When Debbie Sang to Angels

Blondie1977When recently writing a post about three of the songs Blondie covered, I included my experience of seeing Debbie Harry live;  in the process discovering the somewhat unique circumstances in which I did are barely, if at all, mentioned anywhere on the internet.

In 1982, with Blondie at the height of its fame, my mum managed to get us tickets for the London show of the tour, only for the band to split before it happened. I was devastated, Blondie being by far my favourite band at the time.

Almost ten years later–1991–I was no longer a snotty-nosed school kid, but instead a snotty nosed biker going to spend a weekend at the Hells Angels’ Kent Custom Bike Show in Dymchurch. On the Saturday of the same weekend, Debbie was appearing as a solo artist at Wembley, London, on a bill that included the likes of INXS, Jesus Jones and The Hothouse Flowers.

A rumour started to circulate that the Angels were going to fly Debbie by helicopter to Dymchurch after so she could also perform there at midnight.

Least ‘rumour’ is how I remember it; there was no internet, so unless buying the relevant publications/magazines, everything was word of mouth.

9c3f38d03215b124cad36ebe22c7cad5Despite best efforts, I can’t discover who took the following photos of Debbie at Dymchurch, except to know those posting them the places found online aren’t the owners (on which note: licensing information for the header image can be found here).

There’s little information attached to them apart from the date and location, not a mention of Hells Angels and helicopters to be found. And given many sites claiming to list all of Blondie/Debbie Harry’s concerts omit the Kent one, while including the one in London on the same night, without being there (or reading this) one might be hard pushed to ever stumble on its having taken place (it is listed on the official Blondie site archive of concerts, tbf; which perhaps is more comment on reliability of other lists).

Pre smart phone days people hardly ever walked around taking photos and filming things. But it was still Debbie Harry arriving by helicopter to play for bikers and Hells Angels! and nothing of the event seems to exist.

Perhaps the worst aspect, I did take a camera . . . though didn’t take any pics of Debbie, so hardly have anyone to blame but me! And judging by a pic taken of me with it, no one would think I was a few hours from seeing an adored singer for the first time, having missed out a decade earlier with no prospect of the chance arising again (least, that’s how it’d seemed at the time).

The week beforehand had incredible buoyant weather, then—bang!—the day it came for loading up the bikes and hitting the road, grim. There’d also been an undue number of mechanical issues amongst the bikes I’d rode up with, as the wonderful state of my jeans may be considered artistic testimony to.

We set up at an edge of the site, which really came into play the Friday night, when in one direction complete pitch black emptiness replaced the daylight view of rolling fields and hedges; while the other, sights and sounds precisely reminiscent of Mad Max II.

Campfires lighting the night, while bikes roared up and down somewhere out in the mass of tents. And while there was rarely any trouble at these things, the crème de la crème: the sounds and lights of American police sirens (not the UK blues and twos—nee-na-nee-na!—of the time) as the Angels had them fitted on bikes and cars to get around their festival with ease.

I could’ve watched that scene all night, and spending so long doing so probably explains some part of the grumpy look on my face the next day.

The pic of me was taken just after everyone announced wanting to go take a butcher’s at the bikes on show. I decided to stay at the tents miserable, handing the camera to a mate, and asking him to take some pics; the first being the one of me (funny bastard!).

They were gone ages; but when eventually getting back, the camera was handed to me with the comment not many pics had been taken. They’d spent most of the time wandering around the tents talking to people.

Weird, my mate was smiling, he never smiled . . .

Then I was given some of the hash brownies they’d bought (and had already been eating) off a hippy bumped into early on their wanderings.

They were thoroughly delicious brownies in of themselves (though definitely not sans gluten), and by far some of the best ever had, not simply because of how strong, but because of how wonderfully caring and long lasting about it. Like a curry with that perfect slow heat, all the flavour at first, and then the heat comes rolling in wave after wave, getter bigger and bigger, until arriving comfortably at a never before reached intensity and then staying there warmly for hours . . .

It changed my view of hippies forever.

1102335dccf3c2c8ad7b01f08bf8f509They were sooo good, all gooey and chocolatey, that when someone found a hair in theirs, no one else cared. No one cared a bit, just carried on yamming and licking bike-oil covered fingers . . .

For the record, I did not go watch Debbie Harry in those filthy jeans, changing into some psychedelic shorts first. I don’t like wearing jeans when standing in puddles as they have a habit of sucking moisture up, and somewhere along the way it had rained, pissed down, actually; the entertainment area of stage, funfair, food stalls, etc, had become the commonly encountered outdoor UK concert terrain.

I remember walking up there, but have no idea of time or who, if anyone, was on stage, except to know there was still daylight and Debbie wasn’t expected until midnight. Then it started to rain again and about five of us decided to go on the Waltzer in the optimistic hope it would stop in the time the ride took.

Wheee . . .

The lights, the laughter . . .

When the ride finished, we got out the seats all shook up to find the person we’d left the booze with already standing under the Waltzer’s cover. They weren’t alone, the rain had got harder; people were taking shelter wherever they could. We stayed there.

The inside edge of the Waltzer became like a bar; no use asking people who ride bikes to get out just because it might be dangerous, just the occasional ‘can you make sure you stay right by the edge’ as the ride carried on with people coming in and out of the rain not only for the ride but also hopeful they might find some space to stay with those at the party.

The whole vibe of it on the back of the brownie—lights flashing, music blaring, people shouting, things spinning—was utterly mesmerising . . .

If the night before had been Mad Max II, then this was Apocalypse Now; Lance at the bridge dropping acid mixed with the ‘Bunny Girls’ arriving in a Huey to entertain the troops.

0e2cf15d2a5302de054d959da05f5d97It stopped raining before Debbie came on stage. I was too zonked for any trying to get down the front. Instead, I  stood near the edge of the throng taking it all in before reaching a point in Debbie’s set where, spurred on by the fact it’d likely be the only chance to ever do it (with hindsight, I can assuredly say, yes, it was/will be), I walked back to the tents alone and laid back on my bike to listen to the end of the set, ‘Heart of Glass’ in particular sticking in the mind.

I crept into the tent and sleeping bag still high as a kite on the buzz, new bout of rain drumming on the nylon. Through it came the crash of a bike falling over. Without getting dressed, I scrambled out the tent in boots and undies to find it was mine. Sure, it’d been on a good bit of wood, otherwise there wouldn’t have been any laying on it, but the laying on it had done enough for the new rain to make a difference.

Picking up a dropped bike isn’t that hard once working out there’s a knack. Not that any of it helps when half-naked and the ground’s fast turning to mud. Luckily others had heard the noise. Took three of us. There was damage, hard to tell in the dark, but it still looked rideable (it was, though did need repairs costing a hundred-and-eighty quid, which of course was worth a lot more back then).

Still. Absolutely no regrets.

Even when considering the following day.

8a083a012cf0cade7e1540f003311745It rained all night. The place was a quagmire and only got worse the more people tried riding bikes on it to leave. There was a point when it felt like everyone was leaving at the same time, only for no one to be moving as no one could. Bikes were going down everywhere. At least there was a chance of walking two wheels; the few in four were just spinning and completely stuck. To use a term popular today, even for a bike rally/music festival in the UK things were unprecedented.

Eventually tons of hay/straw was brought in from neighbouring farms and the gradual process of getting enough of it down across the whole site began.

The amount of mud that wound up encased on tyres was incredible, looked like the wheels were made of it, bikes from The Flintstones. If anyone needed to stop quick, there was no chance until a good few miles ridden to fling it all off.

My memory of Debbie on stage is perhaps not so great as it should be for a post specifically about her performing live. But without it, the run would’ve melded into memory alongside all the others apart from the aspect of how good the brownie.

For me it was the sweetest of icings on the greatest of hash cakes.

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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