Bedraggled Part IV
by Marco Rossi
Ah yes, where were we? In narrative timeline terms, this Sisyphean saga last paused for breath on April 6, 1989, with the members of KMO being all cross (and, as a direct consequence, pretty incandescent) in the Moles Club in Bath. In actual terms, however, I’m guessing that I wrote Bedraggled III, this piece’s unruly predecessor, in the early 1990s: and in the interim, the beneficial, clarifying prism of perspective and hindsight has manifested itself.
Much has, of course, changed. Back in the day, my hair weighed more than my body did. An alarmingly comprehensive reversal of that ratio means that I’m starting to resemble a skittle with glasses on. You could stand me in an ID parade next to fucking Super Mario and we’d be indistinguishable from each other. Or, you could issue everyone else in the ID parade with a pair of those joke shop specs you get that have eyebrows, a nose and a beard attached, and they’d all look exactly like me. Sigh.
Moreover, reading back through the stuff I wrote in nineteen-ninety-whatever, I clearly had time on my hands: sufficient time to get all Samuel Pepys on your collective asses at inordinate length, and evidently time enough to obsess myself into a right old paddy about the perceived unfairness of our treatment at the hands of music biz abacus rattlers and tastemakers alike.
I’m fine with it all now, though. Clearly, it was an absolute privilege for me. I was exceptionally fortunate to have been handed even a brief chance to play with my KMO kompadres Kevin, Jim and Steph in handsome halls and sexy studios, often under hysterical circumstances. Having said that, I can still generate an admirable head of indignant steam on Kevin’s behalf – I won’t be truly satisfied until he is universally acknowledged as the finest, classiest Scottish songwriter of his generation – but for my part, it’s all clover.
With the passage of time, it’s also retrospectively clear that a combination of financial stress, with a young family to care for, and consequent mood troughs during which I trod in circles in a realm of unmitigated bleakness made me an insufferable pain in the hole at times, for which I can only apologise. Something else I came to realise over the years, with mortifying slowness, was that my role in life wasn’t (as I’d hitherto fancifully imagined) to be some kind of guitar godhead, capering about onstage with Kiss face paint and a Swarovski crystal butt plug. No no. If anything, my true calling was to enthusiastically evangelise about other, better caperers, and to painstakingly document the capering thereof. So, let the documenting recommence…
Anyone’s guess is as good as mine regarding the whereabouts of the long-lost parts one and two of this cautionary tale. If the Time Team ever excavates an early version of the internet – which, I should imagine, will look like an ear trumpet with Pacman farting into it – then perhaps we might be reunited with them. My own copies are presumably landfill by now, as a thorough search of the west wing failed to unearth anything other than leccy bills written in arterial blood and first drafts of fan letters to Jake Thackray. I have, however, been truffling about with my research pantaloons on, and it would appear that the next interlude of note in KMO’s development was our support duty on the 1989 UK tour undertaken by 10,000 Maniacs.
Strictly speaking, this should perhaps be more accurately immortalised as the ‘10,004 Maniacs’ tour. For us, it was an exciting and revelatory opportunity to perform in a number of comfy and commodious British theatres without having to shoulder the myriad responsibilities of the headliners. Done and dusted by 8.30pm each evening, our sole objectives were to upstage the prefecture, stomp the stage into smithereens and neck the rider thereafter, wandering dreamily around in the audience like Lady Macbeths.
The tour, which took place almost entirely in benevolent early summer sunshine, began on Saturday, May 20, 1989 in Norwich UEA. I remember sitting with Kevin on the warm grass of the campus before the late afternoon soundcheck, watching Natalie Merchant making a daisy chain while she was being interviewed by an NME bod, and thinking: I could get used to this. (Fate subsequently decreed that I would never have to get used to it: but hey-ho.)
I also remember uncharacteristically sunbathing, shirtless, on a bench next to a river outside the hotel. Steph came wandering along the path and, as he later revealed, felt a bit threatened as he mistook me for a hard ticket. This is one of the most flattering things anyone’s ever said about me: I can only assume that the dazzling sunlight reflecting off my bones and eggshell pallor caused irreparable damage to Steph’s retinas, and the area of his brain that generates rational thought.
Back at the venue, I noticed that 10,000 Maniacs had the words ‘thank you for not smoking’ stencilled on their flight cases. This was commendable and well ahead of the curve in some ways. In other ways… eesh. The average road crew in 1989 smoked like the Springfield tyre fire: unloading those flight cases must have felt as though sentence had been passed by the Ironic Punishments Division.
Making well-intentioned but ultimately somewhat censorious, passive-aggressive pronouncements did seem a bit of an endemic impulse with Natalie, who was sweet but distant when confronted with four ravening Scotsmen – well, three Scotsmen and some form of leprous Italo-Scot humanzee – speaking in what she must have perceived as barbarian tongues. As regards her bandmates, they were avuncular and gentlemanly to a fault. We did garner a distinct impression that they might have been at their most comfortable when teacher was out of the room.
The following day, Sunday, May 21, saw us coalescing at Cambridge Corn Exchange. I was excited into near-incontinence about this as the venue had hosted the supremely ill-fated penultimate concert performed by my dissolute hero, Syd Barrett, in 1972. (Syd and his band Stars had to follow the MC5 onto the stage. Jesus himself would have thought twice about agreeing to that arrangement.) Wouldn’t you know it, I can’t recall a single thing about our Corn Exchange gig: but I do remember walking along the banks of the River Cam in the afternoon heat, spotting guitar necks and girls’ legs poking up out of the long grass as students decadently loafed and sprawled in the sunshine. ‘Grantchester Meadows’ played in my mind on a tranquil, opiated loop.
I think it was on Monday, May 22 at The Studio in Bristol that Natalie prefaced the 10,000 Maniacs set by delivering a soliloquy over the mic about walking through the town and seeing a dead swan in the river, which was, you know, really uncool. Again, impeccably well-intentioned: but as an intro to a gig, you’d have to say it’s hardly ‘kick out the jams, motherfuckers’.
On Wednesday, May 24 the Maniacs swanned off mid-tour to the National Stadium in Dublin to play with Elvis Costello, the splitters. I haven’t the first clue what KMO did instead, but I do have a stray memory of a late afternoon game of footie in a sunny quadrangle somewhere in Middle England. It’s obviously memorable to me because I actually took part: not something I would voluntarily have done as a schoolkid unless I had been brusquely pressed into service as a goalpost or a boot scraper. Given that the next gig was a ‘homer’ on Saturday, May 27 in the Glasgow Pavilion, we surely can’t have been playing footie for the entire time up until then, unless everyone was waiting for me to score a goal. Maybe we played Legends in Warrington during that week? (That particular gig has come to represent something of a comedic forfeit in KMO lore: but it actually turned out to be another angry belter, whenever it was.)
The problem with unreliable memory syndrome – exacerbated by lost diaries – is that certain recollections get smashed together into glittering, tantalising fragments over the years, while others roll under the sofa entirely, perhaps never to re-emerge into the light. I seem to think that our sets on Sunday, May 28 at the Queens’ Hall in Edinburgh and Tuesday, May 30 at Sheffield University were bloodthirsty, bolshy affairs, gratifyingly well-received: but I can’t be 100 per cent certain. As for Wednesday, May 31 at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, I remember the keen sense of anticipation at performing in another historic venue: the site of the 1976 Sex Pistols gig that directly or indirectly resulted in the formation of The Buzzcocks, Joy Division and, may God forgive humankind, Simply Red. (Famously, everyone in Manchester claims to have been at that Pistols gig. We were at it too, but the queue was so long that we didn’t get in until 13 years later.)
I’m fairly certain that it was at the Free Trade Hall gig that I got into a thought-provoking conversation with a raincoat-wearing fanzine editor who came backstage in the interval, shaking his head and professing a certain bewilderment. ‘I don’t understand it,’ he kept saying. ‘I really enjoyed your set, but I don’t normally like bands like you.’
‘Bands like who, or what?’ I asked him.
‘Major-label bands,’ he replied.
As I recall, I soundly berated him for the lazy sin of journalistic shorthand: bracketing together wildly disparate elements under an entirely arbitrary classification. (Little did I then know that I’d commit that same sin several hundred times over in the press in later life, and have a killer whale of a time doing so.) It used to irk me when we were offhandedly referred to as a Scottish band, for instance, as if that was all it took to define our sound. Back then, I would argue that if you could detect any common ground – other than the ground they were standing on – between, say, Teenage Fanclub, The Whistlebinkies and Frankie Miller, then your ears were considerably keener than mine. Which were perfectly formed, but mounted either side of a cauliflower face.
However, the point I failed to appreciate at the time is that, for example, a significant part of the reason I love Can, Faust, NEU!, Harmonia, Guru Guru, Kraftwerk and Cluster so much is that they were formed in an enlightened Germany between 1968 and 1974. If KMO’s Scottish birthright helped to make some people warm to us, then I get it now. And if anyone fancies rustling up a KMO 1989 commemorative shortbread tin, I can think of no more thrilling item of swag.
Speaking as we were a moment ago about unreliable memory syndrome, my recollection is that it was on the night of Wednesday, May 31 1989 that we were getting royally scoofed in the bar of the Britannia Hotel in Manchester when The Ramones walked in, looking just like The Ramones in their leathers, jeans and baseball boots, while we were flopping around inhaling helium from party balloons and squeaking with mouseketeer-pitched laughter. (‘Where are the balloons?’ ‘They’re sitting at that table over there, getting shitfaced and inhaling helium.’)
However, this can’t be right. Kevin remembers this incident as occurring on St Patrick’s Night, which would certainly account for the balloons. I’ve tried cross-referencing the dates with the Ramones’ 1989 gig list, and I can’t seem to put us in the same place at the same time at any point during that entire year. And yet, there they inarguably were, the makers of the debut album that saved the world in 1976. It saved mine, at any rate. Had I known what fate had in store for them, I’d have hugged them all and refused to let go, ever: so perhaps it’s just as well. That could have been seriously awkward whenever any of them needed to use the bog.
Another vaguely Ramones-related incident took place in the aftermath of a Swiss festival in 1991: remind me to tell you about that one at a later date, it’s a real arse-clencher: simply too harrowing and involved to go into here.
On Thursday, June 1 we were at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. I remember being impressed with the surprisingly opulent venue, and less impressed with the view of a burning Datsun Bluebird on the waste ground outside our motel room.
The tour concluded with two celebratory nights at what was then the Hammersmith Apollo, on Friday, June 2 and Saturday, June 3. I mentally ticked off another satisfying pop culture reference, as it was the staircase at the rear of this building which The Beatles scampered down in A Hard Day’s Night before a deft edit found them frolicking on a field many miles distant. Did I talk Kevin, Jim and Steph into venturing out to the back of the building to pay homage to this venerated piece of utilitarian ironwork? I rather think I did, but I’m fully prepared to accept that my mind might just be occupying itself with a spot of colouring in.
For the moment, let’s leave us there. Where? There on the stair. There on the stair, right there. We’re young and lovely, hope swells in our bosoms, and Europe and the US beckon provocatively. I’ll try not to leave it for another 20 years before I can find the time to write the next instalment.