Every so often in this crazy, lark-about world of rock 'n' roll you find yourself in a situation so utterly unexpected that you begin to wonder if your long-suffering grey matter hasn't finally snapped under the relentless pummelling it's been subjected to and started conjuring up it's own version of reality instead.
The Vive Le Rock Awards ceremony this week provoked several examples of this curious phenomena as I found myself twanging bass at Islington Academy alongside a personal rock hero, legends of the '77 punk scene and the great green-door ponderer himself, Shakin' Stevens.
Seven years ago a one Mr Eugene Butcher launched Vive Le Rock Magazine, which quickly established itself as Britain's premier standard-bearer for the demented living corpse that is rock 'n' roll. Their excellent taste saw them awarding The Righteous Mind debut a glowing 10/10 review, so I won't deny a prejudice of warm sentiment towards the publication. That aside, it is an immutable fact that should you need to know about rock 'n' roll music then you consult Vive Le Rock Magazine. It's a natural law and science proves it.
Last December they held a xmas party at Holloway's Nambucca and I was invited to play bass for the house band, cunningly named the Vive Le Rockers. Paul-Ronney Angel fronted up the group with Slim Cyder on keys and Ruts drummer David Ruffy, with various guest singers coming up throughout the night to thrash out punk classics to a boozy crowd. It was a whole heap of fun and ended in utter debauchery as might be expected given the clientèle and the gallons of Jägermeister flying around.
pic by Sin Bozkurt
Undeterred by the doubtlessly monstrous bar tab, Eugene invited the Vive Le Rockers to reform for the first ever VLR awards ceremony and kick things up a notch or two. Once my doctor had given my liver a clean bill of health I agreed without further hesitation. This time we were to be augmented by a horn section featuring Harrison Cole and Stuart Dace of the Urban Voodoo Machine / FSOS. Tasty.
A couple of rehearsals had us getting a short set together and the list of guest singers was revealed. TV Smith of The Adverts, Charlie Harper of UK SUBS, Michael Monroe from Hanoi Rocks and none other than Shakin' Stevens. Quite a mixed bunch then.
Now, before I go any further I want to say that I have a lot of respect for Shaky. Although the stuff I saw him do on Top of the Pops as a kid was anathema to the kind of noisy mayhem I liked, the feller has been a solid live performer for years, worked with some greats and more than paid his dues. Which I guess is why he was invited to a celebration of rock 'n' roll, even if most of the other participants were of a louder and spikier variety. The song we were to play with him was thankfully not a cheesy 80s Elvis pastiche but a hard rocking cover of Chuck Berry's 'It's My Own Business.'
The biggest boon for me however was the prospect of playing a couple of tunes with Michael Monroe. As a youngster Hanoi Rocks had made a huge impression on me. And I mean Trump-style YUGE. In fact, had I been able to travel backwards through time and inform my younger self that this would one day happen, his/my head would quite possibly have exploded. For the uninitiated, Hanoi Rocks were an outrageous riot of hairspray and guitars from Finland that raised a cult following in the Eighties before imploding with the sadly traditional route of death and addiction. Hard to pin down musically, essentially they were Glam rock but with more of a Stonesy-psychedelic-punk sneer than the Los Angeles gang that would later swipe their threads and eye shadow to peddle soft-rock anthems.
Although I only discovered them after they'd split up, Hanoi Rocks records (and the seminal live VHS 'All Those Wasted Years') were like a gateway drug, a first hit that would lead me further and further into the illicit world of underground rock 'n' roll. And I couldn't believe the way that they looked - were people actually allowed to look like that? Were there not laws against it? Electrified hair shooting off in all directions, tight satin strides with cucumber bulges, rococo blouses and brothel creepers. And craziest of all they were blokes and they wore MAKE-UP. And, weirdly, girls seemed to LIKE it too. What was going on here - surely this wasn't how the rules worked? I was growing up in recession hit Newcastle at the time, a depressed and depressing city, my peers blokes in shellsuits with moustaches and no future. This lot looked like they'd landed from another planet, one populated with debauched androgynous freaks that hadn't had a good meal in ages but still knew how to kick arse. Which is exactly how a true rock star should look, of course. I was hooked. What else could I do but bleach my hair a ghastly shade of orange and start tunelessly thrashing away at a guitar. Keep at it kid, only a few short decades to go...
Eh, are them lads or lasses?
It was going to be a long day, arriving at noon to set up the amps and go through the songs with each of the guest performers. I can't deny a certain degree of apprehension playing well known tunes with the people who wrote them to an audience of their staunchest fans. Nope, not a pressure at all, just watch out for the flying gob. Charlie Harper arrived and put us at ease claiming he couldn't remember his songs either “I've not played 'em for a long long time. Must be at least.... a month” he jokes. As it happens they come together nicely, propelled along by Ruffy's machine gun drumming and brass hits like a punch to the face.
Mr Monroe himself then arrives, a whirlwind of skinny peroxide energy. He sweeps across the empty gig hall towards the stage and leaps straight over the crash barrier, no time to waste taking the stairs. He looks every inch the Genuine Rock Star™, hand-made leather outfit adorned with stars, sunglasses, deep tan and pearly white teeth, that famous blonde mop still spouting jauntily from his pate. I'm delighted to note that he also sports tiny white stars painted on his black nail varnish. He may be 56 years old but that ain't stopping nuttin'. Bounding around the stage Mike introduces himself to the band and we waste no time in cracking on with the tunes - 'Taxi Driver' by Hanoi and 'Kick Out The Jams' by The MC5. After a couple of run throughs time gets the better of us and he swiftly exits, stage left. I take a moment to soak in the experience. Bloody hell, Michael Monroe. Fancy that.
Islington Academy boasts a decent stage but unfortunately located dressing rooms down several long flights of stairs and a brief jog along a corridor. It's a serious journey betwixt the two that requires strategic planning and not for the faint or weak of heart. Given that we're mostly celebrating the amphetamine-and-cider saturated punk scene of the seventies tonight these stairs could well prove the end of some of the main protagonists.
We take to the stage blasting out Link Wray's 'Rumble' and Eugene (eventually) appears to introduce the awards ceremony. TV Smith takes the mic and we blast out some of his classics including 'Gary Gilmores Eyes' and 'Expensive Being Poor.' They sound great and go down a treat with the crowd - thank gawd for that.
There's a break for us as Ginger Wildheart takes over to lead proceedings, so we take a deep breath and begin the trek down to our dressing room. Being a full roster tonight we're forced to double up on the already tiny changing space. And squeezed in with us tonight? Only The Damned. Christ. The Damned. I'm not even going to waste time introducing them, if you don't know then I fear there is little more I can do for you and our friendship is officially at an end. Please leave.
Barely letting the years touch them Captain and Vanian are exactly as I would have imagined and hoped, thoroughly gentlemanly and genial to boot. Despite being squashed together in a tiny underground bunker miles below ground, spirits and sartorial creases are maintained. There were plenty of other familiar faces to be spotted and a more avid name-dropper then I would continue to bore you with a list. However, I'm not one of those frightful Kardashian sorts, always banging on about their celeb mates. Needless to say it was a veritable who's-who of punk and new wave royalty legging it up and down the stairs to grab beers and wheezingly recover with gasping cigarettes and swears.
Back on stage and it's Shaky's turn to rock. Allaying any apprehension he may of had about appearing before an audience of punk fans, he does a great job and the crowd whoops it up approvingly. Next up it's time for Michael Monroe - here we go(!) And what a performer - the man is just a whirlwind, check out the video below
Fantastic, what a thrill. But we're not done yet, there's Charlie Harper for a couple of UK Subs numbers and then another moment of rock surrealism as Ginger Wildheart joins us, Rickenbacker bass in hand. We'd planned to end our set with 'Ace of Spades' and, as he was the main presenter for evening, it was suggested that he come on and play guitar. "Howay man, this is a tribute to Lemmy, let's have TWO basses" replies Ginger. I can't argue with that. So we simultaneously start the chugging intro to 'Ace of Spades' and the band roars into action like a launching V2 engine. Singer Tomi Rae runs onstage to belt out a few verses and the blistering brass section is joined by flame haired Lucy Fire on Sax, it's a cracking end to the set.
There's more to come from The Professionals and The Damned, during which time I unwind with a few of the provided beverages and head out front to locate my friends and avoid my enemies. The Urban Voodoo Marching Band crash around the after-show raising spirits and the hard-core remainers drink the bar dry. Legendary evening, thanks again to Paul-Ronney for organising the band, Eugene for the immense hard work and all the others involved in making the night happen (shout-out to me old pal Ben Perrier doing the sound.) Now get out there, buy a copy of Vive Le Rock Magazine and support rock 'n' roll!
~ G ~