Reclaiming the Ashes

A few weeks ago, I paid three pounds for a concert ticket. Depending on what year it is, this could be an enormous extravagance or a huge bargain, but in the middle of 2020 I think we can broadly agree that it’s a waste of time.

However, this was no investment. The ticket isn’t likely to be worth more than what I paid for it in years to come, but I wanted it anyway. When it arrived, professionally clamped between two slices of cardboard and sealed in a plastic wallet, my heart felt a little shaft of sunlight, which took me back to 7th May 2001. I’m going to tell you what this ticket stub means to me.

In 2001, I was a student at the University of Leicester. I was in my second year, and truth to tell, it wasn’t going all that well. I was doing an English degree, something which I wasn’t sure was really for me. With no options in the first year of the course, I was inevitably stuck with Shakespeare and minute line readings of The Good Soldier, when I wanted to be explaining to pink-cheeked girls from Hemel Hempstead why Kerouac made me feel alive and hey, why don’t we discuss it over a drink at The Dry Dock?

Like many before me, I’d seen university as a chance to reinvent myself. I’d spent seven years at the same secondary school being known as Stanna, and no matter how much I’d tried to burst out of my chrysalis, Stanna I would always be: a fat kid who was no longer fat but was still nobody’s object of desire. This didn’t seem exactly fair. Loads of my contemporaries had started to make themselves over, pair off and grow up, while mentally I was still eleven and scared. So the solution was simple; I had to leave. By the time I hit Leicester I was obsessed with the Manics and The Smiths, I had a leather jacket and I’d borrowed some opinions that I was thinking about buying one day.

Of course, university was no different for me. It was school with an overdraft. While I did make some friends, particularly in my housemates, everybody seemed so much more together and in control of what they wanted to feel. It was like they’d picked exactly the right course; they’d found exactly the right people who would give their shade light. Me, I didn’t feel that way at all. I looked for simple solutions: if Girl X slept with me I’d be a more confident person; if I bought that Screamadelica and played it over and over, I’d be attuned to the music of the spheres. If all the people I knew who played an instrument could be arsed, we could be in a band and everything I wanted would fall into place.

One night in first year, bored with terrestrial telly and skint, me and a few of my housemates (I was in a block with nine other blokes, so pity the poor cleaners, who complained about the devastation in the communal areas on more than one occasion) were reading the university newspaper, The Ripple. The Ripple was like all university newspapers: full of nonsense about student elections and how the hockey second eleven were getting on. I don’t know why we even had a copy because none of us were ever keen to read it. Maybe the shop was out of Guardians.

Anyway, we gradually got more and more militant in our hatred of it - its tedious student bullshit, its feigned importance of the unimportant. Like I say, we must have been incredibly bored, because we had the idea to write into the letters page with abuse that, over the course of whatever substances were to hand, grew outrageously out of proportion. More likely it was an attempt to make each other laugh, which after a few joints, wasn’t difficult.

These foul letters were never sent to the Ripple office, chiefly because none of us knew where the Ripple office was. We left for the summer, split into two parties and moved into private accommodation, no longer sad little first years. I became a sad little second year, who was still on the lookout for Miss Right, or even Miss Wrong But Willing. A glut of personal issues had left me very close to jacking the whole lot in and moving back home, but I struggled on, becoming more and more convinced nothing exciting was ever going to happen to me.

I was doing a lot of writing at this point; no actual work worth a damn but quite a bit of working things out in my head. The kind of stuff which when you write it, you’re convinced it won’t need any editing because it draws so deeply from the sludge in your heart that any pruning would be akin to self-harm. I never showed this stuff to anybody, mostly because I’d shown a poem to the guy that roomed next to me in first year and he’d said ‘er, it’s a bit Richey Manic, mate’, like that wasn’t a) what I was aiming for and b) a massive compliment. He then got out a short story that allegedly his English teacher back in Jersey encouraged him to destroy because it was too good.

Writing as a career wasn’t something I’d ever considered. I realise that’s the cliché that gets trotted out by every writer, successful or not, but I must stress that I thought I’d arrive at university and get a band together. Writing books wasn’t my ambition: I was going to be Paul Simonon but also the hot lead singer. When I told people I was doing English, to a person they assumed this meant a path to teaching, and couldn’t understand why it translated in my ears to being a musician. But I knew my history: college was where bands were formed.

During first year I’d been seeing a girl from back home on-and-off. She’d ended up at Keele and I was too obsessed by the idea of having somebody who might find me attractive to agree that she wasn’t interested in me in that way, not even when I went to visit her and she introduced me to Seb, who she’d been semi-seeing herself. In hindsight, it was a sunken cost situation; I’d given a lot of emotion to hoping one day she’d kiss me without me asking, and if I ditched the whole thing I’d be absolutely alone.

Despite this terrible situation, when she suggested we go and see Manic Street Preachers in Manchester in March of 2001 I jumped at the chance, because I’ll forever jump at that kind of chance, and who knew, maybe hearing them play ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’ would drop her resistance entirely? In my blandest narrator voice, I will state that it didn’t, and we never did get together, even after another frustrated attempt on my part to start a fire when we both finished our courses and ended up back home.

The reason this is important is because I’d had an idea that I could perhaps write a review of that gig for The Ripple. I’d never written any reviews before, but judging by what I’d taken the piss out of in the paper, it didn’t seem that much of a stretch. After all, I’d described in a rambling letter to my parents about how I’d watched Villa beat Everton in the Rat Bar (named after its location on Ratcliffe Road), so I could easily get two hundred words out of a band I was obsessed by, particularly if they played ‘If You Tolerate This (Your Children Will Be Next)’.

So sometime in the weeks leading up to the Manchester trip, I went into the Percy Gee, where the student union was, asked at the reception desk and was directed to the Ripple office, which surprisingly was just along the corridor from the union bar, the Redfearn. I knocked on the door and it opened onto utter chaos. The girl playing doorperson was Lucy, who I subsequently found out was one of the music editors. She was a very tall blonde in ironic pigtails, and was in something of a rush not to be talking to me. I blurted out my question about providing a review, and she turned to her co-editor Allie and they both nodded, and then she said, ‘so, you like writing about music? Are you interested in becoming a music editor?’

It's very rare in life that a sliding doors moment announces itself with such clarity, but this was one, and despite my protestations to the contrary, I usually decline to rush through the doors. But I suppose I was in something of a panic myself, or eager to please, if only because I didn’t know what a music editor actually did.

So me, Lucy, Allie and the Ripple editor Liz went up to the Redfearn and they interviewed me for an editorial post despite me never having known where the newspaper was put together. I acknowledge that this was an incredibly fortunate thing to happen; when famous people talk about being scouted outside The Clothes Show Live or in an airport queue, I hate it for the hack plot device it is. But I’m not famous (because I don’t make the most of hack plot devices in my own life), and if you’d witnessed the interview you’d have seen why. At one point I rambled on for ages and then at the end of it said, “so, to answer your question, I don’t know”. But I’d also recently taken possession of a hardback guide to playing guitar, which talked about famous old jazz musicians such as Charlie Christian in the pre-lesson bit. So I lobbed in a few obscure sounding names for texture, then finished my pint and ran away.

An hour or so later, Lucy called our house phone and offered me the job as music editor.

Soon enough, me and my co-editor Jamie found ourselves sat next to Lucy and Allie next to the office iMac being taught how to “lay-up” the section. Again, this was like another language – I’d never had a piece published, let alone knew how to publish pieces myself – but this was to be mine and Jamie’s job every other Sunday, along with commissioning pieces, organising interviews with bands and PR and doling out the post. Jamie took it in stride, because he’d been writing for the paper since he’d arrived and was part of Small Black Flowers, the indie music society, who ganged up and ventured into town to go and see bands like Little Fat Hoover at The Charlotte. Me, my head was spinning so much that I never did write that gig review.

I remember the first piece of mine I saw in print. It was a review of the Daft Punk album Discovery, and it was pants. But it was also indescribable seeing my name beneath it. Yes, I’d seen my name printed out many times, but I’d always done the printing. This time, somebody saw something that had existed only in my head and decided it was worth their time. Technically, that somebody was me, since Jamie and I had laid up the issue as practice, but still, it was special.

There were three issues, inclusive of that initial one, to get done before the end of the academic year and our umbilical between Lucy and Allie was cut. I don’t recall a lot about that time, other than I introduced myself to all of the music writers, none of whom seemed to hold a visible grudge, and got to grips with the brilliant side of being a student journalist. I baggsied all of the CDs I could, wrote furiously to satisfy my lust for seeing my name in the paper, and used the internet computer in the office as long as I wanted (N.B. in 2001, this meant you could look up about four things in an afternoon).

In Leicester, there is a university hierarchy. The one I attended is the red-brick, Attenborough-endorsed scientific pioneer, and the other one is De Montfort, which at the time had only one thing of note superior, and that was its student union. Every band of student interest passed through their place, and I used to enjoy going there, particularly now I could get in for nicks. In contrast, our own student union barely hosted anybody. A friend of mine went to see Eels play the Queens’ Hall and reported back that somebody got chucked out for standing up. Don’t get me wrong, the nights out at Reagans, Mega and Bubblelove were some of the most fun I’d ever have, but the University of Leicester didn’t do gig gigs.

Then posters went up around the place to announce that Ash were coming to play there.

2001, when the world was a different place, and things called "Nightlines" seemed important.

A short diversion: I loved Ash. I saw their Top of the Pops debut when they played ‘Girl From Mars’, and the caption under Tim Wheeler read, “18 year-old Tim has just finished his A Levels”. I mean, what a brilliant thing to see when you’re three years younger than that! It can be done! So I rushed out and bought ‘Goldfinger’, the third single from their debut album. Then they released their album, 1977, and I bought that as soon as I was able after saving my pound a week pocket money. I stood outside Stars on the Walsall Road, waiting for my mates after school, talking with Tim Worwood about whether I’d got the special copy of the LP which had hidden tracks if you rewound the opener (spoiler: no). And I bought the follow-up, Nu-Clear Sounds, even though it’s not very good, and ‘Jesus Says’ was the last song I watched on MTV before going out to see my first Manics concert, when I’d overloaded on lager in the Spoonies in Wolverhampton and had to throw up in a pint pot, which stayed at my feet until Catatonia came on as support and I was thankfully pushed far enough away from the resulting slick.

In 2001, Ash were enjoying a renaissance. The immediate success as teenagers had done a number on the band and they’d fried their brains on drugs and touring, and even the addition of guitarist Charlotte Hatherley from Nightnurse couldn’t lighten the dark mood. But then Tim Wheeler had pulled a stack of songs from under his arse which were guaranteed hits: ‘Burn Baby Burn’, ‘Shining Light’, ‘Candy’, ‘There’s a Star’. The album they would tour, Free All Angels, was a cracker from start to finish, and this turn of events couldn’t have been more perfect: having been unable to see them in their ‘Oh Yeah’ pomp, I would be able to see them from the side of the stage! Probably. At least I’d get to meet them. Right?

Jamie and I commissioned a guy from Northern Ireland called Paul to write the review. As this was a big thing for our union, we were duty bound to make a big fuss and get some amazing shots of the band in action. We had the cover of the FAME section smack-bang in the middle of the paper to fill with a full-colour shot. Although this was a baptism of fire, it was also invaluable training for us, dealing with photographers and tour managers.

For reasons I can’t recall, a lot of what transpired seemed to be assumed. It was assumed we knew how to get a photography pass. It was assumed I knew how to contact the band’s manager. It was assumed I would be able to organise an interview. It was assumed I knew what our photographer, "Diamond" Dave Beavan, looked like. May 7th 2001 was a hot day, and I spent all of the afternoon running between the Ripple office and the Redfearn, where Lucy and Allie were sinking pint after pint, secure in the knowledge that their replacements were organising a brilliant year-defining spread.

Somehow, I was told where the tour manager was, and I set off through the bowels of the Percy Gee to find him. At one point I held a door open for a guy coming up the stairs, and this turned out to be Ash drummer Rick McMurray. I was too busy to be starstruck, and actually annoyed at him for being too slow.

When I got to where I needed to be, it turned out the guy was out on the balcony of the Redfearn, and was a complete twat, who treated me like shit. I understand this is not an uncommon occurrence in the entertainment business, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem a productive use of his time. But then again, tours are monotonous, I’d imagine. There was no question that I would be meeting the band, getting close or hanging around backstage. In fact, my presence seemed to be anathema, and as he stood there in his Lupine Howl t-shirt, holding out a photo pass, he barked three simple instructions: “No flash. One person. Three songs only.”

I went home to get ready, armed with nothing but this photo pass and a mobile number for Dave, who I’d still not met. I phoned his number over and over again but got nothing but mailbox, and so starting to panic I left for the gig, hoping that he’d be waiting outside the entrance.

I walked up to the bouncers and asked them if anybody had asked after me, and when I was told no, did the only thing I could think to do: walk up and down the lengthy queue along University Road calling out for Dave Beavan and hoping he raised a tripod. At some point, I must have said something about the pass, because a guy replied, ‘I’m Dave.’ The relief was tremendous, and as I strode with him towards the door, I started babbling about what a big night this was going to be and how grateful I was he was doing it. I guess the guy got an attack of conscience, because he then admitted he wasn’t Dave and was just looking to get into the gig for free.

So there I was, having the fifth of nine cardiac arrests that day, waiting for a miracle. He walked up, with a camera bag, and apologised for his phone being out of charge.

The gig preparations were well advanced in the main union hall, huge speakers on the stage and a backdrop. I thought, this is all under control, Dave has his pass and now it’s time for a little drink. So I went and ordered a triple Jack Daniels and coke. I don’t drink spirits, but recognised when they only cost a pound each you’d be a fool not to. I had one and then another, and the hall still was only a quarter full.

Things then start to go murky. For some reason my pre-gig preparations involved having to cross the hall through the audience repeatedly to fight some obscure fire. I’ve racked my brain since to work out how complicated it could be to get a writer and a photographer into a gig at my own union, but I’ve honestly got nothing. What I do remember is that I thought if people knew I was important, they would get out of my way, so I hit on the idea of pretending I was from the NME. Again and again, I would cry, “NME! Move aside please,” like I was a paramedic on the way to raise music from its death throes. Of course, I would reward myself with another Jack ‘n coke on each pass.

Snow Patrol, then a third-division on-their-arse bunch of chancers, supported without impact on me. By the time the gig was due to start, I was definitely on the left side of the stage, as I could see through to the backstage area, where Hatherley held up proceedings because she was smoking the longest joint I’ve seen in my life. And then I saw them coming towards me, one of the great bands of my youth, in a literal and metaphorical blur. I saw a flash of something red atop McMurray’s head; I reached out and grabbed it, then ran back into the audience.

Now on the right of the audience, no doubt pretending to be from the MN8, I heard Wheeler bellow, “hello, Lychester!” before I started jumping up and down like a madman. I wasn’t so much three sheets to the wind as tissue in a Category Five, as the tension and the booze sprang out of me in a frenzy of hooting and punk pogoing. Nobody came near me, as I was the drunk guy at the gig, and wearing a plastic fez to boot.

At some point Jamie discovered me, dancing with a pillar, proclaiming what a legend I was for my grand theft millinery. As for the concert, I recall nothing other than they began with ‘Burn Baby Burn’, and it passed far too quickly for an event which had occupied every atom of my being for the past sixteen hours. When it was over, I fled into the night, leaving my fez somewhere in Victoria Park.

The gig, and the review, was a triumph. The photos were amazing, Diamond Dave doing a superlative job. The cover of FAME was a shot of Tim Wheeler, legs akimbo with a low-slung Flying V hitting the reader right in the face. That was the first big journalistic test, and somehow I’d passed, even though I’m not quite sure how. In all of my time on the Ripple, at every editorial meeting, that photo loomed above the iMac, completely glorious and a reminder that yes, you do belong here. You can make this work.

Unfortunately, I have lost my copy of that paper, because of a house fire a couple of years after the Ash gig itself. Resisting the temptation to link the two for a cheap gag, I’ll confess that I don’t think it was burnt, because I have two copies of every single paper I edited, which smell of smoke, but I don’t have that one, and I wonder whether I took it for granted that I picked one up.

However, the one thing I definitely didn’t have was the thing which led me here: a ticket to see Ash on 7th May 2001. I didn’t need one, because I was a music editor. Not for NME but, I guess, just for me.

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