It was becoming imperative that I attend a gig. The first- fine I’ll admit it- the only- metal concert I had ever been to was in 1995, when I accompanied my younger brother and his friends to see Korn at the Manchester Academy. The only reason they allowed me to come was because I could drive, and when I picked them up they were alarmed to see that I was wearing heels. In Liverpool in the 1990s it was unthinkable for a girl to wear trainers unless she was actually exercising. But in Manchester, only fifty miles away, trainers were ok. It was only when I went to university down south that I discovered it was socially acceptable to wear trainers with jeans.
Wearing heels that day would prove to be my downfall, confirming that dressing correctly is an essential part of being accepted into the metal community. As we queued outside the Manchester Academy I felt horribly out of place, and this feeling only intensified when we went inside and my brother and his friends completely disowned me.
Twenty years on and I had made no progress on the subcultural capital required to call myself a true metalhead.
The logistical problems involved in a woman with four small children going to a heavy metal concert are myriad. Going out at all in the evening is immensely complicated. In ten years I had barely left the house after 6pm, to the extent that I had almost forgotten what darkness looked like. First, you have to have the will to leave the house after the kids are in bed, when every fibre of your being is begging you to put on pyjama bottoms and collapse in front of the TV. Secondly, you have to find a babysitter, one who can handle not only a baby but also three other deeply manipulative children (‘Mummy says we’re allowed to watch The Omen’, ‘Mummy says we can have three bags of Doritos. Each.’). You also have to spend a week beforehand pumping enough breastmilk to cover all eventualities.
Then there’s the question of finding a gig to attend. Going to London was out of the question as it took too long, so I would have to find something locally. Occasionally well-known metal bands do pass through Oxford, playing at the O2 Academy, and I kept an eye out, but continually missed them for a variety of un-metal reasons. Bullet For My Valentine came and went- it was parents’ evening at school that night. I missed Trivium as we were on a skiing holiday.
I finally found something metal that was feasible, at The Bullingdon. The word Bullingdon may conjure up images of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and cronies enjoying ritualistic banquets at the eponymous old boys’ club, but the Bullingdon pub has nothing to do with David Cameron whatsoever- it’s a bar on Cowley Road with a small stage in the basement. It is arguably the most ‘metal’ pub in Oxford, although this is admittedly fairly easy to achieve.
Saxon are one of the earliest heavy metal bands, formed in 1977 in south Yorkshire, part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. You may never have heard of them but within the metal world they are legendary. However I was not going to see Saxon, I was going to see Saxonised, a tribute band. ‘the only Saxon tribute band in the UK’. This felt safe. They weren’t even the top billing that night, in fact they were third on the bill, but I knew they would be playing metal of sorts.
Finally there was the problem of who to go with. My friends without exception treated my new metal hobby with the utmost contempt. It was not even a worthy subject of conversation. There were one or two loyal ones who would have agreed to go with me as a favour, but nights out are so precious for women at our stage of life that I didn’t want to make someone waste an evening on something they hated. I was more than happy to go alone; I’ve never had a problem with going out alone. However there was the question of whether it was appropriate to go alone, and I knew my husband would judge that it was not. I didn’t like to ask him either; his time is precious too, and it’s not as if I have ever gone to a football match with him. Plus I was embarrassed at revealing my childlike enthusiasm for this, and perhaps there was a part of me that wanted to keep this to myself. But it looked as if there was no option, so I sold it as a romantic evening out- we would go to a new gastropub in East Oxford he had wanted to try, then ‘pop in’ to listen to a band on the way home.
When we arrived at the Bullingdon entrance it was very quiet, especially for a Saturday night. The bouncers looked amused when I proudly displayed our tickets, dutifully purchased in advance, and waved us into an empty venue. The band were just starting their first number as we went down the stairs into the basement room. I immediately felt conspicuous in the empty space. The crowd consisted of four people. Two women were standing in the middle of the floor. They were conservatively dressed in knee length skirts and heels, as though they had come straight from work, even though it was a Saturday. They held their gin and tonics and danced awkwardly, as if they would be more comfortable dancing to Abba at an office party. Perhaps they were the WAGs. Then there were two men. Both were wearing baggy denim shorts, even though it was February and they were in their 50s. Both had mullets, even though it was 2016. One appeared to be the band’s manager, as he was fiddling about with equalizers at the back and setting out T-shirts for sale. The other was sitting on a bar stool filming the whole thing on his iPhone.
My husband made no comment but his face was increasingly stony. We hugged the bar and I drank Smirnoff Ice for the first time in years, having no idea what type of beer to ask for.
Saxonised were wonderful musicians. The lead singer had an operatic baritone voice which didn’t miss a note. He had a ‘sea urchin’ 1980s mullet- short and spiked on top, long at the back- and I wondered what sort of day job he was able to do with that hairstyle. He was wearing reflective Oakley sunglasses on top of his head, and half way through the concert he inexplicably put them on. I wondered if there was some cultural reference I was missing, or if he was simply trying to hide from the tragically empty space.
The lead guitarist played as if he and the guitar were one entity, incredibly fluent solos which rang out with clarity due to some impeccable mixing from the soundman/manager.
Most of the band were middle-aged, but the rhythm guitarist was young and looked like an extra from Lord of the Rings, with long blonde hair in ragged curls, and sleeveless T-shirt to show off his tattoeed biceps.
As a group they were incredibly professional and showed no annoyance or disappointment at the emptiness of the venue. After the first number I ventured away from the bar to whoop and make the ‘devil horns’, that universal hand signal of metal appreciation which was invented by Ronnie James Dio. There was total silence, tumbleweeds, so after that I kept my elbow firmly propped on the bar with an air of nonchalance. However I was utterly captured by the energy of the music.
For the final number, the anthemic ‘Denim and Leather’, the lead singer tried valiantly to whip up the crowd, ‘Come on, it’s like a fucking funeral in here!’.
And unfortunately, it was. By this point my husband was playing Angry Birds on his phone. At the end as the band were packing up, on a sugar high after three bottles of Smirnoff Ice, I ventured up to the front and headed straight for the Tolkien-esque young guitarist to quiz him about his equipment. My husband followed, ever the wary chaperone, and so when the guitarist turned to see these two very sensible-looking people waiting to speak to him, I could see a flash of hope in his eyes- could this be his big break, a record company, a music magazine? He quickly hid his disappointment when I told him I was just learning the guitar and politely took me through his rig. He lost me very quickly as I have a terrible habit of asking questions then glazing over for the answers, but my husband listened intently as he talked with enthusiasm about his rig. He nodded knowingly: ‘So you basically have to be an electrician then’. The guitarist looked even more crestfallen, and at this point I noticed that I had my hand on his bicep, and it had been there the whole time we had been talking. This was an involuntary reaction on my part, and I realised with dismay that it probably came across to him as maternal rather than flirtatious, given our estimated 15-year age gap. Nevertheless, it was a rather nice bicep, and fortunately my husband didn’t seem to have noticed.
As we thanked him and walked away he called after us ‘Like us on Facebook…’, but he trailed off, having exhausted his reserves of futile self-promotion. We had another drink in the upstairs bar, and as we headed home half an hour later we walked past the band loading their equipment into a battered van. I wondered if they had a hotel or if they would have to drive all the way back to wherever they were from, crammed up against their amplifiers. We stopped to congratulate them again, and they seemed genuinely happy to be noticed and shook our hands. I hoped we had cheered them up. Poignantly, the venue was now filling up for the main act, and the queue snaked past their van. I imagined that 20 years ago I could have jumped in and driven off into the night with them. In particular, with the blond-haired one. How easy it would be to become a groupie.
That night my ears were ringing and I found it difficult to sleep after the exhilaration of the music, but the fact remained that I had been almost the only attendee at a failure of a gig, and I had still not experienced any sort of metal communality. I was still an outsider.