Previously on Sweating With Strangers, teenage Hodge doesn’t have a favourite coat, but does take a liking to a crowd of sweaty strangers.
I could try to explain it to you. I could compare it to Nevermind for Seattle grunge fans, or The Clash for punks in 1977. But it would be fruitless. I could never make you understand just how important Performance and Cocktails was if you were a lower middle class white kid in Evesham in 1999.
I’d fallen in love with the Stereophonics at first listen. ‘Local Boy in the Photograph’ was on some Best Anthems Ever Volume 34 compilation CD, and instantly had me hooked. Their debut album Word Gets Around quickly became my favourite album of all time ever in the history of music, and when ‘Bartender and the Thief’ and its Apocalypse Now themed video was released as the first single off the follow-up, the anticipation for the second album among me and my friends was palpable.
Everyone in my sixth form had the album the very day it came out. There were queues in Woolworth’s beyond the pick n mix, and the next day we were already arguing about which was the best track – which was ridiculous, because it was then and is now ‘T-Shirt Suntan’. So, when I read (on Channel 4 Teletext, again!) that the band were planning a huge summer concert in Wales, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I had to be there.
I always think there’s something very ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about big stadium shows. Bands that seemingly have no reason to play shows that size will announce one and suddenly it feels like it’s the gig that everyone has to be at. The mere act of booking it, putting it on sale and charging £120 makes people go “Oh, I guess they’re a stadium band now! Where do I pay!?”
That’s certainly how it was for me in 1999, and I was not short of offers for people to join me on the trip, including for the first time, my good friend Adam Haynes. Haynesy will come up again in later posts, as he’s one of my best friends and 4th on the list of people I’ve been to the most gigs with. He’d be higher on the list, but he’s also number 1 on the list of people who have bailed on gigs they were supposed to attend with me. But more on that much later.
Frankly, with no car, or money for hotels or buses, the gig might as well have been on Mars. The logistics of getting a bunch of 17 year olds to south Wales and back were mind-boggling, and to be honest, a little boring, so we decided to take the approach that would serve me well on many occasions in the years to come: “Book the tickets now, worry about all that later.”
Luckily, Jason was to be our saviour. He confidently declared that as he had his driving test the week before the gig, he would definitely be fine to drive us all down. This was perfect! A group of mates on an awesome road trip, with an incredible gig at the end of it. What could be better, and what could possible go wrong?
Well, Jason obviously failed his test didn’t he? It turns out piling the hopes and dreams of a car-load of friends on your shoulders doesn’t help with the pressure of a driving test. Who knew?!
With mere days to find alternative arrangements, the group disbanded and everyone went their separate, desperate ways. The great lads’ road trip was dead, but somehow Haynes and I convinced his parents to drive us there and back at short notice. They went off for a lovely day out in south Wales, while we joined 49,998 others at Morfa “Stadium”, which was then an athletics track with one big stand on the home straight, and is now The Liberty Stadium, home of Swansea City.
It’s pretty incredible to think how ill-suited we were to a giant outdoor rock show. I had a backpack on, for reasons I can’t remember, as surely we weren’t allowed to take food or drink in. Perhaps, as it was the middle of the summer, I figured I would need somewhere to put my jumper, which would surely be needed for later when it got cold. I definitely needed somewhere to put the programme I insisted on buying, and the t-shirt I had been wearing when I bought one from the merch stand.
These days I wouldn’t go near the annoying-to-carry programme or anything from the merch stand. I’d just turn up in shorts and t-shirt and put a nice warm cider coat on to fend off the chill. But I had been burned badly by booze on New Years Eve 1998, and was in the midst of a year-long abstinence, so that was not an option.
We’d been dropped off before the gates opened, so were able to find ourselves a nice spot about 20 metres from the stage to sit and read the programme. There were 4 bands on but we still had a good few hours to wait before it started, so there was plenty of chill time left when, all of a sudden, at about 4pm, without any warning, everyone started standing up and heading forwards. It was like a wave. One group near the stage must have stood, prompting another load behind them, and two more behind them. Within 20 seconds we went from being sat 20 metres from the stage enjoying the sunshine and space, to being stood 10 metres from the stage, and crammed in on all sides by shirtless Welshmen. We also had no chance of meeting up with anyone else we knew, and no discernible way to reach either toilets or refreshments in the 2 hours before the first band came on.
I was starting to long for my comfy seat on the side of the NEC, and this desire only increased during the first support act (an AC/DC tribute band called AB/CD), when a group of guys near us started discussing that they needed to pee, and considering whether it was ok to just go in the beer cup they had just emptied. So we moved away from them in case we caught a glimpse of some action we didn’t need to see, only to turn directly into a separate group of revellers, and the clear, unavoidable sight of a grown man pissing into a beer cup.
Either through sheer luck or iron will(y), he filled it to within a millimetre of the top. The question now was what was he going to do with it, and the answer was: he was going to place it on the athletics track floor, where it obviously got knocked over 3 seconds later. Everyone fanned out in a circle away from the expanding yellow piss puddle, causing the crush to intensify. At that exact moment the original group of potential cup-pissers on our other side decided to THROW their cup, which had now been similarly filled.
Crammed in on all sides and permanently disturbed, I then witnessed unknowing fans delighting as the liquid hit their sweltering heads and shoulders, believing it must be helpful water thrown to aid them in cooling down. How disappointed and disgusted they must have been moments later, when the warm truth washed over them.
Needless to say, we weren’t having much fun, and all this had occurred before we even got to ‘Back in Black’. But we muddled on, buoyed by the knowledge that at least if we stuck this out, we would be in prime position to enjoy the Stereophonics from my first ever “pit”.
The next support act were Gay Dad, who I thought were ace at the time. Their track ‘Joy’ was awesome, and I was looking forward to hearing it live, but they weren’t really suited to the crowd, and the rest of their stuff was so forgettable that no amount of ‘Joy’ could save them. But at least the set passed without major incident.
The same could not be said for that of the final support band, Reef. Soon after they started, there was a violent surge through the crowd, most of whom were just standing and watching, ill-prepared to fend off such a wave. In front of us, a father protected his young daughter against the ebb and flow as the crowd surged backwards and forwards for the next minute or so.
Haynes was primed, ready to attack anyone that looked like falling in his direction, but my poor, lanky, utterly sober 17 year old self was not remotely ready for this, and as the crowd surged back and forward I leaned all my meagre weight against it to avoid toppling over. But alas, as I fended off one attack, another one snuck up and struck me from behind.
The fear coursed through my veins as I realised we were doomed. I grasped at Haynes, but he was falling on to me, so that didn’t help. I pleaded with him to save us, and if he couldn’t save us, then to tell my mother that I loved her. For it was indeed too late, and like the climax of a human domino rally, a huge portion of the crowd collapsed on top of itself.
I was trapped under Haynes, and unfortunately, on top of the young girl whose father had been powerless to protect her. Now, I know the rule in these situations is, “if someone falls down, pick them up”, but if you’re lying on top of the person who has fallen down, and someone else has fallen down on top of you, it’s tricky to stick to. I tried to push Haynes up, but that was no good, there was someone on top of him, and I wasn’t strong enough. I tried to push against the floor, but it was covered with bodies… and probably piss. There was, I promise you, only one option. I had to get myself and Haynes up by pushing against the young girl’s head with my hands. I know. I’m forever shamed.
However, it did work, and once back on my feet, I was able to help her up too. So I take some comfort in that. There were no injuries to speak of, just three scared little girls, one of whom no longer had any desire to experience his first standing crowd hoard.
We spent the rest of Reef’s set and much of the break barging through the crowd to get further back and out to the side. We didn’t make it very far and eventually resigned ourselves to having to watch the band we’d travelled so far to see, from near to the excellent viewing point we’d waited in all day.
Finally, it was time for the Stereophonics to arrive. I was sure they would start with ‘Roll up and Shine’ or ‘Bartender and the Thief’ and the surge would return. But, perhaps aware of the possibility, or maybe just trying to build an epic opening, they actually started with the slow burning ‘Hurry Up and Wait’, which was a relief, and a more interesting choice. Of course they then launched straight into ‘Bartender..’ and 50,000 people lost their minds. But it was finally the fun kind of craziness, vaguely related to the music being played, and I was able to enjoy the rest of the set, while keeping a constant eye out for human waves heading our way.
I cannot tell a lie: the gig was absolutely superb. Something about the Stereophonics’ music had convinced me from day one that they would be a great live act, and so it proved that day from start to finish.
‘T-shirt Suntan’ was up early on, much to our delight, and Kelly Jones seemed to have the whole crowd in the palm of his hand throughout the show. Two albums in as they were, they were able to put a decent length show together, and not miss anything out. The rocking tracks rocked, the ballads were colossal sing-a-longs, and we were treated to a highly apt cover of “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks.
There was a real sense of this being a celebration to honour the band’s success, and when Jones declared ‘we should have a party like this every year’, 50,000 were in total agreement.
Haynes and I did chuckle awkwardly as the band led everyone through ‘Land of our Fathers’ and ‘As Long As We Beat The English’. Believe it or not there was actually some controversy about this in the NME at the time, but it just seemed like good-natured fun to us. See, people overreacting to every little thing isn’t new!
Eventually, ‘Local Boy in the Photograph’ brought the main set to a close, and as the band headed off, so did Haynes, blissfully unaware of the concept of an encore. I guess when you’re not raised on live albums and videos, these things aren’t obvious. How pleasantly surprised he was to hear the four more tracks we got, before album closer ‘I Stopped to Fill My Car Up’ brought the show to an epic conclusion and we filed out as fireworks blasted overhead.
Although I can’t for the life of me remember how, we managed to find Haynes’ parents and make it home. In the end, I had absolutely loved the show, but I was definitely not up for more mosh pits just yet. Somehow I had gone to see the Stereophonics and witnessed piss throwing, been subjected to nationalist singing, and I had been left feeling fortunate to have gotten out alive.
That’s a bizarre thing to write in 2018.
- It’s pretty much perfect to be honest. If I’m being super picky, I would say ‘Plastic California’ should’ve been in there, as it’s a favourite of mine, but I’m sure I didn’t even notice on the day.
- ‘I Stopped To Fill My Car Up’ did work as an ending, but just picking the last song on your album is kind of lazy. Of course, this was pre-‘Dakota’, which I’m pretty sure has ended every Stereophonics show since 2005.
- Although the more upbeat tracks were definite highlights, it was the big sing-a-long numbers that stuck in my mind afterwards. I’d never heard anything like 50,000 people singing the final verse to ‘Traffic’, or counting in ‘I Wouldn’t Believe My Radio’ for the band. It was genuinely euphoric in places, and although I’m not a giant fan of stadium gigs or festivals, that kind of experience is something no arena show can quite replicate (see also: Foo Fighters, 2011).
All things considered – including fearing piss and death – this definitely takes the crown as Best Gig so far. What will topple it? You’ll have to keep checking back to find out.
Until next time, Hwyl fawr!