In 1996, Coping Saw singer Karren Ablaze! went to visit a friend who was living in Madrid. While there, she learned of a kind of indiefied Pop Idol forerunner, wherein acts from all over SPAIN were invited to submit tapes for a competition whose first prize was a slot on the main stage at the country’s now legendary Benicassim festival. Coping Saw ought to enter, suggested a couple of journo types, because they liked very much the stuff Karren had played them and, well, they were the judging panel. And there was nothing in the small print to say that entrants actually had to be from Spain. So we entered, and were – but probably shouldn’t have been – surprised when by return of post we were notified that we’d made it to the final of the competition. Well, we were based in Leeds: it would have been difficult to decide which of the regional heats to shoehorn us into, I suppose. As an additional gesture of good faith – all right, flagrant come-on – the organisers offered us our travel and accommodation expenses.
Madrid is a beautiful city, and it parties hard. You can keep your uptight Paris and Roma. This being Spain, everybody has put in some sleep during the afternoon, so nothing much happens until around 11pm – in 1996, still the time when most of Airstrip One’s hostelries would be shutting up shop for the night. Remember how happy we were when New Labour repealed the archaic, quasi-religious licensing laws? That was before the same government introduced its smoking ban, of course. The pubs are still closing, one by one, like the lights going out all over Europe, although some of those purpose-built public structures make fetching headquarters for companies offering graphic design “solutions” and other such socially valuable things. It’s class war, Jim, but not as we know it. Anyway, I believe some knobhound of a right wing mayor came along later and put a stop to the following, but at the time we visited the youth of Madrid would literally take over the streets after midnight. Alcohol was much cheaper in the shops than in the bars, so you’d buy a few bottles and sit in one of the many little squares that punctuate the Old Town. Pissing was a problem, especially if you hadn’t been issued with a penis, but this was a small price to pay for an entire quarter transformed into a playground, a moveable fiesta if you will. And the whole scene was so good-natured. If it were possible for such a thing to happen in a British city – and the list of reasons why it isn’t would keep us here until next week – the place would be festooned with broken glass and swimming in blood, tears and vomit within minutes.
Coping Saw won the competition, you’ll be surprised to learn. I didn’t see the other acts, the winners of the various regional heats, because I was sitting in a square drinking beer out of a brown bottle at the time, but I’m sure that our victory was deserved. The other acts, after all, were Spanish. Once the result had been announced, they were also extremely cross. I don’t blame them, especially given that by their lights it would have seemed that we neither knew how to play our instruments nor to dress ourselves properly. But hey ho; we were on our way to Benicassim and they were not. However, the road to our moment of glory would prove considerably more tortuous than anticipated.
The first time Coping Saw went to Benicassim we took an early morning flight from Gatwick to Valencia. At this point there was a hash pipe that used to follow me everywhere. But clearly it wasn’t going to be allowed to follow me onto an aeroplane, because there are laws against that kind of thing, so it and I had agreed that I would post it, and the lump of sticky brown resin that tended to accompany it, back to their home in Sheffield before boarding the flight. I had even brought along a post-paid padded envelope for this purpose. Idiotically, I had not taken into account the fact that the mouth of an airport pillar box is half a centimetre wide, if that. So the pipe and the jiffy bag went in the bin and the lump of sticky brown resin was chewed up and swallowed. Waste not.
Thus it was that by the time the pilot swung us onto the runway and began to gun the engines while holding the aircraft teetering on the footbrake I was as cunted as a skunk. Not, however, quite as cunted as my neighbour – our keyboard player – David Lazonby, who not unreasonably had decided to find out what it would be like taking off from Gatwick at nine in the morning while coming up on an E. The pilot released the brake, and… well. Most of you will have experienced taking off in an aeroplane, specifically the moment when the wheels leave the ground and the trundling, suicidal, snub-nosed ugly duckling of a thing is lifted and transformed. Many of you will have experienced the other thing also. So you won’t be surprised to learn that by this point Lazonby was fair bellowing out his excitement and joy, while I was laughing like an asthmatic horse. As soon as the FASTEN SEAT BELTS light was off, the guitarist out of meat-and-potatoes Britpop also-rans the Bluetones, who had unwisely elected to sit apart from his bandmates so that he could smoke, and had been billeted for his pains with Lazonby and I, asked to be moved. I’m not condoning this kind of behaviour, by the way. I’m just saying it happens. We were only young. Well, 32 or so.
There is nothing, I’m reliably informed, on the European festival circuit to compare with the hospitality afforded the acts at Benicassim. The hotels have four stars. The backstage area has an outdoor swimming pool. The organisers employ a troupe of young women whose sole purpose appears to be ministering to the performers’ every need. Well, not every. That would be grotesque. But everything else, including some things that even in Spain are not entirely legitimate. The backstage bar is free: you could be forgiven for assuming that this is always the case at events like this, but I can assure you it very much isn’t. And when you order four vodkas and coke, the bartender casually cracks a fresh bottle of Smirnoff and tips a quarter of it into each of four large beakers before tossing the empty into a skip. These people do not fuck about. It’s similar to the Islamic version of Heaven. Except it isn’t.
Needless to say, and especially given that it was still Friday lunchtime and we didn’t have to play until Sunday evening, things quickly became very messy indeed. Lazonby was in his element. We found him giving an interview to camera for MTV Europe. They had mistaken him for a Chemical Brother. Later, he scaled the forbidding north face of the main stage while the Divine Comedy were playing. I think he wanted to point out to Neil Hannon what a cunt he was. Hannon, that is. It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that his Access All Areas laminate would have enabled him to have walked up the steps at the back. Lazonby’s assessment of the Divine Comedy’s oeuvre was on the money. There’s certainly no place in my world for a Not The Nine O’Clock News Scott Walker spoof. But the Hannon cunt’s not utter: on the Sunday, instead of making straight for the cosy uterus of the backstage compound, he and his friends had the driver of the shuttle between hotel and festival site drop them by the side of the dual carriageway so they could climb one of the bare, rocky mountains that cordoned off the lush coastal plain from the lofty, inhospitable interior. And, lest we forget, he wrote My Lovely Horse.
I’ll remember those mountains for as long as I am given. Friday and Saturday were clear, hot, sunny and uncomplicated. Sunday began well, but there was something different about the air. By mid afternoon, a mass of dark grey seemed to be pressing against the landward side of the mountains, biding its time but only just. Down here on the Costa del Azahar – the Orange Blossom Coast – the sun was still shining. We were first on the main stage. Showtime was 8pm. Oh yes it was: Benicassim is even more civilised than you were thinking. At about ten to eight, we took the stage to sort out our equipment. We were more or less ready to rock, and to be saluted. Then, as if at the flick of a switch, it happened. The atmospheric pressure dropped like a very heavy penny, and as one the clouds broke free from their rocky moorings and they fucking charged. Sticky stillness turned in an instant to howling wind and rain. On stage, cymbals flew and amplifiers on castors became careening Daleks. This kind of weather simply isn’t meant to happen in August on the Costa del Azahar, so the stage and the tent in which the mixing desk was housed had been covered only by tarpaulins draped over scaffolding rather than the fancy aerodynamic shit you’d find at any large festival these days.
Anna was my girlfriend. She’d come with us for the free holiday, and had been asked to go to the mixing tent before we started so that she could instruct the sound engineer to play whatever it was we’d decided to come on stage to. Anna ended up lying spread-eagled, upturned on her back on the mixing desk, holding down the four corners of a glorified bin liner with her extremities while the flat, polythene roof above her filled with rainwater. And then burst. She’s still alive, I’m pleased to be able to report, although it’s not clear how. After a while, the storm, now free to roam wherever it liked, headed out to sea a couple of miles, where it sat on the horizon flexing its muscles with flashes of purple fire like it had just invented CGI. The organisers kept a wary eye on the storm and optimistically sent out Glaswegian sub-Pavement chancers Urusei Yatsura to do their underwhelming thing. The storm wasn’t having any of this, and as if at the flick of a second switch it was back on top of us. Litter bins the size of a short but very fat man flew through the air like Chinese lanterns. More worryingly, the lighting gantry dropped onto the stage, narrowly avoiding killing or seriously injuring at least one member of Urusei Yatsura. Game very definitely over. In a characteristic fit of generosity, the organisers decreed that every act which hadn’t got to play that night would be invited back the following year. Blur and co. probably didn’t rub their hands quite as gleefully as we did. But then good hospitality in the world to which Blur would be returning after Benicassim did not consist of the landlord of whatever upstairs room you’re playing in turning a blind eye to you bringing in a few tins of warm supermarket lager.
The second time Coping Saw went to Benicassim we travelled surface. It was an unforgettable experience. In a good way. There is nothing better – apart from waking up to find you’re still alive, maybe – than looking out over the stern of a large ship, eyes sucked by its churning wake all the way to the horizon, out of sight of land on all sides, ensconced in deckchair, beer in hand. You are suspended, everything is suspended, between sea and sky. The immaculate blue August skies and escort of gambolling porpoises didn’t detract. Twenty-four hours out of Plymouth, twenty-four hours out of quotidian space-time, our gleaming white conveyance nosed into Santander’s natural harbour, all luxuriant vegetation (this part of the country is known as España Verde) and distinctly Hispanic architecture. Not like catching one’s first glimpse of the hypermarchés of Calais through a veil of grey drizzle, then.
A long, long day’s slog, first by motorway to Zaragoza and then the perpetual uphill gradient of a single-carriageway N road, brought us to our way-station, a forsaken Bates Motel in the middle of a dusty nowhere, just outside the tiny settlement of La Puebla del Valverde, in Teruel province. From here, we intended to follow the twisty yellow road through the mountainous region known as El Maestrazgo (it was the seat of the Grand Masters of the Knights Templar: here be proto-situationist heretics, as the old maps used to warn) to our destination of Castellón de la Plana, the nearest decent-sized town to Benicassim. The old lady who saw us off from the Bates Motel evidently thought us insane. But we had all day for this adventure, and we’d already done the N road thing to death. Besides, she was just taking the hump because we hadn’t fallen for the old shower trick.
The twisty yellow road began tamely enough, freshly tarmaced and rising continually but not terrifyingly through a series of wealthy-looking villages with glass-fronted shops selling luxury goods and holiday homes. After one such village, this abruptly changed. The road became a potholed track of a thing – it had been surfaced, but apparently not within living memory – and it rose more and more precipitously, clinging to the contours of steep mountainsides as if its life depended on it. Our lives did in fact depend on it, and also on our lovely hippy driver Richard, whose unflappable, nay horizontal, demeanour was always an asset, but never more so than on this particular jaunt. From time to time, the road would find itself confronted with a deep, diving gorge, easily a thousand feet down, and faced with no alternative but giving up it switchbacked into the depths, apologetically crossed a little bridge and began its sidewinder ascent of the far side. I don’t expect to experience so exhilarating a shotgun ride again. But, you know, you can hope. Oh, and here’s a funny thing: as the road crossed municipalities into Castellón province there was a team of workmen busy drawing out the liquoricey August tarmac from the far end of the bucking yellow snake. Boo hiss, back to civilisation already. Richard, who as far as I can ascertain now lives in a bijou wattle-and-daub number in ninth century Wales, misread the instructions and ploughed through half a mile or so of freshly-laid liquorice instead of going around the side. It was pure Hanna-Barbera, although the fist-shakers who had probably spent the last fortnight of their lives laying that section of road didn’t appear to see it that way.
The best part of going somewhere is going somewhere. Actually getting there is always something of an anticlimax. Even if there’s a free bar. That’s what air travel has in common with premature ejaculation. You were wondering, I can tell. And, y’know, we were old hands at the cheap holiday in other people’s luxury by now. Pass me another truffle, Algernon, and send for more absinthe. We played, probably to more people than at every other show in the group’s “career” combined. It must have been fun. The dressing rooms were in rows of open-topped wooden boxes under a marquee. Next door to ours, Primal Scream’s session musician saxophonist was practicing his scales. Red rag. Our new keyboard player Jim and Scottish Mick out of Prolapse, on trumpet and cornet respectively, tried to entice the cunt into a bit of friendly parp-jousting by playing the opening to Duelling Banjos. Repeatedly. The cunt was beside himself, shoutily imploring them to stop. Always hated that band: real hide-behind-a-cushion stuff, like watching your uncle and his mates on Stars In Their Eyes.