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.