“Sink back into time, I’ve been hypnotised; and meanwhile my time’s not my own.”
Thirty years ago today, one of the bands that provided a key component of the soundtrack of my 20s stepped on stage at Berlin’s Quartier Latin as part of a cross-city live event celebrating the first anniversary of Germany’s reunification, for a show also starring LA alternative rock outfit Hole and cult London post-punk group The Monochrome Set.
Three decades later, BOB’s set – broadcast live on national radio in Germany that day, 21/10/91 – is commemorated by Berlin Independence Days, which was due to be out in June as a limited-edition 10-track vinyl-only LP before a backlog in vinyl manufacture saw the release date put back, the delay leading to a decision to reward those who pre-ordered with a subscriber-only exclusive CD version.
As co-frontman Richard Blackborow put it earlier this year, “We’re proud of this record. We were on great form and, luckily, we were professionally recorded on the night by clever German recording technicians who broadcast the show live on Berlin radio. No one has heard it since, and we were lucky enough to escape with the multi-track tape of the show. Simon (Armstrong) and I mixed it during lockdown last year and we’re chuffed to bits with the results.”
I spoke to BOB drummer Dean Leggett, who first appeared on these pages in late 2019, to ask for his memories of that Berlin show.
“We played in London, either the night before or the previous one. There’s bit of a disagreement, but we were at The Underworld in Camden, which received a fairly good review in the NME, and we played the same set in Berlin. I think ‘Nothing for Something’ was about to come out as a single.
“As I recall, we packed up the gear after the gig in Camden but couldn’t leave till late as there was a club at the venue and you had to load out through the back doors. You couldn’t load out while there was dancing. We were really knackered, but still had to load the van, drive to Dover, smoke all the weed we’d got before we got there, then get on the ferry and drive all the next day.
“We got to Berlin in the afternoon. I think we checked into the hotel, had a kip, then pretty much went straight there. That’s my recollection, but Simon thinks we left the following day. Either way, we more or less went straight there.”
The North London based indie outfit’s visit came just four months after the Bundestag switched from Bonn to Berlin, honouring an earlier stipulation of the Unification Treaty to make this born-again city the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany.
“We’d already played in Berlin, on the East side, a castle on an island, and played a small club on the West side around six months earlier to about 60 people. We went through Checkpoint Charlie, even though the Wall had come down, either 1990 or earlier in 1991. The (previous) gig in East Berlin was absolutely packed, sold out, around 200 in. But this one was more a showcase.”
Dean met Courtney Love, playing with Hole, at an after-show party that night. In fact, he reckons he met Kurt Cobain too, although it seems the Nirvana frontman and bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl were playing in Austin, Texas that day, on their Nevermind tour.
“Our agent, Rob, came with us. He had loads of bands, including Babes in Toyland, but was trying to get Hole as well. We were staying in the same hotel and had a party with them upstairs in their room, where Courtney was. She was snogging some guy with blond hair. I recall her being quite bossy. There were around 30 or 40 in this smoky room, and she was making him take boxes of beer around to give out. Henry (Hersom), our bass player, was with me. Simon was watching The Monochrome Set and Richard was struggling with a cold and didn’t come out. Me and Henry always said it was Kurt. We didn’t have a camera though.”
While I missed Nirvana, I did see BOB three months earlier at Reading’s After Dark Club – my seventh sighting since April ’88 – but that late night set is a little sketchy in my mind now, and as it turned out, I had to wait 28 years for my next live fix, at Leeds’ Wharf Chambers in late 2019. But this Berlin performance helps fill in a few gaps.
“The reason we did the gig was to try and get a European agent, and we were looking for funding for the next album, which would have been You Can Stop That for a Start. When we came back, we started writing, then went on another tour of Europe, playing nearly all the songs on that record, to learn them. We’ve footage of us playing those songs in Germany, which we hope to put out at some point. When we recorded them, we did it all in five days in Harlow then in Bristol for a few days.”
The story of that and the subsequent 28-year wait for the LP to be released is told in my interview last year with Richard Blackborow. And, as I said to Dean, it seems a trademark BOB move that this live album – also including ‘Round’, which finally appeared on that delayed second long player – features a song called ‘You Can Stop That for a Start’, which – as it turned out – didn’t even make it on to the record of the same name.
“Yeah, exactly! Ha!”
It’s not the only song that missed out, this fan loving ‘Another Crow’ too, originally dubbed ‘Tour Song’, as included on 2014’s deluxe version of Leave the Straight Life Behind in pared-back but spot on demo form. But I certainly can’t argue with the final track listing on You Can Stop That for a Start, and the live record is also a winner.
“We had a very basic soundcheck, about three in the afternoon. There were other things happening around the city, all being recorded for German radio, and we had to be there at half four to go on at five or half five on the dot. We weren’t allowed to drink or swear or take too long talking between songs. Everything was mic’d up, it would go straight to a sound deck, mixed by our engineer, Chris, with a cable going out the back of the building to a van with a huge dish on top, fired to the radio tower on the front of the record sleeve (Berliner Fernsehturm, aka Berlin TV Tower).
“We were all on form, and played really well, so Richard said to Chris, ‘I want you to go out there and get the tape, and I don’t want you to come back until you’ve got it’. Ha! Two hours later, he came back with the reel-to-reel tape. The radio guy said, ‘You can have these, but we want them back’. I don’t know how he persuaded him. Then, 29 years later, Richard gets the tape, bakes it in an oven – as you have to – put it in his computer and up pop the tracks, tweaked a bit where necessary, and when I sent it to Ian (Allcock) at Optic Nerve, who initially wasn’t sure about putting out a live album, he listened and said, ‘Let’s put it out – it’s great!’ The quality’s that good.”
The band come on to Miles Davis’ ‘Milestones’, in a recording mixed from the original ½” digital multitrack tape in 2020. And from incendiary opener ‘Skylark III’ through to fellow Leave the Straight Life Behind prime cut Skylark II, it’s something of a time capsule treat, like the two records that preceded it.
We also get ‘Tired’, apt in the circumstances according to Dean’s back-story, released as a single the previous year, before a return to the prior album for ’95 Tears’, BOB stepping up through the gears again, the set continuing with the first two numbers from early 1990’s Stride Up EP, kicking off our shoes for the splendid ‘Flagpole’ (I’d love to have heard Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood cover this gem, not as bizarre a suggestion as you might think when you know the story behind it) and of its time Madchester/Screamadelic-tinged Bible Belt America mash-up, ‘My Blood is Drink’.
The title track of the LP that didn’t come our way for a near-eternity (the one that didn’t make the final XIII, as it turned out) starts side two in style, before ‘Nothing for Something’, which seemed destined to be BOB’s final single until their welcome return and the release of ‘Queen of Sheba’ last year. And listening back now, this should well have taken the band on again, bringing in the wider audience they deserved, as ‘Convenience’ should have before.
As for ‘Round’, here was a Teenage Fanclub-esque (maybe even Status Quo-like) guitar romp that suggested the power of what was coming our way next. Given a year or so, perhaps it could have been a nailed-on set opener, but on this occasion it instead leads to the big finish, the band back in Leave the Straight Life Behind territory, the Smiths-like collage of ‘Take Take Take’ – and the irony was just how long that stop was before they started again – followed by inevitable show-stopping finale ‘Skylark II’, in typically more live than live form.
Seconds and years, icebergs and tears; this time I’m not on my own.”
And all in all, this Berlin Independence Days set provides a timely reminder – if we should ever need one – of the live might of BOB, showcasing what a great outfit they were on their day, something only now truly realised in some circles. But enough hyperbole. I’m clearly tired and emotional as I write this, so I’ll stop that for a start. As Richard himself put it, ‘I’ve had a lovely evening, please close the door behind you’.
For all the latest from BOB, check out the Optic Nerve Recordings website link at https://www.opticnerverecordings.com/collections/bob and keep in touch with the band via social media, following these Facebook and Twitter links, Richard’s BOB account on Instagram, and heading to the BOB/House of Teeth web link.