It’s funny when you think of events that have altered the course of your life. These moments live as indelible, ever-present entities in your mind — recalling them at any minute, it’s as though you were still there. I don’t know if it’s the reality of being stuck indoors for months at a time, or missing the experience of a live show, but I began to think about shows that have deeply touched and changed me over the years.
As a young teenager, I went to see one of my favourites bands, Belly, live at the (now extinct) Astoria in Tottenham Court Road. I can’t say I remember a lot in the run-up to the show, except that it was a scorching July and I didn’t know anyone from school who would go with me in the summer holidays.
Earlier that year, I’d come across Belly’s second album ‘King’ at Tower Records on the corner of Piccadilly Circus. The striking album cover, designed by 4AD’s Chris Bigg, had caught my attention in the shop. This, coupled with the fact that I was a fan of much of 4AD’s output at the time (thanks to a friend’s older, cooler sister) piqued my curiosity and made me pick up a copy. Hard to imagine now, but in pre-streaming days, it felt like a fluke picking up something this great on the basis of an album cover alone… Lucky me — it it was love at first listen!
After that, the deal was sealed. I’d found something very special, still semi-secret and unbeknown to my school friends (which, of course, made me doubly delight in my new musical discovery.) I spent hours on end listening to ‘Red’ and ‘The Bees’, trying to figure out the chords on guitar, as my father shook his head in dismay at my horrendous imitations of Tanya Donelly’s voice.
That voice could shift from dreamy and sweet to sharp as a razor-blade. To this day, I probably couldn’t tell you what many of Belly’s songs were about, only the strong feelings they evoked in me. Listening to ‘King’, the songs unfolded like surreal vignettes: the “lady who walks everywhere on her hands” “send a rocket to Red, he’d go cuckoo!” The songs were melodic and catchy, but also deep with imagery and unnerving undertones at times, which I loved.
A week before their show at the Astoria, Belly were in session with Mark Radcliffe on the radio. I shut myself away in my bedroom with headphones on to tape the session. Tanya’s spoken voice sounded gorgeous on the radio and the band was actually funny. In their banter, I remember them talking about Pop Rocks exploding in your mouth when you mix it with Coca-Cola and they did a brilliant acoustic cover of ‘Thief’ (which I also had never heard before) featuring wonderful harmonies between Tanya & Gail.
So, off I went to the Astoria; I was very much underage, but thankfully tall, and had had to come up with some excuse to my parents to make it. Eager fans were already lining the side of the venue, many sitting on the pavement smoking in the blistering heat. I must have stood there for at least three hours before Belly took the stage and could barely contain my excitement. The (then) newly-signed Irish-band Scheer opened with a great set, and then it was time…
All I remember was the smoke parting (literally, people still smoked indoors) and Tanya Donelly appearing before me like some beautiful goddess about a meter away. It was everything I hoped it would be and more. Gail Greenwood was fierce and looked like she was flying across the stage with her bass, while the Gorman bros provided awesome affected guitars and pounding drums respectively. I felt my heart could explode from the energy in the room. (And, while such categorisations can be tiresome at times for a musician who happens to be female, it did mean a lot to me to see two women in a band, playing music I loved this much, kicking so much ass!)
By the last song, I started to feel really queasy and light-headed. Is this what a person feels like before passing out? I’d never fainted before but I felt I was going to if I didn’t make my way out of the mosh pit fast. I gestured to a bouncer towering by the front of the stage and he pulled me out of the pit. I struggled to make my way to the bar and grabbed a discarded cup of water and chugged it down (not ideal, but I was desperate!)
For their final track, Belly played ‘Feed the Tree’ from Star. From afar, I watched the crowd of people reeling in rapturous cheers, bopping up and down in a gleeful, unified mass. I made a note-to-self to dig out this new (in fact, older) song. After that I made my way home alone — that show was the highlight of my entire year.
I wrote a letter to my friend post-gig recounting the experience (this being pre-internet, though, I have no copy of the letter, only a vague remembrance of the time and excruciating care that went into composing it…)
That was the first show I ever saw that totally blew my mind. The room was on fire and the band was pure, transcendent rock n’roll. Seeing Belly inspire as much emotion, togetherness and magic made me feel such gatherings were one of the precious things life had to offer. I left the show transformed; the experience changed my life.