When the Athens date was officially announced, I received a text message from John – Fancy a trip to Greece? – and, although I initially stated a definitive NO, a seed had been planted. I checked out flights from Belfast and evaluated the costings, but it looked totally unfeasible, so that seed lay dormant for a few weeks. However, further heat and light gave that seed a growth spurt when Billy posted on Facebook and proceeded to add some fertilizer by phoning me saying he had been in touch with John – Tracy had booked the flights and hotel – but I was still in denial, although unbeknowst to me that seedling had began to sprout. The next day I got a call from John and with an irrefutable argument (albeit one I didn’t really put up that much of a fight against) – if Billy could put me up on the night before the flight and was willing to share a room in Athens – then it was all systems go. A quick phone call to Birmingham and our plans were now confirmed, a full born shrubery had blossomed and I was on-line booking a gig ticket plus the requisite flights. It looked like I wasn’t the only one on gardening duties either – of course Elaine and Sarah were going (DOH!!) – as the six became The Magnificent Seven when Mr.T threw his stetson into the ring. As the concert date approached, more and more names were popping up on the Facebook messenger page – it was becoming a vertiable Chelsea Flower Show.
And so it was on Friday night, I was packed and fully prepped for a flight to Birmingham, ready to be picked up at the airport by Billy and a night under the roof of Chez Barr. Housewarming present and gifts for his wife and son delivered, we settled down to a take-away curry for an early(ish) night before the 04:15 pick-up by Dave the Hat – our self designated driver to Stanstead Airport and the early flight to Athens. A short detour via Coventry to pick-up Mark on route and we were on our way.
Parked up beside the Green A sign, we spend a few minutes ‘grafitti-ing’ The Stranglers, rats and other comments/artistic phallic symbols on the iced up windows of the parked cars on the way to the terminal. Upon arrival we meet up with John and Tracy who had already journeyed down the night before and stayed over in the Premier Inn. A quick ‘smoke’ before heading through into Departures – probably not the best idea!! Anyway, we get access past security, although we lost Billy for a while – I think he tried to sit in one of the trays and go through the X-ray machine. It wasn’t that long before our Gate Number is announced and a painless and reasonably quick boarding finds us all relatively close to each other near the rear of the plane. Even taking into consideration the time difference, it is a long flight – not made any easier by the hardest, most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever experienced on a plane. That notwithstanding, I still managed to catch a few Zzzz’s (and a few flies too!!)
Anyhoo, we arrive around 15:20 and have to make a decision about going to the ticket office or not – taxi or bus? Getting the bus leaves it rather tight timewise to get there before it closes at 16:30 – with the bus journey taking about an hour – but group concensus (and in hindsight, practicality) see us taking the X95 into Syntagma Square. On the bus a kind lady informs us where we need to go, so upon disembarking our transport, Mark and Dave head to the hotel and we get our bearings as to which direction we should be taking for (to me at least) the all important getting my ticket in my grubby mit. As we progress along the road, the half four deadline is getting ever closer, so Billy Whizz takes off at a rate off knots (risking life and limb as he forgets which way to look when crossing roads!!) and I speed up my walking pace a tad too. Just passing a side arcade, as zero hour approached, I hear my name called and see Billy at the ticket office window. The guys behind the counter couldn’t have been more helpful by staying open, allowing us all to get our tickets and in return received our heartfelt gratitude. With our prized envelopes in hand, we retraced our steps in order to find the accommodation for the weekend.
Arriving at The Hermes Hotel, the receptionist informed us that due to an incident in the room, Mark and Dave were relocated to their sister hotel and then she proceeded to put Billy and me in the double room, with John and Tracy in the twin one!! Misunderstanding sorted, we settled into the correct rooms, unpacked and contacted the others to see where we would be meeting up later. This is after using the smallest lift in the world (as I later found out – it would appear every elevator in Athens were installed by the actual descendants of the Seven Dwarves!!). We decided to get something to eat before starting the serious business of a pre-pre-social get-together and chose a Chinese restaurant for tonight’s dining experience. After waiting what seemed like an age, we eventually had something to eat set in front of us – to be honest it was well worth the wait. The next issue was where the pub was. Mark had been in contact – he didn’t know the name of the bar, but it was opposite another drinking establishment called Beer Time. That shouldn’t be too hard to find…. how wrong can one be? After what felt like walking every street in downtown Athens and asking numerous street vendors – all who had never heard of it – we eventually stumbled upon the named bar. During our trek Jason had been texting me to find out where everyone was – but I was as much help as a chocolate teapot – we didn’t even know where we were!!
As we arrived at Beer Time, we were greeted with shouts from the small establishment opposite in which the rest of the ‘family’ had taken up residence. The small bar was rammed with black T-shirts and a spate of hand-shakes, hugs, kisses took place before I could squeeze to the bar for the first round of drinks. Andy, Ian, Sarah, Elaine, Jeff, Rob, Karen, Mark, Dave, Steve, Wendy, Brian, Rhian, Charlie and his partner were already mid-sesh – not forgetting Ben, the (not so) proud winner of the weekend’s Big Girl’s Blouse award for lack of alcohol stamina. If you wanna join the hardcore ‘down in the sewer’ and be called a survivor (and there sure are a lot of them round here) – you’ll have to man up a bit mate LOL. We all filled the floorspace whilst Spongebob (obviously hooked after his appearance at Grillstock) had invited along his merry band of helium-filled mates and they took over the ceiling area. It was a Balloon Party extravaganza. As the drinks were downed and we all caught up or made new aquaintances, Jason eventually arrived, shortly followed by Peter and his crew. As the night went on and the liquid refreshment and conversation flowed – centred around tales of old, the March Tour and The Finchley Boy Bash – the bar staff put on some musical entertainment for our listening pleasure. It may have been night-time but there was Always The Sun in Athens. The toilets were down a spiral staircase which I accidently discovered as I spotted a clear space at the bar – nearly ending up at the bottom of them – as the floor suddenly disappeared beneath my feet!! The only downside to the night (apart from the Jack Daniels supply running out) was the persistance of the street urchins – young kids – constantly begging for money or trying to sell roses. I nearly tripped over them on numerous occassions as they appeared out of nowhere and just stood beside you. As the night progressed, some of the revellers made there way off for something to eat and by closing time the last remaining Strangler stragglers finished our drinks to head back to the respective hotels and some well needed kip.
SUNDAY (GIG NIGHT)
Awakening early as the Greek sun shone through the hotel room window, we arose, carried out the required ablutions and made our way down to breakfast. John and Tracy were already there in conversation with another guest (but not a gig-goer) and after getting some toast from the buffet I joined them at the table. Man, he freaked me out – he had one eye looking at you and one looking for you – I couldn’t maintain eye contact when talking to him, basically because I didn’t know which eye to look at!! It was like talking to a chameleon. Luckily him and his Thai bride fucked off and I could enjoy my brekkie in piece (without worrying about a long tongue flicking out and pinching something off my plate).
Replete after OJ and toast, I popped outside for a smoke and bumped into Andy, Ian, Brian and Rhian who were heading up to the Square to watch the changing of the guard at 11:00. Seemed like quite the cultural thing to do, so gathering up my fellow hotel stayers, we did the same. By the time we arrived quite a crowd had already assembled to watch the slow-motion Ministry of Silly Walks do their thing, as the flouncy-sleeved, turned-up pom-pommed slipper wearing sentries swopped guard duty outside the Parliament building. This was then followed by a parade down the street, with a marching band playing some dirge as the platoon slowly did a parody of a goosestep along the main drag. God help the Greeks if they ever had to march into battle – the fighting would all be over by the time they made it!! Once the spectacle was over we decided to continue the cultural theme and made our way up to see The Acropolis. A series of steps through shops and restaurants led us up to a winding hilly path, ever upwards towards the ruins, where upon arrival I discovered you had to pay 10 euros to gain access. WTF!! I’d grown up back home seeing ruined, derelict buildings surrounded in scaffolding – and that was for free. However, I must admit, the views over the city under the clear blue skies was kinda worth it and, after bumping into Mark and Dave, also gave us the perfect tourist photo opportunity.
Next on our itinerary was to check out the venue for tonight’s gig and the chosen pub for the pre-gig social. On our way back down we stopped off in one of the shops for ice cream and were treated to some free samples of cake and home-made Raki (or rocket fuel – I’m not sure which). Onwards towards the Piraeus Academy, with Google Maps taking us on the circuitous, scenic route – across a plaza and along through market stalls and car-boot sellers – like a low rent edition of Bargain Hunt. Eventually we arrive at the set destination only to find the doors open. I wander inside and see Andy on stage, so approach to say hello, as the others take a few pics of the stage set-up. At this stage (“although we are lovely people”) we shouldn’t be there and Tour Manager Gary asks us to leave. We are ushered outside and the door closed behind us. So where’s The Lazy Bulldog then? Just across the road and round the corner we discover the bar that has been chosen for pre-gig meet-up. The bar staff were just setting up, but in need of some bladder relief, I ask if it OK to use the bathroom faciities. Re-entering the bar, my companions have availed of the refreshments on offer and I spark up a conversation with the owner, informing him a fair crowd will be gathering later for the concert and enquire about closing time and if the football will be shown. Having confirmed it’s a late bar (and possibly later) and the match will be on the screen, we chat about our musical tastes – turns out Andreas had recently promoted a Ska festival last month and had brought The Aggressors B.C. over. The Aggressors from Belfast City (hence B.C.) had supported The Stranglers in 2015 and we shared our love for the track ‘True Skin’ – It’s A Small World. Drinks finished and short term farewells exchanged, we make our way back to the hotel.
After a long day walking the length and breadth of Athens (almost) an afternoon siesta was the order of the day, so as Billy went for a nap and John and Tracy went to freshen up, I popped into next door’s Central Hotel and meet up with Andy, Karen et al. In the bar some of the miscreants from last night were in recovery mode but it allowed me the chance to catch up with Sid. I had heard Mr Wilson and Yola were in town – it had been a long time (too long) since we had last been in the same company, so as the others left to get something to eat, Sid and I caught up on all his latest travels before it was time for me to round up my ‘roomies’ and get something to eat ourselves before we headed out for tonight’s entertainment. We had decided on going native, so we found a small Greek eaterie just up the road from our hotel and looking at the menu board outside, plumped for kebabs – well all except the fussy eater Billy – who opted for Spag Bol. The owner approached and we asked for a table – little did we know he would turn out to Basil Fawlty’s long lost Greek cousin. This guy was the grumpiest, ill-mannered proprietor of a dining establishment I have ever come across – seating us was a hassle, he practically scoffed at our order, took an age to serve us and even when we were paying up it seemed as if it was an issue that we even dared to tip!! The food was pretty spectacular though and it did amuse us how Basil-esque he was. Fed and watered, it was time to make a move for the reason we were all here tonight.
After our travails earlier it wasn’t a hard decision to take a taxi round to The Lazy Bulldog, also meaning we would arrive in time for kick-off – entering the bar just as the teams were walking out onto the pitch. With a Chelsea fan and a ‘Boro fan in the company, bar stools were pulled up to the counter and the pints set front and centre – whilst I checked in with those who had already arrived earlier and were comfortably ensconsed in the leather settees and seats at the rear. As the evening progressed and Costa put an end to all hopes of a good result in the football, the ranks of the ‘family’ increased – all those in attendance last night were here and a few others made there presence known tonight – some arriving after some gig-goers had left early for the gig. At some stage during the evening Andreas had to pop out to get more drink as the hoard-in-black were draining his existing stock. Stepping outside for one of my many smokes a beautiful Greek girl approached and asked me if I was with the band. Perhaps foolishly I said no, but explained I was over from Belfast to see them – she had previously visited Belfast and loved the City – so I asked her to marry me and I’d bring her home. She said she loved Athens too much and as I wouldn’t leave my hometown we immediately got divorced – but it seemed an amicable break-up as we hugged before I went back to my beer. Her boyfriend didn’t seem too pleased, but his mate was laughing his head off. Back inside we were unsure of when the band would actually come on stage so we decided it might be advisable if we make our move to the venue.
A crowd was milling around outside the hall – there was a Triumph exhibit lit up with spotlights and three stunning looking models draped around a motorcycle. I finished my cigarette before passing through the portal into the darkened concert hall and bought a bottle of beer from the bar inside. The venue reminded me of a smaller Brixton Academy – all black decor and a sloping floor allowing a good view of the stage no matter where you stood – but even though already reasonably full, I was able to wend my way down towards the front to park up behind Mark, Dave, Steve and Wendy. I was shocked to see people smoking but as is the wont in Greece it wasn’t an issue – happy days. Sparking up we were chatting to a few local kids standing behind us and they were amazed that these middle-aged punksters had travelled so far to see this band. The ‘support’ act turned out to be a video promotion of the Triumph motorcycle displayed outside and also a few were placed on plinths around the walls of the room. Can’t say I remember much about it as we continued to chat and have a laugh.
The house lights dimmed and the strains of Waltzinblack echoed through the house sound system – prompting a cheer to erupt from the crowd. As the intro music faded, the band came onstage – JJ getting his black Shuker bass ceremoniuosly draped over his shoulder and plugged in, ear-piece in place as Baz strikes up the chords and Jim rips into the distinctive drum-beat of ‘Tank’. The front rows exlode into a mass of black motion – heads bopping up and down in time to the music like a synchopated graphic equaliser display. The power and energy emanating from the stage is transferred directly to the crowd and the temperature is immediately raised a couple of degrees. Barely able to catch our breath, we are informed what the first commandment reads as ‘Straighten Out’ maintains the drive and intensity. The high octane performance continues with ‘Grip’ and ‘Five Minutes’ only allowed to dip when Baz greets the Greek fans and acknowledges the British contingent ‘down the front’. The slow section of the set begins with ‘Golden Brown’ which is usually the signal for the smoker mass exodus – but not this evening – and continues with the inclusion of ‘Midnight Summer Dream’ as the acoustic guitar is brought out for Baz. During a break between songs Baz made reference to the non-smoking ban, coughingly mentioning how long it has been since he has had to sing in such a smoky atmosphere and later during ‘Hanging Around’ singing “Had a fag end on his shoulder….”. A major highlight was a great version of ‘Skin Deep’ which had the audience singing along and dancing to the beat. The set had no further ‘surprises’ but ramped up the crowd participation with ‘Duchess’ and climaxing with ‘Heroes’ and a pogo-fest for those still able move. I thought this might be the end of the gig, but as the lights didn’t go up it signified there was going to be an encore. Unfortunately (for me anyway) this incuded ‘Walk On By’ and finally closing the night with ‘All Day….’. Although this was received well by the locals – finishing a gig with two cover versions does not sit well with me – and it was also the general concensus from the rest of the travelling party. The lights go up and as the venue empties the post-mortems began and the obligatory ‘group’ photo was assembled stage front.
Pics courtesy of Jeff Curnock
As we were mulling around I saw the future ex-Mrs Mullan talking to Karen and a few others – our eyes met and she shimmied over for a final hug – obviously the alimony money had came through. With that we all made our way out into the Athens night and began moving back towards The Lazy Bulldog.
Once entrenched back in the pub, the drinks were once more being downed, replenishing the fluids lost in the relatively mild mosh. A few of the locals we met and talked to turned up back in the bar and John was inviting them over for the March Tour. Another late night drinking and it was nearly 02.00 before we sought a taxi to take us back to the hotel. A stop off at the KFC for Billy left us walking the last few 100 metres back to The Hermes and so to bed.
Check out was 12:00, so we still had most of the morning after breakfast to mooch around and pick up a gifts for those back home. Whilst out and about, there was quite a significant Police presence – nearly one officer at the end of every street. As we walked on we saw the massed ranks of the military in the small square outside a Cathedral – enquiring from one of the female PCs on duty – we were informed it was a celebration of the Greek Military. Later, as we were in one of the gift shops picking up fridge magnets, a band led a procession of Army, Navy and Air Force marching up the road. Once the way was clear we headed back to the hotel, packed our stuff and checked out, but we still had an hour or so to kill which was spent on the roof terrace – catching the last few rays of Athenian sun – before we had to catch the coach back to the airport.
A quick McDonalds on Syntagma Square and we were set to board the X95 – tickets purchased and validated on board, we were off on the return journey to Athens airport. The after effects of the weekend seemed to be taking it’s toll on Mark as he dozed off sitting up, nearly squashing Billy against the window (a number of times), but he got his second wind and for the remainder of the journey kept us amused. It started with Billy trying to explain the reason he was happy geting a picture of John, me and himself – an English man, an Irish man and a Scotsman walk into a bar…. (Bazza, I know it was done before in Kilmarnock). Mark then asked what the punchline was, which led to mutual confusion between the pair as Billy just kept repeating the line and Mark kept asking what the joke was. Dave interceded by pointing out the tumbleweed rolling up the bus – which had Billy turning round in his seat to look. Well that just cracked us up and the more he asked what was so funny, the more we creased up – especially when Mark pointed out it was nearly up there with the ‘Crown Bar bell’ incident. Then in a parallel universe version of The Inbetweeners – as we overtook a train – Billy shouted out “Bus wankers” not realising it was us on the bus, only to rectify the situation as the train then passed us and he shouted out “Train wankers”. That continued the whole journey home as everyone was remarked on, text messages sent and Facebook comments – plane wankers, front stair wankers, lone wankers, Belfast wankers, Boro wankers, etc… I suppose you had to be there!!
Anyway, after another long flight back home we ended up having a skiddy landing – which certainly woke me up – but we were soon back on terra firma. I had considered trying to jump onto a connecting flight back to Belfast, but it was cost restrictive so that saw me sticking to the original plan of travelling back up to Birmingham for another night in Battlefield Barr and an early flight home the next morning. We said our emotional farewells to John and Tracy and walked back to the car for the drive back up North. An relatively uneventful trip apart from some more Facebook antics and the posting of some incriminating photos taken over the weekend – leading to some more ‘wanker-isms’ – before we dropped Mark off home – it only remained for Dave to leave us of too. Another takeaway curry and a quick building of a bicycle led to another early night.
An early start as Billy dropped me off at Birmingham airport for the 08:00 flight back to arrive in a sunny Belfast. Two more bus journeys and I was back home to collapse on my settee.
What a weekend. A big thank you to Dave for all the chauffeur duties, Billy for being (almost) the perfect room-mate, Mark for keeping the humour going, John for being my brother from another mother and Tracy for being Mum and keeping her ‘boys’ in check. I don’t know where we would have ended up if she hadn’t kept us under her wing, not forgetting all the pre-travel organisation. Thanks to everyone else who made the trip to Athens – for all the craic, the drinking and the partying. It was a blast.
Until the next time…..