"Sex and drugs and rock and roll... sex and drugs and rock and roll... sex and drugs and rock and roll..." Hot damn, m'man, Leicester University is jumpin' tonight. The hall is ass-to-ass jam-packed with sweaty people going boingggg-boingggg-boingggg to the deranged rhythm of Ian Dury's 77 anthem to the joys of the Good Things In Life, all of them chanting manaically along to Himself's almost mantric invocation.
"SEX!!! and DRUGS!!! and ROCK!!! and ROLL!!! SEX!!! and DRUGS!!! and ROCK!!! and ROLL!!! SEX!!! and DRUGS!!! and..."
Meanwhile, the stage is also full of sweaty people jumping up and down and yelling "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll!" The only difference is that most of them are playing instruments. There are three drummers, three keyboard players, two bassists and only God and Jake Riviera know how many singers and guitarists. Both Jake Rivera and God are in Leicester, but only Jake is buying drinks.
It's Stiff's Greatest Stiffs dumping music on the people tonight ladeez 'n' gemmun, the hardest workin' coach party in showbiz. A demented army of drunken hippies with short hair surfing on the New Wave: five featured performers and an all-star cast of fahsands, mate: sex, drugs, rock and roll, violence, intrigue, comedy, romance, suspense, thrills, chills, spills, bills. It's an instant smash, a silk sash bash, a crystal shipload of mutants and crazies cunningly disquised as a coachload of hungover, blitzed-out musicians.
Coast-to-coast weirdness. C'mon along and join the crew.
Friday morning, shortly before ten in the a.m. God is shedding his gentle grace in the form of a torrential downpour suitable only for Noah The Ark and Howard The Duck over a somewhat ungrateful Bayswater. Your reporter, having packed his Ramones T-shirt and copy of The Best Science Fiction Of J.G. Ballard (if you don't have it now you can git it) decabs and wanders into the offices of Stiff Records to link up with his travelling companions.
The first person he sees is Dave Edmunds, who is lending his maestro's touch on guitar and drums to The Nick Lowe All-Stars. He looks disgusted (though he tries to be amused) at the horrific idea of being awake and functioning (all terms used in their loosest possible sense) at such an odd and ungodly hour.
He is wearing a pink-and-black velvet jacket that looks as if Cliff Richard used to wear it on Oh Boy back in '58.
"Dave, your girlfriend's on four," announces Stiff's unnaturally cheerful and efficient office-person. Edmunds picks up the phone and begins to issue instructions for the videotaping of Lowe's appearance on So It Goes the following night. "Be careful not to erase Elvis, though," he admonishes as — bang on cue — enter (fanfare, please) Elvis Costello.
A potato face carved out of granite and surmounted by the now-legendary pair of massive hornrims, clasping a carton of orange juice in a grip of iron. Costello looks like Clark Kent the day after he decides to stop coming on like a wimp just to protect his secret identity. It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...Elvis!
There's just time to scan the memo pinned to the wall that announces that Stiff is not responsible for anything charged to any of the hotel rooms apart from breakfast and say hello to Larry Wallis, who looks as early morning groggy as anyone but at least has a pair of impenetrable shades and 18 inches of hair to hide behind. Then it's time to get on the bus and aim for Manchester.
The bus driver's name is Trevor — wonder of wonders! — and inevitably he's dubbed Clevor Trever in honour of the Ian Dury song of the same name. Fortified by the fruits of a raid on the off-licence conveniently located a couple of doors down the road from Stiff — or is it the other way round' — and cassette tapes prepared by Wallis and Costello, everyone prepares to meet the day.
The first block of seats on the coach are the undisputed staked-out territory of The 24-Hour Club — a self-explanatory designation This crew of hard-core crazies is made up of Larry Wallis (formerly of Motorhead, The Pink Fairies and U.F.O), Pete Thomas (one-time Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers drummer and now-time drummer with Elvis Costello And The Attractions — not to mention drumming and rhythm guitar duties with Nick Lowe), Terry Williams (arch-exponent of Swansea cool, currently stoking the engine-room of Dave Edmunds's Rockpile but on this tour pounding it out for Nick Lowe) plus Lowe and Edmunds themselves.
The final lynchpin of the 24-Hour Club (a.k.a. The Pound-A Minute Club) is Elvis's bass player, who used to be Bruce Thomas of The Sutherland Brothers And Quiver.
Then there's a lady named Penny Tobin, who plays keyboards for Nick Lowe, and in the successive tiers we find Ian Dury And The Blockheads — that's the ineffable Dury himself plus Chas Jankel (guitar, keyboards), Norman Watt-Roy (bass), John Turnbull (guitar), Davey Payne (saxes), Charlie Charles (drums) and Mickey Gallagher (keyboards).
"Here's a scoop for you," Jake Riviera is to announce gleefully the following evening. "Mickey used to play for Peter Frampton and he co-wrote "Show Me The Way", which sold millions, right? So what's he doing grovelling for peanuts on a Stiff tour"?
Well, it ain't exactly peanuts, Jake. Everybody gets 50 quid a week cash money, but at least one Stiff owed so much money to his cohorts — don't ask me what he spent it on, but it's probably what you'd've spent your bread on if you'd been him — that he ended up with a measly four quid in his pocket on payday after he'd paid back his debts. God, it's tough on the road.
Behind his copy of Jack The Ripper: The Final Solution, tight-buttoned, high-pocketed "Basher" Lowe appears taciturn and truculent, occasionally taking a meditative swig on his bottle of cider. Edmunds appears likewise behind Elvis: What Happened? and then turns the book over to Terry Williams and gets into a heavy-duty poker game which lasts until the coach reaches the first motorway services. Williams gets stuck into the book and then nods out. Towards the back of the coach, Costello plows eagerly through The Essential Lenny Bruce.
There's a film crew in tow, and in order to get the full cinema verite number and capture the — uh — gestalt of the tour in all its awful glory they film the Stiffs leaving the coach to run through the rain into the grease-pit, and even scan them queueing up for the horrorshow neogrub. Worst of all, they film everyone eating.
Larry Wallis groans elaborately. "Listen," he instructs me and Stiff's resident genie, an ebullient yobbo known as Kosmo Vinyl, "let's eat as boringly as we possibly can."
We chomp as mechanistically as is humanly possible until Pennebaker's heirs pack up to try and get some visual out of Ian and Elvis. Wallis cracks up. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone eat as boringly as you just did," he tells Kosmo.
The major event of that particular stop was the discovery of numerous pots of green Slime on sale in the media shop. I don't know if you've seen the stuff, but it's pure Blecccch City: a nasty green goo that looks quite unspeakably vile, like a cross between King Kong's bogies and Linda Blair's puke in The Exorcist. I don't know why they sell it in motorway shops, because it's not exactly the ideal stuff for bored toddlers to smear around in a small car on a long drive, but it's great for nasty-minded rock musicians in a coach.
Kos and Elvis's keyboard player Steve Naive get really obsessed with the stuff, and it's thrown and smeared all over the place by the time we get to the hotel.
Most of the tour personnel kill the hour between check-in and going to the gig by getting pissed or unpacking (me, I take three aspirin, have a cup of coffee and read a bit of J. G. Ballard) but Elvis has different ideas. As soon as we're back on the coach, Costello is grinning like a chimp who's just poured all the P.G. Tips down the director's trousers.
"Who's on the case then?" he gloats. "Who's the greatest scorer of records that ever lived" I've just been down to Woolworth's and I got two copies of "Anarchy In The U.K." on EMI for 32p each!!!"
Kosmo and Wallis are awestruck, as well they might be. To go straight off the coach and slog for 15 minutes down to Woolworth's just on the offchance that there might be something good in the deletions rack and then come up with a find worth anywhere from five to fifteen quid in the London vinyl shylock emporia... listen, anyone out there still sceptical about the sheer, blinding, transcendent genius of Elvis Costello?
Outside the Manchester Apollo, the sign says "Live on stage at 7.30 ELVIS COSTELLO". Clearly, they haven't gotten the message about the five-way democracy on this tour. Or rather four-way: the fifth Greatest Stiff, Wreckless Eric, is back home under doctor's orders. It is explained that, lacking the staying power of the veterans — the collective number of gigs under these guys' belts is astronomical — he threw himself into the touring lifestyle with such enthusiasm that he contracted chronic laryngitis. This means that a firm set order has to be adhered to.
See, Pete Thomas is playing with both Elvis and Basher and Ian Dury plays with Wreckless as well as doing his own set. Therefore, neither of these two gents can do two consecutive sets, which means that the order can be either Wreckless-Lowe-Dury-Costello or Lowe-Wreckless-Costello-Dury (Costello and Dury being the only ones with enough rehearsed material to do the last set). Without Wreckless, the order is therefore Lowe-Dury-Costello. Got it?
At the backstage buffet, Elvis is loading up his plate with a fairly stunning assortment of cheese, cold meats, salady items and whatnot. Seeing my bemused stare, he adds reassuringly "It's not all for me. Some of it's for Day. We used to get so hungry when we were recording "The Long And Winding Road"." He pauses. His spectacles flash evilly. "There's a very interesting story behind all of that..."
He raises his eyebrows invitingly. I say, "Yeah"?
"...which shall remain secret." He wends his way to the tune-up room. I've got just enough time to murmur That's what you think, buster at his recently vacated airspace when it's time to rush out front for curtain-up on The Nick Lowe All-Stars.
Whatever you do, don't ever let anybody tell you that Nick Lowe doesn't know how to put a band together. At the back of the stage there's Terry Williams and Dave Edmunds hammering it out on twin drum kits, and strung out behind Our Hero are Penny Tobin (keyboards), Pete Thomas (rhythm guitar) and Larry Wallis (lead), all laying it down deep and crisp while Basher guns the motor of a mouth-watering vintage Gibson six-string-and-bass doublenecker into "So It Goes".
The tautness of Lowe's sound seems vaguely incongruous against his studiedly casual manner. Still, he can play dynamite bass even in a semi-slouch, and sing real good like a pop star should despite the wad of gum he keeps molaring.
Basher keeps socking it to the people — notably with "Let's Eat" — until it's time for Larry Wallis to strut his stuff. Unlike Lowe, Dury, Costello and Edmunds — who are known and respected by Anglophiliac Yanks even if not by the mass U.S.A. public — Wallis doesn't exactly have the credentials that would make a Rolling Stone critic roll over to have his tummy tickled: I mean, The Pink Fairies, U.F.O. and the unlamented Mark I of Motorhead?
Wallis's mission in life seems to be to prove to the current crop of young 'uns that he's still mean and nasty even though he's got a foot and a half of hair. Judging by the way he performs "On Parole" and "I'm A Police Car" (his new Stiff single, natch) I'd say he succeeds admirably. His slicing guitar and angry, sneering vocals are about as wimpy and mellow as a ton of gelignite.
His moment of glory over, Wallis takes his bow as Lowe announces in a nicely offhand way, "One of our drummers, Dave Edmunds, is gonna come up and play some guitar."
Pete Thomas stashes his borrowed red Strat and slides in behind the kit as a jubilant, juiced-up Edmunds straps on his Gibson ES 335 and bellows into the mike, "Nick Lowe wrote it, I recorded it and I hope you bought it! It's called "I Knew The Bride"!"
The band storm into the song with a crackling energy that provides the most dynamic piece of ear massage thus far: Thomas and Williams hammering their kits through the floor with a flood of power that keeps right up until the band makes its exit on Lowe's superb "Heart Of The City". The keener-eared voyeurs backstage note that Lowe is actually singing "Ardvaark Of The City" on the song's ride-out.
Backstage, all is Welsh jubilation as Phil Ryan and Martin Ace (formerly of the Man band) and George Ace (all three now with The Flying Aces) show up to hang out with Terry and Dai Edmunds to help celebrate Phil's birthday, but it's too late to stop now because Ian Dury and The Blockheads are due up on stage.
In one sense, Dury is the tour's major revelation. It's his return to the public stage following the collapse of The Kilburns some 18 months ago and it all comes right on top of an album that was as exhilarating as the Kilburns' album was universally judged to be disappointing.
(It's called New Boots And Panties!!, just in case you don't know).
The Dury album alone would be a justification — if one were needed — for the existence of Stiff, because I can't think of a single straight record company in England who would have had the vision to commission and release it.
The sound has improved between Lowe's set and Dury's which means that it's gone from appalling to mediocre. The audience have warmed up as well, as is demonstrated by the fact that a couple of them actually brave the security golems roaming the hall and attempt to get up and dance. Mind you, they're stiff-armed right back into their seats within seconds, but it's the thought that counts, and by the time Dury winds up his seat with the anthematic "Sex and Drugs And Rock And Roll", everybody's up at once.
The golems growl and snarl and frown as threateningly as they can, but there are just too damn many people standing up and dancing at once for them to have any effect at all.
There's a moral in that, kidz. Bear it in mind next time you wanna dance at a concert.
Dury's set consisted of the material from his new album, played about one trillion times harder than it was in the studio. The whole set was sublime, but especial standouts were the moving "My Old Man", the hilariously accurate character sketches "Clevor Trever" and "Billericay Dickie", the rocking, spat-out "Sweet Gene Vincent" with a zonked but still dangerous Edmunds laying on some extra guitar muscle, "Plaistow Patricia" with its jaw-dropping intro...if I carry on much longer, I'll have listed the whole damn set under "highlights", but that's the kind of set it was.
Dury's stage presence is as remarkable as everything else about him. In his battered bowler hat and stained jacket, he seems to have lurched leering straight out of Dickens, a manic and macabre costermonger, a Greek Chorus for the rejects and losers. If I had to name Dury's most outstanding quality, it would have to be compassion; if only because of the way he refrains from training upon his characters the scorn that many would say they deserve.
His music is also witty, savage, perceptive, highly original, very musical and you can dance to it. What more can I say? Enjoy.
Finally, there's the king and his elite guard. Elvis Costello and The Attractions look like the kind of kids at my school who hated rock and roll, got to be prefects before anybody else, served as school librarians and were astonishingly officious if you returned a book late or did anything freaky in the library (this may tell you something about the school I went to. Bang goes the last-shred of my street credibility, Oh well). Keep those kids in their school uniforms till their mid-20s, drag 'em through a hedge backwards and you got Elvis Costello and The Attractions.
Except that woweee, they got it tight and they're rockin' here tonight. They're the hottest little teen combo that ever got the kids sobbing while they frugged at the end-of-term dance, and for writing teenage pop songs about adult situations — and playing monster guitar and singing like a bitch while he's doing it — Elvis Costello can't be beat.
As the live tracks on the back of "Watching The Detectives" demonstrate, the live Elvis experience is about as laid back as Godzilla on speed. Put this boy into the Hip MOR bracket at your own peril, son!
The set consists of Elvis classics old and new, and as a special tribute to the missing Wreckless Eric, he does "Go The Whole Wide World" — minus, unfortunately, the life-size cardboard cut-out of Wreckless that he originally intended to bring on. Bruce Thomas slides behind Terry Williams' drum kit, and the band are augmented by Blockheads' saxist and ex-Kilburn Davey Payne, plus Denise Roudette on bass.
Denise is (a) a fine bass player who works with Wreckless's band (b) an all-round fine human being (c) Ian Dury's girlfriend and (d) one of the most beautiful women I've met all year.
For the first encore, Dave Edmunds — by now semi-legless but not giving an inch — comes on to add his guitar sorcery to "Mystery Dance", and for the second the entire cast assembles for — you guessed — "SEX!!! and DRUGS!!! and ROCK!!! and ROLL!!!"
Back at the hotel, there's an impromptu party going on, as the Kursaals and The Cortinas are in town. A California peach named Farrah — "Farrah Fawcett-Minor", is how she introduces herself — who does the tour newsletter is dressed up in a nurse's uniform and is asking various people if they require medical attention. Basher is drinking Bloody Mary from a pint mug, and Dave Edmunds is discussing a song lyric with Will Birch from the Kursaals.
Edmunds is preoccupied with two things: thing the first being the fact that he is somewhat unhappy — to say, the least — with the state of his relationship with his record/management company Swan Song, and thing the second the strength and energy that he derives from working with guitarist Billy Bremner, drummer Terry Williams and bassist-vocalist-songwriter-genius Nick Lowe in his band Rockpile. He's also upset by being described as "dumpy and matted" by Tony Parsons in NME a couple of weeks back.
"I know I've got a little bit of a pot, but the axe hides that. As for matted..." he scratches worriedly at his dishevelled but undeniably clean and shiny barnet and then waves his fist with a gesture so extravagant that he nearly knocks a triple Scotch all over Terry Williams.
The 24-Hour Club a.k.a. The Pound-A-Minute Club is in full swing when I decide to crash out around half three, but the first person I meet in the lift on Saturday morning is Edmunds, face white and jaw clenched. "I'm leaving the tour," he announces.
Downstairs, the air's so thick it's like drowning in molasses. During the night, there'd been an altercation, a bit of midnight raving that had gotten out of hand, a prank escalated into a fullscale accident during one of those moments when perceptions and perspectives are eroded by booze. Though Edmunds was not the main protagonist, he and one other had been fired off the tour by Nick Lowe as soon as the latter found out about it in the morning (it had all happened in his room, but he'd slept right through it).
The Main Culprit had been reinstated by Lowe because he apologised, but Edmunds refused to do likewise, and unrepentantly hopped a cab to the station to go back to London, leaving his guitar and amp in the truck. Lowe and Williams attempt to follow him to the station but all their love's in vain since the train has left ten minutes before they get there.
Saylarvie. Terry Williams drums the first part of Lowe's set by himself. "I Knew The Bride" is dropped from the set and Elvis Costello weighs in on second guitar on "Heart Of The City". And like the cavalry charging over the ridge in the last reel, Wallis delivers a solo on the Saturday night version of "City" that's as good as anyone — even Dai Edmunds — could have played on that song. Watch this boy — life begins at 30, Larry.
En route to Leicester, the party stops in the charming little tourist-trap village of Bakewell — where, as various members of the party are not slow to point out, the tarts come from. Ian Dury buys up one chemist's shop's entire stock of Interdens — medicated toothpicks, lamebrain! — and ceremoniously distributes them to the assembled company.
After various eating places have been dismissed as "too expensive", I-man ends up having lunch with Costello, Davey Payne, Farrah and photographer Fran at a tiny little caff where the strain of providing five simultaneous orders proves almost too much for the facilities.
After the purchase of throat pastilles, apples, and ice-cream, me and Costello settle down to rap our way to Leicester. Various people are opining that Edmunds will show up in Leicester. Me, I reckon it seems unlikely and sure enough there he isn't, but by Monday he's back — "Hello boys" — and All Is Well.
Elvis Costello reckons that the current albums by Richard Hell, Talking Heads and Ian Dury are among the finest music of the last decade, and that the biggest pain in the musical ass these days are punkwagon jumpers. He loves The Sex Pistols and The Clash, but has nothing but withering contempt for the third-div punk bands.
"Ian Dury's "Blackmail Man" really shows those whining little brats what it's all about."
There's been talk of Richard Hell becoming an honorary Stiff for the occasion in Leicester, and as it turns out he's there at the gig, but in a non-playing capacity. He's in the wings for the Dury and Costello sets, chugging on a can of beer and staring in bemusement at the slightly absurd spectacle of me and Costello singing along to "My Old Man". His eyes widen — if that's possible — in delight as Dury croaks "Arse-holes-bas-tards-fuck-ing cunts-and-PRICKS!!!" at the beginning of "Plaistow Patricia".
In his honour, Costello opens his set with Hell's "Love Comes In Spurts".
As soon as we'd trooped into the hall, Pete Thomas had turned round and announced "Now this, my friends, is what I call a gig," and in terms of sound quality and general vibe Leicester beats Manchester all hollow, even despite the absence of Dave Edmunds. The audience is up and grooving right from the start, which proves that college gigs are okay, buster, even though they do play an endlessendlessendless eight-track of Sergeant Pepper in the bar.
Which is where we came in, with Ian Dury's joyous innocent mantra "SEX!!!! and DRUGS!!!! and ROCK!!!! and ROLL!!!!" chanted by a berserk hallful of kids high on good vibes and rock and roll music and anything that they happened to have brought along with them.
Listen, everyone's a billtopper on this tour, everyone's a star, and I'd recommend you go see any of these acts, singly and together, in the future: Dave Edmunds's Rockpile with Nick Lowe, Ian Dury's Blockheads, Elvis Costello and the Attractions and whatever Larry Wallis gets up to next, not to mention poor ol' Wrecked Wreckless Eric. You know it makes sense bruvvers'n sistuhs, and you best believe it's gonna do ya good...