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...

No comments:

Post a Comment