Brighton Dome, Sat 7th March
When dance music first showed up on our fair shores, it appeared to have cut quite a separate channel for itself. Attempts to mix it with other music styles just seemed to disrupt its flow, and divert it into some stagnant pool. The charts were awash with attempts to cram it's trance-out tracks into three minute ditties, in the process losing the essence of both dance and pop. This was the period where any old number suddenly found itself re-released with a four-four beat grafted onto it, less a remix than the musical equivalent of a shotgun wedding. While the Madchester scene, the main attempt to marry dance with rock, ended up with Oasis. In an era of tribute acts they were the biggest tribute act of all – a tribute to rock cliches in general rather than to any particular band. It marked a risible return to square one.
But then as we hit the Nineties people finally started to figure out the combination. And as a fan of most of those outfits at the time - the recently-seen Orbital, Leftfield, the Chemical Brothers – it now seems inexplicable that somehow I skipped Underworld. I always took to them when I heard them, but somehow never ended up hearing them that much.
And if 2015 seems a somewhat belated date to catch up with a band from the early Nineties, then better late than never...
Frontman Karl Hyde mentions at one point his “revisiting” his old lyrics. But the term, with it's poetry associations, seems the wrong one for his words. Rather than neat encapsulations of thoughts and feelings they come across as completely stream-of-consciousness. This is most obvious on their best-known track 'Born Slippy', with its torrent of repetitive phrases passing by in an impressionistic blur (“Drive boy dog boy/ Dirty numb angel boy/ In the doorway boy”), images succeeding each other like a film montage. But its pretty much true of all of them. (Hyde has said they're “first-take a lot of the time”.)
And this in-the-moment flow marries much better to the driving beats. Structured lyrics belong with song structures, they'd just interrupt things here. There may be some antecedents in the more free-form end of rock music, for example Patti Smith tracks such as 'Birdland'. But its on-the-beat style seems closer to toasting or MC-ing than regular singing. (And if dance music didn't go in for MCs very much, it was based in other genres which did.)
And speaking of 'Born Slippy' (inevitably saved for the encore)... I tend to think it's to dance music what Black Flag were for hardcore punk – the epitome of a scene thats simultaneously a critique of it. It has the de rigueur sandwich structure of a dance track – pounding beats/trance-out part/back to the beats. But it's less a ecstatic trip to a blissed-out nirvana than a collaged impression of life reduced to a jumble of basic drives and motor functions. With the euphoria comes the derangement, that's how it is. Ironically if the video to the Prodigy's 'Smack My Bitch Up' – widely seen even at the time as a blatant and lame attempt to evoke some push-button notoriety – it might have actually been effective. Hyde has said of the track:
“it's me walking through the streets of Soho trying to get back home to Romford in Essex. I was referring to myself reduced to a piece of meat, due to the fact that I'd drunk too much. The bigger story is that I'm fascinated by the kind of snapshots that one retains when you've had a couple of drinks. These kind of very precise snapshots one has of a little piece of street, of a tape-recorder or of a rubbish bin.....”
(NB A source of pedantry states we should really call this track 'Born Slippy.NUXX'. Just so you know...)
But however great a track this is, perhaps the most memorable moment for me – largely through being so unexpected – parried those electronic beats with a flurry of blues harmonica. At one point the beats fell away and Hyde won a rousing cheer for what was essentially a solo straight out the delta.
All in all, quite splendid stuff. Hi, Underworld. How have you been getting along?
'Born Slippy', inevitably enough, from 6 Music...
The Green Door Store, Brighton, Sun 8th March
Roughly a year after their storming set in this very venue, as further evidence they're not ones to rest on their punk survivor laurels, Alternative TV return equipt with several new tracks. And unlike most bands of this era, the announcing of these doesn't herald a rush to the bar. And yet that wasn't even the most memorable thing about this gig...
I previously commented they played 'Splitting in Two', while bringing together so many different styles of music. Whereas this time they don't play that track, and instead do it.
After the last time, seeing Blyth Power play the following night, Jospeh Porter cheekily enquired if they'd played anything from their 'experimental' second album, 'Vibing Up the Senile Man'. Clearly expecting the answer “no”. The lyric “but the people were still disappointed/ And disjointed” proved prophetic on release, it quickly became notorious and gigs were often halted by glue-sniffin' punks who'd only come for something to pogo to. Yet the answer to his question was that they had. And this time they serve up two sets – purely so they can devote the first one to it.
Not that its all the second album. Some of the new songs get filed in there too. And, allegedly for the first time since '79, they play one of my favourite tracks - 'Fellow Sufferer', with its remoseless tick-tock guitar pattern, like a condemned man striking the days off his cell wall. But the alternative side of Alternative TV is definitely to the fore. The opening line being “the terror is on the radio” (from 'The Radio Story'), I mentally dub the set 'Alternative Radio'. (I'm quick like that, you know.)
At the time Perry described it as influenced by the free jazz of Sun Ra. Tonight, as he slips on his specs to read the lyric sheet, he jokingly compares proceedings to a jazz poetry night. But it always sounds to me more influenced by the space jamming of festival bands like Here and Now. (With whom ATV often toured back in the day, to the point it got harder and harder to remember who was in which band.)
Except, and particularly in this live setting, it retains something of a punk edge – it's intense nonsense, street-level Lewis Carrol, less floating free and more total derangement. The guitars hold rather than play chords, like summoning up a sonic haze, through which other band members emit strange theramin-like sounds from black box gizmos.
And, despite an odd decision for the support band to play between their sets, splitting in two prove effective. The strange stuff is given the space to get stranger, while served in undiluted form the spiky punk stuff gets sharper. I loved both sets. I'm glad they played both. But I guess I loved the first one more. I guess that makes me a radio listener. A punk contrarian.
'The Force is Blind', actually from last year's gig (though they played it both times), is a good demonstration of how the new live versions depart from the old recorded...
...and as I probably haven't said enough about the new songs, let's pick one of them. 'The Visitor'...