Last night I went to see The Tansads. Even though I could accurately make that claim on 40-odd occasions in the past, for over ten years I never thought I’d say it again.
For the uninitiated, The Tansads are the most popular band in Wigan. Not the most famous band to come from Wigan, that’s certainly The Verve, but while the latter rode on a wave of positive press in the early nineties to achieve a hit album and worldwide fame, the former rode in a red Iveco van around the toilet circuit of the nation’s music venues and only got as far as the cover of Folk Roots magazine.
I often mused that The Tansads were a victim of bad timing, and their cottage industry would have fared much better in the Internet age, without having to bend to the whim of a record company, though until their reunion concerts were announced a couple of months ago a Google search of their name would result in quite a few blog and forums posts along the lines of “The Tansads were the best live band I ever saw, why didn’t they make it?” or possibly “Worst. Lyrics. Ever.” They were loved, by people who enjoyed live music, but easily dismissed by pretty much everyone with influence as being “too Northern”.
Bass player Ed Jones wrote a very personal account of the implosion of the band in his laugh-until-you-cry book This is Pop: The Life and Times of a Failed Rock Star, which revealed some of the internal tensions of a group of people who knew that they were good enough, who worked many times more then hard enough, but tragically ended up with a sucession of record labels that just didn’t know how to explain them to anyone who hadn’t seen them live.
They were often compared to The Levellers, who achieved some success with a similar political-folk outlook, but perhaps this was because they offered a purer form of folk. They sang about the freedom of the traveller, and while The Tansads did have songs about revolution and roving and freedom, the songs which resonated with their hometown audience were ones about the trials and pleasures of life on the dole. Looking back I can see how it was a difficult sell: If your radio station gets records from two bands telling you to Smash the State and Wander in the Fields, you’d play the one that didn’t continue And When I’m Done Saving The World I’m Going Home For Egg and Chips and a Pint of Shandy. This glib dismissal is unfortunately probably quite typical of their fate, but it is unfair. While The Levellers were a purer form of folk, The Tansads also offered loud guitars, pure, simple melodies, very modern keyboard sounds, incredibly strong vocalists, valiant attempts at proper pop songs and beautifully personal tales of despair, loneliness and failure. They could do it all, often in the same gig, but they just couldn’t allow themselves to be tied down and marketed as one thing or the other.
If being a celebration of Northern Unemployment wasn’t enough of a handicap to worldwide success, the band’s management and record companies had an uncanny knack of self-sabotage. Singles NEVER came out on the day they were supposed to, meaning that the army of fans who had been primed to turn up on Monday to buy the CD from the chart-registered shops that would get it into the charts eventually bought it on their second or third visit, which could be weeks later. Even the website advertising the reunion gigs had the wrong dates on it for a few hours and their manager Damian seemed surprised that some devious people registered for the ticket draw under multiple aliases to increase their chances of getting tickets. (To be fair, the behaviour doesn’t seem to fit with most of the people I met through the band, they probably got overexcited.)
The first time I saw them was through word of mouth. I was told that they had the most incredible vocals, and I wasn’t disappointed – not just the two lead singers, but four or five of the eight members of the band (producer Phil Tennant said that they were the best group vocally he’d ever worked with). My own band had just broken up, and I’d played some of the same venues in Wigan, so I sort of considered them the band I could have been in if I’d been a few years older (and better). They were the best band I’d ever seen made up of real people. I knew it was only a matter of time before they would be considered to be made up of stars, not real people, and I wanted to help make that happen. I’d gotten into something big at almost ground level and I was excited to watch them grow. On the way out of the gig I got a flyer for their debut album, Shandyland. Somehow they’d already converted me to their politics of shirking and for the only time in my career I took a sickie from my Saturday job to go to St Helens and buy it.
It hadn’t come out yet.
Over the years I took every gram of pleasure from their career that I could and have many happy memories. In no particular order:
- Their first article in NME – they were on their way.
- Their first advert in NME – now the whole nation could buy their songs.
- A gig in Preston where I was one of only six people in the audience so they used it to try out new songs. Criminally, I got in for free.
- When they supported Dodgy in Sheffield. Two of my favourite bands on the same bill! At the time I imagined that they’d become friends and this would ensure a mutual level of success, but only Dodgy went on to have a top ten single.
- When they played Glastonbury – first thing in the morning they opened the acoustic stage, and absolutely blew it away. NME writer Stuart Maconie (also from Wigan) promised the band a review, but for whatever reason could only manage something like “nods to Wigan’s Tansads and Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies” – not the career springboard they’d hoped for, but no mean achievement for the first on the bill to be mentioned in the same breath as the headliners.
- I spent an evening in the studio with the band and gave singer Andrew a lift to the shops. We had a bizarre conversation about how your wee smells of Sugar Puffs if you’ve just eaten Sugar Puffs. (It was the working class equivalent of the dinner party truism about asparagus.)
- After almost every gig for years I asked whichever member I came across to play a song called Scotty, which I’d heard at that first gig, but it soon got dropped from the set. I was beaming when they played it as an encore one night specifically because I’d requested it – some newer members of the band had to be taught how to play it. I considered it my reward for years of faithful service.
- In Ed’s book he mentions a gig in Liverpool which had been an unexpected high point after some non-descript gigs further afield. Apparently the band didn’t know why they had become so popular in Liverpool all of a sudden. I was studying at the University of Liverpool at the time, and had spent the days leading up to the event handing out flyers outside my exams.
Onto the reunion gig itself. The Tansads had roughly 7 or 8 members for most of their career, and when they played St Helens or Wigan gigs they would often be joined on stage by former members, (notably drummer Chris Atherton – Bug – whose backing vocals were very important.) This time pretty much anyone who had ever been a member of the band was on stage at some point or other.
I didn’t jump about like a teenager this time; I’m a dad now, for pity’s sake. For me it was a different experience, and in truth, it wasn’t really about the music. In fact I almost considered walking out of the gig part way through, not because I wasn’t enjoying myself, but because I wanted to be the one leaving them rather than them leaving me, like last time. I knew this time that I wasn’t helping them change the world. I wasn’t going to get them on Top Of The Pops by buying the 12″ AND the CD single. I wasn’t even trying to complete the set by begging, borrowing or stealing to get tickets for all three nights of the reunion. I did stay to the end, and as I said to my friend Richard, I got closure. There have been mixed messages about whether they will continue after these Citadel concerts, and although I’d be happy to hear more records by them, it’s no longer a matter of life or death to me, and I wish them luck whatever the outcome.
Musically it was almost like they’d never been away; it was clear that they were relying on a trust in each other’s abilities though, rather than the tightness that came from nightly shows around the country. It was The Tansads. It was those people playing those songs, but crucially, and I think I’d forgotten over the years how important this was, it was the same audience, singing every word back to them, loving them, because the band were singing to them about them. I realised that I was really there so that I could see them show me that they were happy with where they ended up. Home.