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Friday, 30 March 2012

Oh, you pretty things; or what happened when goths came down from the trees and told patronising 2012-ers that they were know-nothing, do-nothing fools

“The tenant stares and shakes with fear / His stage is set his time is drawing near / Act complete as he hits the floor / The crowd roar and some scream for more / The darkness breaks but still the pull is very strong / Two eyes meet the patients dream runs on and on / The tenant - The tenant / The tenant - he waits…”

The Tenant! Ah, yes. Remember the good old days of goth rock? Moody dancing to Play Dead, Flesh For Lulu or … er, Alien Sex Fiend? Hang on … isn’t that Killing Joke’s Eighties starting up? (Excited ripple amongst the crimped-hair crew at the bar, little squeals of delight out on the dry-ice-fringed dance floor.)

Yes, fabulous stuff. But so easy to mock (even I’m doing it). Actually, I’m here to stand up for the goth and all his/her crimes against music, clothing and make-up. The goth-mocking has been going on for far too long and it’s got to stop! A confession: I like all things gothic. Literature, buildings, people who wear massive built-up boots made out of PVC and steel bolts. Great!  The music? Well, I’m a little equivocal there, but read on ...

Killing Joke's early-80s floor-filler 

Actually, I think it’s a pity that the odd goth couple you might see sashaying down the street in their long leather coats seem to be a slowly dying breed (dead, undead!). Near-uniformity and near-conformity in matters of appearance have long since returned and currently there’s … nowhere near enough make-up being worn by men.

In 1984, for example, it was perfectly possibly for a bunch of straight (well, straight-ish) young men to go out for the night wearing (at least) the following: eye-liner, white face powder and ear rings. Other likely adornments could be dyed, crimped hair, cheap leather trousers and pointed pixie boots. Voila! A pretty androgynous entity. Pretty and androgynous. The provincial would-be Batcavers no doubt fancied themselves as little Pete Murphys or mini-Andi Sex Gangs and (like me) ended up looking like what they were: cheap and cheerful clones out on the town for a night of taken-very-seriously post-punk fun. But the ambition was there. Sort of.

It seems to me that now, in our oh-so-liberated, super-self-satisfied present, this kind of “cross-dressed” gender reworking is pretty rare, at least as part of any large-ish music scene. Gigs, these days, are pretty “straight” affairs in all senses. They could do with camping it up if you ask me …

Lon Chaney wants a piece of the goth action

Anyway, the music. It’s had a thorough trashing for years now. I recall John Peel speaking about The Cult (as they then were, I think), and saying - in one of his characteristically pre-scripted constructions - that he was planning to take all the records he owned by the band, “grind them down and use the ground-down material to re-surface the driveway”. Yeah, OK John, I get it. By the mid-eighties Peel was laying into The Mission and their ilk every week. I think he was excessive and semi-showing off, but I also take (and at the time took) his point. Band’s like The Sisters Of Mercy were quite limited. They made a couple of OK records but that was about it. (In the interests of research whilst writing this excellent new post you’re reading I’ve just given Play Dead’s The First Flower LP a little spin on my stereogram and it’s my duty to tell you … it’s pretty weak stuff. Sorry). No, the whole scene was overblown, semi-commercialised by mags like Zig Zag and the ever-excitable NME, saw zillions of discos in every town centre trying to cash in with “Goth” or “Alternative” nights, and actually produced … not very much memorable music.

For what it’s worth, the music I rate is the not-quite-goth stuff like Bauhaus, The Cure, The Birthday Party, plus - to be fair - one or two things from The Danse Party or Sex Gang Children. (Also “weird” off-shoots like The Very Things work for me, or associated sounds like The Cocteau Twins). Recently, bands like O Children, The Vile Imbeciles, The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster and Neil’s Children have reworked some elements of the goth-rock sound/look quite effectively, and I think it’s good that there’s a kind of sonic carry-through.

But the big influence is surely the look. There might not be as many out-and-out goths on the streets (or are there …?, not sure) but we’ve really got goth now. Piercings, black clothes, studded belts … there are bits of goth all over the place, usually broken down, borrowed, transmuted, reinvented. You don’t see the full package that often, but the handed-down components are ubiquitous.  

Overall, then, I think the goth scene and its achievements need a bit less casual mockery and a bit more proper appreciation. A bit less Goths Up Trees, and a bit more … well, respect.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Sympathy for A Fat White Family

I’ve mentioned before that rock music and violence aren’t necessarily mutually opposed. Or, rather, the “sense” or “feel” of violence, not the actual thing.

What am I going on about? Well, the other night a friend mentioned that a gig we’d just seen had had a strong air of “malevolence”. Blimey. Who were these evil musicians? It was A Fat White Family (AKA Fat Whites), a group who do a nice grinding twisted blues-rock thing that works pretty well … when it works (ie maybe when they haven’t drunk too much).

Are the band members actually malevolent? No, I don’t think so. They just generate a (faint) feel of menace (in fact, barely that; not quite sure what my gig companion was so concerned about really).

But my (rather over-obvious?) point, of course, is that pseudo-malevolence often underpins some of the best music. The panto-satanism of The Rolling Stones, the (also theatrical) anger of The Sex Pistols, entire genres like grindcore and black metal. The camp antics of rock (Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss). John Lee Hooker. Emo bands. Black clothing (everyone). Death, destruction (smash it up), disease … the devil!

Bloody hell! Maybe rock and roll is the devil’s music. Except it’s all - or nearly all - a pose.

So for example …. it’s often argued that the “peaceful” 1960s ended on 6 December 1969 with the violence at the Altamont Festival during The Rolling Stones set, but I think that’s too easy. Yes, Jagger was hardly “into” the violence of the Hells Angels at the show (“We’re splitting, man, if those cats don’t stop beating up everybody in sight”) but the Death Of Meredith Hunter footage shows Jagger later reviewing film of Hunter’s death following by a long sequence of “heroic” hippies walking across a sun-drenched landscape. For some people - not necessarily Jagger himself - the look and feel of violence and the “glamour” of music-making are made for each other.

I don’t think Jagger et al were malevolent or violent, but I think they were happy - like Faust - to conjure up the theatrical devil. I don’t think A Fat White Family are genuine bad boys, but like all scuzz rockers they don’t mind acting like they might be. 

Saturday, 17 March 2012

One’s company, two’s a crowd: in praise of the gigs that no-one goes to

Live music is, I suppose, all about the moment. The fact that you’re there as it happens. Most live music is loud. There’s a fair bit of choreography of lights, stage gear, fancy moves … all that nonsense. But mostly, in the rock environment anyway, it’s simply loud. Compared to your really-not-as-good-as-it-needs-to-be hi-fi at home or (god forbid) your pathetic little personal music player, it’s very loud.

OK, I can dig that. But what else? Ah, yes, the audience experience. The crowd. It’s doubtless a function of age and misanthropic grumpiness, but to me this is more or less the worst thing about gigs. The other people! At best, they keep out of your way, don’t spill their drinks over you and don’t step on your feet. Yeah, with luck they don’t bash into you (probably without even noticing), they don’t talk like idiots over quiet music and they refrain from whooping and hollering as if they’re natural born Brooklyners. At worst … well, it’s the madness of crowds.

What are the good things? They’re few and far between. The occasional heckle-cum-shout-out can be amusing, people around you nodding their greasy heads or swaying around a little is … kind of OK. Mostly, though, I think the value of other people is just that they prevent the gig from being empty. Because an empty gig is rubbish …

Or is it? Actually, I’m not so sure. Years ago I used to think it normal to go to medium-sized gigs in concert rooms holding 100-200 people, or at least about 50-60. These days it’s usually 20-30 people, sometimes fewer. Last night, for example, there were - depending on how you calculate it - precisely zero people in the audience (if you discount a guy who had come with the one band playing). Nevertheless, the undaunted outfit played two sets, getting little splatters of applause from me (DJ duties), the sound engineer, the barman, the friend (of course), and a couple of other regular-drinker blokes (habitu├ęs, who don’t watch the bands but get drunk and sometimes clap loudly from the other side of the bar). Showbiz, eh?

This crowd's coming like a ghost crowd.
A packed audience for The Specials in 1979

To be fair, I’ve also been to some well-attended gigs that worked well enough, but generally the crowded events are awful. Those rammed, jam-packed, can’t-bloody-breathe ones, where there’s no hope of getting near the front or of circulating in any way. A torment!

And I hardly ever remember the bigger gigs. I think it’s the smaller-scale stuff that stays with you - Turner Cody playing to 7-8 people in New York, Thee Vicars playing to 15 in east London, Herman Dune to 25 in Leicester. Also George Thomas and David Thomas Broughton entertaining exactly 12 (I counted) in Coventry. In the last one DTB incorporated into his set a brusquely theatrical bit of stage business where he went around the room packing up the empty chairs that had been laid out in rows (rather optimistically) for the show. It was a memorable moment of Broughton-esque oddity and also, perhaps, a sort of artistic comment on the ghosts in the audience.

As the title of this blog has it, no gig’s too far or audience too small for me. In fact, the smaller the better.