Platt Chapel and Kraak Gallery, Manchester, 7-8 December 2011
Tonight switchblade-wielding Danish youths Iceage pay their second visit to this rainy city and I haven’t looked forward to a gig this much since I saw Manic Street Preachers in Sapporo back in 1993. Barely pubescent and virginal in all respects, they were the first band I ever saw. I stood at the front with my spiky green-haired spray-painted Japanese friends and we went fucking wild, screaming out the lyrics and throwing ceremonial knives at our anorexic idol Richey James. The band finished with ‘You Love Us’ (Lord knows, we did) and Richey launched himself into our midst as Nicky Wire span round on James Dean Bradfield’s unsteady shoulders … All I’ve wanted from music ever since, really, is to feel that elation again; the all-consuming exhilaration. Is that too much to ask? Or is that feeling simply youth? Sometimes it seems to be so … But the way the people of Manchester and Salford talk about Iceage’s twenty minute noise set at Islington Mill earlier this year makes me believe that tonight might just be the night. They speak with misty-eyes of Rimbaud and the derangement of the senses … I crave danger and excitement and blood to feed the beast in me. And I get this from Iceage’s blustering debut ‘New Brigade’. The call to the lower regions, the black gods … I am white rune.
I meet my companion in a Northern Quarter pub to share drinks, cigarettes and excitation. We have much to discuss, not least the aftermath of last night’s Now Wave show at Platt Chapel, where Manchester and London went head to head.
‘All I can think about is Jack Ghost Outfit body-popping to “Milkshake” by Kelis,’ says my companion, shaking his head in mock disbelief. ‘It was amazing! He was like a little boy who’d had too much coca cola at a wedding or something. How do you physically do those moves?’
‘All I can think about is having an attempt made on my life by a man with a broken wine glass,’ I reply. ‘And talking to Marilyn Monroe girl. I think the two were connected.’
‘Good night though.’
‘Yeah,’ I concede. ‘Good night.’
It all began in Platt Chapel, an ancient church-dive in Fallowfield that feels like a fucked-up Sunday school with a bar instead of a tuck shop. Unlike the pristine Sacred Trinity church in Salford, where Now Wave last put on Money, bands and hedonism fit in fine here; a house of the unholy, this one. Following a dreamy opening from sublime space-pop two-piece Great Waves and a punchy guitar onslaught from psych-rockers Butchers, it was time for East London band S.C.U.M to take to the stage.
At this point in time I only knew two pieces of information about this band. One was that, as any good Manic Street Preachers fan will tell you, they have an interesting name, referencing the S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto written by radical feminist polemicist Valerie Solanas in the late 1960s. She’s quoted in the sleevenotes to Generation Terrorists (‘The male chromosome is an incomplete female chromosome. In other words the male is a walking abortion; aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples’) and Solanas famously shot Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York: ‘I consider that a moral act. And I consider it immoral that I missed.’ The absence of the final full stop after the M in the band name annoys me but people keep telling me that there’s more to life than grammar.
The second piece of information I have about this band is that a pretty French girl recently told me that they were rubbish and I’m inclined to believe her.
It seems that I’m very much not in the know though. My companion tells me that S.C.U.M are being much hyped by the NME and others. Everyone knows about them. They share bloodlines with the Horrors, no less.
‘The lead singer’s going out with Peaches Geldof or Kelly Osbourne or someone like that,’ he informs me. He does not mean this in a nice way.
As the band du jour and their extensive entourage take what seems like an age to set up, I begin to suspect that much of London’s looted music equipment has ended up in their hands. Each shiny metal travel case reveals some new electronic treasure; they’re even setting up their own lights, for fuck’s sake. Meanwhile, my companion is getting all hot under the collar about men who wear hats in bands. It’s not OK, apparently.
‘Not even if you’re bald?’ I ask.
‘Especially not if you’re bald,’ he replies, like an incensed Larry David. ‘What about Les Savy Fav? He’s bald and he loves it.’
With no sign of the support band getting started any time soon, we seize the opportunity to catch up with an old friend from the north-east, a marine who’s just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He used to be a guitarist and once described his band’s approach to playing live as ‘shock and awe’. To anyone with even the most basic sense of fear, his take on life will always appear essentially incomprehensible.
‘Fucking loved it,’ he says. ‘Best time of my life. You just don’t ever have to worry about the little things, like putting out bins or going to the shops. There aren’t any shops …’
‘He’s even got a fucking bag’, interrupts my companion, staring over at hat man, who doesn’t actually appear to be in the band; just one of the minions. ‘That makes it even worse. Who does he think he is, Indiana Jones?’
My marine friend is ever the contrarian. He’s not down with any of this North-South London-hating business. He declares his undying love for S.C.U.M and as they take to the stage he piles down the front and goes mental.
There’s no doubting that they’re a visually arresting band. Lead singer Tom Cohen is wearing a three piece suit and wants very much to be Nick Cave, only perhaps a slightly more effete version. Nick Cave with a bit of Brian Molko thrown in. Nick Cave with soda water. Nick Cave without the aggression or libido … The Horrors are the other overly-obvious reference point, musically and aesthetically. It’s not just that the bass player is related to the Horrors or even looks like one of the Horrors, it’s even more unnerving … like what we see here onstage is some kind of alien plasma that’s been poured into a Horrors-shaped mould in a Shoreditch basement and reanimated by Sony. You suspect that if you unplugged him from his generator and tried talking to him the lips would move up and down but no actual words would come out.
I like the fact that they inspire a reaction though, even a negative one, and the drummer is utterly great. It’s a shame all lights point stage front and she’s shrouded in darkness because I like watching drummers, especially girl ones, and the bassist is actually really good and captivating, in his simulacrum-like way … Postmodern pastiche or cynical copycats? The problem with this band is they’re just a bit less than the sum of their parts. I don’t get the point of them.
‘What do you reckon?’ I ask my companion.
‘Maybe you can get away with this in London,’ he replies, non-plussed.
Their set ends with current single ‘Whitechapel’ which is a definite high point, its shimmery synths spiralling above a deep, driving drumbeat and achieving greater urgency than the slightly weak-sounding recorded version.
Left with a song that would make even the biggest unbeliever want to dance down at the front with the PTSD brigade, I wonder how Money will fare. With their slick professionalism, S.C.U.M have set a certain kind of standard and as the roadies and sound-engineers pack away all the precious things and Money lug their amps onto the stage, stick a few white sheets over them and get ready to plug in and play, I feel a bit worried about how they’re going to go down.
Heading the pack of lo-fi upstarts being championed by new Salford-based label SWAYS and now playing their second Now Wave headline slot in little over a month, Money’s only concession to showmanship involves lead singer Jamie Lee standing quite absurdly and quite brilliantly on a wooden chair for the first half of the set. It’s utterly incongruous with everything that we’ve just seen from S.C.U.M and in many ways it’s not about performance or posturing but something altogether weirder or more abstract. Always reaching higher, this band, all eyes upwards to heaven, they’ve made it their business to create the soundtrack to human yearning … damn right this man will stand on chairs if he wants to. I imagine a future gig where we’ll all stand on chairs.
If S.C.U.M lend themselves to a lazy stereotype of London bands making scenester-by-numbers music in an age of mass production, then Money align to the D.I.Y ethos that has tended to characterise the best of Manchester and Salford music in recent years. Their online presence consists of a few scratchy self-made and self-recorded videos on YouTube; S.C.U.M, of course, have an expensive-looking, pseudo-literary, drivel-heavy website. With the music media’s spotlight seemingly off Manchester for the time being, maybe it does mean very different things to be bands in these two cities right now – and this must bring very different pressures. Different blessings and different curses, you might say … This is not about the city you’re from but the city you’re in. And maybe it’s not even that literal. There is a north-south divide on display tonight, but it’s mainly of the mind.
Why did I ever worry? You don’t need to be flashy or have genetically-modified band members to connect with people. What you need are great songs, great lyrics and, in the case of Money, a singer with a singular voice that holds everyone on the crest of each parched note … These are the channels through which band and audience connect. Poetic fragments hover in the spaces between the Talk Talk-style guitars and swathes of electronic noise. ‘Though there’s treason in my eyes, there’s blood that runs in my veins,’ Jamie yells at one point, as it courses through ours too on this cold, wine-soaked night.
About halfway through the meditative, oceanic set he steps down from his chair, pulls his hood up as though entering into a different zone, and joins the band on stage-level as the most unlikely of mosh-pits develops. Angels with dirty faces, wailing at the crying sun, Money win hands down because there is no posturing here, no obvious derivativeness, no cynicism … just naked heart and soul.
This is actually one of the best live performances I’ve seen for a very long time by any band. They let go and play without restraint, abandoning themselves to other forces, other terrors, letting deeper drives steer the music and guide the voice. Each Money performance seems to build on the last. Watch them as they climb, Manchester.
I realise that I either want to fall head over heels in love with a band or feel physically threatened by them. These are my musical twin peaks.
‘Quick,’ says my companion, back in the here and now. ‘Drink up. We need to go. PINS are on in five minutes and I promise you, we have to watch PINS. You won’t be sorry.’
Coming soon … Part Two: the Revenge of PINS.