Mark Pritchard’s Worst Tour Ever

Way back in the mid-90s, a struggling post-Soviet Russia partnered with the United Kingdom to bring an electronic music showcase entitled Britronica out to Moscow. Things didn’t go so well.

This was 1994. At the time, I was living at my parents’ house. I had a studio there. I was working mad hours, not eating very well. I was eating crap food, not looking after myself, working all through the night. And in the midst of this era, I got a call offering a gig in Russia.

It wasn’t usual to tour Russia at the time. I hadn’t really heard of many people in the scene I was in that had been to Russia. I remember thinking that I had always wanted to go, and when they told me the line-up, I was in. I think it was British Council and some Moscow Council funding. Basically, it just sounded like a mad thing.

The lineup was extra mad. It was Autechre, Aphex Twin, Dreadzone, Seefeel, Paul Oakenfold, The Orb, Bark Psychosis, Ultramarine, and that guy from Wire… can’t remember his name. There was a few others as well. It was a bizarre idea. So, when I left, I definitely remember flying on a Russian airline. There was lots of smoking on the plane, and the plane was a little bit rough and ready. I remember the food being really bad. Food is still bad now, but this was unidentified. And Richard James got food poisoning off something he ate on the plane. I think he ate some bad cheese, and next thing you know, he’s in some Russian hospital.  

“All the clubs were run by mafia, and they were like, ‘What’s all this weird music you’re bringing into the club?’ Fucking hell.”

I’m not sure what time of year it was. I remember it was really cold. I remember that the city… I had never been to a place like that before. It was really rough, and you could tell right away how poor the place was. When I walked into my hotel room, it smelled like somebody had died in there. When you walked around the streets, you could feel the heaviness of the place. You could feel what people had been through, but that was mixed with the fact that we were doing gigs in places where it would cost a month’s wage for an average person to get in. The clubs were full of stupidly rich people and mafia. There was no working class Russians. And I remember that the gigs were not full at all. They were quiet. I remember we were telling the promoter to just let some people in, because there were masses of people outside who couldn’t afford to get in. But the promoter didn’t allow it, because he would have got in trouble. He got into trouble anyway. The day after the gig, he showed up with a black eye. All the clubs were run by mafia, and they were like, “What’s all this weird music you’re bringing into the club?” Fucking hell. They punched him hard.

I kind of remember the gig, but I don’t really remember. I can’t remember if we even played actually. I think I lasted at least three or four days before I ended up in the hospital. I think during one of those days, Bruce Gilbert, the guy from Wire – well at the time, he was doing shows where he requested a shed, and he would play from inside the shed. The promoters got him a shed I believe, and he played, and it was very avant-garde. I remember the owner of the club came up with some security guards, and the security guards had Uzis. They threw Bruce off forcibly, and put Paul Oakenfold on, because he was the most likely to play something danceable. Even at that time, he played slightly more 4/4, clubby kind of music.

I also remember being with a friend of Autechre’s, who was quite a character, he was named Russell. We sort of wandered off into this club in a backroom downstairs, and we opened the door. You know the Robert Palmer video where are the girls are dressed in black? There were loads of girls like that on tables, and then all these mafia guys. And another security guy came up with an Uzi. And I remember looking at Russell and saying, “We need to get the fuck out of here.” We had basically walked into the mafia’s den. The security guard came up and said something in Russian, but I think the mafia guys talked him down and said something like, “No, these guys are alright. They're part of that weird British thing.”

On the fourth or fifth day, I was walking around Red Square. I remember at the time feeling really tired – really knackered. I didn’t know why I was feeling like that, but I just wanted to sleep. I remember I was going to the hotel, it was in the afternoon, and thinking, “I’m exhausted, I don’t know why I’m feeling like this.” So, I fell asleep in the afternoon, then woke up, and it was suddenly obvious that something was really, really wrong. Really bad. I felt really weird, really uncomfortable, I was anxious, my stomach felt really horrible. I’d never had that feeling before and I could tell something was really, fucking wrong. My manager was there, and I called him up and said, “Take me to the hospital.” They basically called an ambulance. The ambulance turned up. The only way I could describe it was that it looked like an old traveller van, some weird van people travel around in and do free parties. Some crusty weird, broken down thing. It had a table in the back, but you couldn’t lie on the table. The cupboards had all their doors off. I just kind of sat in the back with my manager. They didn’t have any paramedics or anything on board. 

When we pulled up at the hospital, there were security guards everywhere, because they had a lot of problems with people trying to break into the hospital to steal drugs. I remember I had to put on some weird kind of pajamas. They put a thermometer under my arm, and I remember I was so delirious I kept dropping thermometers on the ground and smashing them. I remember looking at my manager, who looked freaked out. And he was quite a strong, hard London character. He was quite tough. I remember looking at him and it was one of those situations where it was either laugh or cry. We both burst out laughing because it was such a fucked situation. We were just like, “This is fucked!”

After that, they kicked my manager out, and they brought me up to this ward and put me on a drip straight away. I was vomiting, which was messed up because the toilet in my room had no toilet seat, and there was no toilet roll. I had nothing to wipe with. The food they were bringing me looked so bad that I was glad I couldn’t eat any of it. There were just little bits of spotty meat.

The doctors kept coming in and talking to me in Russian. I would just be like, “I don’t know what you’re going on about,” and they would just keep talking in Russian and giving me injections. It was messed up. It was some public holiday while I was there, and in the ward I was in, all the staff were singing traditional Russian songs all night, so I couldn’t sleep. After a day, my manager got hold of the embassy and was allowed to come see me.

“There were just little bits of spotty meat.”

The other weird thing was that there was this band called Crash Test Dummies at the time, and they had a song called “Mmm Mmm Mmm”. For whatever reason, they were playing that song over and over again at the hospital. They were literally playing that song on loop. All day long. So creepy.

I got out of the hospital the day we were flying back to the UK. I was still pretty fucked, but the thought of getting out of there gave me some energy. After I got home though, I started feeling really fucked. I didn’t know what I had, didn’t know what was wrong with me. The Russian doctors didn’t tell me anything. I had all these samples taken back in England, and after a week they found out that it was a certain, rare Giardia parasite that does a lot of intestinal damage. And they told me they were so excited because they had never actually seen that parasite in the UK. Great. That whole stomach thing set off a wave of panic attacks that pretty much made me useless for the next few years, but that’s another story.

Ever since I recovered, for years, people asked me to come back and play in Russia. And for years, I was like, “Fuck. No way. You guys almost killed me.” I said to myself I would never go east of Berlin. In the last five to ten years though, I’ve had more offers to do things there. I remember thinking that it was like 18 years ago since I had been there, and I should probably go back and see what it’s like now.

This time it was a very different experience. The guy that promoted the show was a Red Bull Music Academy participant in Rome. I was a bit wary about the food and thought maybe I just won’t eat while I’m there, so I had a massive breakfast at the airport before I went to tide me over. I remember the promoter really wanted us to eat at some restaurant attached to the venue, and I was being kind of vague, like, “Sounds good. Maybe.” But then I saw the restaurant, and it was really high-end. So, I ate, and it was amazing. The club was also really high-end, and looked like you were in a cave. The maddest thing was that the hotel they put us in was probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever been in in my life. It was a palace. Gold ceilings and the whole lot. It was mad. I guess it was payback for my first trip to Russia.

Ed. note - Journalist Rupert Howe was also on hand for the Britronica Festival in 1994, and wrote about the misadventures in an excellent NME article from the era.

By Mark Pritchard on July 18, 2011

On a different note