Monday 20 August 2012


Only a couple of months ago, I took in the Melvins and Sunn 0))), two bands so similar and yet so dissimilar it proved impossible not to play compare and contrast with them. And then what should come along last week but..?

The Albert, Brighton, Sat 11th August

”Sometimes... when I'm going backwards... I feel like I'm going forwards.”

I'd commented in an earlier post on the motley assortment of folk that were The Men They Couldn't Hang, but their line-up has nothing compared to the Cravats. We have... a singer who looks like he should be securing the door, in fact considerably more so than the chap who is actually securing the door. (And who, holding to this role, frequently tells us to “calm down, please.”) A guitarist who arrives attired as a World War Two flying ace. (And somehow retains this attire, despite the extreme heat.) A bassist who looks like a Guardian journalist, perhaps initially sent to review proceedings but now drafted in. A sax player who looks.... er, a little strange. And to top it all a spiky-haired youth on drums, the only person present who at all fits the punk stereotype, and (as events transpire) knows everyone in the mosh pit personally.

I ask you, with everything so gloriuously askew - what could possibly go wrong?

This recent reformation was my first chance to catch the Cravats. (Though I did see the Very Things, their more psychedelic offshoot, sometime in the Eighties.) They had done the whole punk thing, self-releasing their first single in '78 after a loan from the singer's mum, using John Peel airplays as lifeblood, even managing a release on Crass records. And yet it was clear from the outset their run was not of the normal mill.

When most punk songs were about hating your parents, your teachers or (at more of a stretch) whoever the Prime Minister happened to be, the Cravats pitched in with a single titled 'I Hate the Universe.' Which was their whole schtick, absurdist black humour given a backbeat, Dada antics mixed with English tomfoolery. (Though the early band member whose on-stage task was to watch TV does not, alas, part of the reformation. Unless he's still rehearsing.) At the height of the Year Zero rule, when the Sixties were struck out of musical history, they took from it's more sinister side. 'Who's In Here With Me?' and 'Ceasing To Be' are like younger cousins to 'I Am the Walrus' and 'See My Friends', with the air of menace not so much thickened as stewed.

The Shend's vocals are a mixture of plummy yodels and screeches, like an after-dinner speaker gone through the looking glass. (With perhaps a nod to the Karloff-styled narration of 'Monster Mash'.) Rick London's sax is used less as a rock'n'roll instrument and more a sound generator, sometimes injecting nigh-on white noise into the mix. (After the gig, a friend avidly shows me how he possesses more effects pedals than the guitarist.) The band seem simultaneously on the edge of turning to free-form noise, whilst remaining as tight and powerful as any punk band could wish to be. You can hear klezmer or cabaret in there, not paraded as a set of look-at-me influences but thrown into the whirlygig of sound.

The systematic deragement of the senses you can dance to. What's not to like?

'Rub Me Out' live from London a couple of years ago...

...and 'In Your Eyes', from the gig above. Lower sound quality, but then that's punk, innit?

Brighton Concorde, Thurs 16th August

John Lydon (aka Rotten) was not just the poster boy of Brit-punk and arch-stirrer of media shit-storms, he was also a key ingredient in one of the finest albums in the history of everything.

Of course, anyone who knows their music will know of what I do speak.'Never Mind the Bollocks' is a pretty damn fine rock'n'roll album. But it was after the Sex Pistols, when Public Image Ltd released 'Metal Box', that punk became post-punk and the rules of the game were well and truly changed. Okay, so perhaps both changed music. But with so many no-hopers taking 'Bollocks' as their starting gun, only 'Metal Box' did it for the better.

Of course since then Lydon's increasingly fallen back on his chief career of being a TV personality. He hasn't really made a great album since 1986's 'Album', in fact he hasn't relased anything at all since 1997. Instead his chief occupation has been appearing on TV documentaries about punk in order to put everyone else down. (“Be a punk. Join the army!”) Well, that and advertising butter. He was always entertaining, and somehow you can't help liking the self-aggrandising snotty taunter. But it seemed the more a self-caricature he became, the more often he got hired.

...which is hardly surprising when you come to think about it. Like Damo Suzuki, Lydon has a natural talent but plays no instrument, so is more-than-usual reliant on talented collaborators. Yet he's too egotistical to stick collaborators for long. The better they are, the shorter thy last. Famously he had ejected the bassist from the Pistols, overlooking the small matter of him writing all the music. Then replaced him with Lydon's personal sidekick overlooking the small matter of him not being able to play the bass. That really set the tone for his subsequent career. The classic line-up of Public Image lasted twice as long (ie they made two albums instead of one), but that seems something of a record.

And on the rare days when he did perform, changes in his voice seemed to work as a barometer. Just as he swapped intense glares for gurneying, his sneering put-downs became more elaborate and theatrical, trilling consonants and stretching vowels, like an elocution teacher on bad drugs. Ironically they're in some ways not dissimilar to the Shend's, but it did seem to dampen the threat element and make them more of a self-caricature.

Nevertheless, though he brazenly continued using the name Pil for what were essentially solo albums, announcing he'd 'reform' the band was a signal for those with ears to listen. He'd decided to cut back on the TV punditry for a bit and get serious about music again. The Pistols reformation involved the full original line-up, and I didn't even bother to listen when they played live on the radio. Pil has precisely one original member, Lydon himself, and I bought my ticket as soon as they went on sale.

And they were good. They were really, really good.

Barring the new stuff, 'Metal Box' is the most visited album. In fact early on they launch into the most 'Metal Boxy' of all tracks - 'Albatross.' If it's a more rocky version than the original, it's still a chip off the 'Metal Box' block – in fact it sets the tone for proceedings. While the earlier, punchier numbers lie unplayed, tracks are stretched past any kind of shape or structure. They have the same relationship to songs as instillation pieces do to pictures, they become places to hang out in. 'Flowers of Romance' started life as a single. With this version I started to wonder if the very conception of linear time had been an illusion all along. (Alas they don't play my two favourite tracks from 'Metal Box', 'Poptones' and 'Memories', but it's scarceley a greatest hits set they're doing.)

As 'Metal Box' is the album on which Lydon sings least affectedly, making it's recipe post-dub trance-outs plus emotional intensity, his more recent style of singing doesn't always work out. 'Death Disco' in particular seemed to lack something. Yet had 'Religion' been any more intense, it would most likely have provoked a war.

I am probably doing the show a disservice and giving vent to nostalgia by not saying more about the new songs, which are strong and distinctive. The deranged 'Lollipop Opera', which I'd seen on the TV without quite getting... well it would be wrong to say it made sense but somehow it clicked with me. I found myself wanting to hear the new album, which wasn't something I was expecting. The new band work well together, with the guitar of Lu Edmonds (who's played with the Mekons and 3 Mustaphas 3) particularly notable. (Probably meaning Lydon will fire him first, so get in while you can.)

“We do this because we love doing it,” Lydon tells us before leaving the stage. “Remember that.”

And against all odds, the rentagob persona, the guy who denounced all other punks as fakes while making butter adverts, you find yourself believing him.

Punk was always at it's dullest when it started chasing some spurious credibility, ranting in mockney about being unemployed in a bus shelter or sniffing glue against the system. (The Exploited managed to rant in mockney despite being from Scotland, surely the ultimate in self-caricature.)

Punk was always at its best when it was creative and arch, aiming to stay in rock'n'roll just enough to explode and expose it's absurdities, but mostly heading out of it - into the unexplored. That two bands could come along in a row, both from the classic era of Brit-punk, who are interested in neither the nostalgia circuit nor in holding to some illusory musical fundamentalism... if that's not an encouraging sign, I can't imagine what is.

I should probably link to either a 'Metal Box' or a new track for the customary vidclip, but for no good reason at all instead here's 'Rise'...

In other news... find yourself missing other founder members Keith Levine and Jah Wobble? Wondering, if there can be two competing versions of Hawkwind, why can't there be for Pil? In such a spirit, Levine and Wobble have formed Metal Box in Dub. With the singer from a Pistols tribute band and Levine's Beatles T-shirt, this is surely staged at least in part as a fuck-you to Lydon. (Whose antipathy to the Beatles is legendary.) But the music is... wait for it... genuinely great, and I might even have been tempted to London to see them had I known of it.

There's actually odd similarities to New Pil's take on the tracks, they're not so much re-entacted as used as the basis for bendy, stretchy workouts, less trance-out than the originals, more free-form. And, while Wobble's bass was a key ingredient in the classic band of yore, both are notably guitar-dominated. This is their 'No Birds Do Sing'...

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