If you’re a regular concert-goer these days, the chances are you attend mainly large venues – arenas and football stadiums. For lesser artists – usually those who had their heyday twenty to forty years ago – you might catch them at concert halls. A place you almost certainly won’t find a decent band is a university Students’ Union Bar. And yet, back in the early ’80s, Loughborough University’s SU hosted some of the more successful acts of the day. True, some had slipped a little past their prime, but most could still pull a crowd in now.
I was born five miles from Loughborough, so it was the nearest town for me. By 1980 I was working in the town, and by the spring of 1982, I was living there. It was handy for work, and it meant I could get a train without having to catch a bus first. By this time, I was a regular concert-goer and most required you to travel. Or so I thought.
I don’t know when I first realised gigs were held at the SU, but I suspect it was probably after I moved to Loughborough, because I can only remember leaving home and walking there, not catching a bus first.
The chances are the SU’s changed a bit since the early ’80s. At the time, I’d guess the capacity was probably in the mid-high hundreds – it wasn’t as big as a decent sized sports hall. Hard to imagine a venue that small hosting the likes of Elvis Costello, The Damned, Tom Robinson, Squeeze or Slade, isn’t it?
There was no seating, just an open space to mill about in and, at the back of the hall, the bar itself. Which meant, if you were so inclined, you could lean up against it drinking while the band were on. I remember standing there at a Dr Feelgood gig waiting for the band to come on, only to realise they were standing next to me! There was that kind of informality about the place.
That informality mustn’t have been explained to Lenny Henry. It was unusual to get a comedy gig, but I was curious to see what the star of New Faces and Tiswas was like live. Turns out, he hadn’t expected a standing only venue and refused to come out unless we all sat down. At first, I thought there was going to be a revolt, but eventually everyone conceded, though having several hundred adults sitting down as if they were at a primary school assembly wasn’t the best of starts.
Drink often flows at a gig, but especially so when the bar is easy to get to and you know you don’t have far to travel home. When Bad Manners appeared, you can pretty much imagine how the Can-Can went. The atmosphere was more like a youth club disco when you’ve smuggled some beers in. I can’t remember whether I was one of the many who ended up on the floor, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Ian Dury’s appearance made me sit up and take notice. I knew he had a disability, but hadn’t appreciated how severe it was until he was literally carried on to the stage and propped up in front his mic. Once there, he was barely able to move, leaning on his stick for support throughout the gig. In spite of his immobility, he had a fantastic presence and was a great performer.
I’d seen Paul Young with the Q-Tips but, by 1983, he’d begun to establish himself by laying his hat where his home was and pleading for us to not only come back, but stay. The No Parlez album allowed him to finally make his mark, and he seemed to revel in it. As the lights went down, a strangely familiar fast percussion beat came over the speakers. It wasn’t until the pause and then the brass section came in that I recognised it for what it was. And that was the point at which Mr Young made his entrance to The Avengers theme tune. (Here’s a clip you can listen to if you want to try and imagine how it sounded.) In one sense, the use of the theme seemed out of place. This was the 1980s, and that series was from, and of, a different age. Yet, somehow, it worked. It must have done if I can still remember it 35 years later.
These days, of course, artists of a much lesser calibre expect an arena tour. Sadly, it’s become all about the money. A long, grinding tour of smaller venues might be hard work but, from the audience’s point of view, it offers a much more intense experience. No sitting down (unless it’s Lenny Henry), free movement around the venue, and often a chance – if you pushed to the front – to touch the stage and, sometimes, even the artist you’ve gone to see.
I remember going to watch Stevie Wonder at the NEC. We had seats right at the back and I remarked that he had a better chance of seeing us. Good taste has never been my strong suit, but it didn’t feel too far from the truth. The connection isn’t the same. Compared to pogoing in a jostling crowd only feet away from where the music’s being played, the experience is quite clinical. To be fair, at my age, I’d probably prefer to sit down for most of a gig, but kids in their teens and twenties are missing out on the thrills that were available to me at that age. And, frankly, so are the performers.