1989 – The Beautiful South’s London debut and (eventually) discovering R.E.M

After what was a fairly busy year for gigs, 1989 was disappointingly slower. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s possible it was down to working shifts which aren’t conducive to having a great social life. For whatever reason, I only went to four gigs, all of which were important for different reasons.

First up was The Beautiful South. As I’ve previously mentioned, The Housemartins were, and are, one of my favourite groups and I was upset as anyone to discover that they’d split up. Keeping a close eye on the music press, it wasn’t too long before news of the existence of The Beautiful South filtered through. Their first single, ‘Song for Whoever’ was released in May and was well received, ending up at number two.

So with only one single out, they announced what I think was their debut London gig at the T&C2. This was the Town & Country Club’s little sister. A small venue situated at Highbury Corner in North London and still one of my favourite venues. It’s small enough that wherever you stand, you’re never far away from the stage. It’s got a very low ceiling making it all feel quite cosy.

I can’t recall the support but I do know we had to wait a long time for Paul Heaton and crew to arrive on stage. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that the band were in a nearby pub and had to be extracted by their manager to come and play the gig.

I’ve tried to dig up information about this period in the group’s history and I haven’t had much luck, but I did stumble upon this. It’s a list of all The Beautiful South’s gigs from 1989 through to 1995 with the odd descriptive note.

The debut tour sounds like it was an eventful one. The first gig in Liverpool on 7th June is described as a ‘five way cherry popping humiliation (gear smashed up)’. The next gig was in Birmingham the day after and is described as ‘P.A stack falls. Nobody notices (gear smashed up)’.
Things don’t appear to improve in Aldershot two days later, ‘Rotheray exits stage left in trap door travesty. Squabble, blood, glass (gear smashed up)’. There’s an account of this night in this interview with Dave Hemingway here.

Some of the gigs after this appear to go alright and are marked up as ‘G.S.U’. Anyone out there have any idea what this means?

Bearing in mind what had occurred at the previous gigs, I suppose we were quite lucky that firstly, the tour was still continuing and secondly, they had any equipment left to play with!

They eventually made it on stage, presumably well refreshed. With only the one single out, virtually the whole set was stuff we hadn’t heard before. Despite this, it was a great gig and a testament to the strength of their material.

The notes for this gig read ‘(Orange Feeling) Steady blinds fan in drumstick tomahawking incident. (G.S.U)

No doubt the victim of the ‘tomahawking’ recalls the gig! Hope it was nothing serious.

They then went onto play the WOMAD festival on the 16th and Edinburgh on the 19th and then the tour was cancelled.

By the sound of things it was probably for the best.

Next up, one of my favourite groups, R.E.M.

I have to admit I was very late to the party.

About six years late.

They were a constant presence in the music press throughout the mid to late eighties and all of their albums received rave reviews. They were repeatedly featured in the ‘Best of the Year’ lists. Nearly everything I read about them was positive and there was even an article in volume 8 of Smiths Indeed singing their praises. Comparisons with The Smiths were commonplace yet still I didn’t take the plunge. I think I know why.

I didn’t like the way they looked.

This sounds a bit pathetic now I realise. But in those days before you could dip your musical toe in the water and check out a Youtube video or an iTunes preview, the look of a band was really important. Whether it was the hair or the clothes or a combination, I just didn’t feel any urge to be part of the R.E.M gang. So I ignored them.

For ages.

However it all changed when they appeared on Top of the Pops to perform ‘Orange Crush’. It all suddenly clicked! Great song, harmonies, guitar sound and they looked great. I was converted!

Better late than never I suppose.

I quickly purchased the ‘Green’ album and realised that the decision to ignore R.E.M hadn’t been one of my better ones. It wasn’t long before I started making my way through their back catalogue in reverse. ‘Document’ first (how did I miss this??) followed by the others. Each time I listened to the latest purchase I kicked myself for not getting into them sooner.

So now I was a confirmed fan, the next thing to do was see them live. They announced an extensive world tour to promote the ‘Green’ album and I got a ticket for their Wembley Arena date on June 22nd.

I’d been to Wembley Arena many years before, probably to see ‘Holiday on Ice’ or something similar(!). I don’t think it had changed much. With it’s drab box-like concrete exterior, it wasn’t the most inspiring looking building. However this didn’t dampen my enthusiasm as I queued to get in. Although it’s a big venue, thankfully my seat was in row 12 on Peter Buck’s side of the stage. I arrived there in plenty of time as I wanted to catch the support, Throwing Muses.

One of the many positives about reminiscing over gigs and music is that it pushes you to revisit and rediscover groups and music that you may have neglected over the years. You can easily lose hours discovering previously unseen footage on Youtube. You can also uncover interesting snippets of information. Throwing Muses are a good example. Whilst double checking dates on their discography, I stumbled across the fact that their drummer David Narcizo played his drum kit without any cymbals. He hadn’t played on a drum kit before joining the group and the kit he borrowed didn’t have any cymbals on it.

Why hadn’t I noticed this?

This lead me to give ‘Hunkpapa’ a listen for the first time in a while. Concentrating hard, I couldn’t hear any cymbals where you’d expect them to be. Onto Youtube next to view the videos for ‘Dizzy’, ‘Counting Backwards’ and ‘Not Too Soon’. There was the drum kit and not a cymbal in sight.

I’m hoping this nugget of trivia is going to come up in an obscure pub-quiz at some point. Or thinking about it, the final question on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ would be good!

Anyway, back to Wembley Arena. Throwing Muses came onto the large stage with the arena not even half full. This didn’t seem to put them off as their set was tremendous. It’s a sign of a decent group when you can enjoy their set without knowing the majority of the songs they play. It was one of those performances that I didn’t want to end. Even knowing that R.E.M were next up I could have listened to Throwing Muses all night.

With the Arena quickly filling up, you could sense the excitement and anticipation in the air. We didn’t have to wait too long before R.E.M came on stage and launched into ‘Finest Worksong’. I’ve found the set-list for the night and can understand why I was blown away by their performance.

They were mesmerising to watch on stage. Peter Buck especially. He was ball of energy throwing a variety of poses with kicks and jumps in the air. It was difficult to keep your eyes off him. Michael Stipe struck an enigmatic figure, occasionally stood stock still whilst other times throwing himself around the stage. With large projections behind the band, it was an incredibly powerful experience.

As well as the majority of the ‘Green’ album, the set-list included songs from ‘Document’, ‘Life’s Rich Pageant’ as well as a couple from ‘Murmur’ and ‘Fables…’ There were also a smattering of covers including Television’s ‘See No Evil’ and The Velvet Underground’s ‘After Hours’.

It’s difficult to convey what an incredible experience it was. One of those nights where you feel so emotionally drained you feel like crying at the end of it.

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is probably the moral to this story.

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