Last Saturday night I put on my Oldest Swinger in Town gladrags (well, the usual killer combo of jeans and t-shirt if I’m honest, creature of habit that I am) and went with Ben to see a couple of bands at the Forum in Tunbridge Wells. Dependent on buses to get us there (taxis both ways – what do you think I am, made of money?) we set off in freezing drizzle at around 8:00, the advertised door opening time, so we could get there for 8:45, which we thought would be about right for the opening band. When we got there, however, the place was still pretty much empty and we had to mung around waiting for other people to show up and the music to start.
What seemed like an hour, but was possibly only 55 minutes, later two very spirited young men climbed onto the stage and started making some quite interesting noises using a guitar and a standing-room-only drum combination of snare and tom plus a couple of cymbals. It was good and loud and included some very nice, ear-splitting feedback, which is always a bonus. I’m not sure if it fitted any particular genre, but it was quite punky (the limited drum kit was occasionally reminiscent of the thump-crash, thump-crash styling’s of a certain Mr Scabies back in the day) with a good smattering of shouty angry vocals from the bloke thrashing the skins. Sadly, the energy of the guys on stage, who call themselves ‘Slaves’ (no ‘the’), failed to inspire the small crowd to join in with any real enthusiasm, though they did manage to tempt them slightly closer to the stage with a couple of ‘come here, there’s more’ Jimmy Cricket* style direct requests.
Slaves did about half a dozen songs that all sounded quite similar to each other but were none the worse for that, and then there was an interlude while the main act, Dinosaur Pile-Up, sorted themselves out. We had hoped that this would be a prompt for a hundred or so too-cool-to-listen-to-warm-up-band lurkers to make their way in from outside, but sadly this wasn’t to be and DPU launched into their first number to a more than half-empty room.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with DPU’s performance, but somehow it failed to gel. We’d looked at a few videos of the band on YouTube beforehand, and the kind of not-quite-grunge noise they made on those had led us (well, more Ben – I was just ‘accompanying adult’ as he’s a few weeks shy of the requisite 16 years) to expect quite a tight set, but in the event it was actually quite flabby. To my ear it sounded like the vocals and lead guitar were fighting each other – they were too similar in tone (particularly when the guitarist-cum-vocalist was singing at the top of his range) for either to be clearly defined – but somebody else thought it was the bass that was lacking punch and failing to keep up with the very energetic drummer. Who knows, maybe it was as simple as the band looking out onto a half empty room and feeling less than inspired to give it their all, but either way it was hardly the best live music I’ve heard at the Forum.
Most disappointing of all was the fact that taken individually every sound being made on the stage seemed a good sound; it was just when you put them all together they added up to a whole that was less than the sum of the parts. Perhaps they’d taken their lead from Deep Purple and asked to have ‘everything louder than everything else’, but if that was the case then their amps didn’t even go up to ten, let alone the now famous eleven as championed by Spinal Tap. Last summer, attending a Channel 1 Sound System roots and dub night at the same venue, we’d been pleasantly surprised when a particularly full and deep bass note dislodged a slate from the roof while we were queuing outside to get Ben a plateful of goat curry, but sound levels on Saturday would have been hard pushed to dislodge a one-legged pigeon.
DPU finished their set at about half ten. There was no encore, and given the number of people in the audience it would have been frankly embarrassing to stomp feet and cheer in demand of one. At one point a small gang of spotty herbs had a bit of a half-hearted ‘mosh’, but that seemed more an attempt to wind up the only two blokes who had thrown caution to the wind and responded with any real enthusiasm to the music being played (they were ‘dancing like nobody was watching’ as the phrase goes – and bloody good luck to them :D) rather than any genuine attempt to join in.
I left the gig feeling angry; not over anything the bands or forum organisers could be held responsible for, but just for the simple fact that what has been voted the BEST SMALL LIVE MUSIC VENUE IN THE UK is so bloody overlooked in a town where teenage kids make such a meal of whinging about having nothing to do**. A friend suggested that this is indicative of the way ‘kids’ have changed over the decades, and that music isn’t as important to them as it was to us in our teens and twenties because everything is available to them on tap 24/7 via Spotify and other streaming services. I think there’s an element of truth to that, but I also think it has a great deal to do with the town itself, and the sense of entitlement and heightened expectation that seems bred in to the youth of Tunbridge Wells, many of whom at seventeen get birthday gifts of new or nearly new cars costing thousands so they don’t have to negotiate the two mile round trip to school and back by public (ugh) transport or (shudder) shanks’ pony.
How the hell do you give kids like that a sense of perspective? How the hell are they expected to appreciate what they’ve got when all they have to do is open their mouths and say ‘more’ without ever having to think about where that more comes from or experiencing what it means to have to wait, save up, or go without? Why would they get up off their bums and go to watch a local band or a bubbling-under band they’ve not yet heard of when, should they but ask, they’ll be given golden tickets for the 02 Arena or bankrolled for a three day jolly at Reading? I think if you could pick up the forum and relocate it with the same hard working and dedicated staff to almost anywhere else in the UK it would be packed to the gunnels every night, rather than just on those nights when they’ve managed to snare an up-and-coming big name act and tickets sell out in minutes.
Of course, Tunbridge Wells isn’t only populated with over-indulged middle-class brats; there is real poverty on the fringes of this town too, despite the local council’s and the larger population’s reluctance to acknowledge it. But the over-indulged, middle class brats do have the majority, and they, just like their parents, seem only interested in premium product and artisan artificiality, so something as low rent as a bloody excellent local music venue offering a good night out for (often) less than a tenner and beer at prices that put the town’s numerous gastro-pubs to shame is never going to float their luxury yachts. Which is a pity, because if the Forum had been filled on Saturday night with the kind of crowds who used to cram into pubs to watch local live bands 20-30 years ago it would have been a different experience entirely, the kind of experience people might look back on and say ‘hey, do you remember when…’ about.
And isn’t that, Tunbridge Wells, what we want for our young people? Isn’t that better than them hanging around the precinct until they’re old enough for the town’s pubs and clubs rite-of-passage to adulthood that can offer, to quote another old song from the punk Era, nothing more valuable than ‘Another Saturday night beneath the plastic palm trees’?
* Jimmy Cricket: A terrible Irish comedian who became briefly popular on TV following a couple of ‘Talent Show’ wins in the mid 80’s. He was mostly famous for his stupid hat, wellington boots with ‘L’ and ‘R’ written on them and his stage-whispered catch phrase ‘come here, there’s more’, which he delivered with increasingly monotonous frequency while beckoning the audience closer. You can probably find videos of his act on YouTube, should you so wish, or failing that you could just type in Freddy ‘Parrot Face’ Davies who did pretty much the same act a decade or so before, only with a silly ‘blowing-raspberries-on-key-sibilants’ lisp rather than an Irish accent. His hit single (Davies’, not Cricket’s, though he probably also explored the possibilities of the novelty song) ‘Every time I ask for macaroni all I ever get is Thhhhhemolina’ is a comedy classic, right up there with the likes of Keith Harris and Orville’s ‘Orville’s song’ and the Krankies’ ‘Just throw your keys in the goldfish bowl, honey, we’re all going dogging tonight’.
** Teenage kids, of course, are not the only potential audience for the Forum, and in fact a good percentage of the audience is made up of more ‘mature’ musos like yours truly. I don’t know what’s wrong with the adult population around Tunbridge Wells either, because they’re equally guilty of overlooking this brilliant and incredibly inexpensive little gem of a venue. Or perhaps that’s where the problem lies – that the good burghers of TW can’t get their heads around the concept of a good night out costing less than a starter and glass of wine at one of the town’s more exclusive restaurants?
*** Pics courtesy of Carolyn T. Gray and her new bridge camera. 😀