Twenty seventh of May Nineteen Ninety, the day everything changed. Youth culture had spoken and won, the axis of power between mainstream music and a rollercoaster subculture that had been building to this day was turned upside down, even before a note of music was played, or not as was very nearly the case according to a lot of accounts by people involved since, right up until the day of the gig.
Council intervention, a discontent road crew with the shambolic preparation and organisation as well as the usual red tape and money issues came very close to denying a generation of a defining statement.
The Roses – our heroes and anti-stars, spokesmen of a generation who realistically spoke for no one but themselves had galvanised 27,000 of us to get off our arses and come as one from all corners of the UK. Fierce football tribalism and partisan differences had ebbed away in the wake of the acid house revolution, a real gathering of the tribes was about to happen, culminating in a pilgrimage to watch four Mancunian figures we regarded as God-like at a Cheshire river estuary (a reclaimed toxic dump to be precise).
Every Wednesday for weeks, possibly months following the Ally Pally gig I would eagerly scour the music weekly news pages waiting for the announcement of this supposed mega gig that had already become something of mythical status. Speedway tracks and caravan parks were reported, a massive word of mouth rumour went round like wildfire in Winsford and Northwich that it was happening at Tatton Park in Cheshire at one point.
I think most people like myself had started think that maybe the talk of this super gig was just part of some sort of Manc super blag to keep the band in the press, build the myth and hype for the imminent “One Love” single that definitely was happening. Then it appeared. A little black and white advert a few inches square in the gig guide to accompany the head line news “Spike Island Widnes”. Intriguingly I had never heard of Spike Island before, Widnes, yes, as it was a place synonymous in my neck of the woods (Winsford) which was the signal on the rattler en route to Liverpool to shut the train windows double quick as the chemical reek was so overpowering and unpleasant.
Participation in this piece of history was gained by my Mum writing out a cheque for £45 = 3 x £14 tickets and 3 x £1 booking fee and a first class SAE. Yep, mad isn’t it looking back it was that easy.
When the tickets arrived they were like little John Squire pieces of art work, loads of detail and expensive looking design, quite ironic really. The supports bill was shrouded in mystery which only fuelled the fever pitch rumours which went from the ambitious to absurd, “it’s deffo The Charlatans”, “my mate knows someone who knows someone who spoke to Clint Boon in Afflecks and the Inspirals are rehearsing for it”, “nah, it’s 808”, and that was how it went for weeks building up.
My weekend started on the Friday night in Liverpool when I went to watch a band called The Farm for the first time at the Students Union, I had picked up a white label 12″ which had really grabbed me of “Stepping Stone” by them which I thought at the time was a Sex Pistols cover unbeknown it was actually a Monkees tune originally, set to a driving break beat and cow bell similar to a top tune which was starting to be heard out and about Snaps “The Power”.
The day of the gig was a really warm sunny one that became a much more dense warm haze once over the Runcorn bridge as Widnes approached. We had decided to get to Widnes early and make a day of it. As it happened so had everybody else, the anticipation and sense of something special was apparent. No one wanted to miss a second of this day and had been rolling in to town in technicolor convoys since early morning. The place was rammed way before the gates were due to open, the footbridges on to the island were congested, but the atmosphere was brilliant and laid back, the parties had started already, car boots were open with specially prepared compilation tapes blaring out, the just released “The Only One I Know” blending in with acid house, The Monday’s to Italian house, “Its not where you’re from its where you’re at” this was it, Ian Brown’s immortal line encapsulated on the banks of the river Mersey.
Much has been said of the actual gig and organisation of it all in hindsight but looking back it’s easy to forget what a brave ambitious and outrageous step in to the unknown it was for a band like The Roses who were being led by a crazy bastard of a manager who was making it all up as he went along. Yes, one beer tent, one ice cream van to serve thousands, more swag men selling official merch outside than inside, I genuinely can’t recall anybody actually caring on the day. It was shambolic with a DIY warehouse rave ethic but essentially that’s what it was, a bigger scale version of the night’s they had been holding in railway arches around Manchester, it added to the event. To nick a quote “The Altamont for the chemical generation”, the fact a band on an indie label with a solitary hit single was attempting to pull off a day out of this scale for us to be a part of it was enough for most.
The support turned out to be a diverse and leftfield selection of bands handpicked by the band, Gary Clail on u sound system, an African band which may have been the Bhundu boys and a ska punk band Ruff Ruff and ready which pretty much passed every one by, we should have known by now The Roses were never going to conform and do what was expected, their terms only. The real stars supporting were the DJ’S an already tried and tested concept the roses had pioneered had used at Blackpool and Alexandra palace, New York’s Frankie Bones, Dave Haslam, Jam MC’s, Oakenfold and Dave Booth, they kept the music pumping relentlessly throughout the day. I asked Dave Booth recently for a memory of the day and with a chuckle replied trying to DJ in blistering heat with no monitor to hear myself above a field full of people, the sound was being blown to Widnes and back bouncing back off the cooling towers churning out the lesser enjoyable chemicals that were being ingested through the day.
The gig itself is a bit of blur, I was swallowed up in the whole euphoria and a level of excitement at the four members and Cressa walking on stage that’s hard to put in to words. Particular things stick out, Ian’s “Do it now” over the top of the dis masters intro, Mani pumping his fists to absolute delirium in the crowd before he picked his bass up, hearing “Where Angels Play” for the first time. Clouds of heavy thick noxious dust being kicked up by copious pairs of shuffling Kickers and Adidas. Playing “Standing Here ” and “Sugar Spun Sister” was something that has always stayed with me as well as Ian holding the globe up which summed it up, he literally had the whole world in the palm of his hand for one night.
Spike alongside the Monday’s two nights at Gmex was never about how it should be done, it was about the fact it could be done, the breaking down of musical stereotypes and pecking orders which probably frightened the life out of established stars and big promoters of the day. It was a catalyst for other bands and future promoters to have the vision and impetus to aim higher than Barrowlands and Brixton. Mega gigs followed in the slip stream Mondays at Elland Road, The Wonder Stuff at The Bescot, Cities In The Park, Oasis picked the baton up and took the philosophy of biggest can be best to a different stratosphere. The influence and high water mark of what that day achieved still resonates and influenced today on people who were there and many others who weren’t.
A play list inspired by spike Island and the tunes that sound tracked the day…
Pic credits: Getty