I just finished reading Woody Woodmansey’s account of he and the Spiders from Mars on the road with David Bowie in 1972 and 73. It was Woody’s climb to fame and, almost, obscurity. He’s the surviving Spider now, and one of those musicians who knows it really was a different world in the 1970s.
A ‘band on the road’ moment that always sticks in my mind occurred in January 1993, when I was on the way to teach in Poland for the first time. I flew to Warsaw, then would be getting the train down through the country to Gliwice, in Silesia, the industrial region towards the Czech border.
At Warsaw Airport, a band disembarked from my flight. I hadn’t noticed its members on the plane. I knew they were a band because they had band hair, from not just one decade earlier, but two: all feather cuts with highlights, and shoulder length. They wore unfeasibly tight jeans, the likes of which I’d not seen for many years, plus boxing boots and All Stars. They wore satin bomber jackets, for fuck’s sake, with the sleeves rolled up. For fuck’s sake. Who did that, in 1993? Well, bands did that, in 1993, living the dream, even fresh off the plane, and ready to rock. As I’d not noticed them on the journey, they’d obviously not been acting very rock n roll: no groping stewardesses, or stewards, or chucking TV sets out the windows into the swimming pool. Well, there were neither on a plane. Just as well.
Anyway, there they waited by the carousel, like the rest of us, for their luggage. What could it be? Surely one piece of luggage was going to be a groupie in a suitcase. Another would surely be a suitcase full of grass… or speed. As it happened, much of it was rock band luggage: guitars in flight cases. Backpacks full of more tight jeans, I supposed, tight teeshirts, spandex, condoms.
They had the band hair, then, the satin, the jeans, and boots, but they weren’t loud. They weren’t being all big-I-am-I’m-in-a-band. They just grinned at one another, putting up with it in good humour, the dreary waiting-for-luggage experience, for the thousandth time.
One of them looked familiar. I didn’t know why. When their instrument flight cases came out onto the carousel, it became clear who they were. The cases – I knew so many guitarists who’d bought flight cases, when all they did with their guitars was leave them in a corner of their bedrooms… me included – were emblazoned with the single stencilled word: Smokie.
Gosh, I knew them. I’d first become interested in music in those 1970s of rock n roll hair and chart-topping throwaway pop. Who could forget Smokie’s song about Alice? It hadn’t yet had its who-the-fuck-is-Alice makeover. I always thought Smokie was a bit of a weird name for a band – what, they were fire-damaged? They were one of songwriting duo Chinn and Chapman’s hit-machine bands on the RAK label, alongside acts like Suzi Quatro, Hot Chocolate and Mud, and as such were a bit lightweight, a bit plastic.
They were not a band I had ever liked (and if I had, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it) but so what? It still seemed good, somehow, that they were out there on the road in 1993, still playing their rock n roll.
I was puzzled about the one who looked familiar. These were pre-smartphone days, and pre-internet, of course. I couldn’t just get my phone out and look up Smokie. I couldn’t even get down to Gliwice and Google them to find out a few facts that might have made me nod, got me going, “Oh yeah – I know now.”
A few weeks on, and settled by then in Gliwice, my brain at last with time on its hands for something frivolous, the answer to the puzzle came to me out of nowhere: the bloke whose face I recognised was not Smokie’s singer, Chris Norman, the one I’d seen all through the seventies miming to all their hits on Top of the Pops. He’d left an age before. The face I recognised belonged to a guy called Alan Barton; he’d inflicted the dreaded Agadoo on the world, a novelty hit for the duo Black Lace, which went:
Pick pineapple, shake the tree
Possibly, slightly, even worse than:
For twenty four years I’ve been
Living next door to Alice
I mean, even the first time round, who the actual fuck was Alice? And who cared about living next door to her? I’m not very good at either listening to or remembering pop lyrics, but even without knowing any of the rest of them, I understood that it was a song about the girl next door. But rock stars didn’t want the girl next door, did they? They got on planes and travelled, got off, collected all that gear, got into vans and disappeared up the road, in search of more glamorous girls.
Going by the numbers of rock stars who indeed settle down, wanting nothing more than a normal life… whatever that might be… it seems that a craving for the girl next door might well take them over after a few years of the glamorous women they met on the road. I guess they were more often than not skanky rather than glamorous in the mornings, waving their rock stars off along the never-ending road in those crappy old vans full of unwashed clothes and stencilled flight cases.
I forgot Smokie, and Agadoo, and Alice, and all this about the road and the glamour pusses on it. I got on with my life in Gliwice, teaching, making new friends, and doing my own travelling.
On a whim, I got the train to provincial city Wrocław one gloomy Saturday two months later. It was still winter; that year there was snow from January until April. Fortunately, the trains are well-heated. I brought a hip flask, and a book, and a Walkman, and sat wrapped up in the corner of the carriage. I probably had my Lonely Planet, which told me all about Wrocław, and got off there and spent a few hours then mooching, looking at the things you go to any historic town to see.
A little later, I stopped in a café and ate, and read my book. I listened idly to a conversation going on nearby: there was a group including at least one native English speaker, the rest of it being young locals. They were talking relatively loudly, all practising their English on this guy. He knew them, I gathered – maybe he was their teacher. I’d been hit on a few times by students at the school I worked at, and also by random people in bars, not because they found me fascinating, but just so they could practice that exuberant English. I rarely minded; I liked company. Anyway, one word kept leaping out of the conversation: one of the women in the group was telling some dull tale, but every now and then I was brought back to it because she kept using the phrase you can’t in the context of …and you CAN’T believe what happened then… and he said, You CAN’T do that here… etc etc etc. Her pronunciation kept making it sound like she was saying, you cunt repeatedly. Alerted, I looked to see if the young English guy was picking this up, but he was just nodding along, obviously hearing it all in context.
I finished my meal and my eavesdropping, and with a train in mind to catch back to Gliwice, I left the café. It was Saturday, and the streets were full of people. I turned a corner and saw a van parked on the pavement at the back of a venue. Musicians were unloading flight cases from the back of it and taking turns to carry stuff in and out. There was a familiar-looking stencilled word on the cases: Smokie again. This second sighting of them seemed so odd – almost disturbing, though there was obviously nothing to be disturbed about, as such. I watched them for probably less than a minute. They were busy and oblivious, making cheerful banter with one another, hefting their gear in and out, donkey work, but all part of the mechanics of making the hits, getting the dosh, meeting the glamorous women and, maybe, one day, hooking up with the girl next door, Alice.
I would like to say I thought of them, back on that never-ending road in that smelly little van, but I almost certainly didn’t. If I was thinking of musicians, there were plenty I liked, and I was stocking up on music a lot in Gliwice, bootleg tapes being cheaper, literally, than chips. I’d missed a lot of British and American music the previous few years, having lived in Istanbul – pre-internet days, remember – so I had a bit of catching up to do.
There was no post-script to this tale until a few years later, when I read that Alan Barton had been killed in March 1995, at the age of 41, on that rock n roll road during a hailstorm in Cologne on tour with Smokie: a banal road accident, as they all are. So I thought of him then, and now often do, for some odd reason. I caught him on Top of the Pops 2 recently, not with Smokie (Top of the Pops 2’s parallel universe is now up to 1987) but with his Black Lace partner, Colin Gibb. I’d rather remember him there, picking that pineapple and shaking that tree, and looking for all the world like he’s enjoying his life in the best way he can.
Cover image courtesy of Jeremy Brooks via Flickr