Live, Work & Play: the Sports’ 1979 U.K. tour

I first met Keith Shadwick in 1978 when he came to Adelaide on tour with the High Rise Bombers. Keith was a poet and a saxophone player and he was friends with my housemate Larry. They’d both been part of the Melbourne mid-70s performance poetry push, with people like Eric Beach, Gig Ryan and πο. Keith had an impressive musical pedigree too, having been in Renee Geyer’s first band Sun, Sydney anarcho-jazzers Uncle Bob’s Band and then Melbourne’s ‘great white hope’ of 1976, the Bleeding Hearts. Keith and I got on well and he was very interested in Roadrunner which had just gotten underway.

The seven-piece High Rise Bombers were great, but they were a bit like a radioactive isotope—throwing off lots of energy, but inherently unstable. When they inevitably disintegrated, the particles flew off in many directions: Martin Armiger to the Sports, Paul Kelly and John Lloyd to the Dots and Chris Dyson to Stiletto, while Keith packed his swag and decamped to London where he became Roadrunner’s first London Editor.

The Sports signed to Mushroom Records in January 1978 and released their debut album, Reckless, in May. In August 1978, Martin Armiger replaced Ed Bates on guitar and the following month the Sports supported U.K. outfit Graham Parker and the Rumour on their first Australian tour. The band impressed Parker manager Dave Robinson, who signed them to his Stiff Records label for U.K. release and arranged a support slot for them on the Parker tour of the U.K. scheduled for March and April 1979.

At a time when everything old is new again and the 70s is back in focus with the death of Gough, the release of the (When The Sun Sets Over) Carlton compilation and the reissue of the expanded second Sports album Don’t Throw Stones—which includes the never-before-released, rerecorded versions of the songs the band put down in London in 1979—it seemed opportune to revisit Keith Shadwick’s dispatches from the Sports’ tour of the U.K. in 1979, first published over two issues of Roadrunner in April and May 1979.

I honestly don’t recall exactly how Keith ended up embedded on the tour. At the London end, quite possibly pleadings from old mate (from Bleeding Hearts and High Rise Bombers) Martin Armiger and Stephen Cummings. At this end, almost certainly agreement and support from Michael Gudinski and Michelle Higgins at Mushroom. However it happened, Keith was on the bus and as a fellow player and friend was granted unparalleled access and provided a critical and analytical insider’s view as the Sports tried to forge a path to success in the volatile new wave music environment that was Britain in the late 70s.

Despite his optimistic, even evangelical conclusion to his massive piece—well, we were all evangelical in one way or other in those days—by November 1979 he was telling me in a letter, ‘I really feel they’ve become a dated sound for the U.K. —they’ll probably go down a storm in the U.S. They’re still a very good band—it’s just not fair to review them in the current U.K. climate as they’re quite irrelevant. It’s THAT fickle.’

In fact, as the Sports’ singer Stephen Cummings relates in his beautifully-written and highly-entertaining memoir Will It Still Be Funny Tomorrow, Billy? (Hardie Grant Books 2009),

‘When the time came to go home, Gudinski had got us out of the Stiff contract and we’d signed an American deal worth millions with Arista. Don’t Throw Stones would be released in the U.K. on Sire Records home to Blondie and the Ramones. Not bad! Somehow Gudinski swung some arrangement whereby Stiff gave us the money and the unreleased album and everyone stayed on friendly terms. I still do not understand why or how.’

Keith became editor of a British music trade mag called Music Trades International and from there worked as a record buyer, and by 1985 was head of marketing for RCA Classics. Then, with the support of his wife the art writer Alison Cole, he freelanced as a music writer, becoming music critic for the Independent, jazz section editor of Gramophone, and a radio presenter on Classic FM.

Sadly, he contracted mesothelioma and passed away in London in 2008. His good friend and musical colleague Martin Armiger wrote this fine obituary for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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Sports in the U.K.

by Keith Shadwick

Each tour a band goes on ends up with its own peculiar flavour, something usually imposed on it by a combination of day-to-day events and the gigs themselves. This may seem self-evident, but to the casual observer, the huge majority of each day spent hanging around for the 45-minute raison d’etre is too easily forgotten.

After following Graham Parker and the Sports around England and up into Scotland, both the dimensions and limitations of the tour have become largely apparent. The external factors are the easiest to relate. The combination of Stiff Records and Harvey Goldsmith, this country’s largest agent, has come up with a formidably efficient touring package and touring machine that has a workable itinerary and real penetration and pacing into the heart of the British audience. The strategy is familiar—start in the provinces, where no-one will bother too much if you’re a bit rusty (Parker actually did a brief Irish sojourn before returning to London to pick up the Sports), then gradually work up the momentum and spiral back to London, finishing in a blaze of glory with three nights at the Hammersmith Odeon. By rights, these should be sold out by the advance publicity in the papers of the month-long tour and the new records that should be getting plenty of airplay by that stage. In fact all three parts of the stage act will have recorded product out and listened to in a month’s time—Parker has his new LP, Squeezing Out Sparks, in the shops and the single, Protection, has already got airplay; the Rumour have a single, Frozen Years out from their new album Frogs, Sprouts, Clogs & Krauts and the Sports’  The Sports E.P. went to the shops and radio stations just as the tour got to Liverpool.

Going a little further inside the actual day-to-day routine, we find both outfits travelling in a luxury touring bus, staying in three or four star hotels and being paid a comfortable wage. That the Sports are travelling with Parker and staying at the same hotels points to the sort of friendly and helpful relationship already developed between all concerned.

But this is jumping the gun a little. It doesn’t take into account one of the more important aspects of any tour—the irrational element which forces itself into contention so often in rock’n’roll and is just as important as any other factor in determining the nature of the experience. And for me, that aspect was virtually the opening shot. My introduction to the tour was just as wildly improbable as it could have been—literally bumping into Martin Armiger as I walked down Oxford St the day after I’d heard the Sports had arrived—Oxford St being about the busiest single piece of footpath in the whole of England. I dragged him off to Valeri’s Patisserie in Old Compton St (a sort of U.K. version of Tamani’s (iconic South Yarra noshery, now closed—Ed)) and we talked over events both here and in Oz, swapping anecdotes and gossip. Martin let out the baleful news that the band were staying (inevitably) in Earl’s Court, at the Chelsea Hotel, and everyone was still hellishly jet-lagged. In three days time, they’d be doing a press reception at the Nashville in West Kensington, then the next day departing for Cardiff, where the tour proper got underway.

The Sports

The Sports

The Sports 1979. Left to right, Martin Armiger (guitar), Andrew Pendlebury (guitar), Rob Glover (bass), Stephen Cummings (vocals), Jimmy Niven (keyboards) and Paul Hitchens (drums).

The following Tuesday night, I arrived at the Nashville to see the Sports meet the press and other associated hangers-on. The band had been practising daily in Highbury to shake off the numbing effects of the jet-lag, and to work out how to create the best impression in the allotted exposure time. This was the occasion when image overrode all other considerations and Stiff had reacted accordingly by going totally overboard with an Australian Extravaganza. Immediately on entering, you were assailed by untold stacks of Foster’s Lager totally obliterating the bar, and as you turned to escape the shimmering blue and white tinnies you were further assailed by reams of Australian Tourist Board posters glaring at you from the walls. Picking my way through the massed liggers towards the stage area I became quickly aware of one of those cultured Australian Voices emanating from the speakers and went to investigate, only to find a hundred or so incredulous faces staring at a small film screen while one of those ghastly This Is Australia government films went through its hackneyed paces. Shots of happy Bondi-ites, happy migrant workers, leggy big-busted bikini’d blondes, happy abos, happy politicians and vast expanse of Blue Australian Sky. It certainly was an attempt at overkill, and astutely thought out by Stiff, considering the sour taste left in the rock press’ mouth over here (self-induced mostly) by the failure of the Saints and Radio Birdman in particular to impress the U.K. gods of the printed word. It was no good ignoring the fact the band was Australian—it was better to turn it into a Humphries-style cliché and hope that the VIPs concerned would see the joke. By and large, the strategy seemed to work, notwithstanding the eventual non-showing of the kangaroo in boxing gloves that was part of the original idea.

Shots of happy Bondi-ites, happy migrant workers, leggy big-busted bikini’d blondes, happy abos, happy politicians and vast expanse of Blue Australian Sky. It certainly was an attempt at overkill, and astutely thought out by Stiff

So, by the time the Sports hit the stage, the crowd were suitably lulled into jollity and vague good humour, and actually got off the bar to listen to and watch the band. Looking incredibly nervous (they were) but still purposeful, they zipped through eight numbers with virtually no break in between, playing tight and safe, the sound punchy and strong, with the opening number, Hit Single, coming across particularly well. Finishing up with Who Listens To The Radio, the band bowed off to solid clapping and friendly cheers, and then it was all over, and the people wandered back to the bar looking suitably generous in their response and all saying how impressed they were, while the inevitable small bunch of expatriates crowded backstage to encourage, congratulate and bask in the reflected glow. It hadn’t been a particularly inspired performance, but it had been very tight and professional, and that really was what was needed. The shock to this crowd of experts in not hearing what they’d expected—ideas which were two years out of date, or a re-hash of the (to them) detestably popular AC/DC—was sufficient to get them a good reaction. The stage was now nicely set for the tour onslaught, with the planned release of the EP now only a week away. The band looked exhausted, but pleased, mingling with the crowd afterwards. A friend of mine said she’d seen John Lydon there, listening to the set—but he hadn’t hung around, leaving straight after the last number. A nice little touch of mystique on the occasion …

Continuing the same slightly dreamlike offstage existence the band was in, Martin dropped round later in the night to my place and we watched Bowie do three live numbers on The Old Grey Whistle Test, as well as a whole procession of mediocre home-grown acts. It seemed the perfect circular existence—a member of a rock band watching other rock bands on TV in his spare moments. But after all, what else is there but TV?

Cardiff

Cardiff

Cardiff

The next morning we all headed over to the Stiff office and clambered onto the bus, getting ready for the drive to Cardiff, the first date on the tour. The drive through the lower Midlands was the bore everyone thought it would be, and apart from Steve Cummings regularly asking, ‘Where are we now?’ and the good selection of tapes played through the bus cassette system, there was little else to grab the attention.

Going across the Severn Bridge into Wales seemed to wake everybody up for a few minutes at least before they returned to their copies of the NME, the Guardian or Melody Maker. The boys from the Rumour were busy being good-humouredly indignant about the rather unflattering review of their Dublin concert of the week before in an attempt to inject some life into the trip, or heckling Trevor the driver every time another bus overtook us on the motorways, but it was with genuine relief that we slid past Cardiff Castle up to first of many Centre Hotels we’d been booked into.

After a wash and a bite to eat, everyone once again piled into the bus for the sound check at Cardiff Uni, where the gig was that night, and on arrival managed to get thoroughly lost in the labyrinthine bowels of the hall corridors. The Sports’ dressing room seemed miles from the stage, but at least it had mirrors and a tune-up amp in place, care of the roadies.  Really Cardiff Uni was the perfect venue for the Sports to do their first gig. It provided the gratuitous gift of an enthusiastic audience starved of touring acts. Shortly before stage-time, while the band was waiting in the dressing room for G.P. to finish an incredibly long sound check and getting increasingly edgy, a Welsh porter turned up with a card telegram from Stiff head office: ‘Have a jolly good show, boys—get the M.C. to read this out’. It was a nice touch, arriving in the middle of a fraught scene where Jimmy was trying to get his synthesiser in tune with the rest of his keyboards and the two guitars and the sound check time was fast disappearing out the window. It made everybody slip back in their seats for a few moments and smile. Someone just had to come up with a rider and after a suitable pause, Martin delivered it. As Dave Robinson, the Stiff/G.P. manager, entered the room and read the telegram (preparing for a morale-boosting speech) Armiger slipped in: ‘We were expecting a singing one …’

A professional Stiff M.C. introduced the band in a hilariously inappropriate fake Oz accent: ‘… and now a great little band that’s come a long way to play for youse tonite: all the way from Australia, Stiff recording artists, the Sports!!!’

The band eventually got the sound check and starting time was put back to make it a decent length. Now it was time for them to actually deliver to their first British audience. A professional Stiff M.C. introduced the band in a hilariously inappropriate fake Oz accent: ‘ … and now a great little band that’s come a long way to play for youse tonite: all the way from Australia, Stiff recording artists, the Sports!!!’ An amused jeer had risen out of the crowd of at the mention of Oz, but it had been vaguely friendly—after all, this was a uni audience and it WAS St David’s Day in Wales so they had to be tolerant. Before the polite applause of the four to five hundred-strong crowd had died, Paul counted the band in for Hit Single and they came on sounding lean and punchy, the P.A. full and gutsy and the instruments well-balanced, mixed from the back of the hall by G.P.’s sound man. People wandering around the hall soon came over to stand and watch and a good atmosphere was established by the time the second song, Mailed It To Your Sister, started. Only Jimmy’s keyboards were a little lost in the out-front sound, otherwise it was full and sweet—none of the infamous support-band fuck-ups here that are so common on big tours. In fact, it became evident pretty quickly that the G.P. roadies were working very hard to do their utmost for the Sports: the roving spot man in particular who was getting things wrong (after all, he’d never worked with the band before) was continually on his toes to correct mistakes quickly. On the whole the audience was responding well, only apparently losing their enthusiasm about halfway through—always the danger spot in concerts; but picking up again as the band delivered a great version of Reckless. All the way through the set, Andrew and Martin were combining superbly , and the only ingredient missing from the music was the occasional hot solo. This was most notable in the spaces left for Jimmy Niven, as for some inexplicable reason, the otherwise excellent sound man failed to bring up Jimmy’s sound over the rest of the band when it came to things like his spots in So Obvious and Who Listens To The Radio. The other problem, which was largely averted this night by quick pacing and an enthusiastic audience, was that Steve didn’t say a word all the time he was on stage. But they went off to convincing cheers and a few yells for ‘more’ all the same, and could reassure themselves that they played with much more real fire and feel than they had at the Nashville the night before. Not bad at all for a band still basically getting the last symptoms of jet-lag out of their systems.

Parker and the Rumour hit the stage no more than 15 minutes later and after checking the boys in the dressing room to see that they felt reasonably pleased in amongst their anxiety about their reception and that Dave Robinson was giving them a post-mortem booster, I went up to check the main set. By this time the place was full, the band was hot and the crowd going berserk. They were dragged back for three encores and the atmosphere was electric . G.P. cleaned up in Cardiff alright. As the band were starting their last encore, I left with Steve to walk back to the hotel. The reception Parker and the Rumour had got had coloured everyone’s valuation of their reception, making them feel they hadn’t done too well. Steve was worried about it as we walked back through the empty streets, getting lost more than once. I tried to reassure him it was fine, for a first gig, and at length he cheered up. I could see that getting a clear perspective on things was going to be a problem in itself for the band.

The next morning, after a foul ‘continental’ breakfast in our rooms, we crawled onto the bus as the lazy hour of 1 p.m. and took off into the foothills of South Wales, en route to Sheffield. Not far out of Newport, we stopped at a little village, Caerleon, to have lunch in a quaint old tea-house, ‘The Copper Kettle’. Then while the Rumour were knocking back after-meal chasers, The Sports’ roadie  Bob Gosford and I walked up to the town’s tiny museum to check on the Roman antiquities that had been found there. The little Welsh woman told us to go and see the amphitheatre round the corner, so we did. It was a small one, covered in grass, with a breathtaking view of the hills for miles around. We rushed back to just catch the bus as it was leaving. Such are the pleasures of the road, playing a job a day.

Sheffield

Sheffield

Sheffield

Travelling through the Midlands towards Sheffield, Martin and I swapped reminiscences of similar areas years before—it was sort of an attempt to come to some real point of contact with the landscape, the duality of its alienness but familiarity for us. But the Midlands are such a mess. I could see why D.H. Lawrence was so pissed off with what was happening to rural England—really, there was nothing left here now: just an industrial desert, fascinating but repellent.

Sheffield was just an extension of the same thing, this time for the whole band—a totally faceless city with no reason to exist but industry. As we drove in towards the shopping centre where the hotel was, we saw very few ads or posters; so different to Cardiff, which had been covered in them. After checking into the hotel, there was nothing to do—we had a rest day, and apart from staring at the TV or hanging out with the businessmen at the bar, the best idea seemed to be to sleep. The next day was even worse, wandering round a stunted city centre or having long late breakfasts downstairs. There was nothing to see or do. Jimmy at least was busy—he was trying to get familiar with his synthesiser, setting it up on the desk in his room and spending hours twiddling the frequency responses while people wandered aimlessly in and out. Only Bob, the roadie, did something interesting, meeting an attractive young native at the local disco the night before. Still, even she didn’t show up the next night.

Still all good things come to an end, and finally it was time for the sound check and the gig. It was at the City Hall, a big grey slab of civic 19th century alderman’s pride, and the audience was seated. The Sports started early, at 7.30—it seemed that everything finished in this town by about 10.30—but there was no announcer tonight: they just had to wander on by themselves to an almost empty house and make the best of it. Steve stepped up to the mic: ‘We’re the Sports, from Auwstrraaalia … ‘ (laugh from sparse crowd) ‘Don’t laugh—you might have a relative there.’ It was a good line, and was followed immediately by the opening riff from Hit Single—a good opening. The band looked more confident, and Steve actually started to move a bit, and the sound was great. Even the lighting had improved—the English roadies were obviously working hard to get it together as quickly as possible. At the end of Hit Single there was good applause and the band raced through Mailed It To Your Sister and Suspicious Minds, a track that is on the Stiff EP released here. By this time the hall was beginning to fill and the crowd looked interested. But about here, the band’s energy started to drop, signaled especially by a dispirited and nervous version of King Of Trivia, which went over poorly. Reckless pulled back the interest, and the applause picked up but now there was a gap between audience and group—it needed some good talking and relating from Steve to pull them back. But it just didn’t come—and failed to come for the rest of the set. Only with When You Walk In The Room and Radio Show, which was now sounding streets ahead of the studio version, did the vibe pick up, but by then it was too late. The band had lost the psychological battle and retreated into going through the motions. It was a pity as the crowd wasn’t against them, just curious and a little reluctant to go overboard for an unknown band. It was obviously a problem of adaptation to different circumstances for the band—the lack of instant success was fazing them, and instead of just piling on the pressure and breaking through , they threw in the towel. At the end of Who Listens To The Radio, they just walked, with Steve apologetically saying, ‘Thanks for having us …’ Even then, with three-quarters of the audience arriving after they’d started, I doubt if one in ten of them knew who’d they’d been listening to. Backstage, everyone was gloomy and shaken, blaming selection of songs and other obvious points, but it wasn’t that—it was the attitude behind what they’d been playing. It took a few more hours of talking at the hotel before that message got across.

Parker and the Rumour had few of those problems. With the beginning of the first number, the 1500-odd crowd were on their feet and cheering , with Parker whipping them up and stringing them along with a few well-chosen and well-delivered lines. The contrast was stunning but the lesson was there to be learnt. But even then, Bob Andrews mentioned over a cup of coffee in the Buttery that the band always found Sheffield slow to warm up. Always an odd, remote audience and even though they’d got their standard two encores and sent them home happy, it’d been extra-hard work. Still they’d managed to generate plenty of reaction to their new stuff like Discovering Japan, so they were happy.

Liverpool

Liverpool

Liverpool

Next up was Liverpool and it took the party about three hours to get there, skirting around Manchester on the motorways. The Sports were staying in a hotel in Lime Street, of Beatles fame, and everyone had a naive sort of excitement in them, as if arriving in an enchanted city, spotting the names of famous Beatle streets and asking Trevor the driver where the Cavern was—like a bunch of over-eager fans rather than a touring band.

Still, it was a refreshing change and a happy attitude to have, seeing how much people like Steve and Andrew cared about such things and were prepared to show it. Martin by now had started to imitate the dialect of each town we hit and his fey Liverpudlian was his best effort yet. We checked into the hotel (another Centre Hotel, overlooking the glorious roof of Lime Street railway station), then John Lever (the Sports’ tour manager) and I went in search of food, all the eating spots in the hotel being closed. We ended up in a terrible Americo-burger grease-and-chips shop while the locals eyed us off—they probably thought we were Americans. With nothing better to do it was back to the TV and the afternoon sport. The biggest disappointment was that Liverpool weren’t playing at Anfield. It wasn’t worth going to see Everton play struggling QPR at Goodison Park.

The sound check over, the band were ready to start at the Apollo (there’s always a place called the Apollo in provincial centres, isn’t there?). The anticipated crowd was a big one—there’d been posters all over town when we drove in: ‘Graham Parker and The Rumour On Tour — Special Guests, The Sports’. Things augured well, although everyone backstage was very tense, with almost an air of defeat before a note was played. It took a rather silly, irrational incident to break the mood. Lever was hanging out one of the two small windows looking into a side street and I went over to look out the other one, opening the window outwards as I did, only to find that I’d pushed two full bottles of beer off the window ledge outside—Jimmy’s after-gig cache. They went crashing onto the street outside, smashing all over the pavement and making a tremendous noise. Everyone laughed and smiled like naughty boys—it gave the false impression of a riot going on backstage. Sure enough, seconds later one of the roadies from the Parker crew came bursting in the door yelling: ‘OK ,you wild bastards—who’s throwing bottles out the fucking window?’ No-one would let on. ‘They nearly hit me on the fucking head, you clowns—I just saw them in time!’ He was looking crazily round at everyone, then finally broke into a smile and a laugh, asking the band to, ‘Please, have a good time but restrain yourselves, eh?’, and threatened to brain the next idiot who threw things out the window. When he was gone, everyone laughed with relief and yelled at Jimmy for putting the bottles in such a ridiculously unsafe place. The tension was gone and people relaxed, smoking a fag and checking the finer points of the tuning. Five minutes later, they were on, announced by Lever in the most strident Aussie tones imaginable.

Sure enough, seconds later one of the roadies from the Parker crew came bursting in the door yelling: ‘OK ,you wild bastards—who’s throwing bottles out the fucking window?’

Hit Single was again first up, leaping out with that sinuous riff, then settling to a vamp as Steve talked to the seated audience—’What a fantastic introduction … ‘, then delivering a slightly longer version of the Sheffield rave. It worked well, and the 300-strong audience, dwarfed by the hugeness of the hall, responded kindly. The band started out much the same as in Sheffield, with plenty of bite, and Steve was moving well, crouching and turning as he sang; wearing black jeans and a black coat with a striped T-shirt. From the back of the hall he looked uncannily like Bryan Ferry, obviously quite unintentionally. By the second number, Mailed It To Your Sister, the place was half full, drawn in by the strength of the sound and with a version of Suspicious Minds, which showed it had been the performance and not the song which had made it such a boring three minutes in Sheffield, it seemed like things might really take off. But still, Steve was the only one who looked relaxed onstage and he wasn’t talking yet again—the old gap was starting to open up between the crowd and the band, no matter how punchy the sound was or improved the lighting was. Radio Show and Reckless, the latter particularly intimate in its effect, pulled them back for a while but it seemed no-one in the band was confident enough to deliver the coup de grace and really GRAB them. A ragged version of Little Girl saw things slipping away from them and for the rest of the set they played safe and tight, rather than with inspiration, with only Who Listens To The Radio surging with confidence, though by this stage, in what seemed to be a regular feature by now, Jimmy’s keyboards were almost totally inaudible. They finished on the up, getting through much better than in Sheffield, and there were a few yells for more from the by then packed auditorium, but again there was no talking from Steve and no-one to back-announce them offstage, so things fizzled out when they shouldn’t have.

Backstage, everyone felt much better, but were still aware of the fact that they were still adjusting to playing to new audiences who were waiting to be convinced that it was a great band that they were listening to. There was still quite a way to go, though Dave Robinson, driving up from the Stiff office in London as he did most nights, seemed pretty happy with how things were going, saying only that he thought they might do well to do a couple more oldies as a point of reference for the crowds—he mentioned Shake but no-one seemed too enamoured with that idea. It was time to leave and go in search of dinner. Steve, Martin and I wandered indecisively between Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants for about half an hour before abandoning the lot and attempting to find the famous ‘great place’ Steve ‘thought he remembered’ from earlier in the day. Twenty minutes and a mile or so later, we gave up and settled for a Pancake Parlour exactly the same as the ones in Sydney, Adelaide and Geelong, even down to the menu. Home away from home. But the jukebox was great, even if the Marshmallow Coffees were putrid. By this time, Martin was talking a rather bizarre mixture of Liverpudlian and some unidentified Yorkshire brogue, mingled with his already hopelessly confused Londoner/Australian accent. The waitress smiled in confusion and asked Steve and I what he was saying by the time second drinks were ordered. After a good stolid feed we retired in triumph to the hotel. We never did see any of the famous street-walkers on Lime Street.

Next day on the bus was the trip to Newcastle, and finally we were lifted out of the depressingly industrialised Midlands into Yorkshire and then Northumberland. Sitting next to Andrew, listening to Sultans of Swing on the cassette, we were both stunned by the beauty of the countryside all the way up, and the remnants of the snowfalls of two weeks back on the higher spots. We stopped at one of those food/petrol places that could be virtually anywhere in the world, where Trevor the driver mentioned that the green fields surrounding us had been six feet under snow when he’d been there a fortnight earlier. ‘They were digging cars out from the motorway, totally covered by snow—had to drive these big dozers in till they bumped into another, then dig it out.’ It was unbelievable. I’d seen it on TV and it seemed impossible that such a change could come about so quickly. The sky was a perfect unmarked blue and the day was warm.

Newcastle

Newcastle

Newcastle

Arriving in Newcastle we had another rest day—150 miles is a long way in England—and again had the problem of finding something to do for the next day and a half. It was here that we caught up with the other groups doing the rounds of the provinces—Bad Company had just been through, Uriah Heep were at the City Hall, where G.P. would be the next night, and Roger Chapman of Family fame was on at the Polytechnic.

After sitting around in the bar looking at each other for a few hours, we decided to bludge our way into the Chapman gig, even though the roadies had just got back and had pronounced it boring as hell. Martin and I did our usual trick of getting lost on the way (though it was all of 800 yards away from the hotel) and got there in time for the last three numbers, talking our way past the door to see Chappo going through the paces. It was almost like a recreation of Joe Cocker’s  Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, though in the end the only meeting point was the sloppiness and the uncritical mad enthusiasm of the crowd.

After another day of looking at the city centre and swapping around unread murder stories and bestsellers from W.H. Smith, the time for sound check finally dragged itself into range and we all had a reason for being there again. This time the lights were working themselves out really well and it looked like we were in for a good one, even though the two larger roving spots coming up from London had inexplicably been offloaded in Birmingham. At least they’d be there for Edinburgh the following night.

Parker SportsComing on to another hysterical and quite funny invisible emceeing job from Lever, the band went through the now-settled start to Hit Single, with Steve talking over the opening vamp. Here he used the same ‘You might have relatives there’ rave as in the previous two gigs but he strung it out a little too far and the words got lost as he tried to speed up what he was saying to hold the crowd’s interest. But it turned out not to matter, as after ripping versions of Mailed It To Your Sister and Suspicious Minds, the band was obviously playing its best set since arriving in the U.K., with Steve’s singing in particular sounding strong and convincing and the intertwining of Martin and Andrew’s guitar lines and chord inversions meshing powerfully and sweetly. Only Jimmy, once again, was lost in the P.A. out front and it was impossible to tell just what he was playing most of the time, even in one or two solos. By the time the band launched into Boys (What Did The Detectives Say?) for the first time on tour, Steve was moving well and Martin was starting to look relaxed and to move around the stage in his more normal fashion—he’d been strangely frozen on most of the gigs so far. The applause the band was getting was more or less the same as in Liverpool, but the band was undoubtedly putting in a much more consistent effort, not allowing themselves to get fazed by the lack of instant success. And their diligence paid off towards the end with the trio of When You Walk In The Room; Live, Work and Play and Who Listens To The Radio. The vibe was peaking really well, even though the songs were rushed—the sheer spirit of the band was carrying them through and Steve actually remembered to announce the last song of the set, priming the audience for the first time on tour (and this was a huge audience in a very big place) to applaud at the end of the set. It worked. They went off to good applause and a respectable number of calls for more.

They’d obviously yet to get it all completely together—tonight for the first time they’d been pretty ragged, but at least they’d also for the first time really cooked and looked convincing on stage, and had earned their good response. They were heading in the right direction. John Lever and I agreed that we felt Scotland would be the real watershed of the tour, where the audiences are thankful basically for any big tour and would be predisposed to love ’em, especially in Aberdeen.

In the bar after the gig, we had a long discussion about how the band was sounding and what their hopes were for the rest of the tour. It was about the most serious talk that I had heard so far. Stiff had by then decided to re-record the whole Don’t Throw Stones LP instead of the planned five or six tracks and this offered them a lot of scope for rethinking their studio approach. The backing tracks are going to be put down in Stiff’s OB van in a couple of weeks and the rest done after the G.P. tour. It was remarkable to watch just how much care Stiff were putting into the presentation of what is, after all, a totally unknown act in this country. But they know what’s going down—by the end of this tour the Sports won’t be unknown and Stiff are just putting in the necessary legwork to guarantee a good reception when it finally comes—legwork that, however essential, is often overlooked by a great many agencies and companies.

Newcastle was certainly THE place to be that weekend—just before 2 a.m., as I was falling asleep over my Guinness, the Clash plus entourage walked into the bar and started chatting to the Parker boys. Sort of becomes the norm here after a while, I guess …

 

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

Edinburgh

The next morning we were off to Edinburgh, up through the Scottish Lowlands, skirting the Cheviot Hills on the A679. Breathtaking scenery—even more beautiful than that of Northumbria, if only because it was more hilly—though the houses and farms were clearly poorer than anything below the border. Edinburgh itself is a fantastically beautiful city, full of large parks and 18th and 19th century houses and buildings. The centre itself, as opposed to most English cities, was almost entirely untouched and the castle rose out of the middle of town to totally dominate the skyline.

We drove right through town to the Post House Hotel, just past the suburbs, in Midlothian. The best hotel so far, even if it was four miles out and nobody knew how to get back into town. By this stage, the wear was starting to show, and even though it was pouring with rain, a couple of the boys were determined to go to the zoo next door, just to get away from everybody else for a while. They didn’t make it. It was too cold, though Bob and Andrew defied the elements and made it the following morning.

Being so far out-of-town, there was no option but to wait for the tour bus to take us to the Odeon at 5 p.m. I spent a desultory afternoon with Andrew in the bar, sitting in low, comfortable seats, looking through the huge plate-glass windows right across Edinburgh to the hills in the distance, sipping gin and tonics and Camparis. Everyone mysteriously turned up for the bus at the right time, appearing from various niches in the hotel and we made it into town in good spirits. The sound check was a good, neat one and the two new spots, finally arriving from Birmingham, gave a lot more scope to the on-stage impact, with three lights, blue, yellow and white, able to follow any individual around. Just before the Sports went on, Dave Robinson, after making another of his amazing motorway dashes from the Stiff London office, introduced the MC for the night—a deejay from the local commercial radio station, Radio Forth. Smiling, Dave made a quick exit and left us staring uneasily at each other till the bloke went into a rave about what a dump London was and how hip Edinburgh was. There was an almost audible groan around the room as the boys sussed another small-town berk, but they managed to remain reasonably polite, even offering the bloke a taste of the Foster’s they’d managed to connive out of G.P.’s dressing room (rather odd—Foster’s for the Brits and local beer for the Aussies). After he disappeared to check his open-necked shirt and his hairdo, someone had the bright idea of hiring Dame Edna Everidge for the Hammersmith emceeing job. Good idea—doubt she’d do it though. It’d certainly be the perfect touch if someone manages to pull it off.

The audience was into the vibe very quickly, and the band for the first time looked happy to be onstage, with both Steve and Martin moving around to great effect.

So tonight at least they came on stage properly announced, with the right amount of audience tedium and frustration with the deejay to make them want to hear anything rather than him (cries of ‘git oeff, ye fooel!’ were frequently heard in the minute or so the bloke was on stage). Surprisingly, the place was full by half-way through the set—advance sales had been mediocre and they were only expecting a moderate house. Hit Single was again the opener, with Steve delivering the same rave as before, but a lot tighter and with real humour. The audience was into the vibe very quickly, and the band for the first time looked happy to be onstage, with both Steve and Martin moving around to great effect. Steve was in great voice and for the first time on the tour, Jimmy Niven could actually be heard properly out front. The rest of the band quickly reached the impeccable standards set elsewhere, with the bass and drums leaping out at the audience with real power. Steve still elected to keep quiet between numbers, but the set flowed well anyway, as the vibe was right. Boys … was much snappier and with a real spring absent in Newcastle: in fact the whole set sounded good, with everyone having a real good time on stage at last, even smiling at each other and getting off on the solos. The crowd caught the buzz and the applause was consistently good. With a killer version of Reckless, Steve swallowed in the blue spotlight, it really seemed like the band were set for the breakthrough, but again it dropped back to more usual standards as those last crucial moves, from the band out to the audience, relating directly to THEM, failed to materialise. The last four numbers however kicked along: a knockout version of So Obvious, a solid rendition of When You Walk In The Room, where at the end, Steve actually jumped in the air and the crowd cheered (or at least a good portion of it did), a steamroller Live, Work & Play, where Martin also got into the jumping act and Andrew was playing beautiful snaking fills, then finally the song everyone here is banking on as the single (it actually got a little airplay in Sheffield and Liverpool on the day of the gig), Who Listens To The Radio, where the real heart of the band was displayed and the whole set rocked to a storming finish. Even the jokey ending, which up to this stage had always been a moment to squirm over live (it’s OK on the record) came over well. The band filed off as Steve spoke for the second time that gig: ‘Thanks for having us—see ya later’. The applause was good, but it was a curious anti-climax. The crowd seemed almost begrudging in its acclaim—a feeling that overtook it only in the last couple of numbers. I don’t know why. The band had played very well, easily the best set they’d done since they arrived here, but in the final count, the audience were content to be polite and wait for Parker.

But it didn’t really matter—the most important thing was that the band was firing as it knew it should and that augured well for the rest of the tour. Parker himself was also really hot in Edinburgh—a great improvement over the sloppy set in Newcastle. Hey Lord, Protection, Discovering Japan and all the others really fired, and the audience was unstinting in its reception, standing for most of the set and yelling for more even before the encores came around.

So Edinburgh was pretty good all round. A turning point for the Sports? Dunno—it’s too early to tell yet, but the songs are there and they’ve gone through the dreadful stage of adapting to the different set of contexts they’ve met here and are now starting to really put together the type of act that will pay them dividends before the tour is out. Pity I couldn’t see them the following night in Aberdeen, to see how much they followed through on the excitement they’d managed to recapture at the Odeon, but it was time for me to head back to London.

London 1979

London 1979

London

As the football season came to its ritual climax with the F.A. Cup Final, the Graham Parker/Sports tour wound up to its final monster fling at the Hammersmith Odeon. For the past week or so, the touring party had been circling towns and cities lying closer in to London as the momentum picked up and the press reports multiplied for both bands in all four music papers. It seemed that the Sports had successfully managed to negotiate the initial Pavlovian freak-out reaction from the press to anything from Australia and break through to generally receptive critiques, which is quite an achievement in itself.

But Hammersmith was the big one, the pearl of the whole tour, and the backstage mood showed that both bands knew it. In a cramped a stuffy dressing room, various members of the Stiff Records entourage milled around with people from Australia, roadies and the band, all talking quickly and loudly about totally irrelevant things and the dinners they’d had the previous night.

We took up our positions in the usual spot, next to Andy, the lighting operator, and prepared for the music as Stiff supremo Dave Robinson came on in person to introduce the Sports to the already-full Odeon. It was a forgettable introduction, but it didn’t matter much as the boys were on and immediately into Boys (What Did The Detectives Say?)—an unusual choice for an opening number and one that evoked only moderate applause. Hit Single followed, fast and insinuating, and brought with it a terrific response—it was like the set proper started there. An equally well-received version of Suspicious Minds followed, then a Don’t Throw Stones in which the inadequacy of the sound check time started to show. With Believe In Me, the problems came through clearly (well, you know what I mean), with Rob Glover’s bass sounding like the Stranglers’ Jean Jacques Burnel, Jimmy just a blur and a real imbalance between the two guitars. Through sheer excitement Radio Show managed to cut through the wash of sound and earn a good response and the band were moving well onstage too. Steve actually introduced Reckless and they were off into a well-controlled version of it which kept the parabola of most other nights with just a little bit more than usual after Who Listens To The Radio, long and warm applause running dangerously close to encore lengths but not quite sustaining itself. Who Listens … deserved it that night, if only for one of those totally berserk and wildly exciting short solos that Martin always threatens to do. True, it started nowhere and ended nowhere and had very little to do with the song, but it made your stomach turn over at least twice in the space of the four bars it was allotted and that’s what rock-and-roll’s supposed to do, isn’t it?

Graham Parker

Graham Parker

Graham Parker

Graham Parker obviously thinks so on the evidence of the set he did 20 minutes later. Talk about peaking at the apex of the tour—for 70 minutes straight he and the Rumour turned on easily the best set of their own tour, and one in which you constantly felt like ripping up the seats and tearing your hair out with excitement. Coming on to a tumultuous welcome, they did a blistering version of Discovering Japan and kept up the pace for song after song. On Don’t Get Excited, with Parker prancing menacingly around the stage, Brinsley Schwartz opened up with the first of what was to be a string of staggering solos. At the end of it, the crowd was going berserk and he had a huge grin on his face signifying he knew he was HOT tonight. But it wasn’t only a case of one or two members having a good night—the whole band seemed to have constant supplies of extra adrenalin, the type which makes you focus on something familiar as if it were the first time again. On Howling Wind, Bob Andrews’ piano playing the descending chords of the verse was sending shivers through the whole audience and Parker’s vocal showed absolute commitment. As with so many of the songs, you wished it would’ve gone on for hours so you could savour each different part of it over and over.

The fantastic series of performances continued with great singing by Parker and beautiful rhythm guitar by Brinsley on Stick To Me and a stark and simple version of You Can’t Be Too Strong. Parker himself was pulling all the stops out and in Passion Is No Ordinary Word, he was right up in the audience, down on his knees , stretching his hands out and the crowd was at frenzy point right to the back stalls. With the beginning riff of (Hey Lord) Don’t Ask Me Questions, it seemed as if Brinsley had been listening intently to one of the most frequently played cassettes on the bus journeys around England, David Bowie’s Heroes, as his rhythm guitar was very close to the Fripp/Alomar attack on songs from that album like Joe The Lion and Blackout. By the end of Hey Lord …, the crowd was going bananas and at the end of the set, the band was virtually dragged back on stage by the force of the applause for three encores, including a red-hot version of Saturday Night Is Dead and a steamrollering New York Shuffle. The huge smiles on all the band’s faces showed they were just as pleased with their playing as the audience and it was in a state of shell-shocked euphoria that we all piled out into the rainy April night.

The impact of Parker was phenomenal and pointed up just where the Sports needed to sharpen their attack. A friend of mine, who hadn’t been to a concert in years but who knows a bit about image and projection through her P.R. job, put her finger on it by saying that the Sports’ impact had been limited by their inability to project past the first few rows, even though the music they played was good and they were obviously a talented unit. What gave Parker such a fierce following was that old indefinable charisma.

The second Hammersmith date the following night offered a similar scene, if not quite of the epic proportions of the night before. The only new thing was the final Parker encore, where he got the Sports back on stage to jam on Chain Of Fools. It had been prearranged, but to the crowd, still had the spontaneity that the occasion demanded.

Put at its simplest, the Sports have probably been the most successful Oz band here since AC/DC or the Easybeats

And that was it. After the usual bash-up party to celebrate the final gig, the five-week long tour was over. The results? For Parker it was another very successful tour that got him good responses all around the country, a lot of publicity for the new album and set him up for his assault on the U.S. For the Sports it turned out to be valuable, if only in terms of morale—coming to the U.K. to do a tour that many home-grown bands here would’ve had to work for years to get on. It also got them used to British audiences and perhaps most importantly gave them a great deal of mostly favourable media coverage. Their name has been established here, albeit in a modest way, remarkably quickly. The gigs following their tour that they’ve done around London has shown that. Which is another bonus—it’s enabled them to go into the best gigs in London on a headliner basis instead of languishing as support to some other godawful band. Both the Nashville and the Marquee drew good audiences last weekend, on the strength of their name only, and at the Marquee in particular, the audience really got behind them and everyone had a ball.

Put at its simplest, the Sports have probably been the most successful Oz band here since AC/DC or the Easybeats (do we count the Bee Gees?) and they certainly seem to have the potential to become established here as a consistently popular band. The role of Stiff can’t be overemphasised: they’ve done an amazing job in a very short space of time and as long as people keep their heads for the next few months, the Sports’ position in U.K. rock will only just begun to have been defined. And that will quite possibly be of crucial importance to the international future of Oz rock in general, given the critical reappraisal that’s already happened at Stiff and the new, rather unbelieving air in the English rock press of ‘it not only exist there, but it’s also rather good, damn it!’ Geoff Duff notwithstanding. If only Jo Jo Zep had done this a long, long time ago …

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