The Night the Punks came

One-night music gigs weren’t—and still aren’t—uncommon at the Empire. We had Chuck Berry (as I believe I might have mentioned elsewhere), Johnny Mathis, Slade, Kate Bush, Showaddywaddy and more, but nothing, absolutely nothing, could compare to the night the punks came in, complete with their bovver boots, safety pins through the flesh of their faces, hair spiked and coloured and determined to instil as much fear and cause as much damage as possible.

They came to see The Boomtown Rats but I can tell you, The Boomtown Rats were not at all happy to see them. From the moment the band appeared, the spitting started.

“Fuckin’ stop it, will you?” Bob Geldof shouted. “That’s not what we’re about!”

But they didn’t stop. Not only did they continue spitting but some went on a wrecking spree: the brass rails at the front of the dress circle on the centre aisle were twisted out of shape; seats were slashed or even rived off the floor; cigarettes were ground out on the carpet—those that they actually bothered to put out.

There were some quite—shall we say, unexpected?—things going on too. In the stalls, one guy stood waving his arms in the air, spitting and shouting, while his girlfriend gave him a blowjob, cheered on by his mates.

Every possible male member of staff—front of house and backstage—poured into the auditorium to try to restore some order, to absolutely no effect.

And where was I in all this? Backstage. The minute the spitting started I was through the pass-door and out of there. I was standing in front of the stage; if I’d stayed there, I would have been soaked in ten minutes! And I was carrying a good few hundred pounds worth of photographic equipment. No way was I going to put that at risk. This was the '70s, remember—hundreds then were the equivalent of thousands now!

Mel James, the Technical Director, had to call in all his casuals as well as all the regular staff after the show finished and they worked solidly through the night, all morning and into late afternoon to repair the very extensive damage. And the cleaners had a hell of a job as well, as you might imagine.

Why didn’t the management stop the show? Given the damage caused when the audience were “enjoying” themselves, can you imagine how they’d have behaved if they’d got angry? At least none of the staff were hurt, but if the show had been stopped, God knows what would have happened.

I love the Empire, but I have never been so glad to leave it as I was that night!

That was one audience that the Empire never reached out to again.