In 1997, back when we had printed weekly music papers, Melody Maker excitedly screamed from their front cover, “Symposium – The best live band in Britain”. Two years later, they released the superbly gnarly-as-a-bear-awoken-early-from-hibernation, roar-along anthem of ‘Killing Position’. The following year, they called it a day for reasons quite unbeknown to those, ahem, on the outside. As Kerrang! editor at the time, Phil Alexander, phrased it when he hosted this summer’s Q&A event with them at Signature Brew Haggerston, “I was really quite annoyed when you split up”.
For those who don’t remember how it was, Symposium were a gang of exuberant teenagers who threw themselves into their live shows – quite literally. Singer, Ross Cummins was renowned for spending as much time stage diving and crowd surfing during their gigs as he did onstage, while they tore the roof off venues or at least pulled the ceiling down – and again, I mean quite literally – as was the case at a club show in Chelmsford. During their six years as a band, they released singles with proper B-sides, an 8-track mini-album, One Day At A Time (1997), and their singular full-length album, On The Outside (1998), which was produced in part by Youth (aka Martin Glover of Killing Joke). They were one of very few bands to have ever played totally live on Top Of The Pops, during which Ross stage dived (a first in the TV show’s history) and incited a stage invasion. They played shows supporting luminaries such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters and Metallica – their enthusiasm overflowed exponentially even when playing said support slots as at Brixton Academy Ross managed to dislocate his leg mid-set. They trashed instruments on a regular basis and were physically dragged off the main stage by security at Reading Festival in 1998, such was the carnage they unleashed. They possessed a frantic energy, benign of malice and pure of rampant fun – an infusion which was highly contagious and intoxicating.
But that was some 20 years ago and – even for our most beloved of bands – reunion shows can be a tricky tightrope walk to navigate. Will the fans still remember and will they care – and, most importantly, will it be good? However, first up, we have two support acts to consider.
Opening band, Emergency Radio are from Hitchin and this evening marks their debut gig. Sadly, my time management skills are as slaphappy as they’ve always been and I miss their set. Meanwhile, Facebook memories remind me that I saw Saint Agnes five years ago almost to the day. They were a very different beast back then and it’s a past from which they have seemingly chosen to distance themselves. Long gone is the swirling desert heat and cowboy-booted blues of yore. They have destroyed their Kills records, crossed windswept plains, stared into the sun and burned their wings. It appears they have reinvented themselves and found refuge in the heart of a broken city where they now reside on skid row, which they’re angrily fighting against with a bloodsucking sneer.
They thrash through ‘Daughter Of Lucifer’, ‘Vampire’ and possibly the Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ amongst others. During their last song, Kitty (vocals) manages to entice enough people down to the front so she can leap into the crowd without falling on her arse, which is pretty impressive. This is the Saint Agnes re-boot and we all know how that goes: the old fans probably won’t get it, but, much like sharks’ teeth, there are always rows of new ones lurking.
Tonight’s gig sold out over four months in advance, such was the feverish excitement with which tickets were snapped up, and, now that the moment of truth is finally upon us, the band walk onstage to the sound of rapturous applause and cheers. The fans have remembered and yes, we still care. They cast off with their hook-laden debut single, ‘Drink The Sunshine’; the opening line of which, “Today I feel things going right”, perhaps has never felt so apt for these five guys from west London. Within moments, Ross has launched himself into the crowd and it’s clear as the closing line is sung, “We’re doing things which we’ve only ever dreamt”, that tonight is about allowing the last 20 years to melt away as the band and the gathered throng re-live their carefree youth.
‘One Day At A Time’ and ‘Fairweather Friend’ are blasted out in quick succession and Ross is lost out amongst the crowd again. ‘Puddles’ is something akin to a speed metal and ska punk mash-up which delights, while as Ross sings the quiet first verse of ‘Bury You’, I spy the first of many crowd surfers this evening. A friend later tells me that his mate went over the barrier early on in the set and the venue security nearly kicked him out, before smartly realising it was going to be one of those nights and thought better of it. After all, crowd surfing is not a crime – even if you are nearing/in your forties, right?
‘Xanthein’ was a B-side on their ‘Farewell To Twilight’ single (along with the awesome Fugazi-flavoured ‘Easily Scared‘) and features on their recently released ‘best of’ compilation, Do You Remember How It Was?. Tonight the song is dedicated to the late Alan Lonsdale (who set up Symposium fan websites and uploaded videos to his YouTube channel named after the track) and Andrew who ran the Symposium Facebook page up until he handed the reigns over to the band in April. Judging on what the band have said in recent interviews, it appears they were both instrumental in keeping the faith and the memory of the band alive in the dawn of the internet age. Without their unflagging enthusiasm who knows if this would even be happening.
Ross tells the crowd to make a gap and he jumps right in as the band steam through ‘The Answer To Why I Hate You’. It’s as bold and brash as it ever was, with bassist Wojtek Godzisz’s man-bear vocals taking centre stage during the breakdown as band and crowd alike furiously yell, “I never listen to what you say / It’s not important anyway / I never listen to what you say / So why do I hate you?”.
Conversely, ‘Blue’ is a slower, more emotionally charged track which sounds almost mid-career Idlewild-esque in its thoughtfulness. As Wojtek, drummer Joe Birch and guitarist Hagop Tchaparian complete the song, while William McGonagle tunes his guitar, Ross jumps off the side of the stage almost nonchalantly. Led by Phil Alexander, he then walks around the edge of the crowd to the back of the hall and clambers onto the sound desk. From his new found throne, Ross conducts ‘The End’ and, as the song progresses, executes a perfectly timed crowd surf, reaching the stage just as the song finishes. I haven’t seen a sight such as this since Frank Carter’s Gallows’ days. The closing line of the ‘The End’ could almost sum up the band’s split and rejuvenation: “Throw it all away, start it again / Too soon to say this is the end”.
Ross asks if any of the Nutty Boys are in the building, referring to ’80s ska pop group Madness. Apparently, they were put on the guest list and if any of them are here they’re encouraged to get up onstage to re-live the Reading Festival 1999 performance of ‘Fizzy‘. After which, Wojtek hypothesises, “This isn’t really happening… take off your AR helmet and go back to eating gruel”. It’s great to see the band are enjoying the night as much as the crowd and possess levels of energy akin to that which they had back in the day. It’s as if we’re all in a time warp as we sing every line back at the band as though this is the last gig we will ever attend. In every direction I look – right, left, back, front – there is nothing but smiles and a sense of overwhelming joy.
The band end on their rocked-up and gloriously ramshackle Beatles cover, ‘Hard Day’s Night’. No instruments are trashed but then again, nor do security drag them off stage like they’re naughty schoolboys. The band come together and collectively take a bow to a noisy and appreciative audience and Will looks almost teary. Perhaps now they finally realise just how much their music meant – and continues to mean – to so many. Arguably, the more poignant question is whether they can bridge the gap and appeal to the teenagers of today as they did the teenagers of their day. Now that their albums are finally up on streaming sites, perhaps this is possible. Certainly when Wojtek and Hagop perform an acoustic set at Banquet Records in Kingston the next day, there are a number of teenagers in attendance – not to mention the happy dad with a toddler on his shoulders.
It’s hinted at many times during tonight’s performance that there may be more Symposium fun to come – whether that’s new music or more shows is enough to keep the smile firmly plastered on everyone’s face for the foreseeable future. Perhaps everything isn’t over now?
Symposium set list: Drink The Sunshine / One Day At A Time / Fairweather Friend / Puddles / Bury You / Xanthein / The Answer To Why I Hate You / Fear Of Flying / Last Song Forever / Bleach / Blue / The End / Killing Position // Disappear / Fizzy / Farewell To Twilight / Hard Day’s Night
Symposium’s ‘Do You Remember How It Was?’ ‘best of’ compilation is in stores now, via Cooking Vinyl, and can be purchased from the band’s webstore here. Follow Symposium on Facebook and Instagram for updates. Will and Joe’s post-Symposium band, Hell Is For Heroes, will be touring the UK next spring with Hundred Reasons. Guitarist, Hagop Tchaparian, recently released his debut album, ‘Bolts’, which is available on Bandcamp.
Saint Agnes will be supporting Jamie Lenman at the Lenmania III event at Club Academy in Manchester on 18th December. You can follow them on Facebook / Instagram / Twitter.
Review by Mandy Bang @mandybang
Photos by Mark Dans L’Espace @mark_danslespace
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