Then-current album: Some Friendly
Opening act: School of Fish
Back of ticket ad: once again, a importuning to consider The National as a source of sports information vis-a-vis the fact that the ticket currently under consideration might just be a Super Bowl ticket. Thrills.
A little more beat up, this one, a touch more ragged on the perforation and with a jagged hole where the pushpin held it up.
Also, it’s a sign of a situation where I wussed out and could have gotten in for free, but then again if I had gotten in for free I wouldn’t have had a ticket, so.
A little explanation: as you can see from the ticket, this show was at UCLA in Ackerman Grand Ballroom, a location which was just that, located in the student center area (and presumably still is, though I haven’t swung through the building itself in many years). It was a room I had gotten to know for very good reason by this time in my UCLA career, well into my junior year as it was — it was where, at the rear of the ballroom, tucked away into a small series of rooms, the campus radio station KLA was tucked away.
The importance of KLA can’t be underscored enough — it was the first real campus organization as such I joined and about the only one that I really stuck with, outside of formal honors societies and all that. I’ve mentioned before how it was a key to my social life in turn, making and still keeping friends through it all these years along. It was pretty much my home on campus if I had time to kill between classes, I knew every nook and cranny of it — not hard, since it wasn’t that huge, really, but it did have a slew of rooms packed in and all around, the studio booths, the music library and so forth.
Ackerman Grand Ballroom was notable mostly for various events and movie screenings and so forth but it did host shows, though I honestly don’t remember too many there before this show — I have half a memory of Michelle Shocked performing at some PETA-related thing that was a free show in any event. This show was not, obviously, and there were a few questions going around the station as to how to be able to essentially sneak in without any questions — after all, it was clearly necessary that a larger than normal complement of DJs had to be around the station that evening to ensure that nothing went wrong. You know, the redundancy factor. You can never be too careful.
I think I would have stuck with this noble sentiment and the attendant plans if it weren’t for a couple of logistical issues. First, there was no other way into the station except via the ballroom, so it wasn’t like we could sneak in through a back exit. Second, the station lacked a bathroom — I forget where it was located but I’m pretty sure it was out in the lobby area or its equivalent, in any event on the wrong side of the main doors. So as the show approached I wrestled with both my conscience and my physical limitations and figured I’d prefer being able to simply swan in whenever I felt like it, so I didn’t have to worry too much either way. I got my ticket and on the night of the show after the doors opened I peeled off from where the crowd was heading over to the station doors and found something like ten to fifteen fellow KLA folks stuffed in there. Not too surprising.
The show itself? Well, School of Fish opened, and they were one of those bands that have this weird kind of reputation in retrospect for a couple of reasons. At the time they were seen by a few of us as just another sort-of alternative band in a sense that was going to be heavily outdated within a year’s time, signed to a major label, terribly earnest and polite and all that but not otherwise remarkable. Somehow I keep lumping them in my head with Jellyfish though there’s no real connection per se outside of a sense of tunefulness and melodic power-pop, perhaps a little more studiously earnest in the case of School of Fish. They actually had a really elegant take on George Michael’s “Father Figure” I enjoyed a lot, a harbringer of indie-covers-pop in later years that worked nicely enough. After the band broke up members went their various ways — Michael Ward went on to the Wallflowers, Josh Clayton-Felt pursued a solo career and very sadly passed on in 2000 due to cancer. I’m almost seven years older than he was when he died, and as with anyone who passes young it’s a weird feeling to sense that difference, when I remembered seeing him onstage, however briefly, alive and doing what he liked. Can’t add much more than that, though.
The Charlatans, meanwhile, and the reason why I was there at all. I’d picked up on their big-hype-new-wave-of-this-Madchester-thing almost by osmosis, and I also remember that as I tried to puzzle out the various shifting allegiances and perceptions of it from thousands of miles away and absolutely no context at all to bring to bear that supposedly the Stone Roses were the gods, the Happy Mondays were the thuggish types, the Inspiral Carpets were the retro psych guys and the Charlatans were the flash in the pan one-hit wonders who were clearly not going to survive “The Only One I Know,” which had been a big hit in the UK and had gotten some attention in the US in turn.
Nearly twenty years on and the Charlatans are the only ones still kicking, as it turns out. It’s as good a reminder that you just can’t predict these things in the end — oh sure, the Happy Mondays have reformed and all but that’s been a grueling disaster, but the supposed also-rans were the winners, one supposes, with their eleventh album — eleventh! almost impossible to believe it — currently being recorded. Of course, nobody knew that at the time, but as I look back on that show now I wonder a bit if there were any signs or hints that they would keep it going in the end. Hindsight being what it is I don’t entirely trust my judgment but I do think that what were the most memorable parts of the show do suggest, just, that they weren’t around to mess around.
More on that in a second — but this show, more than any other KROQ friendly show I’d yet attended, was the first where I definitely remember a certain look and hairstyle that to me defines this whole stretch of time, from late 1989 to late 1991, this period before ‘the nineties’ became ‘the nineties’ in stereotyped simplicity. There wasn’t any one look or style even in the city, much less nationwide (and never would be and never has been etc.), but there’s this one hairstyle that to me just sums up KROQ youth right at that moment — growing the top and upper sides of your hair out (not long like my hair but just out a touch more) while closely trimming the lower sides and back of your hair closely so your hair on the top could more easily flop over it. God knows where it came from, but I would be seeing a lot more of it over the course of the year.
Meanwhile, the Charlatans themselves were on the first full tour of the US but not their first appearance — indeed, they were one of the featured bands at a concert that I didn’t attend and which has been lost to history, but is in retrospect a bit of a fascinating one-off given everything that’s come since. A year before Lollapalooza was dreamed up, Ian Astbury of the Cult had conjured up something called the Gathering of the Tribes, held at a spot not far from where I live now, the Pacific Ampitheatre in Costa Mesa, as well as at the Shoreline up in the Bay Area the day before. If you read this old EW report, two to one says you’ll be a little startled to realize just how much of what went on there became an accepted part of the whole nineties concert experience for a LOT of folks, and via that the 21st century Coachella model as well.
So, first full tour, returning to California, they’re introduced — and by a guy who said something like “Ladies and gentlemen, Marc Riley and the Creepers!,” which itself was worth the ticket price just because I couldn’t guess how few people there knew that was a reference to a fellow Manchester band who would have only been known in the States at all for being one of the eight million spin-off bands created by former members of the Fall. A bit of attitude at work, obviously, and there I was playing rock snob and congratulating myself for knowing the joke, but hey, I wasn’t complaining.
There were lots of oil projections and lights everywhere (you wanted sixties revivalism, you got it), they come on stage and they kick in to…”The Only One I Know.” This was honestly surprising to me and I probably wasn’t alone, but the crowd got into it and it was a strong version, Tim Burgess grooving around on stage with a bit of attitude but not acting pissed off or anything. In retrospect, this was clearly a brilliant, nervy move — having already known exactly what they would be most expected to play and what was the one song they figured most of the pretty big crowd would actually know, they resisted the temptation to save it till later (and the possibility that people might leave right afterward) and just got it out of the way flat out. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen any other band in a similar position early in their career do the same, and it immediately increased my estimation of them then and it still holds now.
From there it was other single cuts and forthcoming B-sides like “Happen to Die” and even more obscure early songs like “Indian Rope,” and the performance was enjoyable enough though it all blends together. But it ended on just the right note, THE right note, and the other indication that the Charlatans had something to offer beyond the here and now. Their debut album, Some Friendly, is a classic debut as such in that it’s a little patchy, some high points and some timekillers that I think even dedicated fans would be hard-pressed to remember. It ends, though, on a sweeping note with “Sproston Green,” a song that wears its Who-derived “Won’t Get Fooled Again” drive and sense of arrangements just enough without being a fully-obvious knockoff (and I’ve heard far worse knockoffs, trust me). Rob Collins’ keyboard break and the charge of the chorus are the most noticeable elements on first blush but the song as a whole is a good instance of everyone meeting in the middle and wrapping up the album on a high note.
Live, though, the song has become the band’s anthem since, basically due to the evidence of what I saw that night — it was and is an absolutely killer song live, and the good-enough studio version becomes a total monster in concert. I’ve heard a slew of live versions over the years that take different approaches and takes while still retaining that quality, and it’s not too much to suggest it has a pride of place much like “A Forest” does for the Cure, it’s the BIG song in the set which can take on a variety of forms. It’s all the more striking for this song because it was only ever an album track.
But I remember the swell of the overall arrangement, how Collins’ work on the keyboards on that majestic, amazing break was thrilling, how the lights and projections went bananas, and how Burgess just sold the vocals, the song turning into a real frenzy by the end. It was a damn spectacular ending, pretty sure that was the last song and that there wasn’t an encore, but they didn’t NEED an encore. Again, it’s only in retrospect that the full quality of the moment took shape in my head but I had to have left there thinking something like “Damn, that was GOOD.”
Though I probably didn’t leave immediately. Hey, there was a radio station to visit.