Blog:
Ian Alderson

The oral historian on the origins of 1973: The Year Bowie Came To Blackburn and its finale on 8 July

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Can a gig change your life? Wayne Hemingway, the famous designer and founder of Red Or Dead, has spoken publicly on how seeing Bowie at Blackburn King George’s Hall on 31 May 1973 as a 12 year old was a lifechanging event and had a massive influence on his future path as a designer. The show was highly innovative, I know because I too was there. Bowie used the persona Ziggy Stardust, and played out the character’s rise and fall through the performance of the music itself. Musicians who attended other UK gigs on this tour in 72-73 include Kate Bush, Ian McCulloch, Pete Burns, Boy George, Holly Johnson, Marc Almond, Pete Shelley, Neil Tennant, Morrissey and Ian Curtis.

The heritage of people can be created by many different kinds of experiences – working for a particular company for a period, living in a certain community, or co-operating on a joint project. Perhaps one night in a person’s life can be equally important. The HLF-funded project I am now working on, 1973: The Year Bowie Came To Blackburn, has as its starting point the 1973 Bowie concert in Blackburn that Hemingway attended. He has since been interviewed on film for the project, along with 15 other attendees of all the 1973 King George’s Hall concerts in that year. The project climaxes with a Showcase Celebration Event at the hall on Saturday 8 July.

As a sheltered, naïve, northern 15-year-old boy attending the King George’s Hall Bowie gig I was well and truly seduced, from the opening strains of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – aka the theme from the contemporary cult film Clockwork Orange – to the closing moments of the concert, when Bowie as Ziggy during Rock’n’Roll Suicide implored everyone: “Gimme your hands, ‘cause you’re wonderful.” Incidentally, for some reason some of my friends and myself always replaced “wonderful” with “Wonderloaf” when singing along in homage to the most popular brand of sliced loaf at the time! Whatever we were singing, throughout the concert Bowie and the Spiders were as electrifying as all the reviews of 1972 and 1973 said they were at the time

Bowie on stage in 1973 was the most exciting thing I had ever seen, by some distance

Here is the artist Grayson Perry, writing in the Guardian last year, two days after Bowie died on 12 January. “It’s difficult for people to appreciate now just how different the 1970s were. Things were still terribly old fashioned, the social texture was very straight. To be this weird boy, one who experimented with androgynous, even feminine clothes and apocalyptic lyrics – it was pioneering. It felt like Bowie was giving me and a whole generation of kids permission to explore the dressing-up box. The sheer danger of it was what made it extraordinary. I would call it social bungee jumping. Terrifying but thrilling.”

Bowie on stage in 1973, with all his theatricality and glamour and a crack band arriving on stage under an opening sequence of strobe lighting, was the most exciting thing I had ever seen, by some distance. It was the only time Bowie played Blackburn. Much of the world was consumed with shock and grief when Bowie passed away. This was the catalyst for a few of my old schoolfriends to look back on the concert and the impact it had on us.

A number of us who attended the gig approached Dovetail, the “change-making agency”, which has a reputation for facilitating community-based and oral history projects. The project has since widened its focus and is about much more than this one Bowie concert. It focuses on all the concerts at King George’s Hall in 1973, including Queen, Slade, The Sweet, Mott The Hoople, Status Quo, Gong and Kevin Coyne. The project was launched in January 2017 in partnership with King George’s Hall.

I was truly moved on the launch night by the number of people who came up to me and shook my hand, saying how much they appreciated the project’s attempt to record this heritage and share it. Fortunately there was a great mix of older people who saw the gigs and younger people keen to learn. One of the project’s aims is to share this heritage with a wider, often younger, audience who are interested in finding out more about their cultural heritage and this great year in the history of King George’s Hall.

Young musicians from the local McNally Music Tuition have written songs based on the oral histories

The project has since explored King George’s Hall 1973 archive of contemporary material, including the booking diaries of the time detailing band damages costs. We have gathered oral histories from audiences for a new film – the interviewees’ memories have captivated everyone with their passion for the music of the period and insights into the Blackburn of 1973. We have scanned audience members’ memorabilia – programmes, photos – for posterity. Young musicians from the local McNally Music Tuition have written songs based on the oral histories. Design students from Darwen Aldridge Community Studio have designed artwork, and the Action Factory Community Arts has created theatre works based on the same source material, both facilitated by the Bureau For The Arts Blackburn.

The project’s finale is Let’s Celebrate 1973 on 8 July, MCd by Jeff Thompson, co-founder of Un-Convention Hub/Off Axis. The afternoon activities, which are free, include the only surviving member of David Bowie’s original Spiders From Mars, Woody Woodmansey, author of My Life with Bowie, Spider From Mars. He is in conversation with Dr Toby Manning, journalist and academic. The evening programme, which is priced at £1.20 – the amount gig-goers paid to see Bowie in 1973 – features local musicians Sky Valley Mistress and Teri Birtwistle, and original songs by students from McNally Music Tuition based on the 1973 memories.

The Film 1973 KGH: Our Memories will be premiered and there will be a panel discussion called Music Then And Now, looking at the legacy of the 1970s music scene and how we can build on this to forge today’s live music scene in Blackburn. The evening ends with a Roxy/Bowie disco by Jonathan Kemp, famous for “clubs for people who hate clubs” and an aftershow party until the early house at the nearby Cellar Bar.

The Showcase Celebration Event for 1973: The Year Bowie Came To Blackburn is on Saturday 8 July at King George’s Hall Blackburn. For more info and tickets for both the free afternoon and evening programme visit kinggeorgeshall.com or ring the box office 0844 847 1664

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