Band on the Wall, Manchester, 23 January 2012
WARNING! UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU READ THIS REVIEW IF YOU LACK BASIC LITERACY SKILLS. YOU WILL BE DISAPPOINTED AND CONFUSED. IT MIGHT EVEN MAKE YOU VERY ANGRY. THIS REVIEW IS NOT FOR YOU. IT’S NOT EVEN A REAL REVIEW. GO AND SIT DOWN AND TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION AND LET YOUR MIND SHRIVEL. THIS REVIEW IS FOR ADVANCED READERS ONLY.
Propped against the Band on the Wall balcony and surveying the growing crowd, I contemplate the aesthetic banality of narratives of redemption – with the honourable exception of the death of Jesus Christ, of course, because of the whole sadomasochistic porn shtick those kinky Christians have got going on – although I realise that tonight I’m already righting at least two wrongs, almost in spite of myself. For a start, it’s the first time I’ve ever visited Band on the Wall, despite the fact that the iconic venue reopened its jazzy new doors back in 2009 and, secondly, I’m also popping my cherry as far as Daniel Land is concerned. A stalwart of the local music scene, along with his band the Modern Painters, I’ve only ever heard good things about him and I like the way his Twitter profile quotes a review that identifies him as a ‘”noted gay musician” (apparently)’.
Since the Begbie scene in Trainspotting, leaning on a balcony in licensed premises with a pint of lager in your hand has never been quite the same. It’s like standing on the roof of a tall building, or the Eiffel Tower, and looking down, there’s just too much temptation … that urge to surrender to the violence of gravity. But with his warm, heart-soothing vocals and sliding electric guitar, beautifully supported by a sole band-mate on acoustic guitar, Mr Land puts paid to any such destructive thoughts. In fact, it’s a gentle cuddle of a set, this, that’s all the better for Land’s winning onstage persona. At one point he apologises for retuning his guitar, describing his songs as being ‘all smoking mirrors’ designed to mask his incompetence. ‘I can’t play the guitar really,’ he claims, modestly. ‘My right hand has got a decent enough sense of rhythm, but my left hand is utterly discoordinated. Just ask any of my former lovers.’
Midway through the set I’m joined by my companion, who has a malevolent grin on his face. This grin usually betrays schadenfreude and the sufferer of misfortune is usually myself. ‘Guess who’s here?’ he asks.
‘Oh God,’ I reply, putting my head in my hands. He doesn’t have to say any more.
My heart sinks. Over the past few weeks my nights out have seen me regularly afflicted by a new human emotion: the-dread-of-seeing-PINS-at-a-gig-for-fear-of-what-they-might-do-to-me. This emotion is founded on a mixture of shame and Darwinian self-preservation. Ever since that review, wherever I go, they’re there. Whichever way I turn, I see them standing with their arms crossed, scowling, like the chorus in an über-feminist production of Antigone. If looks could kill … It’s like being trapped in a hall of PINS-reflecting mirrors with my own personal ladies from Shanghai. I’m just waiting for a volley of bullets and the splintering of glass …
Somehow my cover got blown at a recent Brown Brogues gig at the Roadhouse. I suspect my hypocrite lecteur, Runty Joe. That night my companion asked if I was sure they were onto me. Wasn’t I just being paranoid? Right on cue, two of them walked past and gave me daggers.
‘Shit,’ he said, failing to hide his smile.
Later he drunkenly tried to placate them. When he returned from his fool’s errand he flashed me his wicked grin. ‘Essentially, they want to castrate you,’ he said, beaming. ‘They also accused you of misspelling Valerie Solanas’s name.’
‘They what?’ I cried, fuming. ‘How dare they?’
He knew that he’d hit a nerve there. In my role as propagandist for the well-intentioned commercial failure that is SWAYS records, I spend most of my time trying to get the bands to be more respectful of things like spelling and grammar. It’s a one man war against solecism and I’m fighting a losing battle. Heavily intoxicated, I went on to berate my companion for treacherously continuing his friendship with Runty Joe. I explained that the Knights Templar would never display such disloyalty. I said that if our lives were a Kurosawa film, he would be dead. It would be a point of honour. Fortunately, my companion is an advanced reader and doesn’t take me too seriously.
The more pressing problem tonight, though, is not spelling Valerie Solanas but PINS doing a Valerie Solanas … on me. I figure I’m safe in this world as long as Daniel Land is singing but when his set draws to an end I’m forced to face the exposed bright lights of the bar area. I cautiously make my way inside, where I find Luke Louche preparing himself for an important gig by getting extremely drunk and holding forth about a television programme he’s devised with the new SWAYS intern called Punch a Shark in the Face. This is what comes from youth unemployment. Cameron’s Britain … The show apparently involves contestants getting into a swimming pool, punching a shark in the face, then attempting to get out of the pool alive. I’m convinced this is a weird psychological reaction Luke Louche is having to a recent job interview, where he was asked what animal would best represent him. After some thought, he came up with a shark. Why? Because, he claimed, he was ‘hungry and driven’.
Anyone who knows Luke Louche will tell you: he is not.
They’ve clearly put a lot of thought into this concept though. As they expand on how contestants would graduate from slapping a tuna in the heats to finally punching a great white in the final, and imagine a celebrity spin-off that causes controversy when a basking shark fails a drug test after killing Dale Winton, I make my way back into the main room where New Hips have already sprung into their sprightly set.
I must confess to not holding out any great hopes for this band tonight. When I saw them last they were playing Underachievers at Gulliver’s and I was pretty unimpressed. Their set seemed to be all about the guitarist playing as many notes as possible and the band as a whole reminded me of a child with ADHD: you know that you’re meant to feel sorry for them, but the bottom line is that after a while they just become really, really annoying.
I stand at the back with David Great Waves, mainly concerning myself with the business of hiding from PINS. As far as I can tell, New Hips still have the same line-up as before but I soon realise something … either I’ve changed or they have. Playing with a certain kind of improvised freedom within the confines of a very exacting technical framework, their performance has an energy that’s infectious. I like them. The band is now functioning as a coherent whole and the sound in this venue is great. Perhaps in their previous gig they were simply let down by acoustics more than anything else. They remind me, in a way I can’t quite pin down, of Black Kids, who seem to have sadly disappeared, having last been spotted in this city finishing their last song amid a riotous stage invasion when they played Academy 3.
David Great Waves astutely points out that all the obvious post-punk and jazz reference points that I’m starting to come out with are a little wide of the mark and that actually the main musical reference point is metal. He’s right, only metal as interpreted by a speed-balling Vini Reilly. The songs are propelled along by a drummer who happily got lost on the way to the Mötley Crüe tribute band audition and who now seems quite content with this more avant-garde calling in life.
My companion has extracted himself from a conversation about how to sell the rights to Punch a Shark in the Face to Channel 5 and tracked us down. The grin is back again.
‘Now guess who’s here?’
‘I’ve got no idea. The Grim Reaper? Tell me.’
‘The Queen of Poland.’
The world stops turning.
‘Have you seen her?’
‘I’ve spoken to her.’
‘What did she say?’
He details a brief conversation that ends with the Queen of Poland asking if I’m here.
‘Did she leave?’
‘No. She’s here to see you.’
I make him recount their whole conversation again, checking for chinks in its armour. I still don’t fully believe him but he’s now motioning over my shoulder with his eyes. I turn round.
‘Ninety degrees,’ he says.
Sure enough, leaving the main room and heading back into the bar I see a pair of snaking hips in tight black jeans … it’s her alright.
I met A— one freezing night last winter, while waiting for a bus on Oxford Road. A blue Subaru pulled up at the bus stop right in front of us. It had tinted windows and pounding commercial house beats pulsed from within. Vapour seethed from the bonnet. The passenger door opened and instead of a stripper an old granny with some plastic shopping bags emerged. ‘I wasn’t expecting that to happen,’ I said out loud. The girl in front of me turned and smiled. We both took off our headphones and got talking. I pretended her bus was my bus. We fell in love on the 85.
We spent that winter sitting by my fireplace drinking Lech, smoking cigarettes and watching cartoons. I was smitten. When she left me, as I always knew she would, her time working in England being limited, I thought she’d returned to Poland. And that’s where I thought she’d be right now. But she’s not. As New Hips continue their college kid freakout and I’m pulled magnetically into the bar, she’s sitting at a table by the window with a friend who happens to be another stunning specimen from the rich Polish gene pool.
Seeing her here, I can hardly believe my eyes. It’s like that moment in Baisers Volés when Antoine Doinel describes what it feels like when his boss’s wife enters the shoe shop. He’s infatuated with her and comes out with the immortal line, ‘ce n’est pas une femme, c’est une apparition.’
‘Cześć,’ I say.
A— turns and looks up. I see a smile that I never thought I’d see again in this life. In all my memories of her, she’s smiling that smile, a smile that made everything alright.
‘I needed to see you,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What for?’ I ask. ‘You’ve nothing to be sorry about.’
She didn’t reply to an email and I never sent her a postcard from New York. That was that. We didn’t need to spell out the ending; we just needed to enact it.
As we catch up on the last six months and go through to watch the Louche FC, it’s like time has flipped back on itself. I remember watching the Louche play one time and as I stood there getting battered by feedback she came up behind me and wrapped her arms round me, clasping my chest. I put my hand on hers. Only it wasn’t her, it was my companion. She was a few feet behind him, bent double with laughter.
She goes to the toilet and I seek out my companion, who again holds me tenderly. ‘The Queen of Poland is back,’ I say, still stunned. For a few moments we must look like the Louche’s noted gay audience.
‘Quite a night,’ he says.
‘Yeah, quite a night.’
But we haven’t even come to the greatest revelation of all yet, which, it turns out, is the Louche FC …
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve always liked the Louche but I also think I get them. I’ve seen them play enough times to think I know what to expect. But as drummer Adam Dawson shakes his way into the set opener ‘Hands’ there seems to be a new confidence and authority to the band. Tonight the beast is unleashed and they give the kind of performance that makes me think they’ll soon come to the kind of wide musical prominence they deserve. I imagine we might be watching them playing big stages at festivals very soon.
Dawson is my equal favourite drummer around at the moment, ranking alongside the very excellent Andrew Cheetham of LoneLady and Easter fame. Both are utterly captivating to watch live and tonight Dawson’s exuberance recalls the gloury days of his time in the Marder (‘overrated’, mutters my companion) as he mouths along to the lyrics and commands the set, only his playing now seeming to be influenced more by Wild Beasts than 80s post-punk. The rhythm section controls and drives this band, creating a platform for the guitar noise and vocals that float above, each song segueing into the next as though conforming to an inevitable logic of Dawson’s making. At one point my companion claims Dawson has made a mistake and that this means he should be docked a week’s wages but I don’t think anyone else notices.
With Luke Louche all dressed in black, a silver cross round his neck occasionally catching the stage lights, and Kyoko Rathmell ever the dark angel, being simply stunning and heartfelt in everything she does, the band also look fucking hot. Luke doesn’t so much play his guitar as assault it. Occasionally, when he doesn’t have a part to play, he stands with his arms folded and surveys the crowd like a World War I general on an English bowling green, before letting rip with a torrent of thunderous, reverb-heavy guitar noise that envelops the crowd, suddenly collapsing and convulsing his gangly frame like he’s about to undergo some terrifying metamorphosis, shedding his skin to reveal the depraved and supernatural beast that lies within.
It’s a great gathering of human souls tonight – both in number and nature – and they get a real treat. This is a band discovering themselves, totally in the zone and delivering a towering, palatial performance that will no doubt be talked about for a long time to come, setting new standards for guitar bands in this city. Hello 2012. It seems that January really is underrated. The people of the New Manchester Review, whoever or whatever that might be, also deserve congratulating for putting on such a great lineup for FREE. If you like music and you weren’t there, why not? Nights like this make this city worth living in. In fact, when it comes to new music, right now it feels like Manchester and Salford are really spoiling us.
The set ends with Dawson drawing things to a close, getting up and departing with bass player Dave Louche, leaving Luke and Kyoko onstage, their backs to the audience, throttling their guitars, thrusting them against their amps, pulsing their hips in unison. It’s climactic in more than just a musical sense. In fact, it’s practically sordid. Watching them feels indecent. More prudish souls would avert their eyes.
When they’re finally done and withdraw from wherever it is they’ve been, Kyoko puts her guitar down, smiles and politely thanks the crowd. Luke chucks his Fender away contemptuously and follows her, saying nothing, just spitting on the floor as he strides across the stage. What a bastard. The story of boy meets girl was ever thus … I decide that from now on I’m only interested in watching bands where there’s obvious sexual tension between band members and that Luke Louche is my new rock ‘n’ roll hero.
As the crowd drifts out I find A— who is with her friend and a boy who I’d noticed standing with them during the Louche set. This is the boyfriend who I knew must exist. Let’s face it, our story was never destined to end that well. They have their coats on, ready to leave. I’m introduced to the Polish male. I say hello and he tactfully goes to see if their taxi has arrived.
As we say goodbye A— rests her hand on my arm.
‘I’ve missed you,’ she says.
‘I’ve missed you too.’
‘No, I mean I’ve really missed you.’
I look at her and she just nods her head.
‘The taxi’s here,’ says the returning boyfriend.
And with that, she’s gone.*
I spend the rest of the night in a state of drunken euphoria. I feel weirdly energised and exultant. I want to stay up all night and drink, dance and make noise. This must be what it feels like to be in New Hips.
We retreat to the inner sanctum of the Northern Quarter where the gloury of the night is picked apart in detail. As we sit at the bar and sip wine into the early hours, my companion and I also manage to enlist dream-synth duo Great Waves (of whom there will be more, much more, later) into the Schlieffen Plan, which is a longstanding pact between us. The plan was formed some weeks ago and it’s simple. When one of the signatories picks up the phone and gives the word, we all have to quit our jobs and go and live in Berlin. It can be any day, any time, although we agree we should probably now wait until after the new Great Waves single has been released. My companion mutters something about other commitments but we silence him. The only point is that the instigator cannot confer with the other signatories. It has to come as a surprise. We discuss producing a brochure for the Schlieffen Plan, because the offer is open to all, as long as you’re aware of the binding nature of what you’re signing up to. The brochure will be a kind of faux 1980s Club Med affair, emblazoned with the slogan, ‘LEAVE YOUR LIFE BEHIND’.
So, if one day you wake up with a strange feeling of emptiness and after a while you realise that actually you do quite miss us, then you know where we’re to be found. We’ll meet you outside the Reichstag. We’re the ones dressed in black, with our shiny silver crosses glinting in the pure German sunlight.
* Readers might be forgiven for taking this to be the most outrageous or wishful piece of fiction that I’ve ever had the temerity to put to paper, but they would be wrong. Mothers of England, this happened.
** Congratulations to the intern for pointing out that this is how every episode of Punch a Shark in the Face must end.
Photography © Louise O’Toole Music Photography