Unknown location, Salford, 17 March 2012
A battered, creaking Volkswagen van sluggishly lurches through the darkened streets of Salford. It’s the witching hour; barely a living soul stirs. The city’s drinkers and drug addicts have long since passed out in the long, dreamless sleep of the damned. The devil’s work, this. The vehicle is on the cusp of total collapse as well, like a post-coital pensioner. It turns off the main road at Strangeways prison and grinds to a halt in front of SWAYS HQ, practically on its knees.
The doors are hauled open and husks of male human beings emerge onto the pavement pulling guitars, amps and dusty bags full of bulky hardware. Their eyes are heavy and lifeless. They haven’t washed or slept for days. Nobody talks. These are the survivors of MONEY’s tour of France, the remnants of a glourious but gruelling chapter in SWAYS history. They made it to the end but now they’re pretty birds with broken wings. Everyone, that is, except the President, who is focussed and alert. He strides to the boot to unload the final items. But as he yanks it open he suddenly jumps back with a start and quickly slams it shut again, as though realising that he’s just opened Pandora’s Box.
‘What’s up?’ asks my barely sentient companion. ‘Have we forgotten something?’
‘The opposite,’ replies the President. ‘There … there’s something alive in that boot.’
‘Something alive?’ chuckles my companion.
‘Yes! Alive! I saw it move.’
‘Have a look yourself if you don’t believe me …’
My companion shrugs and does nothing. Overhearing the commotion, the zombies gather round the back of the van. The President marches to the passenger seat, takes a torch out the glove compartment, then returns to the boot and opens it for a second time. He shines the full-beamed light inside.
There’s a shuffling sound.
Something definitely moves.
A guitar case clatters onto the street and slowly a thin, raggedy human form inches into sight. A stubbly face peeks out, its wide eyes straining for light like a nocturnal tree-climber. What the fuck? He must’ve been in that boot for hours. Deciding to brave the inquisition, the stowaway hauls himself out into the world. He’s carrying a plastic bag stuffed full of stale clothes and wearing a tatty black jumper. He seems battered but not completely unnerved, apologetically holding his hands aloft as if to say, ‘Don’t shoot’.
‘I … I’m sorry,’ says the stowaway, with traces of an Arabic accent. ‘My name is Yousif. I’m so grateful for this great deed that you have done for me today!’ He flashes a broad, winning smile and opens his arms. ‘Please … I’m at your service.’
It takes a while for everyone to register what’s happened. Then Jamie Lee of MONEY breaks into peals of hysterical laughter and holds out his arms to greet the newcomer.
‘At my service?’ roars the President, who has recovered himself and is now foaming at the mouth. ‘How the hell do you work that one out pal? I run a record label here, not a cockle-picking business.’
‘Aha! Then it’s your lucky day, I’m a musician!’ beams Yousif, turning to the boot and pulling out an old guitar. He strums a few chords. ‘I’ll play in a band!’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ says the President, shaking his head, his bloodshot eyes bulging.
‘No, wait,’ intervenes my companion. ‘What if he’s good?’ My companion instinctively believes that SWAYS bands will be delivered to him in the strangest of ways. He’s not one for emails. ‘This could be great. We need another band for the Führer Bunker gig, don’t we? Well, think about it … Let’s stick him on. It’ll be subversive!’
The President looks over at the crumbling warehouse on the far side of the street: a massive, gothic form of sliding shadows and blacks. ‘So, that’s what it’s come to has it?’ he asks finally, still shaking his head.
‘Let him,’ pleads Jamie Lee, fluttering his puppy dog eyes. ‘Please let him.’
‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ says the President, relenting. He turns to Yousif, pointing his index finger in his face. ‘Right sunshine, you’ve got two weeks to sort yourself out with a decent band and give the performance of your life.’ He grabs his suitcase and heads off to the bunker. ‘Otherwise,’ he says, turning to face the smiling stowaway, ‘all you’ll be getting from me is a one way ticket to Sangatte.’
It’s the night of the second show at the SWAYS Führer Bunker and, as always, chaos reigns. People are arriving and bands are still sound-checking. Nothing is ready. I haven’t seen my companion this stressed since the night the Volkswagen van ran out of petrol on the Mancunian Way. The problem is that the vehicle lacks basic instrumentation, including a functioning petrol gauge. It spluttered to a halt halfway across the iconic flyover. My companion had experienced administration issues with taxation documentation and this exacerbated the general sense of crisis. It’s a night none of us will ever forget — we nearly died out there. The adrenaline quickly kicked in. Fight or flight. We honestly contemplated the latter but pushing won out as the slightly less illegal option. Luke Louche hasn’t been the same since …
That night my companion kept yelling ‘this is bad, bad, bad’ and tonight he’s similarly strung out. Someone seems to have spiked the stowaway’s drink, or intoxicated him in some other fashion, because he’s gibbering away like a madman too, telling anyone who’ll listen that’s he’s written 180 songs and doesn’t know which ones to play, maybe he should play them all? The President orders him to go on a jog round the local industrial estate to expend some of his nervous energy.
To cap it all off, Jamie Lee has gone AWOL and it’s just minutes before MONEY are due onstage. Having agreed to play the opening slot in a night that they’ve created, the lead singer is nowhere to be seen and the President is once again apoplectic.
‘You know what?’ he barks. ‘Someone should get that band a fucking manager.’
‘They’ve got a manager,’ I reply.
‘I mean one who knows what he’s doing.’
‘I just overheard the current one telling a load of girls that he’s the Robin Hood of SWAYS.’
‘The Robin Hood of SWAYS?’ exclaims the President with disgust. ‘The anti-Robin Hood more like! That man fucking robs from the poor to give to the rich. He hates poor people. He won’t even talk to you if you earn less than eighteen grand.’
At the eleventh hour Lee casually strolls in, sporting a straight-fringed choirboy haircut and distributing photocopied pages from a metaphysical tract on the poetry of William Blake that he’s been busy finishing. He’s ushered into the bunker’s wooden cage by the President and an apologetic Robin Hood.
Having got his first taste of speaking to a crowd during their gig at Silencio in Paris, it now seems that Lee can’t get enough of this whole audience interaction business. MONEY’s set begins with him giving a short speech about Blake’s search for spiritual enlightenment in an age of experience, before he proceeds to sing ‘Jerusalem’ unaccompanied. With his eyes closed and his neck stretched to the microphone like Tantalus reaching for the forbidden fruit, it’s a bold and hair-raising moment, the naked vocal seemingly trying to inhabit a state of completeness that will always, always just elude it … And therein lies its beauty.
Don’t let his whole angelic exterior fool you though. While on the surface Lee might come across as a fresh-faced preacher on a search for higher truths, readers should know that this man is a deviant. An immoralist. His main hobby is posting compromising pornographic images on the social network pages of leading beauty product manufacturers. This is how he gets his kicks. Just in case you haven’t seen it – which is highly unlikely, seeing as he’s posted it everywhere – here’s the evidence. Judge for yourselves. It’s also worth noting, as the band’s eagle-eyed French van driver and chauffeur to the not-yet-stars pointed out, that perhaps the best thing about this image is the open tab entitled ‘Taking Screenshots in Mac OS’.
Tonight sees MONEY in a relaxed mood, playing new material, swigging from bottles of red wine in between songs and generally seeming to enjoy themselves. Their set is as tight as ever but they seem more worried about creating the right atmosphere than self-consciously striving for clinical precision. Lee and fellow guitarist Charlie Cocksedge bob back and forth in unison at the front of the Führer Bunker cage like horse riders on a demented charge to heaven.
The highlight of their short set is a tie between bassist Scott Beaman’s jumper and forthcoming single ‘SOLONG (GODISDEAD)’, to be released on 7” by French record label Almost Musique in May and available for pre-order now. As they play it – and this is in no way meant to diminish the achievements of any of the other bands – I know it’s going to be the most beautiful music I hear all night. Probably because it’s the most beautiful piece of music I’ve heard for a very long time. I know when I truly fall in love with a song because it becomes the default setting for my idle brain. And right now, if I’m not listening to music, then Charlie Cocksedge’s guitar refrain and Billy Byron’s heart-beating drums are on loop. Jamie Lee’s reverby vocal shivers my timbers. I always need a song to obsess over and right now I wake in the morning with an almost physical need to listen to ‘SOLONG’ — the elegiac soundtrack to what happens when young love dies away and you find yourself all alone and aching in this empty world, absolutely overflowing with love for the thing that you’ve lost.
If you could cut me, this is how I’d bleed.
MONEY are followed by their SWAYS label-mates and partners in crime Great Waves. Mesmeric lead singer David De Lacy takes to the cage all bloodied and black, with his ruby red guitar and jumper topped off with a dark, dastardly scarf. This two-piece deal in swathes of electric guitar and keyboards layered over synthesised basslines and their music transforms the wooden cage into a brimming field of electronic sound that seems almost supernatural, somehow alive. It’s hard to understand how two people can create such rich textures. The vocal is ethereal and winds round the rafters of the old factory. De Lacy’s mouth seems to create beautiful noise even when he’s nowhere near the microphone. The air within the cage is electrified, fizzing with melodies born of spinning atoms. The visuals of the bunker add to the paranormal splendour of the occasion. Weird white planets are projected onto white sheets at the back of the cage while De Lacy howls at the moon, his lips quivering.
De Lacey’s trademark moans and languorous whoops deserve a detailed taxonomy of their own, such is there emotional articulacy. They range from the damaged wail of a lioness calling her lost cub on a windswept savannah to the ennui of a bored French aristocrat tumbling out of bed and buttoning up his shirt after another meaningless conquest. With their debut double-A side single, ‘The Shore’/ ‘Into the Blue’, set for release by SWAYS in May, this is music for bedrooms and nights that you never want to end.
After they complete their hallucinogenic set, I make my way to the back rooms to grab more of the wine that’s been stashed away. Finding myself in the deepest bowels of the Bunker, I overhear MONEY bassist Scott Beaman in an adjoining room drunkenly laying into the President for the lack of rock ‘n’ roll provision that’s been made for the band, whose diva-like rider requirements are becoming notorious.
‘If Alan McGee was here, he’d be embarrassed for you now,’ says a truculent Beaman. ‘There’d be a mile of cocaine, strippers, blowjobs … But what do we get? A bottle of Tesco wine!’
‘The President would like to point out,’ says the President calmly, referring to himself in the third person in a way that’s become worryingly common of late, ‘that Alan McGee did sign Oasis.’
‘True,’ concedes Beaman.
‘The President would also like to point out that if Prince was here, instead of MONEY, then things would be different.’
He marches back into the main room with a flourish and we follow, clutching our Tesco wine.
It’s the moment that everyone who’s heard his remarkable story has been waiting for: the live debut of stowaway Yousif and his new band, Kult Cøuntry. Formed in just two weeks from what can only be described as a manic sweep of the Manchester music scene and a dubious array of promises and favours, everyone has crammed round the cage to see what the young upstart will come up with. The President stands at the back with a slight smile on his face — the smile of a man utterly convinced that he’s about to be proved right. The smile of a man who really can’t wait to tell absolutely everyone, I told you so.
Yousif is clearly hammered.
His long, straggly black hair dangles over his face in a way that is partly like a fledgling rock God, partly like the girl in The Ring.
He stands in the middle of the cage with all the band members facing inwards towards him, like predators closing in on their encircled prey.
Boy, does he fight for his life. Performances like this are what the cage was built for.
Kult Cøuntry’s sound is heavy and scuzzy, recalling 90s alternative rock groups like Dinosaur Jr, while at times easing into a less frantic brand of psychedelia that’s closer to the likes of the Black Angels. Sometimes Yousif crouches over his guitar and sings his heart out, at other times he dispenses of his instrument and twists and contracts, yelling into the microphone, the crazed, deranged centre point of the turning world.
I’m drunk and loving it. A small mosh pit develops round the front, led by Jamie Lee who’s going wild, hammering on the bars of the wooden cage like a hyperactive child at the zoo who’s just seen an alligator and wants to be friends.
I write in my notebook, ‘You dirty fuckers.’
The set is an absolute triumph. At the end, Yousif collapses onto the floor in a sweaty heap and is hauled from the cage onto the shoulders of MONEY and their friends. They parade him round the bunker like an exhausted gladiator and then out into the clear black night, through the throngs of drinkers and smokers who’ve gathered outside on the glass-flecked street, utterly victorious.
It’s a hard act to follow, even for an established and revered Manchester guitar band like Young British Artists, but they go about their set like a group utterly determined to uphold their hard-won credentials. Having flirted with the mainstream following the success of their recent single ‘Everything in Front of You’, they seem to have found a place that feels closer to home in the crumbling warehouses of this dirty old town.
I’ve always liked their name — aesthetically it works and it speaks to the hopefulness and sadness of a generation that promised so much and yet perhaps failed to deliver, losing itself in money, fires and other conflagrations. If fate has something similarly New Labour in store for Young British Artists — whose time is surely now or never — then they don’t seem set on sliding away quietly. With driving basslines, abrasive guitars and hyperactive drums that punctuate the songs with volleys of bullet-quick rolls, they push the sound of the venue as far as it can possibly go before it vanishes into white noise. The performance is equally intense. Singer and bassist Leo Scott just fucking goes for it, the veins on his forehead quickened and pulsing, leading the way with a sense of urgency and abandonment to the darker forces that control him — in fact, all of us — forces that tonight send Scott climbing up the wooden frame of the cage, cat-like, prowling the rafters as the band thunders on below him, returning to the floor to spit out some lyrics only to take himself up to the top of the cage again, stare into the eyeballs of the gobsmacked crowd and jump.
Everything pauses for a second while time catches up with what just happened.
Then the film rolls in double speed. Way too late, people reel backwards in shock or go to catch him. Men remove their broken glasses. Girls check that other girls are alright. Scott is scraped from the floor. It’s OK, he’s not dead. It’s an incredible moment and an unbelievable way to bring the set to a close — a split-second of instinctive madness that deserves to go down in Manchester music history just because it was totally and utterly berserk on every level.
You always know that when SWAYS are involved, you’re going to get a final act.
It all begins innocently enough, with Egyptian Hip Hop on DJ duty in the back room. Everyone’s loving it, with the manic energy of the Young British Artists set propelling us into the night. The music is loud and celebratory. The President has a paternal arm round Yousif as he incites him to sign a contract on top of the washing machine that decorates the bunker entrance hall. Luke Louche is naked on drugs but nobody seems to care or even notice his increasingly erratic behaviour. Here this kind of thing is considered normal. The only thing he’s wearing is a fake moustache in an attempt to look more like his idol Nick Cave, who has been a theme of the night. The multi-skilled SWAYS intern has even turned one of the toilets into a kind of shrine to the great man, complete with candles, photos and free contraception. It’s christened the Cave Cave.
There’s an amazing girl who I stalk round the building. She looks like Princess Leia out of Star Wars. My first love. I keep trying to touch her and she doesn’t stop me. Things are looking good. We talk, we dance, we lose our heads. I don’t really know what happens for a long time. I’m simply not there. It’s called fun.
Then suddenly, disaster strikes.
‘Who the fuck did this?’ yells the President, who has returned to the packed back room. He points to some blue graffiti that’s been scrawled on a wall near one of the speakers. ‘Come on,’ he shouts. ‘Own up.’
This is not good.
He yanks a cable out of Egyptian Hip Hop’s laptop and then everyone really listens. When he gets angry, the President’s lower jaw juts and his teeth are bared like a nasty trout.
‘It’s all over the place,’ he says to the stunned room, with his hands on his head in shock. ‘In the toilets, on the garage next door … fucking everywhere!’ He pulls the door shut behind him. ‘And I tell you what, none of you lot are going anywhere until I find out who did this. One of you must know.’
I grab Princess Leia and make a bolt for the door. My companion stands next to the President with a weird look in his eye. There’s a total absence of recognition as I stand in front of him, trying to leave.
‘Move out the way,’ I say. ‘Obviously it wasn’t me.’
He says nothing and stands aside. Holding hands with Princess Leia, I leave the room. I glance back as the door is closing and see another girl beseeching the President to let her out, holding her arms in front of her in earnest supplication. As the door slams shut, it reminds me of the scene where the women are ushered into the shower room in Schindler’s List.
The President isn’t lying: there’s blue graffiti everywhere. It daubs the walls of the main rooms and corridors. Blue squiggles, blue lines, blue emblems, like some kind of Sanskrit — an impenetrable mystical text. There’s satanic scrawl in the toilets. They’ve even desecrated the Cave Cave. Vandals!
I walk with Princess Leia to the main road and flag down a taxi. I try to make light of the situation but the moment’s gone. She’s shaken and won’t be persuaded to accompany me back to my hovel. My attempts to persuade her become increasingly pathetic. I won’t try it on or anything, I just don’t want to be alone … As we sweep beneath the city’s streetlights I catch the taxi driver smirking in his rear view mirror.
No epiphanies tonight. No French girls or naked rampages; just myself and my own stagnant company as I turn the key, kick off my shoes and slump onto the sofa. I switch on the television and flick through the channels. There’s nothing much on. Lolling with my head against the arm of the sofa and starting to drool, I scroll through the list of recordings. My flatmate has an addiction to Take Me Out. With my heavy eyelids drooping shut, I press play.
A stream of painted girls dance their way across the studio floor, slipping round the camera that sits in the middle of it all like a rock in a gaudy river, then waving at the audience as they take their places behind the bright neon podiums. They jump up and down and clap their hands in excitement, shaking their hips to the music. Who will it be tonight? Will they find their Mr Darcy, their Mr Right, to whisk them off to the limited paradise that is the Isle of Fernando’s?
‘Single man, reveal yourself!’ beams ebullient northern lad-man Paddy McGuiness.
Smoke pours from beneath the lift shaft that stands bold and erect in the centre of the set, bisecting the two parted rows of single girls. But rather than the normal crude house anthem or disco classic, a sense of puzzlement greets a far more tranquil entrance than these good time girls are used to. The lilting strains of Jamie Lee’s opening vocal to ‘SOLONG (GODISDEAD)’ gently peal through the ITV studio air.
I’m a parasite sent from god, you’re the strange, you’re the odd and I’m war …
As the lift slowly descends, I am revealed, wearing my best black keikogi. I’ve fallen to my knees, with my eyes closed and my chin pressed to my half-naked chest, lost in the hypnotic refrain of Charlie Cocksedge’s evocative guitar. The girls crane their necks and turn to each other with scrunched up faces. What the fuck? Where’s the usual overly-cocky and subtly desperate man about town?
The lift touches down and I hold forth a beating human heart in my bloodied hands.
Initially, there’s just one lone cry of horror — a high-pitched squawking like a seagull — but pretty soon the whole line starts screaming. I jump to my feet and lurch over to the girls on the left, holding forth my horrific trophy and mouthing the words ‘take me’.
It’s a shame God is dead, it’s a shame you could come down …
The single girls huddle together to protect themselves, cowering in fear. Some of them have started to cry. Makeup runs down their pretty, pouting faces.
‘No likey no lighty!’ yells a frantic McGuiness, wielding his catchphrase like a lightsaber. ‘If you’re turned off, then turn off!’
Who’d have thought we’d die young?
This seems to bring the girls to their senses and a first lone, heart-breaking light-going-out noise is followed by the cascading sound of mass dismissal. Even tattooed dirty girl Merlisa switches off. I shoot the interfering bastard McGuiness a look that says I’ll sort you out later mate and run over to the girls on the right, hoping that at least one of them will sense the honesty of my metaphors, the heat of my passion, the intensity of my longing …
And I feel and I feel and I feel, like the one …
‘NO LIKEY NO LIGHTY!’ screams McGuiness, beside himself with worry, his head in his hands — not man enough to approach the lunatic though, instead continuing to proffer his pathetic advice from afar.
It’s not going very well but as each light goes out and the screams multiply, weirdly I find myself getting more and more turned on. A towering passion rises from the darkest depths of my being. I abandon myself to the dark gods that marshal my odious desires. Parting my keikogi, I caress the mother of all erections and latch my attentions onto a group of three strays who have broken from the pack and are clinging to each other in the far corner of the studio in wide-eyed disbelief, their lips pursed, flushed with blood.
Something doesn’t feel right though. There’s a weird dampness down below — more dampness than would normally be expected in this situation. A thick sticky substance is coating my palms and my ugly rigid manhood. The blood! Of course! That’ll be the blood from my severed human heart.
But I’m wrong. As I open my eyes and peer down at my unbuttoned black jeans, I see that my hands aren’t stained blood red at all. With a dawning realisation of all that this implies, I hold my graffiti-blue palms aloft before my eyes.
The horror, the horror. What was I thinking?
I’m done for.
Photography © Magnus Aske Blikeng at www.mabvision.com and Tommy Peacock.