Friday, 10 May 2013

1996-1999, Part 4: In The Fishtank

I'd been a fan of The Fall since 1988, when their reading of The Kinks' Victoria was a number 35 smash in the singles chart. Its brief tenure in the hit parade meant that it wasn't long before I could pick up a cheap copy of the seven-inch in the ex-chart bargain racks in Woolworths. At this point, I didn't know too much about the band (and had never even heard the original version of Victoria), but on the basis of one hearing on the Sunday night chart show, I was drawn into the scrappy, scuzzy sound of this single, so different to most of the other stuff I was hearing in the charts in '88. B-side Tuff Life Boogie was a bit much for me at the time, however.

A year or two later, I started listening to John Peel, only to discover that the strange bunch behind Victoria were his favourite band. Whether or not they had a record out, rare would be the week when The Fall didn't get played at least once on Peel's watch. There was one particularly educational fortnight when Peely went on holiday and, in place of the standard session guests for the two weeks' worth of pre-recorded shows, each programme featured a repeat of a classic Fall session from the 80s. Around the same time, my schoolfriend Andy picked up the band's 458489 compilation, which rounded up their A-sides from what remains their most accessible period.

So, when Mark, one of the most dedicated Fall fans I've ever met, pointed out that they were playing Portsmouth's Wedgewood Rooms in December 1997, I gladly signed up for the show. I can't remember who else came with us - Steve and Theresa maybe? - but I do know that Wayne wasn't going to, as Arab Strap were due to play the Joiners on the same night. The First Big Weekend had been something of an underground hit that year, and the band's booze-fuelled vignettes had struck a chord with my erstwhile housemate. That said, I have it in my head that the Scots might have cancelled, so maybe Wayne did come to Portsmouth after all. We'll check in with Arab Strap later...

Now, obviously going to see The Fall is not like going to see other bands. This is because most other bands aren't fronted by curmudgeonly drunks who spend the set fucking with their bandmates' equipment. These days, I know it's all part of Mark E Smith's "thing", but at the time I found it distracting and dispiriting. Mark loved the show, but I couldn't help feeling let down. Looking at a Fall fansite, it appears that the faithful dug it, even remarking that MES seemed to be in a good mood. Me, I wasn't at all surprised when that incarnation of the band dissolved onstage in New York not long afterwards. I've seen The Fall since - with entirely different line-ups, natch - and have enjoyed them at least twice, but on that cold night at the end of 1997 I was left, ahem, feeling numb.

'98 found me going to a bunch of punk rock shows, all at The Joiners. In March, the STE put on a benefit show for the Zapatistas, featuring three Southern hardcore/thrash bands: Unslug from Brighton, whose co-vocalist Darren would become a friend years later, Southampton's own Minute Manifesto and Surrey band I Confess. A couple months later, I'd see American melodic hardcore types The Marshes supported by Essex melodic hardcore types Travis Cut, and then, on the last day of May, His Hero Is Gone, John Holmes, and, once again, Minute Manifesto.

This show took place on the Sunday night on what had been a very boozy weekend. That afternoon, we'd had friends round for a barbecue and I was already pretty blitzed when we got to The Joiners. I remember, before Minute Manifesto played, shouting drunkenly at guitarist Dingo/Romsey Matt. "Rock me, Matt," I demanded, like a plonker. Matt looked nervous, though to be fair, he often looked nervous.

So, Minute Manifesto played and were great, as always. John Holmes featured people from various North Eastern hardcore bands, including legendary drummer Sned, and were billed as "Manowar-core" on the gig flyer. This was more due to their listening habits than what they actually sounded like, natch; their deal was more of a rock'n'roll take on hardcore, with a dark coolness which marked them out from a lot of other bands around at the time.

And so to one of the biggest regrets of my gigging life: by the time His Hero Is Gone came on, I was so shitfaced that, despite watching the whole set, I have absolutely no recollection of it. HHIG were a super-influential crust band, with members going on to be in the also excellent Tragedy, and this would have been one of their last tours. I got a seven-inch, and it was great. I'm sure if I'd been there in mind as well as body, I'd be discussing this gig as an all-time favourite. But I wasn't, so I can't.

This might have been the night we got home to find people had been putting tins of baked beans on the barbecue and watching them explode, spattering tomato sauce against the side of the house.

Later in the summer, two thirds of this last bill reconvened at the Joiners. Two things were different: Dropdead were the headliners, and there was no stage at the Joiners. The venue was being refurbished, with the stage moving from the left hand wall to the back, and this must have been one of the only shows which took place between one stage going and the next appearing. Minute Manifesto and John Holmes were both storming, again, and I wasn't too hammered to enjoy Dropdead. This lot were/are a super-earnest thrashcore band from the US, playing short, sharp bursts of extreme noise terror, not a million miles away from early Napalm Death or their Japanese comrades S.O.B. The Joiners gig was part of what seemed like a gruelling European tour, and as well as talking about animal rights and other typically punk issues, vocalist Bob Otis talked about how hard it was to be away from home while one of his family members was seriously ill. You could hear a pin drop.

More recently, I kinda figured Dropdead had split up, as I hadn't heard anything since they did a split 7" with Unholy Grave in 2003. However, they popped up again in 2011 with another split (truly, the premier format for grindcore) with Converge. Be nice to see them in the UK again one day.

Around this time, we started hanging out at an indie night called The Fishtank at the insalubrious Southampton bar Lennons. The Fishtank had become a regular Monday night out for our extended group of mates, and while it left a lot to be desired - low turnouts and Hofmeister on tap - the music on offer was based on our then-current favourites like Mogwai, Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian, The Delgados, Six By Seven and Super Furry Animals (who we saw at the Guildhall sometime around this point), as well as more estabished faves like Pavement, Stereolab and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. In other words, it was an indie night for people who actually liked indie, as opposed to the by-now culturally bankrupt sounds of Britpop. It was twee as fuck, of course, which didn't stop us defending our turf on an occasion when a group of townies turned up and started trying to intimidate us, picking in particular on Ben due to his rather camp demeanour. I remember them taking the piss when a few of us started dancing to the mellow intro to The Man Don't Give A Fuck, then retreating when the song kicked off and the dancefloor filled. Afterwards, one of them started giving us shit outside and looked ready to punch Steph when she suggested that his homophobia might be a result of his being a closet case. Strength of numbers on our side caused him to slope off, and afterwards me and Wayne both admitted that, despite being generally peaceful fellows, we were gearing up to use our fists if he'd swung for her.

The Fishtank was also where we met a bunch of lads - Will, Mike, Andy and assorted chums - who we nicknamed The Mogwai Shufflers on account of their dancing and taste in music. It turned out that these three, plus their mate Chris, were in a band called Orko, playing electronica and post-rock influenced indie. We started going to see them pretty much every time they played and became good friends.

As well as our Monday nights at The Fishtank, this period saw me going to The Nexus every weekend and dancing up a storm. It sometimes felt like me, Wayne, Jimmy and our workmate Owen Redman were indestructible on that dancefloor, getting drunk and throwing shapes to tunes like Intergalactic by The Beastie Boys. Nearly ten years later, I got a call from Wayne to tell me that Owen had passed away. I still think about him a lot.

Around this time, me, Mark and Ben decided that we could do our own equivalent of The Fishtank, and arranged a weekday slot at The Nexus. It only lasted for that one summer - in all honesty, we weren't getting enough people through the door, although I wish they'd given us until the students came back in the autumn. We went on to DJ at The Dungeon on Saturday nights, which was a massive misjudgement for all concerned. The Dungeon's clientele wanted goth, industrial and nu-metal. We wanted to play whatever we wanted, from Mogwai to drum'n'bass. The owners wanted us to play It's Like That by Run DMC Vs Jason Nevins. It didn't last long.

Never mind. Let's go to the Reading Festival!

The Friday was all about the second (Melody Maker) stage, which boasted a bunch of the aforementioned Fishtank favourites. The Delgados were always a tad shaky live, but they were the sort of band who could turn a bit of nervousness into a positive. Arab Strap were similarly understated, and would leave more of an impression on future encounters. Kenickie, who Steph and I should have seen the year before at the mud-ruined Glastonbury, had by now gone ultra-poppy with their second, inferior, album Get In. They were pretty atrocious at Reading, but their presence at the festival gave us the memory of Jimmy dithering over whether to introduce himself to Lauren Laverne when she was stood near us later in the weekend. By the time he'd made up his mind that he would, she headed off to the non-accessible bit of the backstage area. We'd see Kenickie again, and Jimmy and I would later interview Marie and Emmy-Kate for a fanzine which never happened, but as far as I know he never crossed paths with La Laverne again.

Things got serious next, with Mogwai playing the penultimate set of the evening. This must have been the first time I saw them, and they exceeded the high expectations which their records had built up. With the restrictions of a festival set length, they brought out the big guns, with Mogwai Fear Satan and Like Herod bookending their time on stage with twin eruptions of noise. In between, Helicon 1 and Xmas Steps put in an appearance, alongside a newie called Kappa which would emerge on Come On Die Young the following year. It's fair to say that this performance kicked off a proper obsession with Mogwai. Super Furry Animals headlined the Maker stage that day, cementing the fact that they were then one of the most creative, original bands in the UK, not to mention one of the few who could follow Mogwai.

We were up early the next day to catch Jurassic 5 on the main stage. Their presence there was testament to the fact that, for a band who consciously harked back to hip hop's golden and daisy ages, they were (at least) as popular with indie kids as B-boys. Their debut had hit like a breath of fresh air; at a time when it seemed (to someone who, admittedly, was something of an outside observer) that the genre was split between poppy chart stars and underground keepers of the flame, tunes like Concrete Schoolyard and Jayou reminded us that hip hop could be fun and catchy without relying on the cheesy samples and bling-encrusted boasting which put us off yer Puff Daddys and so forth. At Reading, they proved a fun way to spend a Saturday lunchtime. Somewhat angrier but no less powerful were Asian Dub Foundation, for me one of the best genre-smashing crews of the day. Their debut on Trans-Global Undergound's Nation label, Facts And Fictions, had gone fairly unnoticed, but since then they'd signed to London and smashed into the Top 20 with their strident sophomore release, Rafi's Revenge. As well as the elements of Asian and reggae culture cued up by their name, they used influences from punk and jungle to create some of the angriest party music on offer at the time. Over the years, they settled into a niche fanbase, their progress hampered both by changing fashions and a revolving cast of vocalists, but in August 1998, on the main stage at Reading, songs like Naxalite and Free Satpal Ram sounded like the work of a band ready to take on the world. More dub - though considerably less anger - was on offer later with Lee "Scratch" Perry. His band played for what seemed like ages before Scratch appeared, doing funny dances and spouting gibberish. His production work in reggae's glory days was groundbreaking and retains a semi-mystical power. His live show was more like a stoned Rolf Harris.

It's time to talk about Earl Brutus. While reminiscing about this festival, and their appearance on the third (Doc Martens) stage, it occurred to me that I could dedicate an entire chapter to this band, such was their idiosyncratic brilliance, but instead you're going to have to put up with a bunch of rambling.

Their line-up was pretty much the most unusual bunch of reprobates to band together, a strange mixture of 80s veterans who shouldn't really have been making the sort of music Earl Brutus made. One of their singers was Jamie Fry, brother of the somewhat more successful Martin Fry of 80s New Pop kids ABC. His co-vocalist was Nick Sanderson, who'd previously played drums with Clock DVA, The Drum Club and World Of Twist, whose Gordon King was also along for the ride. Guitarist Rob Marche had been in Subway Sect before forming JoBoxers and becoming an actual, proper pop star hitting No.3 with Boxerbeat in 1983. Fifteen years later, he was playing on the third stage at the Reading Festival, alongside a guy called Shinya Hayashida, who the band seemingly employed to stand onstage headbanging and shouting at the audience like a Japanese version of Avail's Beau Beau.

One of the problems with Britpop, or at least its South Eastern wing and the music press which wrote about it, was that it often felt like the work of people from comfortable backgrounds slumming it, glamorising bedsits and unemployment while safe in the knowledge that for them it was a temporary lifestyle choice rather than a financial necessity. This is surely the only explanation for the fleeting success of the turgid Northern Uproar, and while Pulp's Common People, voted the era's top tune in the NME in the week I'm writing this, was about a specific time in Jarvis's life, it could also be read as an indictment of the scene itself. I've no idea what sort of class backgrounds Earl Brutus came from, but the vision of Britain contained in their songs was pointedly unglamorous, a world of job centres, bingo halls and cheap fags. They conveyed this through seedy glam riffs and terrace chants, repetition and surrealism. I'm not sure anyone remarked on it at the time - and don't let this put you off - but Fat Les's Vindaloo sounded like a dumbed-down rip off of their aesthetic by people who'd actually use the word aesthetic. Brutus were just as much piss-takers, and in their own way just as arty, as Fat Les, but they never seemed like a bunch of patronising fuckwits - their humour was confrontational, not lazy, and while they seemed to possess a certain contempt for everyone, it was closer to genuine misanthropy than an art school pose. With that in mind, two of the most important things about their Reading performance were the floral tribute which spelt out "FUCK OFF", and the way they left Shinya onstage at the end of the set, shouting about steak and kidney pies, for ages.

After Earl Brutus, Nick Sanderson drove trains and drummed for the Jesus & Mary Chain. He died of lung cancer in 2008. RIP.

Meanwhile, the one thing everyone remembers about Reading 1998 was the onstage spat between The Prodigy and The Beastie Boys. The latter had attempted to use their status as Saturday night headliners to demand the former drop Smack My Bitch Up from their set, seemingly oblivious to the lyrics on their first album (lest we forget, nearly called Don't Be A Faggot before a judicious name change to Licensed To Ill). Is Smack My Bitch Up truly a misogynist piece of work? I dunno, I tend to think it's just a dumb sample on an otherwise powerful tune. Would the Beasties have asked the Wu-Tang Clan or Ultramagnetic MCs (from whom the offending line was sampled) to drop sexist lyrics from their live shows? Let's face it, probably not; while I commend their post-Licensed To Ill politics, and am happy to call out misogyny when I see or hear it, this seemed like a battle not worth fighting. The Prodigy played Smack My Bitch Up and used the Beasties' failed attempt at censorship to bolster their punk rock attitude. The Beasties played a fantastic headline set. Neither ultimately had any effect, positive or negative, on the fact that domestic abuse is still a massive problem in the world, and that violence towards women and girls is dominating the news at the time I write this: not just the ongoing revelations from Operation Yewtree, but also the trials of those accused of murdering April Jones and Tia Sharp, and the release of several young women who'd been kept captive for a decade in Ohio.

Back to Reading, and Sunday. Girls Against Boys opened the main stage with a bracing set, before my old muckers Drugstore put in an appearance. Their career had enjoyed a short-term lift thanks to the presence of one Thom Yorke on their recent single El President, which took them into the Top 20 for the first and only time. Thom didn't show up at Reading, of course, but with Isabel in fine form who needed him? Drugstore, not for the first time, made my eyes well up.

With the rest of the main stage bill looking pretty dull, we looked to the rest of the site for our kicks. The Backyard Babies were lively and refreshingly rock'n'roll in the Doc Martens tent; Urusei Yatsura did their fun noise pop thing on the Maker stage, while Royal Trux showed up there with Dave Pajo from Slint in their line-up; and Monkey Mafia did their live big beat thing in the Dance tent. Really, though, we were looking forward to Spiritualized, who were headlining the Maker stage. With their Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space opus having been one of the most acclaimed albums of the previous years, we figured there was gonna be a mighty crush to get in the tent, so turned up a full band early to watch Ultrasound's awkward prog-indie-glam. As it turned out, there was plenty of room for Spiritualized, and I found them a little underwhelming, though perhaps this was a result of the guy who insisted on crowdsurfing over the first few rows - essentially the length of his body - throughout the set, proving something of a distraction.

I was gonna power on through to the end of '98, but I think I've been going on long enough. Next time: love comes, love goes, and me and Jimmy interview a bunch of bands with the intention of writing a fanzine. Which doesn't happen.