Tuesday 13 July 2010, 16:10
"Must get to Newport in time for the drains... must get to Newport in time for the drains... must get to Newport in time for the drains..."
Not some weird looped message from a Gwent-based cleaning bot gone haywire. This was the mantra going through my mind when I was DJing at 2am on Friday night in Chester. The drains are in fact, The Drains, a very occasional punk rock band from Newport driven along by the barefaced talents of Carl Bevan and Andy Barding. Who? They're names writ so large and with such affection in my past I forget, sometimes, that they're not household names. Probably a good thing, in all honesty.
Carl Bevan drummed for Wales' finest band of should-have-beens, 60ft Dolls. He drummed with an unparalleled zeal and belief in the spirit of rock 'n' roll. He loved the life, gorged himself on the nutrients of the rock 'n' roll diet. Still does, by all accounts.
Andy Barding was the keyholder into the Kingdom of mid '90s Newport, or the New Seattle as it got christened by hacks desperate for a movement to get behind after Kurt Cobain's suicide. He wrote a sporadic but legendary fanzine called Frug! - again with righteous, if somewhat hiccuping, zeal - about the great bands he saw around him in Newport in the mid - late 90's. Andy put shows on in the Legendary TJ's. Carl played his fair share of shows there and probably got kicked out of a whole lot more.
TJ's - bestowed the legendary prefix by the legendary-in-his-own-right John Peel - had been founded (as a music venue; its history goes back much further) in 1985, a contraction of the initials of John Sicolo and his late partner Trilby. John Sicolo - who'd spent years in the merchant navy hauling in experiences that would then serve him well for future decades as rum-fuelled anecdotes after hours in his venue - gave Newport's music people the freedom to book who they wanted in his venue.
So, while the rest of the country was subsisting off the arse-end of baggy, or prostating itself to the easy money allure of dance music, TJ's was dragging American punk bands into Wales whose only other dates were in London. Whether Kurt Cobain did actually propose to Courtney Love in there doesn't really matter. That John span their appearance there into one of the great pieces of Welsh rock 'n' roll apocrypha is a measure of his genius as a raconteur.
This pretty atypical stew of American punk bred a generation of Newport bands who sounded nothing like their Britpop contemporaries. They had more edge and fewer chord sequences nabbed off Ray Davies. And - coming from Newport - they had that town's (it was still a town, back then) bruised soul writ through them. A port on a border, invigorated by the international slew of people washing in and out. A port with a big city neighbour with all its airs and graces to mock with a raw, deprecating, affectionate humour. Like Liverpool or Detroit.
This is what made Dub War, 60ft Dolls, The 5 Darrens, Novocaine and Rollerco sound different, special and heart-racingly exciting to me when I started doing my first proper radio show.
60ft Dolls split up in the late '90s, second album barely-released, amidst the ruin of a record label demolished at an MD's whim. TJ's had been in decline for the last few years, squeezed to death by a shrinking economy, style bars and the smoking ban. John died in March. But the spirit is still there and the love for John is a tangible thing.
There was ample demonstration of that at his funeral when over a thousand misfits, music junkies, bikers, quiffs and - for sure - now respectable folk, whose youths had been energised by TJ's and John's bearhugs and thick ears, gave him a wake that moved all present to tears and happy reminiscences.
And that love went supernova on Saturday with the tribute concert organised in his honour in John Frost Square right in the concrete heart of Newport's shopping centre.
The Drains would have done their early afternoon set while I was stuck outside Abergavenny, cursing Ifor Williams trailers for their innate ability to turn a speedy trip to south Wales into a catatonic's impersonation of a snail in reverse. I'd been invited down to compere the event I think because I'd been lucky enough to play some of these excellent bands on the radio.
In fact, when I do finally arrive as Goldblade scorch themselves in the hearts of the thousands beaming and burning in the square, that's the point I try to iterate as I introduce my first band of the day. Beddis, Newport's punk heart, sits on the front of the stage and yawns loudly and hilariously as I waffle through my nervous introduction to his band, Bad Samaritans. That's Newport. "Don't bore us, get to the chorus" to misappropriate New York Dolls (I think) via my friend Huw Williams.
Adam Walton introduces Bad Samaritans (photo: Katherine Mellon)
The bill that I'm witness to (post Goldblade) is very much an exercise in nostalgia, but that's fine, in fact it's touching and a measure of the weight of this tribute. The Darling Buds haven't played together for the best part of two decades, but were so moved by John's death and the influence his ebullience and open mindedness had on their hometown, they braved the rigmarole of trying to recall rusty chord changes, rehearsals after they'd put the kids to bed and the paralysing nerves of a reunion gig in front of a hometown crowd for John. And many others did the same.
The sense of a common cause powered the whole day. There were no primadonna strops, no arguments over where artists should be on the bill, no mutterings about why there weren't any dwarves carrying silver platters laden with exotic substances. Although there was a plate of respectable quiche in the backstage room.
So, the highlights were, in no particular order of magnitude, and stolen shamelessly from a Facebook post I made when I finally scraped myself home: Andrea Darling Bud sounding and looking as much like an indie pop queen as she ever did; the backstage men's toilets' faithful impersonation of TJ's legendary (in)conveniences; Diverse Music's Matt DJing a carefully thought out, between-the-bands set of the best groups he'd seen and danced to in TJ's; super happy, slamdancing, punk kids; Kai Jones and I wrestling bin bags (& losing) in the frenetic, between-set clean up operation; Carl Bevan sweet-talking a police lady; getting a new copy of Newport super comp I Was A Teenage Gwent Boy that isn't scratched or warped; Paul Flyscreen's optimistic attempt to generate sing / clap-a-long; all of Rollerco's set (but sad they had to drop Rollercoaster - cos that's what I had been singing all the way down in the car); stage manager man kindly pricking what's left of my ego: "I'm not being funny, mate - but can you try not to waffle this time..."; so many great faces from the past now back in the present; Sick Livers teaching the kids how to swear properly; Steve 'the voice' Evans back to reclaim his title; every heartfelt tribute to John Sicolo (my favourite: Sticky Rollerco's "John gave us 20 years, we've got 20 minutes").
It was an outstanding success. Four thousand people filled the square over the course of the day. Newport is a special city. The hunger for, and love of, live music here goes beyond the standoff-ish 'passion' in the bigger British cities.
Great credit has to go to those organisers - Andy Barding and Emma Corten - because, although they'll modestly defer any credit onto the shoulders of the artists, the stage hands and the engineers who turned their idea into such an amazing, memorable and fitting tribute for their friend and inspiration, it was their idea.
Credit also has to go to the authorities in Newport for allowing it to happen. All too frequently, city councils forget about the kudos and good reputation brought to their city by its noisy folk. This would never happen in the city I live in. Here, the council prefer to decorate the streets with bicycles made out of flowers. Give me Newport's soul over that aesthetic poncery any day of the week.
There are rumours that this could become an annual event. I hope so. An enduring tribute to John Sicolo would be most fitting. And it would give Newport's current crop of bands an opportunity to show the world that something newer and potentially just as exciting is happening in the New Seattle: 100 Cannons, Kitty Cowell, The Calling Card, Dirty Goods, Science Bastard - feel free to add to this typically undefinitive list below!
John's daughter Leanne made a short, emotional speech from the stage before releasing 100 balloons in TJ's trademark orange and black colours. "I'm sure my dad has been rocking today. So let's remember and celebrate the life of John Sicolo the legend."
His spirit will live on as long as the people of Newport have an affinity for distorted guitars and voices cracked with fervour. On the evidence of today, that will be a long time indeed.
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