To celebrate Halloween, a “burlesque” evening was staged at The Social, featuring a variety of cabaret turns. The stylish, glammed-up crowd had certainly made an effort – but sadly, this wasn’t matched by the organisation of the event.
The Straight Razor Angels – a blues-rock three-piece, in the tradition of George Thorogood – were an unlikely choice of support. Apologising for their lack of suitably “scary” songs, they turned in a tight, energetic set.
After a couple of mildly amusing but under-rehearsed interludes, heavy on “suggestive” balloon-popping and the lingering removal of gloves, we were kept waiting for an unnecessary and uncomfortable forty-five minutes, in the steadily building heat. Down at the front, a woman fainted, and was carried off across the stage.
The immaculately coiffured Puppini Sisters specialise in 1940s swing, mixing Andrews Sisters standards with clever re-workings of more contemporary pop tunes. Sometimes, as with a slinky I’ve Seen That Face Before and a nifty take on Heart of Glass, this worked well – but a pointless stab at The Smiths’ Panic stretched the novelty too thin.
In a sophisticated cabaret bar, their act would have gone down a treat. In this sweaty rock venue, it all fell rather flat.
With the sold out NME Rock’n’Roll Riot Tour lined up for tomorrow, and The Divine Comedy scheduled for November, Nottingham Trent is clearly serious about re-establishing its Shakespeare Street building as a venue for “name” acts. After a gap of over a decade, this is welcome news, as the hall lends itself superbly to live music. The stage has been shifted onto the long wall, allowing the crowd to spread itself out, visibility is excellent, and the acoustics are spot-on.
None of this was enough to lift Mumm-Ra’s support set out of competent mediocrity. The band cut their teeth with two-hour experimental Krautrock jam sessions in village halls – but such experimentalism is long gone, replaced by the sort of tame orthodoxy which has characterised far too many of this year’s bands. They need to get their Krautrock back, and fast.
Thankfully, The Automatic took the evening to a new level, aided by excellent lighting from the impressive rig, and an inventive series of brain-scrambling animations on the cinema-sized screen behind them, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Super Furry Animals last came to town.
It would have been understandable if they had been weighed down by Monster, their ubiquitous mega-hit of the summer. (Indeed, it was cheekily introduced as a “Status Quo cover version”.) However, a tight, energetic, confident set showed that the band have stepped up to the mark admirably, and are already at ease in larger venues.
An unexpected highlight was a cover of Kanye West’s Gold Digger, which had the irrepressible keyboardist Alex Pennie rapping over vocalist Rob Hawkins’ flute, in a kind of hip hop/Jethro Tull soundclash (ask your Dad).
If straight-up, student-friendly, NME-approved guitar rock has begun to bore you, then The Automatic are the hugely enjoyable exception to the rule.
When you consider how much mileage could have been extracted from his family connections, it is to Sean Lennon’s credit that he has followed a more low-key, unassuming career path. Indeed, this is only the 31 year old’s second album, and his first in eight years.
Unlike its more stylistically adventurous predecessor, Friendly Fire sees a move towards more conventional song structures. The overall mood of these ten mid-tempo love songs is gently plaintive, as a resigned Lennon sighs over the loss of his girlfriend, and the betrayal of the friend who snatched her away.
Perhaps this would have been an angrier album, were it not for the real-life fate of the friend in question, who died in a motorcycle accident shortly after Lennon penned the vengeful opening track, Dead Meat. Consequently, most of the album is drenched with a regretful melancholy, which – despite some attractive arrangements from Jon Brion – becomes increasingly monotonous.
None of this is helped by Lennon’s puny, strained, curiously inexpressive vocals, which – like the album in general – are a pale shadow of his father’s grit and passion.
When first encountering Duke Special – the stage name of Peter Wilson, an outlandishly dreadlocked singer, songwriter and pianist from Belfast – the inevitable first point of reference has to be Rufus Wainwright. Not only do both singers use similar phrasing (complete with that same slightly nasal quality), but they also share a certain theatricality, with deft orchestral arrangements and stylistic nods to Gershwin, Weill and vaudeville traditions.
What sets Wilson apart from Wainwright – aside from his pronounced Irish brogue – is a lighter, warmer, more straightforward approach to his songwriting. There’s little arch, artsy self-consciousness to be found in these instantly accessible melodies – alternately rousing and reassuring – which engulf the listener in a kind of genial bear-hug. For despite a certain wounded quality here and there, the aim of Wilson’s songs – like those on the new Badly Drawn Boy album – is to tell you that everything is ultimately going to be okay. In his own words: “I want to capture something that sounds like Christmas smoking through an old wooden radio.”
Stand by your bass-bins: it’s the Battle of the Retro Rockers! With those flash-in-the-pan upstarts The Darkness already a fading memory, there are only two serious contenders left standing. Representing Australia, it’s Jet, with their newly released second album. And in the New Zealand corner, plucky underdogs The Datsuns are trying to claw back lost ground with their third, self-produced effort.
Jet may have the cheekbones, the column inches – and, well, the sales – but at least The Datsuns have a comparative maturity, and a deeper commitment to the core values of head-banging, hard rifffing, Jack Daniels swigging, Led Zep ripping, Good Time Rock And Roll. Unlike Jet, there are no sappy Beatles-esque “sensitive” ballads to be found here. Perish the thought!
Instead, this is a swaggering, stomping, merciless assault, with hefty dollops of slide guitar and swampy Southern boogie thrown into the usual hard rock stew. You will search in vain for subtlety, substance, originality, or indeed any sense of musical history much beyond 1975 – but if tunnel vision’s your thing, then Smoke & Mirrors will serve you well.
he one characteristic which unifies Queer Noises 1961-1978: From the Closet to the Charts—a diverse ragbag of mostly obscure, limited release tracks—is that all concern themselves, in one way or another, with aspects of the American and/or British gay experience. More remarkably, compiler Jon Savage has succeeded in assembling material which is almost exclusively written and performed by gay men, and aimed at an audience of other gay men.
As the tracks are arranged chronologically, what emerges is a kind of oral history of the nascent gay movement, from its underground beginnings to its emergence into the popular consciousness. Consequently, the themes which predominate are markedly different from the stock ways in which gay “issues” were handled by the mainstream straight media. There are refreshingly few “victims” here. No one is blackmailed, trapped in a loveless marriage, eaten up by self-loathing, or even beaten to a pulp by The Evil Homophobes Who Oppress Us From Every Corner. Best of all, and contrary to tacitly accepted Hollywood convention, no one dies.
Instead, we are presented with a series of truthful testimonials to a more everyday gay existence—to life as it was actually lived. These are songs of longing, lust, tenderness, pain, fantasy, hope, and celebration. Many are intentionally comic—and a few are unintentionally hilarious along the way.
As a social document, the collection is a great success, and a valuable piece of material for any queer theorist. However, as a rewarding musical experience, there are some serious barriers facing anyone who wishes to listen to it in full for more than a couple of plays.
The selections are at their most consistently strong during the opening sequence of nine songs from the 1960s. A pronounced seam of vaudevillian sauciness and downright bitchiness runs through most of them, as a largely closed community opts to create its own entertainment. Best of the bunch is the deliciously filthy “Kay, Why?,” performed by The Brothers Butch, and almost certainly influenced by the camp, subversive banter of Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as “resting actors” Julian and Sandy, on the BBC’s weekly Round the Horne radio show. It’s a thinly disguised ode to the properties of KY Jelly, that perennially essential anal lubricant, masquerading as a lovelorn lament. (“Why did you have to make a mess of me? Why did you slip through my fingers? Oooh!”)
Elsewhere, there are two selections (“Florence of Arabia” and “I’d Rather Fight Than Swish”) from the astonishingly prolific Camp Records: a small underground operation running out of Los Angeles, whose entire back catalogue is available for download via the web. It’s truly thrilling to discover stuff like this, and a case could have been made for devoting an entire album to similar material. It’s also interesting to note how the occasional use of non-PC terms such as “freak” and “fairy” fail to offend in this context, and to compare this with the re-appropriation of the term “queer” in the early 1990s.
Unfortunately, things begin to come unstuck once we reach the early 1970s, as represented by a motley bunch of bargain-basement obscurities whose lengthy absence from view cannot solely be accredited to homophobic attitudes in the dominant host culture. In the copious and highly informative sleeve notes, we are told of licensing difficulties with a number of better-known artists, which blocked their inclusion—and maybe here is where the pinch is most keenly felt. David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” would have worked wonderfully well (“She’s so swishy in her satin and tat”), as would the still unreleased “Cocksucker Blues” from the Rolling Stones (“Where do I get my cock sucked? Where do I get my ass fucked?”).
Instead, we are inflicted with toe-curling horrors such as Michael Cohen’s dirge-like “Bitterfeast,” the amateurishly mixed C&W knees-up of Chris Robison’s “Lookin’ for a Boy” (“very popular in the New York clubs of the day,” so we are told, although one has one’s doubts), and the inexplicably revered cult figure Jobriath, once again providing ample evidence of the true reasons behind his catastrophic commercial failure. Perhaps worst of all is “Coochy Coo” by Polly Perkins: the collection’s one female vocalist, and its sole nod towards the lesbian experience. As a glitter-rock plagiarism of Dion’s “The Wanderer,” delivered in the rasping, gravely tones of the Sunday lunchtime pub singer, it communicates nothing of value, and its inclusion ends up smacking of the sort of well-meaning “here’s one for the ladies” tokenism that subsequently led to the Tom Robinson Band’s excruciating “Right On Sister.” (Robinson is another notable omission.)
“Coochy Coo” also exemplifies another problem for the listener—namely, that it sometimes takes a concentrated effort of will to divine any “gay” content from the material at hand. Allow your concentration to lapse for a moment or two, and you’re simply left with an assortment of undistinguished and imitative period pieces. This particularly blights the closing section of punk/new wave choices, although Black Randy & The Metro Squad’s “Trouble at the Cup” is redeemed by an arrestingly sleazy defiance.
There are still some gems to be found among the dross—most notably from the overlapping worlds of soul, funk, and disco. The late Dave Godin, curator of the fine Deep Soul Treasures series, is credited as an advisor to the project, and his hand is surely evident in the unearthing of tracks such as the rousing “Closet Queen,” from the Chairmen of the Board’s Harrison Kennedy. “Closet queen, you’re alright,” assures Kennedy, over an addictively catchy stop-start acoustic riff. “Come into the light, where you can be seen,” he continues, with a rare and touching benevolence for a mainstream soul artist.
This theme is continued with the album’s standout cut: “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.”, from the post-Robinson Miracles. “Homosexuality is a part of society,” they coo, as a heavenly flute trill underpins the song’s essentially carefree feel. “I guess that they need some more variety; freedom of expression is really the thing!” The track ends with the cheerfully heterosexual band members debating whether or not to visit a local gay bar, and eventually deciding in the affirmative. (“But, you know, some of the finest women are in the gay bars!” “Look, gay people are nice people too, man!”) As with “Closet Queen,” what initially strikes the listener as gawkily ridiculous soon converts to the genuinely affecting. Which of today’s R&B acts would risk unambiguous statements of this nature? At times like this, one is tempted to wonder how much true progress has been made.
The album concludes, almost inevitably, with Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” the first major hit single by an openly gay act, here re-contextualised as a moment of triumph for gay culture, ushering in a new era of visibility and acceptance—but you can probably collate your own history from here, as the signposts are clearly marked. It is to the lasting credit of Savage’s wildly uneven but fascinating compilation that this hitherto shadowy first chapter can now be filled in.
With a third placing in The X Factor and a surprise Number One album already under their belts, Middlesbrough brothers Carl and Andy Pemberton are now headlining their first major tour. This is a crucial, make-or-break time for the duo, who must be all too aware of the ever-growing string of reality TV casualties around them. From all the talent shows of the last few years, only three acts – Will Young, Girls Aloud and Lemar – have gone on to sustain long-term careers. The odds are stacked against them, and the stakes are high.
Judging by the opening medley – an embarrassingly clod-hopping lurch through The Boys Are Back In Town, My Generation and All Right Now – it seemed that all our worst suspicions were to be confirmed. This was bargain basement, lowest common denominator stuff, as emphasised by lead singer Andy’s clumsy over-eagerness, and his constant grandstanding to the crowd. Matters weren’t improved by the self-composed I’ll Be Your Desire, which merely demonstrated that no-one outside Eurovision should ever rhyme “desire” with “fire” and “higher”. A potentially decent rendition of U2’s One was massacred by a wholly unnecessary 1980s jazz sax solo.
However, all this changed with an “unplugged” She’s Always A Woman, which Carl and Andy dedicated to their parents in the audience. Suddenly, the evening clicked into place, as the brothers abandoned the cheesy covers and turned to the music they loved. Andy calmed down, Carl’s already strong voice moved up a notch, and a real sense of emotion was generated. The warm and tender harmonies of Bryan Adams’ Heaven were a highlight, and a funky Slow Train Coming showed that not all the up-tempo material need be a disaster.
Towards the end, signs of increasing maturity and assurance emerged. Billy Joel’s lengthy, complex Scenes From An Italian Restaurant was a bold risk which worked, and Carl demonstrated his guitar prowess with some fine bluesy licks on Bon Jovi’s Bed Of Roses. Perhaps these showed the way ahead – into adult contemporary soft-rock, appealing to the albums market rather than the singles charts.
Andy and Carl are delightfully unaffected, genuine lads, unashamedly grateful for their success, with solid singing talent and bags of charm. As their proud parents embraced each other during Desperado and the crowd rose to their feet around them, only the most hardened of rock snobs could remain unmoved, and fail to wish them continuing success.