It was the summer of 1983. I was seventeen years old. One of those youths who loved music and yearned â€“ like so many others â€“ to be part of something that would be â€śmineâ€ť. I had seen reviews of their first single, and was aware of the beginnings of a â€śbuzzâ€ť about this band, but I didnâ€™t take too much notice. Until I found myself travelling down to London to stay at my big sisterâ€™s flat. Now, her flatmates were, in the eyes of a seventeen-year-old â€“ and for want of a better word â€“ cool. They seemed to know everyone. In conversation, the names of singers and musicians â€“ all regulars from the pages of the NME â€“ whoâ€™d been round the flat for a cup of tea kept popping up. I was mightily impressed.
One night they took me out. Up to Camden: couple of beers, round to visit some bloke from Scritti Politti at his squat, then to Dingwalls to see The Smiths. Walking there, I was amazed to hear the words â€śOh â€“ didnâ€™t I mention it? We’re on the guest list.â€ť It was getting better by the minute. I could just see myself back at school telling all this to the handful of people who would actually be impressed.
Camden by night was all new to me. Iâ€™d been to the market before, but never been to Dingwalls. The place was legendary. Everyone had played there. Each week, Iâ€™d see the clubâ€™s distinctive logo of a sunglasses-wearing crow on the adverts printed in the NME, look at the gig list, and think about how much I needed to go there.
Stepping off the main road into the stables area was like stepping onto the set of a black and white film. A place haunted by the voices of every bargee who ever plied his trade on the Regentâ€™s Canal. Long low buildings, archways, fly-posters on dirty brick walls, cobblestones, warehouses and walkways, scruffy people sitting around, can-in-hand: this was Camden before big business moved in. The old painted Dingwalls logo on the wall. Fading paint from an earlier age. A post-industrial landscape â€“ everything I love. The sort of place that looks its best in the rain.
The let-down began at the door: they were on the guest list â€“ I wasnâ€™t. Then, stepping inside, the club wasnâ€™t what I expected. Low ceiling? Yes. Bar? Yes. Crowded? Yes again. Loud, dark and sweaty? Abso-bloody-lutely. Fruit Machine? A Fruit machine! Iâ€™m here to see the countryâ€™s hottest new indie band and thereâ€™s a fruit machine. Surely thatâ€™s the antithesis of the geeky indie-boy aesthetic? And, hang on, thatâ€™s Lemmy playing on it! I was expecting grey raincoats, not cowboy hats and boots.
My next shock was the bar prices. How much for a pint? Out of my price range, Iâ€™m afraid. In those days before easily available overdrafts and endless bank machines, hard cash was everything. You couldnâ€™t just pass a card to the barman. Spend it all in the bar and youâ€™d be walking home. No more beer for me tonight.
Then I realise thereâ€™s another problem. Weâ€™ve turned up late. Itâ€™s crowded. Itâ€™s a warm summerâ€™s day. Can I be bothered to push my way through the crowd to reach the front? And there are pillars everywhere: not so much holding the ceiling up as dragging it down. And the damn things get in the way and block your view. Hang on a moment, there are video screens: Iâ€™ll watch the gig on them.
So, ten yards away are the future of British pop music, working hard to impress the London audience. And all I can see is a scratchy black and white image â€“ at least, itâ€™s black and white in my memory â€“ of four blokes crowded onto the stage. I canâ€™t remember one song. If Morrissey was waving flowers around, I didnâ€™t see it. Hearing aid? National Health Glasses? No memory of those whatsoever. Deliciously jangling guitar chords? A solid rhythm section? Not where I was standing. More like a wall of sound â€“ and not in a good way.
Iâ€™ve read reviews that talk of a rapturous crowd, stage invasions and two encores. I suppose I missed that as well. I wasnâ€™t overly impressed. The most memorable thing about that night was getting locked in Elephant and Castle tube station and having to be let out by the cleaners.
A few weeks later, This Charming Man came out to rapturous reviews, and I bought it. It was wonderful, they were far better than I remembered them sounding. That said, however brilliant it was, it was the first and last Smiths record I ever purchased. Iâ€™d had my â€śmomentâ€ť and then the bubble had burst. As everyone else started to get into them, I got out. It was probably a case of being deliberately and wilfully elitist. Cutting off my nose to spite my face â€“ and cutting myself off from some of the greatest pop music of my generation.
I never saw The Smiths again but, in the months and years that followed, whenever someone mentioned them, I could always say, â€śYeah, saw them at Dingwalls in â€™83. Before they were famous.â€ť
It was almost true.
P.S. Did I ever tell you about the time I couldnâ€™t be bothered to go to see New Order in the week they released their first single?â€¦