When I got into school, my friend Nicky was waiting by the coat racks, she was waving an envelope at me and saying “They’ve arrived!!”. “They” were the tickets that we’d sent for, to see The Stranglers at The Rainbow Theatre in London next April. In 1979, getting tickets for one of the bigger shows involved getting one of your parents to write a cheque, having to look at their face as they signed it while hoping that it wasn’t going straight to some sort of imaginary drug gang, putting in an envelope and sending it to the venue with a note saying what you’d like to see and the date. You sent it with a stamped addressed envelope, and then hoped that someone would be at the other end to send back the tickets. In a rare example of teenage forward planning, and inspired by having just seen The Adverts at Slough College, we had started looking at more outings. We checked in the envelope again, and there were our two tickets there right in front of us, in our hands, for The Stranglers, it was like looking at a letter from outer space.
The Stranglers were especially good at communicating with their fanbase via their dedicated Strangled fanzine in which they could expand on the themes in their songs, or write about topics and their take on the government or UFOs. Before the internet, fanzines and band publications were a very important link.
At 16, we were allowed to go to Finsbury Park on our own, and dressed very appropriately in black, we got two mainline trains and then the tube, which took us right to the venue. Walking out of the station and seeing it in front of us, the building seemed huge and in the late afternoon sun it was already teeming with fans who were queuing up to get in. The Stranglers were booked to do two dates at The Rainbow as part of the Levi’s sponsored 50th Anniversary of the Theatre’s opening. Built in the 1930s as The Astoria Cinema, the venue had previously hosted shows by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and David Bowie, but now in its current guise as The Rainbow it had become the main big venue for punk bands. Its originally fancy and deco styled interior was tatty and the venue itself was cavernous and dark. We had our tickets ripped by the doorman and made our way slowly across the foyer, shuffling at the speed of the crowd into the auditorium. The entrance’s long gone former glory was still just visible in the now non-functioning central fountain and its surrounding tiled pond that was now dry, and seemed to serve as either a rubbish bin or ashtray for passing punks. I wondered aloud whether it used to have fish in it, and the punk boys behind who’d overheard tapped us on the shoulders and told us that it wasn’t fish… it was crocodiles.
Tonight’s show had almost been cancelled, The Stranglers singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell was serving a sentence at Pentonville Prison for possessing drugs, but the band had reported that the show would go ahead but with special guest vocalists, whoever they were. The bands were as outraged as the fans, we were all asking, how could anyone lock up Hugh from The Stranglers, especially when he had a show to do? We were all outraged that he’d been made an example of by a very uncool, un-rock and roll judge. Another contradiction of the times, on one hand Punk wanted equality for all, but on the other hand we believe that certain people should be exempt from the law. Ah well.
We got to our seats and waited for the bands to start. We’d never heard of The Soul Boys who were first on but we watched them anyway, and then were intrigued to see Joy Division who we’d read about in the NME. The sound echoed, the singer twitched behind the mic stand, weaving his arms and clenched fists in front of his chest. He sung in a deep monotone, he didn’t speak between songs and the sound echoed around the auditorium. Towards the end of the set, a lighting tech switched on the strobe and the singer staggered backwards, twitching even more and then fell into the drum-kit, their set was suddenly over.
Section 25 played, and then as the DJ music faded and the lights dimmed again a 3,000 capacity audience roared as The Stranglers took to the stage. The first “guest vocalists” onstage were Hazel O’Connor and Robert Smith who were soon followed by Robert Fripp, Phil Daniels, Ian Dury, Richard Jobson, Toyah Wilcox, Jake Burns and Nicky Tesco and others. It was like Sunday Night at the London Palladium but for Punks, and witnessing the camaraderie, performances and solidarity of the cast of performers just bolstered my allegiance to all things music, concerts and Punk. It also showed me that the legendary rivalry between bands, that was touted by the NME and certain fan factions didn’t seem to have much basis. It was OK to enjoy a performance, even by someone whose records you would probably never buy.
Before I started going to actual gigs, my live music experience was entirely informed by the television, where instead of just one band playing for an hour or more there would be different people from all sorts of bands, and you’d get to see all of them in that one hour. I already knew that real gigs weren’t going to be like that.
When I arrived home, my mother asked me how it had been, I reeled off all the names of the people I could remember, Nicky Tesco, Toyah, Ian Dury, Phil Daniels… I knew she probably hadn’t heard of any of them but I just liked saying their names because it reminded me of the show, and that I was there. I think I also might have told her that there were crocodile ponds in the foyer.