The Führer Bunker, Salford, 1 May 2012
I lower my bitten and bruised body into a warm bath that’s slowly filling to the brim. The water comes close to overflowing, lapping against the undulating rings of scum that signal the high tide mark. Lying back and resting my weary head against the side, I turn off the hot tap with my big toe. This is where I come to clip my nails and preen my sentences. I take a sip of red wine then light a cigarette, inhaling deeply. This ritual always reminds me of being a teenager and reading J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey for the first time. The introduction to Zooey Glass was also an introduction to the kind of adult I wanted to be, which is to say one who would read typewritten letters on yellowing paper while sitting in a bath in Manhattan, with his cigarette ash tumbling onto the pages and into the tub.
Usually any act of naked hedonism is enough to cheer me up, but right now that’s not easy. I feel out of sorts, depressed. So much so that I hardly even notice the video of ‘Eleventh Hour’ by PINS that’s beaming onto the bathroom wall through a dusty projector propped up on a pile of hardbacks. I have it playing on a constant loop for my entertainment and arousal. If anything should lift my spirits then it’s bath-smoking while perving on this noir footage. I simply never get bored of it. My companion has even suggested that I might be the individual best placed to direct the next PINS video, such is my appreciation of the aesthetic possibilities that this band have to offer. He has a point. I’ve already settled on a concept. It would be a loving homage to the car wash scene in Wild Things, with me playing the part of Mr Lombardo, of course, and it would end up being displayed in fuxking MOMA alongside ‘Fight the Power’ and ‘Sabotage’.
But not even this, my favourite thought, can shake me from my malaise. The black dog is well and truly on my shoulder; despondency has sunken in and taken hold of my body like rising damp. For a start, the shark bite girl who’s responsible for all these velvet bruises has gone — she fled to a monastery after our third night together, claiming that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her in a vision, warning her off. What a bitch! The Virgin Mary, that is. The things I’d do if I ever got my hands on that teasing whore … Now I can’t stop thinking of the waste of sensuality that’s hived away in those ascetic cells. The way she devoured me, biting each other black and blue through all the shades of pain … Memory is for girls, as my companion is so fond of saying, with subtle and probably unintentional mastery of the double entendre. Geoffrey Hill would be proud of the way that phrase works against itself, with its feigned indifference lapsing into actual obsession …
Then there’s been the whole sorry fürore over Führergate as well. I feel sort of responsible. Everything got out of hand … The Führer Bunker was just a nickname for the place that SWAYS records calls home. The President is a tyrant; it’s in the middle of a war zone where fires burn like funeral pyres; and the place is a fuxking concrete bunker! It didn’t seem unreasonable … Now the internet is awash with indignation, everyone clambering to get on our case like rats in a ditch fighting over some piss. People think we’re Nazis or worse, hipsters!
If memory is for girls, then tonight all this boy wants is a bit of forgetfulness. Fuxk memory and fuxk girls (Hill again). Pass me the wine, Dimitri … I put my head under the water and think of the billows of blood in MONEY’S video for ‘SOLONG (GODISDEAD)’. I just want to slip under all this reality like a ghostly body under the wheels of a bullet train, or else to be washed away like the dirty water that will soon drain through this plughole, along with the thin blood, down through the stinking sewers that channel our bodily waste to the sea, winding through the writhing intestines of this gormandising city, drenched in shit and sick and expelled from the world like the memory of a bad dream, eventually finding myself delivered to the very bottom of the lowest circle, collapsed in a fetid, soaking heap on the floor of the bunker just in time to catch the opening salvos of Kristallnacht or whatever the hell SWAYS, Now Wave and co. are calling this night now.
My companion stares down at me. ‘Get up,’ he says. ‘PINS are on in a moment.’
He reaches for my slimy hand and hauls me to my feet. I feel like I’ve been recently lobotomised. Have I forgotten something important? I look my companion in the eye, swiping his fringe to the side so that he seems more realistic.
‘Eight girls, two bands, one cage,’ he says, nodding at the sturdy wooden structure in front of us and ignoring my dishevelment. ‘I wanted you to call it “the birdcage” in your review.’
‘Because, for one night only, it’s a cage full of birds.’
‘I get it.’
‘Then I thought we could call it “the sexy menagerie”.’
‘But that doesn’t work. I looked it up and apparently a menagerie is a cage full of animals. Not just birds … And these are just birds.’ He pauses. ‘The animals are all on the outside.’
As my brain tries to catch up with what he’s going on about Jamie Lee from MONEY walks up, looking slightly askance. There’s a dripping pool of water and soggy tissues gathering by my feet. He shakes his head and hands me a leaflet that’s blazoned with the words NEW HEAVEN WITHIN AN ANTI-WORLD – APHORISMS ON A SELF-DEFINED UTOPIA. But before I’ve had the opportunity to read any more of his freewheeling philosophy the black-clad belladonnas of PINS have taken to the cage and tonight’s entertainment has begun.
Having seen them play live a couple of times recently, I know what I’m in for tonight and what backtracking this review is going to involve. I know it’s going to be good — much better than they were six months ago and certainly a galactic leap forward from that night when they supported Iceage and then did despicable things to me. I’m not really sure if I got it completely wrong that time or if they really have improved beyond all recognition, or whether it’s a bit of both. What I do know is that since then, PINS seem to have metamorphosed into a darker, more confident and brooding musical force, with the screeching single note spikes and thick discordant drones made by guitarists Faith Holgate and Lois McDonald forming a textured noise that writhes over Anna Donigan’s no bullshit basslines and Lara Williams’s tribal toms.
Beyond the fact that the band consists of girls who can sing and make good music, the standard comparison with Warpaint now seems quite wide of the mark, rendering the second-hand contribution of middle-aged, overpaid hacks like those at the Guardian who are too lazy to form their own opinions utterly irrelevant. The band are exploring a much wider palette of sound — the uncertain copyists have blossomed into noise experimentalists who probably stay up late listening to the Velvet Underground and the Jesus and Mary Chain while pissing off their neighbours.
As always, they look incredible. Whenever I see lead singer Holgate, I have the impression that I’m looking at archival film of a Hollywood actress or a punk icon from a previous era, rather than encountering an actual human being in reality. Tonight she’s wearing a wide-brimmed pilgrim hat and a silver glittery dress that catches fragments of light as she gyrates her hips and curves whispy, ethereal shapes with her guitar like plumes of smoke. Donigan is just unflappable, not in any way bothered by occasional slips or equipment malfunctions, exuding the calm of someone who evidently doesn’t give a fuxk, while McDonald stands with her back to the crowd, flashing a light bulb tattoo on the back of her right arm. I feel a tug at the inky flesh wound on my own right arm — a big old red heart with an anchor stuck through.
There’s something slightly anomalous about Williams’s drumming style and tonight it finally dawns on me that it’s to do with her facial expressions — or rather the lack of them. Resolutely rejecting the rock drummer cliché of mindless gurning and idiotic over-expression, she instead adopts a slightly haughty, headmistressy demeanour as she sharply raps her sticks against the snare like a wooden ruler on a naughty child’s hand. Her lips tighten to suppress the glimmer of a smile.
‘These pictures could be dead good,’ says my enthused photographer sidekick who is using up her last roll of a now discontinued line of film, which seems kind of poetic.
‘Is it going to be bright enough though?’ I ask. ‘Won’t you need a flash?’
‘Don’t be daft,’ she replies in her matter-of-fact Macclesfield tone. ‘I’ve done a few shoots where people have said there’s not enough light. But even in darkness, there’s always enough light.’ With that she’s gone, ducking under arms and creeping between legs to get to the front of the cage.
Behind the compelling foursome, arty projections flicker against a white sheet, including gnomic quotations such as ‘You can be so heavenly minded you are no earthly use,’ courtesy of socialist preacher Donald Soper. I’m particularly pleased to see that the hall of mirrors scene from The Lady from Shanghai has made it into the montage, forming the perfect backdrop to their catchy B-side ‘Shoot You’ — a song that my companion and I love so much that we often find ourselves standing around and harmonising to the chorus in a slightly gay way, just to stop us from getting bored. It’d be nice to think that in the minds of PINS, Rita Hayworth’s gun was still aiming at me; but I think not. They no longer give me those stares, to be honest. The only looks I get from PINS these days are looks of pity.
There’s a palpable air of expectation surrounding the Manchester-Salford début of tonight’s headliners, Savages. With their online presence limited to a black and white video of them playing in a pub (admittedly a fuxking great video), people have come from far and wide to see what all the fuss is about. Every side of the bunker cage is tightly packed with souls pressing against the wooden bars like moths round a gas lamp.
They launch into a high-octane set that owes much, both visually and musically, to post-punk luminaries such as the Slits, Joy Division and Public Image Ltd, yet it’s also infused with more contemporary kinetics, the propulsive high-hat rhythms bringing to mind bands such as Foals. During set-opener ‘City’s Full’ Jamie Lee immediately escapes the parental attentions of Now Wave and scales the cage with a video camera to capture what now unfolds — it’s about the only way anyone can get a clear view.
Waifish lead singer Jehnny Beth is a captivating front woman, dressed in a tight black top and black trousers, with her short cropped nouvelle vague hair and (I’m told) expensive red-soled high-heeled shoes bringing an air of sophisticated Gallic chic to the standard riot grrrl persona. At the base of her microphone stand there are plastic cups containing alcoholic beverages and also a carton of cranberry juice. Throughout the set she yelps and whoops as she circles her arms and casts expressive shapes with her svelte body, clinging to herself and winding her hips like she’s thinking dirty thoughts to keep herself warm while lying in a freezing ditch.
Bass player Ayse Hassan drives the songs in true post-punk style with guitarist Gemma Thompson alternating between swathes of distortion and clean, choppy chords. One of my favourite moments is the introduction of a new song called ‘Shut Up’ that’s being played live for the first time. Claiming they don’t know how it goes, Beth stands with her notebook in hand to read the lyrics and, as a heavy four to the floor beat kicks in Hassan looks momentarily terrified, like a rabbit in the headlights. She gives the impression that she’s just going to have to wing it … then right on cue she comes out with the kind of down and dirty, body-grabbing bassline that’d make Jah Wobble proud — something she does quite often, actually.
Throughout the set I stick fast to my spot by the drummer, entranced by the way she bounces on her seat as she pelts her kick drum pedal and goes ballistic on the snare during endless hypnotic charges of rhythmic shuffling, her CND chain flailing over her shoulder, bathed in sweat, her eyes closed, shaking her head from side to side.
‘I thought I’d find you here,’ says Andy from SWAYS nearly-men Irk the River as he passes to go to the toilet. ‘There’s a man over there with a microphone and I think he might have just recorded me saying obscene things about that drummer.’
Unlike Andy Irk, Beth generally says very little between songs, but at one point she seizes the microphone to address the crowd. ‘It’s very nice to play The Führer Bunker,’ she says in a lilting French accent. ‘When we were asked we were really scared …’ She then embarks on a slightly odd rant about the Nazi invasion of France that seems to take issue with the Allies for their intervention (or lack thereof) and leaves the crowd slightly unsure how to respond … ‘But we won!’ she reminds us, presumably talking about the French and neglecting to thank the English for saving their bacon. Vichy France leaves very little room for the moral high ground … But nobody else is quisling tonight as Savages launch into what is quite possibly one of the best songs about war ever written, ranging from the furious euphoria of a battle charge to wistful introspection.
This set makes a clear agenda-setting statement: music as high art delivered by a group who seem to attend to the finer details of everything they do. This includes their carefully cultivated sense of mysteriousness. As a buzz band who seem to have come from nowhere, some might be forgiven for dismissing this as the triumph of style over substance. But it’s not a question of either/or. Savages have both. They remind me of LoneLady in the way that their reference points are flaunted but then distorted and updated in intelligent and idiosyncratic ways. This is not clumsy postmodern pastiche but an art form in development through the all-encompassing anxiety of influence, or rather the angels of influence, as I prefer to see them — all the dead dears hovering over our shoulders in the libraries, spelling out our futures … Savages plunder the past for what it’s worth and, a bit like CND, they come out with something that feels a bit time-worn but at the same time urgently relevant. This is also music to dance to and that’s how it ends, with an impromptu mosh-pit forming at the back of the cage (the only place where there’s any room) like the deranged, wine-soaked brains behind the beautiful mask of poise and composure that’s on display out the front.
Heart-beating in quick time with excitement at this, the first date with my new favourite band, I kiss my lipstick-wearing companion good night, lift open a heavy iron drain cover on the street outside the bunker and lower myself back into the sewers, down into the thousand darknesses of history and sleep. When will we meet again? May 30th to be precise: Salford, take note. I feel that this really has been a night that will be remembered in the future by those of us who were lucky enough to be able to say that we were there. It seems significant in some way that no-one will fully understand for some time to come — part of a New History. For now though, we must be content simply to celebrate what has happened here in the heart of doom and to talk of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of Savages and PINS.
Images © Natalie Curtis at http://www.16apr79.com/.