Monday 29 July 2013


This story may have already become too poisoned a well to sup from, after a bunch of bullying thugs chose to gang up on campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter. It is galling beyond belief that you should even need to say this. But threatening to rape a woman is pretty much the far frontier of not okay.

But, should it be possible to get back to the main issue, who is it who wants more women on banknotes? What sort of person identifies with banknotes in the first place? For most of us, aren't they things which take way too long to earn, then get pulled out of your fingers far too quickly? Do we actually keep hold of them long enough to start identifying with them?

We're in a time when study after study have shown how the ConDem cuts are having a disproportionately high effect on women. To the point where their class war on the poor could quite legitimately be called a gender war as well. To focus right now on (of all things) banknotes, like they can be seen as our joint property or something, seems bizarre in extremes.

It's a sadly familiar picture. Progressive social movements rightly choose horizontal structures. But despite that formal feature, it's still the privileged elements who come to dominate - with their social and networking skills, their unspoken confidence that they know what's best. The whole group comes to dance to their agenda, often without even noticing.

So how about a more appropriate suggestion for what goes on the British banknote? Let's cut out the arguments by dispensing with people altogether. Instead let's have a series of historical incidents – the great atrocities of the British Empire. The Fiver could kick off with a relatively minor massacre by its standards, such as Jallianwala Bagh where the death toll only hit triple figures. They could then work up to the invention of the concentration camp in the Boer War, which would look princely on the Fifty. Or perhaps we could incorporate the Iraq War, and start off with pound-denomination notes but switch to dollars as they got bigger?

Then, whenever we pulled a note out of our pockets, we could all be reminded where Britain got it's wealth. And wouldn't that just make you proud?

Sunday 28 July 2013


The Haunt, Brighton, Mon 3rd June

Now, in a change of pace, let's look at a longstanding cult band I don't know very well...

The Meat Puppets are now chiefly rememered from the main duo, brothers Cris and Curt Kirwood, contributing to Nirvana's unplugged session. (Perhaps inevitably, Nirvana seemed the more common name on the pre-set audience's mind.) But post-punk chronicler Simon Reynolds cites them as an example (indeed as his favourite example) of a band who were first inspired by punk, but later found they had to escape hardcore's constraints. (They were signed to SST, the label which more than anyone defined hardcore's sound then spent the next few years getting the hell away from it.) What they did next Reynolds calls a “throwback to psychedelia”; he depicts them almost like latter-day Jim Morrisons, soaking up drug-induced visions from the desert.

Since then various members have fought drug problems and done jail time; at last count they've split and reformed twice. Back together since '06 they're now the Kirkwood brothers, Curt's son Elmo on guitar and non-original but repeat member drummer Shandon Sahmn.

The first half of the set is given over to hard-hitting country rock, the stuff which sometimes got dubbed cowpunk. It's a pretty virtuous combination. They play with hardcore's energy but with country's rootedness and scope. Then gradually more free-form instrumentals start to seep in, the three guitarists sometimes forming a circle to better capture the harmonics, microphones forgotten. I'm not sure any of it sounds psychedelic exactly, but it can get pretty out-there. At one point Curt grabs and pulls at his strings rather than play them.

But best of all those points never seem like breaks. It's unlike the noise rock sound of Sonic Youth or Big Black, an urban scene which was also urbane. Even with Neil Young (who they in some ways resemble) there's a feeling of instrumental sections being inserted into previously existing songs. Here they seem to spring from the music quite organically. It all stays rooted, even as it shoots off into outer space.

And the band come over pretty much like that in personality. The brothers look so much like mechanics from some backwater gas station I wondered if there'd been some wires-crossed booking, and there were simultaneously some guys in leather trousers and poodle perms hopelessly staring at a pickup engine out in Arizona. They have the same blue-collar, getting-the-job-done attitude as the Melvins. (Perhaps they talk to us slightly more. But then the Melvins didn't talk to the audience at all...)

For a band that's been around so long, they seemed to attract a suprisingly young audience. Who seemed to soak up the spacier stuff, if not the slower moments.

Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 8th June

As you know already so I don't know why I'm bothering to tell you, Viv Albertine was the guitarist in the seminal all-girl punk band The Slits. (A band much beloved here at Lucid Frenzy.) Recently, after years working as a TV director, she re-started her music career.

She refuses use of a (very Spinal Tap-like) dry ice machine by explaining they're “an edgy band”. She's kidding, but it's not such a bad description. They're based in the spiky sound of those post-punk days. Imagine pop songs as pop drinks, only laced with something more chemical. But perhaps the coolest thing is the lack of any Slits shadow over them. (There's not a single cover version, nor any dub influence. About the only connection is the female genitalia reference in the acronym.)

There's another point where, introducing the song 'Needles', she tells us she once claimed it was about heroin but had to come clean and admit it was really UVF. As I've said many times before, life is too short to spend it trying to recapture your youth. Singing about what's current in your life, but based on what you've done before, seems a better way to go.

In which case I should probably prefer Viv's approach to the time Ari Up reformed the Slits. But while what she's doing is certainly braver, and this is certainly a better set than their last time in Brighton (when about half the gig felt like warm-up), I'm not quite sure I could say that. It's good stuff, it's very good stuff and I might well see her again. Perhaps it is simply the wrong idea to compare the two, and you should love each for its unique features. But Ari seemed able to retain more of the reckless, barely-in-control spirit of old.

'I Don't Believe In Love' from London...

The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 25th June

Next up, a psychedelic band from Austin, Texas. Home, of course, to so much vintage psychedelia back in the day. And at times they seem to draw from that heritage. (They have for example, played with Roky Erickson of the Elevators.) But it's a particular well they're drawing from. They do have occasional forays into the world of retro-Sixtiesism, with swirling organ sounds and the odd shaken tambourine. At times there's even a discernible surf element, though who knows how far the nearest beach would be from Austin.

But mostly I am pleased to report they choose to sup from the poisoned well, conjouring Altamont more than Woodstock. (The clip below is called 'Bad Vibrations', which gives you a pretty good clue what they're up to.) Eerily underlit, like schookids telling ghost stories, they serve up lumbering riffs with twangy guitar overlays. A general mood of ominousness can break out into shitstorms of noise. Those riffs even suggest at a Fifties influence, the ghosts of Link Wray and Duane Eddy.

They wait for the encore before filling it with the longest and most involved track of the night; starting with just organ and vocals, then gradually ratcheting up into sheer white noise terror.

They certainly seem popular. The venue was rammed, the fullest of any of my recent visits. And everyone except me seemed to know each track as soon as it started up. I'd be tempted to call them "very good indeed", but that might be insufficiently Americanised. So instead I'll say they're "like totally awsome, bro".

In truth, the only thing I can really find to criticise is their name. Admittedly it's fitting and it's based not only on a Velvets song but one of my favourite ones. And Nico makes for a cool icon on their logo. But there's the rub! This growing tendency to name your band after a track by an existing band can feel like duplication. It's like those “then try this” sections on internet shopping sites, it's the re-enactment attitude to music that reaches it's nadir in Oasis' smudged photofit of the Beatles and Stones.

The irony being that, while they are perhaps one of the more openly influenced bands of my recent gig-going, Black Angels certainly aren't mere copyists and shouldn't be named as though they are. More soon! But better-named more.

Not from Brighton but London. 

And if you like that you may like this – a full set from Rockpalast. Haven't got round to watching all of this myself yet to be honest. Let me know if it's any good, would you?

The Haunt, Brighton, 1st July

“We're a band that takes a while to get going”, explains drummer Peter Prescott during a break. He leaves a pause before finishing the gag. “Like about thirty years.”

The jury' still out on how much he was joking. This Boston-based post-punk band had an all-too-brief heyday, producing one classic full-length album ('Vs' in '82), before splitting and being reconciled with... you guessed it... cult status.

True, they had a better excuse to bow out than most. Guitarist Roger Miller suffered increasingly from Tinnitis, a condition little accommodated by their characteristic blistering volume. (YouTube footage of later gigs show him resorting to rifle-range noise-cancelling headphones.) Pretty soon he had no choice but to go off and do something less noisy instead. Tonight he seems chiefly protected by a thicket of hair which, combined with the gap of time, leaves him almost unrecognisable.

From the days of Lennon and McCartney, classic bands are often powered by the creative frisson of two opposite but complementary creators. Bassist Clint Conley's songs tended to the doomy cool and anthemic thunder of the era, an East Coaster with ears out to England. While Miller's contributions tended more towards shredded noise. They marked the era when sonic assault and musical experimentalism seemed almost comrades in arms, and were part of the direction Fugazi, Sonic Youth and Big Black would take music. (There's Burma tracks which sound almost like Fugazi, years before Fugazi existed.)

Except with Mission of Burma there was in quite a literal sense an extra dimension. If George Martin could be claimed as the fifth Beatle, there is a far more clear-cut case for the fourth Mission member. Martin Swope would tape their live gigs, manipulate the sound and then feed it back even as they continued playing. Tonight, and since their '02 reunion, he's replaced by their only non-original member – Bob Weston. (Who charmingly if eccentrically still insists on using the loops and effects technology from the period.) Prescott has commented “we wanted to play this hammer-down drony noise stuff, but we also wanted another sound in there.”

Their single 'Trem Two'(above) pictured each band member, but superimposed over one another. And a better visual metaphor for the sound couldn't be found. Think not so much of 3D films as they are but as they're marketed. The music is loud and upfront, with plenty of attack to it. But it also has a kind of waterline behind that, beneath which lurk murky sonic depths, only half discernible.

The tape effects are particularly haunting when vocals are fed back while no-one's actually singing. But perhaps they become most evident at the end of the main set. In the traditional manner of the era, guitars were left against amps to create a howlaround. Except this was then taken up and treated. It was less a tape effects solo, more a mini noise symphony.

You may well be waiting to find what ignorant of this time round. Well I'd have to admit to being woefully unfamiliar with their post-reunion recordings. Yet I'm still kind of glad these dominated the set, even if they elbowed out some of my favourite numbers. They didn't mark any appreciable dip in quality. And they mark a band trading in music, not in nostalgia.

If there was a weakness, it was probably the one alluded to in the opening. Slightly chaotic gigs, with long gaps between songs, were commonplace in that era while distinctions between performance and rehearsal were scant. As Conlin comments jokingly “at least you know it's not manufactured”. And they keep to once-common-now-forgotten rules, such as rejecting set lists to make each gig unique and fresh. But then was then, and too much stalling spoils the supper, or however that saying goes. Could we not strike a bit more of a happy medium between professionalism and spontaneity?

But that minor grumble aside... overall, a legend that still lives.

This clip is handy in epitomising their sound by serving up a Miller and then a Conley track...

The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 20th July

Once described by a reliable source of gossip as a “folk-influenced experimental rock band”, Akron/Family are perhaps chiefly known for doubling up as Michael Gira's backing band Angels of Light when he's not busy reforming Swans. And in yet another sign of how little I actually know about culty music, despite having written about Swans not once but twice, I don't really know Angels of Light at all. But then that seemed all the more reason to finally check these guys out...

Let's start with the hardest to miss – the bass player. (Who, in our standard police parlance, I now know to be Miles Seaton.) Despite dressing ex-military, bearing the most stern of beard from a very stern set of beards and never breaking into such a thing as a smile, he effectively becomes the master of ceremonies. Possessed of that American outgoingness, he's forever encouraging us to overcome our English reserve and cut loose. He managed to get going a crowd singalong, substantial enough for the band to break off for a bit. The sort of thing bands can end gigs with. Here it happened in the second number. This clearly isn't going to be one of those “meh” gigs, where you're thinking about which bus to get home during the encore. This is going to be a gig you respond to, one way or the other.

It wouldn't be quite right to say they took off where the Meat Puppets left off, in our new 'post-rock' world. But let's go with the neatness of that anyway. There's the same sense of roots, though perhaps more in folk than in country. There's the same breadth of style, from achingly beautiful melodies to double-guitar assaults to full-on noise. (Though I called Seaton the bassist earlier, the band swap instruments with impunity. At one point they collectively join in on the drumming.) Like a weather system, the styles alternately replace and subsume one another – breaks of sunshine opening up into downpours.

But most of all there's the same effortless naturalness to it, the lack of any sense of self-conscious eclecticism – a feeling of just doing it.

It's also reminiscent of the apocalyptic folk of Bonnie Prince Billy, like now we're in the end days music's role is to soundtrack it. You keep thinking this must be the last number, as each track mounts to the point it seems impossible to follow. Yet when the gig finally ends it does it the way it began, with a stripped-back ballad, Seaton singing eyes half-closed.

None of my analogies really fit, to be honest. At the end of the day, they pretty much just sound like Akron/Family. If that's not an endorsement, I don't know what is..

Not sure anything from this gig made it onto YouTube. Instead, here's a full twenty-two minutes of them from Minneapolis, earlier this year...

Coming Soon! Would you believe it? More gig-going adventures...

Sunday 21 July 2013


Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, 20th June

Body/Head are the main post-Sonic Youth project of Kim Gordon, featuring noise stalwart Bill Nace on guitar and Ikue Mori on drums and electronics. (Ex of fabled no-wave pioneers DNA, in apparantly her first live performance for a quarter century.) Though Mori is apparantly not a permanent member they seem keen to be seen as an ensemble with their logo image (above) fusing Gordon's head with Nace's. It was notable how, unlike Thursten Moore's sold-out Meltdown appearance, the title 'Body/Head' did not automatically equate to ticket sales and Gordon's name was made a more and more prominent subhead as booking time went on.

Perhaps through a combination of longevity and a sustained existence on the periphery of the mainstream, Sonic Youth often felt like one of those barometer bands. Faces which would turn blank at many other names would at least know of them, and be blown away from quizzing you any further by thought of that squall of noise. It became a mark of The Sort of Gigs I Go To that at least one person would show up sporting the celebrated Pettibon cover to 'Goo' on their T-shirt.

But, despite being a longstanding fan, I was one of the few people I knew to think K-Punk's infamous diatribe did have some kind of a point. Suggesting they spearheaded the “conversion of experimental rock into part of the heritage industry” may fit his own description of “deliberately provocative”. And 'curatorial' is probably too strong a term. But there was always something cerebral, even hipsterish about them. They'd attack guitars with screwdrivers, but in a semi-detached way that made them cool to like. Which sometimes seemed to bypass the really cool thing about music – the way it can come straight from the gut. In short, they were lucid without always being frenzied.

And while I wouldn't want to make some “who gets the fans” issue out of Moore and Gordon's recent divorce, I do associate that downside more with... well, with Moore. I never, alas, saw the full band in action. But I saw a solo Gordon gig early in the Noughties, which I much enjoyed. While the year Moore headlined Colour Out of Space... well, it led to another sold-out crowd but let's say it wasn't for me.

I'd mentally compared the earlier Gordon gig to a charcoal sketch; broad, gestural strokes against a pop song's tight pen-and-ink drawing, all neat composed lines. And Body/Head reproduced that rawness. Two guitars (no bass) played dissonantly atop throbbing drums. One tended to build up rumbling sounds, as if measuring out an expanse of canvas for the other to draw over. (Often in screechy high register, Velvet Underground style.) It's neat the way they don't abandon song structures so much as press them into service, even during the vocal sections - which seem on the border between sung and chanted.

Yoko Ono, this year's Meltdown curator, joined in for the encore. And while she may dance like your Granny at a wedding, her much-mocked waily vocals actually work well with the guitar cacophony. I was reminded, in a good way, of the often-skipped second side of 'Live Peace in Toronto'.

Yet despite the unarguable highlights it somehow feels half full. It's hard to pin down what's missing, but it never quite gets going. We had the derangement of the senses, just not in a systematic fashion. It was like one of those camp fires which will roar into flame but fall back into embers the next moment. It had the feel of a rehearsal in both the good and the bad sense – raw and immediate, but also rough-edged and uneven. And, while it may have just been me, I felt the accompanying filmshow (about Manhattanite loft-dwellers and their art projects) distracting and uninvolving. In the end, I tuned out of looking at it.

After a fairly short set the audience applause felt less than hearfelt, encouraging as much as appreciative – as if our way of saying “keep going, you nearly had it.” Keep going they didn't, at least that night. But watch this space...

Keeping to the family theme, support act Mystical Weapons were an impro duo of Deerhoof's Greg Saunier and no less than Sean Lennon. Though this did suffer from the familiar highs-and-lows syndrome of impro music, highs it did have and it certainly made 'Beautiful Boy' feel a damn long time ago...

That encore, complete with added Yoko Ono...

...and more Body/Head from Belgium, complete wiTH stRange CasiNg fOr sOME rEAson i Don'T unDERstaNd... (They sound like a different band without Mori, with abrasive and dirgy guitar lines taking up the rhythm role. To be frank they sound a considerably better one. Maybe the downsides of London just mark an off night.)

Clore Ballroom, South Bank Centre, London, 20th June

Perhaps these London boys play best at home, because I found myself enjoying them even more than when they recently played Brighton. And, in another perhaps, perhaps having just seen Kim Gordon directed my thinking. But they did seem like a contemporary psychedelic version of Sonic Youth – with a seemingly limitless ability to conjure strange sounds out of familiar-looking guitars, combined with an unerring ability to press the strangeness into the service of driving rock numbers. (Though they also use more dub effects than I remember from before.)

A free gig on a week night in central London, that must be a recipe for a pick-up audience. If so, they turned that pick-up audience into clamouring fans and had their endless energy fed back to them.

Not a band to miss live.

Blind Tiger Club, Brighton, Tues 28th May

Anti-folk artist Jeffrey Lewis is back in town! And he's telling us it's been a decade since he first played here. And indeed, if I'd been together enough to review him in the previous post on the cult gigs as I intended, I'd have had an act for every decade down from four to one. (I do just throw this show together, you know.) I honestly can't remember if I was present at that inaugural occasion, but I have now seen him more times than I can count.

But this is of course as nothing to co-star Peter Stampfel, whose first album with the Holy Modal Rounders came out in 1964. In a phrase I don't get to use very often nowadays, that's before I was born. In yet another demonstration of how little I actually know about cult music, they're not a band I'm familiar with at all. However I do know him through his early involvement with the Fugs, and the Rounders seem pretty much chips cast from the same block. Which was, protest war and petition society by growing your hair, playing weird music and annoying people. But not necessarily in that order.

Though Stampfel has guested on Lewis recordings before, this is the first time they've collaborated. It's a more folky sound than when Lewis plays with the Junkyard, with Stampfel on fiddle, a mandolin joining in and the bass as the only electric instrument. The numbers seem oriented mostly around old Stampfel tracks or what I'd guess to be new numbers they've worked on together. Frequently they head into jug band/ hoedown territory. I recognise precisely one track the whole night long, 'Don't Be Upset'. (On which Stampfel was blatantly winging the fiddle part.) Then again, that's not all that unusual for a Lewis gig, which often take flight in their own chosen direction.

It's a typically eclectic night, with tracks about reality TV stars and Stampfel's (apparently vast) collection of bottle caps. (The last with accompanying slideshow.) When one number mentions orgones Lewis comments “there's only one other song about orgones” - and yes they really do go on to cover Hawkwind's 'Orgone Accumulator'! (Always a way to a middle-aged man's heart.) Stampfel fills in Dik Mik's synthesizer parts with scatting vocals.

Consciously or not, the generation-spanning line-up seems befitting for the folk tradition. And it's kind of mirrored by its audience, who range from us Hawkwind-recognising oldies to the young Occupy/UK Uncut mob. Lewis segues effortlessly from celebrating Pussy Riot's punk spirit (“I'll ask me and you ask you, what would Pussy Riot do?”) to indulging absurdist deadpan humour. When not on stage, he staffs his own stall selling his comics and self-burnt CDs. It's official. If he didn't exist we really would have to make him up.

This clip medley is from their home base in New York City, but just prior to this tour of Europe...

Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 25th May

Uneven Eleven,” it says here, “is a startling new initiative, injecting the ‘ROCK POWER TRIO’ with a new dose of artistic expression, creativity and freedom.” They're comprised of Kawabata Makota, guitarist from psychedelic warlords Acid Mothers Temple, drummer Charles Hayward (chiefly famed for post-punk legends This Heat), and bassist Guy Segers from Univers Zero. (Who, if I'm honest, I had to Wikipedia.)

...which couldn't sound more like a supergroup if it had been bitten by a radioactive spider as a bat flew in the window on the way from planet Krypton. Now supergroups might sound like the last thing you'd expect from our sort of music. They sound not just the preserve but the worst excess of the muso. And yet, despite it all, sometimes they can come together into a virtuous combination. This were not the musical equivalent of three circus acrobats who happened to be tumbling on stage simultaneously, but three guys who you could believe had been playing together their whole lives. (While I believe it was only their second ever performance.)

This was quite definitely one of the most inspirational gigs of recent months, and I would love to sound all smart and sophisticated and analytical. But to be honest I spent the whole thing in a state of stupefied awe. If they reminded me of anything else, and I'm not sure they did, it was the extended workouts Levene and Wobble (aka Metal BoxIn Dub) were recently giving to classic Public Image tracks. Makota's guitar frequently took on some of Levene's textured harmonics.

But that doesn't really capture their breadth. They didn't sound much like Miles Davis, but they reminded me of that spirit. They had the same caveliar disregard for constraint, the same sense of ceaseless invention, throwing up not just new themes but whole new sounds - and discarding them just as quickly. And yet at the same time it remained tuneful throughout and mostly beat-driven, never chin-stroking or pondersome. Music for brain and body!

YouTube seems sadly silent on footage not just from Brighton but the UK tour in general. This is an all-too-brief snippet from Cafe Oto in London... (Guy Segers himself is in the comments asking for more!)

...fortunately there's more from Brussels, aGAin wiTH tHe UNeven capiTaLISatIOns. (This is but one of several parts.)

The Gladstone, Brighton, Fri 14th June

Despite high enjoyment levels I'm not sure I have much to say that is fresh or new about Blyth Power after the last time I saw them. Yet as this gig precipitated a massive Blyth Power listening session on the House of Four Eyes' home stereo system, they should surely at least receive mention in dispatches.

Though if memory serves I only saw them once back in the day, the clip below was like some crappy VHS footage version of a Proustian cake which brought the whole era back to me. When life consisted almost entirely of boisterous gigs to attend, spilt cider, ripped combats, no-Gods-no-masters and not forgetting to sign on alternate Thursdays. Did we dance like that? I suppose we must have...

Coming soon! More gig-going adventures. (We seemed to go through a glut of great gigs, so yes there is more equally out-of-date stuff still to come. Same lucid time, same frenzied channel...)

Saturday 13 July 2013


The only previous Ben Wheatley film I've seen, almost certainly through my own erring, is 'Kill List'. I was full of good intentions over catching 'Sightseers', yet alas it didn't come to be. But I was keener still to catch this latest release. I've always regarded the English Revolution as one of the more fascinating periods of our history. That our culture so often tries to sideline it only makes it more enticing. And I've always loved the cinema of the old, weird England, which is quite clearly being referenced here. (One review has described this film as “'Witchfinder General' as imagined by Alejandro Jodorowsky.”) Though I call it a cinema, it's possibly more a mood than a style. It's the mixture of the deadpan and hallucinatory, the clods of earth clinging to your feet and the Devil breathing down your back.

And it's heartening to know, in this era of CGI, 3D and all those other expense-inducing acronyms, that you can still shoot a film in black-and-white in less than two weeks, featuring five guys and a field. A film I'm likely to remember long after those tributes to excess that otherwise clogged our summer.

It is most likely merciful that I'm not offering a proper review of this film, for I'd surely get as waylaid as the characters within it. It's one of those films you know you want to see again before you've even finished your first watch. But as a very provisional stab at things – the mushroom circle is the primary metaphor. What we see isn't a causal series of events but an iteration – something which has probably happened before and will almost certainly happen again.

Though in many ways at variance from 'Kill List', it does share it's roots in the horror cinema of the Sixties and Seventies – and in particular the God-shaped hole which they seemed to focus on. (The paradox of such films was that they were aimed at a modern, sophisticated, secular audience, yet seemed pitched to warn that audience that things had almost literally gone to the Devil. They must make for some of the bleakest world-views in mainstream cinema.) 'Kill List' suggested socialisation was the same thing as damnation. 'Field' warns that we can defeat the Devil only by usurping him.

But of course to find fixed readings for such films would be the same error as trying to force on them linear plots. They're journeys not destinations. Their most clueless critique is “if you like it so much, try explaining what it means.” Of course you can like something without understanding it! There may well be no treasure at the bottom of it's pit, there may be “only shadows”, but it can still exist as a potent framing device in your mind. I felt as mesmerised in that mushroom-ringed field as any of the characters.

Something nearer to a proper review lies here.

Sunday 7 July 2013


The latest in a series where I write about cult acts, the stuff of which is known only to the very smart and sophisticated, in such a way to reveal I know very little about any of it. We start with...

Barbican, London, Sat 18th May

“Holding up the underground since 1972, the Residents celebrate four decades of unbridled creativity, sex, shrugs and anti-rock 'n' roll.”

...which is the way this outfit get described by the Barbican brochure. And not so bad an attempt, though they came up with something snappier themselves, in the classic track 'Saw Song' - “Sugar melts and goes away/ But vinegar lasts forever.”

Perhaps the cult act beyond all cult acts, the Residents have a selective and highly dedicated fanbase. Of which I'm not really a member. Truth to tell, I only really know their lengthy output through snapshots. So please bear in mind that if what follows appears to be a partial picture... well there's a reason for that.

When they finally come to write the history of music, the Residents will require a double entry. They're featured pride of place in Simon Reyolds' 'Rip It Up And Start Again' - as post-punk before there was post punk, one of the stem cells from which everything grew. They worked within the body of rock 'n' roll like cancer cells, mutating their host to their own nefarious ends with the ultimate aim of killing it off. They'd insist on it's links with the wider entertainment industry, and with corporate control in general. They'd concoct music like the distorted reflections of pop tunes or advertising jingles. Their mood was pitched at the point where clowns turn sinister.

The signature of that approach was their most iconic image – the eyeball in the top hat, music hall performance given a surrealist make-over. (Over a third of the audience must have had that emblem on their T-shirt.) Though as they mention during the gig, they first intended a new look and concept for each release. The eyeball just stuck - like the Doctor's Tardis stayed a Police box.

And, as that anecdote might suggest, they also acted as a Babbage engine for multi-media. Their music didn't exist to represent their personalities (to this day their true identities remain an official secret), but as an element in the service of an overall concept – alongside the packaging, the performance and (at times) accompanying computer games and comics. Wikipedia describe them, less snappily but perhaps more accurately, as “an American art collective best known for avant-garde music and multimedia works.” On stage, they make a running joke of their tendency to pioneer technologies which just as soon became obsolete, and stage lavish stage spectacles which won them much in the way of audience acolades and letters of final demand.

The band themselves toyed with the ultra-conceptual notion that you shouldn't hear them, but only hear of them. If the schtick of many a band is legend-as-concept, with the group themselves merely a peg on which to pin tales, the Residents formalised the notion into their Theory of Obscurity. If the promise is almost always better than the prize, why not just go with that? They have only explicitly devoted one recording to this theory ('Not Available', which is... oh, you guessed). But by implication it applies to all of them.

But I also had less philosophical concerns. I have sometimes suspected that their second approach came to over-ride their first, more-than-music replacing anti-music, which at times led to the music becoming no more than a neutral delivery system. There were points where they resorted to flat, repeated musical lines – the equivalent of blank verse in an epic poem. I also feared that this fortieth anniversary gig might tip the balance from 'cult' to 'insider', like everyone else was on episode 37 of a series and I'd be struggling to catch up.

As it was, the occasion led to a retrospective 'greatest misses' set, which even started with a film show. (Like the “previously” intro on running TV shows.) Being the Residents, just as we were finally reaching summer, they gave the show an Xmas special theme, with inflatable Santas and styrofoam snow. (Ostensibly to celebrate their first single 'Santa Dog'.) Beyond this, it was a surprisingly straightforward in structure, with the trio (as the anti-fab four now are) mostly playing from a career-spanning set-list.

Probably the main exception to this was front-man Randy's recurrent impersonation of a down-at-heel has-been. You could see the intention - to sabotage both rock theatrics and their own cult status, by suggesting that was just a consolation prize for being unsuccessful. And it was at points genuinely funny, such as his showing the front row pictures of his cat from his phone. But in truth it did get over-laboured before the night was through.

Musically it was in some ways reminiscent of Tom Waits; a gruff lead vocalist, intoning over beats seemingly hewn by troglodites. But, perhaps due to the lack of a live drummer, there's also something mechanised to the sound – like one of those sideshow machines which spark up at the klunk of a penny. There were outbreaks of guitar heroics, though ironically the two instrumental pieces were much more inventive.

Before the gig I was filled with a strange slosh of fears and expectations, combined with an absence of knowing quite what was afoot. I'm not completely sure I left feeling very much different. I was glad to be there and see for my own eyes that vinegar really does last forever. And there was much to enjoy along the way. But I suspect if I was to ever try to catch up with their output I'd start at the beginning rather than forty years in.

'Hanging By His Hair'...

...followed by a half-hour chunk of their New York gig (which inevitably enough starts with the same track)...

Brighton Dome, Wed 22nd May

...and on the subject of long-lasting cult acts I know of more than I know, here's a younger sibling that have clocked up thirty years. Though I've pretty much always enjoyed their music when I've heard it, like many before what enticed me to see the Flaming Lips was the tales of their great stage show. Indeed, they're popularly cited as a band to see before you die. (In a list which seems to have originated in 'Q' magazine, but don't let that deter you.)

...which indeed it is. The stage set resembles that famous still from 'Evil Of The Daleks', to the point where I'm not even sure which illo it is I'm pasting here. It's a cross between an eye-candy fairground attraction and Dr. Frankenstein's lab; flickering cables are strewn across the stage, like live wires pulsing with energy. Front man Wayne Coyne stands in some futuristic jumpsuit atop a glittering dome, looking like a spaceship commander.

Virtually every track is given its own visual signature, including light shows so bright and inventive that at times I felt I was back at the Hayward's 'Light Show' exhibition. Twice, cannons threw a welter of black confetti up to the ceiling. As the Dome is... well, domed of ceiling this flew so high the band exulted in how long it took to fall. The subsequent night, back to the same venue to see the Tiger Lillies, I swear I saw a single piece of it still fluttering.

However, unlike a band like Bellowhead I never felt the Flaming Lips to be a show with a band attached. The inventive visual effects enhance the music, not plaster themselves over it like the special effects from some Hollywood blockbuster. Besides, there's the inherent connection between pop music and pop art. Pop music isn't there to enable chin-stroking on 'Late Review', it's role in life is to be absurd, spectacular and attention-grabbing. Asked if his stage moves weren't gimmicks, Hendrix replied “it's all gimmicks, man. Napalm's a gimmick.” He was right.

Pressed for a label for their music, I might plump for psychedelic pop. Songs tend to be pulsing beats fronted by pop hooks or else slow, sumptuous and almost orchestral in arrangement – grandiose and self-avowedly absurd in equal measure. The high-register vocals can make them sound like the Bee Gees for Futurists. Their references are Sixties psychedelic classics like 'Sergeant Pepper' and 'Forever Changes'. A key element of that music's appeal is the blending of musical sophistication with a sense of childlike innocence, to the point where you stop being able to tell whether it was made by someone very smart or someone very simple. Most of their imitators fail to capture this juxtaposition, but play with the plasticine until it all goes one colour. (Think of the insipidity of a biteless band like ELO.)

But it's all here. Their sound is almost perfectly captured by the SF pulp art that adorns many of their album covers – check out 'Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots' below. The cityscapes are gleaming but also have an endearingly na├»ve quality. While such imagery is often airbrushed, here you can even pick out the paint strokes.

Except there's a twist. Actually, it's more of a de-twist. Both 'Sergeant Pepper' and 'Forever Changes' give their psychedelia a sinister underbelly. They come complete with their own shadows, like Woodstock cut with Altamont. The Flaming Lips, meanwhile, are in just about every sense based around light. A key moment comes when they cover Pink Floyd's 'Breathe'. Though rooted in Sixties psychedelia, Floyd had by that point stopped even a nodding acquaintance with optimism. Yet when Coyne presents us with his positive spin on the lyrics (“seize the day, motherfuckers!”), it sounds almost convincing. This euphoric sense the band convey is perhaps best summed up by the lyric “do you realise that happiness makes you cry?”

If the form of their music is Sixties psychedelia, this uplifting feel seems to have more in common with Nineties music. The nearest band in tone I've seen of late is perhaps Orbital. (Though the band formed in '83 and their classic trilogy, 'Soft Bulletin', 'Yoshimi' and 'At War With the Mystics', almost entirely post-date the Nineties, 1999/2006. These things almost never work out neatly.)

Okay having established 'Q' magazine were for once right, and belatedly caught up with the Flaming Lips, what's the next release to go for after the big trilogy mentioned above?

Their cover of Bowie's 'Heroes' from the night... the classic 'The WAND' from Jools Holland, adorned by giant hands, aliens and an army of Father Christmases...

Brighton Dome, Thurs 23rd May

”Now in this land of ice 

We pay for every vice 

Frozen in the snow 

Each pleasure it goes”

For the past two decades, the self-described “criminal castrati and his accordion driven anarchic Brechtian street opera trio” have donned the devil-clown make-up to serve cabaret music to the punk generation - singing of debauchery and damnation (usually in that order) with humour so black scientists were known to mistake it for dark matter.

This time, they've moved on from Brecht and Hoffmann to bring us the UK premiere of Colderidge's ballad 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner.' Cabaret songs are my nature diegetic; someone stands up and sings you a story. (Normally starting with a line like “shut up you rabble, I'm singing you a story.”) But this is a song cycle, which instead draws you into a world, which in about every sense takes you on a journey - and the musical palette is by necessity drawn more widely.

Front-man Martyn Jacques still employs his patented strangulated falsetto, but there's as many numbers when he takes to the piano and positively croons. I often found myself reminded, in a good way, of Anthony and the Johnsons. Musical backing can vary as widely, for one number the accompaniment is a theramin and the snipping of a pair of scissors. The whole grand conceit sweeps you up and carries you onboard as their ship of ruin sets sail.

It's a maturation in style. The track 'Cabin Boys', about doing unspeakable things to cabin boys and ending up in an unspeakable place, is such a classic old-style number it almost feels out of place. Maturations are often that way. Like watching children grow, you welcome the greater sophistication but can't help miss the old infant exuberance at the same time.

It's not really clear how much of Coleridge's cosmology is in there, his Death and the corollary Night-mare Life-in-Death have their vacancies filled by a Goth queen of a Death Maiden. At times you suspect the band are simply strip-mining the poem for imagery. But then again, while I do feel a certain attachment to Coleridge's original schema, why get hung up on it? Victoriana can be arcane and even if they are strip-mining, they do seem to be coming up with rich seams of the stuff...

The performance is accompanied by animations by Mark Holthusen, who should perhaps be regarded as a fourth member of the troupe. Though these can include live actors, his scenes are deliberately kept theatrical – as if modelled on theatre flats. The albatross soars and clouds float on drawn-on-strings. This makes then appear almost like ghost images, not presences on stage but moments conjured up by the tale.

A transparent gauze screen before the band allows for projections to (if you'll forgive the nautical metaphor) their fore and aft. This can make them appear as if embedded in an environment, such as bobbing in a sea.

But at a few points the fore-screens become a little too busy. Particularly when they involve human figures, they can distract from the band rather than accompany them. At such points, if Holthusen appears a troupe member, it's one who's always insisting its time for him to take his solo.

Perhaps it's become almost too easy to take up this multimedia malarkey. Where once every addition involved painstaking hours of expenditure, nowadays the computer can just keep on with the embellishments and the challenge has become to keep it sparing. Had, for example, the fore-screens been held back on until the leviathan arrived to fill them – that would have made for a breathtaking moment.

It would seem almost damning with faint praise to call this the highlight of this year's Brighton Festival. The SineadO'Connor and Flaming Lips gigs, part of ongoing tours, only really seemed formal Festival events, and the rest of it made for something of a fallow year.

But then again – it was! Watching it, I got the same tingling sense of lucking in, of being at a special event, as I'd previously done at 'Live_Transmission' and 'The Passion of Joan of Arc.' An ambitious work which... sound-bite coming up... definitely does not end up as the band's albatross!

A general intro...

...followed by 'Living Hell'...

Coming soon! More hopelessly late gig reviews. Shortly followed by some other hopelessly late stuff...