I’ve been to three Belly gigs and they were all marvellous. The second one was 21 years after the first one. The third one was two years after that. This is the way now with bands you love. In the book that I put together with my colleagues Helen and Rob, we examined the ways that music, memory and storytelling all coalesce in forming selfhood. Watching bands is a big part of this. Bands that we loved when we were kids split up and form part of the sepia of our youth, right? Not any more, they don’t. They get back together and do tours. They do what Rob suggests in our book, they don’t ever really break up, they go on ‘hiatus’. Pixies started this. They’ve now been ‘back together’ much longer than they existed in the first phase. As an old person, I’ve seen bands that defined my ideas of me as a young person much more than I ever did when I was an actual young person. The list is long and I have a crappy memory but it includes Mudhoney, Ride, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Dinosaur Jr. I’ve seen some bands that I never saw in the first place. Pixies, Happy Mondays and Breeders included. The gigs are a bit different now of course. Pints are shitter but much more expensive. There are loads of angry people around who think the gig is just for them (thanks Thatcherism). There are loads of phones pointed at the stage which makes the angry people even angrier. The tickets cost about the same as a small mortgage and you have to buy them several decades in advance. High vis jackets are the dominant vibe. Plus, I stand at the back now. No moshing or crowd surfing for me (although I always hated both of those things anyway. Getting booted in the head by a stinky grebo is so much worse than someone nearby using a phone). Despite all of my historical and contemporary moaning (I am pretty consistent in this regard), I love gigs. I love gigs in tiny rooms, I love gigs on the toilet scene, I love gigs in arenas, I’ve even enjoyed a stadium gig (but only one) and I love gigs at festivals. I am old and knackered, but I’ll still stand up for a couple of hours for a band. I am old and knackered, but I’ll still put up with the ringing ears and the mid-range hangover at work the next day. I am old and knackered, but I’ll still look after the ticket stub, buy a t-shirt and feel blessed if the bass player acknowledges me saying ‘nice one mate’ in the bar.
I’ve got a stack of Belly records, but it is the three gigs that really define my relationship with them. That’s not to say that I don’t adore their recorded output, I really do. Tanya Donnelly is a wonderful songwriter and the band share that same swing between opposites and blurring of binaries that define 4AD for me. The references to folklore and fairy tale are both dark and sentimental. The shifts between adult rationality and the ambiguous spaces of childhood drive their clever melodies, anthemic choruses and Tanya’s unique voice. They are probably the most pop sounding of all the 4AD bands I love but this isn’t a bad thing, especially at a gig. Sometimes I want gigs to be stupidly intense experiences. I want to be blown away by a noise band, float up to the ceiling at a sound system or sweat myself to techno oblivion in front of skilful men from Detroit. None of this is what I want from Belly gigs. I want to hang on every sound and hear every word. I want to be told stories and have pictures painted for me. I am like a child sat cross legged and enchanted at the local library (remember them?) story time. Belly tell stories. Stories about women with dogs on their back, stories about falling out of windows backwards, stories about frogs and stories about trees. They are weird and twisted stories. These are the best type. I love music and I love storytelling and Belly do both of these things.
The first gig was at Glastonbury in 1995. It was my first Glastonbury and it was about as Glastonbury an experience as Glastonbury can be. There are already too many pieces of writing that mythologise Glastonbury, so I won’t add to them here. There are lots of clichés out there, so I’ll try to avoid that too. There are also lots of bullshit ‘back in the day stories’ from old and grumpy punters, so I’ll give them a miss as well. Suffice to say, yes, Glastonbury is beyond big. It can be fucking mental. When it rains and it gets muddy, it’s an awful experience. And, of course, it was different when you could jump the fence. For a start, you now get to miss out on the thrill of being robbed, fleeced or chased by gangs of scary crims. One more thing before I move on, I have a message for the endless online voices who say, ‘Oh, Glastonbury is just a middle class wank fest now’. Wind your neck in. It was always this. Look at the old footage. Look at the Eavis family, for fuck’s sake. Making this claim doesn’t make you some sort of class warrior edge lord. It just makes you much more of a cliché than the kids from suburbs with hair wraps and small bags of weed you are so keen to call out. Glastonbury is ace. It’s unique. It’s the place where I enjoyed Belly a great deal.
So, it’s 1995 and I have long hair (with a hair wrap and a small bag of weed) and I’m at Glastonbury. I went with some mates and met up with some more there. I didn’t actually see that many bands. I saw Orbital, Tricky, Earthling, G-Love and Special Sauce, the Massive Attack sound system, plenty of nameless DJs at the Joe Bananas blanket stall. And Belly.
Belly was the best bit. I was an outlier at this festival. I still liked jangly indie pop. I also liked jungle, acid and all of the new Bristol sounds. These were the tunes we all liked and that got played at each other’s houses and on friends’ car stereos. Lots of my mates had once liked indie but, like pious ex-smokers, now disavowed it with religious fervour. They had chucked their Teenage Fanclub t-shirts out and claimed they never liked Mega City Four. They now read Jockey Slut and claimed the NME was for bourgeois wankers (it was). They took down their bluetacked ticket stubs from the Astoria, Town and Country Club and Brixton Academy and replaced them with psychedelic flyers, free festival wristbands and ‘kill the bill’ mementos of a day out playing at protest. But I still liked it. I still listened to Thousand Yard Stare and Ride and Babes in Toyland and Mudhoney. Yes, I also loved Grooverider, Jeff Mills and Laurent Garnier but I couldn’t see why one culture had to exclude the other. I’ve never been one for tribalism, I suppose. So, on the Saturday morning, you can imagine the response when I asked if anyone fancied coming with me to the NME stage to watch Belly that afternoon. My mates queued up to make it clear that Belly were not cool enough for them and that, yes, I should fuck off. Only my friend Christy felt sorry for me. Only my friend Christy agreed to go with me. Only my friend Christy checked if I still had a small bag of weed and if it was going to make an appearance while we were watching Belly.
So, me and Christy and my small bag of weed found a spot near the front to watch Belly. There are some videos of the performance online. Some are recordings of the official Channel 4 footage of the band playing Super Connected. These are a great watch and have all the onstage close ups you expect from Glastonbury coverage. Sure, the VHS recordings off someone’s Dad’s telly are a bit ropey but it’s not too bad. There is one video that is remarkable though. A bloke calling himself Scottish TeeVee has uploaded the whole gig as filmed from his own spot in the crowd. He’s near the front and stage left. Of course, this is far from unique these days. Everybody and their dog films gigs. Not so much in 1995. Doing it then was rare. This time it meant using a camcorder for a whole gig down the front at Glastonbury. Sure, the footage is shaky, there are comical zooms and pans and the sound is muffled but you have to admire this as a feat of endurance. You also have to admire the fact that it’s lasted this long without being chucked out or having Match of the Day taped over it. Better than the footage of the band in this instance is the footage of the crowd around Mr TeeVee. It’s so fucking 90s. There are bucket hats, undercuts, hardly any beards, no mobiles anywhere and lots and lots of smoke. People look tired and frazzled by the sun. Nobody looks enthusiastic. Plenty of people probably need a piss and are wondering whether their mate’s small bag of weed is really worth all the trouble. Onstage, the Belly dynamic between Tanya and bass player Gail Greenwood is in full effect. Visually, this is what you always take away from Belly gigs. Tanya is mostly still, when she dances the movements are small. She is dressed like a hippy. Floral clothes and pinky-purple shades. Gail is the visual binary. She rocks out. Leather trousers with one foot up on the monitor. Her bass guitar slung low and fired from the hip. She is the rock n’ roll monster to Tanya’s indie sprite. Oppositions and contrasts again. The videos are helpful as my own memories of the gig are sketchy at best. I remember singing along to Feed the Tree and chatting to two kids about their homegrown grass (by ‘chatting’ I mean scrounging some of course). Me and Christy were stood stage right and could see the Channel 4 crew and their cherry picker camera set up. I was worried my mum might see me all stoned and messy on the telly. I know I enjoyed it. I know it was some respite from all the trance and crusties at the Joe Bananas stall. I also know that I enjoyed the two other gigs a bit more.
It’s fair to say that 2016 was a shit year. Brexit, Trump, good people dying, football violence. It really had it all. The years since haven’t been much better. However, the 16th July was good for two reasons. Number one: it was my wedding anniversary, and my wife and I always do cool stuff on that day to celebrate. The cool thing that year was the second reason this date was so good. We went to see Belly in Leeds. I’d sort of given up on Belly reuniting for gigs. I’d followed Tanya’s solo career and bought most of the albums. The year before this gig, I’d bought a collection called The Swan Song Series which sort of suggested that this was the end. I was sad but also happy knowing I’d always have hours of Tanya’s music to listen to. Like Belly always suggested it would, her music’s country melancholy and counter cultural folksiness had come to the foreground. That’s ok. I’m a little bit country after all. But a new Belly tour? Nah, wasn’t going to happen. Wrong. They played for ages. So long, in fact, that the gig was split in to two parts. No support band, just Belly song after Belly song. They sounded better than the 90s, which might be down to me being less fucked (no small bag of weed this time) or them being less fucked or us all being less fucked. Better sound techs too I imagine. Oh, and it was in a small SU building rather than a sun-baked Somerset field full of drug-baked caners. The age of the crowd was up in its 40s, the band even older. Rather than worrying about getting served at the bar and nervously fingering fake ID, punters at this gig put off calling the babysitter or tried to talk their way out of DIY obligations that were planned for the following day. Whereas the Glastonbury gig had been a curious blend of haze, size and boredom, this one was all about warmth. They were funny, expert and knowing. The songs were dark and familiar and strange and comforting. That 4AD blend once more. Hard to beat, right?
In the space of a fortnight in 2018 I got to see the Breeders and Belly. I saw two of my five 4AD touchstones over the same period it took to organise a gas engineer to finally come out and look at my stove. Life’s myriad other irritants seemed less of a bother. The usual trepidation I have about being out late and the inevitable brain ache that follows were less of a worry. Two bands, two gigs. Two chances to wear my 4AD t-shirt and show off my indie cred. Both bands had new LPs to share. Breeders All Nerve had the Last Splash line up back together and featured the ridiculous and glorious noise of Wait In the Car. Belly put out Dove (I bought it on clear blue vinyl), an album full of shimmering optimism and that uncanny ability to tell stories that warp and weft with each new listening. What’s going on? Why are both these new albums so good? Don’t they care about nostalgia? Yes, it’s good to enjoy old tunes and revel in old memories (god knows I do this a lot), but it’s also good to keep changing. The Breeders and Belly do this with their gigs and with their music. They look over their shoulders for sure, but they do what they have always done and break new ground. They try new ways of doing things and adopt new techniques and models. It’s no surprise really. They all know a woman called Kristin Hersh.