When Bowie Came To Blackburn – 40 Years On

imageForty years ago today I was sat anxious, fidgeting, watching the clock, willing the hours by, impossibly excited but frustrated as time seemed stood resolutely still.

I was on the drabbest caravan site imaginable somewhere on Lancashire’s Fylde Coast. No-one in my family can even remember where it was.

I was 14 years old, a tubby little schoolboy stuck in the middle of a mundane family holiday in the middle of nowhere.

But the night which followed that endless day changed my life.

It was May 31st, 1973 and the biggest sensation in pop since The Beatles was about to be beamed down into my home town.

David Bowie and The Spiders From Mars brought the Aladdin Sane tour to the stage of King George’s Hall in previously grey, depressing, drab, dismal, monochrome cotton town Blackburn. It actually might have been quite a bright, sunny day to be honest.

It was my first live gig and in another four decades there would never be another to send my head into a whirl and my insides feeling like they were revolving around my body at Formula 1 speed for two hours.

If you had been allowed those years of hindsight you would have chosen that band, that frontman, that time to see rock’n’roll made flesh for the very first time.

Let’s set the scene. Ours wasn’t a particularly hip household. We had a record player – one of those suitcase Dansettes on legs  – and by the end of my third year at school I had a collection of singles and a handful of albums.

But Bolan and The Jackson 5 had to vie with Jack Jones and Helen Reddy for turntable time.

I’d been to a couple of those end-of-pier shows and perhaps the biggest names I’d seen to that point in terms of chart action were Dana and Frank Ifield.

Even at 12 and 13 you knew that wasn’t where it was at.

One of those same summers I’d sat in the TV lounge of a bed and breakfast in Scarborough and seen Marc Bolan on TOTP have a strange, unspoken effect on a bunch of slightly older holidaying teenage girls that I didn’t quite understand. I knew it was a direction you’d probably like to go in but hadn’t a clue how to set off, never mind arrive there.

It certainly wasn’t any reaction a middle-aged guy singing “I Remember You” in a suit provoked.

But the only time I’d ever sat in the stalls at King George’s Hall before that night was at tedious, interminable school speech nights, a mandatory but utterly dreaded annual event.

I was only allowed to go to the Bowie gig because an adult was taking me.

Fortunately it wasn’t my dad, who might have been utterly outraged by the spectacle.

His workmate John, it had emerged, was a huge fan, which at least lent my pre-occupation with Ziggy some adult-endorsed credibility.

I had bought the Ziggy album after an unexpected windfall. After seeing the Bolan effect and placing a personal ad in “Disco Songwords” or some such publication stating “Boy, 13, into T Rex, wants girl penfriend” I received about 400 replies.

With almost more bags of letters from pre-pubescent females than the beleaguered postman could carry, I launched the one entrepreneurial success of my life and sold them for 2p a time at school.

“The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” cost me £2.18 from Reidys in Blackburn. I still have it with the sticker on somewhere.

But dad came home one night with some sage advice: “John at work reckons you should get an LP called Hunky Dory. Says it’s even better.”

My letter-selling profits allowed for that and that Christmas of ’72 I got the Space Oddity and Man Who sold The World re-issues and by the time Aladdin Sane came out in April of 1973 – delivered to my house by an RCA rep at tea-time on release day in a van after insufficient copies were available to satisfy pre-orders – I was in a frenzy over the fact that Bowie was playing not one but two Lancashire dates.

John had bought his wife and myself tickets for both shows  and consented to take me, to allay any parental fears that I would be whisked away from the venue by a make-up wearing gay cult who sang lyrics like “I’ve got eyes in my backside that see electric tomatoes” (“Go on then, what on earth does that mean?”  I was regularly quizzed) never to return.

He was a cool guy, John. Maybe about 30 then, beautiful wife, great house, posh car and the most fabulous huge stereo system I’d ever seen in the huge modernised cottage I waited in, having been transported from Knott End or wherever, to be taken to the show.

I wish I could remember the journey there and the crowd but the next thing I can remember is sitting in the front row balcony waiting for the lights to go out.

They eventually did and Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” as distorted through A Clockwork Orange (which of course I hadn’t seen or read) played…

Here’s the best thing. There was no support act that night. No hammy pub-rock band in jeans and t-shirts cranking out blues licks or Chuck Berry licks. No Fumble or Stealers Wheel or any such.

As the hall darkened and Ode came to mad climax, strobe lights – something else I’d never seen – flashed and momentarily illuminated figures walked across the stage with great coloured Ziggy/Aladdin flashes briefly visible then invisible on the backdrop behind.

Two of the first three guys I saw walk on that stage, Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder, are no longer with us but along with Woody Woodmansey  there could have been no more striking, futuristic prelude to the drama to come as a maelstrom of spangly tights, stack heels, hair spikey or platinum and enormous Dickensian sideburns flashed in and out of vision in a blur of white light and bacofoil costumes.

Ducks Deluxe sauntering on an hour and a half before the main act just wouldn’t have been the same.

A nano-second of silence and darkness and then…

“Bam-bam-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-Bam-Bam….” Ronno thrashed the intro to “Hang  Onto Yourself” out on his Les Paul, all billowy blouse and black sparkly matador pants and your eyes turned to centre stage where Bowie stood in a Japanese costume practically impossible to move in, bright orange barnet and pale face, arms extended…

“Well she’s a tongue-twisting storm…”

Of course what I can actually recollect is mixed up with what I’ve seen many times from the Hammersmith film by Don Pennebaker, basically the same show.

But what I can remember is the gulping, gasping slack-jawed feeling of awe to be in the moment, the presence, the time.

a pair of girls – future Mrs ronson and Bowie hairstyle creator Suzi Fussey one of them – came oput in black cat type costumes and pulled from either side to reveal that the ensemble was velcroed together down the front and suddenly Bowie was posed there in a silky white tunic with matching thigh-length boots.

It was often said that hitherto macho/straight builders fancied him and though not many would have admitted it in 1972 East Lancashire at that juncture, it’s still possible to imagine why.

“Ziggy Stardust” was freed from his Yansai Kamamoto wardrobe restrictions and free to gyrate as he wished in a series of numbers which even today in display cases at the V and A museum people are paying good money to gaze in wonder at.

By the fourth number, “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud (segued into “All The Young Dudes” and “Oh you Pretty Things” ) I had got my breath back and recall the astonished wonderment of seeing these songs I knew so well played by the people who created them in the same bloody room I was sat in!

The mirrorball shimmering as David strummed the 12-string intro to “Space Oddity” …I hadn’t noticed that at school prize night….the strobey guitar fight with Ronno in “Width Of a Circle” …the mimed “gap in the wall” routine…myriad costume changes while Mick solo’ed …..Garson’s insane jazz stylings….”Suffragette City” practically blowing the roof off….the closing “Gimme your hands” set-piece of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.”

Incredible. Simply incredible to see that at 14, before you saw any other live band in the whole wide world.

(I was quite lucky – the first support band I ever had to “sit through” later that year in the same hall was a London-based quartet who had been hired to warm up for Mott The Hoople. You may have heard of Queen and their singer Freddie Mercury. They had obviously had about twice as much spent on presenting their act as the headliners!)

Watching that Hammersmith DVD there was nothing particularly ground-breaking or avant-garde about the music Bowie and The Spiders were presenting live. Some of the subtler, stranger, quiter, deeper moments from Hunky, Ziggy and Aladdin were absent (there was no Starman, Life On Mars, Drive-In Saturday that night I’m sure and certainly no Quicksand or Bewlay Brothers).

But Bowie was taking the tired, beery, jeans-and-beards-and-t-shirts lumpen, leaden version of 1970’s rock’n’roll – itself as an art form less than 20 years old – and filtering it through a dazzling prism of glamour and edginess and sex and adrogony into the town halls and public concert venues of suburban Britain to present a spectacle more exotic and out there than had previously been hinted at down the two decades since Elvis shook the hipd.

The night before the Blackburn gig and the night of it the Bowie entourage stayed at the Charnock Richard Motor Lodge. Imagine that! There would be sales executives such as my dad was or 70’s “Life On Mars” style bobbies like my wife’s father sat there as this carnival of the weird trooped in and out for a couple of days!

About ten days later at Preston Guildhall, where the stage as some of you may know is barely elevated above the audience, Bowie halted a stomping “Jean Genie” and unleashed the passions and madness of the fired-up, frenzied youth by insisting that some roughhouse security fellas, brutally over-zealously chucking fans off the stage, retreat from its environs before continuing.

The ensuing “Let’s Spend The Night Together” almost threw the building into utter chaos and anarchy – three more years, mark,until the concept was fashionable  -before the pace slowed down a little.

I used to be able to reel off the setlists – which were slightly different – from both shows.

But I’ve been to many, many gigs since. Epic gigs, historic ones, bands at the very height of their power and glory.

I’ve been to a good few wonderful Bowie gigs since…Stafford Bingley Hall, Milton Keynes Bowl, Roker Park, Maine Road.

But it was never, ever, again, like that first time.

And for even someone as anal-retentive as I, small details fade.

A few weeks later Bowie made his fabled “this is the last show we’ll ever do” speech on the Hammersmith stage.

I remember reading about it in the NME waiting for a bus outside Blackburn Mecca just a couple of hundred yards from King George’s. Bowie had “retired” it said.

Life was over. Retired? It couldn’t be, could it? What was there to live for? (Bear in mind I hadn’t even had a girlfriend at that stage I don’t think).

Of course my life had barely begun. Bowie’s ascent as an artist had only just done so.

But I’m so grateful that our paths collided briefly that day, that month…

This is the bit where I’d like to say life was never the same because I decided that being in a band was the only thing for it, went out and formed one and…you know the rest goes, Ian McCulloch, Marc Almond, Gary Numan all that lot.

Not me. I flunked a few O Levels because I no longer cared about getting my homework done if there was an album to listen to or a lyric sheet to pore over.

After that concert it was music first, football second and anything else we’ll take it from there.

I became the Lancastrian equivalent of what was once brilliantly described as the archetypal NME reader “The accounts clerk in Middlesbrough who considers himself a bit hipper than his workmates.”

John, who took me to those two gigs, he was a real hero to me too. Rugby captain at Blackburn. Great big bear of a man. Mr Oozed Success. He was probably what I wanted to be, what I could realistically aspire to I guess, without any discernible gifts for the arts, even more so than Bowie.

He and Sue took me to Stafford in 1978, with a girl of my own then too.

Poor John took his own life many years ago after years of depression, marital strife and so on. I don’t really know. It was all very complicated and sad.

Last time I saw him we were both walking down to Ewood Park for football. He was with his two lads.

“I feel it’s my civic duty,” he smiled. I knew what he meant.

He was right about Hunky Dory too.

I think a lot about him whenever I remember that night, the kindness of the guy allowing that little boy to be there, waiting to see his idol, get his first shot of live rock’n’roll.

Trevor, Ronno, John….I guess many of the people who were there that night aren’t here any more.

Those who are, well, we’re different people now aren’t we? Time isn’t kind to many of us but still being here is enough to be thankful for.

But experience like that, it can’t have a value put on it.

Raise your glass to the comrades we’ve lost, my friends, it’s been a long, long time.

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22 Responses to When Bowie Came To Blackburn – 40 Years On

  1. Ailsa says:

    Omw…. lovey reading…. I remember him coming to B/burn not a big fan at the time but but did get into him a little later….
    I remember folks going to see him from school my father would never allow it being a teacher himself…..
    Yes I know people that went to see him that are no longer with us….. they were massive fans….
    It’s all very sad….

    • blueyedboy says:

      Thank you so much for reading & the lovely comments Ailsa. Really appreciated. I found it quite amusing & ironic that the Archbishop of Canterbury was among those paying tribute today!

  2. John Mayor says:

    Wonderful review.
    I remember it more than any other Bowie show I saw consequently as I was helped up onto the stage by Bowies’ bodyguard, Stuey because Mike Garson had borrowed a coat off me earlier and had forgotten to give it back.
    I thought I was going to end up in the dressing room but Garson returned from there and handed it
    over whilst apologising profusely.
    I also recall “Time” and “My Death” being performed.

  3. Stephen Walsh says:

    One of my best friends on First Avenue, Church was a David Bowie fan and I remember sitting in his bedroom, his window wide open and his record player blasting out Suffragette City . I’m sure they could hear it half way down Dill Hall Lane ! . Later in that decade we also used to go to the Lodestar ” Roxy and Bowie ” nights , great memories. I was a Roxy Music fan and remember them playing at KGH in the early 70s, probably around the same time as you saw Bowie. I heard that Brian Eno screwed his amps to the stage floor in the concert room and they banned him for life ( or so the story goes!) Looking back I’m amazed how KGH got such great bands to come to Blackburn.

    Thanks for the poignant tribute Jim and thanks again for reviving the memories.


    • blueyedboy says:

      Great stuff Stephen I saw Roxy at Preston Guild Hall. 1975. They were supported by a Japanese group the Sadistic Mika Band, whose singer – Mika naturally – was an impossibly beautiful & exotic creature. She took Polaroids of the audience and handed them to them as they developed. Ferry was at the height of his cool in a sort of GI uniform. I was in the Army & Navy store less thsn24 hours later attempting to recreate it! Yes the band’s came to the people then rather than us having to full enormodomes of football stadia. I’m sure the 50s & 60s were exciting for teenagers but I don’t think I’d swap given the choice. As ever Many thanks for reading the piece and taking the trouble to comment.

    • blueyedboy says:

      The Lodestar nights were legendary too Steve. Although a lad we knew got knocked down & killed walking home one night and that put me off as I had no transport & would go on the bus leaving getting home to the vagaries of fortune. You would dream of copping off with a girl with a car but if it ever happened I don’t recall it!!

  4. Stephen Walsh says:

    I was at that concert too Jim, with my brother Andrew and I remember that strange Japanese group, Mika and the photos !! After the show we had to run Usain Bolt like across to the bus station to catch the last bus , the 152 to Burnley , getting off at the Load of Mischief in Clayton Le Moors. Yes Bryan Ferry wore his GI uniform that night, I bought one too, from a “men’s fashion” shop in Accrington and used to wear it in the Bees Knees and the Pickwick, but it never looked the same on a blonde curly haired teenager !

    Happy New Year and keep up the good work

  5. Stephen Walsh says:

    We were lucky, my friend had just passed his test and his Grandad gave him one of those Morris Minor Estates with the wooden framed windows. Not the height of cool but it got us there and back !

  6. Excellent read. What a memory 🙂 I had the pleasure of reading via a link shared by my cousin in Darwen, Lancs. Sad day for rockers 😦 sincerely, Pauline, Columbus, Ohio U.S. …still a Lancashire girl at heart 🙂

  7. Geoff Harris says:

    Great recollections, Stephen, more than I could have remembered and I am grateful for this.
    I was at school in Kirkham and went to the Blackburn concert with one eye made up a bit more like Roy Wood than Bowie and a leather band around my slightly-longer-than-expected hair.
    Do I remember correctly that David pointed to doors on the left of the hall (his right), about half way down, when singing “….tell my wife I love her so…” and that Angie had to make a hasty retreat?
    I was on the right hand side, not far from the stage, so I couldn’t quite make out what was happening but there was a brief commotion and someone later told me she had been standing watching by the doors.

    • blueyedboy says:

      Wow great anecdote I’m not sure I can remember that but how great if she was there! Names Jim by the way. Thanks for reading & taking trouble to comment. Happy youthful days eh?!!

  8. Geoff Harris says:

    Jim, yes. Took my eye off the ball and was half responding to Stephen by mistake. Happy days indeed. It would be brilliant if someone could corroborate my 40+ years old memory of that night.

  9. Ian Alderson says:

    Hi blueeyed boy (and anyone else that may be interested). Loved your description of 31.5.73! I am from Blackburn and went to see Bowie in 1973 in Blackburn and was blown away like many others. I am now working for a company called Dovetail on a project called ‘1973: The Year Bowie Came To Blackburn.’ We are looking for people who attended any concerts in King George’s Hall in 1973 ie. Bowie, Queen, Slade, Mott The Hoople, Kevin Coyne etc (see website below for full list.) to share memories and memorabilia. Please see http://www.1973bowieblackburn.com for the details of the launch on Saturday 14th January 2017, more events and how to get in touch. Would love to interview you and any other people who attended the gigs! Ian

    • blueyedboy says:

      No problem Ian I just saw the email yoday(got back in from holiday) so I would be delighted to help in any way.

      • Ian Alderson says:

        That’s great blue-eyed boy. Thanks very much! Would be great to hear your memories of Bowie, Queen and Mott. If you can get to the launch this Saturday Jan 14th maybe you can introduce yourself to me and we can have a chat. Will be taking people’s emails etc on one of the desks. The launch is from 18.30-20.30 in Blakey’s Bar, King George’s. Drinks and nibbles provided. cheers Ian

  10. blueyedboy says:

    I was also at Mott/Queen Ian….I can tell you it was Princess Anne’s (& Captain Mark Phillips) wedding day and we all got the day off school!

  11. dave says:

    Awesome read i enjoyed it, i went too lots of gigs at KGH my first gig was hawkwind 1972, I was 14 years old my amazing first ever gig, I’ve seen Slade bowie status quo and mott the hoople with queen all in 1973 what a great year for seeing artist and bands at KGH still got my bowie ticket for the blackburn gig.

  12. Clumsylad says:

    Love your recollections of the time Bowie came to Blackburn. Superb writing and so evocative of the time. I well remember the buzz it made, but unfortunately, I would only have been 12. It was a different world back then for sure. I never saw Bowie live, but I did get to Blondie some years later.
    As an anecdote I bought the Aladdin Sane LP at a car boot in Gisburn many years ago (about 15) Its the fan club edition of the album and is signed on the cover in pen ‘love David Bowie’ It cost a £1 and the seller told me it was signed for his daughter when he was staying at their hotel. I just thought ‘yeah right’ but seeing other autographs of his I think it might actually be genuine. How would that be for me being lucky.

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