LONDON, 1991. The second week of June. In true British fashion the skies are overcast, with a damp smear of rain in the air. It’s cold enough to need a jacket. I’m spending the day with two friends from school (1). We have tickets to the coveted Pixies concert at Crystal Palace Bowl (2), an all-day extravaganza featuring five bands, and climaxing with Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering. To our teenage minds they assume the proportions of gods. The Bowl isn’t easy to reach via public transport, but after an hour spent navigating the capital’s railways (3) we finally arrive at Crystal Palace station. The venue is only a short walk away. As we walk we hear the bands warming up. We know every band on the bill, from start to glorious finish: The Boo Radleys (4), Milltown Brothers, Cud, Ride, and—of course—the Pixies. I’ve only just turned sixteen, so I’m too young to drink at the bars we pass. In my bag is a secret stash of whisky miniatures (5).
Despite knowing all five bands, there are only two that I’ve come to see. The Pixies are already minor deities in my mind, while Ride are the latest whirlwind of guitar noise to rock my tiny adolescent world (6). During the earlier sets we goof around on the slopes of the Bowl, trying to burst Cud’s “purple love balloons” (7) as they float over the crowd. Their antics seem immature and desperate compared with the sonic excellence to come.
Ride’s set is furious and relentless, a tsunami of noise that washes over us as we jump, thrash and occasionally fall over in the pit that’s formed at the front of the crowd. We’re not close to the stage – a wide, shallow pond separates us from the band – but seeing them isn’t high on our agenda. We’re here to wallow in the music. I stumble a couple of times in the mud that’s churned up beneath our feet. Then I lose my shoe in the crowd (8). It reappears a few seconds later in someone’s hand and gets passed overhead from person to person, gradually drifting further away from me. I’m too high on the moment to panic – but then it’s thrown into the pond, where it floats on the surface like a dead aquatic creature.
When Ride have finished I wade out into the pond to retrieve it, accompanied by jeers and shouts from the crowd. The event staff watches with detached amusement (9).
The Pixies start their set almost as soon as I’ve returned to shore, one foot squelching inside my waterlogged shoe. They take to the stage with a remarkable lack of fanfare (10). It’s only when “Rock Music” explodes from the amps that we even realize they’re there. The song feels like a manifesto, and a promise. They surge headlong through twenty-nine songs (11) in a set that’s light on talk, but overflowing with musical energy (12). For ninety minutes the world seems to drift away, as we surrender to the bounce and flow of the crowd. This time both my shoes stay on. If my foot is wet then I no longer care (13).
Getting home proves just as difficult, but none of us complain. The street corners are occupied by touts selling unofficial tour t-shirts and posters (14). The train is packed with fans, our ears throbbing in unison to the aftershock of Kim Deal’s bass. Everywhere we look are Pixies logos, album covers, ‘Death To The Pixies’ shirts. We are battered and bruised, but we are already home. My ears keep ringing for a very long time.
Looking back twenty-two years, that day at Crystal Palace Bowl still feels fresh and vibrant. It solidified my admiration for the Pixies, and my ongoing love affair with live music. In many ways I’m still trying to recapture its adolescent bliss. Black Francis has matured beyond his guttural screams, Kim has left the band several times over, and Joey has mellowed into an aging guitar hero. Their new track, “Bagboy”, tastes bittersweet at best. But I’m still crushed at the front of the congregation, my eyes fixed on the stage. Waiting for the next flight to the planet of sound.
1) These friends also feature in my essay on superhero role-playing games, ‘I Was a Teenage Superhero’. Our social circle wasn’t large.
2) Crystal Palace Bowl is part of Crystal Palace Park, situated in the London Borough of Bromley. It forms a natural amphitheater that is often used for rock concerts and festivals. From 1971 onwards it was used as the venue for the Crystal Palace Garden Party, Britain’s first one-day rock festival. It’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring location, especially when packed full of drunk and sweaty concertgoers. In the Seventies there were several giant dinosaur sculptures dotted around the Bowl, making it look like a prehistoric orgy. These kinds of things happened in the Seventies.
3) Crystal Palace Station rests at one end of London’s overground network and is serviced by Southern trains. Unlike many of these footnotes, which point out the many coincidences and chance meetings that connect this concert with various other stages in my life, Crystal Palace Station doesn’t connect with anything of any significance.
4) The Boo Radleys were at the bottom of the bill on this occasion, but in later years they would become a household name in the UK. For over a year I used their song “Wake Up Boo!” as my alarm call. This was during my University years, when my alarm would often be set for midday, or later. True to its title, “Wake Up Boo!” did an admirable job of rousing me every morning. And some afternoons.
5) My first expeditions into alcoholism took place almost exclusively through these miniature bottles of whisky. They were mainly Irish rye whiskies, most of which seemed to be sold in triangular bottles. I have never discovered why. I think I liked the way they hid snugly in the bottom of my bag, and the fiery sensation as they burned a path down to my belly. What beer could compete with that? They were also disturbingly easy to lay my hands on. My father had a collection of them in a bureau cabinet, a collection that seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. He never drank them – he didn’t even like whisky – and he never offered them to anyone. He’d been given them as gifts on golfing excursions and I think he disapproved of the whole concept of re-gifting. I’d take one or two at a time and when they were finished I’d return the empty bottles to the back of the cabinet. If that sounds hopelessly naive, then I should tell you that when my father finally discovered the ranks of empty bottles he barely gave them a moment’s thought. It was only when I confessed to him in my early thirties that his eyes were opened to my ongoing thefts and my underage drinking. By then I was too old – and too big – to be punished for the transgression.
6) If the Pixies have been the musical gods of my adult life, then Ride are its mythical heroes. Not only did they release some of my favorite records of all time, but they also provided the only concert experience that might rival the Crystal Palace Bowl’s epic resonance. Ride at Brixton Academy in 1992 has already passed into musical legend. I remember marveling at The Verve in the support slot, particularly at Richard Ashcroft’s ungainly height as he pogoed across the stage like a trampoline-ing giraffe. His arrogant public image later in his career has always rung false compared with this clumsy exuberance. Ride themselves were awe-inspiring. The set was released on VHS video shortly after the show and in the last year it has finally found its way onto DVD, as part of the anniversary re-release of their album Going Blank Again. If you stare very hard at the screen I think you can see the back of my head bounce into view from time to time. Despite the newly restored high resolution it’s difficult to tell. But I’m there.
7) Cud’s ‘Purple Love Balloon’ is a terrible song. The worst kind of gimmicky bubblegum pop masquerading as indie rock. Curiously, it wasn’t released as a single in the UK until October 1992, sixteen months after the Crystal Palace Bowl show. And yet I’m sure that I knew it – and despised it – as we stood on the slope watching all those purple balloons disperse. It is inconsistencies like this that make you wonder whether everything might actually be a dream, directed by an alien race who are harvesting us as human batteries. If so they should sack their continuity editor.
8) They were black suede shoes, flat-soled, with very short laces. They were utterly unsuitable for wearing to an outdoor concert.
9) I’ve retold this story so many times that I’ve lost sight of what actually happened. I definitely lost my shoe. And I remember wading into the shallow pond to retrieve it. But what’s most remarkable about this episode is that it was once told back to me by somebody who was also in the crowd that day. He was a friend of friend, who happened to join us for drinks one evening in Edinburgh, Scotland. Our mutual acquaintance told us that we’d have a lot in common. She was right. Before long the conversation turned to our top five live shows – a favorite pub topic of mine – and both the Ride concert and the Pixies at Crystal Palace Bowl made it onto my list. When I mentioned the Pixies show he laughed and said he was there too. He then recounted the story of my lost shoe blow-by-blow, leaving nothing out. I left the pub smiling. His version of my tale had pleased me for two reasons. One: it’s sometimes strangely fulfilling to hear yourself mentioned in someone else’s anecdote, even if it involves you wading barefoot into a pond. It validates your otherwise insignificant existence. And two: it proved that I hadn’t made the whole thing up. I have never met this friend-of-a-friend again and I’ve fallen out of contact with our mutual acquaintance. I like to think that he still tells the story of my lost shoe to this day, but with a new punch line.
10) It has always been a hallmark of the Pixies’ live performances that they avoid a theatrical stage presence. They stand up, they play their music, they leave. This was still the case when I saw them play Seattle’s Paramount Theater on their 2009 Doolittle reunion tour. Kim Deal would occasionally blurt an incomprehensible one-liner between songs, but otherwise the band stayed mute. I like this in a band. I’ve seen some excellent live performances that have nonetheless left me disappointed, thanks to the lead singer’s love affair with his own voice. I always feel they might have shoehorned in a few more songs if they’d minimized the chatter. With the Pixies you get music, music, music. The only difference on the reunion tour was that they remained on stage after the final encore, smiling, waving, and engaging with the crowd. I don’t recall them doing this in ’91. Or maybe I was just too buzzed to care.
11) The full set list for the Pixies’ 1991 show at Crystal Palace Bowl was as follows: Rock Music, I Bleed, River Euphrates, Into the White, The Happening, Allison, Velouria, Palace of the Brine, Bone Machine, Gouge Away, Hang Wire, Debaser, Letter to Memphis, Planet of Sound, Is She Weird, Subbacultcha, The Sad Punk, Monkey Gone to Heaven, Trompe le Monde, Mr. Grieves, Blown Away, Here Comes Your Man, Where Is My Mind?, The Holiday Song, Break My Body, Motorway to Roswell, Vamos, Head On, Tame. I’m ashamed to say that I had to look this up.
12) I have already written extensively on the Pixies and their music. For me they remain one of the few true pioneers of alternative rock. If you want to read more, I suggest you exhume my article on Doolittle in British music magazine Rock’n'Reel (vol. 2, issue 5). I call Doolittle “slickly-produced and rough in all the right places, packed with pop tunes yet deliciously weird.” The article also contains many other grandiose statements. As you can see, it says more about my over-enthusiastic fandom than it does about their music.
13) For the record, in a recent interview Black Francis also referred to the ’91 Crystal Palace Bowl concert as the best live show of their career. I’m not simply gushing like a star-struck adolescent. It really was that good.
14) I wish to this day that I’d bought one of the t-shirts from this tour. Instead I owned a generic black shirt with the band logo and an image of a Rottweiler. This has also become iconic in its own way, but it was ruined for me when my mother commented on how nice it was. There’s nothing less punk than a compliment from your mother. The tour t-shirt featured a detached eyeball sitting in a small shell-like bowl. It was not the kind of thing my mother would have liked.