Sunday, January 16, 2011

thief of fire

Happy New Year!

It was a relatively pleasant start to the year for me anyway at the Hammersmith Apollo down in the big smoke. Normally the prospect of a proper “night out” at a venue in London on New Year’s Eve would fill me with dread, and it was certainly not how I’d expected to be seeing in the year in which I turn 40, but then I hadn’t been aware before I reached the shores of the UK that the bloody POP GROUP were going to be playing, and if this is not a cause for a re-evaluation of priorities, then surely nothing is.

In fact it was quite a major happening, with not just the Pop Group but also Shellac and headliners Sonic Youth appearing, so since James had kindly promised me a lift from Stoke Newington to Hammersmith and back, enabling us to avoid the hellish New Year’s public transport through central London, I decided to splash out 45 quid for a ticket for this special occasion. The fact that it was such a large gig did of course have the disadvantage that I’d see my favourites, who were way down the bill, early on in the evening and then have to spend the rest of the show hanging around waiting for my lift home, but I resolved to give the other bands the benefit of the doubt, which in the event was at least partly justified.

There has been a spate of bands in recent years whose reforming seems almost tailor made to my requirements as someone old enough to know who they are but not old enough to have seen them first time around, and with both Swans and the Pop Group playing within the space of a month it’s been something of an embarrassment of riches for me lately. Not least because on New Year’s Eve the Pop Group did the seemingly impossible and outperformed Swans, blew them away no less.

With the New Year and everything I’m beginning to feeling my age, frankly I’m a curmudgeonly old cunt (mind you, as my oldest friends will tell you, I was when I was 15). These days I’m unable to resist the overpowering welling up of contempt I feel for new “alternative rock” bands almost before they’ve played a note, in many cases it’s enough just to look at them with their studied style of dress and pastiche haircuts, everything about them screaming “diminishing returns on the original”. For a couple of decades now, not only chart pop but the presented alternative has been neutered, manufactured, unchallenging, fucking post-modernist, whereas it’s difficult to think of a band any more modernist than the Pop Group. As such not only the Pop Group but post-punk in general is more relevant now than ever, and it’s no wonder it’s come back to the forefront of late. Retro as avant-garde? Sad but true.

As with Swans, the Pop Group are a band who on paper could be either great or mindbendingly bad, what they’re doing is a risky enterprise and all the more commendable for it. A fairly earnest bunch of young men who paraphrased Nietzsche in their song titles, they were never shy of being polemical, which is something I approve of on the whole but has the potential to be atrocious in the wrong hands. What’s more, they’re politically correct not just ideologically but even on a musical level; by abandoning traditional “white rock” and incorporating elements of funk, dub reggae and free jazz they could have been in danger of sounding crudely cobbled together, toe-curlingly patronising, or like so many of those awful indie bands who subscribed to the “anti-rockist” dogma in the 80s, prissy and emasculated. In the case of the Pop Group, however, the outcome was more than the sum of its parts, harnessing the power of all the aforementioned musical forms together with the ferocity of punk to mount an all-out sensory attack which is compelling because of rather than despite its righteousness. I’m reminded of the simple but effective words of the great Fugazi: “yes I know this is politically correct, but it comes to you spiritually direct”. There’s no need to apologise for having a social conscience, this is evidence enough that PC need not necessarily mean anaemic; the result is that the Pop Group were/are one of the greatest bands of all time.

Back to the last night of 2010, the Pop Group were simply fucking astonishing, living up to all their promise and more. It’s difficult to imagine that they could ever have surpassed a performance like this even during their heyday in the late 70s – is it possible that, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, they may even be better these days? The auditorium was only half full, and only about half of those early birds who had turned up by that point seemed to know who the band were, all of which the Pop Group seemed to be oblivious or indifferent to, producing a blinding set from the outset of “She is Beyond Good and Evil” through to the searing finale “We Are Time”. Mark Stewart still uses his voice like a weapon, his hideous screeching both plaintive and admonishing to the bemused New Year’s partygoers, whilst the rest of the band flay us alive with a merciless sonic assault through favourites like “Thief of Fire” and the almost unbearably fierce “We Are All Prostitutes”. I can hardly remember such an impassioned performance from a band, of being so impressed almost to the point of concussion, since Thin White Rope or the Young Gods. Live music just doesn’t get much better than this.

Following that was a fairly impossible task, which Shellac fall almost laughably short of. I went into it with mixed feelings: although the Pop Group had set the bar absurdly high, they had also put me in a fairly benevolent mood, and whilst I really wanted to see Big Black (hey Steve, everybody else is reforming, come on man!) and knew I wasn’t going to, I was nevertheless willing Albini to produce something of similar majesty, which he most certainly did not. At the time it seemed tolerable enough to me in my loved-up, post-Pop Group contentment, but looking back afterwards I felt somewhat resentful. How can the man who gave us the terrifying, bludgeoning bombardment of “Atomizer” now chug out this kind of mediocrity? No doubt, smartarse that he is, Albini could reel off all kinds of pedantic, steamrollingly tedious arguments why Shellac are in fact a much better band than Big Black and why I’m wrong to regard them as a bunch of bloodless, po-faced dullards, but there’s equally no doubt that he can shove his arguments up his self-satisfied arse. Watching Shellac live you can almost hear them counting; they somehow achieve the feat of sounding bollock-achingly laborious whilst simultaneously sounding like they can’t really be bothered, clearly eager to impress on us the fact that they consider entertaining us to be beneath them. If it’s so much fucking trouble don’t bloody do it! I heard reports that they were infinitely better at their New Year’s Day show, though I’m not exactly sticking pins in my eyes for missing it. There does indeed seem something rather typically Albini-esque about playing a gig at midday on New Year’s day, something horribly puerile and undignified in its boringly contrarian perversity, coming of course from the genius who had the brainwave of calling his band Rapeman. Not only that, but there’s also a quite desperate degree of narcissism in playing to an audience whose adulation, given the fact they had traipsed across London on a cold morning on the day of the legendary mammoth hangover for the sole purpose of seeing Shellac, was thus quite obviously guaranteed and unquestioning, an audience to whom he then grumbled about the lukewarm response he received at Hammersmith the night before, as if it were the audience’s fault. After all, god forbid that anyone should turn up to one of their shows unconvinced, with an open mind, or even be interested in seeing any of the other bands on the bill. Fuck off, Steve.

Sonic Youth appear on stage for the countdown into 2011 and make me eat at least some of my earlier words by being really rather good, certainly better than when I saw them 20 years ago – in the interim period they have managed to transform themselves into a party band and surprise me by cranking out some good old rock n roll to please the punters. Unlike Albini they don’t seem to regard themselves as quite such a work of art anymore and are much better for it, they want to have fun and want us to have fun with them. I now feel a bit guilty about slagging them off in a previous post, even if they’re still, if the truth be told, not worthy of sharing a stage with Stewart and co., let alone of being the headlining band. Nevertheless, they’re mellowing (in a good way), and for a fleeting moment made me feel like I was too. All in all a satisfying performance, more or less perfectly fitting for the time of year – Happy New Year indeed.