I have just- and I mean just- returned from a highly enjoyable jaunt to Belfast. Come with me now, to a place where taxis contain unsuspecting celebrities one day, then start to fall apart in a scary part of town the next...
It's 8 a.m. yesterday and I'd normally be making my way up to The Dominion Theatre in London's West End to help Stuart the guitar repair man tend to the 'We Will Rock You' guitars. But this Thursday is different- the long-suffering Shirley drops me at Heathrow Airport where I'm meeting up with top tribute band Utter Madness . They bear a distinct resemblance to The F.B.I. Band who I last played with at the start of June; Tony the singer and Ian the saxman often dep with us and one of the other acts that they work in together is a Madness tribute band of no little repute. After checking in I went through security before getting a call from Ian to say that the rest of the band would be through soon- Richard's on keyboards, Jon's on bass, Stuart's on drums and Ray is... well, he's on backing vocals but also acts out various characters from the promo videos- basically, he plays Chas Smash in the band. I'd not met the rest of the band before but they're a friendly bunch; there's time for a coffee (Tony distinguishes himself by being disappointed that there's no Guinness available in our chosen eaterie- it's 9 o'clock in the morning!) before heading off to gate 78 (shouldn't that be 'Gate 49'?) to catch the 9.55 flight to Belfast International Airport. We're playing at The Feile an Fhobail- the 'Festival Of The People'- which takes place every year in West Belfast. It's a gathering that I've played at before as when I was with Neck we supported The Undertones in a large tent in Andersontown, the story of which I never tire of recounting to anybody who'll listen... buy me a drink sometime and I'll tell it again!
When you say to people that you're going to Belfast it never fails to get a reaction. Some people look at you like you're mad; others actually tell you that you're mad, and occasionally they will even go on to tell you why you're mad. This normally involves predictions of varying degrees of violence, gunfire, explosions... there are surely fewer places that are more associated with what's generally referred to as 'The Troubles' than Belfast. For what my opinion's worth I've rarely met friendlier people, and from a musical point of view have never had a bad gig there; whilst it would be churlish to suggest that there's not a polar opposite to both of these opinions that's my experience of the city, and I'm pleased to say that this visit has only reinforced it. Maybe I've just been lucky?
With the help of the latest edition of 'Guitarist' magazine the flight passes swiftly, and in no time at all Jon and myself are collecting our guitars (undamaged- thank you Aer Lingus!) and joining the rest of the band at the pre-arranged pick-up point at the front of the airport. We're due to take 2 taxis to our hotel- one arrives with enough room for 4 of us so myself, Jon and Ray wait for the larger (we've got guitar cases!) second one. It turns out that it had already left as another festival performer had already been picked up in it, but it hadn't got too far away and so turned around and came back for us. It's an 8-seater minibus driven by Ciaran, we loaded our stuff into the back and got in, saying hello to the 2 people already on board as we did. One of them looked very familiar indeed... after a bit of slightly awkward small talk Jon asks one them a question-
'Excuse me- are you Alexei Sayle?'
The reply comes with a smile.
'Yes I am'.
I ask what in retrospect could be seen as a rather peculiar question.
'Do a lot of people ask you that?'
The reply comes with a laugh.
'Yes, they do'.
I ask what is possibly an even more peculiar question.
'Do you always say that you are?'
The reply comes with a bigger laugh.
'Yes I do. Well, I am'.
The atmosphere's lighter. That's better. By the time we get to our hotel Alexei (we're on first name terms now!) has regaled us with tales everything from his appearance on The Late Late Show ('if I'd have known it was that popular I would have taken it more seriously!') to how and why he missed out on a Golden Rose of Montreux award ('one of the judges was an undercover priest who said I'd been rude about The Pope at a gig in Dublin; they gave me a silver rose instead') as well as asking us about the band and much more besides. He seemed like a very nice chap 'though attempts to get him to join us for a rendition of 'Doctor Marten Boots' sadly fell on stony ground. Maybe we should have asked for 'Ullo John! Gotta new motor?'
Our hotel (The Malone Lodge since you asked) is excellent- after checking in (I've got room 204 all to myself- hurrah!) it's all down to the bar for a drink and to discuss tactics for the rest of the day. We're due to be picked up to go to the venue for a soundcheck at 4.30 so there's plenty of time for some food (vegetarian quiche and chips- superb!) and a sleep (I'm old ok!) before meeting in the lobby at the allotted time. We're playing at The Andersontown Leisure Centre- Ciaran offers to show us around town on our way to the airport the next morning which we all agree would be a great idea. As we arrive at the venue I notice that the barber's opposite is called Hair Ratios; earlier I'd spotted a fish and chip shop called The Codfather, and near the hotel there's a Thai restaurant called Thai Tanic. Hmm... I remember the first time I came to Ireland I thought that the fast food shop opposite couldn't possibly be called Abrakebabra and that I really must get my eyes tested when I get home...
We're playing in the sports hall, a large and somewhat echoey room which has huge (and I mean huge) portraits of Irish musicians on the walls- everyone from Rory Gallagher to Shane MacGowan and from Phil Lynott to Van Morrison. I've got a Fender Hot Rod Deville to use (oh yes!) and soundcheck seems to take ages- probably because it does... after running through 'Our House' 3 times we decide that 'the room needs a few people in it', which roughly translates as 'hope lots of people turn up to soak up some of the sound'... we return to hotel for some food and to hope lots of people turn up to soak up the sound.
When we get back to the venue the support band Gangsters are preparing to go on stage. They've been around for a while (click here for a 10 year old clip of them on Irish TV- I think only the singer remains in the band today) and their energetic performance warms up the rapidly arriving (thank God!) audience nicely, with the dancefloor full by the end of their set. We get our photo taken in the dressing room with some of the festival organisers and then it's our turn- as I pick my guitar up I reflect on the fact that I'm about to play 20-odd songs that I've never played live before (I've been playing along with the original recordings but that's not quite the same) with a band that for the most part I met for the first time earlier that day, in a room full of people in what some people would consider to be one of the most dangerous areas in the country, if not the world. Let's hope I've done my homework correctly... we start with 'One Step Beyond' and the place goes, if you pardon the expression, mad. I have a couple of shaky moments, not least with some of the endings (ever noticed how many of their songs fade out?!?) which I'd obviously never heard before, but I get through it all pretty much unscathed. Halfway through 'Rockin' in A Flat' I look to my left to see Ray standing in his underpants behind the P.A. stack; as the next song 'Night Boat To Cairo' starts he emerges in shorts and a pith helmet. Excellent. For the encore we play such well-known Madness songs as 'Too Much Too Young', 'Lip Up Fatty' and, er, 'Parklife', all of which drive the audience to new heights of mayhem (incidentally the explanation for these seemingly unconnected tunes appearing in the set is simple- the band will often play a set of ska covers alongside their Madness set; then again that still doesn't really explain 'Parklife' does it?!?) A final repeat of 'One Step Beyond' finishes off a great gig.
As we're leaving for the hotel a couple of young ladies stop the bus looking for Ian, who they refer to as 'the grey-haired horny boy'; I don't think I've ever seen anybody look as frightened as Ian did as he was trying to get under his seat.
It's 10 a.m. today and we take Ciaran up on his offer of a tour around town. As we're waiting outside our hotel for him to arrive a lady comes out to get her taxi; she's obviously forgotten something so goes back into the hotel to fetch it, smiling at us as she does so... it's the woman off of 'Father Ted'- you know, the one that's always saying 'go on go on go on'... oh, what's her name..?
It seems a shame to leave celebrity central but a very interesting time beckons, in which Ciaran takes us for what he calls 'a short tour of political Belfast'. We pass through a Loyalist area, spray painted on the walls are the letters 'K.A.T.' which he explains stand for 'kill all taigs'... in the Republican part of town he takes us to Bombay Street, shows us part of the peace wall then stops on the Falls Road to let us take pictures of some of the famous murals, his running commentary keeping us enthralled 'though his mood changes as we head for the Shankill Road where he says he has to watch himself... we pull onto it and there are Union Jacks everywhere, on flagpoles, in windows, even strung across the streets. As we stop at some traffic lights there's an odd sound from the back of the minibus, a cross between a clang and a clunk, we joke that something's fallen off but as we pull away it becomes obvious that something has and Ciaran's worried, not so much by the damage to the bus but because he'll have to get out to look and people will know that he's not from a Loyalist area... we pull off into a side street and he gets out, walks around the back of the bus for a few seconds then opens the side door with the words 'put this under your seat will you'- it's part of the exhaust pipe...
He looks terrified. I don't blame him.
He starts the minibus, expecting the worst- but we pull away and it seems to be ok (well, as 'ok' as it can be under the circumstances!) 'though he's on the phone telling of how he 'nearly shit himself'... incredibly our tour continues, to the Ardoyne, to the area of the Falls Road where Gaelic is the main language spoken- and then to the road that leads us back to the airport. It had been an fascinating, enlightening hour or so- do people really treat each other like that?
Yes, sadly, they do. I've never been much of a patriot and I've certainly never been a royalist- what I saw and heard this morning has reminded me why I never will be.
The flight home is a bit bumpier than the one there (why is it that when they tell you to keep your seat belt on 'in case of unexpected turbulence' there's always some unexpected turbulence?!?) but not too bad really. We walk through to collect our luggage and I say goodbye to people who I only met for the first time yesterday but who somehow already feel like friends. As I go over to collect my guitar I see a midget standing next to the OUTSIZE BAGGAGE sign; for one insane moment I decide that someone had put them through as outsize baggage... there's a punchline there somewhere but I for one am not quite sure what it is. Madness madness, they called it madness...