I waited outside the school gates for Heather at the beginning of lunchtime. It had been easier to coordinate lunch in the 3rd year as we were in the same set and had the same lessons. The 4th year was the start of our ‘O’ Level options and as we had chosen differently had to plan meeting up at breaks.
At registration that morning she had tantalised me with news that she had new music from her older super cool sister who was at University. We were predominantly listening to The Smiths and Simple Minds until Helen, the older sister, had introduced us to Freur and their electronic album Doot Doot. In the same vein I hoped the new music would be original and something off the wall.
Heather appeared and immediately passed her school books to me. Heather was a young lady and preferred to carry a small, impractical for school books, picnic basket which housed her hairbrush and make up. I didn’t mind as my bag was much bigger and I was stronger. We had been good friends for over a year after Heather dated one of my school friends. They split but we stayed friends.
We hurried the 10 minute walk to her parents’ house, and I retrieved my cheese sandwiches my mum had prepared that morning. Cheese was my preferred sandwich with prawn cocktail crisps, penguin and apple. I sometimes varied the cheese sandwich with cream cheese. Heather went into the lounge and hit play on the large silver coloured ghetto blaster.
Brass instruments hit my ears followed by a distinct jazzy beat, and then the silky voice of Tracey Thorn ‘If you ever feel the time, to drop me a loving line.’
This was jazz, and I liked The Smiths. But there was something so unique and so simple. I didn’t like jazz. It wasn’t cool, but this was something else. It sounded like jazz but as the tracks flowed it was clear that there was a darker sound to the voice. I needed to get a copy.
My new sound stayed with me through the day, and Heather had promised to make a copy for me that evening. I got Everything But The Girl’s album Eden on one side and Ben Watt’s solo album North Marine Drive on the other. It’s funny that we talk today about illegal downloads, but either recording from the radio or tape to tape copying was commonplace in the 1980s.
The beginning to Eden gets me every time, even to this day. It’s so powerful and pure, and transports me to a different place and time.
Ben’s solo album is more raw, and a collection of melancholic but picturesque (however bleak) tracks. As a somewhat morose teenager at times, this fitted perfectly and provided a companion (alongside Morrissey) to the problems and depressions associated with growing up.
I never got to see Ben Watt or Tracey Thorn live either individually or collectively as Everything But the Girl. Concerts weren’t so accessible then. In fact I didn’t go to concerts until I was in my early 20s. I was not in the know to find out about concerts and rarely read NME so didn’t see any EBTG concerts advertised. My Boulevardier qualities were in their infancy. EBTG were silent popstars. Today the words silent and popstar create an oxymoron. EBTG were not emblazoned across the front of every newspaper, falling out of clubs or selling their souls. They just made music.
So that was that! I still loved and consistently listened to particularly Eden and North Marine Drive. It was such a relief when these albums were released on CD. CDs were more durable, and every time I played the tapes I feared it would be their last.
Earlier this year, Ben Watt posted on Twitter that he was performing a couple of acoustic concerts, at small venues. These would be the first solo gigs of this nature since the early 1980s. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted tickets and booked two. I really wanted to ask whether he would be playing some of the older stuff, but I always sensed they were not sentimental and preferred not to look back. This was confirmed by Tracey Thorn earlier in the year when I asked her at her book reading about touring and playing some of the earlier ETBG material.
Ben asked on Twitter who was coming to the gigs, and I responded positively. Justin, my good friend who was coming with me, stated that he wasn’t sure what to wear. Ben replied saying ‘It’ll be hot, so keep it simple.’
Fashion advice from Ben Watt on Twitter.
I decided to keep it really simple and wore denim shorts, sandals and a Jimi Hendrix T shirt. I met Justin at Old Street underground station, and he was wearing a long sleeved, but thin, sweater, jeans and silver pointy shoes. He was also carrying a jacket. A Jacket! It was still about 24 degrees. I did have an H&M graffiti hoodie around my waist but a jacket. We laughed and joked as we bound along Old Street expectant of a great gig.
The venue, interestingly called The Venue is a downstairs room at The Slaughtered Lamb Public House in Clerkenwell. The pub itself is a large square room with a mish mash of aging leather sofas and unpolished wooden tables and chairs. Justin walked in and instantly greeted the barman. Was he a regular? No, it was a friend he didn’t know worked there!
After quenching our thirst on delicious wine and beer, respectively not subsequently, we walked downstairs to the Venue. Two heavy dark wood doors opened into a medium sized dark room. At one end was the bar and the performance area. This was not a stage as it was not raised. It actually looked like a guitar shop as there were 6 guitars all lined up ready for use, along with a mandolin, keyboard, mikes and amps. One solitary standard lamp rather frayed at the edges lit the corner. In front of the stage were a number of small stools, and we selected the second row. The Venue gradually filled and started to heat up. Ben was right with his advice! I wondered if Justin rued wearing a sweater. Both our jacket and hoodie were redundant and on the floor.
At just after 8.30 Ben appeared to applause. He didn’t bask in the applause and instead offered simple non-verbal gratitude and sat at the keyboard and shared one of his new tracks with us.
Wow! It was fantastic. The sound more mature than his early solo material, but still full of emotion. His voice still as unique and haunting as it ever was.
Someone called Bernard joined him to play on a few tracks. Ben joked that Bernard hadn’t had time to learn them all. I wasn’t aware at the time but this was Bernard Butler from 90s fame and acclaim.
Ben warmed up and as he did engaged more and explained his journey back to music. He hadn’t written any new tracks for a number of years and was suddenly hit by inspiration earlier in the year. It was good to know that even the great and successful artists found it difficult to write when consumed with other projects. I have previously written here that my passion for the commercial world stifled and stunted my create writing. I am working hard at redressing this balance.
Ben hinted that if he was brave enough he would play a few of his old tracks. My excitement intensified. Was I really going to hear live interpretations of some of the sounds of my youth.
Ben continued playing some beautiful new tracks, mostly with the same gloom and angst present throughout his early work. Songs such as Golden Ratio, The Levels, Nathaniel we will always love you, and Bricks and Wood, or was it Wood and Bricks, spring to mind.
Ben announced that he had not played the next track to an audience in over 30 years. As soon as the first few melancholy plucked notes hit my ears, I knew we were in for the treat that is Walter and John.
Ben then played Somethings Don’t Matter and North Marine Drive, which are two of my favourite tracks from his North Marine Drive album. Ben forgot some words halfway through North Marine Drive, but it really didn’t matter. It felt like we were sharing a journey with him, and in doing so he was fulfilling my journey which started with these tracks over 30 years ago. This evening was a precious moment in time.
The temperature in the room was akin to a sauna, but it somehow didn’t matter.
After a few more new tracks and a keyboard version of On Box Hill Ben’s first solo concert in over 30 years was over, and an amazing success. He even quipped that it wasn’t as tough as he had expected! And that he would be in the studio from September and hoped to release some new material next spring.
Ben came back into the room after the concert and it gave me a chance to say thank you in person.
A fantastic evening coupling a trip down remembrance avenue and some new fantastic material.