I first attended a live music gig in October 1998 and, writing in April 2017, I have been to about three-hundred-and-fifty others since then. I did not intend to become someone who travels around the country, and occasionally the continent or across oceans, in the pursuit of hearing my favourite bands – but that is who I am. It is possible that I just grew older and cantankerous, but it is equally possible that gig-going has been ruined by online ticket sales, the secondary resale market, and self-obsessed pricks with camera-phones.
It was in 2000 that I began to regularly attend concerts, buying tickets in person from one agent that still exists and two record stores that have closed down. Occasionally, I would buy from the venue direct – the crowning glory being a ticket in the second row of the Edinburgh Playhouse stalls to see Alice Cooper with Dio. I was in the right place at the right time to see the Lostprophets’ first ever Glasgow gig, and Pantera’s last. The influence of a friend (and the cancellation of his scheduled T In The Park festival appearance) meant that I saw David Bowie play what became his final Scottish show. I watched Brutal Deluxe play the Cathouse to an audience of six people, and Iron Maiden play the first Download Festival to sixty thousand. I was there when FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks) played their debut live show, and I flew from Glasgow to Los Angeles just to witness a rare 75-minute Combichrist techno set. In short, my experience has been as wide and varied as my taste in music.
I still enjoy going to smaller club shows (aside from the insufferable selfie-takers, iphone photographers, and especially those who film video with their phones in portrait mode), but trying to obtain tickets for anything popular has become so much of a chore that it has sucked the joy right out of the whole endeavour. Chronologically, my recent gripes have been with the Reeves & Mortimer tour cancellation; Penn and Teller’s UK tour; Alice Cooper’s 2017 presales; and the BBC 6 Music Festival.
Bob Mortimer required emergency heart surgery, meaning that he was unable to perform as scheduled. See Tickets refunded, but kept the transaction fees that everybody had been charged when booking seats – leaving me three pounds out of pocket. Now consider, they had sold out venues every night, each averaging about two thousand seats. Suddenly it is apparent that See skimmed several thousand pounds off a man’s poor health – which is pretty reprehensible.
In 2016, when I was trying to buy four individual tickets to see my favourite band play in four UK cities, See advised me that they offer no “add to basket” option, and would force me to pay a transaction fee on each brief. Thankfully, I used individual agencies and went to the venues own sites and managed to pay a more sensible amount.
Lately, it has frustrated me that both Iron Maiden and Ricky Gervais have opted to use Ticketmaster in their seemingly noble bids to combat touts. Ticketmaster IS the tout – they operate two different secondary resale sites, with alleged evidence that some briefs are diverted for sale there without ever having been made available through the primary channel. Iron Maiden have claimed success with their “ticketless ticketing” system for the 2017 UK tour, while Gervais inflated the price of premium seats himself – giving the additional spend to charity, but again limiting access to only the wealthiest. Despite their assertions, it is not “fairer to the fans” that these high profile acts endorse the one ticketing agency that we all feel ripped off by.
In December 2016, I decided to jump on my chance to see magicians Penn and Teller, whose television career I have been following since the mid-1990s when Channel Four aired “The Unpleasant World of” show. I soon learned that TicketSoup, which was formed by and used to cover sales for Glasgow’s SECC and Clyde Auditorium, had been taken over by or merged with the dreaded Ticketmaster. So began the pain – I logged on and selected (from an interactive plan) the seats that I wanted, at which point an instructional box popped up. Due to high demand, it informed me, I would be unable to select my own seats and instead it would offer me whatever was available. My chosen seats at the front of the first circle had been greyed out, and in their place would I like two seats on the fourth level, three rows from the back wall of the theatre? Not knowing any better, I accepted, suddenly miles from where I wanted to be to see the performance. Insult to injury, the next day a second date was announced, and when idle curiosity (or masochism) made me look at availability, I could have at least had third level. I cannot say that I hold the same enthusiasm, knowing that I was deliberately diverted into buying seats so bad that I will be watching expert sleight of hand from virtually outside.
That same month, Alice Cooper announced his first UK tour for five years – excitement soon tempered when it was revealed that these gigs in standing arenas would be all seated. If you wanted to be at the front of the stage, you would have to find a seat located there – and good luck to you. Presales were announced on his official site and for customers of two different corporations – one telephones, one home energy. The next day, there would be presales through Ticketmaster and AXS, and on the individual venue pages, followed by general sale the day after that. You had seven places to try, therefore, in pursuit of a decent spot – more, if you planned to try and catch a couple of shows, and his diehard fans often travel to see the lot.
He did at least guarantee a ticket near the front, provided you paid a premium for one of four different “VIP” packages that were on offer. No need for luck, all you need is money – specifically, £482.50 to sit in the front row (and meet him, and various other unnecessary stuff – merchandise and photo opportunities and the like.) Alternatively, you could slum it in rows two to five, for just £426, and meet him but for less time – or whatever the supposed perks are. Personally, some of us just enjoy being down the front to see an iconic showman play his hits accompanied by the finest musicians he can find.
The Alice thing irked his entire fanbase, certainly on one respected and thorough forum. With all packages accounted for, his diehard fans would now be located fifteen rows from the front, behind the casual fans with money to burn, having to find the best available tickets for each location they plan to visit – a tedious process to be repeated as remaining availability dwindled at every subsequent venue on the list. The VIP experience used to be an upgrade, on previous tours, but Alice’s personal assistant (who was very sympathetic) says that sales soared when they included the ticket too. So to Hell with the fans, it is all about ticket company profits.
For my part, I was offered one seat – too far back, though in the centre section, and I declined it – and was automatically then assigned a number of seats dotted around the outskirts of the floor, declining each in the pursuit of something nearer the stage. This was in the presale, and then in the general sale I tried again – and bought again, when I found I could be in row seventeen instead of row thirty. If you want a ticket to see Alice Cooper in Glasgow this November, I have a spare to sell – it is right in front of the sound desk, so if you just want to see the show from the position which should have the best sound (since that is where the operator is listening from), then we can talk. Me, I want to be nearer the action.
I do love my music, which is why I never listen to the radio – a medium where it is used to fill gaps between irritating commercials, or as an interlude from the banal chatter of witless presenters. It was social media that alerted me the 6 Music Festival was coming to Glasgow this year, and I was so excited at the announcement of Sparks that I had to be told directly that they had further revealed a Depeche Mode gig at the relatively tiny Barrowland Ballroom. It seemed a strange choice, given the size of venue (the festival would also encompass the city’s Academy the same night, which holds more), and also for DM’s history here. Singer Dave Gahan’s immediate assertion that they’ve always had a good time here failed to ring true – they played this city in 1986, and did not come back until 2009 (they played Edinburgh in 1988, so their eventual return was twenty-one years after they had last been in Scotland, and twenty-three since they played Glasgow – where, a first-hand source told me, he saw them booed off stage for miming.) Most bands who love us and who regularly tour try to play more frequently than twice every quarter-century.
Aware of these facts, having previously had to travel to Manchester and London in 2006 to see them, my oldest friend and I had decided for various reasons that we were not going to attend any more of their UK dates. The exception, we both instantly agreed when we heard the news, would be this intimate club set. All I had to do was secure tickets.
A local club DJ stated (perhaps with inside knowledge) that 1400 tickets would be sold, in a venue that usually holds 2000, and my estimate now is that they probably did lose about a third of the capacity due to extended staging, set dressing, and the various technology required for recording and broadcasting. I submitted a Freedom Of Information request after the fact, regarding numbers, but the BBC snippily replied that they were not obliged to provide the data and refused to do so voluntarily. It would have been interesting to learn just how far demand outstripped supply.
Due to go on sale at 10am one Friday, I was poised and on the website twenty minutes ahead of time – but clicked away as, I have learned, the link quietly went live fifteen minutes early – placing customers in an online queue, and putting me thirteen minutes behind those who had already discovered the fact. By 10:08am there were no DM tickets left for me, and I hear they sold out faster than that. I could have accepted my poor fortune, if the process had seemed at all fair.
It would be reasonable to think that a portion of tickets could have been allocated for local collection in person only, as the online system was swamped with keen English people and Europeans taking advantage, in the knowledge that trains and flights and hotels can be had for a comparatively low cost. Had a percentage of tickets been kept aside for those in the vicinity, we would have camped out overnight like we used to – knowing we were being held in a queue, on account of the fact we would be able to see all of the people in it. What is the point of taking the festival to different cities every year, if you refuse to guarantee entry for at least some of those living in the vicinity? It might as well be hosted annually in London.
The online system advised not to refresh the browser page, or risk losing your place. One friend, frustrated at the lack of availability, refreshed the page and was rewarded with the option to obtain a pair – suggesting that, as well as going live prematurely, the dedicated site had glitches.
My intention had been to buy four tickets, the two I needed and a further two to sell at face value (I knew a few people looking) – I would be a hero to somebody. Instead, I failed.
The touts succeeded, of course – instantly listing on sites like Viagogo for seven, eight, nine hundred pounds. Touts used to stand outside in the rain, they invested a bit of time and effort. If you were smart, you could wait until showtime and then haggle the price – offering face value (or less) and knowing they would either take what they could get or keep hold of a worthless piece of paper. Not now. Now anybody looking to make a fast buck can do so without standing up.
The BBC reacted quickly, promising that nobody who bought on the secondary market would get in. Absolutely, definitely not. No chance. ID to be checked on the door. very strict, do not attempt it. That policy worked well – and I say that with the sarcasm of someone who bought a ticket on Twitter for the Sparks and Goldfrapp gig, and who can be seen in the BBC’s own footage, at the barrier, applauding the former after their performance of “Dick Around.” Meanwhile, another friend bought tickets for DM, and then forked out for a fake ID (which she had to order in the name of the man who had originally paid for the tickets) – not only was this ruse successful in getting her in, it makes a mockery of the whole enterprise: forced to fund the secondary ticket market AND invest in the equally immoral practice of forging identification documents.
For my part, a generous stranger purchased a ticket for me on Viagogo (the reasons for this are a story in themselves), leaving me desperately trying to find my friend a way in. This friend, I have written before, introduced me to DM and they are her band. It was imperative that she be there, to which end I racked my brains and investigated every avenue. It was hopeless.
On the Saturday, the Gigs In Scotland Twitter page announced a handful of tickets would be immediately released for every venue that evening – I can only presume that this was from the allocations reserved for the BBC, and released for sale once they knew how many staff, guests, and VIPs they expected. It was 2:27pm, and the official BBC 6 Music page retweeted the information, meaning that Gigs In Scotland was the original source of the news. Come the Sunday, I sat on their page from 1pm until 4pm, refreshing constantly, only to discover – nothing. In vain, I phoned the Barrowland, who confirmed that there would be no tickets on the door that night, and no Production tickets released. It was over. I had exhausted every option.
I phoned my friend, adamant that she take my ticket, which she refused with equal stubbornness. Short of marching her there, I had no choice but to concede. My enthusiasm was gone, replaced with the sadness of knowing that I had let down my oldest friend, my closest confidante. I had a way in for myself, but was disconnected from it – a gift from someone I have never met, unrelated to my persistence and effort. I could take it or leave it, and would have surrendered it in a moment had my friend only agreed. Instead, I used the tout-sold ticket that the BBC had definitely blocked, and went in to watch my best friend’s once-in-a-lifetime dream gig, without her.
The stage had been extended to accomodate the band, with fully grown trees felled and placed at either side as set dressing, both highlighted with ultraviolet paint. The ceiling tiles had been similarly marked, in various colours, to brand the hall in the 6 Music Festival style, and camera equipment further reduced the crowd capacity. They brought us a band who had ignored our city for most of my life, shoehorned them into a space they had made to look nothing like it usually does, and excluded most of the home audience from attending. The gig was amazing, but the overall experience was awful.
Above: In the words of Joseph Heller (Closing Time, 1994) “The Freedom of Information Act…was a federal regulation obliging government agencies to release all information they had to anyone who made application for it, except information they had that they did not want to release. And, because of this one catch in the Freedom of Information Act…they were technically not compelled to release any information at all. […] It was a good catch…because the government did not have to release any information about the information they chose not to release…”
After several years dotting about the local comedy scene, which saw my 100 stand-up gigs documented in the blog that preceded this one, I have decided to do my first solo show this year. Poster, descriptions, and ticket links follow below. I hope you can make it along, I expect it to be a one-off.
If you buy tickets online in advance, you will be entered into a draw to win some comedy DVDs – details here.
Facebook Event Page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1488221281506109/
Having sent this email and received a reply so brief as to be almost non-existent, which also continued in its failure to address anything I had said, I wrote back without particularly holding back:
Dear Mr Farress, “Customer Relations Consultant”,
I trust you had a pleasant Christmas, and presume that you over-imbibed: only the presence of a monstrous hangover can possibly explain the brevity of your latest reply.
The alternative is that Virgin Trains are even less interested in providing adequate customer service than they are in ensuring trains run punctually, or at all.
I have written two letters of complaint, totalling eleven full typed pages, and so far you have failed to directly address a single sentence. Putting in a modicum of effort is unlikely to kill you, despite how it might feel – suffering as you must surely be from your festive alcoholic over-indulgence. I would have been happy to wait until the New Year for a response, had it meant you were sufficiently clear-headed to send me an appropriate reply.
I see now why your previous letter was full of copied-and-pasted (albeit irrelevant) paragraphs – left to your own devices, you have misspelled the word “cancellation,” an error which seems glaring given how many times you must encounter it in the course of your working life. Furthermore, you have asked me to “send through the relevant tickets” – I attached photographs to my original email, and you will find them there if you peer closer through your booze-induced fug. I can send them again if you prefer. You have already wasted so much of my time, you may as well squander a little more.
To remind you of the facts, I had booked four Virgin Train journeys in the space of six days. Of those four trains, two were cancelled and one arrived late. You have completely failed to address any issues mentioned with the staff, the service provision, or the level of customer service encountered thus far – most of which has been unsatisfactory.
I understand that, as a major company and in line with others of your size, you do not need to particularly care about any given customer’s experience. We are all but drops in the ocean to you. However, you most certainly do not lack the funds to reimburse me for my tickets and for the inconvenience and distress caused. Even discounting the refund of the concert ticket, which you refuse to pay despite forcing me to miss the gig – my sole reason for travelling – you should still be held to account.
I therefore repeat my request that you issue me a payment of £120 to cover my expenses, the abomination of a service you barely provide, and the stress and worry caused as a result of your actions and inactions.
I would also like a full reply to my original complaints, regarding the failure of station and train staff to adequately convey information.
I would ask to “escalate” this letter, but am informed by your Twitter team that I must telephone to do so – at my expense. They inform me that escalation will also occur if I include the VT-reference number attached to my initial email, however (having already included it in my follow-up communication) that previously returned straight to you. It is hardly escalation if we continue going round in circles, all my replies answered by the same work-shy inebriate who has exhausted so much endeavour in celebrating Christmas that he has no inclination to perform his job with any degree of competence.
Nevertheless, I will play by your rules. Please ensure this letter is escalated, and – once your New Year hangover has subsided and you feel able to write with relevance – I will be happy to hear what steps you will be taking to resolve this. In addition to receiving the payment and reply asked for.
While waiting for a reply, I am considering sending the whole of my correspondence to the CEO.
Update: I plan to write a separate blog to conclude this tale, but the upshot is – three letters totalling twelve pages later – they have refunded me £24 in cash (cheque) and sent me £100 in rail vouchers. My Virgin Train tickets, for the journeys which merited these complaints, cost me £90.
Eighteen, eighteen, eighteen, I’m eighteen and I like it. That was Alice Cooper’s first hit, before School’s Out, and it was the song that Johnny Rotten sang along to on the jukebox when he auditioned for The Sex Pistols. Alice is my hero. My 18th claim to fame is about him again.
I met him once, on Halloween in 2010, and have seen him on the two Halloweens since. He has yet to bring back the ‘magic screen’ as he promised when I asked him about it, but I have since learnt from far more dedicated fans than I that Alice can rarely be relied on when it comes to such things – he has so many ideas for his shows and album concepts that not all come to fruition. No matter how much he might talk them up.
Having recently released a sequel to his seminal solo album “Welcome To My Nightmare”, there was a lot of excitement and speculation that he might do a themed stage show for the first time since 2000’s ‘Brutal Planet’ tour, and even more excitement at the prospect of him doing a new ‘nightmare’ show for the “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” follow-up. It didn’t really happen, and although he said in interviews that there would be three sections to the new stage show and a nightmarish middle section, it subverted expectation. Of course, subversion is what Alice has always done best.
As soon as the first show of the tour happened, a week before I saw him, someone posted a set list and spoilers on the Sick Things fan site. I think we all read it, and there was much disappointment that he had removed so many stage effects that he didn’t even get executed in this show. Add in half a dozen cover versions and only a handful of the newest songs, plus recent staples that have been in the set for years now, and for the first time ever I didn’t feel particularly enthused about seeing him. I was wrong.
Alice’s management pay close attention to the discussions on that fan forum, and the setlist evolved from show to show. By the time I saw him, in Edinburgh on Halloween, he was down to four covers (honouring his dead friends – Morrison, Lennon, Hendrix, Moon) and had added in a couple of long-unplayed classics. With less theatrics, more pyrotechnics than usual, a fantastic array of songs, and the incredible talents of the musicians he has hand-picked to form his band – what a show! Easily one of the best shows I have ever seen him do, and I’ve seen him seven or eight times now. It was also the first time, in twelve years of going to his gigs, that he finally played a track from one of the two albums I bought together as a teenager and which first got me into him – and that was a pretty special moment for me.
The claim to fame is this: Alice always throws items into the crowd – he taunts us with dollar bills threaded all the way up the rapier that he waves above our heads during “Billion Dollar Babies“, sending them fluttering into the air above us, and he dangles beaded necklaces just out of our grasp during “Dirty Diamonds.” His band throw out dozens of guitar picks and a couple of drumsticks at every show too, and my first piece of memorabilia was a Pete Friesen signature plectrum that I found on the floor of the Barrowland after my first gig. As of last Wednesday, I now have five Cooper Band plectra – one from new addition Orianthi (jesus, that girl’s solo on his live cover of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” – amazing!), the Pete Friesen one, a Steve Hunter one and two Tommy Henriksen ones from last Halloween, plus a dollar bill and a branded balloon that I caught and carefully deflated. The best bit, though, considering how many shows I have been to and how many times I have been down the front and still failed to catch more than one dollar bill (and no necklaces) is that I now have Alice’s cane.
He carried it onstage for his opening number, then threw it into the crowd. There was a mad dive for it, but I got one hand high and one hand low, and although I had to fend someone else off, it became mine. I threaded it up inside my belt, under the doctors coat I was wearing in lieu of a proper costume, and it stayed there for the rest of the gig. I brought it home to Glasgow, and am very happy to have it. Here is a video of Alice waving it around during “Hello Hooray”, prior to throwing it casually away. I’d like to pretend that he deliberately chucked it to me, but at 3m 05s you can see how disdainfully he tosses it into the audience. Ha, if you look VERY closely, you can see my hand in the audience, giving the devil-horns, and then see as I lunge up with both hands to grab hold of it. 😀
The other claim to fame I have is that, owing to how far in advance I ordered my copy of the latest album, my name was printed along with several hundred others in the background of the poster that came with the limited Fan Pack edition of the album. You can see it highlighted and then enlarged below.
If you ever get the chance to see Alice live, you will not be disappointed – the greatest showman on the planet, and one of the warmest, wittiest people you could ever meet. I love him. Here’s “School’s Out” from that same gig – giant balloons, confetti, bubbles, swords, canes, top hats, a segue into Another Brick In The Wall Part 2 and back again, plenty of audience interaction, and masterful showmanship from Alice and every one of his band members – the biggest rock ‘n roll party going.
I am glad that I had the foresight to prefix all of these claims to fame with the word “dubious”, because some of them are really very tenuous indeed. I could have alternatively titled them Brief Encounters With Celebrity, because there is generally a little bit of substance to them rather than merely being in the same room as someone (in which case every single music or comedy gig could be included). I’m still striving too to include only tales that have occurred as a lay person, and not in the course of my one-time day job working in film and theatre. This is the time I met comedian Ross Noble.
I had been to one of his gigs at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre, sometime between 2004 and 2007. I know these dates to be correct, as I was living nearby in Charing Cross at the time, but can’t be more specific as I’ve seen him four or five times now. I left the theatre and went home, took my ticket stub out my wallet and put it in the box with my other stubs, and then decided to nip back out to get some food. My journey took me past the Kings, and I saw Noble standing at the stage door surrounded by a handful of fans and autograph hunters. I’m generally averse to being part of that gaggle, and continued on my way. I bought a sandwich from an international chain that makes them to order, and returned by the same route. When I glanced over again, I recognised one of the girls from the first year of my degree course. In fact, since I must have been in third year then, that would probably put this as sometime in 2006.
I went over to say hello to her, and since she was in conversation with some friends and with Noble, I spoke to him too. I regretted not having my ticket stub on me, to have it signed (I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it signed, but since he was there and had the time and a pen in his hand, why not?) During his show, someone had mentioned Iron Maiden, my once-favourite band (obsessively so) and a band that Noble also professed an affinity with. I asked Ross if he was going to see them on their recently-announced tour, but his deadpan reply was “Nah mate, I’m busy, I’ve got a tour of me own to do.”
It dawned on me that I did have something in my wallet that would look good with his signature across it – the joker from a deck of Sailor Jerry playing cards. When that brand of rum was launched, they put out loads of promotional items – lots of temporary tattoos, decks of cards – and I had taken the joker from a pack of cards my friend had. She was working in a pub at the time, and they had dozens of items left over. The joker showed a very cheeky monkey, bent over and spreading its arse cheeks. The buttocks read “AL” and “HA” and the positioning and the action made it read “Aloha”. I thought it was quite amusing in a puerile way, and had liberated a few rub-on tattoos showing it (some of which I think I still have, unused), and stuck that card in my wallet to show/disgust people. Noble has long documented his obsession with monkeys, on almost every tour and DVD he has done, and so it seemed fitting to offer this card for him to autograph.
He looked at it, shrugged, and signed it for me. It makes a different souvenir, and a better story, than just having a signed ticket stub – anybody can get one of those.
This claim to fame is particularly dubious, and I’ve spent ages trying to decide whether to include it or how best to present it. Up close, the sequence of events is pretty rational – I came to know a certain band and regard them as friends, watched them grow in popularity, and very occasionally I ask a favour of them if all other options are out. That’s reasonably straightforward and rather dull but, as you’ll have ascertained by now, I much prefer the absurdity of life and, thankfully, I can summarise this tale in a far more entertaining way…
I got into a sold-out Rammstein concert by travelling 200 miles and turning up at the stage door with three bottles of spirits.
I explained my relationship with Combichrist in a previous blog, but if you can’t be bothered reading it what you need to know is this: I used to crew for them any time they played Scotland, got to know them all to some degree, and continue to see them play (and catch up or hang out with them) whenever the chance arises. I don’t presume, I don’t take the piss, but every now and then – usually when all other avenues have been explored – I request a favour of them, usually involving their guestlist. I don’t like to do it, and try not to, but to their credit they have helped me out on the three occasions when I have asked. For the record, I have seen them 24 times.
As one of the hardest-working bands I have ever encountered, who fully deserve all of their success, it was still something of a coup when Rammstein chose them as the sole support on their European tour. With tedious regularity, big bands will announce a great band as European support, and then when they get to the UK that band is off and replaced with somebody lacklustre. As an example, Iron Maiden would tour with Motorhead, Dio, Slayer, or any other number of renowned and highly-regarded bands. Then they would reach the UK and subject us to Dirty Deeds, Funeral For A Friend, or some other godawful act that sensible people would choose to miss. I had no hope, therefore, that Combi would actually make it to these shores on the Rammstein dates.
I was also wrong.
The gigs had sold out within weeks, and with no Glasgow show (Rammstein last played here in 2005, a gig I missed as I was in America, and so I’ve only seen them once, in 2003), the nearest show to me was Manchester. Having seen Combi play to a couple of hundred at club shows, I relished the opportunity to see them play an arena to 21,000 – the vexing thing being that I had no means of getting in. The touts on ebay wanted stupid money for tickets, at a time when I wasn’t working and would have bus travel to pay for too, in order to make the four-hundred-mile round trip. I carefully composed and sent off an email.
Initially, the band’s manager wasn’t keen to help, and wouldn’t commit, but as we had never met I explained fully how I knew them and why it was important to me to see them play this show. I wasn’t looking to just blag free entry either – a ticket was £45 but there were none to be had. Instead, I offered to spend that same £45 [at that point the very last of my week’s money] on alcohol for the band – the same amount of money, and to the same end: it would let me obtain entry to the show. It was unconventional, I knew that, but I was desperate. Thankfully, he agreed to guestlist me provided I turned up at the stage door “with a LOT of booze.”
I don’t think I’ve ever made a more nerve-wracking journey than I did the day of the gig – two litres of vodka and a bottle of Jager in my bag, a five-hour bus trip, no cash for if things went awry, and no guarantee I would actually get in. Even after I had arrived, found the crew entrance, met their manager and handed over all of the alcohol, I still wasn’t convinced that things would work out – I had to wait until 8pm for the lists to come through to Front Of House to find out if my name was on there. Thankfully, it was.
The gig was outstanding – so good to see a band I have supported almost from the very start reach the point where they can hold half an arena crowd. I didn’t even care about seeing the headliner, making me possibly the only person who went to see Rammstein but not to see Rammstein. Although I found out that’s not true, as I met an acquaintance from Glasgow while I was waiting for the box office to open, and his girlfriend was only there to see Combi too.
Despite my opinion that every Rammstein album since “Mutter” has been formulaic and followed that template, this show was incredible – I do like their music, and they had incorporated a lot of visual humour and story into their onstage antics, as well as all of the flame and pyrotechnics for which they are famous. The stage itself was a marvel of engineering, incorporating hydraulics, moving parts, and all kinds of impressive spectacles. Someone told me later that they spent a million on the stage alone, and I can well believe it. They sold out arenas and stadiums across Europe and America with that tour though, so it sounds like the investment was worth it.
I didn’t see the Combi boys afterwards – in a venue of that size it was almost inconceivable that I would – but it didn’t matter. I saw what I went to see, and I had fun. I also got this story out of it, and it’s a bit more interesting than just buying a ticket and walking through the front door. 🙂
Paul Daniels cut my head off once. Kind of.
Owing to a number of factors, I was most definitely not cool as a teenager. That was one of the reasons that my main hobby at the time was magic. I was alright, I had some decent sleight-of-hand skills and could manipulate a deck of cards, but I lacked the confidence and personality to actually make myself watchable. The lack of personality doesn’t stop most of the folk you see doing magic, but the lack of confidence was an issue. By way of illustration, I once came fourth in the Scottish Young Magician Of The Year competition. I can gauge this from the fact that there were four entrants, three prizes, and I won none of them.
I soon realised that, much like theatre, I was far more interested in the mechanics and principles than in the performing – I made the transition from being in amateur youth theatre productions to working backstage when I was 13, joined every stage crew I could when I was 16, and eventually did my degree in technical theatre before making something of a career building sets and shifting scenery.
It was perhaps natural that my interest in magic came to rest with the methods, the implementation, the gimmicks or subterfuge that assisted or explained stage illusions. It is still a dormant interest, and I own dozens of books on historical stage illusions and their practitioners. Along with Victorian stage machinery it is something that occasionally fascinates me, and I have lately found Jim Steinmeyer’s biographies to be captivating reading.
In my late teens, I joined the local magic club as their youngest member. With friends I made there, we went to a few shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – Jerry Sadowitz and Rudy Coby being the stand-out memories. Shortly after that, Paul Daniels came to Glasgow. My friend Peter bought tickets and, despite an age gap of forty years or so, he was a bigger kid than me – daft, and with a tremendous sense of fun. It was only on our way into the theatre that I discovered he had got us all tickets for the second row of the stalls, and I was immediately apprehensive – as I said, I had long ago learned that I preferred being backstage to being on it, and I didn’t much fancy being a volunteer facing one of the biggest auditoriums I’d then been in.
Knowing that the magician is most likely to (as the books all advised me) pick an audience member who looks like they are enjoying themselves, I decided I would just sit stony-faced throughout. Easy! Especially since Paul Daniels, the magic icon of my childhood, had not been on television in years and had been widely derided even before his TV career waned. How good could he really be?
I quickly found out that he was exceptionally good, disarmingly quick-witted and extremely funny. I was fucked. He bantered with people, presented his magic, and at one point called a wee girl up onto the stage to help with his Linking Rings. She was seven if that, and at the end of the trick Paul Daniels asked for a kiss, presented his cheek, and then handed her one of his commercially-available magic kits to take with her as she returned to her seat. He requested another volunteer, looking directly at me, and so with a great deal of peer pressure from the adults I was with, I reluctantly made my way up onto the stage. In my head, I thought of something I could say that might be funny – I now realise that was probably the first time I said something that got an audience to laugh. It took me a further eleven years to actually try stand-up comedy.
“At the end of this, I’m not giving you a kiss,” I said matter-of-factly. Paul Daniels bantered with me in his trademark way – asking questions that required an affirmative answer then telling me “Say ‘Yes, Paul.'” I think he may have made reference to Katie Price when I told him my name – Jordan having just started making a name for herself and making jokes about my name easy. When I told him I worked in Index he referred to it as “ah, downmarket Argos.” All the while, his assistant was wheeling some contraption onto the stage, with a cloth over it. Evidently I was to be part of some grand spectacle.
“Have you ever seen one of these before?” he asked, deftly removing the cloth to reveal a full-size guillotine. FUCK. This was not a prospect I fancied, and in hindsight I wished I’d told him that I had seen one before, due to my growing love of Alice Cooper (who famously uses one in his vaudevillesque stage shows, and who I wrote about meeting.) It wasn’t long before I was led around the machine, knelt down with my head forward and locked in the stocks, the blade dangling high above my neck. I remember thinking to myself that if it went wrong at least it would be a quick death. So much for magic being light entertainment!
Paul was in front of me doing his big build-up. He had a box, and while he removed the lid he told the crowd he’d only ever had two accidents with this trick. He placed the open box in front of me, ostensibly to catch my head. “They weren’t the same accident,” he said, putting the upturned lid behind me. That was quite funny, but I didn’t feel much like laughing right then – being genuinely worried as anyone in my position might well be. You can rationalise as much as you like about professionalism and track record and safety checks, but when you are the one secured under a blade that is destined to come crashing down – yeah, you’d probably entertain the thought that it might go wrong too.
As it happened, I lived. I don’t remember much beyond an almighty adrenaline rush as I left the stage, although I do recall that after the show all the guys told me how glad they were that it wasn’t them, and was I not terrified?! Bastards! Ha. Paul and Debbie McGee did a signing in the foyer, and I still have my autographed ticket stub from that night.
Above: My signed ticket stub.
Eight years later, after I had graduated, that was the first theatre I worked in in Glasgow, and I eventually did three pantomimes there as well as gigs by assorted comedians, music acts and variety shows. They remembered Paul Daniels being there, and the guillotine, but not my involvement in his show.
I lost touch with all the guys after I left the magic club and let my interest drift. I’ve spoken to a few of them in the past few years though, thanks to the magic of social networking. My closest friend back then later set up in business as a professional magician, and – having helped me out enormously in my youth – it gave me great pleasure that I was able to repay the favour in some tiny way by booking him to perform at my sister’s wedding. It was nice to see him again. If you are in the Glasgow area and looking for an all-round talented entertainer (in the true sense of that word), you can book Ian here.
I’ve told Alice Cooper that I love him. And I meant it.
Not in any kind of gay way, you understand, more in the manner that you love a parent or a close friend. Or your absolute hero. Here is the man who shocked the world with antics that are part horror, part theatre, and with a strong undercurrent of satire and wit; a man who counted his drinking buddies as Keith Moon, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison; was best friends with Groucho Marx, had a sculpture of his brain made by Salvador Dali, and was armed and then promptly disarmed by karate expert Elvis Presley. A disarmingly charming man, with a sharp sense of humour and enough anecdotes to keep you rapt for weeks.
Then consider his longevity, his constant musical reinvention, the stories and characters he has created, his embracing and spearheading of contemporary musical styles and trends. Piano ballads, orchestrated numbers, disco and new wave, garage rock, good old-fashioned rock n’ roll, industrial/nu-metal – Alice has done it all and more. While collaborating with musicians as diverse as Slash, Donovan, Kei$ha, Steve Vai, Rob Zombie, Bernie Taupin, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Bob Dylan considers him under-rated as a songwriter, and Sinatra covered him live – saying “you keep writing them, and I’ll keep singing them.”
It was 2010, and I got an email through his mailing list, inviting me to enter a competition to win VIP tickets to see his Halloween show in London. That was a Sunday, and I found out on the Wednesday that I’d won. It didn’t take much thought before I booked an extremely expensive train journey, for an 800-mile round trip, knowing this was my one chance to meet my hero, and get to speak to him at some length.
Finding someone to go with me was a problem though, being short notice and not cheap – I can’t even find anyone in Glasgow who’ll come to his local concerts with me. One friend agreed, then realised he’d double-booked, and so he offered to hook me up with one of his pals in London instead – someone already in the vicinity. As it happened, the friend he put me in touch with is a man called Erkan Mustafa. Or, to the 80s kids among you, Roland from Grange Hill.
So Roland from Grange Hill and I went to see Alice Cooper, on Halloween, in Camden’s Roundhouse. And then we went backstage to meet the living legend, where I spotted Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh while waiting. As it happened, I had crewed their show in Glasgow, and deliberately elected to wear an Alice shirt while working as I knew Noel was a fan. I approached him and reminded him of this fact, and spoke to him briefly about this and that. In lieu of a proper costume, I had taken with me a white doctor’s coat that I’d painted “Trust Me” on the back of in ‘blood’, and covered in spatters. It was folded up and tucked under my arm at that point, and Noel asked “What’s that?”
“It’s quite cool,” I said reflexly, unfolding it to show to him. “I doubt it,” he said in the manner you’d expect. Then he looked at it and conceded “That is quite cool actually.”
Alice was sitting at table like Rock’s own Santa Claus, patiently meeting and greeting each eager fan and competition winner in turn. I got to the front, knowing I only had one question for him. It’s the only question I’ve ever wanted to ask him, and here was my chance – would he ever bring back the “magic screen” that he used on the Welcome To My Nightmare tour? He told me to catch him on his next tour, and at the time of writing it looks like it might yet happen. I told him, matter-of-factly, that I love him, and that he is without doubt the coolest man on the planet – a compliment he accepted graciously. Asking on behalf of my friend who couldn’t be there, I enquired if he was ever a fan of Laurel and Hardy, as my friend runs a dedicated fan site and has secured interviews with numerous famous fans. Alice told me that he and Harry Nilsson used to mimic them when they were drunk, and then treated me to a passable impression of Stan Laurel. In keeping with the Santa’s Grotto feel (“I got a job in Atlanta/In a mall playing Santa/Not because of any talent/But because I was the only one the suit would fit”), I had my photo taken with Alice, and left.
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but if your hero is Alice Cooper then you definitely should.
For those who only know Poison and School’s Out, here are some of my favourite songs. Starting with the visual stage effect that I hope to see performed live some day, where he runs out of a projected film and onto the stage.
The main reason that I believe life is absurd, accept it as such, and just embrace it, is that there are so many examples of things that are inexplicable any other way, things that can’t easily be defined within the confines of our collective knowledge. I’m not talking about things to which we attribute meaning either – the phone rings just as you’re thinking about the person on the other end: that’s because we discount all the times that the phone rings and we aren‘t thinking about the person who has made the call. I see as absurd the almighty coincidences that are much harder to explain away, like the one I’m going to document here.
I play the lottery (a term I use to also include the EuroMillions game) on occasion, maybe three or four times a year. As someone who studied and enjoyed studying maths at school, and who remembers when the lottery first started and when – as an exercise in fourth year – we were shown how to mathematically prove the much-publicised assertion that the odds of winning were fourteen million to one, I am fully aware of the futility of my playing pattern. Specifically, I remember learning about probability, and the chances of (for example) rolling any given sequence of numbers on a die – the odds increase with every roll. So the chances of me picking the winning combination of numbers – already astronomically high – are magnified significantly by the chance of me then also choosing the right week to actually play those numbers. If I changed my numbers too, that would further increase the odds of ever winning. So far, to nobody’s surprise (least of all my own), I have won nothing – literally nothing.
The numbers I play are usually consistent, save for the difference in draws – six numbers for the original game, five and two stars for the EuroMillions game. Usually, because every now and then I forget which combination I play – the past few times I’ve played as a main number one that is also a star, and so I could play it there and add in the omitted sixth number from the regular game. I only realised this recently. All of my numbers relate to birthdays of two members of my family – days, shared month, years – and one additional number which I chose for reasons I can’t remember, but which relates vaguely to the house I grew up in. There wasn’t a great deal of thought went into my numbers – I didn’t want to think then over-think my choices – and I never actually checked the year of birth of my Grandma, just guessed at what I thought it might be. I was wrong.
At a family meal on Sunday, my sister asked my dad what age my Grandma had been when she died. This reminded me, prompting me to ask what year she had been born. He thinks it was 1922, making my rough guess two years out.
When I was at the supermarket on Tuesday, I passed the lottery desk on my way out the store, then doubled back on a whim and put a line on – changing that one number. Later that night, I got three numbers came up in the draw, and won just over a fiver.
This is just one small example in a lifetime of other occurrences, equally freakish – in all the years I’ve played the wrong number, I haven’t won a thing. The week I change it accordingly, I win something. There’s probably some rational explanation in the grand scheme of things, but at this level we’ve no way of knowing what that might be – easier to just take it in stride. And hope for a bigger win next time.