If I love anything, I love free stuff most of all. Especially if that free stuff is booze and finger food. I'm mad for that shit. Last night's The Good, The Bad and The Queen gig, part of the BBC Electric Proms was notable mainly not for the return of Damon Albarn to the live fold; notable not for his newly-assembled band, including Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen and Clash bassist Paul Simonon; notable not even for the newly spraunced-up Roundhouse. No, it was notable for the free booze and finger food.
Armed with a pink wristband, to denote how much better than everyone else we were, we marched into the VIP holding pen at about 6.30pm, giving us a full hour's worth of drinking before the first support. I chose beer, my friend chose white wine. There were some nice hors d'oeuvres as well - butterflied king prawns atop little bread, beef atop little bread, and the audacious sundried tomato filled with mozzarella. The best tactic for eating the sundried tomato was to whack the whole thing in your gob and then manage somehow. Those suckers were juicy. As I was wearing a white shirt, I decided that spillages on that white shirt would not be a good look for the night. More on that later.
The bar was filled mainly with disgusting liggers like myself. One poor guy in a sweatshirt was actively trying to network. What a loon.
At 7.30pm, the first support act started. His name was Young Tiger and he was neither young nor tigerish. He was 85, sat in a chair, walked with a stick, and read his lyrics off sheets of paper. He was accompanied by a six piece band, called the London Is The Place For Me Ensemble (crazy name, crazy guys!), who played the sort of music that only Damon Albarn and well-meaning women in tie-dye like. Apart from his final song, which was very catchy. It was called "At the Coronation" and the chorus went "I was there! / At the coronation / I was there! / At the coronation / Were you there? / At the coronation / Millions there! / At the coronation". The song was so catchy that if you cut me in half now, the words would be written through my torso like I was a stick of rock.
After Young Tiger, more drinking. The hors d'oeuvres had mysteriously dried up. My companion spilt his white wine all over a mirrored plinth and spent much of this break trying to mop it up.
Next up, Jamie T. Described as a white, British, urban rapper, I was disappointed to discover Jamie T sounded almost inseparably like the Arctic Monkeys. We lasted but three of his awful tracks, before sloping off to the bar, commenting that the songs would have really been improved by some sort of tune.
There were less people in the bar than in the interval, but not much less. Jamie T's howling was obviously not to everyone's tastes. Still no hors d'oeuvres, but by now Edith Bowman had turned up. I think she'd lost quite a bit of weight. She didn't look so good.
After Jamie T had finished, the bar filled up again. By this point, both myself and my companion were - not to put too fine a point on it - pretty drunk.
We took our seats for The Good, The Bad and The Queen. You know, every time I type that name, I want it to be better. It's a really shit name. In fact, whenever I type that name, I really hope it ends in a different way. "Please," I think, "let this end differently." I feel the same way when watching "Othello". This is a marker of how awesomely tragic this band name is. It's a total howler.
I'm not even kidding. If this band name was a kitten, I would throw it from some castle railings onto a spike.
But never mind the band name, what do they sound like?
I mean, seriously? What a shit name. It even makes an ugly-looking abbreviation. TGTBATQ. Bleurgh.
The band sound pretty much as you'd expect when half your band is Damon Albarn and Simon Tong, the guy who took over live guitar duties from Graham Coxon for "Think Tank"-era Blur. It sounds like the more droney aspects of Gorillaz, the sort of songs that - though you can't hear the lyrics through the fug of toothless Anglicised Afrobeat - are probably about how bad war is. Like, duh. One of the songs started something like "I wrote this song two years ago / Upon the Goldhawk Road". Blee. Why doesn't Damon tell us about the Nandos at Shepherd's Bush, or that time he went to Homebase?
Tony Allen's drumming is a huge non-event, with him soporifically padding his way through the songs, without ever truly kicking them into any kind of life. Paul Simonon throws punk shapes, whilst his bass fuzzes ineffectually away. At one point a rapper comes on, speaks unintelligibly for about twenty seconds, and then leaves. He isn't really part of the band. In fact, he might have been a lone stage invader. It was difficult to tell.
The gig is momentarily livened by Albarn stopping a song twice, telling the rest of the band off and saying "We can play that song better than that!" before jumping around. Tony Allen looks amused at his petulance. Albarn is wearing a top hat. I haven't liked Damon since his po-faced interview in the Britpop documentary "Live Forever", in which he morosely plinked away on a ukulele whilst trying to dodge the fact that he was largely to blame for the "Country House"/"Roll With It" shenanigans. This gig didn't change my mind.
The main problem with TGTBATQ, is that old chestnut: tunes. Actual Tunes were sorely in absence, with emphasis instead placed on turgid loops wobbling onto a stage, then falling off it again with almost no difference to the world. These were songs that made you realise the pointlessness of music. Why did these things exist? What did they come here for? Why were they hurting me?
After the gig, the liggers pour back into the bar. Weirdly, the staff bring round little bowls of beef stew and mash, which I really really wanted badly. The fork was way too big for the bowl, though, and as I took it, the fork catapulted beef stew at my white shirt. As I changed my shirt in the gents, someone accused me of being gay entertainment. By this point, my companion could barely stand. Having drunk only beer, I was marginally more in control of my faculties, so it was my job to get him home. In the end, he went to his girlfriend's, and I was left to ponder the gig.
Most heavy nights of drinking make you never want to drink again. Last night made me want to only drink again, just so I can blot out the bitter truth that I live in a world where music as unquestionably balls as this is actually applauded. Now, you could argue that it was the drink that made me not enjoy this gig, but I would argue that it was the gig that made me not enjoy the drink. That, and that the music was unquestionably balls. It made me want to call my ears liars, as no sound could possibly be as bad as it sounded like to me. It couldn't have been that bad.
Still, did I mention there was free food and booze? Whichever genius thought up that diversionary tactic deserves a raise.
[Overheard in the middle of the gig.]
Media type #1: Man, this is the strangest gig I've ever been to. I mean, I love the band, I love the music, but I'm the most bored I've ever been. I guess you have to be in the mood for it, and it's just been a week of meeting people...
Media type #2: Yeah...
Interpol's debut album - "Turn On The Bright Lights" - was, I now realise, titled ironically. The band are big fans of backlighting; so much so that at this Brixton Academy gig, it was sometimes difficult to work out if they were facing us or not. With the addition of a fog of stage haze, the music seems to come at us from an abyss - gloomy songs from a gloomy place.
Tonight, Interpol take a while to warm up, perhaps as their support band is the positively glacial M83. A chilly mix of Air-like mantras and big rock keyboards treated to sound like big rock guitars, the effect is overwhelmingly "French Artmusic". Like Vangelis on a complete lack of amphetamines, they bash noisily through repetitive four chord structures over and over again. This sort of thing is probably impressive and widescreen on record; here it is rendered rather annoying by the muggy mixing, to the point where you're begging them for a chorus, or a tune, or at least someone singing. I would also like to declare war on bands simply playing along to pre-sequenced music; No, we didn't come here to watch you press a button and wait, motionless, on stage for two minutes til we get to "your bit". Fuck off. Ultimately, M83 are epic to a fault. A shame. I was rather looking forward to them.
And I was looking forward to Interpol even more, so it's a disappointment that they didn't really hit their stride until a rather marvellous "Not Even Jail" about two-thirds of the way through their set. Yes, the band are tight, with Paul Banks and Daniel Kessler trading guitar parts across the left-hand side of the stage, flipping between rhythmic chops and complementary lead parts, and - thumping away behind them - the powerhouse rhythm section of the ever-impressive Sam Fogarino and - on bass - the greatest Charles Addams creation never committed to paper, Carlos D. But, like the media type standing behind me says, something's missing. Perhaps it's that the on-stage mix isn't right - Banks seems distracted and drops lines - or perhaps its just the crowd's overexposure to these songs recorded crystal clear on two exemplary albums, perhaps it's just the fact that we can't see the fuckers through the mist that means that great songs like "Evil" and "Slow Hands" are lost in a swampy first half of the set.
Later, the earlier, punkier material goes down well, and the band seem much happier standing in a tight little knot stage right, with their keyboard player banished to the dressing room. Maybe it's lack of material, inevitable with only two studio albums, that means they have to play literally all of their slower, dirgier songs. However, what raises Interpol above being mere pseudo-goth posers is their intricate arrangements - the rare combination of four very talented people - and so occasional shakey gigs must happen.
How slightly disappointing that tonight was one of them.
Lured by the merest hint of a possibility that Anita Briem might be there, I attended the Drowned In Sound Iceland! Night at the Marquee in Leicester Square. Anita wasn't, as far as I know, there. But there were lots of other things.
The Marquee in Leicester Square is a converted floor of the old Home nightclub. It seems rather hastily converted, if you ask me, with lights randomly lashed onto whatever piece of exposed industrial girder or air conditioning work that the lighting designer could discover. The toilets are two floors away, and are unisex. There is an ill-thought-out chillout area mere metres from the stage. It's on the third floor. The lift sounds like it is on drugs. It is disarming, and impersonal.
The Drowned In Sound Iceland! Night consisted of four bands from Iceland as discovered by the ever-so-slightly precious music website Drowned In Sound at the Iceland Airwaves Festival, delightfully described as "the world's most northerly festival". Last year Keane and The Shins played alongside a dazzling array of Iceland's most outlandishly-named bands. Tonight, the four to play were Skatar, Reykjavik!, Jan Mayen and Skakkamanage.
First up, Skakkamanage, which compere John Kennedy (XFM) has difficulty pronouncing. No wonder, really. Skakkamanage play wonky acoustic guitar songs with the occasional burst of retro skanky keyboards, which then open out into lush, epic... well, Icelandic anthems. At the risk of my testosterone writing this review, the keyboardist is the most beautiful person in the room; the kind of high-cheekboned indie girl in a floaty dress that Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian would write, like, a really sad poem about. Regrettably, she's married to the guitarist. If their music is slightly samey, slightly forgettable, this may be due to the subsequent trauma to my head. They are, in a way, the most stereotypically Icelandic of tonight's bands, but their flighty whimsy and bizarre takes on English (one song is introduced as being called "Olaf, Cease!") are quite sweet. (Their website hurts me.)
Jan Mayen are really, really ugly, which comes as a disappointment after Berglind Hasler from Skakkamanage. They are named after a Norwegian island with a lot of puffins on it. They are four geeky emo boys of about 17 years old, and their first song is a metal assault. The second song, however, brings a pop edge to the grunge - like Ash punching a panda. Brilliant, I thought, there's my handle on them... they're pop! They're not as metal as I thought they were. But over the course of their set, they get harder and harder and harder, until you expect their amps to be stamped with "Tinnitus guaranteed". They also have a rather charming propensity for falling over. They fall over a lot, carry on playing, get up, fall over again. It's like watching a really good band from your sixth form. (Their website hurts me a lot less. In fact, it soothes me, as it includes the following lyrics to the song "Nick Cave"...
I could say I know Nick Cave is
the highest ape in the food chain.
D'you want to play tough and tougher
with Nick Cave ?
What's you gonna do?
One tape could take you off.
Nick Cave's a real motherfucker.
Yeah! He wants to mess you up.
Nick Cave's a real motherfucker
See this tape, this is Nick Cave
Well, he can brake like an animal.
D'you wanna play though and thougher
with Nick Cave ?
I can't prove that about Nick Cave.)
Third band of the night, Reykjavik!, are misleadingly introduced by John Kennedy playing some Sigur Ros. Anticipating an epic sweep, we are met instead by the most mismatched band I have ever seen. On bass, there is an old-school metal dude, shirtless, with spray-on trousers and a shiny belt buckle in the shape of an eagle. On rhythm guitar and vocals, a tubby bloke in a pinstripe shirt and grey greatcoat, whose blond fringe and bumbling demeanour is highly redolent of Boris Johnson. On lead guitar, a man whose hologrammatic shirt is so spangly, we remark he should be in Rocket From The Crypt. On drums, a guy in a white shirt and black tie, who has just come from the office. On lead vocals and general prannying around, an Adidas jacketed, mop-haired lunatic, who keeps jumping into the space immediately in front of the stage and running around a bit. Words really can't describe this band - there are elements of hardcore and punk in there, a smattering of emo, but they keep doing weird things with the time signatures and seem to have little to no idea that they are the funniest thing in the world. At one point the lead singer yells "By the way, we're still unsigned!" and in a way this is a wrong that should be righted. In another way, I'm not sure the world could handle Reykjavik!. (Their website is basic, but amazing.)
Thinking those three bands were impossible to top, we faced Skatar with some trepidation. Fortunately, they managed to top even Reykjavik! Skatar are five beardy blokes in white boiler suits. Again, hardcore influences are there, but tempered by... well, insanity. There's occasionally a post-punk thing going on - little moments of Interpol and The Killers creep in - but the rest of the time, lord alone knows. Drowned in Sound described them as "acid crazed Super Furry Animals in white surgical boiler suits [...] they throw Captain Beefheart, Trumans Water, Polvo and various glimpses of eighties post- punk into the blender". I hurt just thinking about them. (They don't even have a website. There's a picture of them here, though.)
Anyway, the overwhelming feeling that one emerges into the snowy Leicester Square with is that Iceland is full of a) crazy people, b) beautiful women with good cheekbones. I have booked my ticket to Iceland already.
"Thank you, London!" yells John Flansburgh, "And thanks even more for not being Leeds!"
They Might Be Giants had a bad gig last night, in Leeds. They Might Be Giants might be giants, but they are happy to see us.
But before they come on, we have the delights of Corn Mo, the support act. A guy comes on, looking like the hairy, balding, 1980s clone of Meatloaf. He is holding an accordian, threateningly. He plugs in his accordian to the PA system with a painful thunk. The drunkards to my right jeer at him. He looks sheepish. He stands up and starts playing his accordian. He sings, in a high voice, something that sounds like an oratorio. He then ups the tempo, sings "It's Lollipop Time with you!" and it turns out he is a one-man '80s hair metal band. He is fucking awesome. Occasionally, he stamps hard on the ground, and a kick-drum pedal hits a cymbal. Occasionally, he stamps on the kick-drum pedal and fuck all happens. This may be the funniest thing I have ever seen.
Corn Mo sings a song about how people mistake him for the actor Gary Busey. A character in the song says, "Weren't you in that film Silver Bullet with Corey Haim?" Corn Mo says "No".
Corn Mo is my new fucking God. His song about his eighth-grade crush which climaxes with the primal howl "I wanna ball you!" has to be heard to be believed. Click here for his website.
And then... They Might Be Giants. The first time I saw TMBG, they were marooned somewhat carelessly on the Barbican stage after a weird collaboration with the writers of McSweeneys. The second half of the show was a regular, balls-to-the-wall TMBG rock show, and I remember being surprised at how much the weedy, geeky songs on record transmogrified into bona-fide rock monsters on stage - John Flansburgh running around like an overexcitable Dr Fox playing exceptionally bad guitar, and John Linnell... okay, John Linnell was still geeky, but it's hard not to be geeky when you're a lead singer behind a keyboard.
This time, TMBG are close. Worryingly close. Flansburgh looms over the crowd, throwing rock shapes. Again, the superb backing band give the songs real live muscle and power pop is eked from songs that are perhaps a little flimsy on record - "Cyclops Rock" particularly benefits from... uh... rock.
The devotion of the TMBG crowd is also eerie. The ambience is not dissimilar to a sixth form gig by local heroes, writ large. Affection levels are high - each stupid chorus, crap keyboard solo, invocation of clapping or stamping of feet, is received in a party mood entirely unlike a Thursday night indie crowd in London. One gets the feeling that Leeds didn't, like, get it.
The experiments are sublime - the specially-penned song about the Astoria includes the line "In the Astor-i-ay / Where the lit-up sign outside reads 'GAY' / Tonight, we have to play a show" - and the big hits go down so well the floor creaks beneath the bouncing to "Birdhouse In Your Soul". And, what's more, they still seem to be enjoying themselves. Bless them.
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