Platt Chapel and Kraak Gallery, Manchester, 7-8 December 2011
‘Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation, and destroy the male sex.’
– Valerie Solanas, S.C.U.M. Manifesto
Winter tightens its white-knuckled grip on the city, turning the darkening ginnels of the Northern Quarter into a narrow latticework of sharp breezes and spearing rain. As we approach Kraak Gallery, hunched and clutching our collars, my companion recognises the drummer from headliners Iceage hanging about near a skip. He asks us for a light and we oblige; but we don’t stop to make small talk because we’re late for the much-anticipated PINS set. Also, he looks like he might stab someone and we don’t want it to be us, not yet. We climb the crumbling back staircase and enter the attic venue just in time to catch PINS meekly taking to the stage.
The all-girl four-piece look great, boasting electric guitars and a dusky-eyed model-type on lead vocals wearing a wide-brimmed pilgrim-style hat. She reminds me a bit of Secretary-era Maggie Gyllenhaal. Now I know what my companion was raving about in the pub: they’re like some kind of fantasy group put together by bedroom-ridden indie boys. Having suddenly emerged onto Manchester’s music scene from nowhere and with less than zero online presence, there’s the right dose of mystery and expectations are high. They must have something special, right?
After all the trouble my comments about Post War Glamour Girls caused, I don’t just want go on about how good-looking they are either. I have a reputation to rebuild. As my companion often tells me, in many ways I’m actually the male Emmeline Pankhurst, so I’m not sure where it all went wrong … Somewhere along the way, something has broken. Perhaps Nagasaki polluted me irremediably. I’ve started to worry that at the heart of me there’s nothing beyond polymorphous perversity and blank evil; if anything, it’s setting in …
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
But even as I urge myself to do the respectful thing and pay attention to their music in a considered way, almost as soon as they’ve started I think I pretty much get it – Warpaint by numbers – and all I can think about is how I want to create an all-girl super-group made up of PINS, the bassist from Post War Glamour Girls and the singer from the ABC Club so that I can film them in music videos that would be exclusively based on the lesbian scenes in Black Swan. The soundtrack would just be me panting in the background. In fact, that would be their first single. Malcolm McLaren eat your heart out.
The ground gives way beneath my feet …
It’s not that their set is without its redeeming features. The sultry vocals are really strong at times – recalling Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, according to my companion – but technically and musically it’s a bit basic. The way the drummer holds her sticks reminds me of a child learning to use a knife and fork for the first time.
Down again …
Another problem is that the whole thing is worryingly quiet. The sound is notoriously bad in this place and this doesn’t bode well for the next two bands. The lead singer sounds like she’s playing her guitar through an amp made by Fisher Price.
And again …
My companion turns to me and says something unspeakable. It’s a very long, convoluted hypothetical question.
When he’s finished I reply, ‘The singer, then the drummer, then the two blonde girls in no particular order of preference’.
And down and down and down once more …
As PINS leave the stage to a warm reception from the drooling boys and envious girls I reflect on how long it took Warpaint to rise to prominence and achieve the brilliance of The Fool. In about two years time PINS could be the most important band in Manchester but it’s almost too early for them to be getting this kind of exposure … Still, there’s a twinge of regret that this will be the last I see of them for the night. But I’m wrong on that score. Very wrong …
My companion and I are joined by wonder-dancer Jack Ghost Outfit who immediately picks up on the matter of volume. He asks, ‘Is this venue even capable of damaging your hearing?’ with a worried expression on his face. Despite the fact that the place is decked out like a military training camp with camouflage netting and a PA on chains hanging from the ceiling, we all fear that it might not be up to mustering any kind of sonic assault. Nobody stands round scratching their chins to Iceage. You want to get clobbered in the viscera.
The same applies for the next band up as well, Wigan blues-fuzz two-piece Brown Brogues, who should only ever be experienced at the outer limits of the decibel range. They’ve had a good year, establishing themselves as forerunners in the pack of hotly-tipped new bands emerging from the North-west following a tour of America and support slots with the likes of the Kills, earning the praise of luminaries such as Alex Turner along the way. I’m sure as the year has gone on Mark Vernon’s wildly-decorated guitar has become ever more highly-slung and the hip-swivels more pronounced. Creating a blustering, pulsating torpedo of garage-noise whipped up by the brutal beats of drummer Ben Mather, the guitar swings high and Vernon’s body is left gyrating in the sound thunder …
Tonight’s show, then, should be a climactic year-end celebration for a band that the city seems to have well and truly taken to its heart. However, it’s just not quite loud enough to create the kind of raucous, sweaty atmosphere that the Brown Brogues revel in … the atmosphere of their recent Now Wave headline show at the Castle, for example, where sweat dripped from the ceiling; Vernon surfed the crowd then crashed to the floor; and tables with empty beer glasses shuddered and clinked. The wooden back room floor bounced for all it was worth that night.
My companion and I are starting to accept that this might not be the night of gloury we’d hoped for. We stand back and talk about how we need to get drunk and properly involved for Iceage, who are sitting on a sofa to the side of the stage glaring at the crowd, looking like they want to kill everyone in the room.
‘They have Anders Breivik in their eyes,’ my companion says.
There is something slightly sinister about them and even dirtier mud has been slung at this young band in recent months, including accusations of far-right sympathies as a result of Ku Klux Klan imagery used in a video they made for ‘New Brigade’; fascists latching onto the Danish hardcore scene and occasionally turning up at their gigs; and some drawings published in a zine by frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt that depict executions by Klansmen wearing iron crosses and race wars between skinheads and Muslims. The zine seems to emerge from a troubled, distracted schoolboy mind beset by visions of torturers, graveyards, dead animals and pagan symbols. You can download it via the mediafire link on this page of Rønnenfelt’s artful, gothic blog.
When presented with this kind of imagery, it’s important to recall music writer Legs McNeil’s observation that punk is not about being nice. Punk bands have always sought to rub our faces in the ugliness of the world. When the first wave of American and English punk bands emerged in the mid-1970s, they found themselves in the aftermath of the Holocaust, inhabiting a new world order created by the Cold War and the dawning of the nuclear age, and they kicked out against the hippy culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Faced by humanity at its most psychotically destructive, these bands did not stand around writing doleful songs about how sad this all was, because punk is not a delicate, elegiac art form. It is an urgent, pissed-off, paranoid, nihilistic product of human suffering, as much as a response to it. The early punk bands were animated by anger and resentment. They daubed themselves in swastikas and Nazi medals and wrote songs like ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ (the Ramones), ‘Belsen Was a Gas’ (the Sex Pistols) and ‘Master Race Rock’ (the Dictators) that were designed to provoke older generations and cause offence wherever possible. This does not, however, ipso facto make these bands fascists. Around half the members of the three bands above were Jewish (and the same applies to Iceage, incidentally, whose drummer is Jewish). These bands never said believe in these symbols, but they did force people to confront their malevolent existence. Above all, they wanted to provoke a response.
All of which is by way of making the case for not judging bands like Iceage in the terms that we might set for our politicians, but rather allowing them to be true to their origins and play with fire. Because bands should not have to explain themselves in the conventional language of morality and logic; they should remain like the runes in Rønnenfelt’s zine: mysterious and suggestive of uncomfortable meanings that are always just beyond us, or perhaps far behind us, or beneath us, or within … We have to learn a whole new alphabet.
The crowd is getting restless but I savour the anticipation as the four Danish youths try to make equipment function that looks as tired, battered and bruised as they do. Waiting for them to start is like someone telling you that they’ve got some news but you best sit down. There’s a sense of pleasurable dread in my stomach and it’s been there for about half an hour. I just don’t know which way it’s going to go. My companion keeps making jokes about how it’s taking them an ‘ice age’ to get ready.
‘Hope you’re enjoying this,’ he says. ‘What if it’s part of the twenty minutes? This could be their set!’
Having changed a few cables they eventually feel their way into an opening version of ‘White Rune’ that’s about a quarter of its ideal volume. A fairly pathetic mosh-pit immediately opens up and after getting pushed around a bit by some indie boys pretending to be metallers and some Viking-sized North Europeans, we retreat to the safety of the fringes. Now that things have started to get a little bit heavy and we’re cowering in the corner, we slightly regret boasting about how we were going to be right up the front in the thick of it. Occasionally people bump into us. One bloke turns to me and grabs my collar, ‘Nobody knows why they’re here or what they’re doing!’ he yells. He throws me backwards and I lose my footing, crashing into someone behind me. I turn round to apologise; to my horror I see that the man in question is my new mortal enemy, Runty Joe the Cunt-Caller. A ludicrous, bespectacled twerp, a weedy saviour on a moral charger, he’s one of my principal detractors, saddened and offended by my squalid prose. He gathers himself. He’s wearing a Parka jacket and his characteristic expression of being affronted. We glare at each other and a quick, poisonous thing passes between us. I move away.
The bass amp is making a weird fuzzy sound and after another interlude spent fiddling with all the knobs and getting the beleaguered sound engineer on stage, Rønnenfelt pleads for one of the support bands to lend them a bass guitar. ‘Please,’ he says, in a broken, beseeching, Nordic tone. ‘Please.’ My heart utterly goes out to him.
Literally everyone who sees this set will later say it was underwhelming and I can’t pretend that it’s otherwise. Nobody’s bleeding. This is partly the fault of the venue and its sound system. It’s also partly the band’s fault, as most of their ridiculously short set is made up of new material that nobody’s ever heard and even the few token songs that are played from their acclaimed debut album New Brigade are massacred beyond recognition. The suspense-building, short sharp shock approach to gigs doesn’t really work if it’s a long wait for a short weedy shock. My companion suggests the following review: ‘They take fifty minutes setting up then play for five then stop. They mess around for ten minutes then play five more. End.’
But I still love this young, intense, misguided band. They get everything a bit wrong and in doing so they get it so right. Above all, they seem totally and utterly 4 Real. I’m trying to explain this to anyone who’ll listen when suddenly I find myself cast under some sort of spell by the hat-wearing lead singer from PINS who’s talking to me with a bewitching look in her eye. I don’t know how this conversation got started but I do know that at some point in proceedings I’ve put my can of Oranjeboom in my coat pocket and now I’m carrying her band’s bass amp down the stairs of the Kraak gallery, out into the night. Heading through the back streets, I don’t know where I’m going but it’s further than I think. We eventually enter some warehouse that’s PINS HQ and go up some stairs … she cracks the whip and I enjoy it. Higher, up more stairs, don’t worry about breaking your back Atrocity Boy … Then she gets out her keys. We’re in and I’m out.
Being turns to nothingness …
When I come round I’m naked from the waist up and handcuffed to a spitting hot radiator. My head is killing. Tall gothic candles illuminate three female figures standing round me with their hands on their hips. It’s freezing, but for the radiator bars that sear lines of white heat down my back like raw meat on a griddle.
‘Have you got something to say?’ asks one of the svelte, flickering silhouettes.
‘What the fuck?’ I moan, confused, my bottom lip trembling slightly. I’ve reverted to the freewheeling fearfulness of childhood and I’m in want of a Mother.
A stiletto heel grinds into my crotch. I gasp, trying to catch my breath. Female voices cackle. I remember those cruel, cold Japanese nights and my first love Sonoko, the things we did to each other …
‘We’re PINS,’ one of them says. ‘And you’re a nasty, mean-spirited little man.’
‘We don’t like your review,’ another one says. ‘This is only our second gig. The last thing we need is idiots like you slagging us off before we’ve even got started.’
There’s a childish sobbing sound coming from the corner of the room. ‘That’s our drummer,’ says the first voice. ‘She’s inconsolable.’
‘It was just a joke,’ I protest weakly.
‘She can use a knife and fork,’ says a third voice to my left. ‘She’ll use them to gauge your fucking eyes out mate.’
My heart darkens and I want to say something but no words come out. My heavy, panting breath clouds the air in front of me.
‘That is, unless you play ball,’ a voice hisses. And with these words the stiletto crunches down hard, sending a sickening yellow fluid shooting up to my mouth and dribbling down my chest. Sight gives way to a firework display of pain.
‘We’re going to rewrite this here shit review. So, repeat after me …’
I get a slap in the face and gradually focus in on the one with the wide-brimmed hat as she takes a crumpled piece of paper out of her back pocket and starts to dictate, like a demonic Annie Hall, ‘Dear Manchester …’
She expects me to say something.
‘Dear Manchester,’ I mumble sulkily, through dry, blood-caked lips.
One of the blonde ones crouches down next to me, smiling like a harpy, and blows cigarette smoke into my face. I’m like a fly in a spider’s web.
‘We do not need you, you need us,’ she says, before pausing. A thousand silences fill the air. I breathe in deep.
‘We do not need you, you need us,’ comes the weak echo from my mouth.
‘We will not be the playthings of male desire.’
‘We will not be the playthings of male desire.’
‘Our band will emerge from this wasteland like a golden lotus.’
‘Our band will emerge from this wasteland like a golden lotus.’
‘Only then may you judge.’
‘Only then may I judge,’ I croak.
‘Signed PINS.’ The words spill from my lips like the dribble of a drunk.
‘Why thank you Atrocity Boy!’ says the harpy in a fake American accent, smiling sarcastically before stubbing her lit cigarette out on my naked breast. The pain is weirdly comforting. It reminds me of my homeland. There’s a feint smell of frying pork.
‘Full stop,’ she says, viciously.
Photography © Pat Hill 2011