With several high profile cases of the opening act outshining the main event, Getintothis’ Banjo explores the dangers of having a great support act.
April 3 this year marks the 40th Anniversary of Sex Pistols supporting Joe Strummer’s old band the 101ers at London’s Nashville Rooms. As the Pistols were still an unknown quantity, this must have seemed like a fairly safe bet, however what had really happened was that most dangerous of situations for headline bands – having a support band who are on the way up and who herald the beginning of new times.
The 101ers were fairly established on London’s pub rock circuit, while the Pistols were regarded as scruffy upstarts just starting out as a band. Strummer later stated that “5 seconds into their first song, I knew we were like yesterday’s paper, we were over.” A second support gig took place on April 23 and Strummer, sensing which way the wind was blowing, left the 101ers the next day, saying, “Yesterday I thought I was a crud, then I saw the Sex Pistols and I became a king and decided to move into the future.”
The 101ers were not the first band to be blown off stage by their support act, nor would they be the last.
Faring little better just a few years earlier were Black Sabbath who, when touring their disappointing Never Say Die album, picked a young up and coming band called Van Halen as tour support. Ozzy had temporarily left the band and had been coaxed back into the fold, but this was not a great time for Sabbath. Wrong footed by punk and trying to move their sound on, Never Say Die is an album it is difficult to love.
Van Halen on the other hand were starting their rapid ascent to the top, with their debut album having recently been released. The album went on to sell over 10 million copies in America alone and is regarded as one of the great rock debut albums. Having an incredible guitarist and one of rock’s classic front men, Van Halen played for all they were worth and Sabbath simply struggled to keep up. The equivalent of going on the pull with a younger, fitter, better looking mate.
Having Queen as a support band can perhaps be looked back on as a bad idea. Regarded as one of the best live bands of all time, Queen have filled the world’s stadia and their popularity has proved to be hugely enduring. Pity Mott the Hoople then, who took them out on the road for the only time Queen ever supported anybody.
Far from it being a case of a young support band on the way up and an older main act on the way down, Mott were at the peak of their popularity and played well, but Queen were destined to leave Mott in their shadow. The two bands got on so well that the support slot was extended to Mott’s American tour, but Queen soon started their own headline dates and never deigned to be the support act ever again.
Buzzcocks’ history with Joy Division went back further than offering them a support slot on a sold out UK tour. Members of Joy Division were in the audience when Buzzcocks arranged for Sex Pistols to play their legendary first show at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, their paths crossed at gigs and they shared a producer in Martin Hannett, so it may have seemed natural to offer their friends and protégés a support slot. The problem was that Joy Division were on the cusp of realising their enormous potential – they were the subject of much positive praise in the music press and their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, had just been released.
Their punk gestation period now over, they were now fully realised and all that was needed was to move things on was exposure to a wider audience. At the same time, Buzzcocks were not faring so well and were subject to something of a critical backlash. Starting their tour at Liverpool’s Mountford Hall, Joy Division were on excellent form; the Buzzcocks however were not. Night after night, Buzzcocks had to try to follow Joy Division’s performance, not an enviable task. Photographer Kevin Cummins said, “The buzz about the support band was bigger than the main band. There was a real comedown when they came offstage.”
Suede were the subject of some of the biggest hype any band has ever seen. Touted on the front page on Melody Maker as “the best new band in Britain” before they even had a record contract, Suede were everything indie music needed in the pre Britpop years; young, good looking, controversial and with more excellent songs than a band at that stage had any right to. Their arrival was timed to perfection, with almost faceless indie bands galore clogging up the live circuit and alternative charts, Suede were a breath of fresh air. Catchy songs, singalong choruses and one of the best guitarists around made them an irresistible proposition.
Their early singles justified this hype and their album went on to become the fastest selling debut for ten years. Before this though, they were offered a support slot to indie also-rans Kingmaker, not only blowing them off stage every night, but by the end of the tour consigning them to the scrapheap. So convincingly were they usurped that they became a byword for all that was deemed undesirable in indie. One headline for a review of a date on this tour ran “Dog shit and diamonds” as journalists compared the two bands. Kingmaker had been shown to be past their sell by date, while Suede still sell out tours and release excellent albums to this day, their latest album Night Thoughts standing proud with anything they have ever recorded.
As we know, the 101ers being blown off stage by Sex Pistols was the best thing that could have happened to Joe Strummer and a few days later he was offered the job of front man in The Clash. In a neat bit of synchronicity, The Clash were soon offered their first gig supporting the very band who had galvanised Strummer, Sex Pistols.
So the next time you go to a gig, play close attention to the support band. They may well be the best part of the night.