Loose Handlebars, September 15, 2013

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Loose Handlebars

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I'm having the time of my life or something quite like it


Loose Handlebars

Elvis Costello in London 1996

There seemed to be something distinct about London's summer in 1996. I was working in the belly of the beast, maintenance work on the head offices of a major financial institution smack dab in the middle of the city. A front row seat at the less than brilliant parade of Thatcher's Children, now grown. The suburban spawn who had fallen hook, line and stinker for voodoo economics. Kids with such a limited world view that their ambition was to be a Yuppie. Technology called the shots, made the scene. Now there were factory farms, batteries of drones tethered to their flickering screens, all eager to make, at least, the weekly vigorish demanded by their masters. You walked into these barns built with imaginary money and were hit by a wave of body odour, with more than a note of desperation. Hey, we got fooled, kicked in the nuts, why should they be any different?

So what can a wannabe rich boy (or girl) do? Of course cocaine (God's way of telling you you have too much money) and alcohol, lots of it, was compulsory. The default setting for these people was to talk a lot of wind. After work, drink in hand, they did the same, only faster. But then there were the pub singalongs! I don't really remember those before this year.

June 1996 was the month that Football Came Home. The UEFA European Championships was the first tournament in England in 30 years (of hurt). Football support had mainly been the preserve of working class men but the national team's relative success and a subsequent media blitz widened the sport's appeal. Now everybody and your Auntie followed a team and were not backward in coming forward with their opinions… why I oughta! London really was Party Central in June. Cafe culture arrived on the pavements as the crowds spilled from packed boozers. Traffic was adorned in bunting, nationalistic maybe but reclaiming the flag of St George from the racist, right-wing meatheads. No flags round our yard but it was open house for anyone who showed up with beer and munchies. And there was a song… "Three Lions" was by two comedians who did have some football cred and the bloke from the Lightning Seeds. You know the word "ubiquitous" well that's what it was. It was sung at the games, in the bars, on the bloody street and got right on your nerves after about two days.

The Euros finished and what were we to do. The English found that they liked a song along with their skinful. Even my cynical circle enjoyed the more frequent gatherings. There was no option but to Party On!

The next weekend after the Final found us at the Roundhouse to see Elvis Costello… a double result. EC had not played the old "Great Circular Engine House" in Camden Town since 1978. Not many people had. I attended a benefit in a small space there featuring the varied talents of Vanessa Redgrave and Lene Lovich just before it closed in 1983. It is a beautiful building, friends have good memories of wasted days and nights, trying and failing to find a corner. Newly redeveloped it had to be checked for. Had Elvis been redeveloped too? It was difficult to maintain such a high standard of wordplay as swordplay (OK I pinched that) and punishing, er, puns (that's mine). His work with the Brodsky Quartet and the 1995 curatorship of the Meltdown Festival was not lacklustre but did lack a little lust. We wanted to see our boy pump it up and we were not disappointed.

Another attraction of the gig was that the three Attractions were around. Bruce Thomas may have been a paid up member of the Awkward Squad but he was Elvis Costello's bass player. In the 1970s we had seen the four of them invent New Wave before our very eyes. The 1986 Royal Albert Hall concerts introduced us to the Spinning Song Wheel, an element of vaudeville, a sense of humour beyond those with an eye on world domination (Springsteen and U2). This tour was a big European thing, the new LP All This Useless Beauty was hardly classic but 20 years of songwriting was just that. There are seven Costello records which make my all-time Top five but by 1996 maybe people had forgotten just how much they liked him. That Saturday night we had a few beers in Camden, mooched across the road, paid at the door and watched a giant of UK music deliver a mighty show.

"It's Time" was the 24th song of the night ("Accidents Will Happen" 19th) before "Alison" and "Peace, Love and Understanding" sent us home smiling and singing. We had seen an authoritative, assured bunch who had a mountain of songs and were ready to take them anyway, anyhow, anywhere they chose. It was tough to pick out highlights. The ever-present "Clubland" is always a contender, "Shipbuilding" always beautiful, "You Belong To Me"… thank you. Back in the world rock music was the mainstream for the first time in a long time but it was not this lovely stuff that was being carried shoulder-high through the streets.

The 1995 Britpop Battle of the Bands was purely a media brouhaha, a pile of toss. Who wins? Who cares? One year past it was Oasis, those Beatles Burglars, who were everywhere. This Summer 3.6 million applied for 300,000 tickets at a couple of their mega-gigs. (What's The Story) Morning Glory was selling 22 million copies. The LP would be played in pubs and a spontaneous serenade went off. No song sheet or conductor, people knew this stuff. I knew that these Lennon Larcenists made a noise which was reassuringly familiar and ordinary, comfort music but I had never before heard rock music, guitar music, make such an impression on the predominant popular culture. I had spent a lot of time on licensed premises too.

Now Educating Rita is not a great film but the scene in a pub on a noisy Saturday night when Rita's mother is upset because "there must be better songs to sing than this" has always resonated. Here's just a suggestion, a song written by Mark E Smith and Stephen Hanley about an earlier Madchester beat boom but absolutely prescient about Britpop's mundanity.

I was not that chump who sat in the saloon bar on the outside of things… watching, judging. I'm British, I'm as hedonistic as the next guy and the next guy is going to end the night in a pool of piss and vomit (maybe not his own). I know him, he's my friend. So when my very good friend, let's call her Sue, invited me to a party round hers on a Friday night I assumed that five hours in the pub would be the ideal foundation for a good time. Unfortunately my definition of a party is at variance with Sue's. The late arrival of five inebriate pleasure seekers at what can charitably be described as a stoned soiree was not appreciated at all. I did not realise that my friend had such insipid intimates but they did not deserve to have their night interrupted by my misjudgment. I was a barbarian, a beer monster and I was in big trouble.

My penance was an endless stream of apology, the purchase of a new hammock (I broke the old one… don't ask) and a promise to take Sue to the next Elvis Costello & the Attractions gig. In the three weeks since a great night out at the Roundhouse there had been a media blitz and four other London gigs. The 27th of July return to the Roundhouse was the end of the European tour and the word was out about what a force EC & the Attractions still were. Unfortunately the word did not reach me until about 12 hours before the concert. That walk up of three weeks ago was not to be repeated, this gig was sold out and if I did not get myself together then I was going to be the guy who made promises that he could not keep.

Sue knew that tickets were hard to come by but I let her simmer and told her nothing. I had worked the phones all afternoon with little success. I knew that there would be touts (scalpers) around but that would be expensive and a little sleazy. We walked up to the Roundhouse box office past a long queue of ticket holders. I gave my name, a "plus one" and was given the nod. We were in, no money had changed hands. One of my partners in the previous week's faux-pas had told me his mother was working the catering for the gig. A couple of phone calls got me to her and I explained my predicament. She knew about our lack of social grace and that favour from her could improve my standing. We were on the guest list, Sue was impressed and I was on the way, at least, to forgiveness.

What a night it was. "You Bowed Down" the 2nd song of the first of three encores, the 21st of a 32-song set. The band segued their own songs into covers of the Stones, Dylan, the Isley Brothers. It was a tour of the force that had made Elvis and his gang the most creative and interesting act in Britain for a long time. After this Costello went on to pursue an ambition to play every musical style in the world with every musician alive. That's OK because this night he showed he had the rock 'n' roll down. The Roundhouse did it's thing too, we stepped over the prone bodies of punters who had partied like it was 1969. You never got this at the Barbican!

In the Summer of 1996 I spent too much time with a blank generation who's idea of a good time seemed to me to resemble a sketch by George Grosz. Maybe alcohol was back as the drug of choice after five years of "E's and whizz," I'm not sure., I was pissed. I saw Elvis Costello & the Attractions play two fantastic concerts. The football?… our £5 each way on Czechoslovakia at 66-1 was looking scintillating when they were 20 minutes away from winning the thing. Mmm… 440 reasons to dislike the Germans! Peace.


Tags: RoundhouseLondonThe AttractionsBruce ThomasRoyal Albert HallSpectacular Spinning SongbookAll This Useless BeautyIt's TimeAccidents Will HappenAlison(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?ClublandShipbuildingYou Belong To MeYou Bowed DownThe Rolling StonesThe Last TimeBob DylanLike A Rolling StoneThe Isley BrothersThat LadyBruce SpringsteenU2John LennonThe Brodsky QuartetMeltdown Festival

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Loose Handlebars, September 15, 2013


Loose Handlebars recalls Elvis Costello & The Attractions, July 6 and 27, 1996, the Roundhouse, London, England.


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