need for such inconsequential things as food. We hid out in the pub for a couple of hours until the gig began. She went upstairs to the seated area, while I tried for one more night at the front, but I got stuck behind some real London gig types, about three rows back and for all my efforts never managed to make it to the magic spot on the bar. (I’m kind of glad of this now, because it’s mortifying enough to have my arms on the video, if you were actually able to see my face, I’d never be able to watch it again).
The bruises on my arms from being at the front the night before in Wolverhampton hadn’t started to hurt properly until I got crushed again in the Astoria’s moshpit.
The band were soon playing like their lives depended upon it. People think I’m on drugs at gigs, but I never have been, it’s just I dance like no one is looking at me and I feel it, all of it, with all my extremities. Watching this gig again, you have to remember that The Bends wasn’t even recorded yet and most of the people in the room had never heard the new songs before, it was only the third night that some of them had ever been played to a British audience. By the time they get to Black Star, the first of the new ones, my arms are stuck in the air, I can see my silver bracelets on one wrist and big Swatch on the other, and I’m wedged in. And then Creep kicks in.
I knew I wasn’t going to survive another moshpit, but I couldn’t move, I had to fight to stay standing up, I’m still there in the slow bit like a drowning woman. But I love this. (I’ve got the shivers down my spine watching it again.) The light is on the crowd and I can see my bracelets as I reach for the stage. I somehow stay on my feet as the song builds through the high note but by the time it hits the climax I’ve fallen back. That’s when I had to move, all I can really remember is feeling like I was being asphyxiated, my ribs being squeezed, unprotected because I couldn’t get my arms down.
Thom reaches “I wish I was special” and someone shouts, “You are!” I don’t think it was me but I’ll never be sure. There is applause and Thom says, “This one is about knowing who your friends are.” And they play The Bends, it crashes in, Ed is still in full Pete Townsend mode, grandstanding it, Jonny doesn’t need to, the song consumes Thom. If you could sing through gritted teeth, this is what it would sound like. I think at this stage I was still in the middle, but a little further back, the low incipient moan of guitar begins the next song, and I know what it is, even if no one else does, I know if I stay here I won’t stay conscious. So I crawl, literally crawl, out to the side. The Astoria has a very wide stage, with a pretty good view across the floor, I have to go quite a way out before the crush loosens enough for me to be able to breathe again.
My Iron Lung. Jonny plays the intro and Thom pulls a face, lips pursed in a “Oh yeah come and get some” pout and he gives an approving nod. The rhythm kicks in and his voice just holds. He’s smiling for the first time, a sly grin; it’s all working now. Is that still my hand in the air? I thought I’d got out by now. The memory plays tricks. The crowd can’t all know this song yet, but it provokes a crazed moshpit. The guitar line comes out perfect, so tense, so wired that it ends up on the album version. Every time I hear it I feel this urge to rent my garments and stretch and scream. They drop into Prove Yourself and I know now that they’re in their element, Ed’s calmed down a little bit and Jonny’s got his head down, all hair. Thom hits the long note; Phil and Coz are just concentrating.
Maquiladora is the ghost of the nasty rock album that might have got made but in that moment it sounded great, all warring guitar lines and endless John McGeogh chord progressions. Three guitars full on. Thom’s sweating now and Jonny’s shirt is too small. The quite-bit-loud-bit of Vegetable, Thom without a guitar bathed in yellow and then blue light. Jonny’s hair like it’s been cut to look at it’s best when draped over his face as he bends into his guitar.
There is silence as Thom starts Fake Plastic Trees. He’s playing an acoustic for the only time of the night and it descends into a rather scratchy ending from Jonny. They’re almost too self-conscious to be playing a slow one and follow it with the wake up call of Just. I’m still hanging on for dear life but I love this one, it’s mine. People around me are bewildered that I already know the words and by how much I’m grinning. Ed’s jumping about on the drum riser again.
Thom introduces “The single that never was a single” and gives a sly grin – I like to think it was for Val up in the balcony, a little credit for stealing her phrase. And they hit Stop Whispering. Thom’s red sleeves against the blue light of the rest of the stage. By now Ed’s shirt is undone as they go quiet for the “it doesn’t matter anyway” section of the song… it builds to a rather muted, yet still angry “fuck you” less petulant than it usually sounds, meaner. Then a storm of strobe lights finish the song. They don’t pause for breath, going straight into Anyone Can Play Guitar, both Thom and Jonny are bent double over their instruments. The pit is a raging sea again. Ed and Jonny change ends, like Jonny has only just looked up and realised how it’s going, flicking his hair from his face. There are an ocean of hands stuck in the air now. Thom fighting his guitar like he’s defending himself from it. Jonny flicking his switches then in a hail of noise they leave the stage.
When they come back, Ed has a fag on and a towel round his neck, Thom looks like he’s about to start giggling and plays the madrigal intro to Street Spirit alone. Colin has finally taken his crumpled jacket off and is wearing a glittery T-shirt underneath. Thom catches a laugh and sticks his tongue in his cheek like he’s made a mistake but I can’t hear a bum note. There are people up on shoulders now, swaying to a tune they’ve never heard before. Street Spirit isn’t quite yet the thing it will become, but Diane, the singer from The Julie Dolphin is at the back of the stage adding keyboard sweeps to the chorus. The rhythm is constant, Philip still concentrating and Ed is finally holding his red guitar still. Thom’s hair is matted with sweat as the song rings to a close.
Pop is Dead is “Dedicated to the members of the Press as it always has been”, and a few lyrics are changed, “One final cap of speed to jack him off… bunch of fuckin’ losers.” but it doesn’t matter now, because WE are winning.
It’s a flash in the pan sort of song and only a warm up for the real finale anyway. Blow Out begins and Thom whispers something in Jonny’s ear and makes a kiss-off face. Ed is back to showing off, Thom redirects what angry energy he has left and Jonny keeps his tricks up his sleeve until the very end throwing out chords all over the place. Thom grits his teeth, Ed pogos and Jonny thrashes through another strobe storm. I’ve transcended the pain and the tiredness, my memories of the actual event are vague, mashed up with the video, but I was as lost in this song as they were; heads thrown back, eyes closed. Thom’s guitar reaches the floor and he kicks it down, “Thankyouseeya” and he jerks the mic away, leaves the stage in a hail of feedback and it’s over.