London Loves: When Blur Played Ally Pally

❉ This is (still) a high: Jay Bea looks back on a seminal Britpop event.

“To some, the date will mean nothing at all. To many of those who were there even, maybe it’s faded into the background. To those who hate (or have never heard of) any of the artists who played at the concert I attended, it will seem like a ‘so what?’ Whatever – my point is that everyone should have a day like this in their lives to look back on.”

Last Saturday I looked at the calendar and my heart leapt. The anniversary. The 25th anniversary no less of one of the best days of my life was almost upon me. The day (but more importantly the night) that burned into my retinas in the moment and fixed straight into my long-term memory like a film I can watch over and over again.

It was THE night that loving music translated into part of who I am, helped to inform my interests and choices, and friendships, and personal style, and views of the world – and oh, London! It’s the night that set me on the road to who I became, that helped forge my determination to work in the arts and become a professional writer. Ever since that night, I’ve thought that the world will always need music, but it will always need more music than we already have, because it’s the one pure thing that draws people together despite their differences, translates inner joy into outward smiles, then full-blown grins and onward to natural highs.

Can you tell that I was 17 back then?

To some, the date will mean nothing at all. To many of those who were there even, maybe it’s faded into the background. To those who hate (or have never heard of) any of the artists who played at the concert I attended, it will seem like a ‘so what?’ Whatever – my point is that everyone should have a day like this in their lives to look back on.

The entertainment was thus: Blur, Pulp, Corduroy, Supergrass – Alexandra Palace, London; Friday 7th October 1994.

Bunking off

I had to take a night off from stacking shower gel at Tesco (no bother to me but a worry to my mother, who was already obsessing about whether I could afford to make the leap from council flat to university – a distant year away yet, pah!). Nothing was going to stand in the way of this momentous occasion. A group of us from sixth form (and Tesco) had been obsessing about the date for weeks.

Pristine tickets tacked to bedroom walls were carefully transferred into purses and wallets, and we headed into central London at about 10am.

OK, some context: we were on our way to Ally Pally via the British Film Institute, on a trip organised by our superb A Level media studies teacher. This was to be followed by an event at the (now-defunct) Museum of the Moving Image. On any ordinary Friday we’d have been ecstatic to have been spending the day there in place of dull suburbia (London Travelcard Zones 4 and 5). But on this particular day we were livid.

Our gang stood on the South Bank at 3pm raging with the injustice of the imagined diary clash, and the certain knowledge that going into MoMI would mean us not being there when the doors opened. What if we missed something important, like Jarvis Cocker getting off the bus next to Wood Green Toys R Us, or Supergrass picking up a pre-gig kebab? It seemed too risky. So we bunked it, and headed for the Piccadilly Line in search of the giddy heights of Muswell Hill. Sorry, Mr Hunt.

Someone else there to record the event in all its glory was the NME’s Sylvia Patterson – one of my music journalism icons of the era (in a cool holy trinity with Caitlin and Miranda, two beautiful years before the tripe that was Girl Power was sicked up by a record company). Sylv’s review described the cultural significance of Ally Pally to London and music: “…a cartoon castle in the air, high above London in Ray Davies’s ‘manor’”. Gulp. No pressure.

She took a while to get warmed up at the gig, did Sylvia. Her assessments of the support came with saucers of milk for table 9: she described Supergrass as “…three skeletons doing an impersonation of The Ruts with Pete Shelley on nasal contortions… they are the disco-free bloke’s version of Shampoo.” Corduroy were “an ever-lasting comedy theme tune to a film starring Michael Caine, with no plot and numerous angle-poise hairdos”. Miaow. But funny.

Both bands, dear reader, survived Sylvia unscathed.

But I get it – she was on the clock, waiting for the big guns and the after-show party. All in good time, Sylvia. The rest of us were enjoying every minute of the build-up, starting in the Ally Pally pub.

Sophisticated followers of fashion

We felt like glamorous adults who had arrived, sipping goodness knows what acquired using really badly forged IDs (love the ’90s). We were taking in the London skyline to the distant buzz of Vespas trying to make it up the hill without choking. A flock of Mods gathered like preening peacocks and just kept on growing. We were in awe as the chant of ‘We are the Mods’ reached a crescendo – and then we were in the middle of it, singing it. We were in a movement, and not one band had yet played a note. Things got higher and higher. I don’t know whether the Mods were on uppers (likely) but I realised then that I was never going to need them if I had live music in my life.

Before we knew it, Pulp were on stage. Sylvia hit the nail on the head with the rest of her review (I’ve kept the clippings all this time). Pulp, she said, “suddenly sound like the future, by God, with Jarvis and his mesmeric foot-long finger gyrations prompting the night’s first proper pop screaming”. That screaming was definitely all me. I was right on the barrier, beneath Jarvis and his sweaty fringe, which dripped on to me (though I did wash the next day – I wasn’t that obsessive). I was pulled out by security at least three times and went back into the crush for more. There was no way I was sacrificing my place at the front for anything.

Sylvia recalls that someone in the crowd made a Mercury Music Prize joke about whether M-People were in the building. Not bloody likely. I’m sure their album was great/popular in its own way, but the judges massively misjudged the mood that year. From the NME write-up it’s clear that so many people thought something really special was happening in British guitar music in 1994: “Acrylic Afternoons, The First Time, Razzamatazz, and superb new epic Common People shimmer up round the ceiling’s glitterball to remind us why Pulp are the only moon fit to orbit round the blazing supernova of blur’s finest moment.”

At last, even though we were already so full, came the main course – via a pointless game of bingo in which we all ‘won’ the chance to see Blur (c’mon, man…). Blur performed their “bunch of invincible pop songs encased in carousel horn-pipe novelty icing… They’re irresistible”. Damon Albarn, amusingly in retrospect, announced that King of the Mods Phil Daniels would be doing Parklife with them for the very last time. To the End was described as “perfection” – and it really was. Jubilee “rocks the place asunder to a ’77 pile-up and we’re left with feedback yowling into outer space” (‘He dresses incorrectly, no-one told him seventeen’ – it was a sign!). This is a Low was a personal high for me. I stood mesmerised in front of the mighty Graham Coxon while his guitar played its beautiful, angry lament.

And then, it was all over. ‘We are the Mods’ – obviously a shout for Phil and the Quadrophenia crowd, but also now an anthem for us, the next generation – continued its urgent refrain, down the hill, all the way to the station, into the station, finally petering out when everyone went their separate ways. I think I must have left that place a full stone lighter thanks to perspiration, and I learned to tune out the ringing in my ears. I’d pogoed so much I got cramp halfway back to Wood Green, and had to be given a piggy back with my leg stuck out rigidly to one side. Great times.

Ugly, beautiful city

And so, to London. 1994 was also the year I fully realised that I’d grown up in and around our capital city. A city that had played such a significant role to date in the evolution of pop culture. I was proud of it. Sure, I was 11 miles out in the sticks, but it’s a big city! You could get all the way across its’ 30-odd mile diameter on a £3.70 travelcard back then.

Me and my friends needed no excuse to schlep over to labyrinthine Kensington Market, up to Camden (naturally) and to Carnaby Street, the Virgin Megastore and HMV on Oxford Street. We used to see members of our favourite bands walking around, and wave a casual hello with a flick of our fringes and bobs (flapping fans = uncool) – our need to get to venues early was no exaggeration!

I can’t overestimate how good it felt at times to be a nearly-adult in the mid-to-late 1990s – it was pre-internet, so those stupid pressures about how you look, and whether you wore the right clothes, were dialled down from where they are today. You had a fighting chance of being able to block out that sort of noise.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect time. But there was a real optimism about London that sadly seems to have dissolved. Whoever you were, this was the place – you could be whatever you wanted to be. You just had to go for it, work hard, and find a way. You had your friends, your music – whatever you needed to turn yourself into whatever you wanted. London was complicated, scuzzy, still a bit tumble-down. But real. It’s a bit of a contradiction in terms to get your head around – London looked vile, but it could be a positive place. The grime has been covered over with towering glass and metal, but in many ways it’s a lot uglier now.

This is, of course, subjective. Those who are having their youth now are – I sincerely hope – having their one great day to look back on, becoming who they want to be, and letting their interests help them take shape.

But I wouldn’t trade my place with them for the world. I’m happy being a person from my own time. My London may have changed, but I’ll always have my ticket stub, and my clippings from the NME, and my faded Travelcard, and that film of 7 October 1994 running on repeat in my mind. Another year has passed, but when I think of that day I’ll always be 17.

❉ Directed and edited by Matthew Longfellow and produced by Ceri Levy, the concert film ‘Blur: Showtime’ was  released in February 1995 by EMI/Picture Music International. DVD version is included on ‘Blur 21′, released 30 July 2012.

Jay Bea is a social historian and writer, blogging and (still) gigging around the outer edges of London. Her novel set during the Britpop era may see the light of day in 2021. Her social and cultural history website and podcast, 1,000 Londons, is in development. Twitter:  @London_and_East Instagram: @eeastlondonista. © Jay Bea, Originally published 7 October 2019. 

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