"I WAKE UP IN THE CITY..."
Coping w/ cowardice Pt1: Friday evening, 8:30. Farmer Glitch and I check into a B&B in Bristol. We're both a little wasted. Glitch prowls around checking the doors, getting the lay of the land "Just so I don't make much noise when I come back later," he explains to the landlady. "You won't make any noise when you come back later," she says, scowling at us. Glitch and myself have a combined age slightly higher than Einstein's IQ, but we're suddenly reduced to stuttering 11-yr old school-boys, shuffling nervously, unable to make eye-contact, as if we'd just been caught scrumping.
"Muuuuum, that funny-looking lady's scaring me..." I can feel The Fear gathering, like a dark storm-cloud, somewhere at the edge of conscious thought. It's time to get the fuck out of there and get our arses down to St. Pauls...
We hook up w/ The Farmer's mate Ian, a serious dubhead, just as Acid Mothers Temple and The Sonic Inferno are warming up with a synth-and-glissando-guitar dronescape that slowly cracks and thaws like a glacier in the spring. A version of "Third Eye of The Whole World" emerges blinking into the sunlight, its slowly spiralling riff circling and repeating; round and round it goes until it's out of synch and overlaps with itself. After 15 minutes, you can almost hear The Uninitiated muttering to themselves: "What da fug--? Can't these guys play some other notes...?"
Eventually, the track collapses in on itself and a fearsome squall of guitar-noise erupts from the ruins. Makoto appears possessed...no, maybe it's his guitar, not him...he twitches and spasms, violently pulling at the strings, as if he is trying to tame the noise, shape it into something that resembles the tinnitus-induced cosmic-harmonics that he constantly hears in his head...at this point, even I'm starting to have my doubts: a bunch of Jap-Psych nerds are going batshit next to me, but
I can't quite see where this is all going...it's an incredible, joyous racket, but the band just aren't quite taking off...maybe the one-hour curfew has forced them to peak too early...they seem to have lost their narrative flow...
But then they all stop suddenly, on a dime, and start throat-singing. Nasal gargling and epiglotal drones replace the guitar hysteronics. Three or four minutes of this unexpected detour and we're goggle-eyed and spellbound, so when Makoto restarts the riff to "Third Eye of The Whole World" (but, this time, with a gorgeously-soft wall of echo and reverb) the four or five rows of the audience behind me go totally nuts. This time they push the riff on to near breaking-point, nudging and edging it on to a near-lethal high-speed collision with a wall of fuzz, until, finally, a beautiful crystal-sharp Makoto guitar-solo slices its way from the wreckage and heads for the skies. Fucking lovely...
The band slowly re-enter from low Earth orbit and crash-land somewhere in the Pacific with bassist Tsuyama Atsushi grinning cheekily and finally saying "hello" to the audience 35-40 minutes into their set. They follow this with a chugging Gong-meets-Hawkwind riff that has a crunchy Hard Glam feel to it. As the track picks up speed, the two-drum line-up suddenly makes sense...a few minutes later, the band has accelerated the music into a frantic amphetamine boogie; an incredible, galloping Ur-Punk/Motorik/Glam Stomp that's got me punching the air and shrieking in delight...
And then Makoto cuts loose once more with the guitar, pulling and tugging at the strings, desperate to make sense of the sounds in his head...thrashing and flailing and twisting like a dervish, throwing his guitar into the air, leaving trails of splintered harmonics and white-noise fall-out. This might be Psychedelia, but it ain't fer sissies.
They leave the stage on a shrieking wave of Acid-Punk feedback, crackling ampnoise and analogue synth swirl. Ears ringing, the Farmer and I regroup and refresh ourselves, heading upstairs to the balcony to dig Adrian Sherwood's digidub selection.
Good Times Pt2: I've been very lucky to see Mark Stewart 7 or 8 times over the years, with both The Pop Group and Tackhead/Maffia, but I think this was the most trolley'd I've been ("all the better to hear the bass frequencies, my dear."). Bristol '91 must be pretty close, tho'... I remember I'd had an eye operation earlier in the day, but insisted on going to the gig in an eye-patch that I'd stuck purple sequins on in the shape of a star as a tribute to Bootsy Collins. I guess I must've still been in post-operative shock...
Still, they build 'em big in Bristol, and Stewart is a big, big lad; Jolly Green Giant-sized...I stood next to him once at a Slits gig and barely reached his knees, but the weird thing is that he was perfectly proportioned, not gangly or thin like a lot of tall people are; it was as if someone had enlarged him by 37% on a photocopier. Over the years, he's fleshed-out somewhat, but that huge bone-frame of his hides it well, and tonight he ambles on the stage in an over-sized leather coat and a white neck-scarf that gives him the look of an ageing boxer who's come out of retirement for one last punch-up.
The years have not been kind to Tackhead: guitarist Skip "Small Axe" MacDonald is starting to resemble Bill Cosby, while Doug Wimbish's designer jeri-dreads make him look like a refugee from an Amazulu recording-session circa '87. (Keith LeBlanc is the skinny, kinda sickly-looking white kid who got infected with the Funk Virus and never quite recovered). And, yeah, if there is a whiff of 80's sesh-muso about the group, it's because they've played with everyone from Jagger to, er, Sinead O'Connor...but, c'mon, man, these guys used to be the Sugarhill house band, they're the Real Shit, so cut 'em some slack. The fact that they've treated their (lets' face it: pretty radical) work with Mark Stewart as a sort of Busman's Holiday or hobby is another reason to forgive the odd moment of showbiz cheesiness, or the occasional outbreak of drywank slapbass...you can see it on their faces that these guys just love to play, and invisible fifth-member Adrian Sherwood manages to short-circuit most of their muso tendencies with colossal, depth-charge-sized explosions of reverb and wild echoplex interventions that threaten to corkscrew thru yr eardrums. Sherwood is the Joker in the pack, the random element who keeps both band and audience on their toes with unexpected splinters of jagged hi-end noise...
(Mark and "Small Axe" look suitably paranoid: "Is that an Israeli MV-Viper Steathcopter at the bar...? Nah, couldn't be...")
Twenty years ago, this band were well ahead of the pack until someone in Chicago found a new way of abusing a Roland TB-303...they might not be the innovators they once were, but somehow their brand of brooding, dark Techno-Metal-Funk still feels strangely relevent...it feels, er, conceptually right, rather than just plain lazy, that they're still taking the Electronic Bump n Grind Soundtrack of Eighties Consumerist Excess, the shrill deathshreeeek of The Original Me! Generation, and are distorting and abusing it to create the optimal Viral Delivery System for Stewart's self-fufilling prophesy of Data Overload and Surveillence Melt-down in Blairstrip One.
If Stewart's music no longer sounds disjoined and alien to us, it is merely because (a) Pop Culture reconfigured itself to resist the threat posed by Burroughs, etc, and now readily embraces Non-linearity in order to allow Meta-Ironic consumer enslavement via Post-Modernist self-referentiality and MTV-pioneered 'nostalgic' historical/temporal jump-cut re-writes... aaaaaand (b) the contextual basis of his unique brand of dub-polemics has shifted from uncannily-accurate precognitive urban paranoia, fear of what Jack Kirby called The World to Come, to straight-up reportage. There's no way that Stewart's lyrics can sound any more chilling than a report in this morning's paper that 10000 ancilliary supply workers
for Tesco and Asda are being computer-tagged to log their relative job-efficiency factors. Welcome to The Slave Nation...
In this context, The Maffia's take on bloated 80s Electro-Rock starts to make sense. It begins to sound more like a final act of defiance; we may have lost the war, but we're dancing in the ruins....well, maybe not in the ruins, more like the shadow of Canary Wharf.
("Nope, there's definitely a black helicopter circling overhead/filming us in infra-red...")
These days, the tension in Stewart's music no longer comes from its unfamiliarity, but from Sherwood's incessant attempts to sabotage the band's AOR stadium-Funk tendencies. Live, each track sounds like an internal power-struggle, a miniature battle-zone as Sherwood and Stewart wrestle with their own backing-group and attempt to rescue them from potential Metallic MOR-Funk Purgatory. And, at points, their internalised soundclash comes close to reclaiming the once seemingly-endless possibilities of Post-Punk music. The most thrilling moments are when Sherwood boosts minute snippets and shards of sound far up into the stratosphere; tiny pieces of sonic detail (guitar leads popping, displaced vowels from backing-vocals, indeterminate crackles, buzzes and clicks) are amplified into enormous, unexpected blasts of sound that turn the songs into obstacle courses...jarring the musicians from cosy complacency and forcing them to improvise and hopefully respond in new ways.
One track, though, still sounded pretty fucking futuristic to these jaded old ears of mine...I've got most of the records, but I can't say I recognised it: filthy, dark and low with tight, trashy little electronic clap-drums...it sounded as if Prince's grandson had travelled back in time, a chronal anarchist hell-bent on bringing down transglobal corporations before they grow into unstoppable, semi-sentient monsters capable of asset-stripping entire nations.
But fuck Critique, let's Dance. Damn, though, the Maffia still sound muthafuckin' down and dirty, so The Farmer and I had no choice but to get down with our badselves, and attempt a sort of skunky skank that only the elderly (or the far-gone) can truly master...
And the audience were up for it too...that's what I like about seeing bands in Bristol; there's none of the arm-folding "C'mon then, impress me" snidey attitude or Media/Industry tosser-types you get at London gigs...Bristol has always been the Dub Capital of the UK and tonight they kept their crown. Great to see
twennysomet'ings breaking shapes to tracks that probably first came out when their mums were in labour: "My little girl was born on a raaaaaaaaaaaaay of suh-suh-suh-sooooooooouu-nnn-nd-d-d-duh!!!!"
On stage, Stewart comes across as a chilled & genial Everybloke, completely at odds with his confrontational recording persona who is prone to issuing bloodcurdling howls of rage: "This one's a ballad, one for the ladies," he chuckles, sitting down to catch his beath as he introduces a chilly and forlorn version of "Forbidden Colours".
The best stuff comes at the end (or maybe it's because we're so completely trashed by this point)...so when the riff from "Rapper's Delight" (basically Chic's "Good Times") comes in, you suddenly remember: shit, these guys actually played on the first subversion of that song, and, suddenly, the original lyrics ("These! are! our! Good!Times...!") take on a new, ominously inverted meaning: ID-Cards, biometric passports, Homeland Security, Central Asian oil-pipes, a wall around the Gaza Strip: "These! are! our! good! times...!"
And, "Jerusalem": a dubbed-up, dissonant/defiant howl; the unofficial national anthem for outsiders and anarchists everywhere...Stewart has reclaimed Blake's mystical vision (which, in turn, had devolved down into a Victorian Patriarchal/Colonial school-hymn) and twisted it into an anti-authoritarian snarl. "I will not ceeeeeease from mental fight," he screams and we believe him. See, he seems to be saying, there is an alternative to Dystopia, but it requires effort on our part. Around me, fists drunkenly punch the air in anger and there's a sudden lump in my throat. We're a bit sentimental about Revolution down here in the West country.
I'm looking forward to hearing Stewart's new recordings with The Bug and various Desi producers, but his music strijes me as being a logical progenitor of Dubstep and Grimm; a denser, splintered, ancestral sound-form...so it would make perfect sense for him to work with some Bristol Dubstep and Breaks producers (someone out there please make that happen!) rather than Primal fucking Scream.
"See ya in ten years time," he laughs, and, suddenly, he's gone, leaving us with Sherwood on the decks playing The Slits, Junior Murvin and a fistful of sound-system, Soul and Funk classics with pitched-up helium sci-fi vocals. We dance ourselves Stoopid Fresh. "House of Jealous Lovers" sounded great pumped thru a Big Rig, but Farmer Glitch and I are totally deaf by this point, reduced to yelling "Eh?" and "Whaaat?" at each other like a pair of pensioners with ear-trumpets.
Soon our B&B beckons, but I'm far too terrified of the landlady to have breakfast there.
It looks like paranoia is infectious.