Thursday, 16 August 2012

Live review: Refused @ The Kentish Town Forum, 13.08.12

Once upon a time, in a wintry land across the sea, there was a punk band. They lived as they died; blinding, brilliant, furious; a flash of nuclear light in the blackness; the multitudes who missed their passing felt the fallout for years to come.

Refused struggled to make an impact during their original tour of duty, coming up against criticism from all quarters; they didn't look enough like a punk band, they didn't move like one. They weren't interested in aping their forbears and making a fuck-ton of money; they wanted, they claimed, to take apart the system that disgusted them, to replace and totally sideline what passed for popular music. People missed the point and ignored the challenge. In a way, maybe they didn't translate precisely because they were /too/ easy to like. They were no blunt instrument; the anti-capitalist, reactionary, damn the man lyrics were married to squiggling basslines and an enviable, rude sense of rhythm that commanded you to DANCE, motherfucker. If you struggled with the basics of this, Lyxzen was only too happy to demonstrate, bodypopping and snaking across the stage. Fully punk in their sensibilities, they found themselves at war with the purists, and internally they struggled with the tug of war between their political raison d'etre and the reality of the music industry - not to mention their own inter-band conflicts. By the time they released their third record - the magnificent, unchained lifeforce of The Shape of Punk To Come - they were fed up.

So they split. A corrosive statement vowed that they would never reform or try to 'celebrate what was'; they were, they felt, part of the the problem, not the solution.

And yet, here we are. I'm smashed up against the barrier of Kentish Town's dingy Forum. A man who seems composed of 30% flesh, 25% blind faith and 45% sweat is wordlessly and rhythmically threatening to break my nose, his head swinging at me with every guitar stab. After chivalrously letting me in on the barrier, he spends the next half hour trying to shatter my ribs. This is the decade of reformation, and while it's no surprise that bands like Soundgarden and the Stone Roses have stepped up to enjoy the headline slot again, something weird is going on when firebrands like ATDI and Refused accept the gauntlet. The band who bypassed actual success and shot straight to mythology are right in front of us. Dennis Lyxzen, still wiry, still angry, still bearing a 'straightedge' inkbrand across his spine, is rocketing back and forth, robot-dancing, scaling Babel-towers he's built from up-ended monitors, walking on water through the sea of outstretched hands in front of him, and the fucker next to me is trying to kill me.

Who cares? What's played out in front of us is so fucking fast and fun and on the money that it brings back those teenage endurance levels - you know, like when you would stake out your place hours earlier and collect your barrier bruises, leaving the notion of the bar and the toilets to the less dedicated plebs who just didn't care enough. Because you knew it would be worth it. That sense of urgency floods back, and although Refused have broken their promise, although it's harder to trust in Lyxzen's fervent, black and white optimism, for one hour everyone with a functioning soul gives in to it again, and every chorus, missive and shouted call to arms alights the crowd. This is not a gig, it's a rally.

What are Refused's intentions now? What does the Refused Party Program entail in 2012? Is the mission still to take apart, reduce and destroy culture and replace it with pure, collective feeling? Are they just here to party? Are they going to make a new record? These things are not clear. They're not young men any longer, though they move like them. They must know that this can't play out the way they demanded it would in their 20s. The TV rights to the revolution were sold a long time ago, and popular culture is not about to bow to Refused, any more than it was the first time around. "Shitty band with an awesome plan"? Maybe in the end it was the other way around. But if Refused accept that what they do matters for less grandiose reasons, then maybe they'd accept that they're still the best punk band in the world.

Or maybe they already know that and maybe that's why they reformed; because they could. Because they knew that there is a generation of young and not-so-young men and women here that never got to see them rip the roof off. What they do has value, even if you strip away the professed political intent that shaped it in the first place. It has cultural value, because they're fucking incredible; they attack in fifteen minute raids, ripping the breath from your lungs as they burn through 'The Refused Party Program', 'Liberation Frequency' and 'Rather Be Dead'. Their timing is impeccable. It goes dark, you slump for a moment, wanting the onslaught to stop, then wanting it to start again and never stop - and it begins again. People, and writers, and bands, talk about the influence of Refused, the music that came after them, because of them. Of course they do; if it was anything like this first time around, of course it lit a fire under some creative arses - and this latecomer knows they probably burned twice this bright 20 years ago, albeit in significantly smaller venues. As angry as the words are, the music is joyous, inclusive and celebratory. These are not tired, angry punks, they're men with ideas who still want to dance - and they can dance better than you.

They have political value too, even if it's not the kind they originally aimed for. They still inspire; they make you feel young again, a vital tool in the fight against mediority and creeping irrelevence. No, it's not just you; no, you're not getting too old to demand something vivid and alive; you can ask for better. And tonight, Refused can provide it. If their sloganeering and their blissful, brilliant fury keep one person out of a shitty job at a bank, and in a studio or a laboratory or a disaster relief zone or anything else that feels like living and contributing, instead of just existing and administrating, they have done their job. Refused are not fucking dead.


Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac

I love the pop culture archetype of the lonely hero on the road, searching for something or someone. I guess it's the soulful flipside of that rebellious American cars 'n' girls aesthetic... the mechanical-age equivalent of the lone rider. American romance at its moodiest. Here are three great examples.

At this point I have to quote Clueless.
"Is it more James Dean or Jason Priestley?"
"Carpe diem, ok? You looked hot in it!"

(I'm with Cher on this one. Jason Priestley is cheesy as hell, but still. Roy. Oh, Roy.) I also really like the Maccabees' cover of this. Orlando Weeks has the kind of crooning vocals that suit this song, and I'd be surprised if he didn't claim Orbison as an influence generally.

God knows where to start with Springsteen, seeing as this archetype fills about a quarter of his songs, from the age-old and magnificent Thunder Road ("my car's out back if you're ready to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat") to the comparatively recent Radio Nowhere, with its brooding "trying to find my way home" opening. But State Trooper is an understated and amazing example.

I still don't subscribe to the Fuck Yeah Ryan Gosling school of thought, but Drive is a stupendous movie. It's the absolute perfect amalgamation of ruthless, violent action and still, almost unspoken romance. It's noirish without being pastichey, and it's far bigger than the sum of its influences. Gosling is really well chosen as the taciturn, unstoppable driver/hero, a character who'll go to any lengths for either the task at hand or the girl he loves, but thankfully eschews grand gestures or any of the sort of schmaltzy shit that would ruin this kind of movie. He's essentially kind of ordinary looking, not some dark, towering, smouldering screen idol. That works. The Lone Driver aesthetic is a pretty sparse one; pile on too much detail, tell us too much backstory, and you lose its punch. Drive does it tremendously.

And as per the post title, I want to give an honourable mention to Don Henley's Boys of Summer. Partly because if you really don't like that song, you may well be dead inside. And partly because I love the pictures it paints; a guy alone on the road with just his car and his memories... a dead seaside town... a girl in shades, once in the front seat, now just in the recesses of the past... and the line "A little voice inside my head / Said 'don't look back, you can never look back'". The sense of running desperately towards, and away from, something. It's not often a great big power pop song can conjure such feelings of nostalgia, elation and dread all at once.


Monday, 6 August 2012

Will you stop pretending I've never been born, now I look a little more like that guy from Korn?

Bruce isn't my only New Jersey hero. I loved Fountains of Wayne, the garden state's finest power pop quartet, the moment I heard this song on the radio, maybe 14 years ago. I waited years to see them, and the show I saw them do at the Academy in Islington was perfect.

This song is from Utopia Parkway; it's their second album and, I think, their best - a near faultless twist of dreamy, sundazed Beach Boys slacker nostalgia and vibrant power pop. I love Chris Collingwood and Adam Schesinger's clever, warm, smart-arse lyrics - the characters they portray between them are like the Chandler Bing of indiepop, the heartfelt kid who quickly learned that his wit would get him further than his looks ever would. I also love their sense of place. I once pledged to make a Fountains of Wayne monopoly board, populated by all the New York, Joisey and New England spots mentioned in their songs. I didn't do it, but there's still time.


Friday, 3 August 2012

The words she knows, the tune she hums

A friend and I took in the Almost Famous director's cut at the Prince Charles Cinema on Monday. (I'll probably write something about the PCC another time - a cinema so lovely I applied for a job there. Sadly unsuccessful, hey ho.) Almost Famous is easily in my top 5 alltime films, but scandalously I'd never seen 'Untitled', as the director's cut is monikered in the opening credits.

What gets me about Almost Famous is the mood. It's a well-knit film, and all my favourite elements contribute to each other; Penny and her girls, their glorious 70s vintage gear, their knowing adolescent joie-de-vivre, their rose-tinted specs and polaroid cameras.... the music, the sighing, intoxicating hum of Simon & Garfunkel's America which chokes me the fuck up every time I hear it, the bellowing, filthy drive of Fever Dog as it rips through another arena, the glorious bus sing-along of Tiny Dancer - ain't nobody chooses movie music as well as Cameron Crowe (those not too snobbish to recall it will remember the bomb blast of Good Vibrations reverberating through a palatial lobby in Vanilla Sky as the bottom drops out of Tom Cruise's world - who knew that song could sound sinister?).

But what it all adds up to is this sense of illicit holiday, adventure, being on the run, and for a short moment in time, being king of everything you survey; a feeling of fleeting youth that must be clutched and clung to at all costs before it slips from one's grasp. I guess I talked about that a few posts back, the thing that makes you follow your heroes on the road. I love how Almost Famous reaches for that thing, finds it and rolls about in it. It's a film about fans of every age; Lester Bangs, aping giddily inside a radio station as he pulls Stooges records off the racks, the groupie girls who translate their fandom to a lifestyle pitched between cheerleader and mistress of ceremonies, the rockstars who talk in reverential tones about Cream and Pete Townsend, and little William Miller, a fan at all times in the most classic and innocent sense of the word, whether holding a mic to his heroes' faces or conked out in a bedroom surrounded by Hendrix and Who posters.

Almost Famous snaps that essence more perfectly than a tweaked Instagram, and with more authenticity, because its author came from the place he writes about. And it translates it beautifully, luring us in with the same siren-like deadliness as the bands themselves. I was 18 when I first saw it, on a date. After I left the cinema, I bought a green sheepskin coat and some naive part of my teenage self really thought I could be another Penny, trip through life with her easy glamour. I couldn't - I wasn't diaphanous or mysterious like her. "They make you feel cool. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn't." Twelve years (and many viewings) later, I found myself back in the front seat of the cinema. And what did I do when I left? I went to the record store and visited my friends (hello, 12" Suicide LP). I went to my local vintage shop and bought a perfect pair of 1960s sunglasses. And I felt that dizzy 'maybe, maybe' feeling again. Almost Famous has that effect because its writer knew exactly what it's like to be subject to it.

Since then, all I can listen to is 60s and 70s rock - Aerosmith, Creedence, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hendrix, Todd Rungren. And of course Springsteen. I was already on this trip; last month's kapow double-header of Springsteen and Paul Simon yanked me right back into the land of nostalgia for an era that ended before I began, and watching Almost Famous the other night sort of distilled that feeling, and clarified it for me. It reminded me which bits are real, and which bits are fiction. Right now I'm mourning that however many basement shows I go to in Kingsland Road, I'm not going to find my own young Springsteen or Tyler, ready for me to champion and cheer on to greatness; the feeling is different, colder, harder, and it just doesn't work like that anymore. Irony rules now, and that era of wide-eyed rock fandom is gone.

The director's cut demystified Penny Lane for me too; Crowe's version of her is much more fragile than her edited self, and you get how she and the bands became entwined, what they saw in each other, and how they failed each other. You see the girl she was before she became Penny Lane, the girl who never reveals her name. For a casual viewer, the demystification detracts from the whole, but to the fan, it's another precious layer of information. I read today about Obie Dziedzic, Springsteen's very own seamstress to the band - number one fan from day one, turned clothier, employee and Van Zandt manageress. Sans the girlfriend/groupie side of things, I saw in her the Tiny Dancer of Elton John's imagination, and the Penny Lane (in the dressing room, iron in hand) of Crowe's movie. I'd like to know more about her. I guess even the fans get to be heroes to someone else.