The Astronauts Book Launch Show Club 85 Hitchin

Our first Astronauts road trip since the apocalypse. We weren’t actually planning to go on one, but about a week earlier the owner of Club 85 messaged me and said they were having a launch event for the new Astronauts book and would it be possible for me to go along and take some with me. Yeah, I replied, no problem. Except I didn’t actually have any books, I was still trying to raise enough money through pre-orders to pay for the printing. But not to worry, that’s what friends and credit cards are for, and I wasn’t that far off reaching the target anyway.

So long story short, the next morning I sent the files off to the printer and hoped for the best. Fortunately, they arrived two days before we were due to set off for Hitchin. Unfortunately, the place we’d booked to stay at for the night cancelled on us because the owner had caught the covids from a previous guest. So we had to find somewhere else really quick, and ended up staying at a woman’s house who advertised on airbnb.

The next problem was how were we going to get to Hitchin? We wouldn’t be able to carry boxes of books on our 900cc motorcycle because they would be too heavy, and I didn’t fancy carting them on a train much, either. So we decided to go in our little 500cc car instead. Now cars like that aren’t really intended for long journeys, but we’d recently been to Leeds in it (45 miles) so we figured if we made a lot of stops at motorway services along the way it would manage the 120 miles to Hitchin just fine. Or at least that was the plan.

As an aside, the reason we went to Leeds was to see David Rovics, who I’ve always considered the American Mark Astronaut – think of a sort of left wing Billy Bragg and you won’t go far wrong. I never got around to writing my diary of that night, but it was basically him and some other bloke in a tiny pub with about 15 people watching. The only other point I would make was Leeds has some really weird and confusing road junctions, and it’s easy to get lost even when you have a little voice telling you which way to go.

Anyway, back to Hitchin. The satnav lady said it would take one and a half hours to get there, so we figured with all the rest stops it’d take about three hours maximum. We set off at dinner time, thinking we’d get there about 3pm, drop the books off at Club 85, then go exploring for a bit before we booked into the airbnb place at about 6pm.

Everything went fine until about twenty-five miles before we reached Hitchin. We stopped at services every forty miles or so, had a piss and a coffee, etc, then continued on our way. It was at the last service stop that we noticed the engine was really hot. As in cor blimey hot, or ooh eck I think there might be something wrong with it hot. So we opened the bonnet to help it cool down while we had our coffee. Half an hour later we were ready to go again, but the car wouldn’t start. Turned the key, nowt happened. Arse, we thought, now what? This was about 4pm, it had taken a bit longer than we anticipated to get that far, and we were still a long way away from Hitchin. We decided to leave the car a bit longer, tried again, still broke.

So we phoned the RAC (the car recovery company, not the far right organisation formed by Ian Skrewdriver – that would have just been silly)  – and told them what was up. They said they would send someone out, but it would be about four hours before anyone arrived because they were busy. Double arse, we thought. We’re going to miss our own book launch. But worse than that, we’d come all this way on an Astronauts road trip and we wouldn’t get to see them play. So we sat there for another half an hour panicking, until I decided to give the car one more try. It started. Yay, we thought, cancelled the RAC bloke, and off we went.

Then we ended up leaving the services on the wrong road, thanks to the stupid layout and lack of any signs telling you which way Hitchin was. The satnav lady was no use, she just kept saying to do a u-turn on a one-way road. But she readjusted eventually, and sent us on a ten mile detour back the way we had come. Then down some really dark and twisty narrow roads which were scary as fuck. We got there at just gone 6pm, Club 85 was surprisingly easy to find. Mark Astronaut was already there, standing outside and having a fag, so we said hello and took all the books inside.

Mrs Marcus got a taxi to the airbnb place so she could pick up the keys, while I stayed behind and watched the three bands do their sound check stuff. As an aside, the singing bloke from Rites Of Hadda looks completely different without his clothes on, but I suppose the same can be said for most performers. Then I pestered some of the celebrities to sign my copy of the book, plus a few of the hardbacks that various people had asked me to take with me for that purpose. I also picked up a copy of the ‘new’ 12” single, When You’re Not So High and swapped a few In Defence Of Compassion CDs for some Upfront And Sideways CDs.

“A lot of people have cancelled because of the new covid variant,” Mark said when he came over, “so there won’t be a big turnout.” Fair enough, I thought, big crowds make me nervous at the best of times, and my anxiety levels tend to go through the roof when there’s something like a global death plague epidemic going on. I arranged the books on the merch table, plus a few copies of Punk Rock Nursing Home I’d taken with me, and went and stood at the back, next to the mixing desk where I thought it might be a bit safer. Had to go back to the table a few times when people wandered over to buy things, but that was basically my spot for the night, and also that of Mrs Marcus when she arrived back at the venue. There was also a small dog for some reason. It kept wandering onto the stage, but it had gone by the time the bands started.

Rites Of Hadda were on first. I’d seen them before, on our last Astronauts road trip before the apocalypse when they played in That London with Zounds, but they seemed much better this time around. For a few seconds I thought they were going to open with Everything Stops For Baby as a sort of Astronauts tribute, because the opening few bars sounded pretty much the same, but it turned out to be something different. I regret not filming them or taking any photos, but I’m sure I will see them again one day and rectify that.

Mark came over again just before The Astronauts went on stage, to tell me I should probably go over to the merch table after they finished playing. I’d sold about ten copies of the book by then, plus one copy of Punk Rock Nursing Home. Someone (sorry, I’m crap with names) told me they liked my earlier book so much they bought all their friends a copy for Xmas one year, which was nice of them. For some reason that one always seems to sell well at Xmas, whereas the seasonal (sort of) sequel Christmas At The Punk Rock Nursing Home tends to do better in summer. I’ve also had someone on Facebook (who may or may not be the same person, I forgot to ask) tell me they discovered The Astronauts after first seeing them mentioned in that book and deciding to go and have a listen for themselves. But don’t buy Punk Rock Nursing Home for that reason.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, watching The Astronauts from the back of the room, video camera screwed onto the top of my walking stick as per usual so I can listen to it (and occasionally watch it) again at a later date. You could tell it was an Astronauts audience who had turned up, they knew most of the songs and shouted out others they wanted to hear. There was even a bit of dancing going on at some points in the proceedings.

The Astronauts did a couple of ‘new’ songs, which were actually very old ones which have been brought back to life again – Don’t Tell Me and Tearaways – albeit in new arrangement form, and one which I hadn’t heard before called It Was Always Going To Be Like This – which may or may not be new. Then there’s the usual stuff you would expect – Everything Stops For Baby, Protest Song, and a couple of tracks from the ‘new’ EP to help promote it. Why does he keep putting ‘new’ in inverted commas, you ask. Read the book and find out. There was also an encore of Getting Things Done – which, as an aside, was actually the working title of the book until about a year ago, when I changed it to Survivors instead – and it was all over. Time to pack up the camera, go over to the merch table, and flog some more books.

Now here’s the thing, I’ve only ever sat behind a table full of books once before. That was at a David Rovics gig in Rotherham many years ago, where I sold about six copies of whichever book it was I was trying to shift the whole night. To say the Astronauts books flew off the table would be a lie, because people actually picked them up reverently and threw money at me instead, but watching the big pile of them diminish to nothing over the course of about half an hour was nothing short of amazing. One person even wanted me to sign their copy for them, as if I am somehow important. I also sold another copy of Punk Rock Nursing Home, and gave one away to someone who demanded to pay over the odds for the Astronauts one.

I didn’t really get to see much of SMASH (or S*M*A*S*H if you prefer) because people kept coming over to buy stuff, and by the time I’d sold out and packed everything away they were half way through their set. They’re not a band I’m familiar with – to be honest their fame passed me by, and I only heard about them while researching the book – but they seemed okay. Again, no photos for obvious reasons. After that we hung around for half an hour waiting for a taxi to take us to our room for the night. I’d been on the cider, so we left the car parked outside the venue with the signed books in the back of it.

The next morning we got up and made some toast. The house we were staying at was well posh, I didn’t even know what half of the matching gadgets in the kitchen were for, and there was black squirrels in the garden. I had no idea squirrels came in black, I’ve only ever seen grey ones before and the odd photo of a red one in some nature reserve. Maybe they are like that blue elephant who broke his mother’s fountain pen while he was in the bath or something. They were too quick to photograph, so you will have to take my word for it. But they were definitely real. What are you on about, some of you are probably thinking, all squirrels are black. Well they’re not, yours are just weird ninja squirrels.

Anyway, we’d arranged to meet Mark Astronaut outside Club 85 before we set off for home, to talk about book promotion and the like. We were going to get a taxi, but then the owner of the house offered to drive us there instead. We got there just as Mark was arriving, and sat shivering outside the venue for half an hour until he had to go somewhere else. And that’s where our nightmare began.

The car started first time, and we set off. Went the wrong way and ended up on some housing estate, so we stopped to get directions. Then the engine died and the car wouldn’t start again. So we phoned the RAC and waited for someone to come. An hour later he turned up, twiddled about under the bonnet and said the fan belt was worn out and he didn’t have a replacement to put on it. He offered to get a tow truck out to take us home, but said it would cost £3 for each mile, so about £360 in total. Aaarghh, we thought, that’s more than we made from selling the books. Then he twiddled about a bit more, and got the car started. Take it really slow, he says, and it will probably get you back home eventually. Or at least part of the way, then you can call us back and get towed the rest of the way. Either way, every extra 10 miles you get will save you thirty quid.

So that was the plan, get as far as we can and then get towed the rest of the way if we have to. Except we needed petrol, so we headed for the nearest garage. And guess what? You have to turn the engine off to put petrol in, and it wouldn’t start again after that. Phoned the RAC, they said they don’t tow people home at weekends anymore and we will have to make our own arrangements.

As luck would have it, an AA (another recovery company, nothing to do with anonymous alcoholics) van pulled up at the petrol station. The guy must have seen us looking a bit distressed, because he came over and asked if we were okay. Bloody RAC, he said after we explained what had happened, and twiddled about under the bonnet before confirming we needed a new fanbelt. He actually went off to look for one for us at some places he knew, and said if he couldn’t find one we could just phone the AA, and they would register us as a new member. We would still need to pay to get towed home on the first day of membership, but at least they wouldn’t leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere in winter. Like the RAC did. So we phoned the AA and said we wanted to join them. Can’t do that, the bloke says, you already have cover with the RAC so it’s up to them to help you. And we don’t accept new members who have already broken down. So bog off and freeze to death, you northern bastards. (He didn’t actually say the last part, but that’s how we perceived it at the time.)

Ffffuuuuuuucccccckkk!

So all we could do was look on the internet for someone who could tow us home. At a massive cost, because they knew we had no choice. Then we sat shivering in a car for four hours because the heating only works while the engine is running. With one glove, which we had to take turns with. No idea what happened to the other glove, that’s just one of life’s mysteries. Maybe the RAC man stole it. Then it started raining and it got even colder.

When the tow truck eventually arrived it had a massive crack in the windscreen, and we must have been vibrating from the cold because he said we should go and sit inside it rather than hang around while he loaded the car onto the back. So we didn’t get to see whether he had shut the car window or not after he’d finished pushing it up the ramp, which then meant I worried the whole journey, expecting all those limited edition hardbacks people had asked me to get signed would be turned into liquid mush with all the rain pouring onto them. He kept reassuring me that the window was indeed closed, but you never know.

As it turned out, the window was closed and the books were all safe. We got home at about 9pm, which marked the end of the most expensive Astronauts road trip to date. But it was worth every penny. We’re hoping to do it again soon, various locations have already been suggested by Mark. We’ll probably go to those by train, though.

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Survivors – 45 Years Of The Astronauts

Formed in the summer of 1977, The Astronauts have been lurking in the shadows of the British underground music scene ever since, criminally underrated and ignored by most despite their extensive back catalogue of albums and singles – each one a bona fide classic in its own genre-defying way.

With extensive input from frontman and songsmith Mark Astronaut, along with many of the musicians who have played alongside him over the years in both The Astronauts and his various other musical ventures, this is the story of how it all came about – from the bedrooms of 1970s Welwyn Garden City to the 2020 national lockdown. Also includes an extended interview conducted in 2021 and discography of all bands.

468 pages, illustrated throughout with photographs, flyers, fanzine articles, reviews, etc.

Sample pages below (click to enlarge).

Ltd edition hardback SOLD OUT

UK Paperback (Bandcamp, post will be expensive outside the UK)

USA Paperback (Amazon)

Australia Paperback (Amazon)

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Preview: Survivors — 45 Years of The Astronauts

Sample pages from the forthcoming book about Mark Astronaut and his various bands — The Astronauts, Restricted Hours, The Otters, Los Astronauts Muertos, and The Psephologists. Covers the period 1975 to 2020. Also includes details on fellow travellers Here & Now, The Mob, Zounds, Blyth Power, etc.

The text is still being finalised prior to editing, and we don’t have a cover image yet. No publishing date yet either, but we are aiming at summer 2021 when we hope to have some sort of launch event with music, etc.

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The Astronauts / Zounds / Rites of Hadda at The Lexington, London, 29 February 2020

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Another year, another Astronauts road trip. Last time, me and Mrs Marcus made the 300 mile round trip on our motorcycle to see them in their home town of Welwyn Garden City, which you can read about here.

This year I had a box of In Defence Of Compassion CDs to give to Mark Astronaut, and we had a choice of two locations – London, where The Astronauts would be supported by Zounds, or Hitchin (wherever that is), where they would be supported by Blyth Power. It was quite a tough choice, but in the end we chose London and decided to make a weekend of it.

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I didn’t fancy biking it to London, it was cold and I would have just got lost in the one way system or confused by congestion charges and things like that, so we went on the train instead. Which, as it turned out, was just as well because everyone in London seems to drive like they are in that Carmageddon game – I mean, what the fuck?

You step on a zebra crossing, and instead of stopping to let you cross like Yorkshire drivers do, they speed up and try to kill you. And people on mopeds are no better, they ride around with their legs dangling down on the road, as if they are going to kick you in the face when they weave around you on the zebra crossing.

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We got to London at about dinner time, but we weren’t allowed into the Travelodge we’d booked until 3pm so we decided to go shopping while we waited. I wanted to go to All Ages Records in Camden, to see if they still had any of the books I sold them last year because I’ve never actually seen any of them in a shop before.

So I told the satnav lady on my telephone the postcode for the record shop so she could direct us there. Unfortunately I forgot to tell her we would be walking there rather than going in a vehicle, so she took us on a very long and convoluted route that took over an hour to get there. Which was made worse by flurries of snow and hailstones – I thought it was supposed to be warm down south? Probably something to do with Brexit or whatever. On the way there, we found Youtube,  which we didn’t even know was a real place.

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Anyway, we eventually got to the record shop, and the first thing I noticed was they had a poster advertising the Astronauts gig in the window. Ooh, I thought, I’m having that. We went inside, and our punk credentials were checked by two small dogs who came over to give us a sniff. We must have passed the test, because they wandered back to the shop’s owner to let him know we were okay.

I had a flick through the A section for any Astronauts albums, because I’ve never seen any of those in a shop either, and spotted the It’s All Done By Mirrors reissue and the Survivors singles collection, which I obviously put at the front so people can find them more easily.

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Then went over to the counter and asked if I could have the poster in the window. “Yeah, sure,” the bloke says, so Mrs Marcus went and grabbed it for me before anyone else had the same idea. There was a shelf full of books near the counter, so I had a look to see if any of them were mine. I found Runaway, pointed at it, and said to the bloke, “That’s me.” I assume he understood that I wasn’t referring to the skinhead girl on the cover, because he said he could do with ordering some more books from me as all the others had sold out. Which is kind of good. Now I just need to remember to email him about it.

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I asked how well Astronauts records sell in his shop, he said they sell now and again, but not often. Then I showed him one of the In Defence Of Compassion CDs and he said he would order a few to go with the books. He seems a good bloke, and it’s a good record shop to go in if you are ever in the area.

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We had planned to go to some other shops we had found on the internet, but time was getting on by then, and the box of CDs was getting heavy, so we decided to get a bus back to the train station so we could find the Travelodge.

It turns out you are not allowed to use money on London buses, you have to either use a credit card, or pay the driver with an oyster (which I assume is some sort of local bartering currency? Probably easier to carry around than jellied eels or whatever.) Being vegetarians we obviously didn’t have any oysters, but Mrs Marcus did have a credit card. So she tapped it against this thing on the bus to buy a ticket for herself, then tapped it again for mine.

“Can’t do that,” the bus bloke says. “Got to use your own credit card, or pay with an oyster.” Eh? We don’t have any bloody oysters, and we only took one credit card with us. I thought one of us would have to walk back, but he must have taken pity on us or been in too much of a hurry to spend ages arguing about it, because he let me on for free. Rather surprisingly, the bus didn’t smell of oysters. Not that I know what an oyster smells like, I’m just assuming they have some sort of odour. Also found out people in London don’t like it when you talk to them on buses.

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Finding the Travelodge was just as much fun as finding the record shop, thanks to the satnav lady trolling us again with directions designed to confuse us. We ended up at the wrong one, but we eventually found the one we were supposed to be at, and settled in with a sandwich with some weird green stuff in it, like wet tea leaves or something, and a plate of cardboard chips. London food is strange.

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Mrs Marcus used her own satnav lady to find The Lexington when it was time to go, because we had both fell out with mine by then. It wasn’t far, just a short walk away, which was handy. It’s smaller than I expected it would be, basically just a corner pub with the music part upstairs. Which probably explains why the tickets sold out so fast.

Downstairs was packed out and noisy, so we went upstairs to see if we could find Mark Astronaut to hand over the box of CDs. He wasn’t there yet, but I was assured he was on the way. We left them with Steve Lake’s missus instead, who was selling Zounds stuff, and went in search of a suitable place to watch the gig from.

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The first thing I noticed was a big camcorder on a tripod just inside the room where the bands would play. Ooh, I thought, someone is going to film it and I might be able to snaffle a copy off Mark later. I asked Joe Davin, an ex-Astronaut who seemed to have just appeared next to me, and he said it was going to be streamed live over the internet. Okay, I thought, maybe I’ll be able to download it when I get back home.

A few people headed upstairs, so I thought I’d best find somewhere to watch from before all the best vantage points were taken. There’s an elevated bit with some seats next to the bar, and a lot of the seats had a ‘reserved for …’ note with a name written on it, but we found a couple in the corner that didn’t so we perched on those for a while until Mrs Marcus reminded me to scatter a few Runaway bookmarks around the venue. It’s called marketing, or product placement, or raising brand awareness, or something like that.

Anyway, I also wore my Punk Rock Nursing Home T-shirt, partly for the same reason, but mainly so Facebook friends who were there would be able to find me if they wanted to, since I have no idea what most of them actually look like. A couple of them did, most either stayed away or didn’t notice me.

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While I was placing bookmarks in strategic positions someone prodded me in the stomach and said “I’ve read that,” referring to the book advertised on my T-shirt. At this point, one of two things usually happens – they either tell me how much they liked the book, or they want to punch me in the face for making fun of Thatcher being dead. Fortunately it was the former, but you never know these days.

While I was heading downstairs to put bookmarks on the tables down there, everyone started coming up for the gig, so I changed my mind and went back up again. It’s a very narrow stairway, so I wouldn’t have been able to get past them anyway.

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Rites of Hadda were on first. I’d never heard of them before, but they were pretty good. They reminded me a bit of Dr and the Crippens, not so much in the music, which was a lot more melodic with saxophone and stuff like that, but in the way the singer dressed. First he was a nun, then he had some sort of feathered suit, then at the end he had these big butterfly wings with flashing lights on them.

After that it was the main event of the evening, The Astronauts. Mark seemed a lot more energetic than he was last year, which was good to see, and Joe Davin rejoined for the evening on a little synthesiser type thing which probably has a more technical name.

Presumably because of the new In Defence Of Compassion CD, The Astronauts opened up with Suburbs, which I don’t think Mark’s done for about 30 years because it went a bit wrong a few times. They also did Problems and The Nurse from the same album. In fact most of the set was old stuff, with just Flounder and Not Doing It being the only relatively modern ones.

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Young Man’s World was the highlight for me, because it is obviously the best song Mark Astronaut ever wrote, and anyone who says otherwise is just plain wrong. They ended with Melissa’s Party, which is a cover version of an old Otters song that gets really noisy at the end.

Zounds were on next, and it was pretty obvious a lot of the audience were only there for them, because there suddenly seemed to be a lot more people there, all leaping around and joining in with the chorus to songs mostly taken from their first album. In fact I don’t think they played anything at all from their second album.

As you may know, the current guitarist and bass player are also Astronauts, so it wasn’t really a surprise when Steve Lake invited Mark Astronaut onto the stage for backing vocals on Can’t Cheat Karma, which The Astronauts covered on one of their more recent albums.

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“Mark Astronaut, everybody,” Steve says as Mark wanders off the stage. I see blank faces everywhere. They don’t know what they are missing out on. Joe Davin also got up to play synthesiser on one of the songs, and towards the end there was a woman from Nigeria whose name I didn’t catch doing a sort of reggae version of War.

After the gig I went in search of Mark Astronaut, and found him surrounded by people who wanted to hug him and tell him how much he means to them. Which is perfectly understandable, so I didn’t want to interrupt any of it. I still remember the first time I ever met him, I touched him and swore I would never wash my hand ever again. Unfortunately it was the hand I use to wipe my arse with, so that wasn’t really practical.

While I waited for the hugging to stop I met Helen Robertson, who sometimes does the French singing during Baby Sings Folk Songs when they play that. Turns out she was also in The Sellouts, who shared band members with The Astronauts for a while in the early 2000s, which is the period I am working on in the book at the moment. So now I know her name I can annoy her with lots of silly questions until she gets bored with me and stops replying.

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Mark invited me to the after show party backstage, which probably sounds very exciting so I won’t spoil your imaginations with the reality of it all. Met up with some more people I knew through Facebook, a lot of them for the first time. They probably told me stuff that would be useful for the book, but without something to record it on all that information is lost to me because of my memory issues. So hopefully they can either email it to me or arrange a phone call to say it all again. They all seemed to be pleased with the way the CD had turned out, anyway.

Everyone else had gone home by the time I left the little room backstage, and Mrs Marcus was sat by herself wondering where I’d gone. I must have forgot to tell her about the party, or maybe it took longer than I thought it had. Anyway, after that we bought a pizza and went back to the Travelodge.

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The next day it was quite sunny, so we decided to go sightseeing instead of just wandering around shops or getting the train back home. I wanted to show Mrs Marcus all the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, and she wanted to see where the queen lived. The bus was too complicated without any oysters, so we decided to get the underground train thing instead, which we hoped would be a bit easier to get onto. But while we were at the ticket machine we saw we could buy a daily bus ticket for about half the price, and even better, it would let you buy two of them on one credit card. So we went on the bus.

Got to Trafalgar Square, and there was about 3 pigeons instead of the thousands that were there the last time I went to London. There was a sign with a picture of a seagull and a red line through it, presumably meaning ‘no pigeons’ so either they are very law abiding birds, or someone has murdered them all. After an hour looking around the art gallery we decided to go and visit the queen, and maybe watch her getting trooped by them red blokes with big heads.

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We couldn’t find the queen’s house, so we went to have a look at the Houses of Parliament instead, to see if there were any toffs to shout at. Didn’t see any toffs, but there was loads of coppers with machine guns glaring at us from behind barbed wire fences, so we made a hasty retreat before one of them decided to take pot shots at us. Ended up walking past Downing Street, which had even more coppers with machine guns. After that we thought bollocks to it, and got a bus back to the train station, where we would be relatively safe.

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Got home and found out the live stream hadn’t worked too well, but it did capture the Rites of Hadda set in its entirety before things went wrong. There’s a few Astronauts songs in there as well before it cuts out, and I think they caught most, if not all, of the Zounds set with random glitches. It should be still there on Facebook if you want to have a look for it. Search for Lost Data Productions, I think it’s in three separate bits. Then go and buy all The Astronauts albums you haven’t already got.

 

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The Astronauts In Defence of Compassion CD re-release

The sleeve notes I wrote for the 2020 Retroactive CD re-release of The Astronauts album In Defence of Compassion. You can listen to the album here, and possibly buy the CD if they haven’t already sold out.

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Recorded over the course of 1989, In Defence of Compassion was The Astronauts’ fifth studio album and one which vocalist and songwriter Mark Wilkins would later describe as the most overtly political album he has ever recorded.

With the exception of Secret File, which dates back almost to the very inception of the band in the summer of 1977, the eleven tracks it contains were written over a three year period between 1984 and 1987, and form a loose narrative based around a then-future 1990s dystopia which becomes more and more authoritarian as the album progresses.

Mark Wilkins was without a band when Acid Stings offered to fund and release In Defence of Compassion, and turned to long term friend and guitarist Chris Bland for help in finding suitable musicians. Bland suggested Terry Cain and Martin Meadows, both of whom he had performed with in the early 1980s post-punk band The Glee Club.

With Wilkins living in Welwyn Garden City, Bland and Cain both based in London, and Meadows having recently moved to Brighton, full band rehearsals were scarce and this version of The Astronauts made only four live appearances together during its short existence.

Acid Stings chose Raven Studios in Surrey for the recording location, which at the time operated from a spare bedroom in the home of its owner Alex Cable, drummer of the female-fronted anarcho-punk band Internal Autonomy. The tracks which originally made up side one of the album were recorded there over a five hour period in the spring of 1989, and the band went their separate ways shortly after.

When Mark Wilkins later returned to Raven Studios to record the vocals for those tracks he found Alex Cable had added his own synthesiser to them, along with extra guitar played by a friend of his called Jason Gray. While somewhat surprised at this, Wilkins liked the overall result Cable had achieved, so the extra instruments made it onto the finished album.

Rather than find another new band to record side two, Wilkins turned to Russ Seal, another friend and collaborator who had previously produced the earlier Astronauts albums Soon and Seedy Side for All The Madmen Records, to complete the album. These remaining three tracks were recorded in Seal’s bedroom in Luton in the autumn of 1989.

Along with owning his own recording equipment, Seal was a musician in his own right, having played in several local bands, and offered to play all the instruments himself rather than involve other musicians.

Wilkins already knew he wanted to include an expanded version of the Orwellian song Secret File, which had previously only been available in a very primitive form on a limited edition cassette released in 1978, and this formed the majority of side two.

While discussing what else to include on the album, Russ Seal played Mark Wilkins a tape containing a drum track he had recorded with his brother Steve several years earlier combining an electronic drum machine with a bass drum, floor tom, and bamboo sticks being hit together. This formed the basis for the ambient track Behind The Mirrors, which is still occasionally played on the radio to this day.

Russ Seal also composed the album’s closing track, Sudden Pause, which featured vocal samples from the 1955 Charles Laughton film Night of the Hunter. Again, this was something he had recorded several years earlier, and the same sample would later be used in Pudden Sause, the opening track of 1999’s You’re All Weird album.

In Defence of Compassion was released in January 1990, and sadly its themes of poverty and social decay remain as relevant today as they were all those years ago.

The bonus lo-fi tracks included with this release were recorded at Ludwick Hall in Spring 1988 by the Seedy Side lineup of The Astronauts shortly before they disbanded, plus a young woman the bass player had met earlier in the day on saxophone. Nobody remembers her name, and nobody saw her again after this.

No Cold Water and Somnambulist were originally intended for release as part of a split single with The Apostles to be released by Acid Stings later in the year, but a mix up with cabling meant one of the guitars failed to record properly so the project had to be abandoned.

The master recordings for these tracks are now lost, but were dubbed onto a cheap cassette tape for Mark Wilkins at the end of the recording session. It is from this cassette which these tracks, many of which were either never recorded again or would take a further thirty years to see release, have been rescued. As a result you will notice a distinct drop in quality from the studio tracks which precede them.

 

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Wakefield / Birmingham diary April 2019

Billyclub / Infa Riot / Subhumans — Warehouse 23, Wakefield 18 April 2019

I wanted to go to a folk festival this year, but Mrs Marcus said we’re not old enough for that yet, so we ended up going to the Holocaust In Your Head / Noise Not Music / Discharge festival (it had lots of different names on Facebook) in Birmingham instead, mainly because Civilised Society were playing. They were one of the bands we used for lullaby music when Sprog1 was a baby in the early 90s, she wouldn’t seem to go to sleep to anything else. She ended up being into Spice Girls and Aqua, so I don’t know what happened there. She later worked for Vivienne Westwood for a year though, so there’s that I suppose.

Anyway, the night before we headed off to Birmingham we went to see Billyclub, Infa Riot and Subhumans in Wakefield. We’d bought tickets for it months in advance, thinking it would sell out pretty quick, but when we got there the place was half empty and stayed that way for the rest of the night.

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We went in Bill’s car, so the bike stayed at home. He was about 40 minutes late picking us up, and we thought we were going to miss Billyclub, but in the end we got there with about 10 minutes to spare. When the bouncers saw Bill hobbling along the road on his walking stick they let him in through the side door so he wouldn’t have to climb the stairs. I was also on a walking stick, the one with a secret camera mount hidden under the handle, but I had to take the stairs instead.

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Bill had never seen Billyclub before, but he liked them enough to send me to get him a CD off them after they’d finished, and he later bought a T-shirt. I used my walking stick to film a couple of songs, but the floor was vibrating with the music and the video went all wobbly. I eventually fixed that by balancing the end of the walking stick on my foot instead of the floor, but I suppose holding the stick off the ground would have done just as well.

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Infa Riot were on next, who used to be Kids Of The 80s but are now Old And Angry. As an aside, I’ve got a feeling it might have been an Infa Riot gig at The Marples in Sheffield in 1981 that I based the first couple of chapters of Runaway on, but memories of drunken brawls with skinheads have become a bit hazy over time so it might have been someone else. Nothing like that happened this time, of course, because we’re all too old for that sort of nonsense. Which is probably just as well because with half the audience being bald it would be quite difficult to know who was on your side.

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A few more people wandered in for Subhumans, some even jumped around to them in front of the stage for a while before they got out of breath and gave up on it. The singer Dick Lucas seems to be still full of energy though, it must be that vegan diet of his or something. They played for about an hour, with him running around the stage the whole time. I have no idea how he manages to keep his glasses on while he’s doing all that, mine fall off every time I look down. Maybe they are glued on or something.

When we got back home at about midnight we found out the dog had gone on hunger strike and refused to eat his dinner in protest at us abandoning him for the night. Which didn’t bode well for the trip to Birmingham the next day, because we would be away for three days, not just the five hours we’d spent in Wakefield. We had visions of coming back to a skeleton dog, like the one that lives next door. I’m sure they never feed the thing, because they never take it for a walk either so it can’t be just running off the calories.

 

A Holocaust In Your Head / Discharge / Noise Not Music Festival — The Castle And Falcon, Birmingham 19 – 20 April 2019

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We went on the bike to Birmingham, it’s just under 100 miles away so we only had to stop once along the way, and the satnav lady took us straight to the door of the place we were staying at without any weird detours like she usually does. We’d booked it through Airbnb, and it turned out to be a lot posher than we expected. There was lots of weird posho food I’d never heard of in the fridge too, but we didn’t try any of that, we just stuck to the proper food we’d taken with us or bought at the Lidl down the road.

The venue was The Castle and Falcon, a pub about half a mile away, and we tried to use the satnav lady to help us walk there but I think she  must have got confused by how slow we were walking or something because she kept silent the whole way. We found it by ourselves, anyway. There was a sign on the door banning the wearing of hats, which is just HATTIST, but fortunately it wasn’t enforced and I was still allowed to enter.

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We handed over the tickets we’d printed out before we set off, along with the payment receipt, and, unknown to us at the time, the page with the keycodes for entry to the flat we were staying at. The bloke on the door ripped them all up and gave us black wristbands to wear. Had to put them on ourselves, which is a bit trickier than it sounds.

Just after 5.30 the door to the band room was unlocked and people wandered in. Mostly old duffers like us, but there was also a few youngsters too, which is a bit weird. They were dressed like 1980s punks, so maybe that’s what their grandparents were or something. Quite a big room, but a fairly small stage. The first thing I noticed is there wasn’t any seats so you had to stand up all the time. Fuck that, we thought, and got a couple of stools from the bar area. Everyone else seemed happy enough to stand up. Weirdos.

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The first band were called Mannequin Factory, and are probably best described as a sort of shouty industrial duo with a bit of performance art. A lot of people hated them so much they just walked out with their hands over their ears, but I really liked them. The bloke playing the gristleizer – if that’s the correct term for such things – was blind, and his guide dog wore special doggy ear protectors while it sat on the floor watching them. I was expecting the dog to be called Gristle, but it wasn’t. The other bloke ran around all over the place, jumping on and off the stage while he shouted stuff. Mrs Marcus didn’t like them, and when she saw me buy their CD later she said I could only play it when she is out.

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It was while Mannequin Factory were playing that I found a little alcove next to the bar (which wasn’t open, and I suppose that would explain why everyone rushed out between bands, with the youngsters even leaving their painted leather jackets on the floor). We moved the stools into that when the band room was empty, and pretty much stayed there for the rest of the night.

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I’m not sure who was on next, one of the bands had cancelled so it would have been either DSA or Salvo. I liked them, anyway, whoever they were. In fact there was only one band the whole weekend that I didn’t really care much for, but I won’t say who that was in case they track me down and beat me up over it – they did look quite scary, to be honest.

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Certified were next, unless they were the band who cancelled and it was actually Salvo or DSA playing in the wrong order. Then The Crippens, who used to have a Doctor as well but don’t seem to anymore. Maybe he got struck off or something? I used to play one of their albums a lot in the olden days, but had largely forgotten about them until I saw them at Rebellion last year. If you haven’t seen them, they’re one of the more theatrical thrash bands, they like to dress up on stage and make a mess everywhere with confetti and stuff like that. Nightmare on Sesame Street is probably their best known song.

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Tried to film a few songs with the camera in my hand, but ended up stuck behind a bunch of giants and gave up. After that I decided if I wanted to film something the only way to do it would be with the camera on the end of my walking stick, and the stick fully extended so it’s about 10 foot high. That solved the problem of the giants, but also meant I couldn’t reach the controls so there would be no zooming in and out, just a static shot. The alcove we were in hid the camera from view of the rest of the crowd, so we didn’t spoil it for anyone else before anyone writes in to complain. It did get a few weird looks from people who barged past to get closer to the stage, though.

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Anti System were a new band to me, but the internet says they’ve been around for decades so I’m not sure how I’ve  managed to miss them up to now, especially with them being from Yorkshire like me. The singer spent more time in the audience than on stage, but they were good, and they gave me a free badge for my hat.

Then it was Absolution, who seemed to just do songs about various serial killers, but not the Yorkshire Ripper which seems a bit racist against Yorkshire to me. He’s probably our most famous export, after cricket and Jimmy Savile, so he deserves a song of his own.

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Then it was Extreme Noise Terror, who closed the first evening. ENT were a band I used to play a lot in the late 80s to annoy the upstairs neighbours I had at the time. They always had noisy parties on Sunday nights where they would play crappy pop music for hours on end while I was trying to sleep, so as soon as they went quiet I would get up and blast the ENT side of Radioactive at them. Fun times.

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I can’t say I’ve listened to them much since then, but I did remember all the songs they played, especially Murder which seemed to be included on every single one of their records. Borstal Breakout was a nice addition at the end of the set, much better than the Sham 69 version.

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Back at the flat, we couldn’t find the printout with the keycode for the door, and that’s when we realised the bloke at the pub had ripped it up and chucked it away. This was about midnight, so major panic time. I couldn’t reach the flat’s wifi from outside, so no way to get it from the Airbnb website even if I did manage to remember what the password to get onto it was. Fortunately Sprog3 has a habit of staying up late on the computer, so we phoned him and got him to find the file I’d typed it on so he could read it out to us. Phew.

As is often the case with sleeping in the wrong bed, we woke up stupid early at 7am the next day so after breakfast we decided to get a bus into Birmingham town centre to see what was there. Basically just shops, and a big church type thing. And a massive bronze cow, for some reason. Quite boring really, but it passed a few hours.

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The festival was due to start again at 3pm, and Mannequin Factory were playing again so I wanted to get there early so I could film it. But we ended up getting back to the pub an hour too early, and there was nobody there so we sat on a wall for ages until we were let in.

The bar stools had been stolen during the night, so we had to get new ones and take them to the little alcove we had now claimed as our own. Spoke to the shouty bloke from Mannequin Factory for a while, he seemed surprised anyone would like them. I found out the blind guy with the dog was also deaf, and said I would send them a copy of the video later if they found me on the internet.

Next up were The Domestics, one of quite a few bands I hadn’t heard before, along with Active Slaughter who played before an Animal Liberation Front banner so I knew they would be good before they even started.

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After that it was Hagar the Womb (I still maintain it is pronounced Hay-gar, despite what the band have to say about it). I’ve seen them quite a few times, and have tried to film them at least 3 of those times but something has always gone wrong. If it wasn’t bouncers telling me to put my camera away, or forgetting to press record, it was getting stuck behind giants and not being able to see anything. This time I managed it okay with my 10 foot stick, but they weren’t allowed to play for long because everything was running late.

Intense Degree were another band I used to play a lot in the late 80s but had pretty much forgotten about. They also had to cut their set short, as did Civilised Society, which was quite annoying since they were one of the main bands I’d gone all that way for. Spoke to one of them earlier, they said they play a lot in Batley, which isn’t too far from me so maybe we’ll go and see them there one day instead.

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Everything seemed to be back on track for Anthrax and Burning Flag, who got to play their full sets. Anthrax I was already familiar with from their records, but Burning Flag were new to me. They had a shouty woman singer, so I was hooked straight from the start. Wish I’d filmed it now. Oh well, maybe next time I see them.

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Discharge took ages to set up, like they usually do, but it was worth the wait. A few people dived on stage and pranced around with them, singing along to mostly the old stuff with a couple of newer songs thrown in. Then it was all over, and back to the flat for the final night in the wrong bed before we headed for home.

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The dog’s food dish was full when we got home, so either he was still on his hunger strike or Sprog3 had filled it up again before he went to bed in the early hours of the morning. He gave us that ‘I see you have returned, you bastards’ look for a few minutes before giving in and slobbering all over us. The dog, that is, not Sprog3. He was still in bed, he didn’t get up until teatime.

 

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Why Thatcher invented punk rock

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When Thatcher seized control of the Conservative Party in 1975 she had one overwhelming ambition – to utterly destroy the county of Yorkshire in revenge for what Sir Arthur Scargill and his plucky band of miners had done to Ted Heath and the previous tory government.

She knew she couldn’t do this while in opposition, she had to become prime minister first, but with a strong working class turnout at elections she knew this would be impossible.

So she reached out to the Paedophile Information Exchange for ideas on how to put the working class off voting, promising them a £10,000 per year grant if they helped her get into power.

It was a shop owner called Malcolm McLaren who came up with the best idea – all she had to do was put as many young working class people off voting as possible, thus ensuring a Conservative victory forever more. And what’s more, he knew exactly how to do that. He would create a boy band who would storm the pop charts with songs about anarchy, having no future, and how pointless everything is.

But not even Thatcher realised how effective this ruse would be. The boy band McClaren created were copied by thousands of teenagers across the country within two years, expanding on the nihilist principles they preached. Vote Nobody, the message became. Nobody cares. Nobody will help you.

As a result the Labour vote collapsed in the 1979 election. Thatcher seized control of the country, and it was time for Yorkshire to suffer.

 

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Calling All Astronauts

Were you ever in the Welwyn Garden City band The Astronauts, fronted by Mark Wilkins / Mark Astronaut?

Were you in any of the bands they toured with?

Were you a fan with any particular memories you can share?

Did you organise any of their gigs?

Do you have any press cuttings, photographs, fliers, etc?

Has Mark Astronaut ever told you any anecdotes?

 

I am working with Mark on a book documenting The Astronauts’ 40+ year history, but we need help filling in the many gaps. If you have any information, please contact me.

marcus dot blakeston at gmail dot com

 

At the moment I am currently searching for the following people in particular:

Tim Nixon

Roy Falla

Ivan McTaggart

Terry Cain

Martin Meadows

Chris Bland

Jason Gray

And anyone who was in the band during the years 1990 to 2000.

 

 

 

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Adventures in Welwyn Garden City

Pog / The Metatrons / The Astronauts at The Green Room, Welwyn Garden City 22 February 2019.

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It was about a week before Valentines Day that someone on Facebook announced The Astronauts were playing in their home town of Welwyn Garden City later in the month, the first time they’d played anywhere for several months.

Ooh, I thought, that would make a good gift for Mrs Marcus. And I needed to talk to Mark Astronaut about the book we’re working on anyway, because the It’s All Done By Mirrors chapter is somewhat sparse due to my main source of information leaving the band shortly before recording started.

I also wanted to see what Welwyn Garden City was like, and visit some of the historical landmarks like the Campus Roundabout, Ludwick Hall, and Digswell House. And if we got time, maybe The Hedgehog Pub, outside which The Astronauts were first christened, The Corn Exchange in Hertford where they made their debut live appearance, and The Red Lion in Stevenage where the name Restricted Hours came from – maybe the sign that influenced it would still be there for me to photograph.

So I priced it all up to see how feasible it would be. £22 each to get there by train, £16 each to come back the next day, and £40 for a room for the night at the Premier Inn. So £128 in total once the admission charge was added. A lot less than we paid to see them at Rebellion in Blackpool, which is the only time we’ve ever seen them in the past three decades.

“Yeah, let’s do it,” Mrs Marcus said. “But only if Mark agrees to see you, otherwise all you will get out of it is another video to add to the collection.”

So I phoned Mark, told him we’d be going down there, and asked if we could meet up somewhere either before or after the show. “Yeah,” he said, “but I don’t know if we will be playing or not, so you would be better off waiting until the last minute before you decide to come.”

Mark hasn’t been very well for the last year or so, you see, and had already cancelled several shows due to not being up to it. Which kind of put paid to the whole forward planning thing. To get those prices on the train we had to book in advance, and each day we waited it went up and up. But it made sense to wait, much as I like Pog there wouldn’t be any point travelling 150 miles to see them play for half an hour when they tend to play most of the big festivals anyway.

So we waited, and watched the price go up. Two days before, the train would cost £90 per ticket each way, and the day before it was £120. The room at Premier Inn went up to £80 as well, so I started looking for alternative places to stay. Found a room at The Travelodge for £30 instead. That wasn’t much to lose if it got cancelled, so I booked it. But the main cost now was the train, £128 for the trip had suddenly gone up to £300+. So we decided bollocks to it, we’ll go on our Triumph 900 motorcycle instead.

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A quick look on Google Maps said it would take two and a half hours to get to Welwyn Garden City, and we figured an extra half an hour for rest stops along the way, so if we left no later than 2pm we’d get there by 5pm, giving us a couple of hours to book into The Travelodge and get something to eat. Another thing about the gig, you couldn’t buy tickets in advance for it, you had to pay on the door, and we had visions of thousands of Astronauts fans turning up and we wouldn’t be able to get in, so we had to be there at opening time just to make sure.

So we set off at 1.30, after phoning Mark Astronaut to make sure it was still going ahead. The temperature that day was almost into double figures, what we call in Yorkshire T-shirt weather, so I got my summer gloves out of the drawer and we set off. I’d downloaded the relevant map on my telephone, but it was more or less straight down the A1 most of the way, so I knew I wouldn’t need the satnav lady until we were almost there and it got a bit more complicated.

About 50 miles down the A1 we came to the biggest traffic jam I’ve ever seen, it was at least 7 miles long and I had to slow down to 10 to 20 miles per hour to filter down the middle of it. Most of the cars, and even a few of the lorries, moved out of our way, but there’s always the odd nobhead who tries to block your route and there was quite a few of those as well so we had to stop a few times then give them a glare while we dabbed the bike past them. Turned out to be an accident, and one of the lanes was blocked off by cop cars. Everything speeded up again once we got past it.

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Stopped off at a services 80 miles into the journey, shared a coffee and stretched our legs for a bit while we waited for the bike to cool down. Had a look at the map on my telephone to see how much further it was and check which junction we needed to come off at, and decided we might as well start using the satnav lady instead of waiting until we left the motorway like I had originally planned. So the telephone went in the map pocket of the tank bag and a pair of headphones went inside my motorcycle helmet so I could hear what she had to say.

It was when we were about 3 miles away from Welwyn Garden City that it all started going wrong. What the hell does “veer left for a sharp right” even mean? Bloody confusing, that’s what it is. We seemed to be going round in circles and getting nowhere, so I decided to go old-school and follow the road signs instead. That got us closer, and the satnav lady adjusted to compensate after beeping at me a few times to say I’d gone wrong. Ended up driving straight past The Travelodge without noticing it because I was too busy concentrating on the traffic around me at the time, and after the satnav lady went silent on me I decided to stop and check the map. This was about 5.30, four hours after we’d set off. The map said we’d arrived, and asked us to rate our journey. Couldn’t see anything that looked even remotely like a flop house, so we decided to ask passers by for directions.

“Yeah, it’s back down that road,” a bloke said, pointing where we’d just come from. But we were on a one-way street by then, so we couldn’t just go back we’d have to ride all the way around town again. So we thought the best thing to do was leave the bike there and walk back, just so we would know where we were going this time. Passed The Doctors Tonic, the apostrophe abusing pub The Astronauts were playing at on the way, and made a note of its location. It turned out The Travelodge was just around the corner from it, which was handy. Once we found the place we were staying at we decided I would go and fetch the bike while Mrs Marcus booked us in.

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Then we saw Mark Astronaut walking past on the other side of the road, on his way to the pub for a sound check. “Oi Mark,” Mrs Marcus shouted, and he came over looking nervous at the sight of two bikers staring at him. I had to introduce myself, because he only really knows me from telephone calls, then we ended up talking about an old Astronauts tape recorded at Ludwick Hall that was supposed to have been their sixth album but never got released. Found out contrary to internet wisdom it wasn’t Lol Coxhill playing sax on that tape, it was some woman he couldn’t remember the name of. She was a friend of one of the band members at the time, and wanted to join in so they let her.

After Mark had gone I went to fetch the bike. I had to give Mrs Marcus my telephone because it had the booking reservation number on it, which she would need. Didn’t really fancy leaving it to chance that I would be able to find my way around the one way system without the satnav lady, so I decided to just push the bike back to where I wanted to be and parked it outside The Doctors Tonic.

Had a rest and a toasted sandwich and what they called “fries” but turned out to be just frozen chips, then set off for the apostrophe-hating pub at about 7pm. Lots of hairy people hanging around outside, so we knew we were in the right place, just didn’t know where The Green Room was. Upstairs, someone kindly informed us. So we went upstairs, but there was nobody there. Went back down again and sat outside while we waited. Then we got cold – I thought it was supposed to be warm down south? – and went back inside to share a pot of tea to get warmed up again.

Went back upstairs half an hour later when we heard Pog playing, but it was just a sound check and some bloke told us to go away until they were ready to open. Went back down again. Later on a bloke arrived at the bar who looked vaguely familiar, and someone said to him “Ey up Lee, ow’s tha goowin, lad?” (I have translated it into Yorkshire for clarity, he actually said something else in a southern accent). Lee was also the name of a Facebook friend I was hoping to bump into, so I asked if it was him. “Nay lad, but he’s up thi stayers wi a hat on.” (Again, I have translated what he said for clarity.)

So we went upstairs again. This time there was a couple of blokes outside the door collecting money, so we handed over our twelve quid. “Which band have you come to see?” one of the bloke asks. “All of them,” we reply, wondering what’s going on. Maybe it’s some sort of southern tradition, where you have to pay for each band separately? “Which is the main band you’ve come for?” he asks. “The Astronauts, of course,” I said. He grunted, and wrote it down, then rubber stamped the back of our hands. I’ve still got no idea what that was about, but we didn’t need to pay any extra for the other two bands.

There wasn’t as much of a crowd as I expected, but it was still considerably larger than the 15 to 20 people who turn up to see The Astronauts at Rebellion in Blackpool when they play there. Saw a couple of blokes wearing hats standing near the 3 inch high stage, and went over to see if any of them was called Lee. One of them was, so we talked for a bit while we waited for Pog to start playing.

Joe Davin, who used to be an Astronaut, usually plays with Pog but he’d broken his arm so they played as a trio instead. They did a song about car boots which made us smile, people asking if you’ve got any mobile phones or jewellery as soon as you open the boot must be a universal thing. I was hoping Mark Astronaut would join them for the song Lovers (Pog were the backing band on that single) but he didn’t arrive until after they had finished playing, and apparently that wasn’t planned anyway. Pog were supposed to join The Astronauts when they opened up with that song, but for whatever reason they didn’t bother.

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Got to talk to Mark Astronaut in the corridor by the stairs for a while and gave him my notes on the Mirrors LP chapter. They are pretty sparse, so hopefully he will find someone who knows what happened during that two year period.

Went back in to watch The Metatrons, who I’d never heard of before but had checked out on Spotify the night before so I knew they would be good. The guitarist was the bloke who had told us to go back downstairs earlier.

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Then various Astronauts started wandering around, and I figured out why the Lee from downstairs looked so familiar, he was their drummer. Got down to the front and screwed my camera onto the top of my walking stick and watched them plugging things in. Mark stood in his usual spot on the stage at the far left, in the shadows, illuminated every couple of seconds by a flashing green sign that said The Green Room. They did a quick sound check, then they all went backstage for a few minutes before coming back. It was kind of weird watching them with people who actually knew all the songs, and not being the only one singing to myself. There was even dancing, and people calling out requests.

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Like I already said, they opened up with Lovers (with no Pogs), then Listen from the Lutra Lutra EP. After that it was something I’d never heard before, then Time To Roam from You’re All Weird and another new one before they were back on familiar ground again with Rabbits from one of The Otters CDs I can’t remember the name of, Protest Song from Peter Pan, Marching from Lutra Lutra, and ending with One Wave from the split CD they did with The Destructors a few years ago. Probably about 50 minutes all together, before they disappeared backstage.

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Mark came back out a few minutes later and thanked me for going all that way to see his band, which was nice of him. He also asked if I’d managed to record it all okay, and said he’d get in touch in the near future with whatever he can find out about the Mirrors LP.

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Back at The Travelodge I had a quick flick through the footage on my video camera, and went to bed.

Next day I wanted to visit some of the historical landmarks before we went back home, but the only one I could find was the Campus Roundabout and we had to check out of the room by mid-day so there wasn’t really time to look them all up on the internet and I didn’t fancy doing it while carting a load of bike gear around with me. So after that we picked the bike up from the pub we’d left it at the day before and went home. Maybe I’ll find all those other places the next time I go.

 

A few photos of Campus Roundabout, presumably the bands played on the concrete bit in the middle?

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Butlins Diary 2018

This is the second year me and Mrs Marcus have been to the Great British Alternative Festival in Skegness. It coincides with her birthday on the 7th October, so it makes a handy present we can share together. We also go to Rebellion in Blackpool for my Birthday in August, so it seems fair.

In a lot of ways I prefer the one at Skegness to the one at Blackpool – it’s not as frenetic, and it’s more suited to us old folk because there’s lots of seats to slump into after a quick ten second pogo. And as a bonus, it’s all held within the Butlins compound so there’s no gang of coppers or drunken trendies waiting outside to beat you up each night.

The day before we went to Skegness this year, Barney the dog caught us packing clothes into the bike’s saddlebags. He knows from seeing us come back from car boots or shopping trips that things come out of those bags, not go into them, so he knew something terrible was going to happen. He followed us around everywhere for the rest of the day, so to put his mind at ease and avoid that sulky look he always gives us when we go away somewhere we tried to make Friday morning as normal as possible.

So I got up, corrected the people on the internet who needed correcting while I drank my morning cup of tea, then did the day’s post, took the dog with me when I dropped it off at the shop, then went to the park so we could chase some squirrels together. That seemed to do the trick, and after we got back home he went to bed with my youngest son and gave me and Mrs Marcus time to pack the bike up and do all the pre-flight tests.

I’ve never been any good at navigating to places I haven’t already been to dozens of times, so instead of getting hopelessly lost on the way to Butlins I downloaded a map for my telephone and found some headphones small enough to fit inside my crash  helmet so I could have a nice lady tell me which way to go. That worked pretty well, though I think she was trolling me a bit with some of the dirt tracks she sent me down. One of them was a single lane road full of potholes that were a nightmare to avoid, and there was a massive lorry coming the other way half way down it, so she was probably trolling the driver of that as well in the hope we would crash into each other. This is what happens when technology turns evil. Trust me, I’ve seen plenty of films about the subject.

When we got to Butlins, one of the bouncers on the main gate asked to see our booking letter and told us to follow the green line. What he didn’t say was the green line faded away to nothing just before the turn off to get to the check-in barrier, and the sat-nav lady had shut up by then, so I managed to miss it completely and ended up in a car park by the side of it instead.

No worries, I thought, we’ll just get off and walk through instead. Then Ed Tudor Pole rolled into the car park in his old Morris Minor and we were blocking his route through so we had to shift the bike out of the way before Mrs Marcus went to get our wristbands. Can’t do that, they told her, you have to be in your vehicle while you check in. So I had to ride all the way around Butlins back to where I started and try again. I don’t know what people who travel by bus or train are supposed to do, but it was kind of annoying. Especially since it was quite warm, and I had my winter gloves on.

Got the wristbands and other bumf, then they directed to our designated flat. Which turned out to be right next to the car park we’d just been in, so we had to find our way back to that again. We were in a second story flat on the corner, so we unclipped the bags from the bike and carted them up a set of rusty metal stairs and through a shabby-looking door.

Then we found out the key card didn’t work so we thought we must be in the wrong place, and we had to go back down the stairs to check. We found a woman pushing a trolley full of dirty towels around and asked her where we were supposed to be. She looked at our booking slip and said it was the right place, but none of the key cards will work until 4pm so you have to wait outside until then.

Which was probably bad news for the first band on the talent show stage because 4pm is when they were due to start, so I doubt many people would have been able to see them. The dirty towel lady must have felt sorry for us, because she used her master key to let us into the flat at about 3.55.

We dumped all the bags and bike gear on the bed, and Mrs Marcus went shopping for cider and other essentials while I sat down and got my telephone out to check for emails. There’s always someone who buys something as soon as you walk out the front door, so they would need telling they won’t be getting whatever it is for a few more days otherwise they would moan about it. Whatever happened to waiting 28 days for delivery? Bloody eBay.

Anyway, I tried to get onto the Butlins wifi, which took ages to connect, but it said my email address was already in use and promptly chucked me off. Couldn’t connect again after that, the signal was too low, so I wandered over to the main complex to get a better one and tried again with the same result. Tried another email address, that was in use too. Well yeah, I probably used them both last year, one for me and one for Mrs Marcus.

Finally figured out I’m supposed to prod a tiny, hardly noticeable word saying ‘login’ instead of just putting my email address in the great big box saying ‘put your email address here’, but couldn’t remember what password I used last year. Tried all the obvious disposable ones I use, none of them worked.

Eventually gave up and decided to go and ask at the help desk next to the talent show stage instead. The bloke working there said I could request a password reset and it would be emailed to me. How would I get the email, I asked. He offered to let me use his computer to sign into my Google email account, but guess what? I mean, who carries random letters and digits around in their head? Sorry, can’t help you, then. Have a nice day.

Decided to sit and watch the last few minutes of the band on the talent show stage for a while, The Lengthmen I think they were called, then had an idea. Mrs Marcus has got one of them Apple phones all the poshos have, and it’s got a thing on it that turns it into a portable wifi router that does internet stuff over 4G. So if I turned that on and connected my telephone to it I’d be able to get the password email and sort it out from there. Phoned her up to see when she’d be back, but she’d gone into Skegness for the shopping because everything is a few pence cheaper there, and she’d be there for at least another hour. Grrr. How did we ever survive without internet?

Anyway, to cut a long, rambling story nobody is interested in short, the idea of getting wifi from her phone worked when I met her back at the flat, and I was able to get the password email as well as find out what everyone had bought as soon as we walked out the door. Yay. But then it wouldn’t connect to the Butlins wifi at all. Our flat was in a wifi not-spot and it was something we would just have to put up with.

We’d already checked out the bands on the talent show stage on Youtube before we left, and there wasn’t any that particularly appealed to either of us, so we gave them a miss and unpacked all the stuff we’d taken with us instead and waited until the evening before we went to watch Ed Tudor Pole on the Reds stage. Watched him for a while, then wandered over to the Centre stage to watch a bit of Hands Off Gretel before we had a look around the trader stalls for stuff to buy. Found a new Thatcher shirt I haven’t already got, the Crass one You’re Already Dead, but they didn’t have my size. Said they’d get one for tomorrow.

Went back in Reds to see Eddie and the Hotrods, which made me think about my brother who died a couple of years ago. I don’t think he ever saw them live, but they were his favourite band until the Sex Pistols and Motorhead came along. He played their first album that many times it wore out, so it was a shame he couldn’t be there with us.

After they finished we went over to the Centre stage for UK Subs, the last band of the night, and caught the end of The Blockheads’ set. They were okay, but it seemed a bit pointless without Ian Dury, despite the singer’s best attempt to imitate him. Everyone else seemed to appreciate them though, so maybe that’s just me. And I suppose it’s no different to Ruts DC, who we always go to see when we get the chance.

UK Subs did their usual mix of old and new songs, and Charlie Harper moaned about the massive gap between band and audience, saying he kept expecting a load of racehorses to go galloping past at any second. The guitarist, don’t know his name, invited a few women up onto the stage for Warhead and the bouncers by the stage had a fit about it, chasing them all over and chucking them off again. They seemed a bit unnecessarily rough with one of them, and  Charlie didn’t look too happy about it.

After that it was back to the flat for cider and bed.

Saturday morning we got up early at 10am and did the usual morning stuff before heading off to the Reds stage for No Thrills at 1pm, followed by GBH at 2.45. No Thrills we’ve seen a few times before, and Mrs Marcus liked them enough to buy a T-shirt and CD at one of the previous shows of theirs we’d been to. Not many people turned up to see them, but there was a bit of a singalong in places.

GBH I hadn’t seen since the 1980s, I always seemed to miss them at Rebellion because they clashed with other bands I wanted to see more. Didn’t know many of the songs they did, but I only really liked Leather, Bristles, Studs & Acne and No Survivors anyway, so that’s no surprise. The crowd jumped around a lot more to songs from those two records as well, so I doubt I was the only one hoping for more of that. Yeah well, nobody wants new stuff at a nostalgia festival, do they? Defeats the whole purpose of going to one.

After that we went to the talent show stage to see Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies, a band someone on the internet said were worth watching. I should probably explain at this point what the talent show is all about. There’s a small stage under a big dome-type thing where Butlins puts what it thinks are unknown bands, and the audience vote for the one they think was best each day by putting little tokens in a box. Except this year they had well known and long established bands like The Bus Station Loonies and Drongos for Europe on the talent show stage, which seems somewhat daft to me.

Anyway, back to Pete Bentham and the Dinner Ladies. The singer looks like Mark E Smith from The Fall when he was younger, and they had two women dressed up as dinner ladies dancing beside them. They were okay, not really my sort of thing, but amusing enough in a bizarre kind of way and I would definitely go to see them again if I had the chance.

The Bus Station Loonies were next, and were one of the highlights of the entire weekend for me. It’s good to see they still do the anti-Chumbawamba song after all these years. Great set, and I’m glad I had the forethought to film the whole thing so I can watch it again one day when I’m even older than I am now. After they finished we went to vote for them and see if they had any T-shirts or whatever for sale, but they didn’t bother bringing anything so we went back to the flat for tea.

The Rezillos were the first band of the evening on the Reds stage, and we got there in plenty of time. With it being the 40th anniversary of Can’t Stand the Rezillos, they pretty much played the entire album in order, plus a few of the singles and B sides (including, rather annoyingly, 20,000 Rezillos Under the Sea twice) before moving on to newer stuff from Zero.

Boomtown Rats were on next, so we had to get out of there sharpish to avoid hearing them. Unfortunately everyone else must have had the same idea, because it took at least half an hour to get down the stairs and out the door. Sham 69 were on in the Centre stage, so we followed the crowd down to that. It was already packed out by the time we got there, but we managed to find a table at the back to sit at.

The crowd were chanting UK Subs, UK Subs, UK Subs while they waited for Sham 69 to come on stage. I don’t know who started it, but it was a sublime bit of surrealism and probably wound Jimmy Pursey right up. Talking of which, when he did come on stage I could only see the top half of him and he looked like he was wearing one of those black evening dresses that hang off one shoulder. After seeing photos of him when we got back home, I was disappointed to find out it wasn’t a dress after all, it was just a baggy jumper and he was wearing denim jeans. Oh well, at least it wasn’t his famous figure-hugging white leotard. But he could’ve at least worn a pair of corduroys.

After a couple of songs nobody knew, Sham 69 settled into a singalong medley of their greatest hits, which I would guess is what most people wanted judging by the response they got. Even Mrs Marcus joined in with a few. Then they did that pop star thing where they pretend they’ve finished, only to come back on again about five minutes later to do a few more songs. I never saw the point of that, it would be better if they just carried on and fit in another song or two.

Dirt Box Disco were the headliner for the night in the Centre stage, despite being a relatively ‘new’ band formed no earlier than 2010. I’d seen them at Rebellion on my own a few times while Mrs Marcus went to see someone else, but this year she’d gone with me and really liked them. She’s since bought some of their records and learned their songs, so she was looking forward to seeing them again at Butlins on the night before her birthday and wasn’t disappointed. I found myself singing along to some of them as well, they’re quite catchy. The bouncers wouldn’t let anyone on stage at the end for Hooray Hooray it’s Dirt Box Day, so the singer didn’t get to bog off early like he usually does. The stage seemed a bit empty without a massive crowd up there for that song.

Sunday morning: Happy birthday Mrs Marcus. Gave her the card I’d got her, a witch riding a motorcycle. She liked it. Where’s me presents? At home, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Hung Like Hanratty were the first band of the day, playing at 1pm on the Reds stage, and we arrived early having enjoyed them at Butlins the previous year when they won their day’s talent show. The place was already packed out, but we managed to secure our favourite spot. There was a guy near the entrance dressed up as the ghost of Jimmy Savile holding a fake cigar and saying “Now then, now then” as everyone passed by. I don’t know if he was part of the band or just a fan, but he set the tone perfectly for what was to come.

If you’ve never seen Hung Like Hanratty before they’re best described as ‘political incorrectness gone mad’. A bit like The Macc Lads or 3CR, except not as crude and with a lot more humour. I first noticed them a few years ago when they did a song about Thatcher being dead, which was why I went to see them at Butlins the previous year, but they don’t seem to do that one anymore. So a quick note for any of the band reading this:

DEAD THATCHER IS FOR LIFE, NOT JUST THATCHER DAY!

I think Hung Like Hanratty were pretty surprised at the positive response they got while they played their set, helped along by the actual real ghost of Jimmy Savile and a fat dwarf on a mobility scooter who later turned into a transvestite. The whole room was bouncing during the dog shit dance, which isn’t easy to do with an audience in its 40s and 50s. They even got an encore, and got everyone doing it all over again. After that they seemed to be the main topic of conversation for the rest of the weekend, so I’d be surprised if they’re not back again next year playing in one of the evening slots.

The Members were on next, a band I only really know from two songs. I think everyone else was in the same boat, because it was only during those two songs that anyone bothered dancing. You can probably guess which ones they were. Or at least one of them. And no, the other one wasn’t the B side.

After that there was a bit of a gap, so we went to get the new Thatcher shirt in the correct size, bought a few punk drinks coasters for our new coffee table (thus ruining my credibility as a member of the underclass and risking taunts of middle class toff from everyone who knows me), and went to play on the 2p fountains in the arcade. I somehow won 500 prize tickets, and went to the redeeming shop to see what I could get for them. Ended up with a wooden skipping rope for the dog to chew and tug on.

Drongos for Europe were another must-see band for me, and they were on the talent show stage so we found somewhere to sit for that. I don’t know why they were on the talent show, they’ve been around for decades, so they should have really been on one of the main stages instead. And they didn’t even win, despite me and Mrs Marcus having to queue up for ages to vote for them. We stayed there to see what the next band, Vomit, were like, and ended up watching their set as well.

There wasn’t anything on after that, just some goth type band and some bunch of mods, so we went to get something to eat instead while we waited for Anti Nowhere League later in the night. Yeah I know, we’re not supposed to like them anymore, they’re basically the new screwdriver because of that song they did ten years ago. Animal seemed really pissed off about the whole thing, and went off on a few rants about people getting their gigs cancelled over it. I don’t know why he doesn’t just apologise for all the offense that song caused and move on, that’s what I would have done. Not that I would write a song like that in the first place, and if anyone is offended by anything I write they can just fuck off for all I care. And if anyone wants to buy all my books and burn them, that’s fine by me.

The last band of the weekend were Angelic Upstarts, standing in for The Exploited who had to pull out because of Wattie’s crap heart. More sing-songs for the crowd ensued, but we were stuck behind two massive baldies so we couldn’t see much. While they were playing, a woman close to us kept grabbing all the dregs of beer from nearby tables, pouring them into one glass and chucking them at the baldies, then ducking down and hiding so they wouldn’t see who did it. Maybe she just wanted them to shift out of the way as well, but it didn’t work.

The curtains closed on the Upstarts within seconds of finishing one of their songs, which seemed to surprise Mensi. He’s probably not used to posh venues with curtains and stuff, or maybe he expected to be playing a bit longer.

We had to be out of the flat by 10am the next day, so after packing everything up in the saddle bags we went to bed. We didn’t quite make the deadline, the cleaning staff walked in while we were still getting dressed but they didn’t seem to mind going away and coming back later. When we were ready I put the sat-nav lady back in my ear and hoped she wouldn’t  try to make us crash into a lorry on the way home.

(She didn’t, in case anyone is worried.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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