Being a teenager in the 90s meant you were likely to succumb to electronic music, or else you were outcasted to “indie kid.” Rave swept up masses, electronic music had come of age, shaken off hit factories which crucified the creative early 80s and commercialised it into one neat “Now” double-album.
Living in Swindon rave promoters Extos was tribal; teeth-chattering teens wrapped in blankets in the carpark of Hardings nightclub awaiting word-of-mouth directions to an illegal party. Underground music would never be the same, bands didn’t matter; it was DJ culture. Listening to bands antiquated, ravers didn’t respond to “indie,” after Britpop watered-down Madchester.
I’d have been drawing a comic strip for a local zine called De-Railer, which combined Swindon’s traditional band scene with upcoming rave culture, so I wasn’t adverse to throwing “ravers” caution to wind and attending a few gigs in 92.
One local band who shoved the contemporary aside I’d follow, reminiscent of the two-tone ska period. The Skanxters relived those carefree childhood memories of baggy trousers, dirty shirts, of skinheads hanging around playgrounds, fat bald singers with huge tongues and a day prior to electronica. But now, some twenty-eight years later, Saturday night at the Vic was time for those devotes of the Skanxters to reminisce, about the band who revived two-tone in 1990.
Of recent surge in merged mod/two-tone/northern soul I chatted to Steve Powell about this time last year, booked by the Devizes Scooter Club under the Killertones banner. Excited to hear of a Swindon ska band I was keen to ask him if he remembered The Skanxters. “Yeah,” he mumbled, “playing at the Vic next week ain’t they?”
Aghast at this revelation and in disbelief I responded, “no, they broke up, eons ago.” It was fact, a night at Level III in 98 when my posse were excited to be invited to the bands afterparty, only to find frustrated musicians in a house in Old Town, deciding the setup was through. But Steve reassured me twas true, they had a reunion gig. I spotted it online, liked their page, dug out their CD “Call it a Crime,” and made it concrete if it happened again by hook or by crook I had to make it to Swindon.
This Saturday it did, so despite many gigs around Devizes I could’ve checked out I found myself wandering through that dirty Old Town, eternally the hive of Swindon’s nightlife. Although areas of Swindon have changed so much I’d get lost, Old Town relics yore, aside a few façade changes, there’s more flashy bars and restaurants sprung up, there it was, like a beacon of all that is champion about music in Swindon, The Vic.
Traditional town pub, The Vic plays host to bands nearly every night, it’s lively, rough and ready. In the pit below the band’s old PA/sound man Preston Steel DJs boss reggae and rocksteady as the varied crowd gather; curious youngsters and the old ska boys of Swindon, anticipating a tsunami of fond memories to wash over them. Prior to the band bursting onstage Doc Martins are moonstomping and Herrington jackets are placed on chairs.
I caught up with the keyboardist Erin Bardwell, and chewed the fat about old times, about getting back together sporadically for gigs. Erin was never static behind the keys, akin to Tow-Tone’s Jerry Lee Lewis, he bobbed up and down, harmonised vocals and gave it all he had. Much the same, he did just that, telling me aside his newer projects, experimental dub outfit Subject A, and rocksteady fashioned, The Erin Bardwell Collective (who are booked for the Devizes Scooter Rally next summer,) he still loved playing the two-tone catalogue of the Skanxters of yore, musical differences which may have drawn the band apart back then have reunited them.
And what a reunion it was, lead Carl, now of the NoMarks, a little larger around the waist, and a few expected wrinkles from band members, but blasting out the sounds of their very beginnings; Mr Hate Me, Ska Beat and the legendary floor-filler King Arthur, they covered Woolly Bully and Pressure Drop with ease, and bought back a forgotten memory with their customary up-tempo ska cover of Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight.
There wasn’t the lengthy rambling of a Springsteen show, but short sweet introductions and memories sparked songs, hoisting Erin’s mum on stage and Carl’s banter between the musicians gave the show wit. “Funny to think that back in 1990,” Erin states, “when myself, Marc (drums) and Carl (vocals) were 16, and practicing up at Groundwell Farm, that all these years later in 2018 we could rack up in a rehearsal room and still bash out the old tunes.”
Erin continues with the fable, “Vinny Hill soon joined on bass (who I had gone to same school with but didn’t know him at the time), followed by Rowena on sax. Then another face from my old school, Jase Hill, came into it early 1991, on guitar. Sax player Nina came into the band in 1993; what a great thing that we can all still meet up and do occasional gigs together, have a good laugh, brush the old cobwebs off, and blast through the songs, and people actually want to come and watch us!”
When the crowds bawled for encore, and I’ll Never Know, the amusing classic inspired by Erin’s failure to keep a bike for more than a few weeks before being thieved, polished off the night, it was crystal Swindonites did indeed want to come and watch; as they did the 90s. What a blinder!