7. Test Dept, Hackney Empire, 23/1/87
We’d come down to London to go to a Julian Cope gig in Westminster but it was sold out (perhaps unsurprisingly as it was around the time of “World Shut Your Mouth”, his big chart hit). Tentative attempts were made to chat up some girls outside the venue, with the usual lack of results. I’d scanned the NME gig listings for a back-up option and managed to persuade my partner in crime to head out into the badlands of Hackney to see Test Dept.
We got the tube to Bethnal Green and walked up Mare Street not knowing what the fuck we were doing. It was the first time I’d ever been to Hackney.
Peter Rehberg (now of Mego, KTL etc) was in the year above me at school and had been slowly warping my mind with cassettes of Some Bizzare acts like Foetus and Psychic TV.
Test Dept featured on the Some Bizzare compilation “If you can’t please yourself you can’t please your soul” – an incredibly visceral tour de force of pulsing metal percussion and shouting. I’d read up on them in the NME and found out about their politics (slightly left of “old Labour” I guess, with lot of support for the Miners’ Strike and righteous scorn for Tory rule).
1986’s “Unacceptable Face of Freedom” LP alternated between propulsive rage and brooding hatred of the effects of Thatcherism. The incredible paranoia of the media at the time is captured especially well by a host of news samples and a general air of cold war dread. There is also some powerful spoken word provided by Alan Sutcliffe, a former miner (who was also onstage at the gig). And it’s easy to forget how funky Test Dept were alongside their anger. The cover was a vast foldout thing with photos of sculptures by Malcolm Poynter (the image above is composed of melted plastic soldiers, for example).
I’d been listening to this kind of post-industrial stuff a lot, alongside more middlebrow rock and pop records. I was reading everything I could as well – books like Tape Delay and RE/SEARCH. But I’d never experienced it live – the gigs either came at the wrong time or I couldn’t persuade people to go with me.
Of course, this was no ordinary event:
Siege of Wapping
Ministry of Power benefit on the first anniversary of the Printworkers’ Strike
With Alan Sutcliffe; James Phillips: The Printworkers’ Choir
– Hackney Empire, London
The Wapping dispute was the next major installment in the UK class war after the defeat of the Miners. Rupert Murdoch’s News International wanted to shift operations from Fleet Street in central London to Wapping in the east. The new shiny plant went hand in hand with new shiny proposed conditions for the workforce, including a “no strike” deal, job losses and “flexible working” (i.e. changeable hours at the bosses’ request). The unions weren’t having it – years of negotiations came to nothing. So a strike was called in early 1986.
The strikers were all sacked. Pickets clashed with the police. Local residents complained of police violence and being prevented from going home. Behind the heavily fortified walls and barbed wire fences of “fortress Wapping”, the presses rolled on and the newspapers continued to be produced. By scabs.
Samantha Fox famously rode through the picket line on a tank as part of an anti-strike story for The Sun. The government backed News International to the hilt.
We didn’t really know any of this when we trudged up Mare Street, trying determinedly to look like we knew where we were going.
My parents are both Church of England Tories (in that order) so that’s where my political evolution began. I was only vaguely aware of things like the Brixton riots and the Miners’ strike at the time. I daresay I held fairly reactionary views about all that, passed down from my elders.
But I was anti-racist from an early age. I remember being 11 and sitting down next to three boys in the school canteen and them asking me to join the youth wing of the National Front. Their ringleader had even memorised the key points in the manifesto. I wasn’t up for it. On another occasion I stood next to two of my mates – one of whom was Jewish, the other Malaysian, whilst two dozen of our classmates sieg heiled frenziedly around the gym changing room.
These sorts of things lead me into the fringes of the anti-apartheid movement. I figured it was obvious that if racism was wrong, then a nation run along racist lines was also wrong. Around the time of this gig I occasionally walked to school with a guy called Farasat who was Muslim. We had all sorts of mad discussions about religion and Palestine. I knew fuck all about Palestine. But we agreed on apartheid and he’d been involved with protests outside the local branch of Barclays Bank (who had been identified as key supporters of the regime). I tagged along. It was OK. I closed down my bank account there whilst wearing a “Free Nelson Mandela” sticker. The woman behind the counter looked a bit worried. The protests became a semi-regular thing for me on Saturday mornings.
I was photographed on one Barclays picket by the local newspaper. Someone who was a few years younger than me at school said he’d seen me in the paper and his parents thought it was a great thing to do and they supported it all.
In contrast, my parents went batshit mental about it over the dinner table. In their eyes Nelson Mandela was a terrorist – imprisoned for blowing up railway lines, the people on those protests were weirdos, communists etc. Unfortunately they weren’t nearly weird or communist enough for me. With the exception of a couple of anarchopunks, my fellow protestors were also schoolkids or liberal types, Christians and the odd socialist worker.
I hadn’t consciously set out to piss my parents off, it was just the consequence of thinking things through. Which continued, along with the rows. I don’t think I discussed Wapping with them. These days we agree to differ on many things but can have civilised discussions about things like the MPs expense scandal. I suppose they were worried about me falling in with the wrong people. I didn’t. For reasons which are still unclear (but I assume were to do with humiliating me in later life), my Mum ordered a print of the photo from the local paper – I look very young and awkward. I am wearing massive wire-rimmed spectacles and holding a placard.
So, anyway. This was half gig, half rally. If I remember correctly there were speakers and possibly some poets. I don’t recall any of it being hackneyed (if you will forgive the expression) or embarrassing. Perhaps this is because I was still only sweet 17, or perhaps it was actually very good. The Hackney Empire was incredibly atmospheric. We got cheap seats right at the top and looked down at this beautiful old music hall filled to the brim with freaks and lefties. It confirmed the impression of Hackney I had gleaned from reading Vague magazine – an oasis of radicalism and strangeness. If only.
In any case, we were there for the noise, not the politics. When Test Dept came on it was like a blast from another planet. Like the records but more intense, more dynamic, more urgent. I was blown away at the time, but can’t remember too much about it now, except being thrilled to see things onstage which weren’t guitar/bass/drums. Instead there were bits of metal, bagpipes, other stuff which was unidentifiable. Sure it was loud, but never oppressive or painful.
The day after the gig several policemen were filmed at Wapping brutally attacking strikers, journalists and even first aid workers. The dispute ended a fortnight later, an abject defeat for the strikers.
Check out this very good introduction to the strike over at Libcom.
There was a lot of sympathy and support for the miners, the printworkers and the ambulance drivers (who went on strike a few years later). By 1989 I was living in London and ended up in a pub in Bethnal Green for lunch. An old guy came over as I tucked into a chilli con carne and talked about the area. He had some nice memories of the strike, including nicking bundles of News International papers from outside newsagents and throwing them in the canal.
It’s almost impossible to believe now but there was a time when vast amounts of people felt that the unions were there for them – and could make their lives better. Now that has been legislated away by successive right wing governments. Bob Crow and the tube workers are almost universally reviled for having the temerity to stand up for themselves collectively and improve their lot.
I didn’t realise how important this all was at the time. It was simply an amazing gig which also gave me a lot to think about.
One of the reasons I keep harking back to the eighties is because (in retrospect) things seemed a lot more certain then. I don’t think that was just my age at the time. In fact it seems to me that circumstances are now conspiring to make things a lot more certain once again. I take no pleasure in saying that.
8. Psychedelic Furs, Hammersmith Odeon, 19/2/87
Arguably the Furs were well past their best at this point. But the Odeon was rammed, we had good seats and pogoed away in our leather jackets. Looking nothing like the teenage punks we aspired to be. Punks didn’t get their Mums to ring up the Hammersmith Odeon and buy tickets for them, did they?
This was a good gig, they played a lot of their classic early stuff. But after Test Dept it was just more rock ‘n’ roll…