Outside, it betrays its origins as the Regal Cinema, a stark, plain and grimy object from an era when people uttered the words “shopping precinct” as if such a thing were the height of sophistication, and thought nothing of stripping the old Palladium Picture Playhouse of its baroque Edwardian façade. Inside, it is dirty and seedy, a big sweaty pit. Leather-jacketed goth girls in fishnets are selling fanzines. Carpets are sticky with beer (I hope it’s beer). The crowd is a seething mass packed so tight it threatens to burst through the walls. An ever-present threat of violence. In 1983, cigarette lighters are for lighting fags, regardless of the hairsprayed, tinderbox of spikes sticking into your face, not for waving in faux-emotional, middle-of-the-road, Coldplaying sing-a-longs.
In 1983, gigs are lit by fury, not the glow of a mobile-phone screen.
I have never been in such a crowd before. I realise there is no way I’m going to get to the front. Years later, I will see photos of the interior of the venue, close-ups of its architectural details. Tonight, any such details are lost in the darkness.
This is the best imaginable venue, I think to myself. A perfect balcony for those taking it easy, a gently sloping floor for the more active. The acoustics at the rear of a cinema are just right, too – engineers will tell you about the effects of a gently curving rear wall and a circle above and, tonight, you can genuinely feel it.
The air is thick with smoke, some of it legal, some not. The only people moving are the bouncers – dangerous-looking men, some clutching small plastic bags of grass that they hold up to potential customers. You can hardly make out what they’re saying, but choose your drug, they’ve got it.
I’d known this place by sight from earlier visits to the area, and its status as the location for Channel 4’s Whatever You Want. I’d left school early, travelled fifty miles by coach, and made my way to south London. I was excited. Outside the gig, everything was as I’d expected: loads of scruffy, desperate-looking punks, then arty punks, then proto-goths, then old-school gig-going “leather jacket and combat trousers” types (probably all working in the City these days). Some waiting in vain hope of getting a ticket, some trying to blag their way in. Later, I’d read reports that 1,000 people were turned away; I was glad I’d got a ticket.
And this for a band who had been written off by critics five years earlier. If The Damned weren’t fashionable any more, no one had told the crowds around me.
Now suddenly, the stage. It is time.
Noise strikes my ears. The crowd erupts. There’s someone else up there too, on top of the speakers – a man, half-dancing, half-crouching. Crouching so he doesn’t lose his balance and topple down, or so his Mohican doesn’t hit the ceiling, perhaps. Next thing, he’s on the stage, being hustled away by bouncers.
Constant stage invasions by pissed punks follow. Dance for a few seconds, wait till the bouncer gets close, jump back into the crowd. People sitting on other people’s shoulders, people walking across the crowd. Chanting. Screaming. Singing along. Band insults audience – audience insults band. Blokes staggering out – shirts in tatters – eyes wide open, staring, get out of their way.
And then a crush. Not going forward this time, but coming back towards me. This isn’t right. I’m pushed up some steps behind me. I can see two men on the floor below me now, fighting. Suddenly, one runs wildly into the crowd – is that blood?
His opponent, now standing alone, a knife held threateningly in his hand. Two thousand eyes on him. The exit door opening. A gang of burly men pushing through towards him. The knifeman is wearing a familiar T-shirt, one that matches those of all the men around him. If bouncers aren’t already scary enough, now they’ve started stabbing people. Word goes around: a drug deal gone wrong.
The men walk away as if nothing has happened. Their power goes unchallenged. The crowd fills the space and I notice that, amid the chaos of violence, the band haven’t missed a note. And so it continues. More stage invasions and stage diving. Two encores – three encores? Does it matter? “Three Years of Anarchy, Chaos and Destruction”, The Damned said; this is one hour of the same.
Three decades on, I know that it was probably the best gig I ever saw. The perfect band in the perfect venue for anyone not on the wrong end of a blade, on a March night in 1983, in Brixton, at The Ace.