Headline by Robb Sheppard

Photo by Jordan on Unsplash

Headline has been previously published at Amazon, and is available here.

“Rock n’ roll’s about setting fire to the rule book, so who f*****g cares if I can’t play a single chord?”

June 1st: The Purple Turtle, Camden. Supported by The Zero Zero Zero Ones and The Non Chalants.

10.36pm. They’re not just late now; they’re Amy Winehouse late. The blips and wub-wubs of the Never Gonna Give You Up cover version are barely audible over the audience’s detached impatience and theatrical sighs. The song’s ironic. I think. I hope. The crowd, however, are being more vocal at this one moment than during the entirety of the support slots. I guess clapping is out again this season. 

The only give-away is that between tracks, a sense of poise and rationality is momentarily lost, with the occasional “Come on!” being spewed forth into the crowd. A tsunami of tuts and teeth-kissing combat this comment, although no-one is so perturbed as to turn their face from the warm glow emanating from their palm.

“I’d give the Zero Zero Zero Ones… a zero.”

The sentence slithers over my shoulder, carried on breath that burns my neck. 

I imagine his face: Vaudevillian moustache twirled to a piercing point and a pork-pie hat perched precariously on the back of his head. I think the moustache is ironic too. I hope. I consider a retort: something along the lines of The Non Chalants being a tad too enthusiastic for my liking, but I refrain. In any case, the thought serves as a welcome distraction from the mop-bucket aroma that lingers amidst the subtle scent of sick and cigarette smoke. 

A tactical unsticking of shoe soles from the floor beneath is an essential precautionary measure to ensure movement is still an option come performance time. That time, however, is clearly nowhere on the horizon. The soundman is balanced on the edge of the desk with a folded-over paperback and the lights guys are waiting for their laptop to shut down. They’re unphased by the rock n’ roll casualty of a roadie, who shuffles from stage-left towards the microphone accompanied by a chorus of indignance. 

“Ok, guys… guys. I regret to announce that Control, Alt, Delete will not be performing tonight due to a personal injury. Please exit the venue in an orderly fashion and remember… respect our neighbours.”

Plastic glasses are quickly catapulted, spilling their contents as they arc high above mohawks, mullets and what might be a mortarboard. The house lights come up sharply and even the most unresponsive and removed in the crowd cannot resist the instinct to squint and shield their vision. The bar shutters grind down to a close and the metaphors are not lost on me: this is my career flashing before my eyes. The window of opportunity is closing. I must make haste. 

Whilst wading against the retreating crowd, the back-stage door is visible through back-combed hair, top-knots and deeley-boppers. The plastic pop of pint pots underfoot drowns out all but sound-bites of the passing conversations considering reasons for the announcement:

“… overdose?”

“… hanged, man…”

“… like Jim Morrison’s liver…”

Whatever the reason, this could be my only opportunity. Front of house security shouldn’t be a problem; teenage groupies’ naivety is far more appealing than any notion of client protection or job-satisfaction. Compared to what depravity these kids will perform for the promise of a peek of their heroes, my temporary press-pass wasn’t worth the effort of lamination. 

“It doesn’t matter how you dress it up… Rock n’ Roll’s a whore! But who said that’s a bad thing?”

11.33pm. A waif-like girl in an excessively oversized white t-shirt leads me through corridors of tightly-packed flight cases, cabling and copper-piping. Posters of past glories hang half-tattered from the walls and as we pass, couples look up from snorting or necking or veining or smoking.

“Perch,” she directs, as she points towards a pock-marked and cigarette-scorched sofa.

She disappears between two bomber jacket-clad bouncers. Their genuine indifference to the situation, is in stark contrast to that of the affected audience previously in attendance. 

“Enthusiasm is so last season,” I inwardly chuckle. 

“Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word of life?” recites a mascaraed mess of a man, maybe to me, maybe to the clean-cut chap who lies unconscious in his lap.

I manage to stifle a laugh at the poignancy of the reference.  This is a far cry from being led through a gathering of disciples to discover Colonel Kurtz quoting T.S. Eliot at the far reaches of the Congo River, but it’s exactly the image that he’s trying to evoke. 

He being the man waiting backstage. He being Clinton Bourgass, the vocalist of Cntrl Alt Delete.

“Cobain used to piss and moan about the “chorus, verse, chorus” formula! I say, why have either?”

“Clinton Bourgass.”

“Well… I’ve heard of him, sir… but I’ve never heard anything by him.”

“Of course you haven’t, my dear: nobody has. The fellow can’t play for love nor money! It’s all about the rhetoric; he throws pull quotes around like they’re going out of fashion. He doesn’t particularly need a good writer; just wind him up and watch him go. 1,600 words copy by Thursday. Right-ee-ho? Fabulous. Cheerio.”

That was it. My first job. My introduction to Clinton Bourgass. 25.5 seconds of fuzzy Dictaphone audio that I’ve replayed an innumerable amount of times, hoping to find some hidden justification as to why he deserves to be interviewed for any music mag, let alone this music mag. But there’s no reversed message; nothing is revealed when it’s played at a different rpm.  There’s no hidden track here.

This isn’t what I imagined. I wanted Keith Richards on smoking his father’s ashes. I wanted Steve Jones’ foul-mouthed abandon on Bill Grundy’s settee. I wanted Lennon’s declaration of usurping The King of the Jews. 

Instead, I get Clinton Bourgass: the man who released hacked mp3s of Cntrl Alt Delete’s debut album, which corrupted all music but his in your library; the man who tactically named said band to inconvenience computer users the world over, and the man who is the next big thing according to several credible music publications. And the NME.

“He punched a mirror”, Waif-Girl repeated.

 “… and it affected his ability to vocalise,” I concede. “Of course.” 

“Well, he’s tortured and he didn’t wanna play. So, like, I dunno. Maybe.”

Behind glasses that lacked lenses, her eyes roll.

“Wait, wait. Are you, like, suggesting that’s why he punched the mirror?” My voice reached an octave higher than hers. “To get out of playing?” 

I instantly regret air-acting out the ironic inverted commas; I’ve been around these people for far too long. I was denied an audible response as she spun on her heels and raised her hand dismissively, before disappearing back between the bouncers, almost as apathetically as before. 

I momentarily forget what to do with my hands; they move from on top of my head to my hips and back again. The mascaraed mess looks up at me from the sofa, his half-closed eyes compensated by his gaping grin. 

“So, what have I got to do? Wait until I’m beckoned? Like ‘I’m a little man… he’s a great man’?” I channel my best Dennis Hopper.

“Your call, man. I’d just try again tomorrow,” the mascaraed mess offers, before nodding out.

“Headlining Wembley isn’t making it… it’s telling the 50,000 in attendance that you’ve f***** the right people to get there.”

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June 2nd: The Hope and Anchor, Islington. Supported by The Clitheroe Hoods and Zakk Feedback. 

10pm. I ignore the door and stage times as I can’t face another evening of tongue-in-chic support bands. My suspicions are confirmed when I see the flyers. I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that “Zakk Feedback” was a classically trained concert flautist hooked up to a Marshall JCM900. As for The Clitheroe Hoods?  I would have wagered that they’re a retro Riot Grrl act who no-showed the gig, meaning the mainly male crowd missed any feminist message (unless that somehow was the message?). 

Regardless, from the doorway of the venue, the band onstage sound like a secondary school music class with a supply teacher in charge. Featuring on guitars is a tempest of a teen, purposefully trying to break the G String to the sound of a drum kit falling down the stairs. Guest-starring on bass is a frustrated lead guitarist bending 105 steel gauge strings, whilst the vocalist channels a police officer with a megaphone, tasked with crowd dispersal. It goes without saying that the crowd were eating up every accidental note. Well, as far as I could tell. From the bar queue, afros and top-knots shift slightly, whilst phone screens glared above them. Conversations faded in and out around me as the wall of noise ebbed and flowed:

“… iconic…”

“… eclectic…”

“… ecclesiastic…”

I found myself hoping that the comments were unrelated, both to each other, and to the band onstage. I wasn’t sure whether to feel disheartened or encouraged that this sort of response could be elicited from the 140 Character Generation. I was encouraged that there may be hope for them after all but disheartened that they could become so enthused over something so artificially avant-garde, so illegitimately low-fi.

I ease, squeeze and “excuse me, please” through the throng of the dancefloor to put a face to the sound and am confronted by the sight of four figures, all stick-thin, strung out and in Sandanista!-era Clash army fatigues and Manics-inspired balaclavas. Cntrl Alt Delete. The guitarist is playing a left-handed Fender Jazzmaster, still strung and set up for a right-hander. The drummer rides the crash cymbal like it’s brand new but other than that, only has two floor toms. The bassist wears studio-grade headphones, which he no doubt calls “cans” so he’s able to – perhaps understandably – dance to his own beat. But it is the figure at the front that the eye is predominantly pulled toward. It’s him.

Stood centre-stage and propped up on the mic stand like it’s a crutch, Clinton Bourgass is denoted by his detachment. By contradiction, he’s also mesmeric in his engagement with the moment. His eyes stay clamped shut throughout the performance, excluding the audience, but the loosely bandaged and blood-stained hand that rests on the carbon microphone, often reaches out to invite them in. The gravel-voiced lyrics which are indecipherable in the mix are thrown back at him in unison. If I had to use a clichéd metaphor, I’d say the penny had finally dropped.

“This is a choon!”  

I turn to see the mascaraed mess with the same gaping grin, but with his eyelids not yet at half-mast and the clean-cut chap nowhere to be seen. 

“You know where they got their stage names from?” He over-enunciated in the noise, leaving little time for a response. 

“Clinton Bourgass! Buren de Menezes! W. Copeland! Nixon Rowe!” He counts each name out on his filthy fingers. I animatedly shrug, by way of bemused response.

“Well, don’t be Googling ‘em!” he advises, relishing what must be a rare moment of superiority.

“I already did! Why wouldn’t I?” I shout, cupping a hand to my mouth, convinced it will somehow shield my voice from the sonic assault. 

Unfortunately, body heat and sweat occupies what little space lies between us and any reservations about personal space have been long-since abandoned.

“C’mon! U.S. Presidents? Convicted terrorists? Think about it!” He holds both clawed hands out separately as if to represent each party.

“Bill Clinton… Kamel Bourgass,” he announces, before joining his hands together, clasped in a conspiratorial union. I stare expectantly, waiting for him to embellish further.

“It’s all offline, man. Word of mouth between all of us. But when they start looking… when the media starts looking… Boom: flagged! Pass it on.” He extends his hand for mine and we land somewhere between a handshake and a high-five, before he starts to pull away.

“I don’t think that’s how the internet works… and don’t call me ‘man’!” I call after him. 

But it’s too late; the crowd behind advances in inches and morphs to fill the space he previously occupied. Before I have opportunity to digest what had just been said, a bone-thin arm snakes around in front of me and tugs gently on my tie. 

“F*** the fake encore at the end. Open your show with that shit.”

Waif-Girl slinks along the hallway, side-stepping guitar cases, up-ended synths and sequencers. Two bouncers, indistinguishable from the previous night’s, flank the door by a scuffed, off-brown, leather armchair. Waif-Girl turns through 180 degrees and whilst wide-eyed and pouting, uses my shirt to slowly pull me close. Her breath is a blend of nicotine and Hubba-Bubba, and as it caresses my cheek, I stutter in search for my words. 

My personal space, again invaded, but this time more intimately and uncomfortably than in the audience. Before I’m able to annunciate, her lips mould into a wry grin. Her eyes suggestively direct me downwards, where my Dictaphone lay prone in her palm. That distraction was all it took, and she blended between the bouncers and was already backstage before I realised what had happened. The slightly more svelte of the two bouncers acknowledged my discomfort and gave a minute nod towards the adjacent armchair.

“Perch,” I mutter.

“Ziggy Stardust? As if these kids would give a shit! These kids want reality, they want one better and they want their moment.”

“… Hendrix, Jones, Joplin, Edwards… you think the common thread there is tragic, gifted artists? You’re only seeing the surface. This business is a circus where the music is bereft of cost and devoid of worth, yet we’re anxious to make the abattoir our own abode. The music is the by-product of the brand. We position hoodwinking over harmonies and marketing over melodies, and the fact that we can get this far is a farce! Nevertheless, we peddle t-shirts like The fucking Gap and we sloganeer like pupil politicians, yet the industry insiders and frenzied fans still follow us like cattle. They need a hero and they need an icon… and that legacy can be cemented by simply marching straight into the slaughterhouse…”

Clinton Bourgass’ vocal stream of consciousness ends abruptly and the dictaphone clicks to a stop. The speaker still smells of Hubba Bubba and there’s a blood smear on the buttons.

“We’re on the frontline now. We’re in the shallow money trench and about to go over the top.”

June 3rd: Storm, Leicester Square. Supported by Coppola’s Orange and Dies Irae.

9.45pm. Despite the venue being sold out, the queue still stretches around the corner and is a blur of glow sticks, neon wife-beater tank tops, and LED-flashing trainers.

The house lights drop and the PA music fades out whilst a growing cheer mixes in. Dry ice hisses and spills from the stage and the audience crane their necks in anticipation. The folks on the front row cough and try to catch their breath as the mist drifts around them. Rear spots fade up to illuminate four figures that fall further into view as the fog clears. The Spinal Tap-ism is not lost on the nostalgia-reared audience and self-congratulatory shouts of “11” bleed through the applause. 

The fervour soon wanes though, as the stage clears and is replaced by something altogether different, something altogether darker. Cntrl Alt Delete are, again, army fatigued and balaclava’ d, but instrument-less and loosely lined up, as if for an end-of-show ovation. Although this time, their camo Converse levitate four inches from the floor.

The next thing we notice was the stillness. Our stillness. Their stillness. Instead of being animated, their stances are limp and suspended, their heads half-hunched. The band’s limbs twitch as their swing slows to a stop, like spent, exhausted pendulums. 

Moments pass and the audience waits. Bar staff tip toe and the Lights guy comes out from behind his desk. Sound-tracked by the deathly silence of the crowd, a sea of smart phones swells into the air. Screens snap to black and back again before repeating again and again and again.   

The flashes momentarily illuminate the up-front onstage figure, just long enough to make out a matt of mascara behind the balaclava. 

Between the bursts of light and towards stage-left, a bloody, bandaged hand stands out from the fingerless gloves, hand tats and sovereign rings. The hand then lowers a smartphone, parts the audience and pushes through the Fire Exit. 

“I want to be a posthumous Hall of Fame inductee. But I also want to hear the speech.”

Whilst my gaze flits from the stage, to the Fire Exit, to my phone, I begin to type out a text:


About The Author

Robb Sheppard: Writer. Author. Not Bukowski.

Bandit Fiction is an entirely not-for-profit organisation ran by passionate volunteers. We do our best to keep costs low, but we rely on the support of our readers and followers to be able to do what we do. The best way to support us is by purchasing one of our back issues. All issues are ‘pay what you want’, and all money goes directly towards paying operational costs.

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