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2024
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Features

Mike’s long weekend

Intrepid gig goer, published author, merch man extraordinaire and boy about town Mike Philpott went on the road with the band early in August for a mammoth trek around the country for a hectic 4 gig weekend. Fresh from his travels, he was kind enough to provide a diary, written in his own wonderful style, of that roadtrip. Over to Mike:

4 gigs within about 40 hours of each other, the best part of 1000 miles in a van, and ever-growing noise in the media about heatwaves and travel chaos. What could possibly go wrong?

Well very little actually. Tucked up safely back in the South relatively early on Sunday morning were several very tired, but undoubtedly buzzed up for all the right reasons, band members, crew and hangers-on (I know my place).

We started out from Worthing at 8.00am on Thursday morning. The van was air-conditioned, had inbuilt wi-fi and Apple TV available, and best of all seemed to feature fully working controls and engine functionality, both of which were a step up from previous recent trips and several levels up from the last gig when the van didn’t actually make it out of the Fenton Towers driveway. Steve quickly settled into routine travel mode, backgammon on the iPad, occasional comments about the transfer market a couple of days before the welcome return of the football season, and varied playlists emanating from the now vintage iPod, all whilst juggling a travel flask full of tea which he staunchly refuses to put a lid on. Dave crawled straight up to the makeshift bed on the back shelf and claimed it as his own well before we got anywhere near Michael’s house, and was subsequently not seen until we reached somewhere in the actual North.

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RFest Blackpool 2022

We picked Michael and his collection of oddly shaped equipment up (they are mostly round, what CAN they contain?), loaded up and headed up to Guildford to collect Tim, who loaded himself and his attitude onboard, and we settled in for the long journey to Hull. Branka sat in the front and told Mike the driver where to go. Several times.

Neither the heatwave nor the traffic materialised, and we ended up arriving over two hours ahead of schedule, so we headed to that night’s hotel in Scunthorpe to check-in and have a leisurely siesta. Branka elected to get in a bit of sightseeing, and as we had already seen the steelworks and Morrison’s petrol station from the van window, she set off for the retail park to look at lampshades.

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Enjoying the sights of Scunny

And so to Hull, to the New Adelphi, for the first of the four gigs. This club has something of a reputation as a legendary grassroots venue played by every single band that has ever existed in the whole of actual history on their “way up”, and upon arrival it clearly had all of the attributes that such a place should exhibit. The tiny stage with no room for more than one and a bit drum kits, the “room out the back” that you couldn’t access as it was full of stuff being stored, and the dressing room that was either accessed by walking through the tiny bar and ducking to avoid banging your head or through the other entrance via a dark room where electricity had yet to be discovered. Perfect. The rather strange, pickled heads of Jarvis Cocker, Mark E Smith, that bloke out of Super Furry Animals (this one looked a bit like Geoff Capes) and someone else I can’t quite remember sat in bottles and adorned the shelf on top of the cut-off front of a bus that occupied one corner of the dressing room. They weren’t real. The walls were plastered with suspiciously recent-looking poster prints advertising every single band that has ever existed in the whole of actual history’s gig from when they played in the venue on their “way up”. It was undeniably quirky, and only slightly spooky.

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History documented out the back

But to business. That there were a few issues setting up and sound checking is undeniable, but once things got going the professionalism that everyone knows and loves about this incredible bunch of people kicked in. Shaun had sorted out any logistical issues that existed, Tim had worked his usual technical genius, and the band arrived onstage ready and able, and they delivered in style. I flogged a few T-shirts and Branka wandered around with a mobile phone a bit. All was well and all was normal.

With the exception of the behind closed doors first gig after the Covid hiatus filmed for last year’s film and DVD recording, the band’s set has, recently, necessarily been fairly uniform. The “New Clear Days” set played during last year’s tour and other isolated headline gigs, together with the cut down version played regularly on shorter support and festival slots have hit the spot and have been well appreciated. I had assumed that the Hull set would follow the same pattern, and I had no idea that this was not going to be the case, but as the band took the stage and Michael grinned along to a drummed opening that was most definitely not the intro to “Prisoners”, the band launched into traditional set opener from ye olden times “Secret Noise”. Without consulting the gig lists I’m going to guess that the last time this was played live was at Portmeirion in 2019, and to be honest it didn’t matter what they did from then on at Hull, this fan was, as they say, happy as Larry. Whoever he is.

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Suzanne leading the dancing out front

The set was pretty much perfect, with the usual favourites interspersed with some classics not heard for a while, and out of the blue, the-best-Vapors-song-ever-written™ “Galleries for Guns” got its first live airing for equally as long a time, closely followed by “Sunstroke”, and perhaps even more surprisingly, that hugely underrated classic from the “Magnets” album “Silver Machines”. Whilst the venue was certainly full, it appeared that the good people of Hull were determined to mull around as close to the bar as possible and there was a bit of a gap in front of the stage. No matter. Suzanne, who had made the long trip up from South London for this one gig only, barged her way through to the front and showed the way, others followed her lead, and the atmosphere for the remainder of the gig was superb, right up to and through the usual end of set highlights.

A quick load-out, and a short drive back to Scunthorpe’s Premier hotel (maybe), and contemplation about the following day when there would be the small matter of a cross-country trip to a lunchtime festival gig in Blackpool and an evening charity gig in Barnoldswick followed. Everyone got a good early night, absolutely no-one went to Steve and Dan’s room to drink absolutely any alcohol at all until ridiculous o’clock, and absolutely no-one got only three hours sleep. Probably.

The crack of the Scunthorpe dawn was not a beautiful thing, but everyone witnessed it as required. Some of them didn’t even need waking up by anyone shrill. Because of load-in times, parking and all sorts of other logistical concerns around entry to the R-Fest site on Blackpool seafront, the plan was to drive to that evening’s hotel in Barnoldswick where Shaun would leave his car and hop in the van for the last leg to Blackpool. The result was a spectacularly beautiful drive through the Yorkshire Dales to the North-West of Bradford, up and down hills, round sharp bends, past a million incredible summer morning views framed by dry stone walls, grass banks and thousands of cows and into Lancashire.

And then we had McMuffins.

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The cloud at the end of the silver lining. In Colne. I think.

So we got to Blackpool. Irrespective of whatever its good or bad points are, this is a town like no other. As soon as the motorway trickles to its end, and the fields give way to urban sprawl and light industrial units and then in turn to supermarkets and terraced streets, the distant skyline appears, dominated from afar by the Blackpool Tower and that silly great big rollercoaster thing. The sky becomes a panorama of unbroken light as you head west towards those unmovable metallic landmarks before you suddenly break through the town and onto that long, infinite promenade with its wide sandy beaches, unnecessary numbers of piers, never-ending chip shops, arcades, bars and cafes. On this occasion it also meant arriving at the venue for what was, in this commentator’s humble opinion at least, one of the most astonishing gigs ever played by The Vapors.

We checked in, equipment was loaded straight up to the stage, and we were shown to the dressing room and perused the best toilets ever seen at a festival backstage area ever (Fact). Slightly daunted by the R-Fest line-up stamped on the dressing room wall (and slightly wishing we could stay there all day), I took the opportunity of not having to flog any merch and legged it out the back into Blackpool to meet Owen and Jacquie, who (wisely or otherwise) had decided that staying the full weekend at Rebellion and enjoying the incredible full festival line-up was preferable to a bonkers Vapors mini-tour. We had a quick coffee and reassembled somewhere near the back of the arena. We bumped into local Vapors stalwart Docs, the inevitable bunch of Stranglers fans, and many other long-time gig buddies besides, before making our way to the front of the stage as The Herd boomed out of the PA.

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Follow that if you can

And then something incredible happened.

The band came on, and they played “Prisoners”. All as normal then. Except the sound was absolutely perfect. Every note, every word was crystal clear, and the crowd were immediately on-board. The song finished, the crowd roared, and I turned round and raised myself up on my remaining tiptoes to look back to where we had just walked from. And the arena was full. Not just a bit busy, but full full. Like, really full. I have no idea where all these people had come from all of a sudden, as they hadn’t been there five minutes ago, but suddenly we were in a massive outdoor arena that seemed to be packed to the catering areas (no rafters outdoors), and within which the acoustics were as good as any you’ll find in somewhere that has got actual rafters. And suddenly we were into a 45-minute set that as usual contained the requisite bunch of classics and new songs, but seemed as energetic, alive, and relevant as it has ever done. The atmosphere amongst the crowd was amazing and bearing in mind this was the opening set on a very long, high-quality bill, the reaction to the band was deafeningly positive. During “Turning Japanese” I decided I needed to start fighting my way through the huge crowd so as the heavens opened for a biblical scale downpour which was thankfully the only weather blight on the whole weekend I skulked up the side of the arena as far back as I could get before the crowd started thinning out. Which was an extraordinarily long way.

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Dan and the huge crowd

As the haunting guitar intro of “Letter from Hiro” engulfed the Central Promenade area, I witnessed a huge crowd, totally transfixed by, and totally absorbed within, the performance they were completely locked into.

The sound was perfect, the crowd were onboard, the songs, well you know about them, but as is so often the case when the band are playing a run of gigs and have got through the first one, their performance was flawlessly impeccable. Dave is in great form, Dan continues to grow his role as a right smartarse rock star show-off, but he’s good enough to carry it off and then some. And Steve and Michael? Well you know what you’re getting there don’t you. Their mesmeric perfection and astonishing ability is as big a contributor as the songwriter’s lyrics and singing are, and the rhythm and lead guitars are, towards making these songs exactly what they are, a colossal wall of quality that is considerably greater than the sum of its parts. The phrase “consummate professionals” doesn’t come close to covering it, they were that good, and more, on that Friday lunchtime.

Backstage afterwards was a high adrenaline celebration, and rightly so. Dan stated categorically that as far as he was concerned it had been the best gig this line-up had ever played. Steve employed some mathematics and some logic to calculate that it may actually have been the biggest crowd that they had ever played to. Dave spent a lot of time smiling, and Michael shouted “Yay” quite a lot. Branka wandered around quite quickly with a mobile phone.

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Biblical style downpour didn’t dampen spirits

Thing is, they were right. Not for the last time that day, as I wandered back behind stage during “Letter From Hiro” I had increasingly moist eyes. This gig really did feel special, and once again when I thought I’d seen it all with this band that I’m so lucky to have the pleasure to spend time with so regularly, they raised the bar again.

So how do you follow that?

Well you get back in the van, drive back into deepest Lancashire, and play a charity gig to 50 people in a semi-private basement club the same evening. Obviously.

So we headed back up into the Pendle Hills into the attractive small market town of Barnoldswick. Apparently it used to be in Yorkshire, but now it’s in Lancashire. I’m sure that’s not important though. Peter Barton, who runs a management agency that represents some of the bands that you and me all love, was waiting for us in the street as we arrived, and we unloaded into the basement venue he has acquired and transitioned, with style, into the Barnoldswick Music and Arts Centre.

In a nutshell… A classically inviting northern pub with a well-stocked main bar, several small and cosy rooms within which to enjoy the plentiful and varied range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks on offer and the kitchen’s quality output. A small garden area, stone staircases that lead up and down a characteristic rabbit warren design through more snug rooms, and a winding staircase down to a basement music venue with a small bar of its own, a small stage, some rows of cinema seats plucked from who knows where, and a memorabilia collection around the wall that puts several museums in the shade. Hell on earth as I’m sure you can imagine.

As the soundcheck took place it felt like the place was already half full with 10 of us in there, and Branka wandered around really, really quickly with a mobile phone. Unfortunately she chose to do so with the camera on at the same time as the band were running through GFG again, and on this occasion managed to capture me with the most gormless smile on my face that was, in actual fact, choking back tears because there is JUST SOMETHING MAGICAL ABOUT THAT SONG that buries me somewhere in 1981 every time I hear it. And this time it was up close and personal. Just beautiful.

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Unsuccessfully masking tears from prowling photographer

The mood was good as the buzz of Blackpool settled into a contented early evening collective smile, and the band set up on the stage, which may have been the smallest they’ve ever played on, but in any case was about a hundredth of the size they’d played on four hours earlier. We disappeared upstairs for some food, and I came back down again to find that the place was now packed to the (actual this time) rafters and I fought my way over to the area that I had tried, with limited success as it transpired, to set up as a makeshift merch stall.

Although it seemed like about 24 weeks since the Hull gig 24 hours previously, the set was, broadly speaking, the same. Which was, of course, perfect due to the inclusion of GFG. One of the interesting things about going from gig to gig is getting a feel for the audience in terms of why they’re there. There’s always the “local interest” fans who see that The Vapors are playing, probably have a passing recollection of the band, (or at least of that song), and pop along; there’s always some local fans who know the band’s catalogue inside out and wouldn’t miss out on a gig within a 50-mile radius of their hometown; there’s always the “just popped along out of interest” and the “I’ve come because my mum/dad/sibling/uncle/aunt/boss/drinking buddy/etc has brought me” people; and there’s always the “Haven’t seen them since they supported The Jam in 1979” crowd. And then there’s the ones who have the badges, got the T-shirts, know all about the band, probably saw them several times over in 79/80/81 and live and breathe their music. I have no favourite classification amongst this lazy piece of generalised stereotyping, I just love chatting with people at Vapors gigs because of that love we share, however what was noticeable at Barnoldswick was the over proportionately high percentage of the latter category. Combined with the small size of the venue, this led to an audience concentration level that rivalled that seen at ballet or high-brow opera. This was a crowd that was bought in as a person to what they were witnessing. There was zero in-song intra-audience conversation, no gig-long mobile phone interrogation, and not a single whispered “When they will play that song I know?”. The whole thing felt like the band had rocked up and played in a mate’s front room, with the between-song conversations between band and audience making it feel like a successful wedding party. Without the fight. 50 people in Barnoldswick was most definitely very different to 10,000 people in Blackpool but coming as it did later in the same day, there was something truly remarkable about the way it rounded off a memorable few hours.

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Up close & personal, Barnoldswick

The gig was held as a fundraiser for Peter Barton’s “Concert For The Kids” series, raising money for local children’s hospital equipment.

So a very happy bunch of campers disembarked to their various local accommodation points for the evening. Tellingly, everyone went straight to bed. This is not normal.

But it was a good thing, because everyone was up bright-ish and not quite so early for another early start. Steve was checked out and had his luggage out to the van before anyone else. This is even less normal.

However, we were rewarded with the gift of a small bakery knocking out breakfast baps directly opposite the previous night’s venue, which to describe as “welcome” would be like describing “Galleries for Guns” as just another B-side. And if anyone ever has an hour or two spare, ask Michael about their “Yorkshire Pasties”. And off we set for Durham.

Another beautiful journey followed as we skirted to the north of the Dales, and through the increasingly hilly spine of North Yorkshire up to the A1 before heading even northerer. Some of the remarkably un-hungover inhabitants of the van oohed and ached at the stunning natural beauty, enhanced by the glorious early morning sunshine and sparkling rivers and streams we crossed. Others didn’t. But either way we still got there quick, and finished with a drive through Durham City Centre, another beautiful place in its own right, and to the site for the Stone Valley Festival’s northern edition to the west of the city. The van had seemed roomier than normal, and this was because Dan was not on board, as he was making the trip south to a long-arranged wedding commitment. So Shaun dropped him off at Leeds to try his luck with the trains and then followed us up to Durham.

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It’s not all motorway out of that van window

Upon arrival we instantly met up with the ever dependable and increasingly astonishing Phil Thompson, who would be assuming lead guitar duties for the day. Phil plugged in and setup with the others quickly and seamlessly in the short time available between the end of the previous band’s set and theirs, and I managed to sneak my way round and barge myself into a spot leaning on the front barrier.

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Dave, SVF North

It was certainly a very different festival to the one the day before, with the main stage being set round the corner in a huge, grassy, tree-lined arena, and us tucked away in a huge tent in the corner at right angles to the main stage, but it was the same story as the band came on, with a similar mass arrival of people out of nowhere and another wonderfully appreciative audience filling the arena to the tent rafters.

The band came on and launched into the set, opening with “Prisoners” and once again making light of any potentially difficult sound conditions by being as tight as ever and filling the space with, well, those songs… There was no hint of tiredness as they launched into the fourth set in 40 hours, in fact the energy level was extraordinarily high, perhaps buoyed by the unmitigated triumphs that had unfolded the previous day.

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Steve & Phil, Durham

From the front of the stage it appeared that Michael was having increasing difficulty keeping his cymbals in something like an upright position, with several interventions from Tim, Shaun and someone with a roll of gaffer tape being required before stability was achieved. After I retreated back to the side of the stage I could see why – he hadn’t been hitting the things any harder than usual (is that even possible?), and although the brakes on the stage’s movable elevated drum riser’s wheels seemed to be holding well, there was an undoubted shakiness about the whole construction, and it did seem possible that he might find himself shifting forward slowly in situ whilst eventually picking up momentum and raining himself down on the front row whilst still drumming away undaunted. He didn’t though. Although Steve did ask proudly afterwards whether we’d seen his cat-like dive during the set to save Dave’s pint, which, a bit like some of those houses on the tops of cliffs in high-erosion areas started a foot back from the front of Michael’s riser at the beginning of “Turning Japanese” but was just about to fall off the front when Steve swooped so dramatically. We hadn’t. Sorry Steve, the moment is lost.

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The incredible immovable drummer

“Hiro” came and went at the end of the set, and it was a quick van load, a quick beer, a quick bite to eat, and a long trip home. Except Phil, who had the small matter of a trip back to Blackpool for a Rezillos gig at Rebellion that night. Unbelievable.

Back in Worthing by midnight, with the English road system having not even managed to screw this slightly mad schedule up in any way at all over its entirety, a very successful, very enjoyable weekend was reflected upon by all over several Stellas.

Because I’m not Owen Carne, I long ago lost count of how many Vapors gigs I may have been at over the years now. It would clearly be completely ridiculous to suggest that I haven’t enjoyed some more than others, or that they were all of the same standard, or even that I’ve afforded each and every set an equal level of concentration over the years. But this was a weekend where all the good things coincided. For two of the gigs I was able to sell merch from a stand with a perfect view of the stage, and for the two festival shows I was able to enjoy incredibly well received, incredibly well played, and incredibly good sounding sets in their entirety from the front of the stage, with the band on their best form throughout.

With gigs coming up this year in Brighton, Guildford and Aberdare, in Hastings (with From The Jam), at the Great British Alternative Festival in Skegness, in Worthing, and then across a full UK headline tour in January, February and March, there’s ample opportunity to get out and catch the band as they enter the seventh year since they reformed. And of course, there’s the small matter of a weekend in Wales at the end of November. It’s as if those 35 years away never happened. Well yeah OK, but you know what I mean. Get out and keep supporting them, because they’re still at the top of their game and they’re still doing it at an incredibly high standard.

Thanks to Mike for his meandering rantings. If you’d like to read more of his random outpourings on life and all things Vapors, you can buy his brilliant book ‘Time’s Gonna Make You A Man Some Day’ online or from the man himself at the merch stand at gigs. He will sign it too if you ask nicely (or even if you don’t). He will also be producing a strictly limited expanded deluxe second edition with updated text and extra photos which will be available in time for the Portmeirion weekend. All profits going to Parkinsons UK.

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