A slight smell of stale cigarette smoke lingers in the stingingly cold night air. The floor of the back of the transit van where I sit feels icy, even through my trousers. My back hurts, leaning against something hard and unyielding, its corner poking into my shoulder.
There are six of us – no, hang on, actually there are seven of us, trying to ‘snuggle’ down between amps, drums, guitar cases, backdrops and bags of leads and pedals, behind the cab, hoping to catch a little bit of sleep as the vehicle we’re travelling in rumbles down the motorway in the bleak early hours of a winter morning.
The guitarist, drummer and bassist, and their three girlfriends, one of whom is me, make up six. The vocalist and his girlfriend are sitting in the front with her brother, the informally appointed roadie. The seventh person in the back with us is a ‘fan’ who is cadging a lift back home after the gig. When everyone was packing up at the end of the night - always a long-winded and frustrating business - he’d asked, “Any chance of dropping me off in Hull?” (or wherever it was). With the band’s badges on his lapel glinting in the streetlights as he’d made his request, the bass player and self-appointed spokesman for the group could not have refused. However, the detour for this additional passenger takes us an hour out of our way back home and it feels like an eternity when we’ve got another 150 miles to go. But this often seems to happen at gigs; there is always someone in the van travelling back with us who hasn’t travelled out with us, and usually it’s someone who smells strongly of sweat and dope and farts, with long limbs and a bulky rucksack, taking up precious space and time. And space and time mean more than anything on the home-bound stretch, because everyone is knackered, hungry, dehydrated, cold, squashed up, uncomfortable and grumpy. Everyone just wants to get home as soon as possible, longing for deep sleep in a warm, soft, bed. But at least nobody can accuse the band of being ungenerous in that respect.
It was the early 1980s and this became quite a frequent event for a while as I travelled with my boyfriend’s anarcho punk band to an assortment of venues up and down the country. We usually tried to get back the same night, which in reality meant arriving home just as the sun was coming up. A few times we stayed over, like once in a damp squat – a condemned terraced house with no plumbing (ironically it was in Bath) - and another time on the floor of tiny council flat in a high rise in St. Helens. That one had plumbing but, by strange coincidence, the toilet was broken. We had to use the bath.
My memories of those days are a melange of odd moments and images. From being stopped and searched by the Mets as we travelled home through South London, to seeing a cow giving birth as we ventured through the Cumbrian hills on the way to a gig near the Windscale (as it was then called) nuclear plant. From hearing rumours that British Movement skinheads were going to storm in and give everyone a kicking at Grimsby (they didn’t), to paddling in the sea before a gig in Fareham. There were the unkempt crusty/hippie children climbing on top of the van at Stonehenge, where tales of Hells Angels with knives made the place feel distinctly unwelcoming and the schedule got so far behind that in the end the band didn’t play anyway. And there was the punk in Burnley who was ‘wearing’ a condom, attached to his face between safety pins (one in his lip, one in his nose. It was quite a look.) It turned out he was the singer in one of the support bands, whose only memorable number was a re-worded demolition of Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ endearingly entitled ‘Fuck Off Everybody’.
I remember the inter-band arguments, the waiting around at soundchecks, the sharing of bags of chips with chilli sauce at The George Robey, the listening in on fanzine interviews, and the way only Northern punks sported moustaches… Strangely enough, perhaps, the thing I probably remember the least about is the performances. They were good, though. Of course.
So where are they now? The bassist founded a record company, the vocalist and drummer are fine and I met them again a few years ago, and the guitarist… well, he’s in the kitchen right now, making me a cup of tea.