I learned first hand just how overwhelmingly large the USA is via the virtues of touring in a van. Speedhorn were on tour for around five weeks. We’d began in Houston, Texas, the opening show was supposed to be New Orleans but Katrina had put an end to that. We had one day off in El Paso near the start of the tour but from there we played every night right the way through Arizona and up the west coast to Seattle before we had another free day, a couple of weeks later. I asked the guy who was driving us, Dutch, where we would be spending the day after Seattle, hoping for some sightseeing, or maybe a day somewhere sat in a bar. Dutch just laughed at the naivety of my question. “Where will be be spending the day? In the fucking van! After Seattle the next show is Denver and that’s a twenty four hour drive”.
There have also been plenty of occasions where we’ve had huge drives between shows without a day in between to accomplish the journey. Driving from Syracuse to Chicago with Victims to make a show the next night was a particularly challenging journey, where we packed up and left right after the show to make it. It was knackering but worthwhile since the Chicago gig was an opening slot with Amebix. If that wasn’t worth it alone then the old screamo band Nema were also on the bill, although it was only me who gave a fuck about that particular detail.
Through all the years of travelling we’ve owned or rented an assortment of vans or busses. When I think back I remember them all with varying degrees of fondness. The vans themselves almost became like a member of the band, they all had a character of their own and they were all witness to a multitude of incidents and dramas. I own a memory for almost all of the vans or buses we ever travelled in.
When Speedhorn started playing shows up and down the UK we were playing a lot of one off shows, or at most a cluster of two or three. Here, there and everywhere. For these shows we used to hire vans from a rental place in Corby called Longmarsh Motors. We used to hire these long wheel based Transits and for the most part it was Roddy who took care of the driving. We’d be sat in the back, using speaker cabs and drum cases as makeshift seating. Sometimes there would be a divider between the back of the van and the cabin. Sometimes there would be a light in the back, sometimes not. I remember once driving all the way up to Scotland in the dark barr for one slither of light that shone through the smallest of holes in the wooden divider. Every now and again one of us would peer through the hole to try and get a gauge on where we were and relay the information to the rest of us in the back. These kind of journeys were made bearable by two things; copious amounts of hash being one, John and Tony wrestling being the other. Even if you didn’t actually suck on the joints yourself you’d be high purely off the exhaled smoke trapped within the back of the van. Hotboxing, they used to call it. When the van would pull over at a service station the smoke would literally billow out of the van when the driver slid the door open. The other time killer was the wrestling. John and Tony, the Loughlin brothers, used to go at it pretty hard. What started out as fun could turn a tad serious on occasion. Of course, being stoned off their tits most likely dampened the sensation of having their head banged off the walls. We were all in a pretty unhealthy state in those days.
Obviously there was a shit load of booze about too. Being on a tight budget we’d kitty the money and buy the cheapest wine or cider we could find. Most of the drinking was done after the gigs but there were times when we’d fuck up and arrive at a venue worse for wear. We were living in an age of innocence. We had minimal responsibility. Most of us didn’t have jobs to worry about, or if we did they were of no priority whatsoever, except for Frank who worked for his dad. But in general we were going through a fairly narcissistic period. Fuck whatever the future holds, we know this shit isn’t going to last forever. All that matters is the next gig, the next bottle of vino and who’s rolling. We were young and didn’t give a fuck about what went on outside the van. It was wonderful. For a time…
One dark journey home I was lying on the cold van floor listening to the radio up front, which was muffled by the dividing wall. There was a bottle going around and we were all pretty hazy. Roddy brakes suddenly, I don’t know what happened, chances were he was pissing around. He did that a lot. Whatever the reason, the sudden breaking resulted in a Jenny can full of diesel falling over and emptying its contents on John. We couldn’t see fuck all, we just knew what had happened since the glugg, glugg, glugging sound was followed by the suffocating smell of diesel and then John moaning, “Ahhh for fuck sake!”
Amidst the ensuing chaos a spark of light appears in the corner. The spark it turns out, is coming from Daz’s lighter. The fucker decides now is a good time to spark up a fag. We all bellow in unison, utter disbelief. John tells Daz in no uncertain terms to put his lighter away. Daz being drunk and cocky, as he was prone to be, assures John there is no danger. A tense argument ensues between them and then we all join in, telling Daz to shut the fuck up and put his lighter away. “Soz guys, forgot that I’m an engineer and know more about this than you..” Don’t know what the fuck he meant by that. Sarcastic cunt never knew when to shut the fuck up. Needless to say the van opened up and we all piled out on to the side of the dark road. John soaked in fuel and severely pissed off, threatening Daz with his life. This would not be the last time John issued such threats to Daz.
Another time we were spread about the back of a rental van. It’s so dark in there you can’t even see your hand in front of your face and it’s cold. We’re all pissed up and in pretty good spirits, listening to the muffled sounds of one of Frank’s mixed tapes up front. There is a bottle of luke warm cider, flat as piss, being passed around in the void. Out of nowhere we hear Daz gagging. Woaaaah! Stop the van Roddy, stop the fucking van! We’ve got a vommer! Roddy pulls into the next service station and we all rush out, inspecting ourselves to make sure Daz’s puke hasn’t got us. To our amazement there isn’t any sign of puke in the back of the van, or on Daz for that matter, although the poor sod is looking fucked, pure white and eyes rolling. Turns out the vom is in the inner pocket of his bomber jacket. Hats off. Don’t know how the fuck he pulled that off in the pitch black of the van but I’d be lying if I said I was unimpressed. As we’re stood there commending him on the save, he wanders off to the back of the van and continues to throw up, lurched over, legs bent out of shape. Frank goes up behind him and shunts him up the ass with his foot, just because. Daz falls over into his newly formed puddle of sick. Best of mates.
The first van I remember us owning was an old British Telecom van. It was a yellow mini bus that was previously used as a transporter for the engineers. It had a few rows of bench seats and a table up front, with and an empty space at the back where we could store equipment. We boarded up the windows at the back so you couldn’t see into the back compartment. The great thing about this van though was that it was equipped for camping. It had a mini kitchen area between the back row of seats and the equipment compartment. This kitchen area had a worktop, some shelves attached to the wall, a kettle and an electric stove. It was fucking magic since it saved a lot of money on food. We rarely got fed by the venues in those days. No more expensive fast food, now we could scrimp by on the cheapest stuff the supermarket had to offer. Food was by no way any kind of priority in those days, the cheapest way to fill the hole was all that counted.
We bought the yellow van from a gypsy who went by the name of Bimbo. He was this big fucker you wouldn’t want to mess with, a rather infamous character around certain circles in Corby. He was an acquaintance of Gordon’s dad, Moggy. I don’t remember how much we bought the van for, it couldn’t have been much, the twat was always breaking down. It looked good, granted, but it was about as trustworthy as a fart after a vindaloo. Not that we’d taken out any sort of insurance policy with Bimbo.
The first ever real tour we played we were in the Yellow Van. We were doing a tour of the UK with Ninth Circle from Scotland, a lovely bunch of metalheads that we’ve remained friends with until this day. We were fucking chuffed. Our first ever “tour” and we have this ace looking van to travel about in. On the way down to the first show, on the motorway just outside of Hastings we caught sight of what we knew must be the Ninth Circle van, a white Tranny that had a few tell tale signs of being a band van. Namely a few gaffa taped skulls on the sides and a mane of black hair flailing out the passenger window. We’d soon learn that the hair belonged to their bass player Curly. Anyway, we spot them and instruct American George to put his foot down and overtake them. Much obliged he does so and when we pass them their devil horns and gurning are met by our bare arses mooning them. We tear away laughing our heads off and leave them behind. Of course, ten minutes later the van has broken down and then we’re mocked by the tooting of the Ninth Circle van as they pass us pushing our piece of shit up a hill on the side of the road. I’ll never forget Tony pushing beside me and moaning, “I fucking hate our van.” Credit to the Jocks though, they came back and assisted us. A friendship was born.
That van broke down all the fucking time. I think it broke down again upon leaving Hastings the very next night. Or at least on another occasion after Hastings. The thing is we had Frank in the band, our own mechanic, plus Gordon came from a family of car people, so the situation was rarely completely beyond fucked. The blame wasn’t always entirely on the van though…
We’d argue a lot about who was driving, especially if we didn’t have Roddy or American George with us, and even then there was still plenty of arguing. Smartly I fucked off learning to drive until Speedhorn called it a day so I was never much involved in the conversation, but the others, barr John, all had licenses. One time we played Southampton and driver’s duty had fallen upon Gordon. We were heading back to Corby the next day since we didn’t have a gig but Gordon got the hump, and told everyone that if he was driving back to Corby then he was doing it after the show. Just to piss on the party. He pulled the van out of the carpark behind the Joiners with a total gob on. It was already late and the drive back to Corby was a good four hours. As we left someone mentioned that we’d need to fill up on petty at some point. “No, not stopping, Want to get home. We’ll make it on that,” says Gords. Not totally convinced but too tired to be arsed arguing with him. We all fall asleep in the back of the van. An undetermined amount of time later I’m woken by a sheepish looking Gordon, whispering to me. The fucking van has ran out of petrol and we’re on the hard shoulder of the M1, about an hour from home. He’d come to me, not daring to wake Frank and hit him with the news, knowing too well what the consequences would be. I could not fucking believe it. It was three am and I longed for my bed. Telling Frank was unavoidable though, he had to be told, he’d know what to do in the situation. Well Gordon knew what had to be done too to be fair, but the sense was we couldn’t keep it from Engine Man, as Roddy called him. Funnily enough, when Gordon roused Frank and told him the news in the most innocent voice he could muster, Frank wouldn’t even credit him with eye contact. He just rolled over in his seat, refusing to address the situation, “Don’t give a fuck. You sort it”. That kind of tickled Gordon I think, I guess he realised it was fair enough. Gordon trudged off, with an empty Jenny can, taking poor George with him, back to the last service station we’d passed. It seemed like a fucking age waiting for their return, sat there in the back of the van, no engine. Freezing.
The Yellow Van broke down many times over the course of the first year or so of touring, most of my memories of that van seem to be of pushing the twat. The pushing was always preceded by an annoyed sigh from Frank, “Right, get out...” It finally died somewhere up in the North. We’d broken down in the dark somewhere and had no option but to ring roadside service. On occasion when the van was playing up Gordon would call Moggy for advice, if Frank and Gordon couldn’t figure it out for themselves, a couple of times I remember Gordon waking up his dad in the middle of the night, and on those occasions we managed to sort it. But it was never going to last forever. The pick up truck came, towed the van on to the back and we hitched a ride in the cabin. Tony and I were sat in the back, contemplating our finances. We’d paid Bimbo from some advance money we’d received from the label and now we were fucked. “We got that fucking advance and what do we have to show for it? That!” he says, thumbing back to the Yellow Van, now lying dead on the back of the pick up truck, refusing to even look at it. “The rest of it we’ve pissed away”.
Yep. I thought then that the band was fucked. Not only were we without a van, we had no money whatsoever to buy a new one. How could we continue to tour full time without a van? And more to the point, how the fuck were we going to get home tonight? We were miles away.
Needless to say, things worked out. Somehow. We ended up lending Iron Monkey’s old van, the Big Blue. I don’t ever remember paying for it. We just seemed to be using it all of a sudden. Maybe the label had forked out? I guess if they did then it was all coming out of our pocket at some point in the future. I paid it no thought. I didn’t really give a fuck about what money was going where and who owed who what. That was all just boring details.
Big Blue was the hottest van I have ever travelled in. It kind of reminded me of those old vans that they used to use as mobile grocery stores, although fitted out for bands with bench seats and a table. The nice thing was that was no dividing wall between the back and the cabin, just a curtain. It was carpeted all over, walls, floor, ceiling. It was like riding in an oven. We used to travel about in it, the lot of us stripped down to the kecks. It was a heavy old fucker as well. The first time we went out in it was down to a show in Margate. Upon approach to the venue we had to climb a hill and when we looked out the window we noticed that people were walking faster than we were travelling. Fucking embarrassing. Even so, I still thought it was a really big deal, it was Iron Monkey’s old van! It felt like the first step on the way to being a serious band.
We travelled around for a while in Big Blue. We slept in it too. It was pretty torturous since you’d wake up and have to peel your face off the carpet in the morning. It was suffocatingly hot in there, even during the winter. During the summer we’d open the back doors to the storage compartment and grill cheap bangers on disposable barbeques. We thought it was a really nice idea, until we realised that the smoke had permeated the cardboard boxes we had our merch in and we spent the next six months trying to flog t-shirts that stank of smoke. I remember one time we had a grill going on, parked up somewhere by the seaside and someone, could have been Daz, vigorously shook the ketchup bottle without realising the top was off. A huge squirt of the stuff hit Roddy right in the eyeball and we all pissed ourselves laughing. Roddy was fucking furious though, said we could have blinded him.
Roddy never had it easy with us lot. Big Blue had a few problems, it seemed to struggle to pull around it’s own weight a lot of the time and the engine was always running dry radiator fluid. The tank for the fluid was actually inside the van, between the driver and passenger seats up front. One hot day we were trudging down the M11 at a snail’s pace, traffic packed. The engine starts overheating and Roddy starts panicking. We start pouring water into the tank, hoping to keep it cool enough. Not optimal but better than nothing. There are only a few half bottles lying around though and it’s not enough. Roddy, now in full panic, commands us all to piss in the tank. Without questioning we line up and one by one, aim our cocks into the hole. A couple of miles down the line the plastic cap on the tank blows off due to a buildup of pressure from within and a cocktail of steaming hot piss sprays out all over Roddy. I laughed so hard I thought I was going to puke. Big Blue didn’t last much longer than that.
We had a few other vans that flitted in and out of the band’s history. Usually old boats that Frank dug up from somewhere. I have a vague memory of a white Tranny that lost a wheel in Kettering. Just rolled off at a roundabout. Otherwise we had rentals. Until we entered the era of the tour bus.
For a few years it felt like we were fucking Metallica. Not that we were playing to extravagantly big crowds, although we were doing okay. It’s just the high you get when you’re travelling on a tour bus can be intoxicating. It was absolute luxury to wake up in the morning parked outside the next venue, having the whole day to go sightseeing, if you hadn’t spent the whole of the previous night up getting fucked. Which was often the case. We could never travel in a tour bus today on the money we were making then, our tour costs were most likely very unrealistic and swallowed up a lot, if not all of any tour support we got, which of course would all be debt in the future anyway. But we didn’t think about that crap for a few years. And the memories of travelling like royalty for a few years will stay with me forever. Even if I probably wouldn’t do it that way today.
The first bus we ever stepped on board was this old clapped out thing that suited us down to the ground. It had a couple of lounges and beds for all. It looked like it hadn’t had a touch up since 1970 but that just meant we could wreck it. Well, that’s how we interpreted it anyway. Not that we intentionally ever wrecked anything, it’s just the booze normally blurred the edges of right and wrong. Bob, the old boy who drove the bus, loved us all the same. Treated us like we were his own mischievous kids. Our first trip in Bob’s bus was a two day journey from Corby to Helsinki, we were all steamboats before we got to the ferry at Dover and remained in that state until we got to the first gig. The boat trip from Stockholm to Helsinki hardly helping matters, the ferry was like a floating nightclub.
There were some bad things that happened during our time on Bob’s bus, some have been written about on here earlier, some have still to be recounted. My finest memory of Bob’s bus though was being sat there with Frank, Daz and Bianchi, driving in the hills up above Lake Como at four am, listening to Led Zepplin. I was high as a kite and at that moment felt an unwavering love for the guys and life itself. I’d never felt such harmony within the band. Bianchi then asked Bob to pull over so we could look down at the lake, telling us that this was the area his ancestors came from. He was pretty emotional about it. High, obviously. We stood there, breathing in the fresh, early morning air, looking at the astonishing view. It was a beautiful moment. One I’ll never forget.
We had Bob for a couple of tours and then we moved on to Chop, the crazy Welshman with the pierced knob. Everyone in the business seems to have seen that knob. If Bob’s bus was like an old hippie’s caravan, then Chop’s resembled a hotel. And he was extremely proud of it. If you fucked with it, you’d be in the shit. Chop might have looked daft with his Chuckle Brothers style mullet, but he wasn’t to be messed with. We did two European tours and a few festivals, as well as a UK jaunt with Chop. It’s weird how quickly you take things for granted. After only half a year of touring on nightliners it felt like we’d been doing it forever. Things change, quickly. The band was entering a darker period. The fighting began to take on a more sinister edge. Up until then knocking lumps out of each other seemed to work the steam off the tension in the band but now everything was becoming a little underhanded and certain people in the band couldn’t seem to stand being together anymore.
Still, the happy memories are the ones that stick the firmest. Jen and I became official whilst we were touring with Chop. We’d stayed in touch since the first time we’d been in Stockholm and when we were back with Chop, a few months later, supporting Mudvayne of all garbage, and she came down to hangout. She ended up travelling with us to Copenhagen the next day since we had a free day between Stockholm and Hamburg. That night we shared an uncomfortably tight bunk, nothing happened, we just lay there talking all night. It was amazing. It was the night. I knew then that I was in love with her. The next tour we did in Chop’s bus was in the UK with Jen’s band Misdemeanor and Jen travelled with us. She ended up puking in the bunk one night, steamboats. I knew then, as I was doing my best to clean the mess up that we’d probably end up getting married. It was very unlike Jen, she’s had to clean my mess up far more often than vice versa in the years since then. We had two puke incidents in the bus that tour, some girl John had hooked up with puked all over his bunk, he hadn’t even managed to get into bed himself, she just crawled in first and threw her insides up. John looked fucking gutted.
My lasting memory of Chop’s bus though is from that Misdemeanor tour, being sat on it in silence in Oxford, wondering if the world was coming to an end. Two planes had just flown into the World Trade Center in New York and armageddon was being reported on the news.
I think the Misdemeanor tour was the last we did with Chop. We did a European jaunt with Bacardi Barry, a total sleazebag of a driver who was a raging alcoholic to boot. Bad mix. I’ve written about Barry on these pages before, as have I Bob and Chop, the stories don’t need to be duplicated. Other than Barry I only really remember one Scouse guy, might have been called Craig. He was driving us in Europe on a bus owned by the same company that employed Chop and Bacardi Barry. He backed into a post somewhere in Belgium and the pole ended up piercing the back window. Turns out he was hungover to fuck. He got sent home. Barry turned up as his replacement…
Things were coming to an end as far as the tour buses went. We started hearing rumours that the accounts weren’t adding up, that we owed the bus company money. We had no fucking clue. We left it to others to sort. But that was the first telltale sign that things weren’t exactly as they should be. It was the first thread in the seem that started unravelling and before I knew what was going on the band was falling apart. Burnt out, disillusioned, and broke. We were on the verge of imploding. Something had to give. Tony went first, then Frank. Daz was the last of the originals to go.
We managed one tour of the States, in an RV van driven by a pretty special guy called Dutch. They’re all special. A whole account of that tour and that van lies within these pages. As does the story of the last van we ever bought. Betty. Our love. Betty was unreliable and caused no end of grievance but we loved her dearly. We spent the bulk of our recording budget for the final album on her. Never was money so well spent. The band was happy again. And then we broke up.
Happy or not, ten years was enough. And very few people even give a fuck anymore.
Since Betty I’ve been back travelling in rentals. The quality of rental vans in Sweden is generally pretty good, although there’s always the odd incident here and there. Like heading off from Stockholm to Oslo in the snow and realising half way that the rental company had forgotten to change to winter tires. But otherwise vans have come and gone with little incident. We just hire them, get on them and drive. We usually sleep at the venues or at someone’s house. When we’ve toured the States with Victims we’ve travelled with our great friend Matt Sachs in his green A Team van. Pure luxury. Again, tour diaries exist for those trips. Matt has become a pappa since the last time we toured the States and his long life on the road has come to an end, the green van has gone. I was shocked to hear he’d sold it, that van was a part of Matt it felt like. It was time though, understandably he didn’t want to leave Jasper for weeks and months on end. Matt had put a lot into the scene, more than most. It was time to hand over the keys. It will be strange to be without the green van next time we’re in the States. But that’s life. Every van has it’s day.
I guess it’s something I think more about now than I did before I was a parent, but through all the years of driving we’ve never had an accident. I have friends who have been in some bad smashes, I’ve toured with bands who have later had tragedies befall them. We’ve had some near scrapes though, some too close for comfort. Gordon once drove off the motorway in the wrong direction in Italy. American George nearly drove us head on into an oncoming vehicle at full pelt in The Yellow Van. We’ve had a couple of tires blow out on the way. We’ve had windscreen wipers blow of the side of the Alps in a storm in the middle of the night. We’ve had the engine go up in flames half way up a mountain in Italy and the brakes give up halfway back down it. There have been many a late night sat fighting desperately to keep my eyes open and being struck by rigid panic every time the van swayed. I’ll never forget leaving Gords and Daz on duty up front as Frank drove home after a gig one night. The two of them gabbing like old fogies at the social club, completely oblivious as Frank slept beside them at the wheel, all cozied up against the frame of the door, his thighs blindly steering the van.
I guess after all the years of touring, more than anything, I should be happy to still be around.