It’s a little over 22 years ago that I last set eyes on The Wonder Stuff playing live, it was on the Friday night at the 1992 Reading Festival where they headlined the ‘main stage’, well, apart from the Radio 1 stage and a Comedy Big Top, there were no other stages! Imagine that, a festival with only 3 stages, sounds rather paltry compared to the modern day offerings at Pitt Farm in Somerset with their 900 acres of land, 20,000 stages and a visiting population that rivals the headcount of New Delhi! Yep, it was a LONG time ago, I was 20 years of age, footloose and fancy free and ready to have a good time. I remember a fair bit of the show, for the life of me I cannot recall any of the setlist though I could probably have a good bash at recreating it using the ‘hits’ that were around at the time, I’ll leave that for now as it’s not a gig over 20 years ago that I am here to talk about…..
I arrived in Birmingham courtesy of the Megabus from Exeter (other bus services are widely available from other cities in the United Kingdom, it just so happened that the Megabus offered the best deal at the right time and happened to be going to Birmingham which is where I had been fortunate enough to acquire tickets to see Miles Hunt and co play one of their 4 festive dates in the lead upto Christmas 2014).
I had time to kill as a friend had decided that he was not able to sit aboard a coach for 4 hours so instead, opted to take the train from Torquay. Prior to his train arriving, I thought I’d head into the city centre and found myself perusing the racks of the local branch of Waterstones. Prior to alerting the attention of security staff (as I often do when ‘just browsing’) I thought I’d head out and catch a glimpse of the ‘German’ Christmas Market which was sprawled out across New Street, it made me smile as I don’t think there were any ‘German’ staff working any of the stalls, by the looks of it, there were attended to by a range of European countries OTHER than Germany, made me chuckle quietly to myself in a very non P.C. way…..I digress, it was when I had left Waterstones that I saw someone who looked frightfully like Miles Hunt entering the store! I had one of those ‘moments’, do I ask him if he is him and if he says yes, then what do I say? I thought long and hard (a number of nanoseconds) before doing just that, Miles stopped and said that he was indeed Miles Hunt and I introduced myself as ‘the guy who did an interview with him a couple of weeks ago’, Miles said that he remembered and we had a brief chat prior to him saying that he was trying to get his Christmas shopping done in record time and that we’d have a chat after the show that evening, I bid him a good afternoon and off we went in our separate directions…..
I met up with my friend from Torquay, went out for a few refreshing drinks and some food prior to making our way to the O2 Academy for the show in the evening.
We walked the 200 yards from our hotel to the venue to be met with hundreds of fans who looked nothing like, well, what I would consider a Wonder Stuff fan would look like, I remember what WE used to look like over 20 years ago and I can safely say that the majority would have been wearing a ‘TWS’ t-shirt, baggy trousers and a pair of beaten up DM’s or para boots, we would most certainly NOT have been wearing a Machine Head t-shirt as most of these ‘metal’ type people most certainly were…..confused? you wil be! After checking the list of events that were taking place that night, it soon became obvious that the venue was being shared, Miles and co were in the upstairs room whilst Machine Head and their bunch of metal compadres were in the main auditorium downstairs (I knew there had to be a logical explanation!).
So, after quite a stressful start to the evening, we managed to get to the box office to battle our way through the guest list with the pleasant young lady and see what comedy name had been entered instead of my normal surname that has proved well over the past 42 years! I provided a business card (with all the details you could possibly require) and waited, nope, no sign of us on the list, I asked her to check again and after a few tense seconds said that there were 2 tickets reserved for my surname but not my christian name, well, I'm called Steve so I enquired as to what name they had put on the list, she said that it wasn’t Steve…..I explained, after showing her the email from the PR company that they had taken care of everything and if there were any issues, I had the number of the tour manager, she then said that the list had ’S’ as my first name, which I mentioned may have stood for ‘Steve’ and before the penny could drop, we were in…..phew!
We ventured up 3 flights of steps (hopefully putting enough distance between Machine Head and TWS) and entered the venue, typical setup, mixing desk to the side of the stage, merch table at the back, bars to the right. We were surprised to see that they actually sold a 2 pint plastic container for people who don’t want to keep revisiting the bar but do feel the need to visit the lavvies every 15 minutes to relieve their bladders. We purchased a couple of super sized drinks and took our places 3 rows from the front to await the familiar tones of Mark Morriss (the former frontman of The Bluetones).
Mark opened his solo acoustic set with a track called ‘It’s Hard to be Good all the Time’, he mentioned that he was faced with a rather surprised looking Machine Head fan at a previous gig after he had walked into the wrong room!
‘Bluetonic’ really took you back to the early 90’s when The Bluetones were at the peak of their popularity, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ was a song penned about domestic violence, executed perfectly from the talented and super confident Morriss.
He mentioned about the previous nights gig in London being a ‘tough one’, he didn’t really elaborate on the subject, I’ll go into more detail later! ‘Consuela’ was a track that he wrote about an/his au pair, I am sure he said that she left his employment but he still managed to write her a glowing reference as he wasn’t a complete monster!
Mark was looking good, too good for my liking, despite being a whole year older than me, he was able to look about 10 years younger, I must remember to tweet him and ask for the name of the moisturiser he uses….
Other highlights from his set included ‘Space Cadet’, ‘Marblehead Johnson’ and the finale to his set which was a parody of East 17’s festive bilge ’Stay Another Day’, complete with the lyrics being altered in order to make a bit of a mockery of the whole Brian Harvey eating-a-jacket-potato-then-accidentally-falling-out-of-his-car-and-running-himself-over escapades that took place in 2005, very amusing!
I saw The Bluetones back in ‘the day’, I cannot hand on heart say I remembered that much about the show, as thoroughly entertaining as it more than likely was, back then, there was a full band offerering their wares, on this occasion, one just had Mark Morriss with his acoustic guitar, knocking out the hits that people associated with their former lives (pre children/marriage/divorce/re-marriage and anything else that came and went along the way). I for one was glad that I had the chance to see Mark and met him after his set to thank him for still being a main player on the music scene. So, back to the lavvies for a comfort break then to the bar for another 8 pint plastic pitcher of lager to imbibe during The Wonder Stuff who were due on stage shortly….
Freshly relieved and plastic glass loaded with a chilled, gassy fluid, we hustled and bustled nearer the front to get a birds eye view of Miles et al when they took to the stage. No intro music, no dramatic dimming of lights or any of that ‘showbiz’ bollocks, just 3 people, striding confidently on stage, thanking the crowd for their attendance and kicking straight into the first track ‘On The Ropes’. Miles was dressed in jeans, long sleeved top and neckerchief (and his trademark hair), Dan Donnelly was sporting what I would refer to as a Country & Western style shirt whilst Erica Nockalls stole the show with a rather splendid short white dress that sort of ruffled up at the bottom like a meringue (watch out Gok Wan, I’m coming’ for ya!)
Prior to playing ‘Cartoon Boyfriend’, Miles put Erica on the spot saying that this was one of the only tracks from The Stuffies back catalogue that she refused to learn as she didn’t like the track, this encouraged much booing from the audience and after a few seconds of awkwardness, they launched into the track with Erica in full stride, clearly having since learned every note!
What happened over the next hour and a half was nothing short of magnificent, Miles and Dan Donnelly (TWS’s latest addition to it’s line up) played acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin whilst Erica filled any gaps with her trademark fiddle skills. After about an hour, I gave up singing along, partly because I was exhausted and partly because I had lost my bloody voice (I’m not getting any younger!)
I will add that Miles was sporting his new Gretsch Falcon acoustic that he had picked up earlier that afternoon from Fair Deal Music.
We were in the store earlier that afternoon and a friend of mine saw the guitar and was honestly considering making a purchase, only to have his mind changed by the fact that he would have to lug it from the shop to the hotel and then from the hotel to the train station…all too much of a kerfuffle in order to get it back to Torquay in one piece, luckily for Miles, he didn’t!
At the end of ‘set 1’, Miles explained that he would normally leave the stage about now and wait about, maybe sneak a quick fag and come back once the noise levels had reached fever pitch with much chanting of ‘More’ and ‘Another One’. To save us having to do this, he kindly agreed to stay on stage and just roll straight into the encore. Erica left the stage and he and Dan fired through some of the early catalogue of tracks including ‘Piece of Sky’, ‘Ruby Horse’, ‘Give Give Give me More More More’ and ‘Who Wants to be the Disco King’ before ending with the classic ‘Ten Trenches Deep’ joined again by Erica on stage.
Throughout the set, Miles looked relaxed, content and proud of what he has achieved over the years and so he should do, he and the rest of TWS produced 2 of the finest albums that helped to shape my musical upbringing, I can honestly say, hand on heart that The Eight Legged Groove Machine and HUP are regulars on my playlist and also get an airing on vinyl when I have time to sit and listen properly!
After the show, Miles said on Facebook about the Birmingham show "I think that might just have been my favourite gig I have ever played in my entire life".... compared to the London show which Miles said was 'full of hipsters' and people who weren't making it very easy for him to play by constantly talking throughout their set.
After the show, the trio took to the merch table to sign autographs, meet fans, pose for ‘selfies’ and generally chat about all and sundry that the punters bought up. We hung about, spent a fortune at the merch table and were able to get a photo with Erica and Miles when the queue had died down a little, we chatted to Miles and explained how his early music had helped us to choose our musical paths, leading us to standing in the O2 Academy in Birmingham some 26 years later, chatting to one of our all time heroes.
On The Ropes
Red Berry Joy Town
Be Thy Name
Welcome to the Cheap Seats
The Size of a Cow
Here Comes Everyone
Piece of Sky
Don’t Let me Down**
Give Give Give me More More More
Ten Trenches Deep
(**Not played but on the setlist - boo hiss....)
Review by Steve Muscutt
Photography by Wicked Moments Photography
For those of you who are not aware, Miles recently released a book called ‘The Wonder Stuff Diaries 86’ - 89’ The narrative is drawn from Hunt's own personal diaries, meticulously kept as the band began its rise to fame. The book also features many previously unseen images of Miles' early life as well as array of Wonder Stuff ephemera.