X-sTatiC at Riff's Bar, Swindon
21 March 2003
Peter Short came a very long way to hear some songs, by some band, in Swindon, in a pub. Sit back, relax, get a cup of coffee, maybe a couple of digestives and read on...
I've always been one for outrageous challenges. Like the time I walked the 7 miles from college to home, only to turn back and do the 7 miles back! This almost resulted in me missing my French GCSE exam.
The challenge of getting from Kettering to Swindon by public transport was too mouthwatering for me to not attempt. And I knew that there was a huge reward waiting for me if I was successful.
Armed with my notes on what buses to catch and £45 (a fortune to any 17 year old student!), I left home at 10am. All I could feel was total excitement! I was going to finally see XTC played live. I was going to Oxford and Swindon (both firsts for me). And I was having a day off school (again a first!).
First bus caught was the Kettering to Northampton bus. Got my £5.99 all day travel ticket and sat in the seat that I was to occupy for about 6 hours of the day. I'm a bit superstitious and I have to sit in the same seat if I possibly can! Stuck my headphones in and let the warming sound that is XTC fill my head whilst the bus trundled down the A45.
Finally reached Northampton at 11:15am. Bought a newspaper and a few provisions (five chocolate bars, 9 packs of crisps... the usual!). These were all going to be needed for the gruelling two hour trip that I was about to undertake.
The Northampton to Oxford bus. Now I know there are several little villages that rely on these buses to get them to and from the bigger towns. But really? Does the bus have to cover half of Northamptonshire?! Northampton to Oxford by car takes an hour. This bus journey took two and a half hours. Not a comfy ride when you need the loo!
My extensive research on what buses to catch allowed me an hour in Oxford. So as you do when you're in a massive city with so much to look at, I skipped it all and went into the nearest cafe. Somehow I avoided the mine field that is coffee selection, and I was given a black coffee. The American who had served me then said, "You're not from around here are you?". Slightly taken aback thinking 'I should be asking you that!', I replied, "No, I'm from Kettrin", in my best Kettering accent. "Oh right. So where's that? Near London I suppose?" Grrrrr. This was the kind of response I got from everyone I spoke to for the whole day!
Soon after it was time to catch another bus. Oxford to Swindon. Finally I could get to where I wanted to go. Only another hour on a bus I thought. Not quite. This one took about 80 minutes but I did finally get to Swindon. It was now 5.00pm and obviously people wanted to get home from work ASAP. No one really wanted to tell me how to get to Hook, home to "Riffs" bar. Part of my plan was to go for a swim, because I always go for a swim on Fridays (it's tradition), and also because spending almost five hours on buses doesn't do too much for the odour situation!
I found the/a leisure centre quite easily. Getting in wasn't going to be so easy. You need some kind of members pass or something. But thankfully due to my circumstances (and my KTFC shirt as proof of where I came from) I was allowed in the showers. Whilst at the reception I asked how to get to Hook. Originally I thought it can't be THAT far, I'll walk it if I have to. "It's about 5 or 6 miles," the receptionist said. That buggered up my plans! Downhearted, I went for a shower... we'll leave it there.
Clean and £3 lighter (3 quid to have a quick shower!!!), I scrambled off to the bus station praying that there would be a bus to Hook or somewhere near it. There was a bus to Purton. Apparently it doesn't stop at Hook but the extremely nice bus driver said he'd stop at the crossroads (by now I was quite good at negotiating with bus drivers). And so there I was... on another bus!
Twenty minutes had gone and I was thinking that the bus driver had forgot to tell me where to get off. The bus stopped and he called me over. "Hook's that way," he said pointing upwards(ish). Not quite knowing how to take this I thanked him and got off much to the surprise of the other passengers. Was there something I didn't know? All I could see for miles was fields and the odd house dotted around. Before I could turn round and say, "No actually I'd like to go home now", the bus had gone. I started walking in the general direction I had been pointed in. It didn't take very long, I saw a group of buildings, one looking quite large. Almost pub like!
Was this Riffs? No can't be. I was expecting a large hall, which was going to hold a good 300+. The nearer I got to it the smaller it looked. Barely 50 were going to fit inside I thought. But like I cared. I was over two hours early so I was always going to get my place! The sound of drums was coming from inside and I knew this was the place. I MADE IT!
The first thing I saw as soon as I entered was the almost heavenly "Bass" sign attached to the perfectly formed oak handle. I think I just about deserved a pint. I looked around the room and I could see only a couple sat at the table trying their best to ignore me. "Oo ahh, there'd be a stranger in 'ere."
I ventured into a second room that was attached to the main saloon. There they were. What I came to see. Four musicians that hopefully were going to blow me away. They were only midway through warming up so I was going to get a free show. There were a few more people in the second room so I decided to move my pint, my bag and myself in there. First person that spotted me was Mick. I'd already sent him a few e-mails asking if I could film the whole event, and told him he would spot me because I would have 60 kg of camera equipment on me. I didn't, but he still recognized me via the shirt. He was the first to have a laugh at my story. I then got introduced to Dan. Dan the (I'll play anything that makes a sound) man. He showed me the local newspaper's article on them. This was the start of the weird goings on (for them anyway).
I left them to practice, whilst I sipped and started admiring the murals on the wall. Queen, Janis Joplin, Hendrix. I particularly took to the Pink Floyd ones, being a massive fan myself. This was my sort of pub if this was the sort of music you got to hear almost every night.
Had a quick chat to Adrian and Ed whilst Dan was talking on the phone. He came back looking quite, well, dumbfounded. Not very often that Andy Partridge's parents ring you up to wish you good luck.
Riff's was starting to fill up and I didn't want to lose my spot. At the same time I wanted to mingle with all the XTC-ness wandering about the place. Now I thought that I had the most outrageous story about how I got to Riffs but, I was beaten quite convincingly by Chicago Dave. Not only by sheer distance but also by extreme luck! Now if I remember the story correctly, he's from Chicago! He also happened to be on holiday in England and on the last day of his travels he found out about the X-sTatiC gig and being a huge XTC fan, came along to have a look.
Along with Dave I met another just as huge fan, Craig. So the three of us stand by the bar exchanging stories, exchanging e-mail address and eagerly waiting for the big event. I wasn't expecting any of this! I thought I'd just turn up, stand in a dark corner and have a few people come up to me and say, "You're a bit too young to remember XTC." Well most of that's true. I did turn up, I did watch the band from a corner (although it wasn't a dark one!) and I did have a few (well actually a lot) of people come up to me asking my age. But on top of that I got the chance to chat to some very knowledgeable people. Very rarely do you meet another XTC fan and when you do, there's endless to talk about.
Half an hour to go and I'm trying to eat something at a now packed bar. All four band members are chatting away when I look over my shoulder to see Dan talking to lady and receiving a little bag stuffed with CDs. Thinking nothing of it (as you do when you're wrestling for position at a bar), I kept munching away and trying to explain to the four very interested people where Kettering is and how we won the Southern League Championship. This lady seemed to be getting a lot of attention along with a young (but very tall) lad. Now I hadn't quite caught on who they were and it wasn't until Craig asked me to take a picture of him and the "Mouldings" that I realized who they were. I didn't get a chance to say a quick hello. I'm sure they'd already had 50 other fans asking them how they were and how Colin was and I thought it best to leave the worship talk to the others. I had to get to my corner before someone else nicked it!
Five minutes to go. This was it. Six hours of bus travel and a shower in a Swindon leisure centre later, XTC live here we go. I'd better capture the moment. I got my camera out and put in "new" batteries. Turned it on. Turned it on again. No LED flicker, no little bleep to say it was on. Swapped the batteries round. No life. I tried the other six batteries I had with me. Nope. I tried every possible combination of battery. Not a peep. Thankfully, Dave (who appeared from nowhere to stand next to me) had his camera. Whilst all this was happening, Craig was chatting away with the Mouldings still. He was standing quite precariously close to a swinging door. I'm sure he won't mind me reminding him that he fell flat on his face!
Out come the band, I've got ANOTHER pint next to me. I'm all set. The crowd is all set. Just hope the band is! Mick was telling me that he still hadn't learnt the words to Optimism's Flames yet. Possibly the toughest song I've tried to sing after four (and counting) pints.
First song starts up. Now it has to be said that I'm not a fan of "Radios in Motion". I've no idea why. But hey, these people were playing XTC! I wasn't going to complain. Then good ol' "Life Begins at the Hop". I can never get tired of this song! A perfect tempo which will always get the foot tapping. I didn't really notice "Meccanik Dancing" or "This Is Pop". I was too busy rolling my head about around the place. I was also realizing that this wasn't going to be quiet evening spent gently applauding the band and trying to keep a couple of drinks going for the whole two sets.
"Earn Enough For Us". According to Ed (who adores Skylarking), this was the only song that I didn't really get into. The reason for this might have something to do with having not ever listened to Skylarking! (read on further to find out why) so I couldn't appreciate the song. But I loved "Ball and Chain". Always been a favourite of mine since day one. I still had enough puff to whistle the synth bit at the end. As did most of the crowd. Craig and I were doing an air guitar duet throughout the whole song. And then came the first nicety of the evening (for me anyway).
Next song up was "Burning with Optimism's Flames". At the time it was a contender for my favourite XTC song. So hearing the song in the first place was great but what made it better was when Mick called out, "This one's for Shorty". I of course did the only thing I could and made a massive noise as soon as I heard him say that. I then look at Craig a little what sheepishly, because he had earlier mentioned to Mick that HIS favourite XTC was "Burning with Optimism's Flames". So I personally felt that the tribute should have been made to him. Never the less we both enjoyed the song just the same. [Mick writes - Yeah, mea culpa! Before the gig I'd reminded myself that Craig had requested Optimism's Flames and Shorty's fave was Towers. In the heat of the moment I kind of got it all a bit mixed up.]
"Atom Age" was next up. By now the brown liquid in my pint glass was rapidly starting to run low! "Complicated Game" next. I've always felt this is a tough song to sing and Dan did a brill job of it (as I had now come to expect). And then another contender for my favourite XTC song, "No Language in Our Lungs". I was now becoming a little more exotic with my head movements. The lads did this song justice and for a short while I was feeling amazing.
Finally the band closed on "Dance Band". Much to the relief of my right ankle which had been playing up since I first stepped foot on a bus earlier that morning.
The band traipse off and there's cheering, and clapping, and whoops and just a load of noise. Followed suddenly with an eerie calm. Everyone just turned round to the person standing next to them going, WOW!.
I turned round to Dave. "That was OK I s'pose. Satisfactory at best." I think that the humour barrier got in the way there. "What do you mean? They were brilliant!", he said back.
My throat was a desert and the tiny drop in the bottom of my glass wasn't going to keep me alive for a whole second set. I looked across the room. The bar was packed. Fearing for my life I set off towards the bar. Somehow the crowd just parted and I had an easy stroll up to the bar. Stuck my hand up and instantly, another pint of Bass was produced. Well not quite like that. There was a 10 minute wait involved somewhere amongst all that!
I struggled back to my spot and overheard someone's conversation. Something about Holly Partridge being in the building. I vaguely knew who she was, I don't exactly feel the need to get to know the band member's family.
The next 15-20 minutes were all a blur. I could only sit there grinning from ear to ear. Best thing was that a lot of XTC classics still hadn't been played. Christ I was looking forward to the second half.
And so on they come. Adrian and his sticks. Mick picks up his guitar and stands about three feet away from me. Ed stands with his "borrowed" bass next to the ladies loos! No Dan. Apparently he had ran off with stage fright (...silence, church bell in the background and tumble weed rolls past).
Immediately they hit the audience with the opening chords of "Playground". In runs Dan (had to do his hair I s'pose) and off we go. HOW can you not like this song? You just can't not jump up and down!
"President Kill" is next. I've just been flying round the room like a maniac during "Playground", so this gave me a chance to sit down. I look over towards the drums where Adrian was enjoying himself. I look over to Craig and Dave. Both smiling. Look over to the crowd. It could have been throwing it down with rain outside but they didn't care. Just as I turned my head around I spotted three youngish additions to the crowd. Oh no. Had I lost the crown of "youngest XTC fan in the room?"
Two lads and a stunning looking young lass (we say lass here in Kettering). Cogs were moving round in my head. CLICK. Oh look that's Holly Partridge over there. "Must buy her a drink later", I thought, thinking that none of the other 90 or so blokes weren't thinking the same.
Back to the music! Took me ages to realize that the next song was "Seagulls Screaming". It had been "altered" a bit. But it sounded pretty effective, especially as it's a song that I wouldn't call a favourite of mine. "Yacht Dance". Never heard of it (slap on the wrist). I'm sure it's very good though. Chicago Dave kept looking at his watch - his B&B shuts its doors at 11pm. Plenty of time yet.
Time for "Snowman", the first time that I was out-jumped by the crowd. I was getting tired though. Our corner in general was getting a lot of attention. Craig and I did another air guitar piece. And onto probably the least known song of the night, "Senses Working Overtime". If my ankle wasn't dead yet, it would have been at the end of this track. Not quite sure if Ed was 100% sure on the lyrics though. Still, brilliant performance by all.
Ed quickly carried on and started playing something or other. I don't think many people recognized it until the first lyric. "Never been near a university..." Mayor of Simpleton was a treat to hear.
"No Thugs" followed soon after. Ed with a massive grin on his face. I think he enjoyed the swap to guitar.
And onto what ended up being my favourite song of the night (and probably my favourite XTC song), "Towers Of London" (notice how all of the nominations are all from Black Sea. That might be because I started listening to it again the week before). Again before the gig started I just "happened" to mention to Mick that "Towers" was probably my favourite song. So again he surprises me and says something along the lines of, "Me and Shorty both love this song". I saw this as a perfect opportunity to make a complete prat out of myself and again cheer in delight, just in case anybody in the other room didn't know who I was! Made sure Holly got a glimpse of me. Those teenage kids'll do anything to get noticed!
"Making Plan for Nigel" is another song guaranteed to get a positive reaction from an audience. And then "Respectable Street", which I made sure I learnt the words to before I left the house. Great song and once again those four musicians, those four artists (copy artists it has to be said) did a wonderful job of it.
"Generals and Majors" closely followed by "Melt the Guns". Show's Over. Buckets of sweat are now around my feet. The crowd expected an encore. You could tell there was going to be one because Adrian was still stuck behind the tin cans. And they come on. They couldn't not play "Sgt. Rock"! [X-sTatiC little known fact number 1 - Adrian couldn't leave the stage as, during some wild rock-drummer-type antics, his glasses had flown off and were lying somewhere on the floor of the stage. Trouble is, without his glasses he's blind as a bat and he couldn't go looking for them.]
That was supposed to be the last song. Even Adrian had got up now. I thought everything was over and I started to power down. Just as I sat down there was an almighty roar. There was one last request from Andy (Riff's owner/bar dude) to do "Senses Working Overtime" again. WOW! The foundations of Riffs must have been that little bit worse off after that. Not a single person was standing still or not singing. Again I looked over at Holly who was singing away and beaming. One more air guitar duet with Craig and that was it.
I was like a kid at Alton Towers. Sure I'd been on the Nemesis fifty times. But let's go on it again! "Senses Working Overtime" for a THIRD time though, would have killed me! I can jump up and down and rock my head back and forth pretty damn hard. But this was the mother of all jumping up and downs. There was no pain when I banged my head SEVERAL times on the wall, or when I landed quite heavily on the floor. The adrenaline was keeping all that at bay. It was a tremendous sight seeing the whole room jump up and down. To quote Ed, "The walls were dripping".
Fin. After a few more "whoops", all was calm again. I looked at Craig, I looked at Dave, I looked at Holly (who was far too busy to look back). Almost everyone let out a sigh of relief that it was all over. I now needed liquid quick! I collected the many bottles and glasses around me and took them over to the bar. (It's a habit. Working in a nightclub for nine months does that to you).
I hate to say this (really I do), but I couldn't help but feel I was center of attention, just for a few seconds anyway. At least twenty people in the space of a few minutes came up to me saying how great it was to see such a young lad enjoy his music so much. The classic, "You're too young to remember XTC", came in there somewhere I'm sure.
I got talking to two particular locals. Apparently Gloucester were going to thrash Northampton Saints and one of them hated Cheltenham Town FC so much that he wanted Northampton Town to beat them (sorry to degrade this review somewhat but come on! I am sports king of Northamptonshire!). Turns out Gloucester did thrash the Saints and Cobblers drew 1-1 with Cheltenham. I dunno if any bets were exchanged, if there were, then you know where I live mate!
It was getting late and the majority of the crowd had now left. Dave was in bed (he had a flight to catch!) and I waved bye bye to Craig at about 12-ish. The band had now finally broke free from the mauling they got from the appreciative crowd and I was able to get a proper, "Well done mate", in. Mick had been like my "mate" for most of the evening, so it seemed right to go up to him first. Twenty minutes later and probably after about a thousand "did that really happen?"s, I was still talking to him. It did happen. And I think I was sensing that he had enjoyed it. I think that I was sensing slight anger though, that I'd started drinking his dandelion and burdock though!
Ed joined our little party and told me about how they had to miss out "Dear God". Now due to my teenage years and my general sense of naivety, I had never listened to Skylarking (which Dear God is on... well on the remastered version anyway!). I found it in HMV of all places and thought I should keep the collection at home growing. And it had been sitting on my shelf for five months before I listened to it. So to the disgust of Ed, I told him that losing Dear God didn't effect the gig. Looking back (and after listening to Dear God many, MANY times), I almost wish that they fitted it in somewhere. Ah well something to look forward to in Camden!
I finally got a chance to have a word with Miss Partridge. She spotted me from the other side of the room and came strolling over. Apparently I look like her dad... well an 80s version of her dad. Not quite sure how to take this I said thank you very much and said how pleased I was to see her. Not wanting to say anything too embarrassing (like ,"God you're looking gorgeous this evening"), I politely smiled and said I'll be over for a chat in a second.
And so the night was coming to an end (for most... NOT ME though!). The stage which was once full of instruments, drum kit and four bodies was now bare. The only people left were Andy, a few stragglers, Holly and her two mates (I guessed they were mates although one was quite plastered and was trying to get her mobile number!) and me.
Because of the circumstances, Andy said it would be OK for me to crash out in the bar. I'm not sure if this is the standard practice for all long distance visitors but I was very appreciative of the offer. However, I had to catch a bus at 6am and I just didn't trust myself to wake up in time. So you know what I did. Yep, I walked home! Well not quite home but to Swindon bus station.
Thanked Andy for his hospitality, managed to get a bye bye to Holly and promised to come see her band Birdie when they were playing a little more localish! Armed with a sore head, ringing ears and a blue back pack, I ventured out into the night. And more to the point, out into the middle of nowhere, with no directions whatsoever. But being the resourceful lad that I am, all I had to do was pretend to be a car (a very slow car) and head towards Swindon via the roadsigns. It was late and I had been drinking, okay!
I think I broke some records that night though. I'm not sure of the total distance of Riff's bar to Swindon bus station, but I estimate it's about 6 miles and I walked that in one and a half hours. Considering the state I was in that's a bloomin' miracle in my book. But then again, with the adrenaline pumping round my body, I practically ran all of it.
Over the M4, past the Swindon borough council building (with that massive generator thingy in the middle of it) and eventually past Swindon rail station. The plan was to reach the bus station at around 4.30am and just sit out the last hour and half... I got there at 2:45am! Now I don't know if you've ever been to Swindon bus station but let me tell you it's not the most comfortable place to sit in for three and a quarter hours in the freezing cold (remember it's still March). I was also quite understandably tired!
I wasn't just going to sit there, so I kept warm by the usual jogging up and down and just generally walking about the place. I then stumbled upon one of those mobile computer thingies. Those touch screen computers they just put in the middle of the road to make the Town or City seem more modern! Well that provided a lot of entertainment... for 10 minutes. E-mailed myself to never travel again without a second, third and fourth jumper!
Then a thought suddenly dawned on me. Is my bus actually at 6am? This has happened to me before where I've expected a bus at a certain time, and was completely wrong. I feared the worst as I neared the bus timetable. Hmmm. It says here that there's a bus at 6am on weekdays! But for a Saturday (which it now was) the first bus is 7.15am! OH ****.
Not only did I now have to sit around for another hour, but also all of my plans were mucked up. I needed to get back to Kettering by 1pm so I could get a lift to Nuneaton for the big match (Nuneaton vs Kettering... mouthwatering!). Friday had gone so perfectly without any major hitches, was Saturday going to be my undoing?
By 6am I was not only sleepy but also ravenous! I could have eaten a wounded horse (get it)! Thankfully, there was a cafe just round the corner which by amazing coincidence opened at 6am. Cuppa tea and two bits of chocolate cake filled me nicely and I was ready to face... another hour of sitting! At least I was in a warm cafe. Eventually the big hand pointed at the 10 and the little hand had just passed the 7. I was going home!
Got on board, and I'm not joking when I say I fell asleep as soon as my backside hit the seat. Past Swindon FC and Swindon's amazing five roundabouts, around another roundabout, I waved farewell to Swindon... and its bus station! God, I pray to never go there again unless I'm in a car.
With my travel plans thrown out of the window, I had to formulate a quick way home. The Oxford to Cambridge bus was the best way home. It stopped at the metropolis that is known as Milton Keynes. Which through my already vast knowledge of bus routes, had a bus that went from Milton Keynes to Kettering! So I caught another bus and again promptly fell asleep with my walkman clasped in my hand. The batteries were now dying on me and, believe me, hearing "The Last Balloon" at 5rpm whilst semi-conscious is quite an experience!
I reached Milton Keynes at 11am. I was still asleep when the driver announced we were at the stop and probably whist rushing about like a manic passenger trying to collect my things, I lost my all important all-day ticket. To make things worse, when I got off the bus I was nowhere near the Milton Keynes to Kettering bus stop. But yet again I was quick with the old noggin and thought that I could catch a bus to Bedford to get me into Kettering. This was risky but by now as long as I got home I didn't care. So I chased after the bus that I had just got off and paid ANOTHER £5.99.
By now the sun was really high in the sky and the bus was very uncomfortable. Home seemed a million miles away and yet it was just 25 miles up the A6. Instead I had another 20 miles to get to Bedford. And then another 40 to get all the way back to Kettering. Tell you what, when I become Prime Minister I'm gonna sort these buses out!
Got to Bedford at 12 noon exactly. I was torn between giving up and having a coffee or frantically finding a bus headed for Kettering. And there it was. The most beautiful sight I've seen in many a year. The 39 bus going to Desborough via Kettering (God, I'm starting to sound like a real bus anorak!).
Home was just another hour away. I could put up with that. The guy in front of me tried his best to suffocate me in his cloud of smoke. And passing Nene Park, home to the most plastic football team on earth (Rushden and Direonians) didn't help matters. But all I had to do was shut my eyes and remember the evening I'd just had. With my ears still ringing and my head still pounding it wasn't too difficult.
And there we are. The last few miles were eaten up in mere seconds and once again I was amongst my own kind. Kettering air had never tasted better! I had been Swindon and back, but if asked to do it again I probably would. I had just seen probably the best live performance to date (04/05/03) and to top it all off Kettering lost 1-0 to Nuneaton. BLISS. Life just can't get any better than this.
Camden Town thankfully should be easier to get to...
Peter Short, 15 May 2003. firstname.lastname@example.org