First gigs can be pretty nerve-wracking – just ask these 35 huge bands who, before becoming huge best-sellers, arena-dwelling mega stars and in some cases, generation-defining icons, kicked off their careers in grimy pub backrooms and other far-from-glamorous settings. Every band has to start somewhere – here’s how the Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols, Arctic Monkeys and more made their first forays into live music…
The Velvet Underground played their first gig 49 years ago today (November 12) at Summit High School in New Jersey. Having recorded a demo tape a few months earlier, the band were paid $75 to play, which caused drummer Angus MacLise to quit, protesting they were “selling out.”
2Arctic Monkeys 2006
Arctic Monkeys were paid a paltry £27 for their inaugural live performance at the Grapes Pub in Sheffield on 13 June 2003, where they covered the White Stripes’ ‘Hotel Yorba’ and the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’. There were a couple of early Turner originals in their set list too: audio of a track called ‘Ravey Ravey Ravey Club’ is floating around the internet if you have a dig.
Oasis played their first ever live gig on 18 August 1991 at the Boardwalk club in Manchester – without Noel Gallagher. Noel was a roadie for Inspiral Carpets at the time, and didn’t think much of the group’s performance, but thought the group his brother Liam had assembled might work well as an outlet for songs he’d been working on.
Matt Bellamy smashed his guitar and amp at the first ever Muse show, at a battle of the bands contest at Broadmeadow Sports Centre in February 1994. A security guard tried to haul him off stage, but he slipped free and continued in the destruction. What a rock star.
“Scarring” is the word Bombay Bicycle Club’s Jack Steadman uses to describe their first ever show – in assembly at their North London school, covering Tom Vek and seminal ’70s funksters the Meters’ ‘Sissy Strut’ for their bemused classmates. “It was a bit of a disaster, but it set us up for future disasters to come,” he says.
Chvrches’ first show was in July 2012 at the Art School in Glasgow, performing under the name Shark Week. Having garnered industry attention before playing live, “we were concerned about failing spectacularly in front of half of the A&Rs in the country,” remembers instrumentalist Martin, “so we decided to play two gigs under a fake name so we could suck then get better.”
April 24 1977 was the date of the Cure’s first ever gig at Saint Edward’s Hall in Crawley. Of course, then they were known as Easy Cure, and fronted by Peter O’Toole, who made way for Robert Smith a few months later. The rest, as they say, was history.
Pixies’ first gig was in 1986 at Jack’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “No-one was there and they got our name wrong” they recall. “We were advertised as the Puxies. That was a bummer.”
On September 16 1965, a young Brixton-born musician who’d been touring under the name Davie Jones renamed himself David Bowie. Less than a month later, on October 8, at Soho, London’s Marquee Club, the first ever Bowie live show took place and history was made.
There’s a plaque at Basildon’s James Hornsby School, where Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan and Martin Gore met, commemorating the group’s first ever gig, which took place there in May 1980.
Blur made their live debut on June 41 1989 – although then they were Seymour. The venue? The East Anglian Railway Museum at a birthday party for a relative of Damon Albarn. No really. “We were extremely energetic, pushing the drum kit over and smashing guitars. We went down very well, they absolutely loved us,” the band later told the Guardian.
The Smiths’ first show with a full lineup came on debuted February 4 1983 at Manchester’s Haçienda. “Morrissey had started yodelling by then, and he’d get down on his shoulders and put his legs straight into the air… None of this was rehearsed. I remember watching the faces of the people at the front. It was just shock: “What the hell is this?”” Mike Joyce told the Guardian in 2012.
Eminem’s first show was not a success. “I got booed. And it was very traumatic for me. I just remember it being so fucking traumatic, and I think I went home and I was like, man, I quit.” Good thing he didn’t in the end – having overcome his nerves live, he’s now one of music’s biggest grossing live performers, earning a reported £1m for his Reading and Leeds headline sets last year.
The Horrors’ first show, back when they were Tim Burton-styled goth-rockers instead of the indie brooders they are today, was on August 16 2005, at The Spread Eagle on Kingsland Road in London. Faris Badwan remembers: “we played that first gig and then got booked for another one and by the third we were already starting to talk to labels, so it happened really fast.”
Imagine seeing Pulp for only 60p! That was the reality for fans at their first gig at Rotherham Arts Centre in July 1980, although of course they didn’t have any fans then.
Led Zeppelin had only practiced for “about 15 hours together” before playing their first show on September 7, 1968 in Gladsaxe, Denmark. “It was sort of an experimental concert to see if we were any good, I guess,” says Jimmy Page. The set contained a few Yardbirds favourites, as well as raw early incarnations of songs from their debut album.
A first gig befitting their moody post-punk brilliance: Joy Division’s first show (under the name Warsaw, a nod to Bowie’s ‘Warszawa’) was on 29 May 1977, supporting the Buzzcocks, Penetration and John Cooper Clarke at the Electric Circus in Manchester. NME’s Paul Morley rightly described them as a revelation.
Foo Fighters’ first show was a low key affair, taking place on February 19 1995 above a boat house in Seattle, in front of friends and family. Their first proper show, if you want to get technical, was a few days later on February 23 at the Jambalaya Club in Arcata, California. “It was a weight off my shoulders,” remembers Dave Grohl, playing his first gig since Nirvana’s demise.
Kings of Leon’s first gig was “one of the scariest moments of my entire life,” says Caleb Followill. Performing at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta, “we walked in and saw all the cowboy hats, and I said to the guys, ‘You fucking country it up. Tonight, these songs will be alternative country.’ We went out there and people were takin’ their cowboy hats off, goin’ ‘Whoo!’ and fucking lovin’ it.”
Metronomy’s debut was at grimy Brighton venue Ocean Rooms in October 2004. Joe Mount told NME: “in those days we didn’t really do anything, we had a backing track and we were miming pretty much.” Even then, they put on a theatrical show. “A few days before I saw these lights in a pound shop and I thought ‘we’ll whack these on our t-shirts and do some synchronised light shows!’”