Wednesday, 29 February 2012

University Year Two, Spring and Summer Terms

I noted, early on, that blogging is by its nature a rather narcissistic pastime; the other side of the coin is that it's likely to come bundled up with self-doubt. I'm really not sure how much appetite you, dear reader, have for seemingly endless tales of me going to The Joiners Arms to watch now-forgotten indie bands do their thing in the mid-90s. My friend Emily Kearns has reassured me that people, particularly those who attended these or similar gigs at the time, will get a kick out of the nostalgia and jogged memories, while my narcissism is tickled by checking this blog's stats and seeing that just yesterday, some time since I last posted anything new, seven people apparently dropped by to read stuff.

So here's another blog about me going to The Joiners Arms to watch now-forgotten indie bands do their thing, in the first half of 1995.

In fact, appropriately given my previous post's punkery, my first show of '95 was another STE gig. Now, I'm aware that last time out I gushed almost to the point of inappropriateness about the general wonderfulness of the STE Collective, but I do feel the need to add something about the fantastically varied nature of their bills. I suspect this was common to the UK scene in general back then, but it was rare to go an STE show and see, say, three anarcho-crust bands, or three pop punk bands, or three emo bands; instead, they would habitually pull together a line-up from across the punk/hardcore spectrum, and so it was on January 14th 1995, when they put together three bands who were so dramatically different from each other that, I would later discover, one of them viewed another with outright derision.

The show was opened by local trio Smog (UK), who I guess you could describe as a ska/punk band... that is, if you understand that tag more in terms of Citizen Fish than, say, Less Than Jake, and recognise that the ska element was really just a flavoursome topping on a substantial punk rock base. As a three-piece, Smog's sound was necessarily stripped-down - no parping horn players here - and this, combined with songs about pollution, racism, etc, painted them as a serious outfit rather than the perpetual knees-up merchants which would define ska/punk by the decade's end. That's not to say that their shows weren't a bunch of fun, nor that they totally swerved the tradition of novelty cover versions which would routinely ruin rock club nights for all right-thinking people soon enough - Smog's speciality was a blast through George Michael's Careless Whisper, with the word "fuck" hilariously replacing the word "dance" in the line "I'm never gonna dance again..."

No such frivolities were likely with the next band, Nottingham's Bob Tilton, who I guess you could describe as an emo band... that is, if you understand that tag more in terms of Rites Of Spring than, say, My Chemical Romance. I suspect that griping over what the term "emo" has come to mean is the equivalent, for people of my age and musical tastes, of people my Dad's ages complaining about the modern application of the phrase "R&B", and I could easily spend the rest of this and, quite possibly, all future blogs doing nothing but defending emo in its heyday. None of which would have convinced Smog (UK), who later snorted at the very mention of Bob Tilton's name, such was the disparity between their street-level punk and the earnest intensity of the Notts mob.

As great as they sounded on record, as you can hear above, Bob Tilton were something else altogether live, where they crackled with an intensity I hadn't really encountered previously. They also revealed their strict adherence to DIY principles by refusing to talk to the NME, whose unusual interest in a band from the hardcore underground was a sign that something special was going on.


Another gear change happened with the last band of the night, Walsall's Skimmer, who I guess you could describe as a pop punk band... that is, if you understand the tag more in terms of Mega City Four than, say, Blink 182. Skimmer were part of a UK pop punk scene centred around the Crackle! label and characterised by heartfelt lyrics, speedy tunes and a slightly ramshackle sound somewhere between Ramones and Husker Du. I remember digging them quite a bit on that night, despite having just been blown away by Bob Tilton.

A few nights later, I was back at The Joiners to catch the equally strange pairing of Dub War and Motocaster. While punks can see connections in ideology when there are few in sound, more typical audiences tend to ignore a support band if they're too different to the headliners. (You could also argue that a show like Skimmer/Bob Tilton/Smog (UK) wasn't divided into headliner and support bands, for that matter). So it was that Motocaster, a garage rock/power pop band from the US, didn't exactly go down a storm when opening for a Welsh ragga punk band.

Mind you, at least one member of the audience was equally confused by Dub War; my fellow Wessex News scribe Christian Ott, a man principally interested in the crusty end of dance music, had accompanied me on the basis that he thought they'd sound like Revolutionary Dub Warriors. You can kind of see his thinking, but from the introductory cranking of frontman Benji Webbe's air raid siren, he was clearly in for a noisier evening than anticipated.

Dub War were shortly to release Pain, their first full-length album after a few vinyl releases on excellent Welsh punk label Words Of Warning had attracted the attention of the much larger Earache. At this point, the latter label was attempting to branch out from the grindcore/death metal roots which had made it legendary, and Dub War fitted into their vision of a more varied roster. At the time, I thought this a good idea, but with hindsight their scattershot approach to signing new acts marked a massive dip in quality control from which some would argue the label has never quite recovered.

Dub War themselves were great, however, although my review for Wessex News included the unfortunate comparison of frontman Benji Webbe to a "caveman on acid", leading to questions being raised by my mother. She didn't call me out on the horrible journo cliche of describing something as being "on acid", nor the entirely accidental racist overtone, but any drug references were a sore point ever since I'd returned home from my first term at Uni and casually mentioned that I'd smoked a bit of dope, thinking that as rational adults my folks might be able to differentiate between the occasional spliff and a descent into drug hell. Wrong!

Despite a fairly commercial second album in 1996's Wrong Side Of Beautiful (including the single Enemy Maker, which stalled at No.41, the unluckiest number in chart history), Dub War never quite got their due, but after transforming into Skindred and changing every member bar Benji, they've slowly become one of Britain's best-loved metal bands, albeit with a slightly less heavy and at times quite nu-metal sound. More on them a lot, lot later.

Come the first evening of February and, you might not be entirely surprised to hear, I was back at The Joiners, this time in the company of AC Acoustics and Cable. The latter band were a mere two singles old at this point, and I was pretty keen on the second of these, Seventy, which I John Peel and Steve Lamacq had been playing.

It was early days for Cable, and they'll pop up again before too long, so let's move on to AC Acoustics, another band with whom I was familiar thanks to Peely's patronage. I compared them at the time to Pavement and Sonic Youth, and they certainly had a more alternative, US noise-informed sound than the Teenage Fanclub/BMX Bandits-type stuff that seemed to dominate their native Glasgow in the early-mid '90s. Consequently, their tunes were less immediate than Cable's, but their set won me over to the point where I ended my review gushing about seeing exciting new bands at, yes, The Joiners...

AC Acoustics flirted with something approaching fame a few years later, when Brian Molko from Placebo took to namedropping them and wearing one of their shirts quite regularly. It probably helped that it featured the name of their then-single Stunt Girl, which was perfect for Molko's endless broadcasting of his androgyny. His involvement did little to guide AC Acoustics to fame, however, at least beyond encouraging a few dozen suggestible indie goth chicks to give them a listen.

A week or so later, my housemate Lucy went to the Joiners to see the up-and-coming Supergrass (with support from The Bluetones, making this quite the Britpop stars-in-waiting tour), but I didn't bother, waiting instead until the 22nd for my second encounter with Drugstore. Opening on this occasion were Velo-Deluxe, who featured John Strohm (ex-Blake Babies/Lemonheads), and who stand out in my memory mainly for the velocity of their set, each song crashing into the next.

Drugstore were definitely not about speed; their set started with Isabel onstage, accompanied only by her guitar, before Daron and Mike strolled on for Starcrossed. The Joiners was packed and I wrote at the time of the band's ability to create an atmosphere through their easy, relaxed rapport with the audience, and of course, their songs. Band of the year, I confidently stated.

My next appointment with The Joiners was on the 8th of March, in the company of Bury St Edmunds's finest power trio, Jacob's Mouse. With identical, hairy twins on guitar and vocals and a singing drummer, they were quite an awkward proposition, and they didn't really fit the "grunge" tag they'd been lumbered with, either. OK, they had a love of bug, dumb riffs which hinted at Bleach-era Nirvana, but their sound was peppered with twangy guitar lines, weird lurching rhythms and distant echoes of both dub and The Magic Band, which was probably why they ended up labelmates with Silverfish, Huggy Bear and Cornershop on the Wiiija label.

History records that I didn't go to another show for a couple of months, probably due to of a mixture of work deadlines and going back to Somerset for Easter. This dry patch was broken when Megadog returned to Southampton Uni on the 3rd of May, with the trance sounds of Children Of Dub and global techno of Banco De Gaia. And MC Teabag, of course.

The next day, it was back once again to The Joiners. 

It seems to me, with hindsight, that some of the bands mentioned above - AC Acoustics, Cable, Jacob's Mouse - belong to something of a lost generation of bands. Although generally reviewed positively in the music press and supported, of course, by John Peel, these bands were too awkward to attract any wider, lasting attention in an era dominated by Britpop. They also lacked enough in common to be viewed as a scene - though I'd bet that each one of them was compared to Fugazi at least once in print - so they haven't stayed in people's minds through association (how many people would remember Chapterhouse if it wasn't for their fully paid up membership of the shoegazing scene?). This next gig I went to was like a showcase for such doomed bands, with Pet Lamb supported by Elevate and Sonar Nation.

Bizarrely, local paper The Echo ran an interview with openers Sonar Nation ahead of the gig, indicating that they had at least one person writing for them who dug decent music. In said piece, they joked that their influences varied from the first Fugazi EP to the second Fugazi EP, while my album review for Wessex News compared them to The God Machine. Heavy stuff, basically. Incredibly, they're still going, and played a show in Canterbury last month.

Elevate fitted somewhere in the post-punk/post-hardcore spectrum, a British equivalent to bands like Slint or Rodan but with a bit more of a tendency to rock out. Beware internet searches, as there's some sort of religious Elevate Band doing the rounds these days - here's what the real ones sounded like...

To be honest, after those two, and possibly also a few beers, Dublin's Pet Lamb didn't quite grab me so much. With an endorsement from Therapy?, I was looking forward to them, but apart from the catchy Little Meaner, their set rather passed me by. I've still ended up with two of their albums in my collection over the years, though.

There's one more show to discuss from this particular academic year, but that's gonna wait till next time - hold on to your hats, people, it's gonna be an Avail special...