Neil Smith

2 years ago · 11 min. reading time · ~100 ·

Neil blog
Darkness on the Edge of (London) Town

Darkness on the Edge of (London) Town


1984/85 was my final year of high school. I was no great student, didn’t like school and was a shy, insecure outsider. I did a sixth year because I had no idea what the hell, I was going to do with myself after school, and the traditional options had been eliminated by the Thatcher government’s remarkable economic strategy of shutting down a large chunk of British industry. I had surrendered to inertia and was now drifting through a final academic year before having to face the outside world.

The school wasn’t big, three hundred and fifty pupils drawn from the surrounding villages that made up this geographically large, but not very populous part of the Scottish Highlands. This meant that those of us who made up sixth year comprised only seventeen souls. Mostly they were destined for university afterwards but even in those long-gone days of free tuition and student grants, I wasn’t convinced that university was feasible for me financially, even if I could find anything that I wanted to study in the first place. So, I put the decision off, went with the flow and waited for something to come up. 

My timetable was as skimpy as I could make it. I had added on a few subjects to reach a respectable number of teaching hours in the week, but I and others still had a sufficiency of spare time on our hands, during the average day, for non-scholastic activity. Often this involved music. In true teenage boy fashion, some were very serious about it. Not serious in the sense of learning to play an instrument and developing a skill. Rather, serious in the sense of talking about shitey, one-hit wonders, as if they were extraordinarily important. Serious in the way we would discuss the lyrics as if they hadn’t been thrown together by the writer to fill album space and serious in the sense, that if we sounded important, then we were important. At least to ourselves.

Nowadays everyone would be pouring this slop bucket of pretentious tedium onto social media and we would be just another TikTok infestation but back then, we were all the audience we had.

There were two camps on the musical battlefield and while I quite liked bits from both I didn’t feel like either one represented the hill I would choose to die on.

On one side were the rock stars and guitar heroes. They liked AC/DC, ZZ Top, Thin Lizzy, and Dire Straits. These were the bands showcased on ‘The Friday Rock Show’ on BBC Radio One. The DJ was a cliché sack called Tommy Vance. Every week he would start the show with his catchphrase ‘TV on the radio. His real name was Richard Anthony Crispian Francis Prew Hope-Weston so you can see why he changed it. ‘RACFPHW on the radio’ would never have caught on.

On the opposing side were the pop and techno bunnies. They got excited by the likes of Bronski Beat, Ultravox, The Eurythmics, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Blancmange. Inspiration would come from the cool, edgy shows on TV like The Tube or Rapido. Top of the pops was, even then, too lame for the cultural high priests of both sides of the high-school culture war. 

Sometimes there would be groups like Talking Heads that would find favour in both camps but most stuck to their guns and the barricades were crossed only rarely.

Downstairs in the girl’s room, the music seemed to be less partisan. It was more used for entertainment and background noise rather than an excuse for pointless division and adolescent wrangling. But hey what would girls know?

I stood alone for most of this scholastic trench warfare. Not aloof or in splendid isolation, just not interested or inspired enough by what I was hearing to care that much about any of it. Some of the tunes were grand. Some of the lyrics were very interesting. Some of all of it was fine but none of it grabbed me by my adolescent balls and spoke to me about my dreams or my life. 

And then I heard a song, two songs in fact, that did exactly that. 

I used to listen to a Radio Scotland DJ called Tom Ferrie. After a stint on local radio in Glasgow, he moved to the national station and fronted a nightly music show which became extremely popular. His was the only show that covered the entire country. It walked a fine line between cheesy and sincere, and his playlists sometimes threw up oddball gems among the obvious mainstream stuff, just because he happened to like it. There were a lot of dedications and greetings but somehow that didn’t cheapen the show. People in Inverness would call in and request a shout-out or a birthday wish to their mate in Edinburgh and listeners from all over Scotland would nod along in solidarity. At a time of no internet or mobile phones, it was a little communal slice of national life. The show went out late on and I listened in bed with the volume low, recording bits of it to tapes for later, but only the music, not the chat. This meant that almost every song was bookended by the clunk of the pause button being pressed on the tape deck.

One night he played two songs from the same album back-to-back. The first was an angry rant about the mistreatment of military veterans and the second was about the frustration and loneliness of someone stuck in a rut and going nowhere. It was the first time I had ever heard Bruce Springsteen and the two songs were from ‘Born in the USA’ which was the album that took him to superstardom. The title track resonated in a way that I still can’t explain. I wasn’t American and hadn’t been involved in Vietnam in any way. A rural highland village couldn’t have been more different to industrial New Jersey but the emotions it generated and the anger at injustice left a mark. ‘Dancing in the dark’ was easier to understand. I knew lots about frustrated loners and I didn’t need to be brought up on America’s eastern seaboard to get the references. I was spellbound. Lying in bed, trying and failing to remember the lyrics. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t able to because I could remember how the music made me feel, words or no words. From out of two cheap speakers had come a sound that smacked me around the chops and compelled me to listen and to find out more. No biblical prophet ever had such an epiphany and certainly not accompanied by clashing chords and a saxophone.

There was no record store more local than the town of Inverness, which was thirty miles to the north. Online shopping, indeed, online, hadn’t been invented yet so I had to wait until the weekend and take the bus to town. In the ‘Record rendezvous’ I bought ‘Born in the USA’ on cassette and wandered off around the shops with it looping on my Walkman. Waiting for the bus home I sat and read the lyrics. Then I read them again while listening to the songs. Then I just listened to the songs again. Best day in Inverness ever. 

Springsteen wasn’t popular with anyone at school. The techno dudes didn’t like him because he was too guitarry, wore jeans, and did without make-up. The rock heroes didn’t like him because he used synthesizers and wasn’t likely to die of inhaling his own vomit after a mad night with four groupies and a kilo of smack. Also, their dads liked him, so that was the kiss of death. Nobody in either camp thought he was at all cool. I didn’t care. I had my soundtrack and was happy to go my own way and life continued in its usual, dull, routine.

Until the day of the temptation.

It was January 1985. I was back in Inverness and back in the record shop with some tokens to spend from Christmas. I was taking my time, mooching around, reading a few album covers, and doing a passable imitation of cool. As I was leaving, I passed a list of upcoming concerts posted at the side of the door and caught sight of Springsteen’s name about halfway down. I stopped to read but apart from the venue, Wembley Stadium, there was no other information. I went back and asked at the counter, but the woman didn’t know any more than me so went to get the manager. It turned out that the concert was in the summertime, and they didn’t have tickets yet but could call me when they arrived. Not wanting my parents to hear about this at all I said that we didn’t have a phone, which was entirely plausible in the 1980s and I would call back another time. 

Over the next few weeks, the idea of going to London for a concert was considered and considered again. It all seemed a bit beyond my budget. a bit beyond my experience, and a bit beyond my capability but the idea wouldn’t go away and eventually, I found myself back in the shop asking how much the tickets for the Bruce Springsteen concert cost (please). Less than twenty quid was the answer and, amazingly I could use my record tokens as part payment. I ended up shelling out about a fiver in actual cash and most of the cost was unwittingly covered by various relatives. I took my delightfully contraband ticket home, hid it in a book and carried on outwardly at least, as normal.

I planned originally to travel by train or bus but scrapped the idea. Taking either meant there was a high chance of being seen getting on and I had no good reason to be on any overnight transport to London. If I wanted to avoid awkward questions later, my departure had to be unknown and unseen. This had to be a trip that nobody, not my parents, not my friends, ever heard about. There was zero chance of getting permission to head off down south to see some yobbo they had never heard of therefore there was no point in asking. This could only work as a solo excursion. I was and am a huge believer in the idea that telling one person is the same as telling everyone, so I kept quiet, as what few preparations there were, got made.

The weather turned warmer, the end of school beckoned and then came my day of reckoning. I could knuckle down for the final instalment of academic learning and exams or I could head south to a land full of trouble and temptation to view a tiny figure on a distant stage as he sang songs I barely knew. No contest.

Having told my parents that I was staying at a friend’s house I left school and walked the three miles from Kingussie through the neighbouring village of Newtonmore and out the other side to the main road south. I walked along the A9 in the beautiful, highland evening with my thumb out and a schoolbag on my shoulder. Apart from textbooks, this held a toothbrush and a change of clothes. Three lifts got me to Glasgow and a long walk out to the south side of the city, whereupon the night passed in a blur of vehicles, small talk and motorway services. 

The waits between lifts seemed an eternity and the journeys never went far enough or fast enough. I always worried that hitching would be difficult, and I would arrive too late or end up nowhere near London. Relentlessly though, the time and the miles went past until, sometime before seven in the morning, I was dropped at Heathrow airport, and I damn near knelt and kissed the tarmac. 

In the terminal building, I had a wash-up and changed into fresh clothes before sitting down and having breakfast. I can remember the dark green Rucanor, schoolbag I carried as clearly as if it was sitting in front of me right now. I vividly remember the elation as I climbed down from the truck cab and took in the hazy Heathrow morning, but breakfast itself was a complete blank. There would though certainly have been tea. 

I took my time now. There was all day to get to the venue and a London Travelcard was cheap after the rush hour passed, so I took a while to rest and take in the events of the night before.  I had done it. Somehow, I had reached London in one piece and unmolested, unmurdered. Now that it was successfully over the trip had ultimately, been pretty straightforward. There were a few miles walked getting out to the south side of Glasgow, but I was used to walking and it had been easy to get a lift once I reached the M74. The M6 through the heart of England was, to me, incredibly busy even in the middle of the night. Were English service stations ever empty? People swarmed across them no matter the hour. The rising of the sun, heralding an ideal summer’s day as London neared, topped off this amazing travel experience perfectly. 

The underground took me to the city centre, and I spent a few hours exploring. Strolling around some of the sights of the city and stopping frequently for tea, food, and rest. I dozed on a bench for a while with my schoolbag as a pillow and let the pleasant day pass until the afternoon came, and it was time to ride my one-day-travelcard North to Wembley. 

The scheduled start was at six O’ clock but, I was on-site and ready along with about a million other fans, much earlier. Once inside, I squirmed close to the front as possible to get the best view of the stage.  Initially, I was able to sit on the pitch and sprawl but as time ticked away the crowd got tighter, and I stood up. It was a strange feeling to be alone in such a sea of people. The size of the crowd was unlike any gathering I had previously been a part of. It brought a realisation that ‘Alone’ wasn’t the same as ‘no one else being around’ which, frankly, was a bit too philosophical for a rock concert.

Disconcertingly, when Springsteen walked on stage everybody around me started booing. Why would they do this? Why did they pay to hate the singer? It took a moment before I belatedly, realised that they were shouting ‘Bruuuuuuce!’ and it just sounded like boooo! to my newbie ears. Once that moment passed, I settled down, listened, and watched. 

It quickly became clear that Springsteen was more than just ‘Born in the USA’.  Although those songs got a great reception so did loads of others that I had never heard before. The crowd danced, jumped, and sang along. The feeling of belonging, of being a part of this bubbling, musical crucible, was euphoric. I couldn’t follow all the lyrics, I didn’t know the band, and the singalong choruses were new to me but none of that mattered. I stood, soaking it all up, and at that moment, I was lost forever.

The energy on stage never flagged. They clearly, set out to provide not just a concert, but a SHOW. Songs were introduced with stories, band members had their moment in the spotlight, and the sense of theatre was inescapable. This was an artist who knew that the crowd had coughed up their money and wanted relief from the humdrum banality of life, to be treated to something special. They gave it socks, working every moment, and doing their damndest to add the excitement and stardust we craved. The downside of this virginal, concert experience was that it spoiled me for lots of future gigs, as I was now under the impression that a three-hour emotional rollercoaster of dark emotion and high-energy bombast was the norm for a concert. 

Eventually, under a dark, North London sky, it all ended. The final encore ceased, and the cheers died away. We shuffled out to buses, cars, trains, or whatever transport was arranged. I caught a bus toward Edgeware, which I had identified on my ‘Bartholomew Road map of Britain’, as being a good option for handy access to the motorway north. 

The journey home to Scotland was uneventful. The tension of the outward trip had been replaced by an exhausted satisfaction. Something had happened that could never unhappen. I had experienced a thing that couldn’t be taken away or diminished, and I felt glorious. Tired but definitely, glorious. The M6 motorway was as busy as on the way down and the service stations were as swarming with humanity as before, but the novelty had worn off now and I was harder to impress than I had been a whole day earlier. My final lift took me from the Granada Services at Stirling to Kingussie, where I climbed down from the road and strolled the last half mile to the village. I was back, and back in time for school even. Sod! I wandered into the playground and normal settled on my shoulders like a cloak, but only on the outside. Inside I was all about guitars, saxophones, and bellowed choruses.

I hadn’t been missed on the previous day and no explanation for my absence was demanded. Probably the machinery of school was also counting down the days and weeks to decanting another group of students out onto the streets but for whatever reason, no one noticed, and no one cared which was perfect given that I was way too tired by this stage to even try to fabricate any sort of coherent story.

And that was that. 

I kept it quiet from friends and family because I didn’t want any hassle. As the years went by it stayed quiet because there seemed no reason to bother mentioning it and once lots of years went by, I still said nothing because saying nothing had become a habit. Now that lots more years have gone by, I’m writing about it because I’m in my fifties and safe from wrath both parental and scholastic. I am though, still proud of myself for keeping it a secret for over thirty-five years.

I’ve been to a lot more Springsteen gigs since that first one, and I’ve never had to sneak out to get there. The ticket price has changed since nineteen eighty-five, but he is still good value at any price. Following the concert, I bought another couple of albums, namely Born to Run, and Nebraska. When I bought the latter the shop assistant remarked that it was completely different to his other stuff, and I was terrified that it would be crap and spoil my enjoyment completely. I put it aside for a bit and ended up, somehow, not listening to Nebraska for seven years. By the time I got around to putting it in the tape player, I owned about eight albums, and I would have listened to Bruce Springsteen reciting the phone book. Nebraska was, of course, brilliant and I learned the very important lesson that ‘different’ and ‘bad’ aren’t the same thing. 

It would be lovely to say that I have taken on board several important life lessons from this escapade that have been the foundation of my incredible business and personal success. Real life, however, isn’t as convenient as a fairy tale, or an inspirational social media post. I have probably blundered through the same stuff I would have blundered through if it had never happened, and the only positive is that at least I have had a decent soundtrack as I did so.

God help me, it could have been Blancmange.

Hhyb6.jpeg Music

Ken Boddie

2 years ago #8

Neil Smith

2 years ago #7

Ken Boddie

2 years ago #6

I fondly remember the days of hitchhiking, Neil, when a student in Aberdeen, but never had the balls to hitch to London. That took some guts in your school days. My first and only concert at Wembley Stadium was to see the Eagles and Elton John, but I was working and living in London then. Interesting how a lad from Kingussie would be such a fan of the Boss, back in the day. 

Neil Smith

2 years ago #4

Great story @Neil Smith

Neil Smith

2 years ago #2

Pascal Derrien

2 years ago #1

Thats a pretty cool write up I have never seen Springsteen but read his book who is fantastic. My first gig was Gary Moore supported by Mama/s Boys in Paris (already the Irish influence hey)

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