Two Thousand Words
a feature by Gwyneth Jones
Two Thousand Words
(A short, gritty history of a small, seedy rock venue)
At twelve o'clock there was someone in a coma, vomiting into the toilet floor. I sat and watched her for a while, but her boyfriend seemed a capable type for a skinhead, he said his Dad was a psychiatric nurse, so I left them to it. Outside, noise as confusing as darkness made me grope, mentally and physically. What to do? The Test Tube Babies, those famous lads from Eastbourne, could be glimpsed through grappling bodies: and occasional low-level flash of Peter (and the--), his dreadful head like an egg pasted with iron filings. Rather short for a punk singer, I thought. I announced the coma, vaguely, as I was leaving. Dinah glanced at me over a mouthful of pound notes her beautiful gold green eyes disapproving -- "You've got to have a good sense of humour--"
There ought to be a grisly brown postcard tacked up in the lobby saying You don't have to be mad to work here, you just have to stand near the door. Xtreems is a small world that descends, once a week, twice a week, three times a week, on a seedy pub called The New Regent, near Brighton seafront. Dinah and Johnny, brother and sister, play rock matriarch and mastermind: occasionally reversing roles as Johnny becomes motherly over his ailing ticket stubs, or Dinah speaks, with a suddenly sharpened eye of the telephone bill. The help is anyone vaguely known to either who doesn't move out of the way, or did not long ago when it all began. There is no money in it for anyone, except possibly the brewery --only cheap beer and glory. And the fascination of the audience in all its warring tribes, and the stunning, exciting, devastating noise that sometimes breaks into strange lyrical or intellectual wanderings: what might be, or never will be, or couldn't possibly be on Top of the Pops because it's gone before it gets there. What is at Xtreems, at its peaks, at the Xtreems level, can't survive: has to be reached and left behind: designers' sketches at their moment of value before descending to the shredder or the chain store.
But back to the facts. Rock music could hardly exist without places like this, or rather beings: Xtreems is not a place, it's more like a sort of apparition. How does it happen? What happens is that Johnny Clarke, having nothing better to do, was acting as a sort of PR --whatever that may mean-- for the late Piranhas (a Brighton novelty band that briefly did make it to TOTP). Noddy worked in Attrix records and had some spare money. Johnny found the New Regent and took its measurements, sent round to the agents details of stage capacity, sound system, and so it started, on September the third 1981. Xtreems pays a fee plus a percentage of the take after the profits have passed a guaranteed minimum --the percentage clause is usually included, though it's rarely relevant: it gives a touch of dignity to the artistes. Most expensive group: The Fall, £300. Out of the take, after the performers' fees, comes whatever arragement is current with the management of the pub, plus tickets, handouts, posters, phone bills, promotion to agents and, on a good night, something for the help. The regular roadie sometimes gets money, sometimes cheap beer, sometimes nothing. A small loss is normal. Biggest loss: £600 putting on Cabaret Voltaire at the bigger venue (Top Rank) over the road --reason, insufficient market research. (Handfuls of puzzled swine wandered about, scratching their leather armpits bemusedly as pearls of sound and vision floated by, high over their heads). Worst experience: when Top Rank double-crossed them over Mari Wilson and the Imaginations (as was). Johnny had fixed for Mari W to come to Brighton a second time, she'd already been a sensation at Xtreems. He took the idea to Top Rank, convinced he could fill their fine big palais, gave them a big Mari Wilson pitch. Who she? they said. Go away little man, and think of someone decent before you try the big time. Two weeks later, MARI WILSON played the Top Rank, sell out. Dinah was shocked: "I'm naive, I suppose--". You live and learn.
Johnny has no taste in music. He was the business mind. Appearing rarely at other small rock venues he could be seen in the gloom at the back, a small figure under a weighty carapace of overcoats, looking depressed and counting heads, doing the competition's accounts for them with a tiny portion of his massive brain. It isn't the money, it can't be. J. Clarke has a lot of impressive paper in his murky past, a first in Maths, statistics, accounting, actuarian exams: he's a classic drop out. He must know he has as much chance of making his fortune as a rock entrepreneur as he has of winning the pools, and he doesn't do the pools. It isn't the money, it's the fantasy. There's nothing more purely unreal than the wheeling and dealing of sitting around in seaside caffs, having cups of tea -- important cups of tea, with valuable connections -- a plastic carrier bag of handouts leaning against his leg. He loves chatting people up. He loves appearing an all right sort of bloke to the bar manager, who despises the audience; convincing the kids he's on their side really; placating the boys in the band; telling us in front he's had to be really nasty to them: giving stick and patting heads as he zooms to and fro, glowing with the romance of it all. Oddly enough, before this began he was one of the most unreachable unemployed, catatonic in fact. I think he's a Thatcherite.
At the beginning Dinah was the socialite. We would go dancing with her at Sherry's laser disco: flickering robotics in the vast plush and gilt (restored) thirties dance hall-- Listen to the voice of Buddha/ the gearstick penetrates her thigh/ she's lost control again/ It means nothing to me! An ecstatic dancer, Vienna used to make her eyes unfocus: -- "I just don't know what to do, when he sings that--". Johnny's Xtreems was her tame venue, she used to rush up and down to London and order what she wanted. "Book 'em," says Dinah. Mari Wilson. Fad Gadget. Aztec Camera. Pale Fountains. Boy's Own. (I remember: A Biggles type in jodhpurs, old cocaine and New York friends of Dinah's. They were good, they vanished utterly: what happened to them?) Blancmange. Sex Gang Children, and the glorious Birthday Party. Nick Cave screaming, I am a figure of fun, cascades of sweat flying from his hair: count the bruises afterwards. Xtreems is so small anyone can join the grappling agape right in front of the stage, risking nothing more serious than a few cracked ribs.
Later on, she started taking an interest in the business side because, she being the only person within reach in gainful employment it was her money --increasingly-- up front. Scenes of thrift in the chaotic bedroom where Dinah creates her last minute effects: thoughtfully changing her earrings while the car engine grumbles in the street --old friends sit earnestly sticking new squares of computer print out over last week's unsold attractions (it's a work perk). Sad to see the tickets getting thicker. Posters and handouts designed or commissioned to Dinah's impeccable taste become collector's items, but Xtreems often seems about to disappear. Saddest lesson: lyrical, experimental is the line that produces the rare winners, but on a regular basis it loses, loses, loses. There was a time when Xtreems would try anything. Once there was Nico, late of the Velvet Underground: a stout woman in draperies, rocking to and fro and intoning dirges over a strange thing that looked like a commode (it was her harmonium). Rather plump, for a heroin addict, we murmured. Brighton was having a mini surge of psychedelia at the time: the young people stood and stared in respectful disbelief. The Androids of Mu reduced Xtreems to six people and a dog. Decent Assault brought bicycles on stage and handed out leaflets about not a new religion. The support was regularly the best music of the night, local bands: This Colour, The Razzors, Through A Glass Darkly: playing for canned beer and the chance to be on stage. The Jungle (most of) moved into Dinah and Johnny's house in fashionable, seedy Elm Grove, and played in loincloths, painted all over with blue spots like Hindu cows (It was Burmese nudity time). Nice to dance to, The Jungle. There was a Battle of the Bands: Johnny's attempt to join forces with the older generation of Brighton music, the ageing hippies --not an unqualified success. Biggest problem --emptiness. Johnny sitting by the door, surveying the dank, dark open spaces. "I've decided I'm not going to get upset. It's good when there isn't a crowd. I can relax and enjoy myself."
After a year and a half Xtreems is still going. Things are different: Johnny has discovered that the way to make numbers is to book the Punks. Their fans follow them, from Aberdeen to Birmingham and Newport, even to Brighton seafront in the wind and the rain. Discharge. Carnage. Exploited: it can be rough. Discharge thought so: the singer kept breaking off from screaming anarchy to plead with the front row -- "It would be appreciated if you would kindly get off the stage--" What an idiot. What does he think his boots are for? Someone has smeared streaks of shit on the wall of the cubicle nearest the wall in the ladies toilet. (It's the foreign students, of course). I sit there and wonder what that was about, and what did she do afterwards. Seems ridiculous to wash your hands. Perhaps she wiped them on a bit of toilet paper. Strangely enough, there is often a roll tucked behind the pipe. And the bolts on the doors are replaced regularly --these touches of refinement matter. "Sex and violence, sex and violence, sex and violence, SEX!" The Vibrators were good. Noise, not music, but it can be superb noise, fast and shuddering. Dinah sits by the door, taking tickets and talking to her friends: the main group comes on and she vanishes, bores her way expertly to the front and dances: a natural athlete, her muscles going like pistons, never too little, never too much: no back flips. There isn't enough room anyway. She has been called Brighton's most glamorous grannie by the fanzines, she doesn't care. I think Dinah would knock anyone down who called a friend of hers a feminist, but she does hate men. She loves boys, white-faced ones with violent hair and pretty eyes: she protects them from Johnny and the bar manager. They do sometimes get into trouble. I remember a nasty blond in a peaked Nazi cap, weaving around on his mate's shoulders, grabbing onto Neil Arthur's microphone: Mr Arthur (of Blancmange) at first indulgent and then getting angry as he realised the assault was not friendly. Blond was removed with violence: he was a real creep, no sense of occasion. Dinah came back and wandered in the wreckage, "he's lost his hat. He's upset --has anyone seen a hat?" On punk nights the code is different, anything's allowed: but it's the skinheads that cause the trouble. Even Dinah doesn't defend them, she counts them as men.
Black leather, chaos of sound, unwelcome --to me-- incursions of the Oi Oi: young men getting physical with each other the only way they dare, can't knock it but it's so boring -- a kind of punk Crossroads. The boys from Eastbourne will sell tickets, you can't argue with that. Meanwhile Xtreems is not dead, the spirit has escaped, it has a floating life as an indefinite entity called J&D enterprises, living --at the moment-- on Xtreems' past eclecticism for contacts and occupying for its apparitions the second rank of Brighton venues, the obvious step up. Birthday Party surging among the night club tables at Coasters, Fad Gadget climaxing smearily on the baroque balconies of Sherry's. Birthday Party's not quite the same now. Fad Gadget --it seemed a long time to wait, this time, before he got to the Ladyshave bit and started scattering pubic hair over the front row (cheaper than burning your guitar...) But recently they had a tropical set at Sherry's, with a fine aspiring bunch of coconuts called Animal Nightlife. They were good, Animal Nightlife: made music: not only made music, made money.
Memories of Johnny parking us outside Virgin Records on Queen's Road by Brighton clocktower on a Saturday afternoon, with a pile of handouts: telling us we could give these ones to "middle of the road types". It was Flock of Seagulls, they were boring, I don't think they'll be coming back. But where, I wonder, is the middle of Johnny's road?
Editorial note (from FTT September 1989)
Alert readers will have realised by now that the above was written some time ago. An enquiry of Gwyneth as to when and whether Xtreems was still alive produced the following update:
Xtreems died about Easter 1983. The occasion was that of a King Kurt gig, in which the baked beans flowed inordinately fast, flour bags were burst over the front row, and a hole was punched through a wall by a Kurthead boot. However, relations with the bar manager had been deteriorating for a while: the team's judgement was that he was just waiting for the next harmless little incident to give him an excuse. The New Regent closed down soon afterwards and has been redeveloped as a games arcade, one more victim of the cheap and vulgar prosperity that has reshaped our exquisitely seedy seafront in the past ten years.
Johnny still does the occasional promotion, but mainly lives on the rent from his roomers in the house Where It All Began. He shows no sign of returning to actuarising for a living. Dinah has moved out into a place of her own, but is still programming down among the viruses at Brighton Poly. She doesn't gig a lot because she's moonlighting a course in homeopathy, so has no time and anyway has discovered that nightclubs are almost as bad for you as hot drinks or red meat.
Lyell "The Jungle" Drummond wrote one of the best tracks on The Long Tall Texans latest record. And he did our decorating too.
And there we will leave them, playing happily in the sunshine. It sort of tells the story of the eighties, in a way, doesn't it? From Punk Dance Craze to Popular Capitalism and the Enterprise Culture...
(Report from 1989 ends here)
© Gwyneth Jones 1989, 1999
This article first
appeared in Fuck The Tories (September 1989, edited by Judith
Hanna and Joseph Nicholas).
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