Bands in order of appearance:
Today, Shoreditch Park is full of angular hairstyles and angular rackets. If you dropped a bomb on this agreeable field in East London, you'd wipe out half of the new new wave.
This is the 1234 Festival - or the '1234 Shoreditch Now Music Festival' to give the event what is apparently its complete and official title, not that anybody, including the festival organisers, ever seems to use it. At any rate, today's entertainments essentially amount to a snapshot of the current art-rock underground, gathered, appropriately enough, in this park in Shoreditch, the area of East London where many of the bands first cut their gigging teeth.
It's all been assembled by post-punk promoter about town Sean Mcluskey, under the auspices of the 1234 record label - which does seem to be something of a flag of convenience, since the label itself is by all appearances defunct. The label's website hasn't had an update since 2007; the label's MySpace page has been given over entirely to the festival. Still, if you've got a company, you might as well use it, right?
The main stage is decked out with sponsors' banners - NME Radio, Converse footwear. These days corporate sponsorship is everywhere, even at none-more-alternative events like this. The corporate world has woken up to the fact that alternokidz might have funny hairstyles and listen to weird music, but hey, they're consumers, too. Indeed, it's got to the point where it sometimes seems as if music has become one big marketing opportunity for assorted consumer brands.
I'm enough of an old school punk to deplore this trend, but I suppose the involvement of The Man does help events like the 1234 Festival to happen in the first place. It's still a pact with the devil, in my view, but at least we can get some good stuff out of the situation if we hold Old Nick to his contractual obligations.
I'm rather more encouraged to find, in a corner of the field, a large tent containing a stage decked out with a banner plugging The Pix. This, of course, is London's fold-out freesheet fanzine which over the last couple of years has documented and encouraged the rise of the twenty-first century new wave in its own sparky, upbeat style. Now that's the sort of sponsorship - relevant, for real, involved - that I'm happy to see. My guess is that The Pix stage will play host to most of the interesting noises today. The band that's playing as I put my head round the door certainly counts as 'interesting'. Sloppy Seconds make 'orrible thrashy guitar turbulence while wearing giant cartoon rabbit heads. They're like a petting zoo version of The Residents. Loonies? Possibly. Interesting? Yeah, I'll give 'em that.
Meanwhile, in the electronic tent next door, weird noises are happening. That's enough to get me in. A man stands at a table laden with gear: he's got a guitar and effects and a downbeat demeanour. The weird noises are coming from him - or, at least,from his table of technology, which absorbs all his attention. Showbiz grandstanding obviously has no place in the world of left-field electronica. Sounds fine to me, although it would be nice if he introduced himself. Two bands in, things are already running late, and in the absence of a reliable schedule I have no idea who the electronic-purveyor I'm watching actually is.
So we'll cross the field to the main stage, to catch a bit of the hotly-tipped all-girl beat combo Poppy And The Jezebels - who are at least rather more recognisable. Alas, that doesn't make 'em any good. Poppy And The Jezebels are a featherweight pop group with a sound so insubstantial it flops weakly out of the PA and promptly vanishes into thin air. The band members have all the stage presence of a collection of apologetic paper bags. It's not like I want Poppy And The Jezebels to be The Runaways or anything, but - well, yes, actually, I think I do want them to be The Runaways. A bit of guts and attitude goes a lot further than mere winsomeness, you know.
Talking of guts and attitude, back in the Pix tent, a collection of young gents are prowling around the stage while making an authentic scuzz-rock racket. This, it seems, is Advert - a new band to me, although their principal influence is familiar enough. They've obviously been soaking up a fair bit of Jesus And Mary Chain juice, but fortunately, while it's pretty clear where Advert are coming from, the band seem intent on kicking things in their own direction from this point forward. File under 'ones to watch', I reckon.
I take another trip to the main stage, where Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man. are doing their thing. This band apparently contains ex-members of Les Incompétents, a frankly rather annoying comedy band which inexplicably became music media darlings a few years ago. That's not any sort of recommendation for me, but hey, let's give their descendants an impartial listen.
The Oxies (er, we do call them the Oxies, don't we?) don't deal in comedy, but they've certainly opened the instruction book at 'quirky'. Just look at the odd punctuation they insist is part of the band name - if that's not a shorthand way of alerting us that something quirky this way comes, I don't know what is. The band plays a bizarre kind of prog-indie: their songs tend towards the thunderously anthemic, but with all manner of time changes and arch, mannered vocalisations thrown in. It's as if the band's twin influences are The Killers and King Crimson, and unfortunately that's not half as much fun as you might think. The lead singer's (please let it be) ironic moustache does not save the day for me.
On the Pix stage now, Wild Palms are...well, not quite going wild in any way that, say, Iggy Pop would understand the concept. But they've certainly got a bit of that angular intensity stuff going on, and in today's new wave circles, that's half the battle right there.
It must be said that Wild Palms do angular intensity with an implacable conviction that puts them ahead of the crowd. They're all furrowed brows and stern expressions, the guitar wrenching and squawking like rusty hinges while the bass and drums lock down the Gang Of Four-esque groove. I suppose the Gang Of Four is an easy comparison, and I dare say Wild Palms have had it before. They'll have it again before they're done, I'm sure. But there's certainly something of the Gang in the band's stripped-down rhythms and no-messing approach. If that really is an influence, I like the way they kick it around.
I can't be so positive about LR Rockets, though. I've seen this band mentioned in the London gig listings many times - they've been playing the supercool East London gig circuit like they're the hottest cats on the new wave tin roof, they've been given accolades by everyone from Artrocker to the Daily Mirror. Now I'm standing in the Pix tent, ready to catch these cool new contenders for the first time. I'm wearing my best 'Go on, impress me' expression - and, to be blunt, they don't.
LR Rockets look like an amiable collection of indie-rock blokes, and they make that could-be-anyone alternorock sound that you can hear tumbling out of any indie venue up and down the land, any day of the week. I can't figure out why the media appears to be beating a path to their door, hailing the band as the new messiahs. Unless, of course, it's the band's blokish ordinariness that appeals to an essentially conservative media for whom the benchmark of indie excellence is Oasis. Well, if that's the way it is, I'm out of this party.
So, let's head over to the main stage, to see what sort of party might be going on over there. A collection of chiselled youths, cheekbones to the fore, are doing their thing in front of the corporate branding. This is Lion Club, I'm told - the festival schedule is decidedly up the spout by now, so it's a continuing challenge to work out just which band is on which stage, and when. But, yes, I think we've definitely got Lion Club here. And we're also definitely in the epic zone - the band emote and roar like they're already playing the enormodomes. But a little bit of grandiosity, like a little blokishness, goes a long way with me, so it's a swift trip back to the Pix tent where...
...The Ruling Class are doing their baggy, Madchester thing. The band are undeniably good at their baggy, Madchester thing: they've got it nailed every bit as effectively as, say, Wild Palms have nailed their Gang Of Four-esque rhythm 'n' scratch. So I can't fault the band for Effective Use Of Primary Influence. For me, however, the Madchester vibe doesn't hit the spot. It didn't then, it doesn't now. Pills 'n' partying to a soundtrack of blissed-out indie dance was never my thing, and while I rather liked the Happy Mondays at their most manic, that's not the area from which The Ruling Class take their cue. They're much more at the blissed-out end of the spectrum, with their Stone Roses-style trancey anthems. Not my thing, I fear. I never liked flares, either, come to that.
Back in the electronic tent, three men are manipulating games consoles while some acidic electronica bounces off the canvas. I'm not sure who this act is - and I'm not even sure if the trio on stage actually have anything to do with the music I hear. For all I know, these lads could be playing Super Mario while listening to a CD. In a way, it would be amusingly conceptual if they were.
Meanwhile, over on the main stage, Hatcham Social are doing their none more indie thing. And yes, Hatcham Social are very indie. From their vocalist's beige slacks and unfeasibly neat hair to the band's Orange Juice-ish jangle, they are the very model of a modern indie band. Personally, I wish the band would get a bit weird and messy - because music is so much better when it's weird and messy, don't you think? But that's just not Hatcham Soicial's territory. Indie neatness rules their world.
Fortunately, here come An Experiment On A Bird In The Air Pump to give the Pix stage - and, not incidentally, indie neatness - a good thumping. A tribal barrage of bass and drums soon kicks out the indie-schmindie jams. After seeing several bands so far today who all more or less fit the 'blokes playing rock' ticket (occasional bouts of games console electronica notwithstanding), it's good to come slap up against a band who tip it all upside down - and all with a noise like parquet floor blocks falling out of a box. Now there's a description I bet An Experiment On a Bird In The Air Pump haven't had before, but un-rock music deserves un-rock representation. They're all grind and drumfire and vocals that demand attention. I was going to say that we need more bands like this, but I don't think there could be any more bands like the Birds. A bit of their attitude wouldn't go amiss elsewhere, mind.
Polly Scattergood brings a touch of out-there glamour to the main stage now. She's wearing a silver dress (that's the glamour) and she seems to have a giant pink flamingo perched on her shoulder (that'll be the out-there bit, then). Her band looks suspiciously like a selection of level-headed session musos - they're noticably more straight-up and sensible than Polly herself. But they're playing Polly's songs, which definitely convey her own identity. They're idiosdyncratic things that sound like they're constructed of equal parts Ziggy Stardust, the Shangri-Las, and helium. That sounds like a strange salad, but it's a combination that works for me.
What also works for me is the splat and clatter of KASMs at full tilt. They're giving it the full shebang in the Pix tent, the guitar sound skating wildly across the temporary staging while vocalist Rachel Mary Callaghan is a one-woman energy bomb up front. It is, of course, the inexorable control that KASMs exert over their wayward bedlam that makes it work so well. I mean, any band can kick up a noisy storm. But to rein in the racket and make every song sharp and direct, like a javelin thrown right on target, is another thing. KASMs certainly have got that other thing, and they deploy it with deceptively careless skill.
A strange oscillation throbs into the air of the Pix tent. Three people hunch over drums, guitar, and technology. This is Factory Floor, post-industrialists with a nice line in sonic hypnosis. There's something about this band's ironclad rhythms that exerts an almost mesmeric effect. Uncompromisingly rolling forward like tanks over no man's land, while salvos of bowed guitar and ripped-up electronics burst upon them, Factory Floor's songs (if indeed these blocks of precision-engineered sound can be described as mere songs) are oddly, undeniably, hypnotic. Or maybe that's just me. But there's certainly something about Factory Floor that makes me want to clock in.
A quick excursion to the main stage now, to catch a bit of The Warlocks' set. Far from being angular East London new wavers, this band hails from Los Angeles...and they're quite the grizzled rockers. Here they come, chugging through a set of grandiose, max heaviosity anthems, as if Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Pink Floyd are battling for control of the band's collective psyche - it's as if the seventies suddenly got revived without so much as a by-your-leave.
Curiously, The Warlocks don't look very happy on stage. They're all wearing grumpy expressions as they churn out their splurging, pomp-psychedelic rock. The odd little face-paint stripes each band member is inexplicably sporting does not disguise the fact that what we've got here is a collection of dodgy old rockers who stick out from the new wave crowd like a brick in a bowl of custard. The Warlocks plod on. I'm sodding off.
Back in the relative sanctuary of The Pix tent, where at least I'm safe from classic-rock wannabes in unconvincing face paint, Kennedy come from nowhere and liven things up no end. Actually, Kennedy come from somewhere in the USA too, although it must be a far more upbeat place than The Warlocks' home town. At any rate, the band's goofy energy - like Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers with ants in their pants - does the right stuff for me.
Time is pressing: the entire festival is running late, and the bill is being chopped and changed as we go along. A cheery compere in a variety of outlandish outfits keeps The Pix tent informed of the on-the-fly changes - he does a fine job of remaining cheerful even as his announcements pile up on each other. There's a heavy-duty curfew looming over everything, so that means the last few bands of the day are going to have to cut things down and speed things up. Ironically, of course, this situation means that it's the top bands of the bill who end up playing truncated sets, while the earlier bands get to play full-lengthers. Sucks to be a headliner, eh?
Still, here come Ulterior, who certainly know a thing or two about speeding things up. Speed is what Ulterior do. In the metaphorical sense, of course. Their songs are full-tilt runaway trains, powered by the thumping pulse of electronics, and the band's techno-weaponry is certainly deployed well today. But for all their electronic foundation, Ulterior are unequivocally a rock band. They've got the guitars and the leathers and the sneers to prove it.
Fortunately, given that all this could get a bit Warlocks if they weren't careful, Ulterior make it work. Their mash-up of old school rockisms and post-Suicide electro thunder hangs together rather well. The band give it loads, and as the evening light fades and twilight gathers in the corners of the tent, they manage to whip up their customary subterranean storm. In a sense, Ulterior are starring in their own rock 'n' roll pantomime, just like Billy Idol - another artist who knowingly employs the styling cues of rock to great effect. But they keep it edgy and fierce.
The light is fading as S.C.U.M take the stage. This is a band that I always think seem most at home in nightclub darkness. Right now, in the diffused grey light of a cloudy English evening, with what light there is filtered through heavy-duty tent canvas, the band's melodrama and mystery is a little diminished. Vast clouds of smoke are pumped out across the stage in an effort to create some atmosphere, and as the band fades into the resulting pea-souper the essential sense of S.C.U.M's inscrutability is recaptured.
Reverb-heavy incantations rumble from the PA - and not for the first time I'm struck by how downright uncommercial S.C.U.M's music is. They don't deal in catchy pop tunes, that's for sure, but there's something compelling about the band's bass-heavy evensong that ensures the crowd crushes forward to experience every nuance.
Alas, they don't experience it for very long. S.C.U.M.'s set is cut short: there's just time to squeeze in the headliners before the curfew guillotine descends. Topping things off in The Pix tent is the space-prog extravaganza known as Chrome Hoof, a twelve-piece outfit in which a bassoon and saxophone mix it with the usual rock 'n' roll instrumentation.
The band's outlandish silver constumes make them look like the kind of chorus line Andrew Lloyd Webber would recruit if he ever decided to turn the Hawkwind story into a heartwarming family musical (suggested title: Silver Machine!)
And yet, for all their whackzoid, outer space, mob-handed approach, Chrome Hoof aren't altogether as entertaining as they first appear. Their songs are inconclusive things, loud and long and all over the place, and too often they default to vaguely proggy metal workouts. The presence of a lead vocalist with a big, soulful delivery does not provide the focal point the band lacks: I suspect, under the costumes and the contrived zaniness, we have a fairly standard bunch of prog heads who figured that being silly in silver was their passport to success.
Well, Chrome Hoof certainly have their fans. The tent is packed, and the enthusiasm of the crowd is palpable. Cheery cries of 'Hoooof!' fill the air at every quiet moment - apparently, the all-purpose salutation from the fans to the band. But I'm not going to join in the cheers. Chrome Hoof rub me up the wrong way, and frankly the curfew comes down just in time.
Sunset over Shoreditch. The 1234 Festival is over. That was a good way to spend a day, although I can't say I made many startling new discoveries over the course of the event. By and large the bands I liked were the bands I already know I like. The new discoveries file is a little skimpy, then, but I'll be keeping an eye on Sloppy Seconds and Advert from here on in.
I think the festival also demonstrated something else we know: the that the further we get from the corporate end of the music biz, the better the bands become. Some of the main stage acts today, doing their stuff in front of the big-brand sponsors' advertising, seemed downright lame to me. But hey, they were downright lame with industry backing, which is much more the deciding factor of success than ideas or attitude or any of the qualities I might prefer.
But I suppose I shouldn't be churlish about those corporate sponsors. It's their input that helps the whole event happen, which in turn provides a stage for the interesting stuff. Yes, it's a pact with the devil, but at least the contract has a few loopholes where the good stuff can wriggle through.
For more photos from the 1234 Festival, find the bands by name here.