Previously on Sweating With Strangers, we learn that mums are last on the rock list, and young Hodge makes it until the lights come back on for the first time.
I know what you’re thinking: is this guy really going to go and see Status Quo in Torbay 166 times and write about each one? You’re right to be worried, but no, I will at least switch up the venues, starting…. now!
In the winter of 2004 my family upped sticks and left the south west, moving to the – ahem – delightful market town of Evesham in Worcestershire. Living in Evesham is a lot like living in Torbay actually, it’s just missing the scenery, beach, charm and warm welcome. As a visiting friend would point out years later, if the best pub in town is the Wetherspoons, you know you’re in trouble. Of course that didn’t have much bearing on 12 year old me, but I certainly wasn’t happy about leaving my friends, football team and the beach I never went to behind.
Being a 12 year old boy, I didn’t always express my disappointment in the most constructive manner, and this made things tougher than they needed to be for my parents. Shamefully, the net result of this was that they over-compensated in the best possible ways, and it was made clear to me that there would be many more opportunities to do exciting things like go to concerts – and maybe even Premier League football games – if my dad had a better job, and we were no longer lived in Britain’s left heel. Yes, the one thing Evesham would always have over Torbay, was that although it was a painfully dull place itself, it was much better located for travelling to more exciting places for fun adventures. Now, I would never advocate being a petulant little sh*t and acting out to get your own way, but within a year of us making the move and me behaving terribly, I was taken to my first ever Liverpool match (a 3-0 home win against Aston Villa), and we went to see Status Quo again for the first time in 4 years.
*4 years! It’s the longest run without a gig I’ve ever had to endure, and therefore the flattest the line gets on this super-cool graph:
Even though Quo toured every December in between (and since), they didn’t venture back to Torbay. Clearly they realised they had peaked 1991, or possibly they just preferred Plymouth for the better arena and bigger crowd. The result was the worst live music drought of my life, and so I believe I may have been even more excited for this gig than the two earlier ones, if that is at all possible.
There was so much to get excited for about this show. The end of such a long wait, of course; the fact that I was that much older and could appreciate the experience in a whole new way; and, most importantly, the thrill of going to a PROPER arena to watch the show.
By now I had so many more Quo tapes than I had as a 9 year old (yes, I was still on cassettes in 1995. I like to give new media the chance to really bed in before I render my previous collection unusable). One such tape was Quo’s ‘Live at the NEC’ album from 1982. The thought of going to the very place at which that epic sounding show was recorded, was almost too much for my young mind, and I recall being blown away by my first arena show experience.
It’s hard to imagine just how different this must have seemed to someone who had only been to see the band – any band for that matter – in his local leisure centre, a 20 minute walk away from home. The fact that we had to drive for an hour to get there made it seem like a bigger deal – and en route we started a tradition that would continue for many years: that of my dad being completely unable to drive to the NEC without going seriously wrong at least once and jeopardising our arrival. In hindsight, it’s perhaps easy to see why he’d not offered to take me to further afield concerts before now.
However, arrive we did, and my awe and wonder only grew larger with every step towards the show. The car park was collossal – just how many people could they possibly be expecting?! – and the sheer logistics of the place blew my mind. First we had to get a bus from the car park to the venue. When we got to the venue, we went into a kind of holding area next door (obviously these days, I know this is the place for loading up on £7 pints of cider, but back then I was lucky if I was allowed to share a £2 can of coke with my dad). When we went through to the actual arena… we were still OUTSIDE the actual, ACTUAL seating and stage area, with yet more food stalls and merch stands. Everything about this made it seem like a huge event, and I’m pretty sure I walked around with my mouth wide open, agog at the epic scale of such an occasion.
I still love arena gigs. I sometimes forget that, and will honestly tell people that you can’t beat a small club show, being 4 feet from the band and sweating like a pig, and maybe that’s true to some extent. But there is something magical about being at an arena show that hits me every time I go. I love that bit around the edge, behind the seats, being able to hear the deafening music blaring over the PA inside, and maybe occasional cheers from the crowd already in their places. It just builds the anticipation and makes the moment you walk in and view it for the first time extra special.
In December 1995, as I ascended the stairs and entered the arena, I had never quite seen anything like this. So many seats, so many people, all collected for one reason – to offer themselves at the altar of rock. At the third attempt, Dad had finally struck ticketing gold, and we had seating tickets on the side, around half way back. It was undoubtedly a great view, and I didn’t care one jot then – as I certainly would now – about the lesser atmosphere compared to those on the floor. For the first time I could see the whole show, I could jump around and dance and scream my head off, and I could sit down between sets, which is always nice, increasingly so with age. On that first auspicious occasion, it gave me a great vantage point from which to survey my surroundings, and just marvel at the heaving mass beneath me, or the absurdly large collection of speakers that had been assembled to blast out the noise. The show hadn’t even started, and I was utterly hooked.
We’d bought a programme, as we always did, and I read it cover to cover before the lights went down, learning that the support act would be a girl-fronted group called Dear Jon. They may have been chosen because their name is also that of a Quo hit single (and a cracking one at that), but they were also noted for having very nearly represented the UK in Eurovision that year, finishing second in the qualifying competition to Love City Groove, and their classic track, Love City Groove, trivia fans! Status Quo support act selection seems like a very random process. Spoiler alert: the next time I saw Quo they were supported by Paul Rodgers: he of Free, Bad Company and later Queen+Paul Rodgers fame. That’s quite a leap!
The programme also told us that Quo had recorded a new album (excellent news), that it was an album of covers (less excellent news), and it would be out in the February after the tour that bore it’s name (Don’t Stop – it has aged exactly like a covers album from the mid-nineties). This didn’t fill me with great joy, because I never want to hear more covers than absolutely necessary (for the exception to this rule, see Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, 2017), but I needn’t have worried, as the band proceeded to do perhaps the most Status Quo thing of all time, and play exactly zero songs from the album.
Yes, the tour had the same name as the album, the programme looked like the album and told you all about the album, and the album was coming out shortly after the tour, but they didn’t actually promote it in any meaningful way by letting us hear the tunes. Hey, in hindsight, perhaps my letter to the band was the only reason they played their new single in 1988 after all! Nonetheless, the album was a massive success (number 2 in the UK charts), and justified them stretching out the tour for a second year, just tweaking the title to the almost apologetic “Can’t Stop”!
The gig itself did not disappoint, though it would’ve been very hard for it to have let me down, as this was a simpler time when I went years between gigs and didn’t have a clue what song was coming next. They could have walked on stage in Everton kits and started with Take That covers, and I still would’ve given them the benefit of the doubt. It was also the first show at which I’d been able to see the action properly, and I remember looking at the stage as the band came on and thinking “wow, that’s Francis Rossi! I’m in the same room as Francis Rossi. That’s crazy! He looks so small!” Wistful nostalgia moment: I haven’t had that kind of feeling since 2001, and that makes me sad.
Once it was over, and my first proper arena show was in the books, we left the venue and headed back into the cold night with my ears ringing and my heart pounding. Arena gigs were now the best thing in the world as far as I were concerned, and I wanted more at the first opportunity. That was until it took us an hour to get back to the car and then another hour to leave the car park. F*ck you NEC, I’m never coming back!
- This must be the shortest proper Quo set I ever saw (‘Come Rock With Me’ and ‘Rockin’ On’ are really one song). I remember Dad saying on the night that it was only 80 minutes, and thinking that it was basically the length of one lesson at school! It’s bizarre to think that the band’s sets got much longer (and higher in quality) in the next decade, despite their hastily advancing age.
- 3 different openers in 3 Quo gigs? These were heady days for unpredictability fans!
- What could better define the pointlessness of modern encores than Status Quo playing ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ in theirs? I mean, I know we’re all fully aware that bands are coming back out for a few more songs, but at least allow us to suspend our disbelief for a few seconds. The original point of an encore was supposed to be that you had finished your whole show and left the stage, but the fans cheered so much you agreed to come on for another song. I know that’s not really how it works anymore, but if you haven’t even played your most famous track yet, it’s tricky to buy into the magic of the moment (see also, Stereophonics – ‘Dakota’).
- This was only time I’ve heard ‘Come Rock With Me’/’Rockin On’ live, one of the most random of the old album tracks they occasionally seemed to chuck in for one tour and then never revisit.
- This was also the first time I heard the magnificent ‘Backwater’ live, which would’ve pleased me greatly and been very appropriate, as I only knew it from the ‘Live at the NEC’ album. Below is a video of it from around this time. The mix isn’t great, but you do get a great close up of Jeff taking out his revenge on the drums that ate his parents.
- No ‘Burning Bridges’?! I should’ve sent them a letter!
That’s all for now.
What size venue do you prefer? Leave a comment to let me know, and follow the blog, so that you don’t miss the next thrilling installment, where we repeat this gig, but sit on the other side of the arena, because we’re crazy like that.