Having carefully whipped up a minor furore with their “buzzsaw pop” and fun-sized live shows, Scotland’s premier Scuzzadelic oiks found themselves at the centre of - eek! - a real-life breach of public order. John Harris rounds up the culprits and gets some feedback.
Neil Taylor (NME writer and first journalistic JAMC champion): The article about what happened at North London Poly was the second or third piece on the Mary Chain that I’d done in a week. I’d done a review of the show at the Three Johns pub in Islington - there were 20 people there, and a week later 200 were claiming to have gone. The piece caused quit a sensation for the band: I said they were the most exciting group I’d seen since Joy Division. I’d spent the last three years writing about English pop groups who were influenced by ideas that had this cuddly DIY outlook - The Wedding Present, Shop Assistants, BMX Bandits - and then along came this band who had a real Fuck You attitude. You could tell the potential was larger.
Jim Reid (JAMC vocalist): People were waiting for something to react to. There was nothing around at the time: the early ’80s was probably the lowest point in musical history. People wanted a bit of nastiness, trashiness. We kind of knew what we were up to. Some people were going to see what we were doing as genius, and some people were going to see it as an insult. Even at some of the early gigs, violence broke out. There were always people who were outraged by what we were trying to pass off as music. But North London Poly was different. It was on another scale. We were quite shocked.
Alan McGee (Creation Records head honcho, then also Mary Chain manager): You’ve got to see it in context. Gigs now are not a threatening experience, but gigs in the mid-’80s - because it was just after punk - had this kind of football element. Once you crossed the boundaries of good taste, it just seemed to appear.
Neil Taylor: What happened at North London Poly was a result of what happened at the Fire Station on the Old Kent Road - which was packed - and that was a result of what happened at the Three Johns. At the Fire Station, people were complaining that the band wouldn’t talk to the audience or that they’d only played for 15 minutes. At the same time, their popularity was building - so by the time they got to North London Poly, it was quite a volatile combination. Some people actually wanted to be abused, everyone wanted to know more about it, and it just flared up.
Alan McGee: Meat Whiplash went on first. Halfway through the set, Stevie, the guitar player, threw a wine bottle into the audience. He was a nutter. Somebody got on stage to belt him, but he and the rest of the band ran away, except for Eddie Connolly, the bass player. So he got socked. The next band on was the Jasmine Minks, and they went on carrying clawhammers. They wanted people to see they were tooled up. I said, “What the fuck are you doing?” and they said, “If it goes off, it goes off.” So the audience had a bottle thrown at them, the second band went on with hammers… is it any wonder it all went off?
Jim Reid: We were watching what was going on from backstage. It was obvious that a bunch of people had come to cause trouble. There were a gang of people who were up for a ruck: probably people who’d read about the gig at the Three Johns. We’d heard there were people in the crowd with baseball bats. And there wasn’t any security! People could get on the stage if they wanted - and there were people out there with weapons! They could just get up and pound your head in. Everyone was very uptight.
Neil Spencer: I turned up with my girlfriend, just in time to see the Jasmine Minks. I was anticipating enormous problems with the audience - they crammed in all these people, and they weren’t prepared for it. There was no security, no system in place to take care of what was likely to happen. It got out of control partly because of the dialogue going to and from the stage: people shouting about whether they actually were the “best band in seven years”, which was a comment I’d made in my review, responding to Jim Reid’s attitude, people shouting “Rubbish!”, pushing and shoving.
Jim Reid: I’d had enough beers to feel kind of numbed. It was definitely Dutch courage. I could see the people who’d come to cause trouble right in front of me, making gestures, saying they were going to rip my head off. I was too drunk to be scared. We played for 15 or 20 minutes, and then it was just chaos.
Joe Foster (early JAMC producer, soundman, guitar tech): There were some guys at the front of the stage who pulled Jim into the crowd, with the basic intention of ending his career as a singer. I dived off stage, slapped a couple of them and jumped back up. But the college security guys wouldn’t let us back up. It was like they wanted us to die!
Neil Spencer: They came on. Two and a half minutes of feedback, general abuse. They started to perform, and a fight developed. They went off stage, came back on stage, the equipment got pushed off, and the police were completely incompetent. It was impossible for them to deal with it. There was no animosity towards them: they were just caught in the middle, with their helmets falling off.
Joe Foster: Someone knocked a PA stack over and it all went downhill. It seemed to last forever. I remember going out front, finding all these student girlies hurling speakers at each other.
Jim Reid: I think it was Pete Astor (of the Weather Prophets) who told me that there were all these Japanese girls at the back, pulling at the curtain, shouting, “Liot! Liot!”
Neil Taylor: I did actually get thumped. One person came up to me and hit me, for having partially created all of it. It wasn’t Chris Eubank territory, but it was a punch. I got out of there pretty quickly.
Jim Reid: After we came off, we were in our dressing room, and we heard all this pounding on a door down the corridor. It was an angry mob banging on a cupboard door, thinking it was our dressing room! I remember peeking out of the door, watching these people shouting, “Get the bastards! Get the bastards!” I don’t know what their problem was: maybe we played too short, maybe we went on late… maybe people had been listening to all this crap music for too long.
Neil Taylor: I wrote the story. I phoned up the NME and said, “Hold pages two and three!” It was a news piece, a double page spread. Very factual. And it was great for them, because suddenly everyone was after them. They went from calling me up and coming down on the coach to having record companies fly them up and down.
Joe Foster: It was after that gig that the whole riot thing seemed to take off to an incredible extent. And it made us feel that we were right to be kicking against all this crap: people saying, Ooh, Boy George is a great singer, and all that sickly stuff. You know, 2,000 rioting maniacs can’t be wrong…
Alan McGee: Once it went off, it was out of control. People say I hired people to start it, which is absolute rubbish. I wasn’t trying to have a riot; I was 24 years old and I thought I was Malcolm McLaren. I was just having a laugh. But it changed me. Up until then, it had all been quite voyeuristic: cranking it up, seeing what happened. When it actually did go off, it was horrible.
This all relates to the whole Blur/Oasis thing, actually. You know they were going to do gigs in Bournemouth on the same day? I said to Noel, “This is a very dangerous thing. I’ve been through this shit with the Mary Chain”. The minute you start doing Blur v. Oasis in Bournemouth, you’ll get football fans coming along for the fight.
Jim Reid: We played the Electric Ballroom in Camden a few weeks later, and that’s when it all got to be a bad joke. I think at the beginning it happened for the right reasons. It was sort of spontaneous, even though trouble was expected. By the time we played there, people were coming with copies of the NME under their arm, looking at the photos of North London Poly, like, “This is how you do it…” It took a while to get away from it. We’d keep walking on stage and being met with a shower of bottles.
Funnily enough, I got beaten up about three weeks after it, by people who said they’d been there. Four or five guys beat the shit out of me at a Nick Cave gig, saying, “and if we ever see your drummer again…”
Alan McGee: The Mary Chain used to regularly get their heads kicked in at that time. Them and The Birthday Party just brought out the violence in people.
Neil Taylor: Was it a riot? The weekly papers referred to it as a riot, but if you go back to my piece, it’s only the headline that has the word in it. But, you know, I’d say 40 people fighting is getting there. It wasn’t aggression against law and order, which is what you’d usually expect a riot to be; and there wasn’t that much aggression against the band: it was just something that was brought out in people by the very nature of the experience. It was all fantastically exciting.