Monday, 29 May 2017

Spike Island

By 1990 the Stone Roses were massive. Their eponymous first album had been stratospherically received and there was lots of talk being thrown around that they were going to be bigger than the Rolling Stones. At the height of their fame they announced that they were going to play a massive concert on Spike Island. From the outset this gig was being dubbed Woodstock for the chemical generation. But hold on a minute! Where the fuck is Spike Island? Was a question that everybody wanted answering. I mean, Hendrix and Dylan (amongst many others) famously played the Isle of Wight festival, and the Isle of Man was hugely famous for its TT motorcycle races, but Spike Island!- nobody seemed to have heard of it. And that was for good reason. Spike Island it turned out was a tiny island in the Mersey river, separated from the mainland by a short bridge, and situated close to Widnes in any area dominated by chemical factories. Not as glamorous as it first sounded. But that didn't matter it was all about the event, and specifically the timing of the event. It tapped right into the zeitgeist of the nation's youth with their penchant for acid house music, the drug ecstasy and the desire to be liberated from Thatcher's iron clasp. It was a great time to be alive especially if you were from Manchester, with a glut of bands originating from the city dominating popular music. When the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays both featured on Top of Pops in November 1989, the nation woke up to the fact that Manchester was the place to be. Everybody wanted a piece of the action. During this time there was an astronomical increase in university applications for Manchester universities. The secret was out, Manchester was officially the centre of the universe.

In May 1989 I'd returned from my first spell of travelling, and after a few months of searching I'd found steady employment in a printed circuit board manufacturing company in Whitefield (on the outskirts of Manchester). 1989 was a long hot summer, and to a 20 year old, who loved his music it felt like anything was possible. I distinctly remember Wiggy (Sharon) coming out of her office to inform me that the Stone Roses had announced that they were going to play a massive concert on Spike Island. Ripples of excitement made their way around Manchester Circuits as the news broke. That was it, I had to have a ticket, and when one fell into my path for the mere price of £10, I was like the cat that got the cream.

In October 1989 I'd met a girl called Karen at my mates house party. Karen was also a fan of the Stone Roses, in fact it was her that got me into them. Imagine how many brownie points I won when I managed to secure a ticket for her too. We counted down the days until the gig, and before we knew it the time had come, May 27th 1990. We jumped in my little blue Mini Clubman, and headed off down the M56 in the direction of Widnes. I know this may seem a little strange and all, that I was off to a concert in a car, and I wasn't even camping at the event. Wasn't there going to be loads of drugs there? And what about alcohol? Well, I can't even imagine it right now, but to my 20 year old self it was Ok to drive there and back without even partaking in anything apart from a few glasses of wine spread throughout the day.

We didn't know at the time but we were heading to one of the most highly revered concerts in British rock history. It was a time of great political change. In the UK Thatcher's reign was drawing to a close and something new was about to happen. Further afield in Eastern Europe communism was crumbling away with the wall, and dictators were being deposed at a rapid rate of knots (in the case of Ceausecu brutally assassinated). Whilst in South Africa apartheid was being rejected in perfect style with the introduction of a black Prime Minister. But more importantly rock music had a contender to its throne in the form of electronic dance music in its many forms, techno, acid house and drum and bass, to name but a few. The Stone Roses were still a guitar band, but heavy influenced by what was happening in the clubs around the UK (specifically the Hacienda). When they released the single Fool's Gold on November 13th 1989, the union of rock and dance music was complete.

By the time we arrived at Spike Island I was in possession of a farmer's tan. As we blasted down the M56 the sun blasted down on us. It was one of those perfect British summer's days, the kind of day that makes you wonder why people go abroad on holiday. It didn't matter if it pissed it down with rain for the rest of the year, on Saturday May 27th 1990 the day belonged to us.

We arrived in the vicinity of the island around 1.30 pm, and then took a further 30 mins or so to negotiate the bridge to get on to the island itself. It didn't matter though, all around us were young scantily clad people buzzing with (amongst other things) adrenalin. An ocean of white fisherman's hats were being worn to pay tribute to their hero Reni - arguably the best drummer of his generation. I stole a moment to look around, and take in the enormity of the event, before taking a mental snapshot. An image that will stay with me forever. Young lads and girls in Joe Bloggs flares, dancing like they were possessed, out of their minds on speed, ecstasy and a combination of the 2 drugs. A plumage of marijuana smoke offering sweet relief from the putrid stench of chemicals that permeated the entire island. To a young lad that had never done a drug in his life it was like I'd landed on another planet. And that planet could well have been called Planet Bez, for the dance of choice involved arms and legs flailing around like a rag doll whilst the dancer moved backwards and forwards in an haphazard manner. This was a dance that had been perfected by their hero Bez, the dancer and talisman of the Happy Mondays

As we wandered around the island it soon became apparent that I was only semi involved in the world around me. I mean, I was there and all but I wasn't sharing the same plane of existence as the vast majority. I found their contorted faces and dance moves comical, yet I was transfixed, and longed to be fully submerged in this subculture that I had thought I was part of, but in reality had totally passed me by. Even their language was different "nice one", "top one", "sorted". I kind of understood what they were trying to articulate, but they were using terms unfamiliar to my ear. I attempted to join in with their dance moves but I felt too wooden, if you've ever seen Mr Bean dance you'll know what I'm talking about. To the drugged up kids I must have been as much a source of amusement to them as their dance moves were to me. I was approached en masse, hugged, massaged and kissed, whilst all I could offer in return was a formal handshake as if I was about to be interviewed for a job.

Karen and I found a spot on the grass and sat down to sip our wine. By this time it was only 2pm and entertainment in the form of bands didn't seem to be happening. Don't get me wrong the DJ would pump out some classic tunes (Adamski, Killer, and Beats International, Dub be good to me etc) and the kids would go wild, but I was there to see live music. It was a grave disappointment to both me and Karen that nobody was taking to the giant stage that dominated the landscape. "Happy Monday's in the area", the MC shouted over and over again. This created waves of euphoria with the crowd, intensifying their Bez-like moves. When they'd calmed down a little the Dj would shout it again "Happy Mondays in the area", "Happy Mondays in the area" -and off they went. The crowd were convinced that it was going to happen. "They're definitely here", "not long now" and "I'm buzzing for the Mondays kidda", were sentences being passed around. There was a genuine belief that the Happy Mondays were going to take the stage - the perfect Madchester (as it had been labelled) moment. But as the DJ after DJ took to the decks (many of which I'd never heard of), it became apparent that the crowd were giving up on this expectation, and for that matter the expectation that any live band were going to take the stage. I was growing tired fast, without the aid of uppers I was ready to go home to watch Casualty by 7pm.

At 9 pm precisely our heroes took to the stage. We'd been teased by the MC all day, so it wasn't until the unmistakeable sound of Mani's bass rumbled through the stadium that the crowd exploded. And there he was Ian Brown with the world in his hands. No really, he entered the stage holding a large inflatable globe. "Do it now, do it now!", he urged the spectators. To an overexcited crowd who'd been waiting for months for this moment it was all too much. 30 000 people surged forwards as though they wanted to be on stage with their heroes. Karen and I were carried along with them before she went down in a heap. As those behind us trampled all over her I was forced to jump into action. Like a knight in shining armour I pulled her to her feet, held her tight and fought my way through a sea of the drug addled youths, who cared for nothing apart from the Stone Roses. "I wanna be adored, I wanna be adored", Ian Brown bellowed from the stage. "Give me a minute Ian, and I'll be ready to adore you", I thought to myself. "Right now I'm trying to prevent my girlfriend from dying in a stampede". Karen and I had been situated pretty much in the centre of the crowd before she'd been flattened. Our fight to the periphery was always going to be long and arduous. To the masses of people I either pushed over or punched in the back of the head that day I'm truly sorry.

Once we got to the edge of the crowd (and we'd both stopped hyperventilating) we stood back and attempted to listen to the rest of their set. I use the word attempted because whoever had planned to have the concert on an island in the middle of the Mersey had not taken the acoustics into account. The wind whipped in from the Mersey river taking the sound with it. From where Karen and I stood we could barely hear any singing at all, and we were so far back that the distant figures of the band were virtually unidentifiable. But it didn't really matter. Everybody at the gig knew that this was going to be a day that went down in history, one of those moments that we were going to watch documentaries about 25 years later. It was all about being there. It's 27 years almost to the day that the Spike Island gig took place. I've been to a lot of concerts in those years, and seen some far better performances, but as I sit here on my sofa in Liverpool, only 11 miles down river from where the event took place, I swell with pride that I was there at a gig that defined my era.

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