SUICIDE: GHOST RIDER (RED STAR)
Asked to select an unforgettable, career-defining gig in the Guardian back in 2008, Alan Vega of the band chose an infamous night at the Glasgow Apollo in the summer of 1978 when an audience member threw an axe in the direction of the singer’s head. “We were supporting the Clash and I guess we were too punk even for the punk crowd. They hated us. I taunted them with, ‘You fuckers have to live through us to get to the main band.’ That’s when the axe came towards my head, missing me by a whisker. It was surreal, man.’
So why did this particular night explode into such a state of disorder?
Well, firstly Suicide was all about confrontation, two New York nihilists who liked to goad audiences and their shows were as much performance art as concert.
Alan Vega and Martin Rev were sonic innovators who can be compared in that respect to The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk or My Bloody Valentine. As Joe Gross wrote years later in Spin: ‘Suicide managed to tear a giant hole in rock orthodoxy and scream inside the wound’ but this obviously wasn’t something that a majority of Clash fans wanted to hear on the night.
Historically too, at least from the era of music hall and variety onwards, Glasgow audiences have always been quicker than most to let an act know if they are unhappy with them. If they like you they love you, if they don’t like you, you might have problems.
It might be difficult to believe today when Joe Strummer is seen as an almost saintly worldwide punk icon but when The Clash headlined the Apollo at the tail end of 1977 as a ‘thank you to fans’, there was repeated booing from some punters between songs.
They weren’t bad but neither were they anywhere near the form of their Apollo debut just weeks beforehand.
Importantly, this third visit to Glasgow from The Clash was due to be the final ever time a rock act would play the venue as owners the Mecca organisation were reportedly keen to convert it into a Bingo Hall despite the ‘Save the Apollo’ campaign that quickly gained hundreds of thousands of signatures, including Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton… and myself.
Actually I must admit that I signed the petition more than once. Or twice. Or even more than three times.
As fears grew about potential trouble, rumours surfaced that the concert might be switched to the venue upstairs, the much smaller Satellite City. ‘Lynch law and mob rule will prevail, no doubt,’ one letter writer to Sounds predicted.
Things kicked off within seconds of Suicide taking to the stage and many in the crowd began demonstrating just how much they detested the avant-garde rockabilly racket conjured up by Vega and Rev. Boos and insults rang out across the old hall and before too long a hail of missiles were being aimed at them. And here I should add that luckily the Apollo stage was around eighteen feet high and anybody hoping to scale it required something approaching the climbing skills of Sir Edmund Hillary.
Some did occasionally manage the feat although I forget if anybody did that night.
Singer Alan Vega is not someone who is ever gonna come out with any ‘Make some noise, Glasgow’ or ‘You’ve been a wonderful audience’ clichés and the reaction of the baying crowd only encouraged his adversarial streak. ‘You’re all a bunch of bastards–bastards–bastards’ and other abuse echoing out from his mic in his Elvis yelp while Rev’s keyboards throbbed on.
Seats were broken, seats were thrown at the stage. Bouncers versus punks violence grew out of control and then managed to worsen. Once Suicide ended their set a comparative calm did descend but the aggro resumed with the appearance of the headliners.
This is how Chris Salewicz described the atmosphere in NME as The Clash hit the stage: ‘It’s like the Apocalypse is upon us and performing live in the stalls. Pogoing kids being dragged to the back of the hall and having the shit kicked out of them…Pogoing kids having the shit kicked out of them in front of the stage… ’
Some in the crowd believed that The Clash could have done more to end the beatings. Outside afterwards, an exasperated Joe Strummer was caught by plain clothes police officers smashing a lemonade bottle while discussing the idea with an assortment of fans. Paul Simonon came to his aid and both were arrested.
In court, the Judge is said to have asked Strummer the name of his band. ‘How appropriate,’ he observed on hearing it was The Clash. ‘Twenty five pounds fine.’
The Apollo remained closed and in limbo for the remainder of the summer with various acts offering to play benefit gigs. The campaign continued and in the middle of September good news finally arrived when it was confirmed that the hall would reopen for concerts later in the month coupled with an assurance that the venue would be given a £50,000 facelift.
The Tom Robinson Band, The Stranglers and Steel Pulse were some of the acts lined up to play though Suicide would never again play there.
From their self titled debut album, released on Marty Thau’s Red Star record label in December 1977, this is a live version of Ghost Rider:
For more on Suicide, click here.