Monday, 19 March 2012

University, Year Three: Autumn Term

September 1995 found me on the editorial team of The Edge, a new music supplement to Southampton University's then nearly 60-year old paper Wessex News. The driving force behind The Edge was my fellow English student, Charmaine O'Reilly, and the end product was a curiously mixed bag. Charmaine's bag was folk (two of the first three cover stars were The Levellers and The Oyster Band), but I was given a free hand to write about whatever weird shit I wanted, and there was space for Britpop, hip hop and Christian Ott banging on about Loop Guru and Tribal Drift.


The Edge marked my return to interviewing bands, and for its first issue I shot the breeze with Smog (UK) (as mentioned in my Avail blog) and Headswim, who played The Joiners in late September. Incredibly, I got through both interview and live review without mentioning the word grunge; listening to them now, it strikes me that their first album Flood was pretty much evenly split between US grunge and UK prog influences. In person, the band were unfailingly polite, animated about their art, amused to be asked about their recent dates as unlikely support to Ice-T's Body Count and certain that wider influences would come through in their next album.


A band who might have been marginally more suitable for the Body Count tour were that night's support band. Even before the days of internet searches, fat B.A.B.E. was a truly awful name. I laid into them in print, dissing their lack of originality, synchronised headbanging and half-arsed cover of the Helmet/House Of Pain tune Just Another Victim, while pointing out that "Even the person in a fat B.A.B.E. T-shirt needs to go and get more to drink after their opening drummer." Music journalists are so cutting, aren't they? According to the band's MySpace, they lasted into the millennium, almost reaching infamy with a cover of Wannabe by the Spice Girls - until Simon Fuller threatened legal action and the single was pulled. I was hoping to find it on YouTube, but couldn't be bothered to wade through whatever else a search of their name might bring up...


Naturally, I gave Headswim a considerably more glowing review, praising new tune Evil Friend (which, as far as I know, was never released) and the band's "subtlety and depth behind the crashing chords and frenetic rhythms." As it turned out, their next album did reveal wider influences - released in 1998, it slotted into the scheme of post-Britpop melancholia, somewhere between Radiohead and Travis. These weren't quite the trip hop/prog rock sounds I'd have put money on three years earlier, but they did get in the Top 30 with the song Tourniquet.


From the second issue, The Edge began a brief incarnation as a stand-alone, 24-page A4 magazine. While Charmaine continued to push Celtic folk bands - The Dolmen, The Wolfetones - on an oblivious student body, I appeared to be catching bands I'd loved three years earlier, on their way down the slippery pole.

Exhibit A: Mega City Four. While never as big as their buddies Carter and the Neds, MC4 had once headlined the Astoria. In October 1995, severed from their old label and on the comeback trail, they were playing the Joiners. I interviewed guitarist Danny and drummer Chris in the grotty basement which served as a dressing room there. If the surroundings were insalubrious, the company was unpretentious, positive about their new label and forthcoming album. I'd see them again the following year, so I'll pick up their story then.


Exhibit B: Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine. They hadn't fallen as far as the Megas, but had downsized from Portsmouth Guildhall to the Pyramids. Matt and I went to see them there, accompanied by a couple of younger contributors to The Edge who were interviewing the support bands. On the way over, one of these two hip young gunslingers proclaimed that he didn't need to travel, as he could just see the world on telly. This became an in-joke for me and Matt for some time, though it almost seems a prescient remark given the increasing numbers of us content to experience life through a computer screen...

My Carter interview remains, amusingly, the only time I've ever written a cover story for any publication. I don't remember my state of mind beforehand, but I think it's safe to suggest that I was more nervous than when interviewing, say, Headswim. These were people whose lyrics I'd memorised, and whose gigs had at one point seemed to me the absolute apex of live entertainment. I'd recently reviewed their Straw Donkey singles compilation, remarking that Carter longsleeve T-shirts must surely have been hanging, unloved, at the back of wardrobes across the country, so completely had their allure to indie kids waned. This was a slight exaggeration, of course; the Pyramids might not be Brixton Academy, but they were hardly back on the toilet circuit. And, regardless of their present standing, I was about to meet two men whose music had accompanied a significant chunk of my teenage years.


They finished another interview and Fruitbat appeared, asking, "Where are the next victims?" Of course, they turned out to be friendly, likable geezers, and the conversation was certainly the widest-ranging I'd yet had with a band. Topics varied from the band Shampoo to the trial of OJ Simpson, while the pair proved to possess a wry wit, even when discussing grim topics (Jimbob, on playing gigs in Bosnia: "There are places we've played before that have been completely wiped off the map, so that's really sad. If you imagine playing Portsmouth, and then two weeks later it's flat to the ground..." Fruitbat: "Some people would say that's a good thing." Jimbob: "But not us, obviously.") My favourite answer at the time came when, in the wake of recent comments by Noel Gallagher that he hoped Damon Albarn and Alex James would "catch AIDS and die", I asked them if there were any musicians they'd like to catch a nasty disease (terrible question, I know). After mulling it over and maintaining there was nobody in the musical world he'd wish illness upon, Jimbob decided that he'd quite like Jim Davidson to get rickets.

The show itself was a reminder of why I'd dug them in the first place, but it was impossible to enjoy it in the way I'd have done across town at the Guildhall just a few years earlier. Carter's music provided a snapshot of a time of my life that was now done, and unlike some of the audience, I couldn't keep on pogoing to Sherrif Fatman like it was still 1992 or whatever. I guess this was my first experience of coming back to a band - it was only at this point that I was old enough for it to happen - and I couldn't get as excited by this as by going to see some exciting new outfit play a tiny venue. These days, I'm quite used to seeing bands I've been into for upwards of a decade, and have different expectations of them (not that that means it's never a let-down), but back then the feeling of being out of time proved a barrier to proper enjoyment.

The ever-simmering Portsmouth/Southampton feud had never particularly impacted on me before - it was hardly the east coast/west coast hip hop beef in terms of glamour and excitement- but Matt and I discovered that night that some people took it seriously enough to stitch us up proper. The other guys from The Edge had already split, probably seeing Carter USM as music for square grandads like us, and Matt and I didn't have long to get the last train, so we hailed a cab. Naively, we mentioned in conversation that we were going back to Southampton, and were rewarded for our honesty by being dropped off at Portsmouth Harbour - not the train station we'd asked for, and indeed one from which the last train had already departed. I maintain that this was not an honest mistake. Luckily, we managed to get another taxi to the right station in time. Bloody skates.


A week later, I was back watching well-established favourites, albeit ones who hadn't yet slipped from favour, when Therapy? played Southampton Guildhall. Since moving to the city, I'd given the bigger Guildhall shows a miss in favour of the Joiners, but the pull of Therapy? proved too much to resist. Southend hardcore band Understand opened the show, and while I was pleased to see such a heavy band getting a shot on a big tour, they seemed a little lost in a room that size. They would, however, be back in town within a month to play the Joiners, so we'll come back to them in due course.

The other support were Wonderstuff/Senseless Things/Eat supergoup Vent (later Vent 414). I'm assuming that many people reading this will not be overly familiar with the work of this particular power trio, which probably demonstrates how little anyone was bothered about a Wonderstuff/Senseless Things/Eat supergoup in 1995. I quite enjoyed them, though.


Therapy? are a classic example of a band at the top of their game who chose to follow their own path, as opposed to the one which their listeners might have anticipated. The album they were touring, Infernal Love, was a very different beast to its predecessor. In place of Troublegum's compendium of three minute pop metal bangers, Infernal Love was a partially successful attempt to go art rock, with several much longer songs, more airtime given to acoustic guitars and cellos, and cinematic interludes from David Holmes. It kinda worked, but for an album which was evidently sequenced to be a complete listening experience, it was actually harder to listen to all the way through than Troublegum. This had a knock on effect on the live show; it's reasonable that a band should feel sufficiently confident in and proud of their newer material that they want to air it, but the preponderance of Infernal Love tunes made the first half of their set hard to love. That said, an encore of Teethgrinder, Potato Junkie and Screamager sent everybody home with a song in their hearts.


You wait ages to go to a gig at the Guildhall, then two turn up within a week. For this reason, I can't quite remember whether this guy Alistair came with us to Therapy? or The Wildhearts. I also don't remember how we met him, but I think it might have been through Alex Furr. Alistair lived some distance from Southampton and had arranged to stay over at the house I now shared with Matt (alongside Kev, Nigel, Rebecca and Jane). Prior to the gig, Alistair announced his intention to "drink until I throw up." Matt and I exchanged glances and began working out who was gonna clear up. Luckily, the guy was all talk.


As, in a way, were the Wildhearts, as this was the first of their tours to be billed as their last, if you see what I mean. The story was that frustrations with label East/West had left the band ready to split, but in the end they were released from their contract and allowed to go on their merry way (it's quite likely that when East/West heard the eventual next Wildhearts album, bizarro distortothon Endless Nameless, they breathed a collective sigh of relief that it wasn't their job to promote the bugger)

Apes, Pigs And Spacemen were the main support, and at the time I was quite taken by their melodic, grungy sound. A year or two back, Anna was chucking out a load of tapes, and amongst the ones I rescued were the first two Apes, Pigs And Spacemen albums (I think she also saw them as a support band somewhere along the way). I recently listened to their first album again and, to be honest, it was hard work.


The Wildhearts set began, kind of, with Ginger strolling on wearing shades and a backwards leather jacket(?) to introduce a band called The Screaming Bastards, who turned out to be a trio of roadies covering Highway To Hell. When the Wildhearts did emerge, complete with new guitarist Jef Streatfield, they played a stellar set drawn mainly from Earth Vs The Wildhearts and PHUQ. The encore was a generous seven songs, including the spectacularly silly Geordie In Wonderland, the evergreen 29 X The Pain and the early classic Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes.


A week or so later, remembering to watch what information I gave to taxi drivers, I was back in Portsmouth. Sunday night wasn't kind in terms of turnout, which was rather a shame given the greatness of the Young Gods. Support band Papa Brittle gave it their all, which in this case meant a mash-up of hip hop and industrial somewhere between Pop Will Eat Itself, Dub War, Senser and Consolidated. They'd never manage to garner as much acclaim as that lot, though, and would eventually split when dreadheaded vocalist Lloyd Sparks went to join kindred spirits Fun Da Mental. The sparse attendance and a bad head cold couldn't stop me being blown away by the Young Gods, however. At this point, they were touring the album Only Heaven, which in retrospect would mark the end of the band's early purple patch. The set accordingly mixed then-new tunes like Kissing The Sun and Lointaine with the old gold of Longue Route and Skinflowers, and it was outstanding.

The other side of my 21st birthday, I was back on familiar turf on the 23rd November. The fantastically-named Scum Of Toytown played the Joiners alongside Smog (UK) and space rockers Iowaska. I guess Scum Of Toytown were something of a throwback, albeit only to a couple of years earlier; Chumbawamba, Back To The Planet and Citizen Fish were bands I compared them to at the time, while somehow avoiding the word crusty.


Into December, and the last two gigs of 1995. Drugstore returned to the Joiners on the 9th of December, and I was there waiting for them with a tape recorder. Sometime before or after watching smouldering support band Linoleum, I caught up with Isabel, Daron and Mike in the Joiners cellar. They talked about liking the town and venue, being involved in all aspects of their band, Britpop, parachute jumps and... Thom Yorke. Drugstore had recently supported Radiohead and rumours had begun to circulate that some sort of a duet was on the cards. Isabel maintained, "I can't imagine two (such) moody people getting together. We'd probably end up slashing our wrists!" That wasn't how it went down, but we'll come back to that when we get to 1998...

The Drugstore show as, predictably, awesome, and I have to admit that songs like Superglider and their cover of Radiohead's Black Star brought a little moistness to my eyes. Along with the Avail shows, this was probably the best gig I ever went to at the Joiners.


Yes, even better than Travis Cut, Goober Patrol, Monkhouse and Stu Dent & The Wankers at the STE's Christmas show on December 16th. Stu Dent & The Wankers were a bunch of locals, fronted by Smog (UK)'s Stu, playing mangled, drunken punk covers, which proved a lot better than the equally drunk but slightly belligerent sound of Monkhouse. Goober Patrol provided a mood-enhancer with their conventional but fun melodi-core, while Harlow's Travis Cut closed the evening with a cracking set of gritty pop punk. Reviewing the evening for The Edge, I suggested that the last two bands, along with Hooton 3 Car, Broccoli, China Drum, Chopper and Skimmer, would make 1996 a golden year for homegrown melodic punk.


Was I right? Well, looking at my list of the first few shows I went to in the 9-6, I can't see any of those names, but I did interview two characters who'd end up major chart stars...

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Techno

So, in the early stages of this blog I briefly mentioned being introduced to house music by Steve 'Silk' Hurley, way back in '87 when he demanded that the world Jack its Body and was rewarded with the top spot in the UK singles chart. While my attention from this point was principally diverted in the direction of guitar music, I always kept an eye on dancier developments in the charts - sample-heavy hits from M/A/R/R/S, Bomb The Bass and Cold Cut, high camp disco house from S'Xpress, the ill-fated hip hop/house crossover (a genre mash which finally broke in modern times with the godawful Euro house-influenced likes of Black Eyed Peas), the soulful sound of Inner City and, of course, acid house.


 

In the UK at least, acid house changed everything. It represented a punk-style year zero for dance music in the UK, influencing everything that followed, particularly rave, jungle and the bleeps of early Warp recordings. You could still hear this a year or so afterwards, when I started listening to John Peel, a keen supporter of both Warp and techno, particularly if it came from Belgium.


The producers of most of the above were faceless types, but the early '90s saw the beginnings of dance acts starting to behave like rock bands. Chief among these, of course, were The Prodigy, though their first hit Charly hardly seemed the work of people with one eye on headlining Donington in 2012. If this introductory shot seemed destined to be remembered merely for being the trailblazer for Toytown Techno (see also: Sesame's Treet by Smart E's and A Trip To Trumpton by Urban Hype, or, preferably, don't), the following tracks released from the band's Experience album revealed them to be the first dance act to deserve the epithet "singles band", all different, all tremendously exciting. When they returned in '94 with the harder Music For The Jilted Generation, they found themselves playing rock festivals and getting spun on alternative dancefloors, setting them on the road to Kerrang! covers and leading us, ultimately, to Chase And flipping Status.

If The Prodge, as I fear we must call them, seemed to actively court rockist attention, a more modest outfit punched above their weight without seeming to try as hard. The influence of Orbital, and particularly their second album, in drawing metallers and indie kids into dance music's, er, orbit, is something I've come across time and time again when speaking to contemporaries. Perhaps this was because, while ver Prodge came across as cheeky, E-fuelled artful dodgers who drew cross-genre appreciation based on the sheer energy rush they harnessed, Orbital were studious fellows who could draw on a wide-ranging musical background, with punk rock, early industrial, classical music and electro all feeding into a sound so lush they had to call one of their songs Lush 3, then split it in two in case anyone was overwhelmed by its sheer lushness. They started pretty low-key, as seen in a Top Of The Pops outing for the evergreen Chime which looks excruciating for everybody involved, but gradually built an image based partly on their very anonymity, and partly on the tactical wearing of head-torches.

Another single, Satan, made more explicit their links to rock; it opened with a sample of Jello Biafra speaking, lifted from a Butthole Surfers record, and it was called Satan, ferchrissakes, making it like catnip for easily-swayed metalheads. Hell, Kirk Hammett even once contributed to a version, for the soundtrack to the poorly-received movie Spawn, a work which also featured such irresistible pairings as Silverchair & Vitro and Filter & The Crystal Method.


It's often said of metal bands that their third albums are key, a cliche backed up by Master Of Puppets, The Number Of The Beast and Reign In Blood. In dance music, maybe it's the second album - as with Music For The Jilted Generation, Orbital's second (untitled, but brown in hue) record was the one which saw their potential delivered several times over. Along with the afore-mentioned Lush 3-1 and Lush 3-2, it featured their career high watermark Halcyon & On & On, other deathless classics like Planet Of The Shapes and Impact (The Earth Is Burning), and slightly annoying intro/outro vocal loops.


This was the arsenal with which they battered Glastonbury 1994, a performance which swiftly went down in the annals of Worthy Farm as one of the all-time great performances. I wasn't there, but picked up the album that summer and took it on holiday to Scotland with Sophie, driving around in her brother's car alternating between Orbital's second album and punk/new wave compilation The Sound Of The Suburbs. It was while soaking in Scottish scenery to the sound of two electronic composers from Sevenoaks that I realised what it is about Orbital - they're brilliant at moments, points in their tunes where things shift gears or move into new sections, conjuring emotion from a music still derided as being cold and mechanical from non-converts. It's this, along with a growing skill in background visuals, which made them perfect for Glastonbury, with their second album the first example of stadium-ready techno.

It's appropriate that I should mention Sophie above as we catch up with the timeline of this blog, but anyone with no interest in my private life should skip a couple of paragraphs - we'll get back to the music by then, honest.

Anyway, at the end of '94, Sophie decided to spend the second semester of the academic year on an exchange trip to Hofstra University on Long Island. I was pretty unchuffed - Sophie was my first proper girlfriend, not counting ten days going out with Lucy Howard in the Sixth Form, and now she was going to spend several months on the other side of an ocean? Nonetheless, we decided to maintain a long distance relationship, which in the days before widespread e-mail, let alone Skype, meant air mail letters and the occasional phone call, conducted on my side by chucking coins into a payphone to save the shared phone bill from Transatlantic phone charges.

One of the least pleasant sides of my personality is a jealous streak (it's been under control for a while, but subsequent girlfriends can vouch that it took a while). So while Sophie quite rightly got on with making the most of her time at Hofstra, I hated hearing about new friends and going clubbing in New York. Lucy made plans to go see her, but I couldn't afford to, and absence only made my heart get more resentful of the situation. The last straw, stupid as this is gonna sound, was when Sophie sent me a photo of her new, short haircut. Now, as anyone will tell you (including my mum, every time she's tried to convince me to get a haircut in the last twenty years), HAIR GROWS BACK. But in my self-appointed role of wronged boyfriend, I seethed at the idea that my girlfriend had shorn the hair I loved, and was, quite honestly, an absolute shit about it. This unchivalrous behaviour will leave absolutely nobody surprised that one evening in the spring of 1995, I walked back from that payphone a single man.

Apart from prepping you for Sophie's reappearance later on, it feels that all that was necessary to explain as the background to the night I spent at a house party with Dave Angel.

Now, by '95, dance music was the most highly visible genre in town. By that I mean that the shared houses of Studentville (Portswood and Highfield, mainly) were decorated with front window posters for everything from house club Squeeze to drum'n'bass nights (I remember it used to seem like LTJ Bukem was playing all the time, though that might have been slightly later on). This doesn't really explain how the following events came to pass, though.

The whole episode has a hazy, dreamlike quality, perhaps in part due to my state of inebriation. It's not the sort of thing I can check online, and I've long since lost touch with my cohort in this, Gail Holliman. The two of us ended up getting invited to this house party - I can only imagine we'd have been at The Dungeon or Nexus, alternative clubs hardly frequented by techno heads, although I guess we could have just been drinking in The Hobbit. The house we found ourselves in was a massive place near the Common - I remember a large, open plan room taking up most of the ground floor, with some sort of neo-classical pillars and arches dotted around. And renowned deep techno DJ Dave Angel playing records.


Really, the only thing which convinces me that this wasn't just a peculiarly vivid and memorable dream is that I can remember walking home with Gail in the morning light, and that the occasion impressed me sufficiently at the time to buy Dave Angel's debut full-length, Tales Of The Unexpected (hmm, spooky), and discover that it was actually a bit too smooth for my tastes.


1995 was, conveniently enough for the theme of this chapter, the first year that Glastonbury got itself a Dance Tent, largely down to that breakthrough Orbital set of the year before. It was also the only time I've been to a festival with just one (non-romantically involved) companion, in this instance my friend and notable Queen fanatic Matt Ross. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the weekend, however, was the weather; this would be the only Glastonbury I ever attended which offered blazing sunshine throughout the weekend. When I got home and looked in the mirror for the first time in four or five days, I looked like a burns victim. Select magazine printed a shot of the crowd with a caption taken from a weather report advising people not to spend more than twenty minutes in the sun...

The weekend was divided between the (largely Britpop) bands Matt and I checked out together, and the times I wandered off to experience something my techno-phobic companion wouldn't like. Pyramid Stage appearances from Senser and Ozric Tentacles on the Friday proved that the crusty era was still in full swing in the Pilton area, although the former debuted new material which seemed markedly more metal, in a Sabbath-meets-Tool kind of way; those in favour of this new direction would soon split to form Lodestar, ending the period where Senser were likely to be main stage material. Later in the weekend, I'd see short singer Heitham nearly get knocked over in the crowd by someone turning around while wearing a huge rucksack and accidentally swinging it into the little guy. Poor Heitham.

Much of our time was spent in front of the NME stage. Supergrass were perfect for a sunny Summer's day; Skunk Anansie arrived late and only got to play a few songs (I think their debut album Paranoid &Sunburnt was named after their Glasto experience); Ash played a great set and I punched a cup of water in the air just as the drums of Kung Fu kicked in; Matt crowdsurfed to Sleeper and worried that his mum would see it on the telly, afraid that the last she'd ever see of her son was him disappearing below the surface of people's heads; Drugstore continued their bid to be my favourite band.

On a more techno-themed tip, albeit still in the crusty/dub margins, Dreadzone and Zion Train both put in great sets on the NME Stage (the former's Zion Youth seemed to be getting played all over the site all weekend), and on Friday evening Matt and I went our separate ways in the battle of the Liams; he went with Oasis on the Pyramid Stage, while I headed back to the NME Stage for an imperious headline set from The Prodigy (I still reckon I made the best choice there). I wandered into the Dance Tent, taken over for a whole day by the Massive Attack Sound System, but I think I chose a rather mellow moment, as they were playing Dawn Penn's You Don't Love Me (No No No) to a mere handful of people.


The best moments of the weekend all piled up on Saturday night's Pyramid Stage line-up. First was PJ Harvey, playing what might be her most famous ever set. This was the first time I'd seen her since she ditched the original three-piece line-up for an expanded well of contributors for the To Bring You My Love album. It was odd seeing her without a guitar, but most striking was the sheer flamboyance she revealed that night, prowling the stage in her notorious pink catsuit. It was hard to square with the shy girl I'd met in the street in Yeovil just three years earlier. It was also bloody brilliant.


Orbital's reward for their victory the previous year was a promotion to the pre-headliner set on the Pyramid Stage, a clear sign that dance music was now recognised as a crucial part of the festival's DNA. I managed to convince Matt to check it out, and I think he begrudgingly enjoyed himself, amused by the way the crowd cheered those moments I mentioned earlier, and by a guy near us who kept shouting "Cheers, Orbital". A great moment occurred when they played Satan and an image of John Major flashed up on their screens, with a massive X quickly scrawled across his face. In the real world, he'd just announced that he was standing down as leader of the Tory party (as it turned out, he just got re-elected in the subsequent leadership vote). Cheers, Orbital.

The biggest news, though, was Pulp stepping in as headliners after the Stone Roses were forced to cancel. Despite having been around for the best part of twenty years, and reaping critical acclaim with 1994's His'N'Hers, for many people it was only recent No.2 hit Common People which justified such a lofty placing for the Sheffield outsiders. In a sense, though, this freed them from having to play a Greatest Hits set - they'd only had three Top 40 singles at this point - and instead made them a rarity at any festival, a main stage headliner whose set is as much about the future as a celebration of the past. I remember the debut airing of Sorted For E's And Wizz (a rare example of an indie band influenced by the rave scene, albeit lyrically rather than musically) being a particular highlight, and a speech Jarvis gave about how, as we were in the middle of 1995, which was the middle year of the 90s, we were therefore right in the middle of the whole decade; even at the time I worked out that wasn't quite right, but it still made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Speaking of the back of my neck, it was currently helping to hold up a young lady who asked to sit on my shoulders so she could get a better view. I have never, ever done this on any other occasion, but the spirit of both festival and band made it feel like the right thing to do under the circumstances. Also, quite clearly, I was hoping to get laid, but after they'd finished she thanked me and disappeared into the night.

Most of my other memories from Glastonbury '95 involve downright silliness, like when Matt bought us hash cakes which were almost certainly pure, uncut Mr Kipling. He suggested afterwards that we'd have had more effect from lying down in the sun, then standing up quickly. One night, when faced with the usual barrage of kids shouting "Bollocks!" (does this still happen at festivals nowadays?), Matt vented his opinion of one of Sunday's Pyramid Stage performers by shouting "Simple Minds" instead. Speaking of night time shouting, we also yelled "HAAAAAYWOOOOIRE!", a cry beloved of fans of veteran Southampton anarcho punk mob Haywire (enunciated in a West Country accent, natch, and also to be heard between songs on a Napalm Death live bootleg from Salisbury), and were gratified that, from some distant corner of the field in which we were camped, someone yelled it back to us.

Spending the summer at home in Somerset, there was very little opportunity for further live excitement. Unlikely as it sounds, respite from this came from an invitation to visit Sophie, now back from the US, in the West Midlands. Informed by her experiences in New York, she was now well into the club scene and asked me and Lucy to go to Atomic Jam, a techno night in Birmingham. Looking at it now, I think we might have attended the first night of what went on to be a long-running Midlands institution. As far as I can remember, Richie Hawtin, Bandulu and my old mucker Dave Angel all played, but I spent most of my time in a side room playing the kind of hip hop-influenced stuff which never quite got a name (Amyl House? Thought not.), but would shortly mutate into Big Beat.

As an aside, Atomic Jam reminds me that I've forgotten a show which should have been in the last couple of blogs. At an undocumented date in late '94 or early '95, I went to see Huevos Rancheros at The Joiners. These guys played surf rock, as in Man... Or Astroman? or, in its most widely-known incarnation, Dick Dale's Misirlou, AKA the twangy guitar tune from Pulp Fiction. I was one of three people dancing that night, which was most certainly not the case at Atomic Jam. The reason my memory has been belatedly jogged is because I chose to wear my Huevos Rancheros shirt that night, with a cartoon chef on the front and the slogan "A Tasty Change From Potatoes!" on the back. Improbably, while I was taking a moment to chill on some stairs, a guy struck up a conversation with me about how much he liked Huevos Rancheros. I thought, initially, he might have been talking about the actual dish (fried eggs and chilli sauce on corn tortillas), but it turned out he'd seen them on the same tour as me.

There is a postscript to this tale; the shirt was so sweat-sodden when I returned home to Somerset the next day that my mum left it to soak with some cleaning products. Unfortunately, she then forgot about it for a few days, and when it eventually re-emerged, it looked like it had been subjected to a bad tie dye job. Maybe it was revenge for the fact that my first ever comedown made it quite difficult to eat the roast dinner she'd prepared for my return. Defiantly, I carried on wearing the shirt for years, though it hasn't survived the T-shirt culls which have happened the last couple of times I moved house.


Summer 1995 ended in a field outside Frome, the Somerset town which gave the world Jenson Button. I doubt the then-fifteen-year old future Formula One champion ventured down to the One World festival in 1995, unless he went through a mid-teen crusty phase. Frome (pronounced to rhyme with BOOM!) is in the heartland of the West Country crusty/free festival/traveller scene, and this festival had a classic mid-'90s line-up, including Zion Train, Revolutionary Dub Warriors and a double whammy of Ozric Tentacles and Eat Static. It was a lovely, sunny day, with perhaps more of a family atmosphere than your average festival of the time. There were the usual festival "characters" - one guy was dressed as an eight-foot Predator - and also a winning sense of amateurishness - a light breeze ensured that for much of the day, the smoke machine seemed to be directed towards the merch stand rather than the stage. Darkness fell for the last two sets, allowing full use of the Fruit Salad Lightshow for interwoven outfits the Ozrics and Eat Static. This area was their stomping ground, and the type of festival their natural habitat, so both bands killed it, but the latter stood out more for me, partly because I'd never seen them before but mostly because a bit of manic techno was just what was called for after a day of mellow music. For the first time, there was a little bit of an edge to proceedings, and not just because the guy next to me started shouting - enthusiastically, like it was a compliment - "Eat Static! Eat shit!"

Cheers, Orbital.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

AVAIL

Up till now, I've resisted dedicating whole blog chapters to particular bands (though I certainly could have done with PJ Harvey and Drugstore, to name just a couple), not wanting to screw up the chronology of this particular time tunnel. Avail deserve this more than most, though, particularly as I can't help feeling they were a rather underrated force, at least outside of the section of the punk world which went doolally for them.

Confession time: I mainly went down to Avail's first STE show on May 25th, 1995, because of Smog (UK). I'd become quite good friends with them since seeing them with Skimmer and Bob Tilton a few months earlier. At some point around this period, I went round to bassist Matt's flat to interview them for The Edge, the expanded music supplement to Wessex News which a few of my fellow English students and I were readying for the autumn, and in which I also printed Smog frontman Stu's review of then-hyped all-girl Britpop/punk band Fluffy, which included the choice sentence, "No one had a good word to say about them apart from the old bloke in the raincoat who was hanging around the ladies toilets."

The Avail gig came after the end of the summer term, but I decided to delay heading back to Somerset to see Smog play again (the deal on our student house was that we officially had it until September). I seem to recall a week or so of hanging around with not much to do, spending time with my friend Sophie McElroy (not the Sophie I'd been going out with - I'll relate the end of that relationship next time).

I'd bumped into Matt Smog in the street, and he'd enthused about the band they were playing with. "I don't normally like hardcore," he'd said, confusing me with this crazy talk, "but Avail are really good."

But before Avail, and before even Smog (UK), came opening band Muckspreader. It has been proven by a consortium of scientists, linguists and cultural commentators that Muckspreader is the perfect name for a band who come from the West Country, play cider-thrash punk and decided, on that May evening in 1995, to wear dresses onstage. The name Muckspreader also sounds nearly as good hollered in a West Country accent as the name Haywire - more on that next time, too. On the basis of an internet search I just did, it appears that Muckspreader included in their ranks one Spider, a former drummer for seminal crust-metal outfit Amebix, a band who I'm fairly confident never wore dresses onstage.

I did such a good job of describing Smog (UK) last time that I don't really have too much to add here, so let's move on to Avail. This bunch hailed from Richmond, Virginia, and it's hard not to feel that their Southern roots had an impact on the kind of hardcore they played. This wasn't the tough guy moshcore of New York, the post-hardcore of 90s DC or the pop punk of California, though it had elements of all three (and they were signed, at this point to Lookout, which in a hundred years time the feral creatures who make up post-apocalyptic humanity will still probably know as the original home of Green Day). The cliche about Avail is that their sound was blue collar hardcore, but dammit, that fits pretty well. They had the intensity to satisfy fans of more typical hardcore, but also a melodic, work song sensibility which looked backwards to Johnny Cash, Leatherface, Jawbreaker, John Cougar Mellencamp and Violent Femmes (the last two of whom provided them with cover version material) and forwards to Against Me!, Strike Anywhere and even At The Drive-In, who'd be compared to them on the flyer for their own Joiners show a few years later.


In '95, they were two albums in, with Satiate and Dixie already in the bag. Footage from the time (see below) reveals a pretty young-looking bunch, with frontman Tim Barry sporting dreads and cheerleader Beau Beau substantially less hairy than in the future. Ah yes, Beau Beau - how could I get this far into a discussion of Avail without mentioning the strange figure who stood onstage with Avail every night contributing nothing musically bar the occasional backing vocal, but everything in terms of atmosphere and visual identity?

Speaking of atmosphere, The Joiners was a great place to be that night. Back when I was going to see Carter and the Neds, I was quite used to going down the front to do what I guess we called moshing back then - not the slamdancing variety, more being jammed into a mass of people and pogoing whether you wanted to or not, while a steady stream of crowdsurfers kicked you in the head. Ah, great days... However, since moving to Southampton I'd become accustomed to fairly reserved audiences at The Joiners. This certainly wasn't the case for Avail, but in comparison to the windmilling martial artists who regularly ruin hardcore shows, the pit was good-natured and inclusive, with violence replaced by the curious custom of pigpiling (basically, people piling on top of each other in a big mound of bodies - it was a lot more fun than that sounds). I'm fairly sure I still held back on this occasion, though, unfamiliar with the tunes and still perhaps feeling a tad out of place at STE shows.


The gig was immediately discussed as one of the all-time great STE shows, and the band evidently agreed, as they made sure to return a little over a year later when touring their third album, 4AM Friday. I'm sure I heard at the time that they'd personally requested that Smog played with them again, although I'm quite sure they didn't also ask for openers Portiswood, who featured local scenesters Cov John, PJ, Tony Suspect and Rut, and whose name was a cunning pun linking Soton area Portswood with a certain trip hop band. They weren't trip hop, clearly. Hear their stuff here:
http://web.mac.com/tonysuspect/Suspect_Device/Music.html

I suspect that 4AM Friday is most people's favourite Avail record (mine was still to come), and with a batch of great new tunes and an audience primed and ready, they could hardly fail to tear the place down once again. This time, even I got involved in the pigpiling. Here's some footage from a German show about a week later.

Avail returned to the Joiners for their third and final STE show in 1998. Sadly, I've been unable to unearth who else was on the bill, but with another excellent album, and my personal favourite, Over The James, in the bag, this show completed a mighty hat-trick of Southampton Avail shows.

In the meantime, Avail had insinuated themselves into my life in funny little ways. In early 1997, a new kid at work broke the ice by mentioning that he'd seen me at an Avail gig. That was Jimmy Martin, who I'd go on to join a band with (who sounded nothing like Avail, natch) and who remains a good friend 15 years later. When I started a fairly unsuccessful mini-career of DJing in alternative clubs in Southampton with my friends Ben Mason and M.A. Tovey, I'd regularly spin Scuffle Town by Avail, mainly to disinterested goths but occasionally to more receptive punk types.

The goths might not have been paying attention, but other people evidently were.The band were snapped up by Fat Wreck Chords and released their fifth album, One Wrench, in 2000. Touring the UK as support to Snapcase, they didn't make it to Southampton, so a bunch of us made the trip over to the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth instead. There's little doubt that some of the intimacy we'd enjoyed previously was lost at a slightly bigger venue, but at the same time it was good to see Beau Beau have more stage to play with, scaling speaker stacks, playing air guitar on a mic stand and at one point jumping into the crowd, watching the band for a little while and, turning to the guy next to him, motioning towards the stage with his thumb with a "They're pretty good, aren't they?" expression on his face, before jumping back onstage. The band also made some positive comments about their Southampton friends in attendance, which I'm sure went down very well with the Pompey crew. By this point freelancing for the NME, I filed a review which was less an objective view of the night in question than an attempt to sell the band to people who'd been turned on to American rock by the likes of ATD-I, QOTSA and, er,  ...AYWKUBTTOD. Snapcase didn't have a hope of following Avail, but the bands evidently got on pretty well; a Kerrang! feature on the tour (written, I think, by Rae Alexandra, herself a veteran of several crucial UK punk zines like Fracture) revealed that Beau Beau had got himself a tattoo to mark the occasion, featuring two cigarettes crossed over a vegan cookie, symbolising the alliance of the drinkin' and smokin' Avail and the straight-edge Snapcase. Still not sure how you can differentiate between vegan and non-vegan cookies in the medium of ink on flesh, mind...


One Wrench wasn't as good a record as the three which had preceded it, however, and the band also missed Erik Larsen behind the kit, who'd left to concentrate on his other band Alabama Thunderpussy. The last Avail record, 2002's Front Porch Stories, played up the downhome, country elements of the band's sound, and while a good record, it couldn't match the band's 90s output. When they toured it with Ensign, I got to see them one last time in a small venue. They played Brighton's Freebutt in April 2003 on, I think, the day after that year's ATP Festival. I wasn't yet living in Brighton, but we were staying with Anna's folks on the way back to Southampton, so I hopped on a train to see Avail. I was too knackered to properly enjoy it, but it was great to see them back in a small room (even smaller than the Joiners, I think!). My last Avail gig, but also my first time at the Freebutt, so I guess it was both the end of something and the beginning of another period of my life.

After Front Porch Stories, Avail carried on playing in the US for a few years before going on one of those fashionable "indefinite hiatuses", with Tim Barry embarking on a solo, acoustic-driven career somewhat in the vein of his peer Chuck Ragan of Hot Water Music. This has become a pretty standard escape route for old punks who've lost their youthful energy, but it feels like a logical progression for Barry.

Maybe, with Hot Water Music just one of a current wave of punk rock reformations which also includes At The Drive-In, Refused and perhaps Jawbreaker, Avail will be tempted to hit the road again. If they do, I'll definitely be there. Especially if Rich Levene puts them on in Southampton one more time...

Next time, something completely different: techno.