Determined to squeeze every last drop of pleasure from continental Europe before Theresa and co wind up the drawbridge, last month we headed to Holland for the Welcome to the Village festival. The drive to Leeuwarden took years, following the North Sea coast through France and Belgium. Way too much time in a van with people I only normally hang out with at night, watching them consume a fat kid’s diet of McDonald’s, ice cream and Fruit Pastilles.
But it was worth it, once we finally landed up in our Dutch paradise.
We’ve always said go hard or go home and we weren’t heading back through that Eurotunnel anytime soon. After-parties turned into pre-parties. We fell asleep upright on dancefloors. How could you fail to fall for a festival that provides a Polaroid dating service for artists? My companion scrawled a quotation from Nietzsche on a Post-it note — ‘morality is a metaphysical virus’ — and added my number.
Blacklung made their European debut. Dan did some trademark staring and the girl at the back held his gaze. One day we’ll find her …
We went over the edge and back again, my companion bursting into unsolicited, incoherent monologues, a naked sleepwalker gradually stumbling into the bewildering arms of consciousness. That works for me. I need to catch a flight to Vienna on Monday. What?
The world revolved around our demented picnic bench. Knocking back drinks in the blink of an eye. Conversations laced with promise.
Serchio Bathing Party were in their element, performing on a stage on an inland beach with avant-garde pioneers Bismuth. The girls by the lake turned the pages of their paperbacks in time.
The Character even made an appearance.
In fact, he fell in love, lying in a bath with his Dutch doppelganger and rowing into the lake after the Serchio Bathing Party set. Some meeting of minds beneath the black hoods. Which all goes to show that there’s nothing fictional about secondary narcissism.
But all good things must pass. ‘You can see why Hitler found it so easy to invade Holland,’ said my companion as we sped home across the flatlands in our Mercedes van, Arvo Pärt blasting from the stereo.
Before we got to Calais we took a moment to stretch our legs on the sun-drenched beaches of Dunkirk. We stared out to sea, contemplating borders and boundaries. The ghosts of war.
Give us some time to regroup in the White Hotel and soon enough we’ll be back, brothers-in-arms, liberators of the modern world, unshackling Europe from the invisible chains of the heart and mind, knowing we’re free to be whoever we want to be. Just like Dan from Oasis. Our hero.
‘Gummo meets North West Tonight’ – Nick Power
At this year’s Sounds From The Other City SWAYS Records and the White Hotel will be transporting their democracy of degeneracy to the Old Pint Pot for a 12 hour marathon of continuous 30 minute sets separated into 3 acts.
5pm – Doors
6pm – Act I: The White Hotel Guide to Immortality
feat. Vendel, Rattle, Space Afrika, Transylvanian Sex Pest, Nova, Tooms
9pm: Act II: The Land of Fuck
feat. BEAT LES, OKLO, Parade, Serchio bathing-party, Blacklung, Chicaloyoh, Terrine, Vendel, Lauren Bolger ft. Karl Astbury
1.30am – Act III: Trump Time!
feat. Szare, Cerberus Future Technologies, Denim & Leather, Kickin’ Pigeon, Cassiel, Nova, Vendel
6am – ?
Middle Eastern migrants have flooded into the German capital in their thousands, slightly more modern than we might have expected in their Adidas tracksuits, football shirts and baseball caps, wielding iPhones and digital cameras, their tents stretching for miles down the Unter den Linden, a dirty, grungy city of tarpaulin sheets and ragged Arabic fabrics that’s turned the whole area around the Brandenburg Gate into a kind of Taliban Glastonbury. The situation is clearly untenable and I can’t help but think Angela Merkel must have some kind of solution in mind. I know that technically I’m one of them myself — the pollutants, the undesirable Others — having found myself caught up in the great leak of humanity that washed up on western shores after Disaster Zero all those years ago. But every living space has its limits. Natural limits. I got here first — ahead of the curve of history, once again — and enough is enough. The Germans don’t let any old fool serve as Chancellor and my guess is that this is all just Angela’s way of rounding up the filth before she shunts them all off to the Hauptbahnhof, their backpacks piling up on the concourse, the cattle cars waiting.
I’ve been hiding out here in my spiritual home for a while now, leaving my companion and Mistress of Photography to hold fort at the White Hotel as I lust after teenage actresses and drink away the pain of existence with the shady remnants of the cold war underworld. Tonight Manchester girl gang PINS have rolled into town on their never-ending world tour and I’m heading over to Kreuzberg to write a review for old time’s sake.
I get to the small club just in time to order a large white wine and a tequila, aka an LA Ladyboy. I hand over my euros, down the tequila, ask the barman to put some ice in my wine then head over to the stage as it fills with black PVC, hot pants, glitter and blonde bobs. It’s a strong look and from the crunchy opening track it’s clear that tonight the PINS sound is going to be equally powerful, driven by Sophie Galpin’s galloping drums and Anna Donigan’s imposing bass, her calm authority accentuated by her characteristically statuesque stance — eyes glazed, challenging — all washed over with surfy melodies and Lois Macdonald’s breezy riffs. ‘What I do to him, he does to me,’ sings Faith Vernon God Little, wearing a long, shiny black mac like a sexy 1980s regional mass murderer.
Tonight PINS somehow seem both jaded and fresh, experienced and winningly naïve, reminding me of what might have happened had the Spice Girls come of age in New York a few decades ago, their punchy ‘girl power’ polemic packaged with the art school cool of Blondie or Patti Smith. Big enough to have built a European fan base yet still small enough to connect to the audience on a personal level, they’re living the dream and the dream is brilliantly dingy. For recent videos they’ve been styled by high fashion labels such as Yves Saint Laurent but tonight they seem more like a bunch of council estate girls hitting the town with barely enough cash to get pissed in the taxi but not caring because they feel like this night is all for them, a twenty first birthday party that’ll never end.
Like most of the great bands of the last half century, PINS are as much a fashion and political project as a music project, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — their ethos is pure punk, a form which has always challenged the boundaries of, say, gender and sexuality as much as it has those of music. The risk in dealing in such longstanding political, lyrical and stylistic reference points is that you can end up operating in a series of performative clichés; but with their growing confidence PINS seem to be drawing on a well-worn musical grammar in a way that is defiantly celebratory, self-conscious and knowing — without being as po-faced and earnest as this is making them sound — as when they reference the chorus of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, which is the engaging, pop side of PINS in a nutshell. Some gestures fall a little flat — the stage invasion during the encore is not the impulsive moment of madness it probably was the first time it happened — but the band as a whole are possessed of a stylishness, charm and exuberance born of hard work and the confidence that comes from turning up in foreign cities where a smattering of locals lovingly wear your t-shirts and mouth the words to songs you wrote in your bedroom.
Over the past couple of years PINS have surpassed pretty much all of their Manchester contemporaries, certainly in terms of wider recognition and productivity, and as they presumably set about writing what will be their third album in about as many years, intriguing new directions and possibilities suggest themselves, not least thanks to the recent addition of Kyoko Swan to their live line-up. Formerly the lead singer and guitarist of the Louche and now devoting her considerable creative energies to a new solo project, Kyōgen, Swan adds an artfulness and soulfulness that could be key to the band’s future creative direction. The highlight of the show, for me, comes when she steps out from behind her keyboard and starts playing a Telecaster for set closer ‘House of Love’, turning her back on the crowd and stalking the gap between Faith Vernon God Little and Galpin, nodding her head, a compelling, magnetic presence, before joining Macdonald on her mic, the word PINS tattooed over her throat like a nut job escapee from San Quentin. It’ll be intriguing to hear what the band sounds like with Swan contributing to the song-writing and recording process, her slightly more off-beat sensibility meandering freely in the poppy ether of their sound. Perhaps PINS could go from being a good Manchester band to being the city’s first truly great girl band, which remains a glaring and slightly shameful void in its musical heritage. It feels like the time is right as the band continue to strut confidently forward, leaving the cynics in the gutters as they light up another Vogue. Let lad rock burn. The future is female.
As the girls graciously deal with post-show flattery before hitting the road to embark on the next phase of their great European adventure, I cross the Oberbaum Bridge, buy a beer from the kiosk at the Warschauer Straẞe U-Bahn and head back to the eastern suburbs, thinking nostalgically of the best date of my life — how I waited nervously for a German girl on that bridge, smoking, staring out at the forking train-lines and sprawling industrial city below.
The U-Bahn carriage is full of young people drinking bottles of beer while being pestered by begging refugees in varying states of desperation. One of them approaches each passenger in turn, presenting a hand-written message scrawled on a piece of cardboard. We all ignore him. When he leaves, the blonde Aryan teenager sitting opposite me rolls her eyes. This is the best time of the week, hitting the Berlin streets in the early hours with nowhere specific to go, wandering through estates created by sixties planners who dreamt in concrete, inventing the future of the past — weathered modernity, relentless realism — the walls thick with graffiti, semi-opened doors promising Latino girls: Mein Leib – mein Ware — seedy men with long ponytails and leather jackets smoking cigarettes, peering in, yellow taxis speeding by. Der modern Vorhang für moderne Menschen. Ghosts circling the night sky. I walk past a basement bar with music playing inside. A small plaque by the door has the words Hotel zur Oper on it. This will do nicely. I down my pilsner, descend a short flight of steps and go in.
It feels like the only words I’ve said today are ‘Bier’ and ‘danke’. I take a seat in the corner. Three girls are making an electro-pop racket at the far end of the room and I immediately register the fact that they’re all incredibly hot, as boys are prone to do. At least this one … The tables are mostly empty, save for a few desolate, solitary figures. As my pupils dilate and my eyes grow accustomed to the dark, I notice an elderly man sitting at the table next to me. He’s clean-shaven, soft-faced and subtly perfumed, his thinning grey hair neatly parted. He’s wearing a suit and tie and a long black overcoat, holding a cigarette between delicate, manicured fingers. He turns and looks at me unsmilingly. We make eye contact for a brief, disconcerting second then each go back to staring at girls.
When the show is over the band disappear into a back room, one by one. Just as I’m accepting that it might be time for me to drink up and find some other corner to lose myself in, they return to the small stage and start dismantling their equipment and I find myself weaving my way over and bombarding them with words, platitudes, telling them how much I enjoyed their set, asking if they have any records I could buy. They smile and nod. Just as they think they’re free, I offer to help them take their kit out the back. Without waiting for an answer I grab a keyboard and hold the door open. We walk down a hallway draped with large leopard skin rugs, propping the gear against a wall by a black velvet curtain.
‘Are you the person who is also taking the photos of us?’ asks the one with black hair and a peach-coloured vest. She reminds me of the young Penélope Cruz in Jamon, Jamon. I confess that yes: that was me. ‘Could you maybe take a photo for us? We are needing one for our Myspace.’
Of course I oblige, whipping out my phone.
‘And could you maybe do one other favour for us too?’ asks the blonde singer who is dressed all in white, rising from her simmering pose. I’m all ears. ‘Since we come here a man says we can make film. Will you help us with film?’
‘Sure,’ I reply. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Don’t worry, just follow us,’ Penelope says, pulling back the heavy black curtain.
Next thing I know I’m naked and tied to a chair in the middle of an empty dancefloor. The room is lit by strobing disco lights. There’s a television camera pointing at me and Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ is booming through the sound system. As the doey intro builds to the first chorus the girls come bounding in wearing long black leather boots, suspenders and Nazi officers’ caps, their bare breasts bobbing as they skip around the room, violins chopping — ignite the light and let it shine — the multi-coloured strobes confusing my senses. I feel a hand running down the back of my neck, the faintest touch of flesh. The Russian one with the short hair, please … I am priapic, woozy, wanton. Baby you’re a firework! Katy wails. Come on show them what you’re worth … The girls pout and gyrate, caressing my thighs, draping their arms round each other’s necks, kissing, holding their breasts, aware of their perfection. Something seems familiar but memory has no place here, thoughts shoot across the sky, when suddenly the spell is broken by a crazed animal yapping and a fiendish presence enters the room: a bundle of demonic energy that darts this way and that. A black and straw-coloured blur of violence.
Waspish laughter from the corner, where the elderly man with the grey hair is drinking a flute of champagne. The slathering German Shepherd recognises the laugh and goes bounding up to him, lapping at his face. You don’t have to feel like a waste of space.
‘Blondi! Ah my Blondi!’ the old man exclaims. ‘Are you hungry?’
One of the girls is behind me, mechanically rubbing her breasts against my back. Unsurprisingly, I’ve lost my lust. The loopy German Shepherd is leaping up and down and chomping on air. Boom, boom, boom, even brighter than the moon, moon, moon … Something large and soft is placed on my lap and two of the girls continue to dance as the Russian pulls leather straps tightly round my back. It’s always been inside of you, you, you, and now it’s time to let it through-ooh-ooh … A length of raw uncooked meat rises up in front of me. Penélope Cruz leans forward and throws her long dark hair from side to side. ’Cos baby you’re a firework! Blondi has stopped bounding and is staring at me intently from the far side of the room, his eyes bulging as he sizes up my blood sausage.
‘Attacke,’ screams the old warmonger, releasing the dog.
Come on let your colours burst …
Jesus, I think, as the animal bounds towards me: this time I’m really done for.
A modern elegy sounds like this: as though written from the grave not just to it.
The Bunker, Salford, 27 February 2014
Lurking in the corner of the Bunker next to a mucky metal sink full of ice and bottles of Leffe Blonde, my companion composes his thoughts for an interview with Mary Anne Hobbs while cameramen, lighting people, runners, directors and producers bustle round the cage preparing for this afternoon’s live shoot.
‘We need to pre-empt their questions,’ I say. ‘Like: What’s the story with the Bunker? Or: What inspired the cage? You need to be prepared. What would you say if she asked you that?’
‘I’ve thought about this,’ he replies, worryingly. ‘And I’d say …’
He pauses for effect.
A wide, self-satisfied grin spreads over his face like a rash. From his look, I can tell there’s more.
‘Oh my god!’ I reply. ‘Please can that be your answer to absolutely any question you get asked?’
‘Francis Bacon and Kafka.’
The wooden cage in front of us has hosted plenty of tortuous gigs over the last couple of years, but today it’s decked out in a new style, looking better than ever before, with velvet drapes, projections, leaves, lanterns and an overall décor concept that’s more Mighty Boosh than ‘In the Penal Colony’. If we could market it in a brochure to sell to London bands — which is what they want, having no original ideas of their own — we’d probably call it something like ‘oriental jungle’.
This is all the brainchild of Bernard + Edith, who are being filmed for a clip to be aired on the BBC red button to tie in with the recent 6 Music festival, which you must watch now, quick, while you can … If art is long and life is short, then the BBC red button is shorter (also available via the BBC iPlayer – after 22 mins 20 seconds – this week).
They’ve gone with a song called ‘Eyes on U’, the B-side to their début single ‘Poppy’. The shiver down my spine as the beat kicks in and Greta’s sultry vocals start to reverberate through the Bunker’s rotting wooden rafters makes me surer than ever that their time is truly upon them.
I stand and watch with a spellbound Mary Anne Hobbs and a companion whose interview looks like it might just have to wait, this band being even more important than his pseudo-intellectual wisdom, unbelievable as that may seem. Tired of writing reviews, I start to think about composing a poem instead, which goes only a very small way towards expressing something of the love that I feel for this young and outrageously talented ‘gurl boi duo’ right now.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound
The fascist madman is said to have written these lines to convey the intense emotion he felt while waiting with commuters at the Concorde station of the Paris Métro. Through precise imagery and the abandonment of verbs, he hoped to document a moment of revelation: ‘In a poem of this sort, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.’
I recently found myself in the vicinity of Manchester Piccadilly train station, when something similar happened to me. Descending the escalator to the lower ground floor with a friend, I found myself suddenly confronted by a large black and white photograph of a man with a stubbly beard, slick-backed hair and expressionless eyes.
‘Who does he think he is?’ asked my friend, the writer Austin Collings, wearing his trademark fedora hat and round spectacles like a cross between James Joyce and Dr Who. He frowned at the photograph, wavering between complete contempt and reluctant admiration; Austin doesn’t really do the middle ground. ‘David Beckham or something?’
Being drunk and low in spirits — something about a girl, it always is — this thing outward and objective was speaking to me; and the inward, subjective thing I felt was anger. A swarming anger that directed itself straight back at this preening poseur who no doubt, given the inherent injustice of the universe, gets all the girls. I recognised the narcissist as one of the SWAYS Records fraternity: you know, the ones who shamelessly peddle themselves as Salford’s cultural regenerators while being bankrolled by the likes of Manchester City Council and Bella Union Records (a.k.a. ‘London’). Instead of writing a poem, I threw an empty bottle of Polish lager at his face. Nobody seemed to care and I think, on balance, Ezra would’ve been proud.
With little else on offer by way of entertainment, Austin persuaded me to take in some of the other images which form part of an exhibition called ‘SWAYS Stills’ by Natalie Curtis. According to an information panel on the platform, the exhibition documents a night in the life of the label, which mainly seems to involve them drinking to excess and taking baths.
Although Beckham was still omnipresent, like some seedy God of a SWAYS-shaped underworld, things started to improve. Seeing the world through Natalie’s eye is always a transformative experience and I found myself undertaking a strange Metrolink journey of the mind: I cheered up, slightly. One of the most pleasing aspects of the exhibition was that she’s elected to remove Beckham’s face from most of the shots. Instead, you mainly get to see pictures of his feet while he’s lying in the bath. I’m not sure what this is meant to signify, exactly, but I found it funny. Perhaps she was subjecting him to some kind of artistic ridicule? In some of the images he’s still in the fuxking bath holding a bottle of wine and there’s a vaguely funereal, suicidal feel to the whole thing. The exhibition offers no further clues as to how the night in question actually ended but you live in hope.
As I turned to leave, I saw Austin climb onto the cracked Beckham lightbox, installing himself at the top in a sit-in protest, like a modern-day Swampy. Last of the great contrarians, he’d got it in his head to save the exhibition from its imminent dismantling because he found its subject so sublimely idiotic.
‘Is nothing sacred?’ he cried, cracking out a bottle of whisky from his jacket pocket. ‘I’m not leaving unless someone assures me these photos are going to be replaced by a shrine to Robin Thicke.’
Rumour has it that he’s grown dreadlocks under his fedora and is still there to this day. Why not go see for yourself? Time is running out, for us all …
The SWAYS Stills exhibition by Natalie Curtis will be on display at Manchester Piccadilly Metrolink station until 24 January 2014.
Image © Natalie Curtis, 2014
Here they come, straight from the brains of Bulgakov, a French clown in tartan trousers leading a slippery cast of sinners in a danse macabre, drunkards and looters, brothel-goers and revellers, waltzing into the rain, two by two. Hurrah! Hurrah! The heavens crackle, a wired cacophony of clarinets, violins and psychotic guitars pouring down over Salford. A black cat adjusts his monocle under the full moon’s glare. Reason falls and scatters like a deck of cards.
Those who have stayed indoors can hardly believe what they’re seeing. They stare at their widescreens, transfixed, as shopping centres burn in the cities of the night and fundamentalists invade the airports, trying hard not to see through the lines of static to the truth that lies beneath: the violence of a father’s anger, the violence of a mother’s love …
All it takes are shaky jazz drums, the anxieties of a nation, and the earth starts to tremble, cathedrals go crashing to the ground. What kind of lunacy is this? Grave misgivings consolidate into a dreadful realisation: the polka dot shirts, braces, green leather jackets, dyed ginger hair … You always knew this had to add up to something despicable.
They call themselves Naked (on Drugs) and expose themselves with non-cha-lance (n. the trait of remaining calm and seeming not to care; a casual lack of concern), strutting round the city like it’s a big top, stuffed full of contradiction, fit to burst. Children of paradise, impoverished yet aristocratic, so radiant under the gas lamps. Watch them as they straddle the high wire!
Sad clowns! Pantomime villains!
A slip of the foot. The coke-guzzling crowd gasps. Your heart misses a beat.
The authorities will have something to say about this! You can be sure of that! They’ve taken out a full page advert in the Manchester Evening News to put the working man’s mind at ease. There’s a crack team of investigators on the case. They eat machete gangs for breakfast, these boys. All fucking over it mate.
Time to make ourselves scarce. As evening slips her ring over our finger, we retire to bohemia …
Q. Who are Naked on Drugs?
A. The identity of their ring leader remains a mystery. He’s French, after all. Have you seen the way he dances, the way he raises his eyebrows, as though suddenly alarmed? Then he looks at you askance, quizzically, as if to say, have you worked it out yet?
Those spiky eyes will have your hair out.
Q: How do they walk?
A: Tall and proud as the poplars of Auschwitz. Devilishly handsome, with plastic shopping bags clinking at his side, Byronic Luke does impressions of Prestwich gamblers on their daily scuttle between the bookie and the local. It’s all so funny but you know this will not end well. Your mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars and all that.
Q: What does their attire signify?
A: They want to make darkness visible.
We settle into a game of chess, putting out feelers for the myriad possibilities that might unfold from this moment. The future can spin off in any conceivable direction, just like the past: it gets lost in geometrical madness, drums and cymbals drifting over on the wind from the family camp, terrifying Europe with the true voice of the Lager.
Luke takes straight whiskies with his cans of Guinness. Scrabbling for a lighter down the side of the sofa, he tells me they’ve been spending time with dissolute types from the wrong side of the river, the sort of people who hang out in baths.
On the wall, there’s a painting of a gorilla with a cocked rifle in its mouth. Whose flat is this, so dingy and allegorical? Somebody call a translator. They need help.
We all do.
The front door flies open and we’re joined by a filmmaker wearing black-rimmed glasses and a multi-coloured tank top. He has a troubled look on his face. He explains how he nearly got into the wrong car, even though he’s familiar with all the cars. To make things right, he’s been cooking up this gift.
Then there’s news of an amorous black girl called Wanda: model and muse, barmaid and revolutionary. I like the sound of her.
My companion calls us to the kitchen table, emptying the contents of a brown paper envelope. Memory unwinds as we sift through a pile of old photographs. The dark ocean of time spits forth its endless debris. They scare me, these pictures, foreshadowing that fateful moment when our limp bodies are washed ashore and the music stops.
Q: How did they meet?
A: A French gangster on the run took a wrong turn at a roundabout near Milton Keynes. Their eyes met across the bypass. Sébastien lit Luke’s cigarette, told him not to cry, to come with him … And just like that bypass, they’ve been running ever since.
Q: Who is Lee Ann?
A: Only child, blue-eyed girl, she became known to them when they first settled in this city.
Foreigners! Immigrants! Hospital tourists!
It’s enough to make your blood boil.
Her father was a preacher, a man of the cloth, a fearer of God, he couldn’t smell the sulphur until it was too late, opening his doors to cinephiles and porn-fingerers, dandies who would deflower his fair-skinned daughter as he prayed to the Lord up above, begging for a release from his earthly desires while ejaculating all over his pretty choirboys.
[Ed. — A cheap shot.]
Poor Lee Ann! She’s taken to her bed where she speaks in tongues and scratches the walls. She’ll be married on a dunghill and they will play the wedding march.
Photography (c) Natalie Curtis at 16apr79.com.
‘Lee Ann’s Skin’, the limited edition debut 7” single (with free digital download & bonus track) by Naked (on Drugs), is now available to pre-order from the SWAYS Records store.