INNER CITY UNIT
The Brunswick, Hove, Sat 8th April
For those not up on the minutiae of these things, Inner City Unit were first formed by Nik Turner after he was booted out of Hawkwind back in 1980. Their sound was perhaps best summed up by the title of their '84 album 'Punkadelic'. By that point Hawkwind themselves had moved away from their freak-out space-jam origins, into New Wave-influenced numbers that even started to resemble songs. But ICU took all that further. Tracks tended to be punchy, punk or garage rock influenced, almost always single-length and packed with wry, absurdist wit. Even great bands can have their expiry date and, truth to tell, in that era ICU were actually coming up with better goods than Hawkwind themselves. Ironically, Dave Brock and Turner's legendary antagonism actually delivered for us fans!
'Bones of Elvis' was almost their mission statement, the verses a sardonic slab at music biz machinations (“No-one needs a star that walks/No-one has to pay a corpse”), the chorus a cry boldly stating their intent to get back to the roots - “We're going to raise the bones of Elvis!”
...all of which, you may note, was many years ago. But, now in his Seventies and starting to resemble William Hartnell, Turner's a good advert for growing old disgracefully. Even if his voice isn't what it was, he remains an effective front-man. And, though they only play irregularly these days (with their website not naming another gig till late July) the band remain remarkably tight. To be honest, I can find Dino Ferrari's drumming a bit plodding, but the other players excel. True there's less of a punk element than in days of yore, with something like 'Skinheads in Leningrad' not making an appearance, but that throws them further into garage rock. What came from the stage wasn't memories or re-enactments but neat energy.
They dedicate their set to ex-member and legendary Brighton character Judge Trev, who sadly died three years ago. In fact his last ever gig was for the Real Music Club, who put on this very night.
From their previous visit to Brighton, at the Hydrant (which I couldn't make for some reason)...
Those up on Hawkwind gossip may find this funny. (Tho' others will just be nonplussed...)
THE TYBURN TREE: DARK LONDON
Brighton Dome, Wed 5th March
The Tyburn Tree, for those not in the know, was actually not a tree at all but London's principal gallows. It serves as the title here for a song cycle taking “an atmospheric, sometimes shocking musical walk through the London streets and among London’s ghosts”, a collaboration between composer John Harle and Marc Almond. (Ex-Soft Cell front man. But you knew that already.)
The titular Tree was near modern Marble Arch, not that you'd know that nowadays. Indeed, it's perhaps significant that the dark old London should be celebrated now, when the city's rapidly being turned into a Johnsonite playpen for the super-rich. The cut-throats and prostitutes have been replaced by yuppies and smartphones, for better or... well actually, just for worse. And now the poor no longer fear hanging, just long journeys in from Zone 5 or 6 to their early morning cleaning jobs, perhaps London's only future (at least culturally speaking) lies in its past.
Marc Almond is great, of course. Arriving in a cassock to rapt applause, he looked uncannily like a character from a Carl Dreyer film. (Though someone told me afterwards they thought of Blackadder.) His almost uncanny ability to combine the histrionic with the heartfelt remains unabated, and he prowled the stage with something between a snarl and a leer. His post-interval appearance certainly galvanised events after the non-stick plonky jazz of the first half, where the applause was about as polite as the music. (You were better off regarding all that as the non-memorable support band, who merely happened to share all the same musicians as the main act.)
And there were highlights - 'Poor Henry' (a song about a hanging which morphs into a Music Hall singalong), 'My Fair Lady' (about slitting a prostitite's throat over an argument about change) and the spendidly titled and klezmer-like 'The Vampire of Highgate'. All three had a directness to them, like arrows shot true after first being dipped in the blackest of humour.
But ultimately all the elaborate arrangements, all the cleverness, just got between you and the subject matter - when a more direct approach might have connected. Perhaps the piece suffered by comparing unfavourably with the tonally and thematically similar song cycle the Tiger Lillies gave us in this very room only last year. But it came to feel like that most dreaded of all things, a project. Despite the highlights, despite Almond's invigorating presence, ultimately it's a souffle where it should have been one of Sweeney Todd's meat pies.
And it's become such a token of this sort of thing that Blake has to get cited. (They choose 'London' and 'Jerusalem' needless to say.) Blake is becoming for affected literariness what Captain Beefheart is to in-the-know music, the name to drop to your audience to suggest you're cultured but slightly edgy. It's like luvvies citing Shakespeare, the reverence is just displaced self-importance. Seriously, when was the last time you heard something refer to Blake where it genuinely deserved comparison to him? (Perhaps either Mark Stewart's or the Fall's versions of 'Jerusalem', both of which worked hard and inventively to defamiliarise the material.) Blake after all wrote “drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead”, and perhaps its time to let the poor old Londoner lie.
Anyway, talking about those Vampires of Highgate...
KODO: ONE EARTH TOUR
Brighton Dome, Fri 28th Feb
Kodo are described in the programme as “the taiko drummers from Japan's remote and inspiring Sado Island”. Handed to you as you went in, it went on to depict them in somewhat idyllic terms - like a hippie commune living in harmony with nature, growing their own food and making “eco-conscious furniture”. (Sideboards that remind you to do your recycling?) Perhaps that was just targeted at the Brighton demographic, and the next week they'd be in Portsmouth telling the locals they were famed for their discipline and drilling.
If so, Portsmouth might have got the more apt description. For as they started up it became clear there was something almost martial about them, clad in black vests on an unadorned stage, either playing in unison or standing stock still – as if to attention. There seemed to be two women performers out of the whole troupe. Alcohol was banned from the auditorium, as if we were all on duty.
The drum is of course a physical instrument, in a way a piano or guitar simply isn't. Something like the motorik beat of Neu! might sound gliding and effortless, but that's the exception rather than the rule. And, remote island or not, Kodo go to town on that. It would be hard to over-emphasise the sheer showness of their show. The exhilarating physicality of seeing fourteen drummers drumming, limbs a blurry whirligig of motion, makes them performers by the simple virtue of their playing. Some of the drums themselves, well over a metre across, seem so large you can hardly believe they could be carried on stage. In the best way they're an act made for DVD, rather than CD.
The first half is given over to contemporary compositions, including works by “artistic director” Tamasaburo Bando. You think of drum music as building up a head of steam, then using it to plough a groove. But these pieces, in their own words “weaved constant rhythmic patterns together with highly irregular ones”. Each segment was musically quite straightforward, but the compositions moved between them with bewildering speed, often given a visual correlative by the players leapingly changing places mid-beat. At times it almost reminded me of contemporary composers I've been to see, such as Julia Wolfe. At times, I do confess, I found myself wishing we could have stayed with some of those great grooves a while longer.
My favourite piece of the first half was the last, 'Ibuki' by Motofumi Yamaguchi, composed of openly-tuned bamboo flutes and what I took to be accumulated rim shots, building up strange skittering sounds which sounded almost like nothing else – at once earthly and unearthly. The piece was apparently “composed as an homage to all living things”. And some of the hippie spirit must have reached my seat by then, for that description started to make sense to me.
The second half was devoted to more traditional numbers, starting with a folk dance in demon masks, from back in the day when music was thought to make the crops grow. Colourful period costumes replaced uniform black. For one piece drummers played from a lying position, reproducing the way they'd perform on carts as they passed from village to village. Overall, it was perhaps the second part which appealed to me the most, as it seemed to more naturally incorporate the ritual element of seeing music being made.
Though never accompanied by anything more than those flutes and occasional outbreaks of the human voice, such was the sonic variety that you easily forgot you were listening to 'just drumming'. (Comparison to Seventies drum solos need not apply.) Even as your eyes took in the pummelling exertion, your ears registered the input simply as music. The programme described the giant o-daiko drum as “possessing a deep tranquility yet tremendous intensity”. Which would make a pretty good description of the whole night...
They were strict on filming, perhaps recognising it wasn't something that would necessarily convey on YouTube footage. So instead here's a promotional video, which hopefully gives some sense of what it would be like to see them perform in situ...