On a good day playing a show anywhere across mainland Europe means you are met warmly by staff at the venue, fed well, given plenty of beer to drink, people show up, enjoy the show, they chat afterwards, buy merch, everyone generally feels validated at their choices in life. Then you are given somewhere decent to stay, sometimes even hotels but mostly it’s floor space, spare rooms and beds that are available at people’s houses or within the venue. You wake up the next day and maybe they even cook you breakfast. Oh and you get paid well too. That’s (to my experience) almost universally the norm wherever you go. People go above and beyond to make sure you are treated with respect, you are comfortable and you get to do exactly what it is you came to do.
Sometimes not every element of that comes together, you might only get bread and sandwich fillings instead of a 3 course banquet. You might only get 6 free beers rather than ALL THE BEER YOU CAN DRINK, “OH MY GOD WE’VE NEVER HAD A BAND DRINK AS MUCH AS YOU WE HAVE TO CUT YOU OFF THIS NEVER HAPPENS.” Maybe you have to sleep in the van in a car park instead of the hotel seemingly booked out entirely for you and you alone. You take what you can get because your expectations are low. You can be accommodating to random situations and it’s always good to roll with the punches, not everything is the dream, not everything is perfect, just know everyone’s reaching for the same goal. We all want the show to happen, we all want to have a good time. That being said. When things go bad, they can turn south real fast.
Without question this one went bad.
This was the worst gig of all time.
We were 3 weeks into a 4-week tour across Europe (this was mid 2012, I was playing drums in Knife Cutter) and had an upcoming gig cancel on us. The local bands involved, promised that they would re-arrange something and after plenty of calls and emails back and forth, we were told we could play a punk festival a few hours south of Budapest. We had a gig in Budapest already booked so this presented itself as a decent option. Rather than do the huge drive with no gig or accommodation at the end of it, this new gig meant the chance to play, get fed and watered and have somewhere to stay for the night. We were told that we’d be on the bill among plenty of other bands so we’d need to get there early, would most likely get put on first or last but they were happy to have us.
We made the choice. Let’s do it. It beats trying to kill 24 hours with nothing to do; you just end up spending too much money killing time, this option meant we’d tackle some travel time and we’d get to play a gig.
The drive took over 8 hours from Olomouc in the Czech Republic, into Hungary through Budapest, then another hour or so to get to our destination. I remember driving for hours through nothing, driving past flat, empty fields and unchanging, dusty landscapes until arriving at a monster Tesco (those bastards are everywhere) to stock up on supplies for the evening.
Beyond Tesco the drive became an idyllic looking Eastern European town. Citroens weaving past rickety lorries making their overloaded cargo innocently tumble into the road – a few apples here, a few stolen VCRs there. A sharp left turn down a thin road between houses lead to an industrial estate bordering the intersection for a dozen railway tracks. Roads and obvious routes faded fast, on the other side of this dirt lot was a huge iron gate. We’d arrived.
The men at the gate wave us through. After parking up we attempt to introduce ourselves. No one speaks English, no one at all. There are camping tents and drunks and fires and bands and BBQs and not-so-hot-looking toilets. On the other side of a fence there is a Crufts style training ground for dogs and it’s busy with them. It is 3pm.
We are at a “punk festival”, I use the inverted commas because the occasion gravitated around those words but was neither of them. On the drive there I had conjured images in my mind preparing for a scaled down Glastonbury; thousands of revellers ready to embrace outsiders with their unorthodox music and strange clothing; a huge stage free from sponsorship but with roadies on hand to get things set up as quickly as possible – professional, life changing, the big time.
The event was taking place at a local football team’s ground. No more or less than you’d expect for a Sunday league team in the UK. There’s a clubhouse with a bar, changing rooms and two football pitches. A stage is set up outdoors in front of the function room. It’s grim, it’s weird, and everyone is shit faced. We’re yet to find anyone speaking English, any attempt to find out when we’re on and let the organisers know we’re here is met with a widespread ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
Through some miracle we find someone who speaks English to act as our interpreter. After plenty of talk and back and forth it’s official – we are on the bill and we will play. Welcome aboard and hello! Here’s a tray full of Jäger and beer, settle in, you’ll be on at some point this evening after this band and that band, settle in, don’t worry, it’s happening. The time is 6pm.
We pass the time cooking up our dinner on a camping stove, watching the dogs run the course through the fence and watching bands attempt to excite people in various states of passed out – the energy level on site is medium to low. Most people are more concerned with sitting around campfires drinking. The bands are more of a bonus feature to the act of not doing a whole lot.
Then the rain comes.
The few people acting as crew to the outdoor stage have to shut down and move inside to the function room – then the rain FUCKING pours. People get nervous about getting electrocuted, there’s a lot of shouting and running around. More drinks arrive and more shoulder pats and “no no, don’t worry” excuses come with them. We’d been told we had a slot on the outdoor stage but now we’ll have to play later as the schedule has been pushed back due to the rain.
Onto the indoor shows. It’s like having 300 people packed into a black cab with Minor Threat playing a reunion show. The place goes mental and it’s a sweatbox. Great – we get to follow this? This is going to be brilliant. The time is 10pm.
The next few hours consist of us being told that the next band are the last band before us, then once they finish we can play. That band plays, then another band appears out of nowhere, have plugged in and are performing while the crowds continue to diminish. With every new band we get the promise that “no no, of course, you are next”. But somehow another band manages to usurp the privilege and we have to wait. We start taking shifts sleeping in the van, alternating as lookouts inside the venue for if and when our slot on the stage may materialise. The hours drag on and on.
Somewhere around 4.30am, with the sun coming up and the majority of punters passed out around the site, our tour mates get to the stage. They play triumphantly to around 4 people plus a few comers and goers unsure of where and what planet this is.
Then the police show up trying to shut the whole thing down.
The promoter (who had been acting as roadie, sound man, engineer, bar man and organiser) vomits from stress.
By this point we’d been drunk, sobered up and were ready to play just to get it over with, just so we could sleep. There were moments, like at around 3am, where we thought ah fuck it, let’s just go to sleep, then another 30 minutes goes by and we’d come so far that we just have to play, even if it’s to no-one, just to get satisfaction and some closure on the whole venture.
“Hey guys, you’re up”.
We set up and open with what was normally our closer. An OTT slowed down Sabbath riff that goes nowhere other than sad town, slowly. We make it less than a minute into the song and the power gets cut.
You are done.
The sun has come up. The time is 5.30am.
I wasn’t even mad. Angry. Sad. It was relief. Almost 24 hours spent travelling, preparing to play, that was it. All done. There wasn’t even anyone in the venue to tell us it was done. Anonymously we got given the boot – get out! In an instant the whole situation was upgraded to a status we were not even aware existed. I remember just laughing because this was it. I knew this was the one I’d tell people about for the rest of my life.
We headed back to the van, nodded at the dog course as a mark of what can be achieved on this hallowed ground and found a seat in our transport. Sitting upright we all achieved about 2 hours sleep. As soon as 8am arrived we hit the road. By 11am we were back in Budapest at a world famous spa getting treated like gods and then later that day when walking back through the city we watched a car chase for Die Hard 5 being filmed. The universe balances itself out every second when it needs to, don’t worry.
That worst gig was the best gig. That’s what has happened with me. I’ll never forget that day in Hungary but I’ve forgotten so many of the gigs that just happened.
Watch: DIG. You may end up fighting over petty disagreements with your band mates on the road. If you spend a lot of time in a confined space together with limited sleep, food and showers then tempers can flare up. This documentary has band members (those of Brian Jonestown Massacre & Dandy Warhols) fighting and quitting on stage mid-show, at points this film comes off like a Fail compilation video of the worst gigs of all time. I can promise things will never get this bad. Unless you take up heroin like most of the members of these bands, then yeah, it’ll get bad.
Read: Tobias Wolff – In Pharaoh’s Army. I’m not saying the above tale compares to a stint in the Vietnam war but this book presents itself as a guide to finding sanity in the chaos. It’s about powering through, finding the good and being rational among it all. Something I always try to do (I’d have been fine in a war with my sarcasm, nature’s bulletproof vest!). It’s mainly anecdotes about avoiding STDs, sneaking past bosses, bonding with the locals and finding excuses to go drinking (you know, tour life). Oh and there’s some explosions and catastrophic fatalities! Lolz.
Listen: The Smith Street Band – Throw Me In The River. The lyrics on this album come straight from the heart of folks who have cast off everything else in life, committing hard to life on the road and their music. They are way more successful than me but still make road life sound just as lonely, depressing, glorious, exhausting and triumphant as I’ve found it. Good to know the further down the whole “living the dream” route I travel it still meddles with the psyche of the tortured artist. Let’s do it!
Coming up next time…
Gig etiquette. How to show up and be a band at gigs, earn respect and adulation from your peers without being a total and utter dickhead. Don’t be the band that every other band complains about on the way home from the gig ensuring no one ever books you again. I advise how to avoid such pitfalls!
Daniel England plays drums in a few bands including Isaac