Monday, April 06, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: A night out

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: A night out

'I Wanna Be A Hippy' - Technohead (Paul)

My 17th birthday was, to all intents and purposes, a fairly unspectacular event. It was a Thursday, I went to college in the daytime and had my first driving lesson in the early evening. After that, and partly because I really couldn't be arsed to organise anything, I went to someone else's birthday party in Whitley Bay.

For those of you who don't know, Whitley Bay is the North East's version of Blackpool. For Blackpool's Pleasure Beach, see Whitley Bay's Spanish City (interestingly referred to in a song by Dire Straits, in which they compare a girl to the Spanish City - if that had been me, I'd have punched someone for making that particular comparison, but I digress).

Anyway, Whitley is all neon lighting, cheap vodka trebles, cheesy bars and an incredibly cheesy nightclub in which Friday night should really be known as Grab-A-Granny night.

Anyway, along I went to this birthday party, hooking up with some friends when I got there. It was typical of many of the parties I went to in my Sixth Form. The range of people was reasonably eclectic, brought together by a shared A-Level class with the host (in my case English), at a time when people weren't excluded because of musical taste, but rather everyone was embraced in a raging mass of hormones and shared desire for cheap booze.

So anyway, there I was in a party in a cheesy Whitley bar, chatting to mates who by and large were more inclined towards metal than pop when the Technohead song 'I Wanna Be A Hippy' came on, and my friends all started to headbang to it.

They were joined by a girl who I unrequitedly fancied for most of my Sixth Form years who was very much more into pop, who also headbanged away. I think I might even have joined in (although being an indie kid, I had curtains rather than a pony-tail so the effect was rather less impressive).

I'm not sure entirely that the image would have stayed with me for quite so long save for the fact that after leaving the party I wound up being knocked over and kicked on my way home by some drunken arse who took exception to me for no good reason. A fight which was thankfully curtailed by the intervention of someone I was with before I really took a beating.

That remains the only fight I've ever been in as an adult (although it's not exactly accurate to describe it as a fight, given that it was completely one-sided), and coming as it did on my 17th birthday it's memorable for at least two reasons, and the soundtrack to the memory comes courtesy of Technohead.

'Step On' - Happy Mondays (Pete)

There is always one for everyone. A song which is guaranteed to get you on the dance floor. For my friend Andy, it's Deelite's 'Groove Is In The Heart', for me it's Happy Mondays' 'Step On'.

Berlin, February 2000: I'm introduced one Saturday through a sequence of random locations including an Irish pub, a Nigerian bar and a house party, to my mate Kerstin and in turn through her to the weekly Karrera Klub night on Tuesdays at Sophienclub, a small, intimate venue where the Becks was cold and plentiful, the entry cheap and the music predominately guitar-based.

I'm sure you've noticed before the point when in a club (particularly at an indie night) the first influx of people have arrived and are stubbornly lurking around the edge of the dancefloor (or in this club walking through it to get to the bar) ignoring the DJ's attempts to get them moving. He's increasingly looking anxious and basically needs a pair of idiots to volunteer to be the first to cut some rug. In the case of Sophienclub on a midweek night around 11pm, this would invariably be my flatmate Martin and I.

Suitably refreshed and bored of standing around and waiting for our fashionably late friends to turn up, we would give the nod to Spencer, head to the 'floor with cigarettes between lips and beers in hands and the opening beats of the Mondays' classic would come on. After a few minutes and Martin's spot-on impression of Bez, a few others would warily join us, but Spencer would have by now have breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that more would follow and another Tuesday night's entertainment had begun. Later, plied with beer and with tired legs, we would step out of the club in the early hours of the morning, slowly head towards the night bus stop and search out our respective homes and beds.

This routine established itself soon after my first few visits to the Karrera Klub night and for my first two years in the city it was certainly a regular haunt, especially once I'd established that my employers had a very forgiving attitude to me turning up late on a Wednesday morning.

I didn't attend it as much in my last year in Berlin and when I did I preferred to be the one behind the decks; something that had presumably occurred once Spencer became bored with constantly playing my requests and had instead resorted to handing over the headphones and the keys to his record collection.

Looking back, I don't think I've consistently enjoyed a club night (or indeed club) as much as this place since; sometimes you feel you really belong and 'Step On' at Sophieclub is still a big part of that feeling five years on.

'Over And Over' - Hot Chip (Ian)

I used to go dancing. Well, first, for the longest time I didn’t go dancing (the standard white boy/indie reservations apply), not even listening when my best friend in first year university informed me that the key was that everyone was going to look like idiots so no one was going to take much notice of my individual awkwardness. But I got to grad school and friends wanted to go out dancing on Thursdays at a particular DJ night at one of the downtown bars. And at first it took liberal applications of alcohol at a friend’s apartment prior to the dancing, but as time wore on and it became clear that dancing was something I was at least borderline competent at and also something I loved, it got so that I could slip onto the dancefloor stone cold sober and get right into it.

Not that that was the usual method; we’d get together at a friend’s place, drink a bunch of beer, go to the bar and dance until we were sweaty and sober. When I go dancing, I don’t really fuck around –I’ve been with other friends, after this group of grad students brokeup via graduations, and too many of them want to dance for one song, go smoke a cigarette, go talk to friends, go whatever. Not me, and not the old crew. Sure, you take breaks for the toilet and for new drinks if you’re so inclined, but mostly it’s just hours of going to whatever the DJ gave you. And he was good – some anonymous technosongs I still don’t know, and some indier stuff (to this day I go alittle nuts whenever 'Wolf Like Me' or 'Modern Love' comes on), and even once when the floor wasn’t too full yet and he was willing to indulge me, The Knife’s 'We Share Our Mother’s Health'.

But the song that makes me think the most of those nights out, among the most enjoyable and fondly remembered of my adult life, was the one we only heard out part of the time. I shouldn’t have to explain why Hot Chip’s epochal 'Over And Over' is fun to dance to, but it functioned as more than a highlight of our nights in the bar for us. We usually spent the evening before the Albion at my friend Nate’s apartment, conveniently situated in the same building as my friend Brynna’s place and around the corner, literally a 30 second walk, from my place. Located a mere stumble from the bar, nicely appointed and with a fridge with enough space to store our beer, many a happy evening was spent gearing up there, although I’m sure to those foreign to the rituals of the half dozen or so of us, it just looked like we were boozing and chatting. But we’d all be getting progressively more eager and excited (partly because of Nate’s deft hand with an iTunes playlist, partly due to the booze, partly due to how much we all loved that night), slowly transitioning away from wanting to sit and talk to wanting to get up and move – and then Nate would play 'Over And Over'. And not only would that song, which we all loved, get us moving a little more, after a month or so it was the universal signal for "finish your beer, we’re hitting the dancefloor".

I still have a near Pavlovian response to the song, even above and beyond other Hot Chip songs I loved dancing to. Even if it comes on my computer in the morning as I’m trying to write something, part of my brain starts getting geared up to go out when those chimes and woodblocks start up. By the time the wibbly synthesizer kicks in, I might as well just save and quit the document – it’s bedroom dancing for the next five minutes, at least.

'Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine' - The Killers (drmigs)

We were in Toronto, and it had already been a good day. Gordon Greenidge had commentated on me catching out Desmond Haynes in a spot of late morning cricket. We'd had some splendid sushi for lunch, during which the conversation with my wife went along the lines of "... you don't get it do you, I've just caught out Desmond Haynes ... Desmond Haynes!" And then, finally resigned to the fact that my one moment of sporting competence would never be comprehended, we'd headed over to Toronto Island for a spot of frisbee golf. All in all a good day. Tomorrow we were off for four days camping and canoeing in Algonquin National Park, so it would be an early start. Rather excitingly, our instructions were to get the first train of the morning to the most northerly metro station in Toronto, where we would be met by our guide. And Toronto's trains start early in the morning...

So, we weren't really going for a night out. NB For those of you who know me, me not really going for a night out isn't really news. Well, that Horlicks isn't going to drink itself, is it now? Anyway, no, we weren't really going for a night out, more an evening out. I'd been eyeing up a restaurant called East! for a few days now, so tonight we'd eat there before grabbing a cheeky pint at Smokeless Joes, and then to bed - as Pepys might say. And that is very much how the evening panned out. I had a delightful mango, chilli and tiger prawn salad for my main course, a stout at Smokeless Joes and a sleep full of wonder about whether we'd really encounter bears in Algonquin. As it turns out, we did. Oh, and I should also say that that evening we were also serenaded by The Killers and the Black Eyed Peas. Did I forget to say that? Sorry.

In truth, there was a particular reason I had saved up the East! meal for that evening. At 9pm the Much Music awards were going to start, which was to be a street event in the centre of Toronto. I didn't have to do much research to find this out - every third TV advert was for this event. Then there were the posters all over town, and the people handing out flyers. The Much Music awards were a big thing for Much Music; a kind of MTV clone that hadn't quite graduated yet. And they broken the bank for this one, on both of the headliners. We'd seen the stages being erected over the last few days, and they were being erected right opposite East!.

Now, we thought, if we're lucky, the headliners might show their faces or do a soundcheck an hour or so before the show. However, the place would be teeming as show time arrived. So we figured, let's get to East! a couple of hours before show-time and see what there is to see. We got a table, sat down - profuse apologies from the waiters: warnings that we might be disturbed, nothing they can do about it etc. Would we like to come another evening? Assurances from us that it's fine, not to worry. Yes, we realise it will be busy when we finish. No, really it's fine, we'll just take that chance and make do with the compromising circumstances. Bingo. Good food ahead, and we're in prime position should anyone soundcheck. No sooner had we ordered than The Killers came out and soundchecked.

It didn't start too promisingly - they spent quite a while sorting their balance out with the intro to 'Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine'. Technically, this was quite interesting to listen to; a tweak of bass here, repeat, more emphasis on vocals there, repeat. But with our free-loading hats on, we'd hoped for a tune. Finally, Brandon and friends were happy. And then, from a whole 20 metres away, they decided to do a run through of a number of songs they were to play later that evening; well, if they didn't play the whole songs, they certainly played goodly chunks. 'Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine, check; 'Mr Brightside', check; 'Somebody Told Me', check; 'Andy You're A Star', check; 'All These Things I Have Done', check. OK, so they were holding back a bit, and they weren't playing to the crowd; even though it was already well into three figures. But it definitely beat the piped music from the restaurant stereo.

Once The Killers were done, the Black Eyed Peas came out and soundchecked some songs from their Elephunk album, none of which I could identify for you. Just as the Much Music MC came out and tried to keep the swelling crowd sizzling and warm, our desserts were being finished off. Nicely done. A good meal for about a third of the price it would cost in the UK, a bit of The Killers thrown in for free, and one for the road at the homely Smokeless Joes to come. Yes, I admit, for the pedants amongst you, it may not have been a night out. But it was a bloody good evening...

'Birdhouse In Your Soul' - They Might Be Giants (Skif)

The kitchen cabinets and the shower cubicle are your friends. You can sing at them for hours on end, and they never complain about the racket, nor express mock concern as to the welfare of the bag of cats you appear to be swinging against the wall. It is in these arenas that I have sung many of my favourite songs, every one sounding an ideal harmony and entirely suited to my voice. Perhaps we should allow the fixtures in our homes to be more Simon-Cowell-critical with us as the time to find out that you really can’t sing a particular song really isn’t when you’ve got sixty pairs of irritated and angry eyes fixed upon you.

A recent study in the journal 'Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research' suggested that karaoke is good for both your physical and mental health. Not sure about the physical considering most of the people I’ve seen doing it were only able to do so through having consumed as much "courage" as would easily handicap the entire 16-strong field in a rhino steeplechase.

Mentally, I can vouch for the benefits. I will happily admit that I am a man awkward and inhibited in conversation with those with whom I am not already well acquainted. However, put all them unfamiliars together in a room, give me a mic and a monitor with some words on and then, tonight Matthew, I’ll be Elvis, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey or, on one fateful occasion, Shania Twain.

Ah Shania, Shania, Shania; you might have felt like a woman, but the good people at Southampton Ferryman & Firkin on a Friday evening back in 2001 really didn’t need me to empathise with you in the medium of song, yours or otherwise. As facsimiles go, it was like pencilling around the edge of it through tracing paper so thick you could wall your garden with it, and with an arm in the grip of St Vitus’ Dance. I’d forgotten the melody of the verses, which didn’t help.

Sadly, I was trying to woo a young lady that night and I can report back to the lab that this really isn’t the way to do it. If any young teenagers are reading this then, please, do try this at home and not in a large, packed out pub, particularly the Ferryman & Firkin in Southampton.

That night I vowed much the same as I did when getting lost and almost killed with my family when coming down a peak in the Lake District a different way to that which we came, "always go the way you know"; ergo "take no risks in the karaoke spotlight, sunshine, as you’ll get no lovin’ and make no friends of those who are fond of their ears" or, if you like, "don’t put yourself on the stage, Mr Skiffington". Not with unfamiliar material anyway.

Thus whenever I got the chance to get amongst again, I went with 'Burning Love', 'Love Is The Drug' or 'This Charming Man' - songs I knew I could do, even when sober. That was until a night out with former work colleagues in Liverpool back in 2006 when, after they’d requested an encore of my Smiths number that they’d enjoyed a previous time and which also went well that night, I allowed adrenaline-boosted over-confidence to get the better of me, and I spun the wheel, the arrow eventually coming to rest on ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ by They Might Be Giants.

Like I say, sometimes you don’t realise how much some tunes cycle the lyrics around without time for a sufficient intake of breath, nor how much your vocal range does not mirror that of the stars on 45s. However, one hundred and twenty eyes peering at you through lids pursed in mild agony or mounting odium soon brings such issues into very sharp focus.

'The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air' - DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince (Caskared)

Deep breath, and, "Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down..."

My sister was getting married. This song encapsulated the night of her hen do - well, the latter stages. It was a Saturday and I had spent all day at work to then drive for three hours to the other side of the country to meet my younger sister and her friends for supper followed by a club. My sister and I are not the types to share friends - we’re a little too far apart in age for that to have happened at school and then we lived on either side of the continent, and now either side of the country, not to mention our chasm of taste, opinions, value systems and all. But we are fiercely protective of one another and since we became adults we giggle on the phone and email banter is a joy, a silly joy. Her friends (my colleagues on the hen do) are even further apart - we don’t even share any blood. Fashionistas, heiresses, the most popular girl in school - it is with a lot of preening and sneering ... not really my type. I was scared as to how to get through the night but I was there for my sister so I would behave and get on with it.

The supper, fine, entertaining even, the girls have mellowed as they’ve aged and so have I. And then we entered the night club. My sister squealed with a repulsed glee. She had dressed in a very short dress, red patent stilettos and short fur coat – think Jamie Lee Curtis in 'Trading Places', plus her friend who had brought a veil. The club’s burly bouncers didn’t mind us, clearly a hen group entering – a cue for a shudder if ever there was one. The floors were sticky, the clientele sloshed, everything gloomy and grubby and the music... I can’t think how to describe its awfulness, but it wasn’t just the cheesy choons veering from Chesney Hawkes’ 'The One And Only' to S Club 7 via 5ive and 2 Unlimited (the DJ’s numerical set) but it was the way he would insist on playing only one minute of each song, to pack everything in so as not to leave anything out by the end of the night. The precious few cheesy songs that came along that I have a soft spot for, they were whipped away soon as we’d picked up on it. It was too loud to speak, so dancing the exasperated dance was the only way to go, the disjointed songs and the disconnected group. And then he started playing theme tunes.

"... now I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the Prince of a town called Bel-Air... dum de de doo de" and we rapped along. We all rapped along, perfectly synchronised with even the high pitched "You’re moving with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air". The whole room. A hundred people all knew the words perfectly, even as we got towards the end, every word. We were compelled to finish the entire song, conversations had stopped mid-sentence as the song started. My inner snob wanted to sneer, but I couldn’t possibly not chant out the lyrics with everyone else, surprising ourselves that this knowledge was within us. Only the Russian friend of my sister’s looked on bemused, more than bemused, almost terrified at this cultish behaviour because we couldn’t stop right until the end "to settle my throne as the prince of Bel-Air". Even the DJ couldn’t stop this one before its conclusion.

We left at 3am to drive back to the cottage, my sister satisfied that the club had provided everything she wanted for her hen do and that song hit the nail on the head – a fluffy moment of everyone being together through a communal memory and nostalgia.

'Paradise City' - Guns 'N' Roses (Ben)

"We built this city on rock 'n' roll", sang Starship. Presumably the city in question was Rock City.

I've written before on this very site about the place that became a second home during my seven-year stay in Nottingham - and the fact that I'd forgotten about that speaks volumes about the damage it and the two-bottles-for-£2 Saturday night offer has wreaked on my memory...

At the time (April 2006), I lamented "it’s not like it were in my day etc etc" and went on to note that "we’re much happier down in the Rig now, once just the preserve of leather-waistcoated old cock rockers". That much is certainly still true, but you wouldn't catch me making the admission with any shred of sheepishness or shame these days - that was the last vestiges of the sneery teen who laughed at tasselled jackets, cowboy boots and hairspray, preferring the serious and meaningful (and therefore obviously superior) likes of Korn...

While the Main Room is now awash with as much identikit emo and lame metal as the toilets are with bladder-filtered lager, all lapped up by a new generation of the teenage me (yes, I'm now a sneery thirty-something...), the Rig is very definitely where it's at. Main Room staples of ten years ago ('Killing In The Name', 'Alive') now rub shoulders with the likes of AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Poison and Guns 'N' Roses.

While a few of the old crowd still live in Nottingham (or have ventured further afield before returning), for most of us visits to Rock City have dwindled down to an annual pilgrimage every November to mark the joint birthday of two of our number. As they both turned 30 last year, it was an even bigger night than normal...

Fresh (and already very refreshed...) from a different birthday bash - a joint 30th and 1st that had gone on all afternoon - we met up with the collective in the Salutation, a favourite of metallers the Midlands over, before making the journey up the hill past Selectadisc to Talbot Street. The evening took on an added dimension in that we had in our midst a handful of Rock City virgins over from Cardiff for the night. You might well point to the fact that en route one was astounded and delighted to discover the Market Square Greggs was still open, and subsequently emerged triumphantly with a grin as wide as his sausage roll was long, as evidence that they're easily impressed. All the same, it's significant that, just as anticipated, they had the time of their lives.

There's something about Rock City that makes you check your inhibitions at the door and shed any thirty-something responsibilities conferred by relationships and jobs like a snake sheds its skin, if only for the time you're within those four walls. Suddenly, it seems, anything goes.

That night, with a whole section of the Rig's dancefloor commandeered by our sizeable group of 20+, some of whose eyes were being opened to a new experience and others who were transported back to a time when making it down the hill to Lenton and home was life's only real worry, there was only really one song for it.

And how to celebrate it?

Why, by a mass attempted breakdance, of course.

Of course, there's no green grass in Rock City - just lots of the mysterious substance referred to as Rock City black, which has ruined many a T-shirt and continues to baffle scientists by proving resistant to all known methods of chemical analysis; the girls aren't all pretty - neither are the blokes, it should be added; and I'm quite sure it's many people's idea of hell.

But, for me, Paradise City it certainly is.

* * * * *

Thanks to Paul, Pete, Ian, drmigs, Skif and Caskared for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is happiness.


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