Matilda In The Middle by Katy Lironi – Chapter 3
I left home reluctantly; a dungaree wearing, immature 18 year old, who didn’t fit at school and had no idea what it was I was looking for. I’d come through the New Romantic years with a passing interest in Blancmange, Bananarama and Heaven 17, but still felt that something was missing. I hadn’t found my niche. Shy to the point of carrying books around with me to fill any lurking gap in the conversation, I had discovered cider, boys and had one best friend. Missing out on the chance to study English at university by one grade, I found myself on my way to Edinburgh to study Publishing at Napier College. I didn’t realise that this was the right doorway opening for me, behind which lay all the stripy t-shirts and anoraks an awkward, socially inept girl from East Kilbride could possibly hope for. It was like the scene I’d been pining for without even knowing such a thing existed.
On the first day of college, I ran panting and late (I’d locked myself into my digs’ bedroom by accident) into the Merchiston Napier College campus on an August morning in 1988, sporting rolled up jeans, my Dad’s old golf jerkin and a neon orange chiffon scarf in my hair. Lips red, face freckled, white and terrified. The janitor pointed out a retreating back-combed figure in a man’s black raincoat, urging me to run after my fellow publishing student.
She turned out to be Sarah, a native Edinburgher and my first college friend. She introduced me to night busses, music venues, back alley short cuts and the joy of lunch time cider at the student union. She was almost immediately recruited as bass player with nascent C86 band The Shop Assistants. And there was my opening into the C86 scene, wholly overrepresented within the student population of my college, to be precise, within the confines of the publishing and printing classes of 1988.
Within weeks I too had been recruited into the ranks of another burgeoning C86 band, The Fizzbombs. Not only that, but I had a fellow C86 boyfriend, complete with stripy t-shirt and flat-top hair, and a new back-combed best friend, Ann, drummer with the Shop Assistants and bass player with the Fizzbombs – neither of which were instruments that she had much history with. That was kind of the point of C86, it was total DIY and we all learned as we went along, the noisier, more feedback and shambling, the better. So it was apt that I was recruited as the singer in this context of innovation and trial and error. My life as it was to become had begun, and it was both exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.
The digs I’d locked myself into on the first day of college didn’t last long. I was much too solitary and shy and my landlady ended up calling my mum in concern for my welfare. I was swiftly moved into the halls of residence at Craiglockhart, all female and still presided over by the nuns of the Society of the Sacred Heart. It had been used as a military psychiatric hospital during WW1 to treat shell-shocked soldiers, and had famously housed the war poets, Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Fresh from my English Higher exam and with a love of all things romantic and poetic, this was a factor in me agreeing to live in this ex-convent. It suited me perfectly, I had lectures five days a week, all meals cooked for me at the halls, leaving me time for band rehearsals and a full time social life immersing myself in the indie clubs and music venues that 1980s Edinburgh specialised in – The Hoochie Coochie Club, The Kangaroo Club, The Onion Cellar, The Green Banana Club at Potterrow. At these clubs and venues I was introduced to the delights of The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Velvet Underground and lots of classic 60s music – dancing all through the week to The Doors, The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie, and shoving one another around the dancefloor to the Mary Chain’s Upside Down.
The fact I came from EK was suddenly OK. My brother was a late-arriving member of Glasgow pop group Altered Images, and somehow that had contributed to me being asked to join two bands within the first month of starting college. Asked to drum with the Shop Assistants, I ignored the offer in fear, assuming they’d confused me with my brother who was a drummer, and a guitarist, and everything else musical in between. It was not in the genes, so I just ignored the rehearsal date given to me and hoped they’d go away. Asked to join the Fizzbombs as vocalist, I planned to do the same thing. But I hadn’t reckoned with Margarita, fellow publishing student, the Fizzbomb’s writer/guitarist/unofficial co-ordinator and someone impossible to say no to. I duly turned up at rehearsal and whispered my way through the first terrifying three hours. Bizarrely I was asked back. And so my own real flirtation with the actual act of making, performing and releasing music finally began and has been at least a small part of my life ever since.
I couldn’t believe I’d been asked to join a band, having secretly been desperate to sing for years. I’d even put myself through the horror of an audition for a high school production of South Pacific, and suffered the indignity of being turned down! Not even a chorus part. Honestly, if someone makes that huge leap of faith to shuffle out of their comfort zone, put down her book, take off her glasses, and shakily make her way through a whole verse of Happy Talk, at least let her be in the chorus! I must have had more inner strength than I recall, I didn’t let it kill my innate ambition, even though my best friend was recruited to the chorus. So, when my opportunity finally presented itself, all I was required to do was say yes and turn up. The fact that I only said yes because I was too scared to say no, and only turned up for the same reason, was just serendipitous. Getting myself through the door and making a vocal noise through the mic was the biggest hurdle.
It was 1984, guitars were loud and fuzzy, our drummer was learning as we went along as we all were and no-one had heard of a capo. None of the songs were in my key, and even if they had been, I didn’t know what my key was. I had huge impostor syndrome while also feeling I was in exactly the right place at the right time with the right group of people. The rehearsal rooms on Blair Street were something out of a different era, pre-gentrification, pre-sanitation, pre anything. It was basically a semi-derelict building full of damp old bits of broken furniture and some basic equipment. But that’s where we met, religiously, three hours a week throughout my three years at college and gradually my nerves became manageable.
The first song we practised in that inaugural rehearsal was Sign On The Line which went on to be our first 7” single. It already had a title and choruses and I had to come up with the verses. And there’s where all my many notebooks started to come in handy. To write for a reason and to have an output was novel and exhilarating, although overwhelming to start with. I assumed rightly that no-one could hear the lyrics over the roar of the guitars and that made the whole exercise just about bearable. Over time I would come to be the main lyricist, but really Margarita and Angus were the driving force behind the Fizzbombs choosing our direction and masterminding performances, recordings and press.
I phoned home to let my family know I was now a band member! I had to wait in a queue to take my turn in the hot, sweaty little public phone booths at Craiglockart campus, coins in damp hand. My turn eventually arrived and I settled myself in the booth, ready to share my news. I couldn’t contain myself – “I’m in a band!” I yelped, as my mum answered the phone. There followed the sound of a handset dropping and dangling, I could see it in my mind’s eye, falling from the brown velvet and chrome telephone table that graced the hallway back home in EK. I could hear my mum guffawing and calling to my dad. Eventually she got back on the line.
“What did you say?”
“I’m in a band!”
“What are you doing in the band?”
“I’m the singer!” Naturally much more mirth followed. We aren’t encouraged to take ourselves too seriously in the West of Scotland.
Our first gig was three short weeks after starting practising together and was held at Wilkie House, legendary Edinburgh venue in the Cowgate. How to describe the particular form of panic preparing for something you’ve always wanted to do, have never done and know you are woefully unprepared for? For some reason I decided wearing my dad’s gold and black paisley patterned pyjama top would be a good look and help me overcome my nerves. In pre-digital anything days, I have very little to document that night beyond memory. I have one photo that my college friend Alison took pre-gig. I’m crouched on the shiny linoleum of my college shared room, black eyed, back-combed hair. The same yet outwardly different looking girl who’d escaped EK brief weeks earlier, poised to take to the stage with a whole new guise.
The gig was shambling, but we more or less got through it. There were a few false starts. I gripped the mic stand and didn’t let go for the entire 15 minutes, fear etched on my face. The audience was awash with stripy t-shirts and floppy fringes and they seemed friendly enough. Someone called Fergus joined us on stylophone for Fireball XL5, a cover of the theme song to a 1960s children’s sci-fi TV show, and suddenly it was over. Euphoria! I’d done it, the lure of the stage and the desire to perform was born.
College would go on to consist of some lectures, discovering pints of snake bite, band rehearsals in that same dingy, damp rehearsal room, weekly gigs at The Onion Cellar, recording a 7” single for Indie label Narodnik, gracing the centre pages of the NME and making a video with Douglas Hart of the aforementioned The Jesus and Mary Chain. The Fizzbombs supported the likes of The Pastels, Tallulah Gosh, The Shop Assistants, The Vaselines, BMX Bandits, what seemed like every other weekend, and recorded a couple of Janice Long BBC Radio1 sessions. Everything was terrifying and incredibly exciting in equal measure, yet also seemed very, very normal.
My lovely brother once told me I was the shyest, most nervous looking person he’d ever seen on stage, yet part of me absolutely loved it. Part of me is a show off, just an awkward show off. College years ended with a tour of England in the back of a smelly transit van, sleeping on the promoters’ floors and putting our make up on in the local Wimpy Bar. The glamour of our short-lived, peripheral rock and roll life had been and gone. Ann and I decided to head off for further studies in Glasgow and without a backward glance, kissed the Fizzbombs and tour bus scabies goodbye.
We decamped to the West and it all got a bit academic, but Ann’s boyfriend, who had been the drummer in The Mackenzies, had started a new Hip Hop club with his bandmates called Gobstoppah, upstairs at Mardi Gras, so we had somewhere to hang out and dance to the likes of Salt n Peppa, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, etc., if not to play music.
But the chance to write, play, perform and record music again was waiting in the not too distant future.