Neil Smith

4 weeks ago · 12 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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Darkness on the Edge of (London) Town

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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 obvious traditional options had been eliminated by the Thatcher government’s remarkable economic strategy of shutting down everything except estate agents and investment brokers. 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 took it very seriously. Not serious in the sense of learning to play an instrument and develop a skill but more in the sense of talking about shitey one hit wonders as if they were extra-ordinarily 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 obviously were important. At least to ourselves. Nowadays everyone would be pouring this slop bucket of pretentious crap into social media and we would be just another TikTok infestation but back then, we were all the audience we had.

There were basically two camps on the musical battlefield and while I quite liked bits from both I didn’t really feel like either one represented the hill on which I would choose to die. On one side were the rock stars and guitar heroes. They liked AC/DC, Genesis (Gabriel era, obviously), 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 big sack of clichés called Tommy Vance and every week he would start the show with his catchphrase ‘TV on the radio.. His actual name was Richard Anthony Crispian Francis Prew Hope-Weston so you can see why he changed it. Apart from anything else that tagline wouldn’t really work if it was ‘RACFPHW on the radio’.

 The opposing side were the pop and techno bunnies who were more 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 sixth-year culture wars.

Sometimes there would be groups like Talking Heads that would find favour in both camps but mostly people stuck to their guns and were blind to the possibility that the other lot were anything other than delusional imbeciles. 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 so much aloof or in splendid isolation; just not interested enough or inspired enough by what I was hearing to care 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 the balls and spoke to me about my dreams or my world. 

And then I heard a song, or two songs even that did just that. 

I used to listen to a show on radio Scotland presented by Tom Ferrie. He was one of those guys who clearly enjoyed what he did for a living and after graduating from local radio in Glasgow moved to Radio Scotland to front a nightly music show which grew to become extremely popular. At the time his was the only show in Scotland that covered the entire country. He managed to walk a fine line between cheesy and sincere and his playlists sometimes threw up oddball gems in among the obvious mainstream stuff just because he happened to like it. There seemed to be an awful 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 quiet solidarity. At a time of no internet or mobile phones it was like listening into a slice of someone else’s life. The show went out late on and I often listened in bed with the volume low. Sometimes I would record bits of it to tapes for when I went out on a long bike ride 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 political 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 especially the anger at injustice really 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 the dark trying and failing to remember the lyrics and melodies. It didn’t matter though that I wasn’t able to, because I could definitely 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 not only to listen but to find out more. No biblical prophet ever had such an epiphany and certainly not accompanied by clashing synth chords and a sax.

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 got the tape I wanted and wandered off round 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 albeit the bar for that was set quite low. Springsteen wasn’t popular with anyone at school. The techno dudes didn’t like him because he was guitarry and wore jeans and no make-up. The rock heroes didn’t like him because he was using 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 that. 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 on in its usual normal, boring routine.

Until the day of the temptation.

It was early 1985 and I was back in Inverness and back in the record shop. I had some tokens to spend from Christmas and was taking my time, mooching around, reading a few covers and doing a passable imitation of cool. As I was leaving, having decided to save my money for another day I passed a list of upcoming concerts posted at the side of the door and caught sight of Bruce 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 expected some soon and 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 long held, 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 with ordinary life, outwardly at least. 

I planned originally to take the 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 then my departure had to be unknown and unseen. This had to be a trip that my parents never heard about. There was zero chance of getting permission to head off down south to see some yobbo they had never heard of therefore no one could know of it. This excursion was going to be entirely solo and nobody in my circle of friends was told. I was and am a huge believer in the idea that telling one person is the same as making an announcement on the evening news. So, I said nothing to no one as what few preparations there were got made.

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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 obviously.

Having told my parents that I was staying at a friend’s house I walked the three miles from Kingussie through the neighbouring village of Newtonmore and out the other side to the main road south. I strolled along the A9 in the beautiful highland evening with my thumb out and a holdall on my shoulder. The bag contained a load of text books, a toothbrush and a change of clothes. Three lifts got me to Glasgow and another walk out of town 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 not even getting close to London but, relentlessly, 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 down and kissed the pavement. In the terminal building I had a wash up and changed into fresh clothes before sitting down and having breakfast somewhere in the terminal. Oddly, 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 I have absolutely no idea where or what I ate but it would certainly have involved tea. I took my time now. There was all day to get to the venue and a travelcard cost buttons 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; reached London in one piece, unmolested and unmurdered. Now that it was successfully over the trip had ultimately, been pretty straightforward. There were a few miles walked getting out to the southside 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 summers 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 for a pillow and let the pleasant day pass until the afternoon came and it was time to ride my one-day travelcard all the way to Wembley. 

The scheduled start was 7.30pm but I and about a million other fans were on site and ready before five. On getting inside I just tried to get as close to the front as possible and get a good 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 to keep my place and not get trampled. 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 metaphysical for a rock concert.

Disconcertingly, when Springsteen walked on stage everybody around me started booing. Why would so many pay for a gig just to hate the singer? And then 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 as the night unfolded. It quickly became clear that Springsteen was more than just the ‘Born in the USA’ album.  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 and the feeling of being a part of it was euphoric, even if I couldn’t follow all the lyrics. The energy on stage was matched off and the night went on and on. The band and lead man clearly set out to provide not just a concert, but a SHOW. Songs were introduced with stories, band members showed off their skills with their moment in the spotlight and the sense of theatre was inescapable. This was a group of artists who knew that the crowd had coughed up their money and wanted a major diversion from the banality of ordinary life; wanted 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. In fact, this opening experience spoiled me for lots of future gigs as I was now under the impression that every singer took their job this seriously and that a three hour plus rollercoaster of dark emotion and high energy bombast was the norm for a concert, although much later, when I was taken to a Sade gig by a then girlfriend, I wasn’t unhappy at getting out in under sixty minutes. 

Eventually, under a dark sky it all ended. The last encores ceased and the cheers died away. We shuffled out to buses, cars, trains or whatever transport was arranged. I started the walk toward Edgeware, which I had identified on my ‘Bartholomew’s road map of Britain’ as being a good option for a handy slip road onto the motorway north. The journey back was uneventful. The tension of the outward trip had been replaced by an exhausted satisfaction. Something had happened that could never unhappen. An experience 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 was a whole day ago. The final lift was from the Granada Service station at Stirling all the way to the village of Kingussie. I was back and back in time for school. Sod. I wandered into the playground and normal settled on my shoulders like a cloak but only on the outside. Internally I was all wailing guitars, saxophones and sing along choruses. I hadn’t been missed and no explanation of absence was required. Probably the machinery of school was also counting down the days and weeks to decanting another group of students out on to 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 people might be annoyed that they had been kept out of the loop for so long. Now that lots more years have gone by, I’m writing about it because I’m in my fifties and couldn’t care less but I am still weirdly proud that I managed to keep this a secret for over thirty-five years.

I’ve been to a lot more Springsteen gigs since the first and I’ve never had to sneak out to get there. The ticket price has changed but he is still bloody 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 it for seven years. By the time I actually put it in the tape player I owned about eight albums and I would have listened to Bruce 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 other 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 exactly 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.

Thanks for reading.

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Neil Smith

Neil Smith

4 weeks ago #2

Pascal Derrien

Pascal Derrien

4 weeks 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)