One lesson you will learn repeatedly early on in your career is that there are always better bands than you, and it’s no fun when you have to follow them onstage. One genuinely horrible gig my first band did was perhaps the fourth or fifth that we played, and only the second time we were heading out of our home town to play.
The venue had put on a support band for us which we knew wouldn’t be a patch on our own brand of slightly fey punkish indie pop. But something was amiss from the start – as I walked into the pub, wearing my fake fur coat and my eyeliner and found it full of scary-looking leather-clad tattooed bikers, I felt the sort of glare you get from a room full of scary-looking leather-clad tattooed bikers when you walk into their pub wearing a fur coat and eyeliner. A voice inside me was beginning to chirp up, voicing some possible reservations about the night to come, but I was sure we’d win over any crowd with our fresh and edgy brilliance.
We set up and sound-checked, a slightly depressing affair as we struggled to get the vocals anywhere approaching an audible level in the mix. After resigning ourselves to the fact that the PA was crap, we went and sat back to watch the very grizzled-looking support band set up. Again, the voice inside me chirped up, pointing out that these guys in the support band are all part of the biker gang, and are in fact playing to all their mates in their local pub.
As they started their set, it became clear that not only are they playing to their mates in their local, they’re playing the favourite songs of all their mates too. The pub pumped to the sound of well-rehearsed rockers playing bang-on versions of songs like Free’s Alright Now, the Stones’s Satisfaction, Motorhead’s Ace of Spades and other rock classics – the singer having no problems at all with the PA as he’s got a voice like Brian Johnson of AC/DC – and that voice inside me suggested that it was out of here and I was now very much on my own on this one. Honestly, you could have actually brought in AC/DC that night, and they couldn’t have gone down any better than our support act did. Although they’d have done a much better job of following them.
As they came offstage, the friendly but rather smug singer gave me a wink and a punch on the arm and said there ya go son, got ‘em all warmed up for ya. I briefly got my hopes up when I saw that a few carloads of our friends had turned up, so we’d have some support after all, and this may not be such a bad night – in fact this could be fantastic!
In fact, it wasn’t. It was even worse than I had feared. We finished the first song, and I suffered through the split-second of not knowing what the reaction is going to be (still hopeful for one last brief moment that this will be a great gig) before arriving at the point of the reaction itself. Or in this case the point of no reaction. A pub full of bikers stared at us in silence, arms folded, with a collective expression suggesting that if we were going to make them suffer with another fifty-seven minutes of this shit, they were going to make us suffer too.
The vibe was strong enough to subdue all our own friends – who were all seated right in the middle of the room in front of the stage – into complete silence. They were all so nervous of the pub regulars that not one of them could muster up the courage to do anything other than sit in silence. And just to rub it in, they left in small groups over the course of our set, so that by the time we finished, all of them had gone. We played our whole set and got nothing more than a stare from anyone.
I think this was the first time, but certainly not the last, that I found myself wishing I could put on a magical ring and simply disappear, à la Bilbo Baggins. It’s always worse for the singer too, being as you are the natural focal point for people watching, and the one charged with coaxing something from the crowd, perhaps breaking the ice with a witty refrain. Not for the singer the option of adjusting his cymbals so nobody can see his face, or the possibility of staring at your feet for the whole show.
These sort of experiences are of course character building, and you learn far more from a bad gig than a good gig – in this case the main takeout from the night was “oi Trevor, don’t you ever book us a gig there again you bastard”. Still, while there are always bands better than you, there are also lots of bands worse than you, which is always a comforting thought to hold onto.