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Thirty years of (barely) controlled chaos: Big Bad Bollocks play a special anniversary show at the Iron Horse

  • Big Bad Bollocks, seen here during a peformance last month at Northampton’s Academy of Music, will play a 30th anniversary show this Saturday at the Iron Horse Music Hall. Photo by Marla Singleton/courtesy John Allen

  • An early incarnation of Big Bad Bollocks, at Northampton’s Bay State Hotel circa early 1990s. From left, John Reilly (aka Johnny Memphis), John Allen, and Patrick Owens. Photo courtesy John Allen

  • Misbehaving again: John Allen with interesting prop and the band at McGovern’s Bar in New York City, circa 1990s. It was the group’s first gig in the Big Apple. Photo courtesy John Allen

  • Big Bad Bollocks shows have always been about communing with the audience, says lead singer John Allen. Photo courtesy John Allen

  • Big Bad Bollocks play their first show in Knightley’s Pub in Easthampton in 1989. From left, Bob Richards, Patrick Owens, John Allen. Richards joined the group that night after being plucked from the audience to bang on a snare drum. Photo courtesy John Allen



For the Gazette
Thursday, March 12, 2020

Editor’s note: Big Bad Bollocks, one of the Valley’s most enduring bands, will play Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall this Saturday as part of St. Patrick’s Day weekend. It’s a gig the boozy Celtic pub rockers have been doing now for 30 years, ever since they first brought their sweaty, Guinness-fueled songs to the Iron Horse in 1990.

Marking that occasion has prompted John Allen, the group’s lead singer and chief songwriter, to look back on how he got started in music and what’s changed during three decades of fronting the band. Allen, an art teacher and a legendary raconteur who has also published a memoir, “Marmite Cowboy,” about his move from his native England to the U.S., here offers a tribute to his bandmates, the group’s fans and to Northampton itself — and he wonders if any of it would even have happened if the digital revolution had begun just as Big Bad Bollocks were getting their footing.

If there had been smart phones 30 years ago, would I have discovered the defining element of my creative life? Would I be writing this thank you to my adopted home of Northampton and the people who helped me spend the last three decades writing songs and making music with Big Bad Bollocks?

For me, a fully realized life requires being “creative.” So it’s difficult to admit I’ve been spending far too much time not being creative, but rather seduced by the unlimited distractions of a shiny, black, slim-line box of digital brains clutched between my fingers.

The cyber-world steals time from creative pursuits and causes my wife to complain about the seemingly unquenchable appetite I have for the digital diversions of my “smart” phone. I’ve been held hostage by greed and the promise of unearned and therefore, ironically, empty fulfillment.

“Digital distraction is the grim reaper of creativity” — that’s the opposite of another phrase I may, or may not, have coined: “Boredom is the mother of creativity!”

I’m besieged by an ADHD-driven need for an audience — an engine for creative output. Whether through a few people reacting to intentionally provocative paintings I made while studying at Liverpool Art College in England, or through my shy, initial forays into forms of public performance, the sense of exposure and risk has fueled my further efforts.

Over time, I realized I needed collaborators. Audiences are more than witnesses (especially at a Big Bad Bollocks show). They are part of the creative process. But an audience can only be expected to provide so much. I needed fully invested partners, something I didn’t achieve until my early 30s — rather late to be starting a band!

With no significant musical talent, and the “just do it” ethos of Punk 13 years behind me, I sought out musicians to help me. Thirty years ago this year, the band we created together — Big Bad Bollocks — played its first gig at the Iron Horse Music Hall, a venue known far and wide for performances by legendary and breakout acts.

Before that, those early days saw us playing open mics and occasionally bars (including Northampton’s Bay State Hotel, before its “music venue” days). My goal was to perform just once on the fabled stage of the Iron Horse, as if that would conclude the project — like finishing a painting!

Thirty years later, we have played the Horse around 40 times, including 29 St. Patrick’s celebrations. The “creative project” became part of my life, perhaps second only to raising a family. Indeed, being in a band, long term, is itself like being in a family, filled with all the ups and downs of close relationships. It’s also a creative endeavor involving the public, as performing before an audience, which can be both contributor and critic, is by its nature a test of mettle and commitment.

Considering my late start, I’m surprised to have been in a band longer than any other creative endeavor, or job, I’ve undertaken. I was at first a drawer and painter; being in a band was never an option. Even as I craved an audience for my efforts at self-expression, performing in a band did not seem viable. I wasn’t a musician … yet here I am today, still making music!

Many thanks to my comrades over the years: Patrick, Brian, Bob, Johnny, Henry, Anna, Ziv, Pino, Folk-Boy and Ernie. And I salute the current and long-time members of Big Bad Bollocks: drummer Bob Richards, guitarist Paul Scarpino, and bassist Ernie Wilson.

I’m putting my bloody phone away. See you at The Iron Horse, Saturday, March 14 at 7 p.m.

Tickets for the Big Bad Bollocks show are available at iheg.com.