The plan was simple. Me and my mate Tommy would make our ways from our respective homes in Oxford and Croydon up to Manchester to meet some friends and get drunk and see Bomb the Music Industry before traveling back down the next day to see them again in London, thus indulging our intense love for this band whilst having a good time with friends all the while trying bravely to convince ourselves we weren't just punk rock deadheads.
I got off the train around one and no-one spoke as I crossed the bright platform to the pub. I had a Guinness, read a little Burroughs and listened to the bigscreen Formula One whine as I waited for my mate Geo. When he got there I finished my pint and we wandered around trying to find somewhere we could get something simple to eat and stumbling into what we thought was a simple pub that did food we found ourselves accidentally having an intimate dinner with each other in what turned out to be a proper restaurant cleverly disguised as a good honest English drinking establishment. Fucking gastropubs. After that we headed for his house to dump my bag, have a quick drink and play a couple rounds of Timesplitters 2, which I won easily as it's a game which occupied a large part of my arrant teenage years. Still got it.
Heading out again to meet Tommy at the coach station, entertained briefly by a friendly insistent Mormon on a bus, we again wandered around in the cold until we found the venue which was closed so we decamped to the nearest pub for several hours of jukebox bullying with DK, SLF, Dolly Parton, The Toy Dolls, The Ramones, Public Enemy, Motorhead and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. The landlady actually turned it up as exhorted by the chorus of Bring the Noise, the second best reaction I've received to a jukebox choice after the time a pub landlord gave me a free drink for playing Smokey Robinson. As we got steadily drunker on Guinness and Newcastle Brown, me and Tommy bemused Geo with a series of dumb in-jokes and obscure punk references told in our effeminate southern accents. We also lost a bunch of money on the quiz machine and soon enough it was time to walk down the street and enter the venue, The Tiger Lounge.
The band playing as we walked in weren't bad but their lead singer was stunningly unenthusiastic, delivering his vocals as if he was doing an announcement over the tannoy of a department store, so the only thing to do was get drunker. And we did, I got very drunk, our other friend Matt arrived and bought me a drink and soon I was stumbling about the place generally acting like an effusive friendly dickhead, telling a guy in a FREE MORGAN TSANGVIRAI t-shirt that I was so bummed I couldn't wear my FREE AUNG SAN SUU KYI shirt any more, reminiscing with (MY NEW BEST FRIEND FOREVER AND EVER OBVIOUSLY) Jeff Rosenstock about the time last year I accidentally stalked him on the London underground, telling some guy in a Rosa shirt an extremely bad joke about The Menzingers and that Cormac McCarthy's Suttree is the second greatest punk rock novel ever written (Double Duce is obviously the first) and also trying to foggily explain to Jeff that he is so awesome because he writes songs that read as depressing but he sings them in the opposite way and the way he does that has a long and amazing history in music, like Bob Dylan singing bitterness in soaring triumphant tones in Like a Rolling Stone, like Cee-Lo twisting together heartbreak and spite and furious glee in Fuck You, like Off With Their Heads shredding the worst thoughts that you could possibly have into the most wallsmashing glorious rising noise in most of their songs, the act of taking a negative image or feeling and throwing it into a huge sweeping singalong chorus does such a funny wonderful thing to your head, it's such a delightful dissonance between these two feelings expressed at exactly the same time and it's a trick that has been perfected in the best rock and roll and pop music, the dual evocation of emotions, the irony of an anthem about no-one understanding you that you sing along to with dozens who understand that sensation. I tried to say all that, but yeah, I was pretty fucking drunk, so I'm not sure how much got out, but we hugged afterwards, or maybe I dreamed that last part.
So I guess if I was good gig reviewer I would give some sort of overview of the other opening bands, so here is what I can remember: there was a band that seemed pretty good when I was paying attention and I later learned that they were a band I've actually heard of and heard (Dividers) and think are pretty good so I probably would've enjoyed more if I hadn't been stumbling around the back of the room pestering random people. There was also a mediocre straight-up trad ska/reggae band of the sort that I thought stopped getting booked for punk shows when I was about seventeen. Truly the North of England is a backwards and frightening place. Their lazy rhythms would occasionally permeate my drunken haze and I would stop, skank half-heartedly for about five seconds, spill some of my drink over myself and think better of it then continue with talking bollocks to irritated Mancunians. Good for those guys for ploughing their own unfashionable furrow, I guess.
But then BTMI! came on and I was right to the front, there was no stage at all, they were just playing in an alcove inside a little archway. It was when they started playing that I realised I was so drunk I had forgotten most of the words and melodies to one of my favourite bands. I still danced like a loon and latched onto the more recognisable choruses (I sang "I'm 23" during '25' because I was in that ALL THESE SONGS ARE ABOUT ME! level of intoxication) and spent most of the show with my arms raised against the ceiling trying not to fall into the band and smack one of them in the face with the microphone, a prospect which they looked visibly scared of more than once. There were grabbed mics, shared wine bottles and whole lotta bouncing around. My memories deteriorate even more rapidly at this point but I know it was fucking awesome.
Almost as soon as the show ended a deadly fatigue fell upon me, I felt half dead. My arms were falling off from pushing against the ceiling. Matt had disappeared. Me, Tommy and Geo stumbled to a bus stop, got some pizza and I gave myself heartburn eating too fast and was still drunk enough to think my life was in danger from the pain in my chest so we trudged back towards Geo's and I felt like a soldier returning from the front in a Wilfred Owen poem and I had to call my girlfriend to tell her that I was most fucking definitely going to die but that BTMI were amazing and what more fitting swansong than that blurry wordless shout of camaraderie and intoxication.
But I lived, we got to Geo's and passed out and woke up the next day and after a breakfast beer headed out. Tommy was catching the bus down to London and I had a train booked so it meant I wandered around Manchester for a few hours in a daze. Found a bright yellow Dickies single in a ramshackle old second hand shop for a couple of quid, had a disappointing baked potato (how can you fuck up a baked potato?), managed to get roped into giving some money to charity by a friendly chugger, there should be some sort of sign so that when you give money to one of those people 100 yards down the road another one with an equally worthy cause doesn't jump out at you and think you're the same heartless bastard that everyone else is when you skirt by them. "I've already given money to one charity today" somehow makes you sound like even more of a scrooge than just blanking silence. I realised as my wallet was dangerously light as I caught the train still feeling fucking rough and I sat there unable to concentrate on the book I was reading and thinking about what I was trying to say to Jeff about the music he made and whether I'd actually managed to communicate it or in my drunkenness had just burbled like a twat.
Because I was trying to make a more specific point than the one I outlined above, I think, because BTMI aren't singing some vague abstract unhappiness, some epic sweep of universal emotions, they're singing MY unhappiness and my friends' unhappiness, our mundane shitty jobs, our overly expensive degrees, our futures heralded by doomladen headlines, our isolation and self-doubt.
My life has gotten better than it ever has been before this year, but it still fucking sucks a lot of the time, I had to move back in with my mum and dad, I have a dead-end job that frustrates, enrages and depresses me, my girlfriend lives thousands of miles away and we keep being stupid and running up huge phone bills, I have no money most of the time, I'm in thousands of pounds worth of debt for a degree I dropped out of, and yeah, more often than I should I still fall into those recursive cycles of self-loathing that have plagued me for the best part of the past decade (and helped me get into punk rock) but hearing those stresses and worries put into words gives me a feeling of validity, like I'm not just a toothless spinning cog, like I'm part of something, like my experience and existence is worthwhile somehow, and it makes me feel kinda good about it, because to shine the light of art on something is inevitably to romanticise it somewhat, like Bukowski making skidrow whisky binges and cheap women sound like the fine and good pursuits of a noble tragic hero. The very act of making art about something makes it more feel better than it felt before because it makes you feel less alone. There's a Jake Burns interview where he talks about the revelatory moment of realising the Clash were singing about their lives on their first album, crap jobs and drunken weekends and garages and condoms, and that before that he'd been singing about California highways and other such hoary rock clichés because that was what he thought rock bands were supposed to sing about. That notion of a band singing sharp evocations of the very lives of the dumb fucks bouncing about in front of them combined with what I was trying to communicate about the implicit beautiful dissonance in a punk rock chorus pretty much adds up to what punk rock pretty much is for me.
Because I know that laying any sort of dogma onto punk rock is pretty much to shackle and restrain the very nature of the beast that makes it so appealing, the formlessness and uncertainties of its ideological make-up that makes it make sense to a lot of us rolling from bad decision to bad decision, too fucking snotty and full of piss and vinegar to adhere to some overall guiding commandments, but it's always gotta have something to do with the idea of an underclass to me. Not necessarily as a classic political concept, and not necessarily the idea of an underclass rising up murderous and righteous with pitchforks and slogans, though I love songs that deal with the advocation of revolution, or the shots taken at presidents and prime ministers or the rocks thrown through police car windscreens, but I'm talking here just about the sort of people who exist outside what is supposed to matter to (the possibly equally slippery notion of) mainstream society. The inherent outsiders, the ones who at some point in the past broke from the pack in their head, who heard a howl and it felt like a kiss, who embrace a wrongness, a loathing, a yearning that can somehow only be truly captured in a form that will be ignored and dismissed for its noise and speed and sloppiness, who hung on to all that teenage desire and angst and built a fortress out of it against the steady erosion of career objectives and blank home comforts. So while a song that tears down the police state or consumerist culture can be a great, a fucking fun song, an irresistible seductive vision, the ones I love more are the songs that just take a shitty little life and shine a fiery light upon its warty beauty, its contradictions and conflagrations, and I love it on a personal visceral fucking level, because I've got a shitty little stressful life, but in these noisy songs and in these connections forged through these noisy songs there is the notion that our lives are part of a secret history, an undercurrent of fuck-ups, a conspiracy of the marginalised and offbeat, a secret scene, the failures and the weirdos, awaiting silent Trystero's empire of dirt and ragged ripped-off Hickey riffs (Hickey are the best band ever). We're the oddballs struggling with our problems, with the constraints that have been placed upon us, stuck into us, and armed in these struggles with the tools and weapons and shields of bouncing souls, lawrence arms, paintboxes and black flags, ceremonies of crimped shrines and bent outta shape guitar wolves. That combined with the previous notion I tried to articulate about the brilliance of singing along to something that is not conventionally lauded yet resonates deeply with you anyway explains why Bomb the Music Industry! are an integral part of that toolset, that coping noise for me and for a lot of other people. They're something special, special enough that they're doing something that means that I felt drunkenly comfortable enough to alter the words in the chorus of one of the songs to more accurately reflect my situation, special enough that they have enough skill to not just implicitly invoke all of the aforementioned tensions and joys, but to lay it out clear and bold in a riotous roadtrip of a song like Syke! Life is Awesome! Which really shouldn't work. It's tough enough to write a song that dances with the contradictory themes of loving life and hating yourself in one moment, but to write one which specifically chronicles a journey from despair to epiphanous delirium and happiness without it coming off as glib or overly corny is tough as shit.
In London I stumbled about a bit more, still dazed and feeling like I'd been run over last night. The nap and the beer and the big shit on the train had not contained the restorative powers I had hoped them to. I wandered round Camden and met Tommy again in the pub above the venue where we nursed pints tenderly. BTMI! came into the pub and swiftly avoided us, or at least that's what it looked like to us. "Oh shit. What did we do last night?" was what we immediately thought, but it turns out they'd just been confused and looking for how to get into the venue, and we hadn't accidentally shat in their van or something horrendous the previous night. After directing Jeff into the venue and supping our pints quietly and stiffly for a little longer, we bumped into some other friends and went into the venue.
First up were The Working Dead, who were a solid little punk band. Good stuff. I should've bought a demo but was pretty broke by this point.
Next on the stage were Bad Ideas, and I could not fathom why they were playing this show, maybe there comes a point where every punk fan encounters something within the punk scene that makes him go "Well, that's not fucking punk rock." and Bad Ideas played this mid-tempo radio-friendly emo-influenced boredom rock that I guess is the logical endpoint of the dulling of the once-ragged edge of AM! and Gaslight Anthem. Second artist syndrome, we meet again. They were boring and lifeless, there was not a hint of noise or fun apart from a brief break between the turgid numbers where someone could be heard to exclaim "But they're shit!" to whoever was next to him followed by an exasperated screech of "Shut the fuck-up!" It was like an entire family sitcom condensed into two lines of dialogue. Bad Ideas sounded to me almost exactly like the band that Jack Black's ex-bandmates form without him in School of Rock that win the competition but not the hearts of the crowd, they're probably destined to get fucking huge and be put on valentine's day mixes for couples who think they're edgy because they owned a RATM album when they were 15 and got the same tattoo that their mum did.
Cynics, who encompassed not one but two punk rock naming conventions, the eschewing of a 'the' before a plural name (Fleshies, Dead Kennedys, Mixtapes) and giving a full band name for just one person (Mischief Brew, Wingnut Dishwasher's Union, uh, Bomb the Music Industry!) and performed a few decent punchy originals and fun covers and is destined to forever be compared to Billy Bragg by dint of the fact that he plays solo with an electric guitar. He also tried to pick a fight with the Bad Ideas heckler, presumably out of solidarity, but it just came across weirdly. Maybe the fact that it seemed weird to me betrays a lack of appreciation of the notion of punk unity, and I know the it must be tough not to stand up for your friends' shit art, but Bad Ideas dealt with the heckler well with a wry smile, they don't need someone picking a fight on their behalf, let them become culturally irrelevant millionaires in peace.
So while I stood and slowly drank through these bands, I fucking ached. Standing up had made me realise just how completely fucked-up I still was from last night, my morning headache had dispersed but that feeling of dislocation, of being just a little bit removed and spaced-out was full within me, and all my limbs tore at their skin, my organs rumbled and my bones creaked. I was an old, old man. As Bomb the Music Industry! took the stage I knew that this was not gonna be good, as much as I love this band I was just too physically shattered from the previous night's adventures to truly connect tonight.And then they started playing and everything that I've been trying to articulate here about how much they mean to me and how much punk rock means to me was visited upon this dank basement a fucking hundredfold as the crowd burst into flailing burning dancing that continued for the entire set. The adrenaline kicked in and I sang along to every word and flailed with them. We moved like those breakneck ska-punk anthems were wired to our nerves and muscles. We crowdsurfed and stagedived. We circled the pillar that stands in the middle of the room. We stumbled about like zombies during the slower numbers, gasping for breath in the solos. We pinballed back and forth against each other with manic grins on our faces and were consumed in sweat and exhilaration. We knocked each other over. We picked each other up with a tug on the arm and a slap on the back.
A few years ago, I remember being involved in an ongoing post-lecture pub discussion positing the concept of a moshpit as a physical representation of a perfect society, it was world class pub talk bullshit, and as such we spent hours drawing the parallels, in the struggle for position conducted with vigour but without malice, in the way that you always pick up a fallen dancer and support the brief higher aspirations of a crowd surfer with the knowledge that they would do the same for you, in the way that while there is a conceptual for a leader in the band on the stage, you always know that they're one of you, that they've done their time throwing themselves about anonymously in darkened rooms and that they're always just a couple steps away from leaping from the stage and joining the tussle, and various other stretched similarities that seemed vaguely profound through the prism of several Guinnesses and a head full of 19th century political theory. Of course I've been at many a punk show where the crowd has been somewhere away from that ideal, Business shows shows where I've come out beaten shitless by dozens of trad skins with arms like cabers, hardcore shows where one stout thick-necked individual takes it upon himself to walk back and forth across the front of the stage with his head down blindly throwing punches in front of him like a huge clockwork toy, and at the other end, the last AJJ show I was at where some guy tried to start a fight with me for even daring to dance in the vicinity of him and his girlfriend.
Maybe I was drunk, dehydrated or delusional, but this seemed to be a show where everything went right. The pit was enthusiastic in the extreme but its violence was a cathartic joy, not a threat, just an outpouring of happiness and thanks cascading from both the crowd and the band, thanks for soundtracking our shitty little lives, thanks for being here and singing along, showgoers scrambling up onto the stage, band members throwing themselves off it, a process of erosion of the borderline between hero and fan that has always been one of my favourite aspects of punk rock, we're all in this together, everyone here is responsible for the transcendent nature of this moment.
And when after a couple of full band encores Jeff Rosenstock took the stage to play Future 86 by himself, telling the crowd that it was a song about the anxieties of being on tour and wishing you could just settle down as the itinerant lifestyle robbing you of many of the steady pleasures of friends and neighbourhood, but about how that song doesn't mention the friends you make from that lifestyle. Well, as the rest of the band and all the support acts and then swiftly a considerable portion of the crowd joined him on the stage, when you're singing a song like that with dozens of others linked arm-in-arm, a choir of the absolutely knackered and overjoyed, there's not a more perfect demonstration of all the shite I was waffling on about earlier, a life in songs, a song that comes alive with inherent contradictions and EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL AND TRIUMPHANT AND WARM AND SILLY THAT PUNK ROCK IS AND EVER COULD BE. Or at least that's how it felt as the song ended and everyone mobbed Jeff. From the moment they played their first song to when I finally climbed down off the stage and skipped up and out of the venue into the street everything made sense, everything was good. Because whatever the fuck happens, when we're not feeling strong, we grab the mic and we sing the fuck along and we chase those breathless moments up into the cold November night.