The Führer Bunker, Salford, 19 October 2012
SWAYS don’t really do summer. It’s hard to imagine the pasty, black jean-wearing inhabitants of the Führer Bunker taking holidays in the sun; they’re much happier sat in the dark sipping cocktails and watching Béla Tarr films. But come September-time, the machine cranks back into gear; when the autumn chill starts to bite this organisation (I use that word in the loosest possible sense) suddenly springs back into life and dark fruits fatten on their vines. First, there was news of a new single and video by a band who I will forever insist on calling Naked on Drugs, no matter how much they try to contract their brilliantly fuxked-up and imagistic name. ‘Death Dance’ is a hypnotic, deranged work of avant-garde experimentalism that will divide listeners into those who have good music taste and those who do not.
Then there was the Human Beast event at Islington Mill, described by one reviewer as a mixture of ‘explosive psychopath pop’, ‘alien philosophy’ and ‘violent jazz’, culminating in a sea of sprawling bodies. Guess you had to be there … And now the Führer Bunker has opened its iron gates for the autumn/winter season and the difficult second series begins …
A bit like its inhabitants, the building doesn’t suit the sun. In daylight, it shrivels into thin air, like a vampire outside its coffin. But under cover of darkness, the old bag factory has an aura that combines menace and mystique in equal measure. Getting there is not for the faint-hearted. The walk from Manchester city centre to the venue even prompted one of the city’s most venerable music websites to produce a kind of SWAYS survival kit, a bit like concerned parents looking out for their wide-eyed children as they prepare to embark on a slightly risqué gap year. I say: Throw away the Lonely Planet! That walk is a bit like being raped in the dorm at public school: it breeds character in those who most need it.
With previous gigs being cancelled due to warnings about local machete gangs roaming the streets and neighbours such as Dale Cregan for company — the one-eyed cop killer is currently locked up and awaiting trial over the road in Strangeways — tonight there has been a general heightening of security, with two undercover police officers sat outside in an unmarked squad car eating chips and listening to a CD of ‘Death Dance’ that’s been eagerly pressed on them through the open passenger window. A group of silent Somalians are huddled up in the back of the bunker with baseball bats, just in case things get really nasty.
Mothers of England, fear not. Tonight is no Altamont, and it should be said that SWAYS have also gone to great lengths to soften the image of the bunker. The interior is lit by candles and joss sticks that line the beams of the notorious wooden cage and huge posters of an avuncular-looking Ernest Hemmingway stare down from the corridor walls. This is SWAYS Redux, complete with a fully licensed bar doing a special promotion on Red Stripe and a savvy commercial strategy. You will be aware of the HMV Ritz, the O2 Apollo and the Manchester Carling Cathedral. Well, now you can add the Kangol Führer Bunker to this illustrious set of venues: they’ve got the style, the Louche have got the Samuel L. Jackson looks, time for everyone to make lots of money, non?
The first of tonight’s bands, the duo Bernard and Edith, complete the feeling of inner warmth. With a few impressive songs now available online, nobody quite knows what to expect in terms of a live performance from these newcomers, because they haven’t done one yet. The male half, sitting cross-legged on a crumpled Afghan rug in front of his synthesiser and drum machine, is Nicholas Delap of much-hyped Manchester group Egyptian Hip Hop — a band who have just released their first album, which is widely being regarded as a kind of rebirth, a second chance to deliver on their unfulfilled potential, which seems incredible, given their tender years. They’re barely out their teens, for fuxksake! When did the timeframes of popular culture contract and become so unforgiving? The world is full of greying, embarrassing 80s bands on breakfast TV talking about reunion tours and bland new albums that no one wants to buy, recorded in expensive studios. When did bands of this younger generation get so fairly and squarely shafted? … And it’s not just record deals, it’s everything, fundamental things that apply to everyone, like jobs, houses and a University education, all suddenly just vanished. It doesn’t seem fair. And it’s not! Youth seems to be bearing all the pain, while the wealth and opportunities remain heaped on the pot-bellied middle-aged generation that least deserves it.
Fortunately, tonight evidences the continually flowering creativity of a group who will go on to make great music whatever the circumstances, with Delap hidden away behind his Puma baseball cap controlling a wide template of beats, tones and samples. Yet it’s vocalist Greta Carroll who takes centre stage, clutching a vintage wartime microphone and gyrating to the rise and fall of the music, lost in her own world, delivering a performance that is heartfelt and introspective, bringing to mind the minimalism and naked emotion of early Portishead. As church bells peal round the bunker projections of flickering faces beam onto a white sheet draped over the back of the cage. Swigging from a bottle of red wine, Carroll sings every word like she passionately means it. When she sings of heartbreak, it’s like her heart is breaking right now. The growing crowd seem entranced by a captivating debut performance that promises special things to come.
‘We should probably get rid of some of this rock wool,’ says my companion, looking over his shoulder at the stacks of flammable material behind us. Nobody told Bernard and Edith not to fill the place with candles and joss sticks … ‘Have you got any poppers?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I reply. ‘Why?’
But as the second band, Regal Safari, finish setting up their synths and start swaying backwards and forwards without any great fanfare, absorbed in the growing soundscape of their layered, unstructured electronica, I think I understand that rather than wanting to rape me, my companion is searching for the best way to bend his hardened mind to this eclectic occasion. It’s suddenly become a bit more like what the Warehouse Project would be like if it took place in an actual warehouse.
The one problem with this line-up is that it presents a world of confusion for the recreational drug user. If Bernard and Edith make you want to smoke a joint, then this Brighton duo leave you wanting to scratch someone’s eye out for a pill. That is, if you haven’t come prepared … It’s not the kind of band that we’ve become accustomed to at this place and the night is all the better for it, with the accomplished two-piece delivering a set that uses sophisticated dramatic structures — the development of tension, the delivery of release — much of which seems to be improvised, based on their reading of the moment, the way the bass loops and vocal samples weave together and are then undone, waiting to let the beat kick in just when for a moment things seem to be without an anchor in space and time.
As an old-school rave atmosphere starts to develop in the main room, I withdraw to the back rooms in search of a drink, hoping to hell they’ve got some Red Stripe because I’m parched.
In a corridor I find the President leaning against the wall in his charity shop suit, smoking a Lambert and Butler. He seems unusually thoughtful.
‘I’ve got a theory,’ he says, looking like a parent in a hospital waiting room who has visibly aged overnight. ‘I think I might’ve been molested by a doctor at school.’
I don’t know what to say. Is he being serious? He’s one of those where you never know. I get where he’s coming from though. Since the news broke, I think we all feel somehow tarnished. Most nights the pantomime villain makes an appearance in my dreams, stalking me back to my childhood in his white track suit, jangling his gold jewellery, the crazy night porter pushing the hospital trolley, his wild white hair framing his cartoonish face and jutting chin. His flashing eyes peer at me through Ali G glasses as he paces up and down, flicking his cigar like one of the Marx brothers, smiling, asking me strange questions, beseeching. I’m terrified and alone, sometimes I’m writing notes on a piece of paper that I crumple up and throw into a bin, crying my eyes out … These dreams are brief and it’s never long before I’m startled awake by the bright light of panic.
‘I always wanted a “Jim’ll Fix It” badge,’ mutters my companion, joining us in the corridor.
‘What did you want fixing?’ I ask.
‘Anything really …’
‘But there’s the problem,’ says the President, looking disconsolate, like all the light in the world has gone out and he doesn’t know where to look. ‘Jim might’ve fixed it. But what if you weren’t broken?’
He stubs his cigarette out on the concrete floor. ‘Cunt,’ he says, and walks off.
We watch him disappear down the corridor. Who could say anything more? My companion grabs me by the collar. ‘Fuxk it, he says. Let’s have a Red Stripe.’
As we squeeze our way back through the sea of bodies packed round the cage and try to find somewhere where we can see into the glowing interior, the DJ fades out and the night’s final twosome enter through the sheets at the back. People are perched on ledges and the stacks of rock wool.
Words don’t do justice to G R E A T W A V E S, or at least mine don’t. With their simple, repeated lyrics spilling forth from singer David De Lacy’s wide, aquatic mouth, full of soul, and the layers of synthesiser, samples and plucked electric guitar chords, their songs are always suggestive of another state of being, a state beyond language, and beyond the petty encumbrances and frustrations of day-to-day life, of the body and its imperfections, of jobs and unemployment, of memories, resentments, arguments, telephone calls and aggravation, of bills and governments, of wasted days that we will never remember again, when a day unremembered is worse than if it never had been, as Laurie Lee once wrote, or something like it, Lee being the poet-novelist who also wrote so beautifully about the childhood discovery of sexuality as a lyrical and innocent journey spent under the apple cart with Rosie, untouched by the adult world, a poet-novelist who also shares bloodlines with Jamie Lee, the poet-leader of MONEY, lately in exile, whose vision first brought the Führer Bunker to life and who first took me to a house in a Withington council estate nearly a year ago, early one Sunday morning, the sun almost rising, church bells ringing, so we could listen to a spur of the moment gig in a living room, promising me that I was about to discover the best new band in the city …
And look at them now, true to his word, playing their first headline show to a growing crowd of believers. People mouth the words and yelp rapturously between songs, wanting to return a little of the love that G R E A T W A V E S exude in every detuned chord and drone. Sweat catches the light on De Lacy’s lips as he moans into the microphone, finally stepping back and meekly smiling, nodding appreciatively. There is an incredible intimacy to such moments, as though these songs are still being played in a front room, to friends. And in a way they are.
As the set draws to an end smoke fills the bunker, eventually folding back and giving way to the opening bass notes of ‘Into the Blue’. The synthesised Twin Peaks atmospherics are underpinned by shifting tones and beats and De Lacy and Oliver Ocean momentarily seem god-like, with the clouds at their feet. White flowers bloom in quick time on the white sheets behind them — projections emanating from the multi-talented Delap and his laptop by the corner of the cage. With mystical lyrical refrains such as ‘golden waves’ resounding in swathes of reverb, the songs describe voyages into unknown states of being and are drenched with intimations of mortality. Yet there is no fear hear, only love, the peace which passeth understanding, and if G R E A T W A V E S take us to the edge, the shore, the boundary that separates us from the other side, it is not to evoke the fear of not-being, but to remind us of all the beauty that surrounds us in the land of the living.
All photography © Natalie Curtis at http://www.16apr79.com/.
Next bunker gig: Saturday 17 November. Machete gangs not welcome.