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.
A few months previous, a friend and I were drinking in a former strip-club in Shoreditch, the interior of which is a fairly accurate rendering of what you’d get if Vivienne Westwood vomited up the Court of Versailles. And it might have been a response to the nightmarish surroundings, and it might just have been the peculiarly provincial guilt that results from drinking away your Sunday afternoon when you know full well your ancestors would have been back from chapel and bringing in the sheaves by now, but my god, everything, both visible and abstract, didn’t half look like shit. We stared into our glasses (half-empty, of course), and one of the conclusions to which we came, while aimlessly sticking the scalpel into the corpse of popular culture, was that the music industry is becoming entirely parasitical. I found that particular observation nudging its way back to the front of my brain last week upon reading this article.
The good news is that, as the article confirms, online piracy hasn’t in fact been killing music, merely forcing both it and the industry to adapt and evolve. Most revenue for bands now comes from live performances and merchandise. This is as it should be: if a record piques your interest, if a sound sucks you in sufficiently for you to go and see how it looks onstage, and if after that, you’re hooked enough to have it emblazoned on a badge and bedroom wall, all to the good. But underneath the sighs of relief can be heard the clank and whir of industry cogwheels. In the eye-wateringly ugly vernacular, bands and their managers are looking “for new ways of making money from a shrinking pie”. Not just the music industry, either: global capitalism, ever-expanding, is now extending its sweaty embrace through the medium of sponsoring bands – circumventing record labels altogether and striking deals directly with artists and managers.
And again, sure, this is as it should be for a given definition of music – one that ignores all that’s great about music and accentuates all that’s regrettable. What is the point of music, after all? Is it to make money, which admittedly is the point of most industries, including those which batten on individual creativity and imagination? Or is it to express, to entertain, to forge some connection between alienated individuals? If the latter, is that really best accomplished by hawking your talent and your ambition to a boardroom’s worth of number-crunchers whose ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders, and whose job depends on a product that isn’t actually music? To say nothing of the fact that bands may be choosing to associate with multinational companies whose records on ethics and human rights are decidedly grubby. Witness Groove Armada, cited in the Guardian article as having hitched their wagon to the immensely distasteful Bacardi.
Having your musical output facilitated, promoted or managed is one thing. But once you start looking to some monolithic entity outside the music industry for permission to exist as an artist you’re on very dangerous ground. Let’s be clear: it’s brands that have the power here. It’s laughable to suppose that corporate sponsorship won’t involve some process of approval and right of veto over the end product. The logic of brand-association dictates that advertisers are going to want to keep their pet artists, at the least, tabloid-friendly, and, at the most, hermetically sealed from associating with anything that isn’t bland, whitebread and squeaky-clean.
In 1993, Pepsi, who were in large part the originators of this brand/band marriage of convenience, had to hurriedly wash their hands of sponsoring the late Michael Jackson following unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse. Pepsi’s action was, in the circumstances, a fairly understandable piece of arse-covering, but, at the other end of the scale, consider the schmuck from S Club 7 who sailed close to scuppering his band’s deal with British Telecom for the singularly heinous and, for both a teenager and a musician, totally atypical and unpredictable act of smoking a joint. Without entering into the tedious can-and-should-music-exist-without-drugs debate, let alone that of can-and-should-SClub7-fans-exist-without-involuntary-euthanasia, consider the serried ranks of formerly smack-soaked musical sorcerors – Billie Holiday, John Cale, Janis Joplin, Nick Cave, Charlie Parker for starters. In a pearl-clutching world of increasingly invasive attention to the private lives of public figures, and increasingly powerful manufactured outrage, would brands be willing to sponsor any artist of that calibre if they were subject to the same family-unfriendly tabloid mercies as Winehouse and Doherty? And never mind actions, how about words: the overseers of brand-association are notoriously jumpy. Are artists going to be able to express an opinion on politics, religion or sexuality that might reflect badly on their chosen brand? Will we end up with companies only willing to wield their dark arts in the service of bands so established as to be untouchable or so new as to obediently, mutely, boringly walk the line? In which case I have seen the future, brother: it is Bono.
Questions of potential corporate control are of course less pressing than the central one: what sort of craven, tapwater-blooded and tapioca-brained cynic forms a band with a view to letting themselves be sponsored by Red Bull? Nobody wants to see a singer fearfully glancing over her shoulder for her paymaster’s approval before she puts her mouth to the microphone, and no band worth a second of anyone’s time signs up for it. Who are you, Coq Roq? Haven’t we seen enough of the unedifying collapse of culture into product placement, and of the mainstream’s more insidious cultural cherry-picking? Never forget the capacity of major labels, from consumables to clothing chains, to burst a subcultural bubble; they swoop in, magpie-like, and sell off our shiniest, sexiest symbols in a way that sucks them dry of any significance they might once have held. Sod the hippie wigs in Woolworths, man; they’re selling Libertines tunics in Topshop. Your scene turns to ruined, co-opted, demographic-targeted dust the instant the admen lay hands on.
Maybe this response is just a reactionary jerk of the knee, but it all makes me deeply suspicious, and deeply despondent. You shouldn’t be able to trust your musicians – Christ no, without exception they’ve always been a collection of the desperate, dumb, deranged, damaged and deluded – but you should be able to trust the music. You should be able to take it as read that music is more than a money-making proposition. If approval by global corporate brands is to be the hoop through which aspiring artists jump in order to gain readies and recognition, then the free publicity and critique provided by blogs and forums is going to be more necessary than ever.
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.
Grunge’s Norma Desmond is never an edifying sight these days, but on the strength of America’s Sweetheart I was expecting to like the new album. I did try, but essentially it isn’t what I used to love about her, nor is there anything new I could learn to love. One of Courtney’s best aspects has always been the insistence on transcending her Mean Girls detractors through adopting their costume and wearing it well, but it’s gone too far here, become blunderingly cartoonish rather than knowing and controlled. Most disappointing of all, she sounds defeated where she used to scream defiance, her voice a worn-out rasp through bee-stung lips where it used to be a buzzsaw.
The usual song-suspects are all here, done very much by numbers: the rueful (probably) Kurt-remembrance and fear-death-by-water escapist lament (‘Pacific Coast Highway’, which she’s already done better with ‘Malibu’); the defiant tarts-with-heart anthem (‘Dirty Girls’, which she’s always done better than this) ; the plaintive take-me-as-I-am cradling of your head to her bosom (‘For Once in your Life’). Certainly I’ve never liked her solo work as much as I did Hole, but there’s nothing here that really stands comparison with America’s Sweetheart, from the teeth-gritting rage of ‘Mono’ to the Cassandrine anatomising of feminine ambition that was ‘Sunset Strip’. The songs that stand out are few: ‘Stand Up Motherfucker’ is tolerable fun, Courtney snarling ‘Stand up motherfucker, I will see you now’ like Don Corleone in pantomime drag, but it’s schadenfreude rather than triumph. ‘Never Go Hungry Again’ does the same sentiment better for its musical simplicity and the lyrics’ quiet dignity. The last three songs are an extended and frankly boring fadeout. Surely she can’t leave us like this?
The headlong rush of ‘Loser Dust’ is the album’s one bright spot: Courtney at her acerbic, taunting best, both the vocal’s careering sneer and the killer description of a certain kind of woman as ‘starving and carnivorous’. I think this highlights where the album lets me down: where she used to excel at using a personal focus to explore the universal mysteries of the feminine physique and psyche, Nobody’s Daughter is full of Courtney’s turn to the external and the transient – highways, hotels, rehab clinics – and it feels appropriately flimsy and diluted. Like The Bell Jar‘s Esther throwing her clothes off the rooftop, it’s a futile if briefly self-fulfilling spectacle. C-Lo these days is as glossy as she’s always wanted to be, but her face has become the collagened Hollywood mask, too tight and smooth for anything real to break through the make-up.
Back in the speed-addled, black-eyelinered days of my early adolescence, the NME had bite, balls, and brio. And it still had nothing on Melody Maker. Every Wednesday lunchtime saw me, lower lip bitten with anticipation, heading into town to snag the latest issue of each; our newsagent stocked all of three copies, and I never found out who, if anyone, bought the others. For me and others like me – small-town, provincial or suburban kids beyond the pale of London’s bright lights, with mass internet access as yet untapped, gazing wide-eyed on stories of the gig-circuit – the weekly music press served as a channel of cultural discovery and as the cool older brother we didn’t have.
So scalpel-sharp was music journalism at that time that I can still recall features, reviews and even some lines from them, both the building up and the demolition jobs. Taylor Parkes skewering the Cult of Richey with a cutting You don’t deal with depression by making it the focal point of your personality – you have to rage against it, perpetually. Neil Kulkarni’s still-astonishing wrecking-ball swing at Kula Shaker and the post-Oasis consensus (Crucially, retro-accusations are less important than pointing out how deadly dull the bulk of this LP is, in a way that only true scumcunt hippies can be: “K” … shits itself in fear of the future (1973) and stinks of living death) which at the time made for what felt like genuinely revolutionary reading.
And yes, it was fucking political. NME’s former editor Neil Spencer claims the pre-Britpop music press treated music as part of a wider oppositional culture in which the angry and intelligent political consciousness of bands like S*M*A*S*H and Asian Dub Foundation was considered an asset rather than an embarrassment. Encompassing the world beyond music, as well as music beyond the mainstream, the NME and MM took on fascism, racism, sexism, Morrissey, Thatcher and Blair. More sophisticated than the sledgehammer sludge of many more overtly political publications, a certain left-wing sensibility shone through the best of their writing like sunlight through stained glass.
But, as every Libertines fan knows, the best things never last. Whereas Spencer blames IPC for the NME’s political castration, the decline and fall of Melody Maker has been generally attributed to its enforcing of what Parkes and Kulkarni identified as a ‘kid’s taste’ PR-led consensus and its aimless chasing of a demographic which already had Smash Hits. The latter half of the Nineties, with its rapid turnover of scenes and genres, saw the paper hitch its wagon to a succession of shortlived stars, including Nu-Metal and, notoriously and prematurely, RoMo, before its last-gasp glossification and eventual merger with NME.
The gulf between then and now is perhaps most apparent in the NME’s current attitude to the industry and its failure to adequately define itself against a cultural mainstream. Whereas Kulkarni trained his sights on mainstream radio and MTV as peddlers of the creativity-crushing Kids Consensus, the NME now revels in unholy commercial alliances, sponsorships and tie-in deals. The dangers inherent in this trend were exemplified in 2005 by the controversy over its Top 50 albums list. The ensuing furore both dealt a blow to what little of NME’s credibility remained, and proved that the paper had fallen prey to a system largely built on mutual backscratching where, yes, there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.
The NME’s present incarnation – a dishwater-dull industry cum-rag with an editor who resembles a spoon in a suit – is of course merely reflective of a more widespread erosion of choice and illusion of independence which currently infects most aspects of culture and politics. The music industry in particular will always aspire to Johnny Rotten’s vision of ‘a bloated old vampire’, and nothing has filed down its fangs so much as the relocation of sharing, discussion and critical analysis of music to online publications, networks and forums. As for the NME, appearing in its pages these days is akin to standing on a moonlit Transylvanian balcony in a billowing nightdress bellowing ‘Come and get me, Vlad!’; you’ll be drained dry and thrown aside for something juicier within weeks. Hope lies in the blogs.
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.