Previously on Sweating with Strangers – the Bluetones’ guitarist may or may not be wasted, and I find a new favourite band.
After first experiencing the musical stylings of David Ford in my previous post, it’s on to another artist that would become a huge part of the later phases of my life. In fact, due to their tendencies to hold special annual shows in London a week before Christmas, David Ford and Ginger Wildheart have become intrinsically linked in my mind. So it seems fitting that my first live shows for each came so closely together.
Though I was well into the swing of university life by this time, my first year of uni was a little strange. My particular student halls were populated by a collection of people who, like me, had moved into university accommodation later than everyone else, so we’d missed the initial burst of bonding. This is usually necessitated by not knowing anyone when you’re all thrown randomly together and told to get drunk for the next year. We had been drip-fed together, and had all already made other friends. So many of my early uni memories involve people I haven’t seen or spoken to since, and therefore can feel like they happened to someone else when I look back at them.
Luckily, by the time summer approached, I had sorted some lifelong bonds with a couple of other stragglers who, like me, had been living with people they might not have chosen, given the choice.
Rob was in a flat in the town with a bunch of lovely but utterly random folks – including the most cockney man alive, with whom I had numerous conversations and never once understood a word.
Cassie also lived with perfectly pleasant people, but they suffered from the unfortunate affliction of all being girls. They were all make-up and nails, but Cass liked her metal loud and her ska punky, so we had to rescue her and give her life new meaning by getting her to agree to live with us in the second year.
This was 50% done for her benefit, and 50% done because we thought living with a girl would help us keep the place clean and tidy. We were severely mistaken, as Cass was the messiest person I’d ever met, and our house was usually a disgrace.
Together, we were like the Three Amigos. Actually, we weren’t anything like that, we were more like the Ghostbusters, in that I was the nerdy one, Rob was the wise cracking popular one, and Cass was the lovable one. Also, we added one other guy after a while, and we collected the spirits of the dead in our basement. More on one of those things, in later posts.
One of the great things about uni life was using new friends to discover new bands. Sometimes the way this happened was as simple as them putting on a CD while we were
playing endless hours of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City working really hard. Sometimes it was through more bizarre methods, such as when I upset a girl and Rob sang “Somebody hates you!” at me over and over until I asked him what he was on about, resulting in a mild Reel Big Fish addiction. And sometimes, it was through Rob’s sheer force of will, such as:
“Do you like the Wildhearts?”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard one of their songs, it was pretty good.”
“You should listen to more, you’d like them.”
“Ok I will.”
“They’re touring again. We should go and see them.”
“Ok we will.”
Remember when I said it might be awkward to remember the money I spent going to gigs while living on a pittance at university? Well this was definitely one of those gigs, because we immediately made a plan to go see this band whose one song I knew, in Bristol, en route to an already planned trip to Alton Towers in a few weeks time.
Financially, this was not the soundest of choices on its own. But couple it with the fact that I had to buy as many Wildhearts albums as I could find immediately, and this was an all time bonehead play.
To justify this in any way, the band and the gig would have to be absolutely incredible. Step one, the records, did not disappoint.
The one song I knew was ‘I Wanna Go Where The People Go’, which had been on a TOTP hits collection in 1995, when the BBC had briefly, and futilely, tried to take on the NOW juggernaut. I’d liked the song, but had not heard any more from the band since.
In attempting to rediscover them I started, logically enough, with The Best Of The Wildhearts, and almost immediately fell head-over-heels, where-have-you-been-all-my-life in love with the tunes.
It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the songs – ‘My Baby is a Headf**k’, ‘Red Light – Green Light’, ’29 x the Pain’ – were literally perfect to my ears from the very first listen. Balls-to-the-wall, loud-as-f**k rock songs; deceptively simple but with an undertone of extreme intricacy and artistry; the occasional boogie, punk or even folk leanings; vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Ginger’s sincere growl; plus a wondrous mix of sad, funny, angry or bizarre lyrics – I was in musical heaven.
Not wanting to be one of those fans, I quickly moved on to the studio albums, starting with Earth vs the Wildhearts, as the tour we were going to was featuring the line-up from that album.
I was quickly to learn that Ginger was the only constant amidst an ever-changing line-up, but it made sense that they would play most songs from this particular record, so that’s where I went first. And f**k me if it didn’t utterly destroy the wasteland that was left behind after the Best Of had already blown my mind.
In addition to the kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll numbers were some epic rock opuses (‘Everlone’), and some deathly heavy guitar breaks, particularly in album closer ‘Love U Til I Don’t’, which became an instant favourite and remains so to this day.
Further investigation of their studio albums brought more extreme examples of the two sides of Earth vs...
PHUQ, which contained their biggest hit ‘I Wanna Go..’, clearly had more commercial goals, with more of the radio friendly rock songs. But it also hit the heavy riff numbers in album tracks like “Caprice”.
Fishing For Luckies on the other hand was just insane, in the best possible way. Four songs were over seven minutes in length, all featuring genius levels of rock extravagance that left me in no doubt that this was an extraordinary band, sitting far above the Brit-rock label with which they were often associated.
Rob described ‘Inglorious’ in particular as having “a middle eight, within a middle eight, within a middle eight”. I’m not sure if that’s 100% musically accurate, but it certainly gets across the brilliant nonsense involved.
In summary, a week after having “only heard one song”, I was addicted to the Wildhearts. Not for the first time in my life, I’d taken a casual recommendation from a friend and gone way overboard with it, to the point that I definitely liked the band more than the original recommender.
Over the ensuing years, I’d go on to find out as much as possible about the complex history of the band (more on which in later posts), and their leader Ginger. But, for now, this was just a pure love of the music and a yearning to see it done live.
The plan for the trip was for Rob, Cassie and me to head to Bristol for the show, then to my parents’ house in Evesham afterwards with some other friends, and on to Alton Towers the next day. How were we able to do this on a weekday, you ask? Well, that’s the joys of ‘reading week’ my friends. I’m sure I did some reading later in the week, once the adrenaline had died down.
*Incidentally, for those of you who enjoy a theme park, this is definitely the best time to go. I’m talking about after Easter but before half-term, when the kids are in school but it’s too early for school trips. It was perfect. We walked on and off Nemesis multiple times without once queueing, sampling each of the various rows to test which was best (it’s the back row, trust me).
But that’s not what you’re here for. You’re here to hear about a rock ‘n’ roll show, and what a f***ing show it was. I loved EVERYTHING about this gig.
Firstly, the venue was brilliant. Compared to the flat and deep Birmingham Academy, the Bristol Academy seemed to have a wider, sunken floor area which goes back from the stage much less distance. Then there are two levels above it, meaning wherever you are on the ground floor feels right in the thick of things, and the upper floors are much more in the band’s faces than in Birmingham or similar venues. I loved it! I’ve only seen one more gig there since however, and that was very different (see All American Rejects, 2003).
Secondly, the band exceeded all of my expectations. I knew that the Wildhearts had been on hiatus for a few years before 2001, so I anticipated that this might not be the slickest of shows. I was utterly mistaken.
They walked on stage and roared into ‘Love U Til I Don’t’, which I definitely hadn’t expected them to open with. It was epicly loud, and thunderously heavy to my soft-rock ears, and yet the overarching feeling was of astonishment at how tight it was. The noise and the volume may have made it seem like the heavens were crashing down, but if so this was a controlled demolition, constantly undercut by melody and musicianship. This was not a newly reformed group, surely?
It was not the last time I would feel this way. In all the times I’ve seen them live, the one thing that never ceases to amaze me is how tight they are as a band. They might not have played together for four years; they might be playing random album tracks they haven’t touched for decades; it might be a one-off show they’ve barely had time to rehearse. It doesn’t matter. It always sounds like they’ve been doing this exact set every night for the past decade.
Seeing them live really hammered home how paradoxically tough to pigeon-hole and define they are. At a quick listen, some might mark them a standard pub rock band, but their musicianship and the complex nature of many of their songs drags them out of that bucket. They have punk leanings, but seem to eschew the deliberate looseness associated with punk. They’re heavy enough in places to fit with any metal band, but are far too rooted and unpretentious for the rest of what goes with that genre.
I guess it’s just pure rock and roll, baby, but soaked in beer and piss, and with a wry knowing smile.
The final thing I loved about this show was the audience. Yes, I was still smarting from my experience in Swansea two years previously, and dreaded being crushed to death in a concert crowd. But although this crowd was infinitely more raucous than anything I’d been part of before, it was a joyful affair, with huge sing-a-longs, deafening cheers, and constant, constant bouncing.
Want an idea how awesome it was? Here’s a very rough recording of the whole show!
It’s probably no surprise to many people reading this, but I’ve always found that the heavier the band, the nicer the crowd, and Wildhearts fans are among the loveliest groups of people I’ve ever met (see The Wildhearts, 2012). It was a pleasure to be one of them in Bristol that night, and I finally had the joyous experience I’d been craving for four years, as I bounced off into the middle of the pit.
The whole show flew by. At one point someone in the crowd shouted to bassist Danny McCormack in full Westcountry twang “I want yer babies, Danny!” After a moment’s laughter, Ginger replied “He’ll bring them round in the morning!” We were then treated to two new songs that went down an absolute storm, with ‘Vanilla Radio’ in particular showing that this was not a band simply retreading former glories, but one moving forwards into a new millenium of rock.
Ginger polled the crowd as to what a new album should be called. If I recall correctly the options were “The Black Box”, “The Wildhearts Must Be Destroyed” and “Riff After Riff After Motherf***ing Riff”. It’s safe to say that Bristol chose option 3 rather assertively, and that did become the album title, but sadly only in Japan.
As the show drew to a crescendo and a close with ‘..Headf**k’ and ’29 x the Pain’, I returned to my companions fully sated on a feast of rock, and drenched in sweat from head to toe.
Finally, the title of this blog makes some sense.
- ‘Love U Til I Don’t’ as an opener? Amazing. Firstly, because it’s the final track on their debut album, and that’s a very cool trick to play. Secondly, because it’s a classic Wildhearts song that combines clever lyrics, a sing-a-long chorus, and some scorchingly heavy guitar breaks. What a way to kick things off!
- From a song selection point of view, it’s fairly safe. Most of the songs are singles, and only ‘Everlone’ touches on their longer-track tendencies. Understandable perhaps, given the recent reformation and Danny McCormack’s struggles with addiction at the time, which reportedly resulted in some gigs in 2001 being less than slick in places.
- The exception to that rule is definitely ‘Zomboid’, which Ginger introduced by saying “Who liked the album Endless, Nameless..?” and then “Who like the b-sides to the singles?” I confess I’m not one of the people who replied in the affirmative to either question. I’ve tried to like Endless, Nameless.., the dark, bizarre and almost unlistenable album of noise that the band released in response to PHUQ‘s commercial success, but it’s a bit much for my tender brain. I do admire it though, and I definitely admire them playing random b-sides from it on tour.
- It’s strange to see ‘I Wanna Go…’ in the middle of the set. It’s most often been the show closer in my experience, but it also went through a period of opening the set shortly after this. I’m not sure it matters what order these songs were played in too much though, it’s such a classic collection that the crowd were sure to be fully into it, whatever they did.
And that’s it for this post. Regular readers might be able to tell, but this is definitely taking the title of Best Gig So Far! Spoiler alert: it keeps it for quite a while!
Thanks for reading, let me know what you thought in the comments, and come back next time for some underground indie-pop-rock.