Iraq ‘n’ roll: Hurrah’s 1988 tour of Egypt, Jordan & Iraq

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hurrah on stage 1988

Hurrah! may not yet be UK superstars, but the ancient city of Babylon is still throbbing to the beat.

Their brand of rock is the latest weapon in the British Council’s campaign to win the hearts and minds of Middle Eastern youth.

Midnight at the oasis, and not a drop of Newcastle Brown in sight. Still, you can’t have everything. The war is over and a British rock band have descended on Babylon to shatter-newly restored peace.

They are called Hurrah! – what else? – and this is the climax of a remarkable tour which has taken their caravan, including a 40-foot articulated truck loaded with equipment and musicians’ bus, from the ancient port of Alexandria in Egypt through Mansoura, Heliopolis, Cairo and Port Said, across the border into Jordan and its capital Amman, past the Dead Sea and the Roman city of Jerash, to Petra — the ‘rose-red city half as old as time’. It rolls to a halt here in Iraq, where Hurrah! top the bill at the Babylon International Festival with three performances: at the Babylon amphitheatre, built on the foundations of Alex the Great’s original; in the capital of Baghdad and the northern university town of Mosul.

Forget Glastonbury, Reading and Knebworth. This festival is feeding them a taste of stardom, and they like it. Back home, Wembley Stadium and the NEC are but distant dreams as Hurrah! trudge the polytechnic circuit – where denim-clad headbangers throng smoke-filled dining halls at a fiver a time, and both band and audience know exactly what to expect.

Here, Hurrah! are big-time for one week only. Well, a week is a long time in rock and roll, they tell you. Whether they are pulling the right kind of crowds is irrelevant.

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In the Babylon amphitheatre a ticket costs 20 dinar – about £40. The audience, therefore, is too well-heeled, too polite, to get on down. Dark-eyed teenagers, kitted out in the same bright garments as their well-fed parents, sit bolt upright in their seats, afraid to react to the throbbing sound. Tiny children in smart shorts and bow-ties, Sunday best dresses and white patent shoes, stare in amazement. A few of them try out their bodypopping skills, unaware that such dancing doesn’t really match the music.

The two-hour performance which is being televised reminds me more of a frenzied church-hall wedding reception complete with live band. In the wings a gaggle of lank-haired roadies, who have sweated blood to erect stage and equipment and overcome infuriating problems like lack of voltage, are on their knees in fits of giggles. The front four rows of enthusiastic Iraqi fans, for there are a few, are clapping wildly out of time, and the band can’t keep up.

The following night in Baghdad, in a parody of a scene from rock-and-roll cult movie This Is Spinal Tap, the road crew lower a miniature polystyrene Stonehenge on to the band’s heads while they are giving their all. The band dissolve. The Iraqis look confused. ‘This, ladies and gentlemen,’ chokes singer Taffy by way of an explanation, ‘is an old English tradition. It’s called “taking the mickey”.’

The Iraqis, none the wiser, politely applaud. They have succumbed to the potency of honest-to-goodness rock and roll, and they like what they see. It hardly matters that Hurrah! are not rock superstars — would even Mick Jagger be mobbed here? — or that their records have not yet made the playlist of FM Baghdad.

Hurrah! are, in fact, about as far removed from the rock-star image as it is possible to get — but then so were U2. Their Geordie men-of-the-people image is as meaningless here as a video of this week’s Top of the Pops. You can’t buy records in the Middle East anyway, so ancient tapes of the show featuring acts like Buggles and hosted by Jimmy Savile are adequate entertainment on Iraqi TV. You could say they are easily pleased.

This tour has cost the British taxpayer £70,000. What’s more, it is being organised by the British Council in the name of Anglo/Middle Eastern relations. The 50-year-old council is responsible for the promotion of cultural, educational and technical schemes overseas. A priority in recent years has been to gain the ear of the world’s youth, the ‘successor generation’. They have only just cottoned on to the idea that young people like rock and roll.

Edward Craxton is the council’s head of music for the Middle East and the Soviet bloc. He is already planning the next trailblazing tour as Hurrah! take a final bow.

‘I am very happy with the results here,’ he says. ‘I am proving a point all the time. To a lot of people in the council, this sort of thing is just “noise”. They confuse rock with pop. ‘It has been a battle convincing the council hierarchy that rock music does not necessarily spell sexual permissiveness, drink and drugs. For a long time, they have exported string quartets and jazz bands, successfully I’ll admit, but rock musicians have something to say too. The relevant point is that you don’t get a lot of teenagers turning out for string quartets or jazz bands. ‘We have to be careful not to be patronising in our approach. It is easy to be accused of cultural imperialism — as in “it’s good for the natives”.

‘Every tour we do in such territories is a gamble, of course. Anything can happen in such a volatile part of the world. But I think we’ve put the Middle East on the rock-and-roll map — and this is just for starters. If we find out how to crack the merchandising situation here, then all the major rock bands would consider it as part of their world tours. At the moment, a band agrees to come here for a very small fee and no merchandising revenue. They come for the hell of it, and for the experience, as we all do. They come, how you say, for the crack.’

For tour production manager Chris Rowley and his team, this adventure has been a triumph of adaptability over inadequacy. Rowley, a veteran of concert tours the world over — his most recent include Prefab Sprout, the Waterboys and Dead or Alive — is blessed with tendencies towards both diplomacy and aggression which serve him well in such a challenging role.

‘I thrive on solving problems,’ growls Rowley, unamused by comparisons with Dirty Den’s mutt whose name he shares. ‘The more grief, the more I enjoy it. There was no concert infrastructure here, we were starting from scratch. I think we’ve made a good start. My final goal is a grand world tour linking all the British Council territories, and I’m encouraged. We are well on the way to achieving that. ‘The problems have been experiences in themselves.

The stage collapsed in Port Said under the weight of the gear, and the crew spent three and a half hours with a welding torch under it before the band were able to go on. In Cairo, we blew 160 kilowatts into a sub-power station and eliminated two square miles of domestic power. We’ve had to uproot lampposts to get the truck through narrow roads, dismantle a specially erected decorative arch all covered in fairy lights, and adapt the stage and set all the way along the route.

‘I think your average British crew would have been on the plant home long before now. But this lot area hand-picked bunch of troupers who keep their cool and see the whole thing through with an overdeveloped sense of humour. ‘It’s the one thing vital to a tour when everyone, band and crew, is suffering from chronic diarrhoea and legging it to a bucket on the side of the stage every 15 minutes.’

But was it all worth it? It is with mixed feelings that the entourage returns home. For the British Council representatives, it was a resounding success, one to be repeated as soon as possible. For the band it was surely an eye-opener, a bold excursion into pastures new – but they can’t wait to get home to a plate of pie and mash and a pint. Back to reality.

Only the road crew, I suspect, will remember the tour for what it’s worth. ‘A gig’s a gig, whether it’s Bradford to Croydon, or Cairo to Baghdad,’ they say. ‘Humping gear is the same the world over. But tours like these do have their perks. We wouldn’t put up with such aggravation back home.

Then again, the best ones are generally the hardest. ‘We’re a bit like Miss World, when you think about it: we get to travel the world and meet people (and sometimes sleep with them…) and someone else is paying; but unlike the army we don’t have to kill anyone. Got any fags?’

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From The [Daily] Mail on Sunday’s You magazine (April 23, 1989)

Report by Lesley-Ann Jones – Pictures by Adrian Boot

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