I’ve just finished reading Sylvia Patterson’s book on her life as a music journalist and felt instantly compelled to recommend it. It’s very like Viv Albertine’s memoir, being full of not only the silliness and thrill of being young and loving music, but also casually devastating insight into personal tragedy and cultural shift – and how often the two are combined.
Patterson was never one of my particular favourites growing up (totally unfairly – I think I found her Smash Hits-raised pithy exuberance irritating because I was an insufferably morose teenager, and also I always tribally preferred Melody Maker to NME) but I like her writing a lot more in retrospect and it’s actually clearly been more of an influence on me than I’d realised – her deployment of incisive epithets especially. There’s something distinctly feminine, too, about both her and Albertine’s style of autobiography, and it seems to be specifically an older woman’s thing – this isn’t confessional writing so much as unassuming honesty, a certain understated wisdom and maturity, a settlement with the self that renders obsolete the need to front.
Patterson also captures the death of a particular ideal of music journalism – and of a whole approach to music – that I think people my age may be the last to truly remember. Before the internet as both community and culture/media platform, we were atomised, connected by a music press which was hugely – unimaginably, now – important as a site of cultural discovery, debate and conflict, and for feeling as though you belonged to something bigger, something beyond yourself. This way of thinking and writing about music and culture was formative for me. It was the only thing I saw any sort of sense in or any kind of point to. I grew up wanting to do the same thing, but I grew up into a changed world where the prospect of doing so no longer existed in any stable or secure way. (I mean, I did so regardless; Clampdown is (an attempt at) exactly that kind of writing and I was lucky to find the right publisher for it – indeed, the only imaginable publisher for it.)
There’s been a notable amount of 90s revisionism since that book, as though a particular generation can now see clearly enough at twenty years’ remove to try and weigh up what’s occurred as well as tell their own story. There’s a bit in this book where Patterson recalls her younger self finally recognising the NME’s transformation, round about ’98, into “the indie Heat“, and reading it made me feel, like it was yesterday, that sense of incredulity and personal betrayal that characterised the still-spectacular decline of the 90s music press. But her description is at the same time entirely aware of how absurd and inexplicable, how deeply daft it is to even care that much – about music, about bands, about magazines, about words in print, about anything that isn’t a capitalist imperative.
But we did care. For me for a stretch of my formative years – far shorter in retrospect than it felt at the time, maybe no more than four years or so – this kind of thing was everything. As this book confirms and brilliantly documents, there was a definite and decisive cultural shift to the right in the 90s, in which we lost something that hasn’t really been replaced. Things still feel poorer for it.
This post was mostly inspired by the complaint of my fellow Bad Reputation member Sarah J that, when the subject of Elastica comes up, the band are frequently dismissed outright as flagrant copyists led by Britpop’s version of Lady Macbeth. In fairness, I spent most of the 90s thinking the same thing. God, I used to hate Elastica. Willfully amateur slack-jawed rip-off merchants whose frontwoman seemed to exist only as a drawly amalgam of her indie boyfriends (hair by Brett, boots by Damon), whose competency in snagging the catchiest bits of post-punk couldn’t disguise how irritatingly thick and bland they were in all other respects. Right? Right. Now that I’m no longer a chippy thirteen-year-old convinced that people with trust-funds can’t make good music, I’ve been reassessing Elastica. Continue reading
The last time I wrote that yes, I did like American Psycho, and no, that wasn’t because I’d only seen the film, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that other women felt similarly, but I’m aware that we’re still a minority. American Psycho proved controversial even before its release, its unedited manuscript pushed from publisher to publisher, leaked extracts from it incurring public outrage, and its eventual appearance leapt upon by critics with the single-minded speed of a rat up a Habitrail tube. In terms of people judging the book without having read it, not a great deal seems to have changed. Continue reading
I had only one real beef with the excellent Paul Mason’s most recently printed reflection on ‘the graduate without a future’, but it’s the same beef I have with almost every recent lamentation on the state we’re in: lack of attention to class as key. Given Mason’s interesting and not especially privileged background, it seemed a particularly surprising omission. While of course I appreciated the article’s update on how there’s still no future, but there might be some putative entrepreneurial ‘survival in the cracks’, stringing beads together on a collective farm then selling them through The New Inquiry (I paraphrase) – it’s still the case that all graduates are not created equal, and some are still more equal than others. Correct me if I’m wrong (really, do correct me if I’m wrong), but while very, very obviously, it’s still shit to be a graduate right now, surely it’s marginally more shit to be a poor graduate?
Take the Coalition’s recent wheeze, the proposed cut in Housing Benefit for those under 25, which has been widely predicted to herald jobless or low-paid graduates being thrown back to live on the largesse of their parents, or failing that, on their settee. Is there really no discernable difference in the future that awaits a graduate returning to a post-industrial unemployment blackspot, and that awaiting one whose family are able and willing to subsidise their rent and support them while they work unpaid internships? Those graduating with wealth and connections are surely likely to retain their privileges? Take, too, the withdrawal of EMA and cutting of university funding, which is serving to entrench the idea of education as something undesirable because unaffordable, not something which can serve as a route out of poverty and a broadening of horizons.
Also, as several people stressed below the line on Mason’s article, this focus on the plight of the graduate – pitiable, emblematic, and potentially revolutionary as it may be – is part of a broader narrative whereby conditions which have always been likely for those at the socio-economic sharp end are becoming something to which the middle class, and their graduating sons and daughters, are increasingly exposed. The resulting shrieks of indignation are amplified in the media. While it’s true and valid to note that the current economic model is visibly failing, there are those for whom it has never really worked, and whose struggles with it scarcely ever receive broadsheet coverage. In the grand scheme of things, and especially right now, I’m not sure whether this is too insignificant a complaint to make, or whether it’s the only complaint worth making.
Speaking of boredom, let’s start with Tony Wilson’s gloriously earnest and nonchalantly pretentious Buzzcocks/Magazine documentary from 1978. In many ways it seems far longer ago than that, what with girls who work in Woolworths and all that quaint smoking indoors. Don’t make ’em like this anymore, eh? Continue reading
So I liked Owen Hatherley’s piece on Pulp, and I knew reading the comments would spoil it all, but reader, I read them. The majority were bafflingly wet-blanket in nature, wildly and wilfully missing the article’s point, if studded with bits of valid and interesting discussion. Specifically, though, I was surprised to encounter in both the article and the responses a lack of any mention of Manic Street Preachers. Surely you can’t reach back into the 90s, grasping for lines to describe the sociopolitical here and now, without burning your fingers on the white-hot irony of ‘A Design for Life’?
‘We don’t talk about love,
We only want to get drunk
And we are not allowed to spend
As we are told that this is the end’
If Pulp were the last art-school band (and I’m by no means convinced of that), then surely the Manics were the last artistic gasp of a certain breed of late 20th-century industrial working class? Continue reading
In 1874, Samuel Clemens called Ambrose Bierce’s latest effort The Vilest Book in Print, writing that ‘…for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive.’ I mean, it’s anyone’s guess what Samuel Clemens might have made of Bret Easton Ellis. Continue reading
Last week I returned to the Old Country – well, not the Old Country itself, but rather Cardiff, my land’s increasingly swish and cosmopolitan capital, with its rapaciously expanding shopping-and-eating quarter and its incongruous postmodern street sculptures making it feel a bit like a Torchwood theme park. The second most immediately notable thing about Cardiff at the minute is the preponderance of Emo kids there. I know Emo hit the subculturally-attuned youth of south Wales hard, but that was some years previously, and I was aghast to discover that the wretched thing still holds much of the city in its terrible, slappable, Lego-fringed grip. Will we never be set free?
This weekend I’m going to Southampton to be a superstar DJ. By which I mean, to hand over some mix CDs and hope for the best. I hope you all have good weekends; here are some curios to take you into it. Continue reading
2. A Steve Bell cartoon on the grotesque chaos of a British Brime Minister scuttling round the region pimping arms to despots. Business as usual, I know, on both Bell’s part and Cameron’s, but these things need to be called on sight.
And 3., to cheer us up, Rachid Taha’s obvious-now-you’ve-said-it reworking of perhaps The Clash’s finest hour. Lacking St Strummer’s patented brand of lyrical whatthefuckery – I mean what’s an electric camel drum* when it’s at home? – but retaining all the fabulist brilliance of the original.
* Is it this? Can they be electric? Do camels dream of electric drums? Etc.
My belated Christmas present to you all, in the dead days before New Year, is the recommendation that you get into Half Man Half Biscuit, if you haven’t already. After five or so years of listening to their back catalogue I don’t have a particular song to recommend, but I recommend you discover your favourite yourself.
Many bands polarise opinion; with ‘The Biscuit’ (as absolutely no one outside the febrile hive-mind of the Guardian weekend supplement calls them) it’s more that people divide into those who think they might like them, and consequently do, and those who think they won’t like them and never give themselves the opportunity to discover how wrong they are.
Always a risky business, innit though, ‘comedy’ in music. I don’t know how I’d class HMHB – as comedy goes, they’re more Chris Morris than Carry On, although they’re as quintessentially British as both. They skewer pretension in all its forms – sometimes satirically, sometimes whimsically, sometimes with nailed-on bleak observation of the nation’s corpse picked clean. But there’s a lot more to them than sneering, and a hell of a lot more than self-conscious zaniness. They’re not, as their detractors often presume, the musical equivalent of that bloke in your office who thinks that owning a novelty tie and a mug with a ‘comedy’ slogan makes up for having a wit and charm deficit the size of the national debt – in fact, they’ve probably written a song about him. They also provide, more or less, a running commentary on the spiralling absurdities of the British music scene.
Their lyrics are studded with nods to Thomas Hardy, and their music is often wickedly parodic. They are much, much cleverer than you think. Nigel Blackwell employs the Birkenhead accent’s capacity for dry disdain building to banked fury in a manner only bettered by Paul O’Grady’s anti-Tory tirade last October. In a sane and well-ordered world, Nigel Blackwell would already have turned down the post of Poet Laureate.
Just occasionally, this band make me feel alright about the world and my place in it. Happy new year.
I’ve also half-inched my new tagline for 2011 from them – the old one was getting me an alarming number of hits from bemused Nietszsche enthusiasts.
‘Sexuality in Rock’n’roll is one more area weighed down heavily by its history and language. While none could or should deny the aspects of sexual interest and thrill inherent in live music, the performance space is problematically male-dominated.’ – Ian Penman, NME, 1979
‘I really wish that I’d been born a boy; it’s easy then ’cause you don’t have to keep trying to be one all the time.’ – Gaye Advert, 1977
Women in bands, when under the media spotlight, often find themselves swindled out of due credit by virtue of their gender. If they’re not being accused of clinging to the coattails of their backing boys to disguise their own lack of musical ability, they’re being judged on their aesthetic appeal to the exclusion of anything more relevant. It’s disappointing to observe how ubiquitously this principle applies. Even in the midst of punk, as girls picked up guitars, bass, and drumsticks, taking the stage alongside boys as more than cooing vocalists or backing dancers, they attracted that lethal combination of critical suspicion and prurient interest.
I love punk partly for the number and variety of women it involved and the freedom of expression it offered them. I loved X-Ray Spex – a Somali-British teenage feminist demagogue whose vocal screech swooped like a bird of prey over twisting vistas of saxophone. I loved the Slits and their slippery, shuddering dub-punk hymns to the tedium of sex and the joys of shoplifting. And I loved Gaye Black, bassist for The Adverts and widely regarded as punk’s first female star.
As Gilbert and Sullivan never quite got around to observing: Carl Barat’s lot is not a happy one. An ‘unpopular’ Home Counties childhood and ‘disappointing’ studenthood; the Libertines’ brief and glorious flicker of fame marred by burglary, breakup and breakdowns; hauling a zombie version of the band around the world on tour while Doherty languished at home pointing the finger; surgery; a solo descent into spurious “DJ”ing, club nights and generally wandering lost among Primrose Hill scenesters old enough to know better; Dirty Pretty Things – still a band of admirable, workmanlike effort but diminishing returns and an inevitable grind to a halt – and then a self-confessed ‘year of demons’. (Only a year, dude?) Even if things currently seem to have taken a deserved upturn – new girlfriend Edie Langley, incipient fatherhood, solo album and book just out – the path that got him here’s still not the sort of beat a chap would choose.
Marx’s Europe was haunted by a single spectre, but the furthest shores of the Welsh cultural psyche are stalked by two figures as powerful as they are petrifying: the Mam and the Missus. Such well-ploughed dichotomies as that of Madonna/whore are wholly inadequate as explanations of this particular view of feminine duality. Here I shall focus on the Missus, a figure who inspires both hypersexualised fascination and visceral dread of her destructive powers. This delicate divide between titillation and terror is nowhere more suggestively straddled than in Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s seminal release ‘Your Missus is a Nutter’. A full transcription of this sadly underexplored work is available for reference here. Continue reading
A fondness for Victoriana needs delicate handling. Admiration for an era in part defined by the creation of a particular proscriptive femininity can easily imply a rose-tinted romanticising of what was an age of repression, oppression, division and hypocrisy. Thankfully, Rasputina have a sufficiently modern sensibility, and their lynchpin Melora Creager is enough of a genuine history buff for the group to take an informed and analytical approach to the epoch that inspires them rather than merely revelling in the unexamined edginess of creepy girls, corsets and consumption.
This long-awaited new studio release is a return to form after 2007’s patchy Oh Perilous World!. Now established as a ‘cello-rock’ genre in its own right, on the edge of the spidery shadows cast by Siouxsie, Marilyn Manson and, more recently, Smoke Fairies, Rasputina’s music remains defined by the swoop and scrape of sharp, spindly strings. Creager’s vocals remain effectively impressionistic, if sometimes overly wedded to the Bush/Amos/Newsom school of Breathy and Tremulous. A few songs here are touched by more traditional folk, with queasily seesawing slide guitar and an occasional Appalachian twang that recalls Creager’s work with Nirvana.
Thematically, Sister Kinderhook reflects Creager’s interest in the colonial settling and taming of a restless land, as well as attendant historical oddities like the 1844 Anti-Rent Wars explored in ‘Calico Indians’ and the discovery of giant bones in Ohio. The latter tale, ‘Holocaust Of Giants’, is shrilly piped in a vocal trill conveying childlike fervour and jubilation, the song managing to suggest a look both backwards to the Victorian dinosaur craze and forward to ironic parallels between yesterday’s doomed global giants and the belligerence and hubris of today’s. ‘The 2 Miss Leavens’ explicitly compares Victorian sentiment with modern methods of remembrance, while ‘Utopian Society’ is a tragicomic-opera in miniature and ‘The Snow-Hen of Austerlitz’ is a tale that could have escaped from Angela Carter’s clutch of twisted fairystories The Bloody Chamber.
The album is also full of varying types of captivity. Creager weaves tales of girls imprisoned by domestic or social tyranny or the imperatives of industrial capitalism – the twin support-struts of Victoriana – in attics, factories, graves or “marble dressing gowns”. In the eponymous factory of ‘Kinderhook Hoopskirt Works’, Creager reimagines its workers toiling in “privileged captivity” to produce the sartorial emblems of their age, while strings are plucked like plied needles and, in the spaces between, birdsong suggests an imitation of the twittering of caged factory girls. The elegiac closing track ‘This, My Porcelain Life’ is a cool hand laid against a fevered forehead, swelling spirals of emotional cello held in vocal check by an outwardly composed narrator aware of the implausibility of her wish for independent happiness.
Emily Dickinson, another of Creager’s recurring interests, could be the inspiration for many of Sister Kinderhook’s protagonists. This perhaps accounts for the preponderance of lines recalling her ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’: feathers abound here and – despite the dire straits ascribed to the inner lives of characters more often portrayed as porcelain figurines or painted miniatures – so does hope.
At a point where contemporary bands have as much edge as a beachball, the Indelicates have proved indispensable. Julia and Simon Indelicate have been in the vanguard of artistic response to new media, following the release of their 2008 debut American Demo by shaking off the coils of their label and founding the musical workers’ collective Corporate Records, on which this album is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. Their guitar and keyboard folk-punk owes something to the murky margins of the Nineties, notably Carter USM’s winning twinning of righteous sociological skewering with a lyrical patchwork of cultural references and wordplay, as well as the Auteurs’ and Pulp’s cerebral chic and puncturing of airy pretensions.
Recorded in East Berlin, Songs for Swinging Lovers is appropriately imbued with similar cabaret stylings to those of the Dresden Dolls. The pervading Weimar atmosphere draws implicit parallels between the present culture deconstructed here and a past culture gone softly dissolute and succumbing to totalitarian creep. An entire continent gets it in the neck in opener ‘Europe’, a stop-motion stagger of drunken piano, cymbals that clash like wine glasses smashed on bourgeois floors and piled-up images of queasy cultural decay. ’Be Afraid of Your Parents’ is a cautionary tale of entrenched liberal hegemonies, a nervy, tottering quickstep of Derrida-quoting dinner-partiers leading a fatuous and self-satisfied dance round the ruins of the decadent west, oblivious to the insinuation of encircling uniforms. As a metaphor it’s typically bold, and as arresting as the visual pun on the album cover.
Full of ferocity, disgust and frustration, its meat bloody and raw, Songs for Swinging Lovers seethes with the wish to be cleansed. ‘Flesh’ continues Julia’s cutting critique of contemporary feminism (“Hey girls, ain‘t you heard we‘re more concerned about the hegemony than the women?”), her voice a deceptive lilt with Simon’s sinisterly silky backing vocals beautifully conjuring up an appeased patriarchy breathing down her neck. The savagely sleazy ‘Your Money’ sticks it to the corporate world and the wide-eyed singalong ’Jerusalem’ lampoons private education’s gilded youth.
Elsewhere, the frenetic riffs, contemptuously drilled Rs and Julia’s hammered keyboards give way to reflection and yearning, making the album as much barricade as battering-ram. Contemplating flight to the border in ’Sympathy for the Devil’ or envisioning the calcified grotesques of ’Europe’ drowned by rising tides, Julia and Simon sound as if they’re bunkered against zombie-like hordes of encroaching socio-cultural horrors, both the last gang in town and the only lovers left alive. Their outsider stance is burlesqued in ’We Love You, Tania’, the insistent siren-song of Patty Hearst’s terrorist seducers, and critically examined in ’Savages’, a celebration of social rejection shot through with fatalism and self-doubt. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ closes the album with a gently mocking lullaby for a generation whose short-sighted solipsism has elevated post-adolescent angst to an art form.
Songs For Swinging Lovers has a dark depth and complexity, not only providing the satire and savaging modern society requires, but also supplying its own self-questioning critique which acknowledges rebellion’s own pretensions and built-in obsolescence. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to the Indelicates – it never will, in a country that coined the phrase ‘too clever by half’ – but the remains of today should.
[Written for Wears the Trousers which is currently down for maintainance, hence this reposting of my latest. Longer and more rambling piece on the band to follow when I have the time.]
Like a certain kind of Dad tends to ruin Bob Dylan, Julie Burchill almost ruined Patti Smith for me. I only really trust Julie Burchill’s opinion on the need to outlaw asbestos, and my early-teenage reading of her enthusing over Smith made my eyes roll like a pill dropped on the floor of Soho House. A year or so later, I listened to Horses and kicked myself. Her stark and disdainful image on the record sleeve left me as amazed as the music. To realise that not only was it okay to be female, to be queer, to be ungroomed, to read, to write, to have ambition, to want to get out, to let yourself go – it could actually be brilliant.
On Saturday I went to her book-signing at the South Bank. The book itself is interesting, not least for its function as a kind of anti-confessional, a memoir shrouded not in prudishness or desperate self-mythology but content, affectionate dignity. She also played three songs, the second of which was her cover of ‘Because the Night’. She asked the crowd to join in to cover her nerves, and we did, hesitantly and subdued, nearly reverent:
There is something in her recasting of Springsteen’s song, the swooping and quavery way she delivers ‘they can’t hurt you now…’, that perfectly captures for me the certainty of protection afforded by music and its sharing, the sense of at once standing recklessly, defiantly before the world and taking refuge from it with another who understands. Making it so by proclaiming that it is so. On Saturday, collectively participating in its singing felt like something primitive, a basic ward against the elemental world outside my head. (It’s the chorus that does it. Not that the security, trust and defiant resolve embedded in its primal thump is peculiar to this song; I’d think, and frequently have thought, the same when singing drunkenly along to Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’.)
Did you know Patti Smith used to work as a bookseller? She talked a bit about that, about having the permanent mark of the bookseller that means that, when in bookshops these days, she still occasionally gets asked for directions, and about the pre-fame certainty of failure and unappreciation. This led on to her method of getting over this by recalling that William Blake was an unappreciated and ridiculed failure for his entire life. I must admit, my optimism worn down to a stump, that whenever I hear variations on this theme I find it trite at best and depressing at worst, rather than comforting, but I managed to avoid thinking so for the duration of her saying so. It helped that her speaking voice is gorgeous: low, hypnotic, sleepy, vaguely like Dylan’s, chopping off the ends of words and pronouncing ‘cigarette’ without its middle syllable so it sounds like ‘secret’.
Face to face, she was astonishingly old, I thought: nerve-thin, tightly strung, beatific. Smile. Clasp of the hand. I skipped off down the South Bank in the spring drizzle, the book clutched to me like it could stop bullets.
Inspiration can spring from the strangest of places. Kenickie were three girls with guitars and an unassuming boy drummer, a band preoccupied with glitter, Grease and Gary Numan. They began in the north-east lo-fi scene of the early 90s before kicking over the traces and high-tailing it to London in a blur of lipstick and leopardprint, attaining industry fame around the time I was sitting my GCSEs. Two albums and a trail of metropolitan mayhem later, Kenickie split up live onstage with the parting shot ‘We were Kenickie… a bunch of fuckwits’. In this piece, I’ll be speaking against the motion.
The last time I saw Carl Barat, he was still playing a rock star. Dirty Pretty Things’ final gig brought down the curtain on a part he played exceptionally well. A year on from their demise, out in the wilds of west London, Neil Sheppeck’s production of Sam Shepherd’s Fool for Love sees Barat audition for a different role. He’s always been a performer, with the Libertines’ and DPT’s gang mentality a fairly transparent protection against chronic insecurity and fear of isolation. There’s a similar protection afforded by having a part to play – a costume to wear and a script to follow which relieves the worry about being judged on your own merits. Doing so for a living seems a logical if precarious next step.
Most of my favourite bands are in some way preposterous, with an awareness of their own absurdity as their biggest saving grace. One of the best things about Magazine is the fact that a band of such glacial heights and dour, majestic melodrama were also perfectly capable of keeping a straight face and playing for laughs. There are productions and performances too at odds with expectation and image to be taken entirely seriously, while at the same time constituting serious brilliance.
Take Magazine’s Peel Session of 1978, which includes a version of ‘Boredom’, the song written a year earlier for Howard Devoto’s only official, trailblazing recording with the Buzzcocks. The original goes like this.
Although boredom found a natural home in punk neurosis, it is a concept that belongs to an earlier generation of existentialist philosophy. The Buzzcocks’ original took the 50s-rooted sense of isolation and imprisonment in spectacle and distilled it in subversive, snapped and snappy couplets, undercutting its pale and intense intellectualism with that gleefully amateur two-note guitar solo as sharp as an ironically raised eyebrow. Magazine’s cover sees this subversion break the surface, spilling over in an obnoxious psychedelic froth of keys and manic drum fills that swirl around a dry but sugar-high vocal burlesque. Giddy and exquisitely piss-taking, the song of a bubblegum pop trio composed of Sartrettes in white gloves and ponytails smoking candied clove cigarettes, it abandons both punk’s blank-eyed minimalism and philosophy’s aching po-face to twirl its black beret around one finger, kick up its circle skirt and turn cartwheels across genre boundaries.
Like all good covers, this makes no sense until the moment you hear it and afterwards makes all the sense in the world.
Last week I went to the Barbican Centre to see the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Rarely has a film-showing had a more appropriate environment: the Barbican is stunningly early-70s, a symphony in brown and orange inside its concrete Brutalist exoskeleton. By the time the opening credits rolled, my hair had developed a Farrah Fawcett flick and I was fully expecting to be served a prawn cocktail by someone complaining about the three-day-week. Anyway: I enjoyed the film. It’s an accomplished pinch-of-salt portrait of Dury as child, father, husband, bandmate and musician, peacock-strutting his way from a semi-Dickensian institutionalised childhood to an adulthood spent in raucous and truculent self-actualisation. Andy Serkis is immense, as are the quietly cool portrayals of Dury’s long-suffering first wife and his largely unsung girlfriend, jobbing bassist and general muse Denise Roudette.
How punk was Ian Dury? Speaking musically: less so than his ubiquity on punk retrospectives might suggest. His closest association is with the big-band sound of an earlier generation. Into this mix his band stirred sinuous, sinewy funk, jazz and reggae in a brew that anticipates much of 2-Tone and later white-boy ska. The Blockheads’ sound has the confrontational physicality of early rock n roll, too, dextrous and muscular and thuggishly full-on. The opening verse of ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’ is a rare gem of moonlit delicacy in a barrowload of brutalising rhythms, terrace-chant choruses and that glorious, swaggering, leering, brandished clenched fist of a voice.
Dury’s other big influence is music-hall, traceable in his arch delivery, left-field rhymes and the maudlin lost-world sentiment of ‘My Old Man’, and peaking in the posturing of his Essex swell Billericay Dickie. The chancers and romancers who populate his songs are sometimes indistinguishable from his stage persona, but Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll efficiently unravels the layers of performance inherent in this: Dury’s wideboy geezerisms are adopted, transposed on a background of art-school bohemia which he memorably describes onscreen as ‘[not posh;] we’re arts-and-crafts’.
Despite his musical distance from it, there is an edge to Dury which aligns him squarely with punk and its particular anti-aesthetic. Not only did punk’s appreciation of the vulgar and iconoclastic dovetail with Dury’s own, but he also embodies empowerment through the owning and reclaiming of one’s own social marginalisation, which Lester Bangs identified thus:
… one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power.
Punk allows you, if you can’t emerge butterfly-pretty and slide smoothly away from your shell, to fight your way half-out and carry on, dragging the smashed and broken pieces with you as an integral part of yourself. An uncomfortable, uncompromising process made spectacular. Punk’s gifting of defiant and unapologetic visibility to the powerless, and to those socially excluded on economic or aesthetic grounds, swirls in the venom with which Dury injects his music. It found particular expression in his 1981 commercial swansong ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, a reclamatory refusenik anthem which achieves a dignity of its own through refusing to accept it in its patronising, socially-ordained form. The song’s conception and subsequent banning are explained in this clip:
‘Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll’, with its exhortations to reject the ordinary and take sartorial and aesthetic pride in oneself, is a manifesto that should be nailed up in every schoolroom and recording studio in the land. Dury was one of our last great originals, a genuine outsider resistant to external definition by background or ability, quintessentially punk and unmistakeably English, whose absence highlights the threadbare, barren and character-free state of contemporary music. As a national treasure, he gives every other contender an unsteady run for their money.
Patrick Wolf, ‘The Libertine’ (2005)
Pretentions to militant outsiderdom were ten a penny in the past decade, but few walked the walk like Patrick Wolf. ‘The Libertine’ takes the millenium’s tendency towards no-more-heroes melodrama, fuses it with a sense of self-belief you could bend steel around, and forges it into an unstoppable flight of righteous prickly petulance. Bleak and Yeatsian in outlook and atmosphere, the song opens with delicately poised piano and slowly-unravelling strings that bow under the weight of a thumping backbeat. Its galloping rhythms swoop and loop through outcrops of dark electro, spurred on by lyrics that scatter at swordpoint a slew of romantic and chivalric tropes before Wolf, alone in ‘a drought of truth and invention’, pulls us along through a full-throttle tilt at the darkness of a dried-up dystopia and over the edge into a better world.
The Avalanches, ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ (2001)
Cut-and-paste is a dubious technique, missing more often than it hits, but when it works it’s wondrous. The Avalanches’ debut album provided a seemingly-effortless masterclass in superior sampling, with ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ as a deservedly acclaimed star turn. The dustbin of vinyl and B-movie history gets comprehensively upended in search of quality cast-offs, before these scraps are stitched together into a kaleidoscopic collage underlined with an imperious blast of brass that carries all before it like the flags of a conquering army.
Snow White, ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ (2004)
Perhaps the most defiantly runty of the decade’s squalling angular litter, the late and disappointingly little-lamented Snow White were always too good for relegation to a residency at Nathan Barley‘s Nailgun Arms. Their comparative strength lay in a Sonic Youth-derived lo-fi sensibility, song titles like ‘It’s Not Art, It’s Paedophile Porn’ and a preference for sneering over self-aggrandisement. Debut single ‘Bored, Somewhat Detached’ sticks out like a spike through the floorboards, the recording’s muffled and murky quality making the band sound as though they’re being held hostage in a coal shed. Full of densely scribbled white-hot guitar overwriting staticky bass and a buzzsaw vocal drone, rarely has a song done so exactly what it says on the tin with such bloody-minded and furious aplomb.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
Missy Elliot, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ (2001)
The best of several crossover cuts with which a bona fide goddess in hoop earrings and an inflatable binliner punctuated the first half of the decade, ‘Get Ur Freak On’ leads with a whiplash bhangra-bashing beat that doesn’t bother catching the ear but goes straight for the hips. Missy jerks the song’s strings like a demon puppetmaster, firing off smokily spare vocal rounds. Instantly infectious and a sufficiently sparkling gem as an original, its jittery genius was also picked up and polished in a glittering array of remixes that made the post-Nineties dancefloor a brighter place to be.
The Coral, ‘Dreaming of You’ (2002)
The Coral debuted in 2002 with a melting-pot of an album, bowled along on waves of retro-rummaging and sea-shanty-imbued psychedelia. Second single ‘Dreaming of You’ is perfectly structured pop that shines like a diamond dug out of a Merseybeat time-capsule, but remains sufficiently scratched with the band’s spirit of unpolished experimentation to rise above mere emulation of their influences. It’s a deceptively jaunty two-and-a-bit minutes, smoothing over the raw melancholic isolation displayed in its lyrics with a torrent of ramshackle harmonies and a restless and infectious melodic vitality. While subsequent albums would see The Coral’s envelope-pushing lead them down increasingly complex musical paths, ‘Dreaming of You’ is a slice of straight up-and-down genius whose star has yet to fade.
The Libertines, ‘Time For Heroes’ (2003)
Not the spuriously-compiled Best Of lately issued by those intent on picking clean the bones of a band long-buried, but the five-years-younger standout single from a band lean, hungry and arrestingly articulate. Its guitar-led opening clamour was urgent enough to turn heads away from the barren wastes of contemporary indie and onto the sea of possibilities and passions that swirled in the space between stumbling drumbeats and Doherty’s smoothly confident evocation of a once and future urban utopia. Amidst flashes of modern May Day folklore, ‘Time For Heroes’ forged its own mythology of young bloods, obscene scenes and stylish rioters, its lyrics rich with in-jokes, countercultural cast-offs and quietly camp wit. How long had it been since the charts were troubled by a piece of such grammatical, political and aesthetic perfection as the line ‘There are fewer more distressing sights than that of an Englishman in a baseball cap’? The song throws open the doors to a kingdom of self-reference and self-reverence and, with a knowingly urchinish doff of the cap, ushers you into Arcadia and urges you to consider yourself at home. The Libertines flame was soon to be extinguished in a whirlwind of smack, self-destruction, supermodels and speculation on Pete and Carl’s domestic harmony, but, while it lasted, this was a band on fire.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
Saul Williams, ‘Black Stacey’ (2004)
In a just and rational world, the stunning and eminently quotable work of Saul Williams would have seen him hailed as the Messiah by now. ‘Black Stacey’ is part confessional memoir, part consciousness-raising rallying-cry, all righteous, fluid articulacy over flowing, portentous beats. Willliams’ cool, composed and self-possessed narration, refreshing as a slug of cold water, argues down braggadocio in favour of a clear-eyed self-respect. The song’s apotheosis is its languidly swaying chorus laid down over the steady piano-led pulse of an artist who knows where he’s from, where it’s at and where we should be heading. Someone get the man a pulpit and a personality cult.
Lupen Crook, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ (2006)
Reportedly recorded in Mr Crook’s hallway, presumably during one of his rare fixed-abode phases, ‘Junk n Jubilee’ is scene-savaging par excellence, flecked with spit and sarcasm. Its tune is built around a steely scrape and skitter that sounds like the malfunctioning of a music-box, and a spray of squealing laughter that makes you tense with the urge to put your fist through the window of the Hawley Arms. Lupen’s pinched-tight vocal squeezes itself through the gaps between, with all the disgusted Cassandrine despair of the only sober passenger on a nightbus home from Dalston.
Amanda Palmer, ‘Oasis’ (2008)
It’s the fag-end of the future’s first decade and, in the land of the free, darkness is spreading under the shadow of a right-wing fundamentalist ascendancy that threatens reproductive rights and freedom of information. Who you gonna call, if not Boston’s finest punk-cabaret force of nature? On ‘Oasis’, Amanda hammers out a relentlessly breezy Beach Boys clap-along, face set in a rictus grin as her teenage protagonist recounts My Rape and Consequent Abortion: the Panto Version. This satire on received expectations of feminine behaviour sees life’s little misadventures pale into dismissible insignificance before our heroine’s life-affirming receipt of a signed photograph from Oasis. And why not? Described by Palmer as ‘pro-choice but anti-stupid’, the song’s strength lies not in trivialising real and immediate horrors, but in rendering them absurd enough to laugh at, and by extension pointing up the equal absurdity of their treatment in the social and political sphere. In a predictable if appropriately head-desking twist, the song’s subject matter meant that both the single and its Palin-baiting video were subject to an airplay ban in the UK. God knows what the Gallaghers made of it, but ‘Oasis’ remains a jaw-dropping counterpunch for times when laughter is the most powerful weapon to hand.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
The Indelicates, ‘Sixteen’ (2007)
Sussex contrarians the Indelicates have established themselves as one of the sharpest and shiniest pins to push into a popular culture gone once again smug, bloated and prickable. Their much-anticipated but little-hyped album American Demo suffered in places from a disappointing production that saw too many songs fall short of their vital and visceral potential. The band’s third single ‘Sixteen’, however, had no shortcomings. Around a po-faced piano hook and Julia’s precise lilywhite trill, the song skips along, giddy with laughing in the face of scenesterettes, before crashing to a halt in mock-terror of turning thirty. Neither the first nor the last lampooning of a cult of youth and stupidity, ‘Sixteen’ sparkles nonetheless with an accomplished irony and unashamed intelligence still glaringly absent in those against whom the band define themselves.
The Streets, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ (2002)
In the millenial fervour for a generational spokesperson, unassuming Cockneyfied Brummie Mike Skinner proved an unexpectedly engaging contender. Original Pirate Material‘s chronicles of metropolitan male working-class life supplied the deromanticised dark side of Doherty’s moon-faced adulation of urban squalor. Third single ‘Weak Become Heroes’, much more than a paean to the occasional perfection of chemical excess, was an elegiac triumph of looping piano and closing-credits strings that worked as both retrospective and epilogue. Rooted in the distinctly twentieth-century Summer of Love, and the Government vs Repetitive Beats wars of the early 1990s, ‘Weak Become Heroes’ stakes the same claims as Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ for dance culture’s transcendent and egalitarian qualities, stumbles open-handed and grinning through ‘Sorted for E’s and Whizz’ while that song’s narrator looks on in studied contempt, before meandering home, one ill-judged takeaway poorer but rich in memories, as the night’s fluorescence fades to a drizzly grey dawn. Alternating clear-eyed observation with quiet reflection, Skinner tips his cap to his own heroes and influences, and sets the cap on a fractured fifteen-year dream in masterly fashion that leaves us ready to wake up, shake it off and move on, if not up.
Jarvis Cocker, ‘Cunts are Still Running the World’ (2006)
Everyone’s favourite malcontent, ahead of the game as ever, chose 2006 to anticipate the cultural turn towards weary recognition of a present as fucked-up and fatalistic as the past. The all-conquering valedictory vitriol that fuelled ‘Common People’ and ‘Cocaine Socialism’ is still here, controlled but uncompromised. This single could have been a slurred score for the powerless and broken, bitterly swilling the dregs of proletarian consciousness around in a can of White Lightning at a dilapidated bus shelter. It’s not far off, but Cocker’s scalpel-sharp sociological skewering is enunciated with a dignified detachment. The verses roll by with reined-in rage, stately and sardonic, dole-queuing up before a chorus that weighs in with a queasy, unsteady stomp, its ragged vocals letting the blanched despair show through.
[written for Sweeping the Nation‘s best of the 00s.]
My first encounter with Odetta was as a jewel in the crown of Scorcese’s documentary on Dylan. This clip of her 1959 performance still packs an astonishing punch: she whacks out echoing notes on her guitar that drip like water off a deep-cave stalactite and she sings like she’s carving commandments in stone:
Discovering the rest of Odetta’s work was no less of a revelation for me. Her talent and influence are both remarkable. Besides Dylan, she inspired generations of folk, blues and rock musicians and lent weight to the civil rights movement. She’s an eye-opening individual whose presence and contributions, like those of many women in music, are too frequently overlooked.
In an attempt to address this, the good folk at Wears the Trousers have come up with a tribute album which ‘reimagines some of Odetta’s signature tunes, underlining how her wide-ranging and enduring influence transcends any perceived boundaries of age, race or genre’. It’s both a brilliant introduction to an under-known artist and an accomplished paying of respect.
Beautiful Star: the songs of Odetta is out next Monday on CD and download, with all proceeds going to the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Resource Centre.
All the ink excitably spilled over the Spiral Scratch EP, its importance to the punk moment and its surrounding DIY culture, is for once entirely justified. It is the definitive work of a definitive band – the Shelley-Devoto era Buzzcocks, rather than the melodically lovelorn troubadours, still excellent but not extraordinary, which Buzzcocks became through their post-Devoto reshuffle. It is four songs in eleven minutes of jittery speedfreak punk and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Aptly titled, the music here is at once constrained and claustrophobic, panicky screeds of guitar and frantic drum fills hemming in breathlessly gabbled lyrics, and an irritatingly insistent, needle-like pricking at the hindbrain. The gleefully amateur (two notes, or three?) guitar solo that slices ‘Boredom’ in half is pure punk minimalism. Likewise, Devoto’s stab at capturing the sub-Rotten delivery, that uber-obnoxious yammering where the vocal cords appear to be entirely composed of snot and amphetamine, comes close to producing (or pre-emptively parodying?) the definitive punk vocal. It captures, more accurately, what you think Rotten’s going to sound like until you listen and realise how inimitable and curiously feline his voice actually is, but it still happily gobs in the eye of all other contenders.
The lyrics, again, form a litany of tactics and techniques that would come to define the genre. Beyond the obvious tenets of boredom, isolation and dysfunction, ‘Boredom’ mixes all-encompassing ennui with the knowingly self-absorbed self-abstraction of ‘you see I’m living in this movie / but it doesn’t move me’. The band are, as Devoto keeps reminding us, only acting dumb. The lyrics are, winningly, shot through with a sharp-edged wit which punk often singularly lacks, kicking off with ‘Breakdown’s laugh-out-loud understatement of ‘If I seem a little jittery…’, continuing with the dry ‘I can stand austerity but it gets a little much’, and running through Shelley and Devoto’s deadpan call-and-response dissection of relationship dissatisfaction in ‘Time’s Up’. Another of the many tensions more widely explored in punk but encapsulated here is that between an impulse towards glee in deviant pansexuality (cf also the still-astonishing ‘Orgasm Addict’), and a viscerally disgusted horror of intimacy (cf Devoto’s shriek in ‘Boredom’ of ‘who are you trying to arouse?! / get yer ‘and out of my trousers!’, like an outraged maiden aunt).
There is a sense here of there being too many words and notes for comfort or relaxation. Too many disparate thoughts and ambiguous intrigues are packed into a line like ‘I hear that two is company for me it’s plenty trouble / though my doublethoughts are clearer now that I am seeing double’ – is it discussing infidelity, alcoholism, mental disconnection or the intertwining of all three? – which neither the careering music nor the desperate vocal can stop to explain. Having too much to say in too little time is a function of punk’s peculiar certainty of built-in obsolescence and impending disaster, the impuse to throw all that you have at the world before both you and it are overwhelmed by anarchy in the UK. While ‘Boredom’ and ‘Breakdown’ write this large (‘I’m already a has-been’; ‘I just came up from nowhere / and I’m going straight back there’), the petty domestic reflection of a preoccupation with the future’s destructive ferment is nailed in the musical and lyrical impatience that has the protagonist of ‘Time’s Up’ chainsmoking and tapping his foot while his girlfriend deliberates. There is no time to waste before your time’s up. The product of a band that were over in this incarnation almost before they began, Spiral Scratch is both a document of and testament to a social and cultural moment where if you were going to do anything, you had to do it now. Everything that follows may as well be a footnote.
In an Islington pub for pre-gig drinks, I order that unpretentious student/goth classic, a snakebite-and-black. Because this pub has delusions of grandeur, the drink comes served in a goblet of engraved glass, an elegant setting belying the cheap and giddy good time that swirls in its velvety depths. As a stylish repackaging of the marginal and derided, it’s quite an Amanda Palmer way of doing things.
Across the street on the forecourt of the Union Chapel, a man with the dress and demeanour of a Victorian undertaker is peddling on a contraption of polished wood that might be a piano, might be a hearse. Slightly too-large-for-comfort sockpuppets are carried by men in black. The circus is in town, gloriously, and chancing across a beauty parlour full of sailors wouldn’t come as any great surprise. On the rows of wooden pews inside the venue, clusters of Palmerettes bloom like a thousand flowers: dark-eyed, candyfloss-haired, irrepressible and remarkably dressed. Amanda Palmer gigs are no bad place for the self-conscious, though; from the moment our hostess takes to the stage, resplendent this evening in a full-length swathe of black and white stripes, you can be fairly confident that no one’s looking at you. Although the evening features question-and-answer sessions and the auctioning of a painting completed during the show, this is less the Amanda and Friends Musical Cabaret that other of her gigs are more accurately billed as. Both the setting and her performance tonight ensure that the spotlight can barely drag itself away from her.
I often forget that the piano is a percussion instrument. In this respect Palmer’s playing is a revelation, a hammering out of powerful, authoritative notes that drill her words into your hindbrain. As a vocalist, she deserves superlatives that haven’t been invented yet; ‘Brechtian’ doesn’t come close, and neither does ‘punk’ or ‘cabaret’. Her voice tolls like a church bell, its dramatic depth and texture punctuated by the lightning-quick criss-cross of her hands on the keys. Her delivery of the songs tonight veers between imperious intensity (the stabbing staccato of ‘Runs in the Family’, or her nigh-on terrifying, breakneck cover of Jason Webley’s ‘Icarus’), and a yearning vocal caress which lights up ‘Boston’ and contrasts with the lyrical violence of ‘Delilah’. And then there are extraordinary, almost uncapturable moments, like her Struwwelpeter cover or the piece of Bach she plays after a typically nervy and self-effacing introduction. Her revelling in music is infectious and, like all too few artists, she concentrates on giving back as much enjoyment and enthusiasm as she inspires.
(There’s a lot to be said about whether it matters, and how much and why, that Palmer is a female artist. Talking before, during and afterwards with starry-eyed provincial girls who’ve made a pilgrimage to London for this gig, hearing them freestyle her Palin-baiting lyrics and indulging in unashamed pansexuality – of course it matters. When I was the age and in the dire smalltown straits of some of this crowd, there was no one comparable in the public eye to entertain, affirm or inspire. I had no one to nail the absurdity of street harassment with the crucifying accuracy of ‘Ampersand’, and nothing approaching ‘Bank of Boston Beauty Queen’ and its wry dissection of the rewards of self-actualisation. And so, as a female and a music fan, I’m grateful for her. But in many other ways, Palmer is a transcendent, liberatory force of nature, and the media she chooses matter less than the message.)
Back to tonight. The incongruous candlelit venue is ripe for subversion, and she takes great pleasure in having her charming companion deliver Derek and Clive’s profanity-ridden parody hymn. Later, the magnificent ‘Oasis’ becomes a sacrilegious sing-along, complete with happy-clapping and exuberant shouts of ‘CRACKWHORE’ from the congregation. The encore, however, sees her stand stock-still, hands clasped before her like she’s ready to recite at Sunday-school, and perform an astonishing unaccompanied cover of Tori Amos’ ‘Me and a Gun’. Clear-eyed and spine-chilling, it’s a no-but-seriously flipside to ‘Oasis’ that makes the crowd collectively catch our breath. The crystalline version of ‘The Point of it All’ which follows, heartwrenching enough on its own terms, seems more affecting for being something of a conduit for the emotions held in check throughout the previous song. A subdued but stunningly powerful final note, it sends me back onto the still-unreclaimed street rejoicing in faith reaffirmed. Praise be.
The debt that’s owed to Magazine and Howard Devoto, both musically and stylistically, is massive, from Radiohead’s paranoid melancholy to Joy Division’s jumpy genius. Morrissey, a fanboy from early on, would never have made his career complete without summing himself up to the point of self-parody in Devoto’s line I know the meaning of life / It doesn’t help me a bit. And on a Tuesday night in the twenty-first century, after the end of office hours, with London’s South Bank still marinading in post-Bank Holiday blues, peerless post-punk outfit Magazine are ‘reconvening’. The future ain’t what it was, alright.
This is my first gig at the Royal Festival Hall, and it feels about as incongruous as you’d imagine. Most of the glass-and-air-and-exhibition-space complex has the feel of an aircraft hangar, and waiting for the gig to start is akin to sitting around, sipping from plastic glasses of overpriced drink, in the hours before your flight is called. The bar urges you to order your interval drinks in advance to avoid the rush.
At a respectable hour we’re ushered to the fifth floor and out into seats in a box to the right of the stage. The whole venue is odd from up here. The boxes jut like cars on the slope of a rollercoaster and the crowd, spread out below us, is balding and bare-armed in the anticipatory heat. Magazine have always attracted the self-styled intelligentsia and that part of their fanbase appears to have grown in the thirty years they’ve been away. It is, as my companion observes, a very paunchy audience. There are children, there are mums and dads, there are ageing Camden casualties with their hair still – or perhaps, once more – an ill-judged peroxide. It feels very much like we’ve taken a night out from the present day and our current personae to not so much step back in time as step outside it.
The lights dim. Showtime. Projected onto the back of the stage is The Soap Show: Episode 2009. The spotlight glints off a glistening pate. It’s Devoto, dull-suited and scarlet-shirted, glaring round and holding the eye of the crowd like a ringmaster. He’s very far from his Bambi-eyed boyhood, but then aren’t we all. He’s aged with all the advantages of a teenager who started out looking fiftysomething, and he moves like a cross between Dr Evil and Nijinsky.
For the first hour or so the band run through third album The Correct Use of Soap, all the songs in order, including their bizarre and broken cover of Sly Stone’s ‘Thank You’. In between songs, Devoto deadpans quotes from the anonymous writer of Caring For Your Record Collection, a pamphlet which must be older than the thirty years the band are making up for. Its pay-off line is ‘Try to avoid, ever, lending records to your friends’.
‘Turn the guitar up!’ shouts a voice from the back, several times. The band pay no attention at all.
The album’s highlight as played tonight is ‘You Never Knew Me’, a swirling, tauntingly tender glimpse of the Buzzcocks roots which otherwise stay as well-hidden as a teenage tattoo at a job interview. They close the first half with ‘A Song from Under the Floorboards’, which Devoto introduces as a song detailing ‘what happens when you don’t manage your coping mechanisms properly’. Like Radiohead’s indebted ‘Let Down’, the song pulls you down with it, spreading its hands to show you Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmare extended to a world glimpsed only through the cracks. Devoto nails the chorus, snatching an imaginary insect from the air with precision so pinpoint that I flinch.
On the show’s second half the record is flipped. They open with Dave Formula playing the RFH organ halfway up the wall at the back of the stage, while behind a lectern at the stage’s lip Devoto intones his spoken-word piece ‘The Book’, the story of an entrance into hell, and for the rest of the set Noko’s guitar licks and Barry Adamson’s basslines come boiling, scourging, coruscating across the stage like something tangible.
As I’ve often said to emo kids in love with the validity of unconventional attraction: if you must form emotional attachments to the tubby and balding and call it cool, then Devoto’s your man. Like Morrissey these days, he’s got an odd balletic grace that transcends his age and stockiness. He slips the microphone out of its stand like he’s unsheathing a dagger, legs twisted and spine crooked like Steerpike, and his control of the stage tonight is something to behold: not a movement or a moment wasted. He doesn’t touch an instrument all night, but he’s dead-on in touch with the music: fingers snap, wrists flick, arms windmill, imaginary whips are cracked over the rhythm section. More than once he leaps, both feet off the ground, and brings his hands down flat at the split second the music stops dead. It’s something beyond dancing, something short of conducting: a blindingly obvious and perfect balance between controlled and controller.
In this mood, when he gives the off-the-cuff command that we don’t have to stay seated, within seconds there’s a rush for the space in front of the stage. The back rows and balconies rise and from there on in the set is thrown at us head-on, ‘Permafrost’ snarling unsettlingly out of the speakers with Devoto transformed from avuncular maitre d’ into something darker that holds the eye and ear transfixed. At the song’s apocalyptic apex, with the presence and possession of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Devoto sneers ‘I will / drug you / and fuck you / on the remains of the permafrost’ and the possibility that the little freak won’t doesn’t even cross the mind. (And with manual dexterity like tonight’s? Bring it on.)
Straight on into ‘The Light Pours out of Me’. Songs this good should be strictly rationed. Even – or especially – in the mouths of fiftysomethings, nothing sums up bored adolescence like the listlessly buzzing, chopped-out lines ‘Time flies / time crawls / like an insect / up and down the walls’. Always a band ahead of their time, post-punk while punk proper was still revving up and sounding no less undateable thirty years on, Magazine have achieved something like timelessness. There’s no ‘Shot By Both Sides’ tonight, due one suspects to their pioneering contrariness as much anything else, but the whole of the set has been a reminder that the best a band can offer is the chance of losing yourself in the crowd.
Remember the days when recognition might mean remarkability? When pop stars deserved the name because they seemed like a different, superior species, doing things with music, words and vocal chords that the rest of us could only gasp at and gratefully groove to? In an era where music increasingly means moneyspinning manufacturees, it’s more important than ever to hold one’s head above the backwash of banality and keep in sight the idea that artists can be extraordinary, eccentric and exotic rather than smoothly, blandly populist. On the evidence of her debut album, My Sister, Boudicca, Quinta falls, with a crystalline tinkle and a light dusting of glitter, firmly into the former camp.
That’s the theory, at least, and at first glance it looks convincing. Quinta certainly talks the talk. She’s a former Bat for Lashes collaborator and a multi-instrumentalist. Her name was coined by her classics teacher father because she was the fifth of five children – the kind of quasi-fairytale snippet that might crop up in one of her songs. Her album’s limited run of 200 hard copies, each wrapped in screen-printed, hand-stitched sleeves, adds to its air of curiosity and uniqueness. The songs contained within, however, are less in keeping with their intricate and distinctive packaging than one might hope.
The landscape My Sister, Boudicca paints is wintry, its characters snowbound or set in splendid isolation. Vocally, Quinta recalls the piano-and-icicle stylings of Joanna Newsom or early Tori Amos. The title track breathes new life into the legend of Boudicca with a multi-tracked vocal heading a march of imperious strings, while Quinta’s voice on ‘Two Dead Birds’ is as fragile and delicate as its subject. As might be expected, the instruments on display are varied and not all conventional – whistles whistle, synths and woodwind suggest howling wind through gaps in ragged vocals, strings see-saw or spiral upwards, and ‘Sunday’s Child’ and ‘Reading to Me’ employ tremulous spoken-word. ‘In America’ is perhaps the most commercially viable song here, with a hymnal opening that fades into a wash of electronic beats. The following track ‘Ballad of the Ice Dancer’ also stands out: three frost-rimed minutes evoking Christina Rosetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ as a frozen ice tableau, all massed whispery vocals and a glacial plink of percussion.
With music this accomplished and evocative, it might be argued that Quinta can be excused lyrics which largely fail to interest or inspire. Her abstract, poetic words, when they occasionally spike into coherency, tend to draw on or co opt the standard quirky-female fare of nursery rhyme, recipes, and nature’s capacity for tragedy and cruelty. It is here that My Sister, Boudicca lets me down. Quinta is hardly derivative, but neither is she especially distinctive, and there is little here that truly startles or sets itself apart from the alt-crowd. While this album is an excellent start, it remains to be seen whether Quinta can lift herself above the current female-centred quirk-quake of Little Pixie Roux and the Machine for Lashes.
Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger, the double driving force of New York’s Fiery Furnaces, have developed a reputation for changing direction with every new record. Their 2003 debut drew superficial comparisons with the White Stripes, and their subsequent journey through acclaimed obscurity has taken in the resolutely radio-unfriendly Blueberry Boat and Rehearsing my Choir as well as the more accessible 70s and 80s retro pillagings of Bitter Tea and 2007’s Widow City. The band’s seventh studio album sees them shift conceptual gear once more with I’m Going Away, allegedly a collection of songs to soundtrack an imaginary sit-com. The band say they ‘hope that some of the songs on this record can be used as theme songs to folks’ own personal versions of Taxi’.
One can indeed imagine lead single ‘The End is Near’ being played as tragicomic credits roll, Matthew and Eleanor blissfully singing of mutually assured destruction over gently tinkling piano, a personal apocalypse chalked in pastel. Elsewhere on the record, what emerges is something close to early Super Furry Animals’ mastery of lazily melodic pop-psychedelia, heavy with piano hooks and drifting guitar riffs, which seems to fulfill the label’s promise of ’70s sunshine-glazed piano pop’. It’s the deviations from this main drag that tend to stand out: the title track, for instance, is a gorgeous garage-blues growl with a bassline like a revving motorcycle. Every road taken leads to a satisfying destination, though, from the Cocteau Twins-dusted reverie of ‘Even in the Rain’ to the Southern Gothic thunderclap of ‘Staring at the Steeple’. Even the few moments which might be regarded as filler, like the marginally welcome-outstaying shoo-be-doo of ‘Cups and Punches’, are either imaginative or endearing enough to sustain the interest of a casual listener.
Eleanor takes the lion’s share of vocal duties, her smoothly intricate melodies flowing over the music like liquor over shards of jagged ice. Having opened the album with teeth-bared intent to shake off the shackles of current circumstance, she tosses in subsequent references to journeys underway, recalled or anticipated. The album sees her variously pursued to Manchester, riding pillion to Lake Geneva, harnessing the Gulf Stream and getting lost at sea. When not detailing these cross-country adventures, her lyrics ably sketch out static small-town melodrama in ‘Ray Bouvier’ and ‘Cut the Cake’.
The giddy, obnoxiously toe-tapping closer ‘Take Me Round Again’ is a lyrical highlight, weaving together repeated scraps of nursery rhyme, ballads, blues and Broadway. This Burroughsian blend, stirring up impressionistic euphoria, gets swept along in a swirl of shimmying rhythms and rippling keyboards undercut by a vaguely military percussive shuffle. It’s impossible to sit through the six or so minutes of ‘Take Me Round Again’ without your shoulders, hips and fingertips wanting to jump up and join in. (Try it yourself.) The chorus’ penultimate the longest way around is the sweetest way home also brings the album’s conceptual journey full circle. I’m Going Away is an accomplished next step in a career of radical departures.
WRitten for Wears the Trousers.
As a Valleys expatriate, part of my filial duty is to call home every so often and update my mother on how her golden child is getting on in the big city. Usually this is a simple matter of concise summation, adjusted for altered terms of reference based on the fact that my mother last went adventuring in 1972, but when describing what I did the previous evening to her I ran into difficulties:
‘Well… I went to an art gallery in the bit of London where all the bookshops are and stood in an exhibit of books which haven’t been written and only exist within the fields of reference of other books – it’s called an invisible library, right – and we heard a bloke play guitar and read bits out of Dylan’s experimental abstract novel and he had to stand in the window and play to the street because there wasn’t room for everyone inside, and then he’d tell us various writers were great because they didn’t give a fuck, and then he read some more which proved that the same writers actually did give quite a significant fuck about several things, and then some other blokes played guitar but we had to wait because they were in the pub so we told each other what we were reading and then Carl Barat, I’ve told you about him, turned up and he played guitar and everyone cheered and then we went to the pub. No, no, there wasn’t anything to drink in the art gallery.’
‘…Oh,’ said my mother, ‘you went to a happening.’
I suppose I did. There’s no clearer way of describing what went down in Theatreland’s shoebox-sized Tenderpixel Gallery. For an hour before doors the queue snaked along a drizzly and damp Cecil Court – a fantastically bijou Victorian remnant full of bookshops and antique emporia – drawing curious glances from shoppers and shopkeepers. I’d stake my reputation on the bet that everyone’s here for Carl Barat. Pity the dude who strode the length of the queue determinedly handing out postcards for a private view, before asking what the purpose of the queue was. ‘Do you mean to say I’ve given these out to musos, not art-lovers?’ he lamented, watching several get used for roaching material or impromptu shelter from the rain.
Had he been talking to me and not the impossibly glamorous girls behind me, I could have pointed out the irony of his agony, what with Kieran Leonard’s Pages in Plectrums night being basically an attempt to blend music, art and literature. The gallery’s tiny space featured a windowledge as makeshift stage, scattered with dog-eared copies of Improving Tracts. As many of us squashed inside as could fit, with about half as many again left outside to peer through the window like Dickensian urchins. Kieran takes to the stage, looking fretful. An organiser hauls half the PA system to the doorway and turns it to the street. A voice from the back: ‘It’s like the Beatles!’
I’m never sure what to make of Dylan-bothering beanpole Leonard, the latest in a long line of Friends of Carlos. In the current cultural climate I’m loath to criticise someone so obviously well-intentioned and good-natured and who knows one cover of Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas from the other. So, to be charitable, here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is better at than singing:
1. being a compere, albeit in the manner of a trendy English teacher getting the guitar out on the last day of term
2. keeping people entertained while the rest of the bill is reportedly in the pub
3. being the only other person in the world to rate Tarantula
4. earnest rants studded with nervy swearing
5. making sudden eye contact from under his eyelashes to EMPHASISE the IMPORTANT parts of his SONGS
And here is a list of things Kieran Leonard is worse at than singing:
1. white-water rafting (I’m guessing here, and stand to be corrected).
He talks about Harold Pinter, then he does a song about Harold Pinter. Cans of Red Stripe are passed among the organisers. My lips twitch.
A voice from the back: ‘Is he here yet?’
Kieran looks troubled: ‘D’you want to give him a call? I think he’s in the pub.’
And another thing about daytime dry gigs: there are children in the crowd. Real actual children. There are children who look like cartoons of children: gap-toothed Gavroches in Converse, talking of that time they saw the Specials support the Horrors and repeatedly droning the wrong words to ‘Gangsters’. I glance around me. No, there’s still no bar.
Thankfully, we are at this point graced with the presence of Drew McConnell, Peter Doherty’s erstwhile Babyshambles lieutenant and more recently anchor of the Phoenix Drive and Helsinki. He’s solo tonight, bearing an alarming resemblance to Zammo from Grange Hill and a disarmingly sweet stage presence. His couple of songs, one new and one a Fionn Regan cover, slip down well and are a welcome reminder that in terms of Meaning It trumping vocal talent, Dylan is still the exception not the rule.
A voice from the back: ‘Carl’s here! …oh, no, okay. He’s just getting some soup.’
Third up is Mark Morris. At first I wasn’t sure why that name should strike such dread into my heart, but as he clambered on ‘stage’ it all, like a hideous acid reflux, came rushing back: the Bluetones. The mid-Nineties. The horror, the horror. I suppose if Tim Burgess couldn’t make it, someone has to play the desiccated indie casualty still smearing around the lukewarm shite of their Britpop glory days. They haven’t changed a bit. According to Kieran, much of the Bluetones back catalogue drew inspiration from the relationship between Byron and Shelley. Odd, as the only line I could previously recall of their oeuvre ran When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone / I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on, and even that was an Adrian Mitchell rip-off. See also ‘dull’, ‘plodding’, ‘quavery’, ‘utterly wet and a weed’, and ‘the reason I became a Sex Pistols fan at the age of twelve.’
Before fucking off, Morris nods to the upcoming attraction: ‘Can never pronounce his second name, but you know Carl – the hat, the hair…’
A voice from the back: ‘He’s not wearing a hat tonight!’ A visible ripple of anticipation. ‘Ooooh.’
Kieran’s back and he gets us to précis Oedipus Rex – ‘Greek tragedy, yeah, that’s some fucked-up shit’ – before doing the best song of his I’ve so far heard, setting the tragedy’s narrative in the contemporary London club scene. More flashbacks to lower-Sixth English class.
As the ‘stage’ is prepared for El Barat’s grand entrance, I think about The Sixties redux. There are inherent problems with the sort of unexamined ancestor-worship that gets Dylan to number one with his most mediocre album in decades, to say nothing of its choking-off of many aspects of progressive politics. Sure, this country’s headlong dash back into the maw of the 1980s in political and economic terms calls for a cultural renewal based around civil rights, feminist, anti-racist and youth activism, but, with the exception of Love Music Hate Racism firebrand McConnell, this evening was more Sixties-chic. The fusion of music, art and literature worked, but it doesn’t make up for the music in question being well-meaning-white-boys-by-numbers, nor for the readings being the usual roll-call of dead white modernist males – Eliot, Hemingway, Pinter. The currently pressing issues of racism and wider politics were engaged with only through the prism of readings from Thompson and Dylan and by Leonard’s (like the man himself, well-meaning and tolerable if you grit your teeth) cover of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’. I suppose it’s not a bad start, but blinkers and boundaries need to dissolve if Pages in Plectrums is to be anything other than a contribution to the Scene That Celebrates Itself.
A voice from the back: ‘Wahey!’
And then Carl’s here, and my attendant privileges (white, Western, in London, employed) mean that I can stop chin-stroking for a while and start putting my hands together. Polishing off a full glass of Guinness, he kicks off with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. For the first verse, there is not a dry seat in the house. And then you’re struck anew by the fact that, Christ, the man can mumble. The misjudged nature of this cover becomes apparent when he fucks up the line that has the title in, rolls his eyes heavenwards and peels the written chords off the back of his guitar, shaking his head and muttering about only having done that as a favour. He tosses his hair back and, to the biggest – actually, the only – roar of approval all evening, he throws himself headlong into ‘What a Waster’. The song provides an accidentally apt showcase for the Libertines’ golden touch with cultural references, having that line that juxtaposes the Beano and the unabridged Ulysses (or, as Carl has it tonight, with perfect impromptu scansion, the Celestine Prophecies). Just as I’m marvelling at how a musician of Carl’s status can be unfamiliar with the Cohen canon, he reminds me that he’s also got the technological understanding of an elderly maiden aunt: glancing around at the forest of handheld cameras and videophones before him and looking baffled as ever at his own charisma, he exclaims ‘Stop Youtubing me!’.
On the set’s very brief evidence, it’s difficult to tell if he’s still got it, but this is at least nothing like the dark days of his ‘DJ’ and ‘club night’ wheelings-out. He’s in good voice, holding his guitar like a long-lost lover, and remains the only man in the world capable of giving a convincing rendition of the ‘Time For Heroes’ solo. It’s also telling that Carl’s giving up on Cohen and launching into his own intricately expletive-strewn missive gets the best reception, perhaps elevating the need to do it for yourself over the contrived sincerity of paying homage to the old masters. Though his inability to fake it for the space of a song does make me fear for his acting career.
Just a quick link, in keeping with the prevailing socio-economic mood, of possibly the best song of the past three decades. There’s a lot to be said about a(nother) disenfranchised generation left with no choice but to disengage, but you get it all here: the backbeat’s plodding fatalism, the wind howling through streets of boarded-up shopfronts, the creeping undirected menace.
I remember, back in the day, a godawful cover of this by Back To The Planet. Fucken hippies, but you could see what they were getting at: 1994 and all that was another top-down assault on youth culture, the Criminal Justice Bill suddenly getting the apathetic to sit up, shake off the comedown and take notice of the systematic erosion of civil liberties. A bit. But there’s no call-to-arms here, just mournful observation, the anatomy of market failure and government misconduct.
And oh well, here we are again, looking for something to get us in the mood (unlimited respect or something like it to anyone who gets that reference without googling). Enjoy.
Silvery are a band whose singer has been posting obstreperously and incessantly on the forum of a defunct Libertines website for years. I was determined not to like his band, but sucks to be me, for I do. Silvery have won me over by knowing their psychogeography, liking their Bowie, Queen, Sparks and XTC and flashing their archaic military insignia.
Like all the best bands, Silvery are fucking odd. The general impression their songs give is one of going mad while clinging to a dilapidated carousel in the middle of the Crimean War, as Alan Moore earnestly explains the history of London’s underground rivers and a gin-soaked hysteric machine-guns a barrel-organ. The songs are as alien, giddy, claustrophobic, incipiently sinister and encroached upon by rapidly-swarming fears as the era that inspires them. The lyrics are delivered in a panicky barrage of breakneck falsetto and the music writhes with earworms like a freshly-snatched corpse.
It’s possible to grow weary of the album as a whole – too much full-on dizzying Wurlitzer and shrieking Victoriana leaves you queasily surfeited. Were I less enthusiastic about the same things as the band, I might describe Thunderer & Excelsior as a forty-minute fit of the vapours. In small doses, though, like laudanum, Silvery are both a welcome tonic and surprisingly addictive.
I never had especially high hopes for Dirty Pretty Things, and not just because they chose to operate with a bassist called Didz. Carl Barat’s self-destructive and self-fulfilling pessimism seemed to make their dragged-out demise inevitable. The man is essentially a throwback to a half-confected, distinctly pre-Sixties matinee-idol world of crypto-chauvinist chivalry and genuine honour, dignity and class, any product of which could never find mass acceptance or acclaim in a triple-distilled popular culture where pantomime, melodrama and public humiliation are painted as gritty reality, angst and authenticity are faked or appropriated wholesale, and the self-assurance of slick and cynical ironic posturing carries more weight and gets you further than this band’s faltering steps towards emotional sincerity. When did you last hear a song as guilelessly earnest and heartfelt as ‘This Is Where the Truth Begins’? If you don’t cringe, you’ll cry.
For a man out of time, engaged in a culture war where your side can only hope to go down fighting and where snarling gets you nothing but praise for how pretty your mouth is, the best you can hope for is a shrug and a smile. Much of Carl’s work post-Libertines has been you know how I feel out of place until I’m levered off my face writ large. ‘Bloodthirsty Bastards’ and the frankly astonishing ‘Buzzards and Crows’ transcend what begins as myopic scenester-baiting to make a stab at expressing universal and eternal human tragedy. Their protagonists are cornered, boxed-in, trapped, disgusted and despairing, Up The Bracket’s swaggering urban sprawl reduced to spying on cities through cracks in the floor. (Carl dedicated ‘Gin and Milk’ to longstanding fans last night. You have to wonder.)
Their second album gave up the fight in its opening song, its narrator abandoned face-up to the vultures, and then slumped into halfhearted crowd-pleasing fluff (‘Come Closer’, ‘Plastic Hearts’) or half-articulate railing (‘Kicks or Consumption’, ‘Best Face’), picking itself up only for the quietly embittered, finally accusative closure of ‘Blood on my Shoes’. By this point my feelings on the band had come almost full circle. Their first UK gig left me with an aftertaste of baffled disappointment at a frustratingly lacklustre affair, Carl’s head-hanging and the band’s general insubstantialness overshadowing their tightness and competency. They lacked entirely any hoped-for spark, that moment of connection which makes you glad you’ve made the effort. Their second tour saw them switch stasis for spontaneity, with unpredictable setlists and endearing interband dynamics, and subsequent gigs in Oxford, London, Sheffield, Cambridge, Paris and Edinburgh led me through unqualified adoration to a comfortable, affectionate familiarity, with a side-order of horror at the encroaching tides of industry imperatives that made the band at times little more than a soggy, sorry exercise in marketing and money-making. Study and work aside, it’s been a year or so since I felt compelled to go chasing round the country in search of some definitive, catalytic bangbangrocknroll glory-story that seems to have proved as illusory for them as for us.
And so we arrived at The Last Hurrah, a diminished hardcore of provincial girl veterans, reminded of better times and absent friends. A half-full thousand-capacity club in the bowels of the metropolis, plastered with aftershow posters that dripped with desperation. A solitary tout outside in the cold. The stage ungarnished except for a Union flag. The sound periodically fucking up. An ending fitting for the start?
Their songs are full of endings, of course, each delivered in an angry and bittersweet manner that rendered them equally apposite, from the bleakly resigned (they all followed me down here / to the story’s sorry end) to the grimly dignified (I know when I should leave in disgrace) to what passes for optimistic (here’s to tomorrow and the lonely streets we’ll roam / but if we don’t leave now we’ll find ourselves with no way home). With them providing the closing credits to their own biopic, there was little else fitting to do but join in.
The last ‘So…’. The last obnoxious oi-oi intro to ‘Playboys’. The last what would it take for me to be your man? The last digging out the deadwood, the last post on the trumpet and the last words: yeah yeah yeah. Carl is still breathtakingly beautiful. No Pete, god rest his musical soul, no Libertines songs and no special guests to speak of, just all the boys together. A final defeated bow, arms linked. No hope of hope and glory, but one of their better gigs, and one I’m glad I made the effort for. I know the essentials of what this band gave me: a friendship group imbued with the same spirit of adventure, defiance and recklessness, the same last-gang-in-town camaraderie as the songs we paid and travelled and shared all we had to sing along to. They gave me catharsis and connection. I can only give them the credit that appears to elude them even now.
Last night’s Indelicates gig was a welcome confirmation of their place in my heart. I was closer to the front than I’ve been for a while – front row in front of Julia, where a baffling amount of space had been left, possibly by her sheer force of charisma or possibly due to fear of incurring her imperious wrath by getting too close while being clearly inferior. Essentially I fell in love with this band the first time I saw them, and they’ve never really deviated from the impression I was left with then. As a five-piece they were interacting far more emphatically and playfully than I’ve seen before. The playing’s more tight these days and as a function of their confidence, precision and bottomless rage, the songs sometimes feel deliberately deployed like gunshots.
Something it’s taken me some time to appreciate is the band’s impressiveness in aesthetic terms. Both female Indelicates have a unique sartorial elegance and poise; where Kate remains serenely unruffled throughout, cool and almost detached in her own bass-heroic world, Julia throws herself into her role, singing with eyes-screwed-shut concentration and finishing songs with icy precision collapsing into uncomprehending, self-effacing smiles, looking half-embarrassed by her degree of accomplishment and its reception. Simon, dressed brilliantly bizarrely (cf last night’s t-shirt featuring Cher as Che Guevara), just stares and sneers and seethes. And then there’s their rhythm guitarist, bless him. A shining example of the lengths one must go to for attention when your bandmates have the stage presence of Simon and Julia, his services to swivel-eyed, spittle-flecked stagecraft reminded me of nothing so much as Steerpike playing Sid Vicious.
One new song: ‘I Am Koresh’, murky and militaristic, which in sound and concept reminded me of ‘Personal Jesus’ and is apparently from their upcoming second LP, ‘a concept album about Waco’. (Hmm.) ‘America’ was brilliantly done, dedicated to John McCain and with a crowd-baiting namecheck for Sarah Palin in place of Bill O’Reilly. (Hmm, again. As Sinead said afterwards, there’s layers-of-irony and then there’s just losing your mind. I have steadfastly avoided comparing my favourite bands to my previous favourite band, but part of ‘America’s dodginess for me is the same unsettled well yes, but – that bothered me (and them, to be fair) about ’Archives of Pain’ – by all means be blazingly angry about your conception of the vagaries of bleeding-heart liberals, but don’t let the finished article read like the Daily Mail. Not that ‘America’ isn’t vastly more subtle and superior.) At least there was no ‘Better to Know’, ‘America’s drippy cardigan-wearing cousin.
As for ‘Our Daughters Will Never Be Free’, I wish everyone with a progressive, performative bone in their body could have crammed in to see it. Julia, abandoning the keyboard, sang the first verse a capella to crowd handclaps before the band slammed in and she took entire control of the stage, tiny and piercing and wound-up with churning uberfeminist rage, disgust and despair. She concluded, slumping back down with her hair all over her face, howling pro-choice invective and the final ad-lib ‘You can be that girl or you can be my kind of girl…’ I can’t imagine it done better.
Best band around.
Camden, that boil on the neck of North London, was briefly brightened up last night by an Indelicates gig. They were the best I’ve seen them so far. Arrogant as fuck, opening with ‘The Last Significant Statement to be Made in Rock’n’Roll’ and in content and form embodying the line Anger is an energy.
The more I hear them live, the less satisfied I am with the demos and downloads I have. I like their clever-cleverness and their occasional prissiness of delivery – the concept behind a song like the girls-school madrigal version of ‘Our Daughters Will Never be Free’ makes it a practical requirement – but I can see why they attract criticism on grounds of being twee or self-satisfied or, apparently, too ‘drama-studenty’. (Sorry, she went to Goldsmiths; objectionable drama-student tendencies spread there with the virulence of memes or STDs).
But the demos lack the seeming desperation and spat-out contempt that drives the songs when live. On record, only ‘Fun is for the Feeble-Minded’ and maybe ‘Julia We Don’t Live in the Sixties’ come close to reflecting the urgency and vitriol of their onstage selves. ‘Sixteen’ is glorious live, skipping along giddy with laughing in the face of scenesterettes. ‘Heroin’ (which I was astonished to learn is not a Suede pisstake, but should be), is a perfectly sustained and poker-faced lament that pulls the carpet out from under the past decade’s eulogising of crap towns, pointless lives and pale thin girls with eyes forlorn. ‘We Hate the Kids’ is already one of our great lost singles, simplistic enough but delivered compulsively vicious with a beautifully executed swagger that renders it anthemic. Live, they mean it even more.
Lyrics like ‘Rebellion shores up the market / Rebellion keeps the nation healthy’ have been done, of course (’Turning rebellion into money’, ‘Rebellion it always sells at a profit’), but when they’re done it’s generally a sign of self-awareness rather than empty sloganeering. Being conscious of and informed by your own ultimate futility and counterproductiveness – the knowledge that your kicking against the whole corrupt edifice does nothing so much as tire you out and keep it standing – is preferable to trading on the idea that popular music currently has any great capacity for danger, subversion or originality, that the revolution is only a sponsored arena tour away. The scene has (once more) become sufficiently smug, bloated and prickable as to call into existence fierce quick creatures with sharp teeth. They are a necessary band. Best song titles since Doherty/Barat, too.
I’m quite aware that people dislike The Indelicates. Alright. It’s rare for me to find a band I’m happy to love. It’s rare that a band inspire me, and this band does. This band also make me want a badge that says ‘They don’t hate the kids as much as I do.’
Dylan at Brixton was unreal. In retrospect, since the show opened with a tribute to Link Wray, I’d like to think it ended with a tribute to Joe Strummer. There was a solemnity to things, at times, but not in a way that brought things down at all.
Okay, of course he’s appallingly old now and looks it, but he doesn’t look bad on it at all. And as the bores complained, he’s out of tune, but a) when has he ever been in tune?; b) define ‘tune’; c) ‘Lay Lady Lay’; and d) since when was that the point?. It’s not that his voice is shot, it’s just a different voice. He’s had so many and this is the latest. When some songs used to skid gloriously all over the place, with the exuberance of a toddler knee-sliding on polished parquet at a wedding reception, his delivery now keeps them grounded and anchored, a lilt as light as an empty rocking-chair. There’s something solemn and stately about the way he performs now.
There’s also glimpses of his former selves, like, as Susie said, a Magic Eye puzzle. His early earnest folk persona and his Messianic speed-freak Blonde On Blonde persona and his almost unbearable god-bothering Eighties persona, they’re all still there. It happens when he turns his head and takes the crowd in and there’s a collective intake of breath. There’s still that swagger and cockiness that avoids being arrogance and instead is just absolute self-assurance. Just him knowing he’s been right all along.
There had been a bit of talk about him tailoring the recent sets to express a newfound/rediscovered anti-imperialism. Sunday he played ‘Tales of Yankee Power’, and okay, we had ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ (!!!) and ‘It’s Alright, Ma’, and arguably ‘Honest With Me’, but who knows the logic behind it. He’s had more than a moment of being atrociously right-wing and I think he even voted for Bush Senior. It doesn’t matter. Songs like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ and ‘Masters of War’ have been taken out of his hands and into common ownership. They’ve enriched and strengthened twentieth-century protest the way that only good music can.
The set still contained a few songs I didn’t recognise, which is another reason I love him: there is always more to discover. There was less tiresome bluesy fretwank from the band this time, although there was still a bit. There was, fantastically, ‘Cold Irons Bound’ which sounded about ten years ahead of its time. ‘Visions of Johanna’, bloody hell. Again, there was that swaying between wanting to cry at how fantastic it was both as song and performance, and wanting (only slightly) to laugh at the fact that individual lines were getting their own applause. But then, when you write stuff of startling pinpoint accuracy like We sit here stranded though we’re all doing our best to deny it or Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously or Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial / Voices echo, this is what salvation must be like after a while (a line that I’m still not sure how to read), you deserve to be indulged.
‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was, yeah, stately and solemn, and somehow not missing the visceral, malicious quality of its early outings (the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig has the definitive version of it, after ‘JUDAS!’ and after his transcendentally sneering and defiant response of ‘I don’t believe you… you’re a liar… Play it fuckin’ loud!’ The version they play then is fucking scourging, the repetition of ‘How does it feel?! like a whip across the shoulders). But the time for that has passed. He knows he was right. There’s still him-against-the-world feel to things, but it’s not-quite-bitter, resignation rather than rage. He’s beyond and above it all: ‘Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust‘ might, for his younger self, have been slyly about his outlasting Lennon, but these days I wonder if he cares about competition or rivalry, or even recognises it.
Hanging around for the encore, I was expecting the same as the last two times (Like a Rolling Stone/Cat’s in the Well/All Along the Watchtower), but no. ‘Cat’s in the Well’ was cut (possibly there’d been enough apocalyptic visions for one set) and instead there was London fucking Calling. Forty years or so, bloody hell. He matters, the same way the Clash mattered, the Manics, the Libertines. In the way they embody their influences, they matter. Dylan is what music should be and what lyrics should be, how songs should change your life.