Thin Lizzy and Scottish Roadies
…the boys are back in town…
Dave and Jake had exciting news for us. We were going to be opening for Thin Lizzy for thirty dates. We knew Thin Lizzy from their big hit, The Boys Are Back in Town. Wild. I remembered hearing that song the summer before and thinking how cool it was. That had been one of those prescient moments we all experience; I knew there was something about that song and that band. Funny how that works sometimes. We’d be starting in Oxford.
We had just done a mini-tour with a black jazz-soul singer named Linda Lewis. We’d opened in Aberystwyth, Wales and played a handful of small college dates, very tame and polite. Nick Lowe rode in the van with us, helping us to navigate both the maze of confusing roads and the frequently awkward world of English bed and breakfast accommodations. Since we didn’t have any money the band was split up in pairs and put up in tiny B&B’s. These weren’t tricked-out tourist places. The families rented out a room or two in their house, with few amenities or nods to the tourist trade. No bottles of water or fancy soaps on your pillow. There might be a small TV in the living room. You watched sheep-dog trials with the family. Those dogs are awesome. Breakfast was a piece of undercooked, thick bacon with a bit of bone in it and a triangle of fried bread to go with two invariably bubbly fried eggs, eaten with the mister and missus of the house. It was a bit hard to face the folks in the morning when one was hungover, sort of like finding yourself in a movie dream sequence featuring elderly gnomes. But we were rolling on the cheap. I think we prided ourselves that we were doing it the real way, the way the old bands did; the Beatles and the Stones, back when they too were nobodies.
We weren’t earning any money yet. Opening acts, called simply Support, weren’t paid anything. We, the proud members of that ubiquitous poster-fame band Support, were driving in a mini-van, eating pork-pies or fish and chips, lucky to have fifty pence in our pockets. It was a shoestring operation, and would be for a while. Hey, we were game. So far, we were just happy to be there, getting a shot. I loved seeing the rolling countryside of England and the hills of Wales, with ruined castles, bronze-age hill forts and neolithic standing stones, tidy little villages and big, ugly industrial midland cities. I drank it all in.
Following the short Linda Lewis swing, before the Lizzy tour, we got a night at the Roundhouse, in London Camden Town. The Roundhouse was an old railroad roundhouse that had been converted to a rock venue. It was a very happening place right then, not as prestigious as the Hammersmith Odeon or the Rainbow, but it was a gig that would draw a good crowd, a lot of punters, and media attention, which is what the U.K. is all about. It’s been redone over the years and is an important venue once again. McCartney did a TV special recently there.
Fans in the U.K. were called punters, which I gathered was an old horse-racetrack term. British slang was a whole new language. One wasn’t drunk; one was pissed or legless. You didn’t pick up chicks, you pulled them, and they weren’t called chicks, they were boilers. You didn’t pee, you had a slash. Male homosexuals were poufters. Assholes were cunts. This took a self-proclaimed women’s libber like me a bit of getting used to (like five minutes), but I managed somehow. You fucking cunt! Some of my favorite slang words were terms for masturbation; wanking (which leads to the very useful term, applied to all those despised or envied for some real or imaginary reason, wankers), doing a blue vein solo (on your beef bayonet), or my personal fave, galloping your maggot. Jeez, them Brits have them got some language skills, don’t they? Then there was the whole world of rhyming cockney slang. Bristol City = titty (nice set of Bristol’s on that one); skyrocket = pocket; dicks = wicks, etc. I couldn’t possibly follow it all, though Huey was quite good at picking it up. Huey is a whiz at learning complicated slang systems and also at remembering people’s names. It’s part of his orderly mind, I guess. He can meet someone at two in the morning after having six scotches and remember him three years later. Amazing. I was often left nodding and saying uh-huh, uh-huh, when talking to a real cockney, who might as well have been speaking Swahili as far as I was able to understand the lingo.
The Roundhouse was packed with new-wavers, punk-rockers, hard-rockers, and old pomped-haired mods in their long, leather coats, because the bill was mixed bag of different kinds of bands. It was to be our official coming out party for London, and for the music press.
The rock press was vital. It’s a small island. Everyone read the weekly music rags: the New Musical Express, Sounds, and the Melody Maker. A good review in NME or MM could make your band; a bad one could sink it. Jake and Dave were masters of this press game, as time would show. They’d been hyping us a bit; but not over the top, setting us up as a possible headliner without portraying us as the second coming.
Jake powered into the dressing room rubbing his hands and grinning. He was a very, very, very intense, brilliant, dark-haired guy, a former boxer, who is a genius of promotion and a great lover of competition. His eyes kind of bugged out, either from the pressure of the moment, which he usually had created, or from the stimulants he probably had taken to stay on top of his game, or both. He and Dave both got a twinkle in the old eye and a wide grin at the prospect of winning. It’s what it’s all about.
I’d picked up a black leather, tasseled, gunslinger-style vest from the trendy Kensington Market, where you could get real rock leather stuff. We were all crowded in the back room, holding our guitars, nervous, psyched, waiting to go on.
Jake said to me, you look like a gambler in that. I want you to go out there and gamble tonight.
I answered; we’re going to be dynamite.
He said, well, you’re very fucking expensive dynamite, you’d fucking better go off!
He was laughing, but he was wide-eyed manic and dead serious. They’d put their own money on the table and gone out on a limb with Phonogram and the press for us.
Come down from the mountain, California hippies; time to go off.
The gig went OK, not too bad. After a high energy entrance, we failed to really take the punters to a higher level, to really capture them and make them go nuts. But still, it was a fairly good set. There was encouraging talk backstage afterwards, nice one, lads, but no one was going to say we hit the jackpot. We did get decent notices in the press, which is a plus, but it could have been the honeymoon effect. Or perhaps Dave and Jake had the writers in their pocket a bit. Calling in a favor to be returned later, that sort of thing.
The problem we had was twofold. Our material was still too scattered. Some of it was kind of rock, but it was on the light side compared to what the Brits were used to. We also had the lame R&B element, which showed, frankly, a writing side of me that was influenced by current stateside stuff like Earth Wind, and Fire. It’s hard to believe I wrote this crap, which was no reflection on EW&F’s music, because their stuff was great, but in my hands, it was pure crapola. The pedal steel and harmonica horn lines, which kicked ass back in Fresno, were a little light in the loafers for this London crowd; a little smooth around the front, as Nick might say. Have horn lines? Get a fucking horn section. Give a couple of sax guys pork-pie hats and shades and have ‘em do steps. That’d be cool. Pedal steel and harmonica? Wankers Aweigh.