Middle Eastern migrants have flooded into the German capital in their thousands, slightly more modern than we might have expected in their Adidas tracksuits, football shirts and baseball caps, wielding iPhones and digital cameras, their tents stretching for miles down the Unter den Linden, a dirty, grungy city of tarpaulin sheets and ragged Arabic fabrics that’s turned the whole area around the Brandenburg Gate into a kind of Taliban Glastonbury. The situation is clearly untenable and I can’t help but think Angela Merkel must have some kind of solution in mind. I know that technically I’m one of them myself — the pollutants, the undesirable Others — having found myself caught up in the great leak of humanity that washed up on western shores after Disaster Zero all those years ago. But every living space has its limits. Natural limits. I got here first — ahead of the curve of history, once again — and enough is enough. The Germans don’t let any old fool serve as Chancellor and my guess is that this is all just Angela’s way of rounding up the filth before she shunts them all off to the Hauptbahnhof, their backpacks piling up on the concourse, the cattle cars waiting.
I’ve been hiding out here in my spiritual home for a while now, leaving my companion and Mistress of Photography to hold fort at the White Hotel as I lust after teenage actresses and drink away the pain of existence with the shady remnants of the cold war underworld. Tonight Manchester girl gang PINS have rolled into town on their never-ending world tour and I’m heading over to Kreuzberg to write a review for old time’s sake.
I get to the small club just in time to order a large white wine and a tequila, aka an LA Ladyboy. I hand over my euros, down the tequila, ask the barman to put some ice in my wine then head over to the stage as it fills with black PVC, hot pants, glitter and blonde bobs. It’s a strong look and from the crunchy opening track it’s clear that tonight the PINS sound is going to be equally powerful, driven by Sophie Galpin’s galloping drums and Anna Donigan’s imposing bass, her calm authority accentuated by her characteristically statuesque stance — eyes glazed, challenging — all washed over with surfy melodies and Lois Macdonald’s breezy riffs. ‘What I do to him, he does to me,’ sings Faith Vernon God Little, wearing a long, shiny black mac like a sexy 1980s regional mass murderer.
Tonight PINS somehow seem both jaded and fresh, experienced and winningly naïve, reminding me of what might have happened had the Spice Girls come of age in New York a few decades ago, their punchy ‘girl power’ polemic packaged with the art school cool of Blondie or Patti Smith. Big enough to have built a European fan base yet still small enough to connect to the audience on a personal level, they’re living the dream and the dream is brilliantly dingy. For recent videos they’ve been styled by high fashion labels such as Yves Saint Laurent but tonight they seem more like a bunch of council estate girls hitting the town with barely enough cash to get pissed in the taxi but not caring because they feel like this night is all for them, a twenty first birthday party that’ll never end.
Like most of the great bands of the last half century, PINS are as much a fashion and political project as a music project, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — their ethos is pure punk, a form which has always challenged the boundaries of, say, gender and sexuality as much as it has those of music. The risk in dealing in such longstanding political, lyrical and stylistic reference points is that you can end up operating in a series of performative clichés; but with their growing confidence PINS seem to be drawing on a well-worn musical grammar in a way that is defiantly celebratory, self-conscious and knowing — without being as po-faced and earnest as this is making them sound — as when they reference the chorus of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, which is the engaging, pop side of PINS in a nutshell. Some gestures fall a little flat — the stage invasion during the encore is not the impulsive moment of madness it probably was the first time it happened — but the band as a whole are possessed of a stylishness, charm and exuberance born of hard work and the confidence that comes from turning up in foreign cities where a smattering of locals lovingly wear your t-shirts and mouth the words to songs you wrote in your bedroom.
Over the past couple of years PINS have surpassed pretty much all of their Manchester contemporaries, certainly in terms of wider recognition and productivity, and as they presumably set about writing what will be their third album in about as many years, intriguing new directions and possibilities suggest themselves, not least thanks to the recent addition of Kyoko Swan to their live line-up. Formerly the lead singer and guitarist of the Louche and now devoting her considerable creative energies to a new solo project, Kyōgen, Swan adds an artfulness and soulfulness that could be key to the band’s future creative direction. The highlight of the show, for me, comes when she steps out from behind her keyboard and starts playing a Telecaster for set closer ‘House of Love’, turning her back on the crowd and stalking the gap between Faith Vernon God Little and Galpin, nodding her head, a compelling, magnetic presence, before joining Macdonald on her mic, the word PINS tattooed over her throat like a nut job escapee from San Quentin. It’ll be intriguing to hear what the band sounds like with Swan contributing to the song-writing and recording process, her slightly more off-beat sensibility meandering freely in the poppy ether of their sound. Perhaps PINS could go from being a good Manchester band to being the city’s first truly great girl band, which remains a glaring and slightly shameful void in its musical heritage. It feels like the time is right as the band continue to strut confidently forward, leaving the cynics in the gutters as they light up another Vogue. Let lad rock burn. The future is female.
As the girls graciously deal with post-show flattery before hitting the road to embark on the next phase of their great European adventure, I cross the Oberbaum Bridge, buy a beer from the kiosk at the Warschauer Straẞe U-Bahn and head back to the eastern suburbs, thinking nostalgically of the best date of my life — how I waited nervously for a German girl on that bridge, smoking, staring out at the forking train-lines and sprawling industrial city below.
The U-Bahn carriage is full of young people drinking bottles of beer while being pestered by begging refugees in varying states of desperation. One of them approaches each passenger in turn, presenting a hand-written message scrawled on a piece of cardboard. We all ignore him. When he leaves, the blonde Aryan teenager sitting opposite me rolls her eyes. This is the best time of the week, hitting the Berlin streets in the early hours with nowhere specific to go, wandering through estates created by sixties planners who dreamt in concrete, inventing the future of the past — weathered modernity, relentless realism — the walls thick with graffiti, semi-opened doors promising Latino girls: Mein Leib – mein Ware — seedy men with long ponytails and leather jackets smoking cigarettes, peering in, yellow taxis speeding by. Der modern Vorhang für moderne Menschen. Ghosts circling the night sky. I walk past a basement bar with music playing inside. A small plaque by the door has the words Hotel zur Oper on it. This will do nicely. I down my pilsner, descend a short flight of steps and go in.
It feels like the only words I’ve said today are ‘Bier’ and ‘danke’. I take a seat in the corner. Three girls are making an electro-pop racket at the far end of the room and I immediately register the fact that they’re all incredibly hot, as boys are prone to do. At least this one … The tables are mostly empty, save for a few desolate, solitary figures. As my pupils dilate and my eyes grow accustomed to the dark, I notice an elderly man sitting at the table next to me. He’s clean-shaven, soft-faced and subtly perfumed, his thinning grey hair neatly parted. He’s wearing a suit and tie and a long black overcoat, holding a cigarette between delicate, manicured fingers. He turns and looks at me unsmilingly. We make eye contact for a brief, disconcerting second then each go back to staring at girls.
When the show is over the band disappear into a back room, one by one. Just as I’m accepting that it might be time for me to drink up and find some other corner to lose myself in, they return to the small stage and start dismantling their equipment and I find myself weaving my way over and bombarding them with words, platitudes, telling them how much I enjoyed their set, asking if they have any records I could buy. They smile and nod. Just as they think they’re free, I offer to help them take their kit out the back. Without waiting for an answer I grab a keyboard and hold the door open. We walk down a hallway draped with large leopard skin rugs, propping the gear against a wall by a black velvet curtain.
‘Are you the person who is also taking the photos of us?’ asks the one with black hair and a peach-coloured vest. She reminds me of the young Penélope Cruz in Jamon, Jamon. I confess that yes: that was me. ‘Could you maybe take a photo for us? We are needing one for our Myspace.’
Of course I oblige, whipping out my phone.
‘And could you maybe do one other favour for us too?’ asks the blonde singer who is dressed all in white, rising from her simmering pose. I’m all ears. ‘Since we come here a man says we can make film. Will you help us with film?’
‘Sure,’ I reply. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Don’t worry, just follow us,’ Penelope says, pulling back the heavy black curtain.
Next thing I know I’m naked and tied to a chair in the middle of an empty dancefloor. The room is lit by strobing disco lights. There’s a television camera pointing at me and Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ is booming through the sound system. As the doey intro builds to the first chorus the girls come bounding in wearing long black leather boots, suspenders and Nazi officers’ caps, their bare breasts bobbing as they skip around the room, violins chopping — ignite the light and let it shine — the multi-coloured strobes confusing my senses. I feel a hand running down the back of my neck, the faintest touch of flesh. The Russian one with the short hair, please … I am priapic, woozy, wanton. Baby you’re a firework! Katy wails. Come on show them what you’re worth … The girls pout and gyrate, caressing my thighs, draping their arms round each other’s necks, kissing, holding their breasts, aware of their perfection. Something seems familiar but memory has no place here, thoughts shoot across the sky, when suddenly the spell is broken by a crazed animal yapping and a fiendish presence enters the room: a bundle of demonic energy that darts this way and that. A black and straw-coloured blur of violence.
Waspish laughter from the corner, where the elderly man with the grey hair is drinking a flute of champagne. The slathering German Shepherd recognises the laugh and goes bounding up to him, lapping at his face. You don’t have to feel like a waste of space.
‘Blondi! Ah my Blondi!’ the old man exclaims. ‘Are you hungry?’
One of the girls is behind me, mechanically rubbing her breasts against my back. Unsurprisingly, I’ve lost my lust. The loopy German Shepherd is leaping up and down and chomping on air. Boom, boom, boom, even brighter than the moon, moon, moon … Something large and soft is placed on my lap and two of the girls continue to dance as the Russian pulls leather straps tightly round my back. It’s always been inside of you, you, you, and now it’s time to let it through-ooh-ooh … A length of raw uncooked meat rises up in front of me. Penélope Cruz leans forward and throws her long dark hair from side to side. ’Cos baby you’re a firework! Blondi has stopped bounding and is staring at me intently from the far side of the room, his eyes bulging as he sizes up my blood sausage.
‘Attacke,’ screams the old warmonger, releasing the dog.
Come on let your colours burst …
Jesus, I think, as the animal bounds towards me: this time I’m really done for.