Wednesday 17 August 2011


Sat 11th June, Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Fugs must be one of the most legendary of bands. Their name (a barely concealed euphemism for ‘fuck’) may tell you all you need to know. Kicking off a trail of outrage and provocation from a radical bookstore on the Lower East Side in 1965, both reeling from and feeding off a barrage of bans and censorship, they were essentially Sixties before the Sixties (as we think of it) had arrived. Which means, of course, they helped kick off that Sixties.

...or perhaps they kicked even further. Despite their anti-war activism, few Fugs songs go in for that dewy-eyed Sixties utopianism that now seems so naive and irrelevant. With their acerbic and scurrilous satire they were much nearer to the Mothers of Invention, perpetuating a derision which bordered on nihilism. Though they’re not mentioned in the Wikipedia article on protopunk, check how the term’s defined:

“... a certain provocative sensibility that didn't fit the prevailing counterculture of the time ... It was consciously subversive and fully aware of its outsider status ... much proto-punk was primitive and stripped-down, even when it wasn't aggressive, and its production was usually just as unpolished. It also frequently dealt with taboo subject matter, depicting society's grimy underbelly in great detail, and venting alienation that was more intense and personal than ever before.”

But, almost by definition, with a legendary band it’s not their music that plays the most important part – that’s just a holdall for everything else around it. Their attempted exorcism of the Pentagon, which led to the iconic flowers-down-the-gunbarrel image when the National Guard intervened, was stuck as-live onto their third album, as much a part of them as any of their gigs. Shorn of this context, advanced in age by several decades, can we expect a crazy free-form freak-out in the Queen Elizabeth Hall? Or do legends work best by staying legends?

This perennial question has an extra piquancy over the Fugs. Key member Ken Weaver never rejoined when the band reformed in 1985. But more importantly Tuli Kupferberg, essentially the John Lennon of the band, died last year. (I have sometimes posted little obituaries for figures I consider to be important and influential. Of those I’ve missed, none galls me more than Kupferberg.) This leaves Ed Sanders, now in his Seventies, as the last remaining founder member. 

Yet the band haven’t played London since 1968 (when some Hari Krishnas supported them) so perhaps you should take the chance to see them when it presents itself. And so it was that I paid the highest ticket price I have to date in order to see a bunch of yippie anarchists.

Reviewing them in the Guardian (in a slightly timelier fashion than me) Alex Petridis comments how their “gleeful screw-you nihilism has been replaced by a wistful, elegiac tone.” It was certainly possible to focus on the first part of this, on what was missing from the night. Lyrics were often updated to reflect contemporary events. But too often songs sound polite when they need to be raucous.

Of course those originals were only ever rough and ready out of simple necessity, but it was still fitting. They were rough in the tradition of rough music, when music existed to assail those in power and stimulate the crowd to sing along. (Several times Sanders invites the crowd to join in, but no-one does.) Without this active ingredient, songs fall back on their basis. And their basis is often quite... um... basic, Beat pop or Peter Paul and Mary folk. It’s like the gelignite’s been disarmed and we’re left looking at the timer. It’s like the band we’re seeing is really the Flips.

At one point Sanders mentions that Kupferberg (who was Jewish) stole the tune of the classic ’Nothing’ from a yiddish traditional. Perhaps that was part of it. Music still had a functional part in Jewish culture, where the purpose wasn’t to play and sing well but to play and sing the song.

There is, however, another element. People focus on Sanders and Kupferberg’s previous trade as poets, but what they tend to mean by that is “having something to say.” Though it likes to market itself as an outsider art form, rock music is often at its best when made by outsiders to it. Both Bowie and Patti Smith turned to it after exhausting virtually every other artform, while those who want to be rock stars end up sounding like Oasis – essentially franchise outlets.

Ever satirical, many Fugs songs are pastiches – of country, of gospel, of barbershop and much more. But perhaps that pastiche was always present, they were taking up a music not inherently ‘theirs’ because of potentials they saw in it, and they used it as a makeshift raft to take it and themselves places no-one else would.

Two things, however, rescue the evening from being a total waste. The first also spins from the band’s history in poetry. Though their anti-authoritarian theatrics inevitably seized front stage, they always had a more literary side. As Petridis also points out, from the first album they were setting to music Blake and Arnold poems. For this gig, where shock is less on show, these numbers start to come to the fore. (The version of Arnold’s ’Dover Beach’ is especially fine.)

Secondly, if Sanders is the only originator, his backing band have been at it for twenty-five years – significantly longer than any other Fugs line-up! This is long enough to get good. Ironically, though the name on the poster, the ageing Sanders may now be the biggest drawback – reading lyrics from notes or stumbling over lines. Songs where his contribution is minimal or (occasionally) absent tend to work better. A version of ’Working for the Landlord’, sung by drummer Coby Batty, contains all the uproariousness you could wish for. As music fans we have ticklists of classic line-ups we want to see. But the point of the Fugs is the spirit of the Fugs, it matters little who it inhabits.

Home again just long enough to clock up another week’s work, then back in town for...

Sun 19th June, Queen Elizabeth Hall

If I had not already so carelessly used the term for the Fugs, I would about now be calling Current 93 a classic legendary band.

They started off so steeped in the industrial scene of the early eighties that main man David Tibet was given his monicker by no less than scene supremo Genesis P Orridge. However, in retrospect, it is all too easy to spot the divergence points. Industrial tracks typically sounded like black magic rites being enacted rather than songs getting recorded. They let loose sonic maelstroms, or some brutalist precursor to dance music’s repetitive beats, over which someone would shout and scream and sloganise. Normally about Aleister Crowley or Charlie Manson, for Industrial’s list of approved ‘transgressive’ topics was not extensive. (The band’s name stems from Crowley.)

Current 93’s numbers always had an element of sound collage, which itself suggested a kind of structure. (Originally a pretty loose kind, but any semblance of structure being a no-no in industrial’s quest for the systematic derangement of the senses.) Tibet could have been listening to Berio or Nono as well as reading de Sade.

Moreover, those collages often included snatches of songs – everything from hymns to nursery rhymes to popular numbers. As time went on, those snippets started to join up like jigsaw pieces and – in a massive transgression from the transgressive – something like songs themselves started to appear. At this point Tibet half-jokingly called their sound ‘apocalypse folk’, but ‘neofolk’ and ‘psychfolk’ have also been suggested.

Greater ruptures were to come, however. The thematic obsession with religion and the liturgical at first seemed typically industrial - God-botherer-bothering was commonplace in that scene, nihilistically insistent that all social rituals masked power structures and that God was merely an abusive parent on a cosmic scale. But somewhere along the way, he who came to mock stayed to pray and Tibet took on a kind of Christian mysticism.

Now Christian folk might not initially seem a particularly enticing direction to go in, but in fact it was. Firstly Tibet’s Christianity took so personalised a form that it could be argued he merely invented his own cosmology. (At times he’s almost reminiscent of Blake.) And the music was not anaemic Anglican do-gooderism, but weighed in on the weightiest of subjects – life, death, the end of everything. Tibet sang about it all with deranged conviction, less a trendy vicar than John the Baptist recently returned from the desert.

Furthermore, though doubtless unplanned, the change in direction prevented Tibet sinking with the boat. Industrial soon became a self-caricaturing obsession with the self, a mixture of a rather nasty right-wing Nietzscheanism and teenage stroppyness. God offered Tibet a way out of all that designer nihilism. As he sang on the 2006 album, ’Black Ships Ate the Sky’, “who will deliver me from myself?”

For all that, however, I confess to have listened little to Current 93 in those intervening twenty years. Partly, when I burnt my own bridges to industrial I also lost my connection to them. Also, the accumulation of material in that time quickly became daunting. (Amazon lists 63 releases, Wikipedia 73 and their own label Coptic Carts 89... perhaps the plan is to reach 93. (Disclaimer: some of these are split releases and collaborations.))

But, truth to tell, I became almost frightened to peer into that world. It was like a rabbit hole. You could quite easily get lost in the infinite recesses of coptic cats, outsider art and hallucinatory visions of the impending apocalpyse, and people have. (Okay, it’s an appealing place to get lost. But that’s all part of the spell...)

But, as you may have noted, I am not one to skip a chance to see a legend...

The highly unusual band have a highly unusual instrumentation; an electric guitar but instead of bass some acoustic instrument which sounded a bit like a balalaika (but probably wasn’t), a grand piano (sometimes swapped for electronics), and a drummer who works as another instrument rather than just keeping time.

With music that’s elegant yet at the same time repetitive and intense, of anything I’ve seen lately it’s most similar to Swans. (You could also do a similar then-and-now over their sounds... oh wait, I already did.) But Swans seem intent on colliding the opposites of ostentation and brutality, like some musical Hadron Collider hoping to break everything down to it’s components. With Current 93 one blends effortlessly into the other: songs can start out almost as crooner numbers, but slip into intensity without you noticing the shift.

Like Silver Mount Zion, there is something about the combination of it all that disarms preconceptions and evades tags, the mixture of accomplishment and fervent amateurism. Everything has an epic grandeur and yet is so personalised, with many songs about friends and collaborators, as if there’s no barrier between the ultimate and the everyday.

This is all perhaps best epitomised by Tibet’s idiosyncratic vocals cutting across the ornate instrumentation. (The contrast occasionally reminded me of the infamous Neubauten gig where they sliced up classical instruments with chainsaws.) His stage presence is not at all ‘cool’, much more in the realm of deranged visionary, at one point hopping around on one leg.

Bizarrely but appealingly, between songs the blood-and-thunder prophet turns back into a regular bloke. He wishes his guitarist an impending “happy marriage” and makes us all clap, like a village hall announcer. He dedicates a song to a recently deceased friend, only to very Englishly cut up, stammering repeatedly “he was very beautiful” while the band fidget, unsure of when to start.

However, through some strange combination of suffering an earlashing and being spoilt rotten, I find I lose the ability to take it in before the night is up. Perhaps it’s too much of a good thing... certainly it’s too much of something. This effect is interesting in itself. Music which is merely shouty or cacophonous (yes I’m thinking of Whitehouse there) is like living near an airport, your ears adjust and it becomes background noise pretty quickly. This is music which draws its power from something deeper and you cannot help but be pulled in... yet, to be honest, I was thinking this rather than listening before the end.

I joined the mailing list, and later received a missive from Tibet describing the gig as “one of our most intense and personal experiences.” I was mildly reassured he wasn’t promising to pull out more stops next time. On the way home I stopped in a supermarket for a snack, which promptly got besieged by a barred tramp - fiery eyes and fists 

on a glass door a few feeet from where we patiently queued. It seemed the perfect end to the evening...

As we did the then-and-now thing for the Swans, let’s grant Current 93 the same. First at the 100 Club from 1985, at the height of their ‘intonation + distortion = nightmare culture’ phase..., not the Meltdown show, but from London about a year before...

Coming soon(ish)! An end to all this out-of-date stuff...

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