The Charlatans will finish their 30th anniversary tour at Aberdeen’s Music Hall this December, having played memorable gigs there, but only one made front page news – and for all the wrong reasons.
The indie band played the Union Street venue in May 2004 to 1,500 cheering, dancing and singing fans who loved every minute of the gig as Tim Burgess put on a “masterclass of rock”, according to the Evening Express reviewer.
The “joyously-raucous” crowd bounced to favourites like How High and North Country Boy and left on a high.
But within hours it was clear something was wrong. People who had been at the gig started feeling ill. Not just a little but a lot. Violently vomiting, weak and unwilling to move as diarrhoea left them dashing for the loo
In addition, not just a few people either. More and more people were reported as falling ill to what quickly became called a “mystery bug” in front page stories.
Bug had spread like wildfire
In the days following the gig, the toll of stricken people reached more than 300, an NHS hotline was set up and the Music Hall was shut down to be disinfected while experts raced to identify the cause of the outbreak.
Finally, the culprit was identified… norovirus, the virulent winter vomiting bug had spread through the Music Hall like wildfire and in the end had struck down 500 people – a third of the audience.
The cause? Just two people who felt unwell before the gig had infected hundreds. One of them vomited on the steps of the Music Hall on their way in, allowing the virulent bug to be carried in on gig-goers’ shoes.
One of the victims of the bug was Dave McKay, who was the drummer with Driveblind, the then up-and-coming Aberdeen band, supporting The Charlatans.
Dave said: “We were all fans of The Charlatans. I think the second gig I ever went to was The Charlatans at the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1991. Growing up, they were one of those bands where I had all the 12 inches and LPs.”
Driveblind were on the cusp of a breakthrough at the time, having signed a record deal and moved to the States. They were back in the UK to record an album, and were clamouring to be support on The Charlatans UK tour. Recording commitments meant they could only do the Aberdeen date.
It was a homecoming for Driveblind
“So we flew up from London, especially to do that gig”, said Dave, now head of policy for The Soil Association in Scotland.
“For us at the time we had sold out the Lemon Tree a couple of times and packed out Drummonds a few times, but this was the biggest venue we had played in Aberdeen up to that point. So yes, it was a big deal for us.
“Although we had signed a record deal we were still very much unknown to anyone outside the Aberdeen area, really. It was a homecoming of sorts.”
Dave said he and the other band members enjoyed the gig and were proud to have put on a good show ahead of The Charlatans taking to the stage. But at no point on the night was there any sign of anything being amiss with the cheering, dancing, exuberant crowd.
“During the gig there was nothing I saw that would have suggested what was about to unfold over the next couple of days,” said Dave, adding the band flew back to London the next morning to get straight back into the studio.
“I remember playing drums and feeling absolutely rotten… it’s a violent bug so I was physically sick and had to stop. I was very much accustomed to playing drums while hungover and not feeling particularly great, but this was something of a different magnitude all together.”
Cause was particularly stomach-churning
It wasn’t just Dave. Guitarist Nick Tyler fell ill, too, as did lead singer Terry McDermott and keyboard player Dave Nicholson.
Then the text messages started coming in and the phone calls.
Dave said: “Initially we thought this is a bit odd, but it’s just some of our friends, but it escalated. By this time it had spread, a lot of people were ill and the papers, the Evening Express and Press and Journal, were picking up that something had gone amiss with the gig.
“It’s really grim… we are all so much clued up about viruses now after the last year but at that time it wasn’t something anyone really understood.”
Another victim of the illness was the aforementioned Evening Express reviewer. Journalist Ewan Cameron remembers it well.
“By the morning I was throwing up so frequently I was considering moving my duvet into the bathroom. I just thought it was a bit of food poisoning, but it wasn’t until late afternoon that word got out that it was connected to The Charlatans gig,” said Ewan.
“This was 2004, so before smartphones and social media. I think I must have discovered The Charlatans link via text messages from friends who were feeling equally rough. The numbers of those affected just kept going up and up.”
Mystery illness headlines dominated the headlines for several days until the norovirus was identified and the Music Hall allowed to reopen.
Ewan said: “It’s quite scary to think how easily the virus managed to circulate around the venue – and particularly stomach-churning when you realised it was vomit on a shoe that got it inside the Music Hall.”
Back on their feet in days
Meanwhile, Dave and his bandmates, like everyone else floored by norovirus, were back on their feet within a couple of days and reflecting on what had happened.
“There were a lot of jokes about it obviously. We had been thinking this was this great show for us to be playing with The Charlatans, our boyhood heroes, and all the rest of it – and we managed to make half the audience violently ill which really wasn’t the intention of any of us at the outset,” said Dave.
Terry McDermott was a runner-up in the US version of The Voice
Driveblind returned to America where they toured “solidly” throughout 2005 and 2006, playing even bigger gigs than the Music Hall, in front of up to 4,000 people with their album coming out in 2006. But by 2008 they had gone their separate ways as “things didn’t work out”.
In the case of lead singer Terry McDermott it was to find renewed fame as a runner-up on the US version of The Voice. Dave stayed on in the States until 2011 when he moved back to Scotland and continued gigging until four years ago.
Recently, though he has been recording with local Aberdeenshire musician, Fiona Soe Paing, playing drums for her new record.
But he and the rest of his Driveblind bandmates remember their night with The Charlatans for all the right reasons.
“Discussing it now, as I have with the rest of the guys, they still remember it as a good show. That’s how we will remember it, despite the negative connotations of the bug,” said Dave.