Manchester Cathedral, 17 November 2011
In the shadows of the Strangeways prison ventilation tower, just past the Central Gurdwara, opposite a derelict Victorian warehouse, there’s an ugly, windowless concrete building that squats in a wilderness of rubble, broken glass and burnt-out metal machines. It’s the only testament to the continuation of human life here: the last man standing after a long night of carnage. A former bag factory owned by Polish immigrants, this is now the headquarters of SWAYS records. To those who have abandoned all hope and actually entered through the heavily bolted cage door, it is known as the Fuehrer Bunker … But tonight the drabness is lifted by a garish banner bought from a cheap party shop that adorns the front elevation, reading ‘WELCOME HOME …’ and then, pasted beneath in dripping black paint, ‘… WILD BEASTS’. For the Leeds band are in town for what promises to be a special closing instalment to a two night residency at the cathedral. And SWAYS records have promised to host an after-party.
‘Have you texted them or anything?’ I ask my companion.
‘No need. It’s a surprise,’ he replies.
SWAYS and Wild Beasts go way back, you see. Members of the first and arguably greatest SWAYS band, the Marder, are rumoured to have played on the first Wild Beasts albums, back when Albini’s Chicago beckoned and the idea of a record label was still just a glimmer in the President’s evil eye. In exchange for their services, Wild Beasts made a pact with the young Salford band and their leadership, promising that if this fantasised label ever did materialise then they would record an album with them as a gesture of thanks. An eye for an eye … Drunkenly, contracts were signed on the back of a crumpled sex club flyer. And so tonight sees the rabble of drunks, dreamers and freaks that is SWAYS setting out en masse to meet old friends and claim their pound of flesh.
After altercations with the bar staff in the violently cheap Sinclair’s Oyster Bar we head off to church to watch the support act, Canadian band BRAIDS. They’re fronted by Raphaelle Standell-Preston who my companion describes as looking like Kate Bush ‘if she’d let herself go a bit’. This says more about the way that men of a certain musical disposition idolise Kate Bush than anything else, for Standell-Preston is many decades younger and very beautiful. She seems to have held it wholly together. She comes across as quirky, but not in a contrived way … just naturally weird. Which is a good thing. Her vocal is poignant, hymnal … there is a fragility to this band that leaves the entranced audience hanging on every note.
If some bands are made to play in a church – Money’s recent gig at Sacred Trinity being one such example – then other bands should only play in a church. BRAIDS fill the high vaults with choral vocals and woozy keyboards and guitars before heavy beats kick in from beneath.
‘It’s all about the reintegration of the church and the state,’ my companion remarks.
‘Bit like Now Wave,’ I reply. ‘Maybe that’s their whole purpose.’
‘I wish it was a Now Wave gig,’ I reply. ‘It’d be nice to be nice to them sometimes.’
‘Also, there’d be a different calibre of punter.’
I look around me. Men with beards. Girls wearing vintage clothes and cute haircuts. I look back at him, but he’s transfixed by BRAIDS, clutching his cider. I have no idea what he means.
As the BRAIDS set closes and everyone heads out to queue up for the Portaloos discretely placed round the back of the cathedral – whereabouts does the cathedral boundary end? grown men wonder, what would become of me if I literally pissed on hallowed turf? – a word must go to the cathedral DJ, who has a fine ear for the musical range of this incredible space, treating us first to Kraftwerk and then to ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’ by the Beach Boys. Beautiful.
You have to admire a city that hosts gigs in its principal religious venues as a matter of course. Spellbinding cathedral performances by Beach House and Bonnie Prince Billy still linger fresh in the memory from last year. Before long this place will be known as Manchester Carling Cathedral, complete with a permanent neon can bar located at the back. Elbow recently did a stint here as well and tonight Wild Beasts look and sound like the Manchester band’s demonic, delinquent half-brothers. There’s only so much of Guy Garvey’s decent northern niceness a person can stand, all this talk of beautiful days and sensitive men … My feelings about Elbow are much the same as those expressed by pervy academic David Lurie towards animal welfare people in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. Lurie likens them to ‘Christians of a certain kind. Everyone is so cheerful and well-intentioned that after a while you itch to go off and do some raping and pillaging. Or to kick a cat.’ That’s Elbow. Wild Beasts, on the other hand, are the sort of band who introduce their songs by saying things like, ‘this is a song about good and evil … but mostly evil’.
They’ve come a long way in five years, from occasional vocal silliness and over-elaboration, they’ve begun to craft music of incredible maturity and in their latest album Smother they’ve created, in my humble opinion, a masterpiece. It’s music that lives with you in a deeper way than even Mercury-nominated Two Dancers. It sits in your unconscious, moves you in your sleep … I’ll often wake from uneasy dreams with the haunting lyrics from album-opener ‘Lion’s Share’ floating around my brain (‘Boy what you running from? … Boy?’) or the stark electronic drumbeat from ‘Plaything’.
So tonight the sacred meets the profane as Wild Beasts sing about lust and fucking before the cathedral’s ornate medieval rood screen, with bestial transitions in Hayden Thorpe’s vocal tone sucking us in and spitting us out as bits of plaster flake from the ceiling, like God’s digging this shit, flicking ash from his cigarette onto all of us below as he rocks out. His place, after all … Thorpe’s well-known falsetto vocal isn’t just showy, as I once suspected – the gymnastics seem to emanate from some inner need or compulsion, and the interplay between his fellow vocalists, and especially bassist Tom Fleming, is dialogic, part of an otherworldly conversation, suggesting that the band need each other, or need something from each other. Here singing becomes a brutal Spanish Inquisition into male emotional lives – a harrowing exchange masquerading as beauty.
It also leads to some great yelled requests in between songs, the highlight being when one drunken male squawks out the ‘watch me, watch me’ refrain from ‘All the King’s Men’ like an angry seagull trapped in the rafters. Wild Beasts should really encourage more crowd sing-alongs as part of their set. Have they learnt nothing from Elbow?
When it actually comes, the urgent and deranged sexual yelping of ‘All the King’s Men’ kicks off a heathen encore that fittingly climaxes with Smother album-closer ‘End Come Too Soon’, with its intimations of bodily ecstasy and earthly pleasure heightened into metaphysical truth: ‘Whose dirty mouth would have made Mary hail?’ asks Thorpe, and I know exactly who he’d have liked it to be.
‘This is the most beautiful piece of music,’ says a member of the Louche FC. ‘I might as well commit suicide tomorrow.’
When the band leave the stage, we wait, expended and expanded, finishing our cider, holding steady in the calm after the storm, plotting our next move. For now is surely our moment. We must find them. We need them, they need us. Desire gone awry tonight …
A security man has seen us and apparently just staying here is not an option. He leads us from the building, ploughing our way through the empty plastic cups that litter the floor. He doesn’t realise that this is our house.
We stand by the great entranceway and discuss how we can get to Wild Beasts and tell them about the party. There’s a light on in a side room, doubt it’s for vespers. They’re surely in there. An industry friend has their number but she won’t release it.
‘It’s not desperate,’ we protest. ‘We just need to see them. For their sake …’
We also need the toilet so we shamble round the back. The Portaloos stand open-doored and empty, like drunken flashers.
We complete a full lap and see the tour bus parked up by the west entrance. My companion spots his target: Tom Wild Beasts is walking round the corner.
‘Now!’ I say. ‘Get him!’
We up our stride and my nimble companion stalks on ahead through a graveyard, casting long Nosferatu-like shadows up the cathedral wall. Tom Wild Beasts disappears through a side door.
Several of the SWAYS drunks gather and we agree: we must follow him. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
The door crashes open under our collective weight and we lie splattered across the vestry floor like children in a playground pile-on. One by one we lift ourselves up and dust ourselves down.
Members of Wild Beasts stand and watch us, aghast, clutching their guitar cases.
‘What do you want?’ asks Hayden, puzzled but not afraid.
‘It’s me!’ replies my companion. ‘From the first album, yeah?’
Hayden stares blankly and shrugs.
‘It all happened!’ yelps my companion. ‘It all came true! We invented SWAYS! We’re having a party! We’ll put out your next album if you want. Come and play with us.’
Hayden looks over at Tom. ‘Do you know this man?’
‘I’ve never seen him before in my life,’ Tom replies.
‘What do you mean?’ cries my companion. ‘It’s me! The guy who made the brews when you were recording your first album.’
Some of the SWAYS crowd exchange glances.
There’s a creaking noise behind us and an old, crooked working woman enters the vestry, sweeping the floor with a wooden broom. She looks across and says to Tom, ‘I was a cleaner in the studios when Wild Beasts recorded their first album. I saw you with this man.’
The air thickens with suspense. Everyone stares over at Tom.
‘I do not know this man,’ Tom replies.
The SWAYS crowd twitch nervously.
‘Surely you know this man?’ I ask again, desperately. ‘Look at him and be sure that it is not he of whom it has been said that he played on the Wild Beasts first album.’
Tom turns and looks at my companion.
‘I do not know this man,’ he says.
Outside in the inky night, a cock mysteriously crows.
Three burly security guards enter the vestry.
‘I think you’d better go now,’ says Hayden. ‘You’ve had your fun. But the party’s over. We have a world tour to embark on. This album Silver is going to be massive. We do not know who you are.’ He walks over to my companion and kisses him on the lips with his beardy face.
‘Now go. Take him away.’ He beckons his henchmen with a flourish of his arm, before turning and walking back into the cathedral.
The shaved-headed brutes clumsily grab my companion and tie his hands together behind his back with a piece of rope. They drag him across the stone floor. His black shirt and jeans get ripped. His knees scrape along the ground, leaving a trail of blood.
‘Wait!’ my companion cries. ‘We had a fucking deal! Wild Beasts! I’ve come to help you! I’m your saviour!’ Tears stream down his face.
The more he resists, the more the security guards brutalise him. They spit in his face and strike him with their fists.
Luke Louche can’t hold back anymore. He leaps over to the struggling group of bodies and takes a carving knife from his inner jacket pocket, preparing to stab the security men. But my companion sees him and screams, ‘No Luke! Put away your sword! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword!’ With these words, the security men throw my companion into the cold street and slam the door.
We gather round him and help him to his feet, like sheep among wolves. ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ he says, staring heavenward into the starry night.