What I said back then:
The first of the Edinburgh memories – it’ll be interesting to see if they are more numerous than the four years would warrant. The Chambers Street Union was – apparently it’s empty now – a labyrinthine place, with the main bar two floors below ground level. Thanks to Edinburgh’s interesting topography, of course, there was a door in the bar which opened onto the Cowgate [Guthrie Street – ed.] at the back. Sometime in late 1982 or early 1983, I was asked if I wanted a ticket to see this new band who ‘sound a bit like Genesis’ at Chambers Street. I’m pretty sure that I had vaguely heard of them, but the ‘Genesis’ thing put me off, and I declined. Eventually, of course, I was persuaded (‘they’re not that much like Genesis, honest’) to go, and I think it was partly the curiosity value which persuaded me: how did they intend to put a band on in there?
The answer proved to be ‘move some tables and chairs out of the way, and let them play’. The band gathered in a corner; the audience gathered around the bar,some people continued to play pool at the tables in the back, out of sight of the band, and this enormous, face-painted frontman strode in from the front door and launched into ‘Garden Party’. This will be Fish, then, I mused. Stupid name. Gradually, however, Fish and his companions won me over: here was a band on the brink of breaking through, doing a gig probably set up by a friend of a friend for a favour in a cramped basement to an audience of about 50, and they gave it their all. The full theatrical experience, the best sound they could muster, and several encores – I think they played ‘Supper’s Ready’ at one point, but I forgave them. Six months later, they’re in the charts, on ‘Top of the Pops’, and selling out good sized venues. It’s really my only ‘before they were famous’ story, and I mostly remember it for the sheer oddness of the whole thing.
What I think now:
Again out of the original order, so not the first Edinburgh one, but it remains quite a vivid memory – I checked the date, it was April 1982, and apparently the gig was in doubt because one of them had dislocated a shoulder a couple of nights before. Can’t say I noticed.
I only ever saw a couple of student union gigs – I think the whole thing was a little unfashionable around that time – certainly there were other small venues in Edinburgh for bands to play in, and the Odeon and then the Playhouse once you had graduated to facilities with a proper stage and everything. It seems strange in retrospect that there really weren’t, and to a degree, still aren’t, custom built venues for rock concerts. Virtually every gig I saw until the early 1990s was in a converted (or indeed, still in use) cinema, a tradition which had started with the revue shows in the fifties. Did no-one think that this would last long enough to make a proper venue worthwhile?
The Odeon was reasonably atmospheric, I suppose, although I always thought the Playhouse too big – the inevitable crush to the front when the headline act came on left the back third of the seats empty, which I remember gave the place a strange acoustic – or maybe it always sounded like that.
And the less said about the Ingliston cowshed the better – I’m certain it comes up a bit later, but it truly was a horrible place to see a band.
The Chambers Street Union bar wasn’t really a venue, and neither was the Bristo Square Health Centre, where I saw Uriah Heep and (I think) The Blues Band – I actually have trouble picturing how that worked – the health centre was next door to the Potterrow union building, but there was nowhere in that bar to put a band on, so things happened in what I dimly recall to have been the refectory during the day. All I know is that there was no space to turn round, and you were awfully close to the action – I’m pretty sure I’ve been sweated on by a pre-Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson, back in the days when he was known as ‘Bruce Bruce’
Well, I had a brief Marillion phase, as did much of the UK, then they faded from my memory like so much else that happened in Edinburgh. Oh, and they really didn’t play ‘Supper’s Ready; I imagine I heard ‘Grendel’.
When I was there in May, I saw for myself that the Chambers Street building is no longer a union, or indeed a bar, although I’m not sure what it actually is now, and I peered quizzically at the Potterrow building and the Health Centre, which appears to have a convenience store in it now. I still have no idea how they put bands on in there, but I can still taste the refectory macaroni.
Not necessarily a good thing.