Today I am heading up to Birmingham ‘Resorts World Arena’ (that’s what they call the NEC gig venue out near the airport now) to see Alice Cooper, The Stranglers and MC5. A bit of time to dredge my NEC history as it was in my old back yard.
The NEC: a ‘cruise ship’ of venues?
The arena where bands have generally played at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre (NEC) site is the Arena which opened in 1980. I went up to university in Birmingham in 1981 and stayed in the area, Brum and then Coventry, until 1998. In my time there the NEC was widely seen as a rather faceless modern place but time has shown its convenience has won through. Travel to it by train and car from over a wide area is easy and the car parks have always been vast, making getting out a lengthy challenge. A place for the big bands. A comfortable ‘cruise ship’ of venues which continues to be the first place on any major tour outside London. If it’s a big name then it certainly works and they come here in droves.
Occasionally the other exhibition halls have been used – I remember a very sensible grown-up ‘stay in your seats’ Bryan Ferry gig in the late 80s in one of the big Halls. I thought I was hitting middle age and left with spirits dampened. Still rocking over 30 years later though, as is Bryan Ferry. It wasn’t all over.
I found an old t-shirt the other day – in a bag of nostalgic clothing in the loft – for the Yiva Oxfam festival in August 1986. A novel indoor festival type event, at the time, with a half-sized arena using black curtains and barriers and the stage half way up. The bands were strangers to the NEC size of venues: King, from Coventry, Feargal Sharkey, Half Man Half Biscuit, Balaam and the Angel and one of my longstanding favourites, The Icicle Works.
I read that King got back together in 2015 to do some more stuff. Jim from King used to work in HMV in the centre of Coventry and me and my work mates used to play ‘HMV with Jim from King’ at 5-a-side football, tackling him respectfully. (I’m sure ungainly Chris – CMe – must have clattered him a few times.)
The Pogues and Kirsty
More atmosphere was generated when they halved the size of the Arena and made a big standing area – referring to it as the Forum. A particularly riotous application of this set up was a Pogues gig just before Christmas – 12 December 1988 – a cracker with me and my mate Sean in full voice (SMu). Guests on stage were The Specials from down the road in Coventry and Kirsty MacColl at the height of her popularity. She sang Fairytale of New York in a duet with Shane MacGowan – absolutely of the moment – a special one. Both surprise guest acts had emerged from a giant ‘fridge’ amid dry ice, as a drunken MacGowan opened the door for a beer.
Jarvis v Jacko
Several friends and acquaintances worked at the NEC in the late 80s, early 90s which was handy for getting in last minute to good seats – that was how I made it to the front rows for UB40 and Frankie Goes to Hollywood and somewhere in the arena for the unmentionable Gary Glitter.
Then there was the brilliant Pulp gig at the Forum on 22 February 1996 – frontman Jarvis Cocker the anti-hero after his assault on the stage at the Brit Awards ceremony earlier in the week, during a nauseous Micheal Jackson showcase moment – surrounded by a battalion of smiling children.
Link to Jarvis story with video: https://vanyaland.com/2016/02/19/20-years-ago-today-jarvis-cocker-crashed-michael-jacksons-performance-at-the-brit-awards/
An early R.E.M tour – OK not that early but their first big album tour for ‘Green’ – was another good ‘un.
The last visit I recall when living in the West Midlands was for The Beautiful South. I went on my own and bought a ticket outside – bit lightweight but I was a Housemartins fan and listened to all their stuff as well. The drummer fell of stage at the end of the main set and broke his arm so no encores. The Only Ones supported and I remember thinking it was a bit of a waste. The crowd were on another planet clearly.
My return: a few recent ones
When I moved south in 1998 I didn’t see that I’d have any reason to return to the NEC to see a band, but in recent years my gig buddy Dave (DPi) has come up trumps with some irrresistable tickets for things up here: Kings of Leon – who managed to make it feel like a more intimate gig in Tennessee somehow – and an extraordinarily memorable night seeing The Hollywood Vampires in June 2018 with meet and greet before, with Johnny Depp and all. The Damned and the Darkness were supporting that night.
That completes my NEC/Resorts Arena Birmingham lookback. Tonight we are here for Alice Cooper, the Stranglers and MC5.
Maybe you have some favourite NEC gigs – or some horrors?