Punks at the Underworld - a marriage made in the moshpit. Tonight's gig isn't quite the regular punker spot, because our headline band, Manufactured Romance, are on the comeback trail after a very brief original incarnation that didn't last beyond 1981. Maybe that's why there are a couple of well-known support bands on the bill - a bit of an insurance policy just in case the old-skool fans don't show.
The nu-skool fans have certainly turned out for Love and a .45, who blast into their punk rock rampage like a rocket from a bottle, and instantly pull the barflies down the front. Freshly returned from the Rebellion punk fest in Blackpool, they've got rock 'n' roll electricity in their veins - but then, Love and a .45 always have rock 'n' roll electricity in their veins. The guitar rips into the songs like an angle grinder chewing steel, and the vocals - delivered, as ever, by Kate Moritz in a flurry of blonde hair and frantic bouncing - are a sandpaper rasp, like Marlene Detrich if she'd hung out down the Roxy in '77. But if my references to sandpaper and angle grinders makes Love and a .45 sound like the overtime shift in a furniture workshop, have no fear. The band's sure touch with insanely catchy punch-the-air anthems is in full effect, and not for the first time I'm left pondering just how successful Love and a .45 could be if they didn't play exclusively within the punk scene. There's a big crossover audience for them somewhere out there where punk meets rock, and in Kate Moritz we could have the superstar riot grrrl of the future. Brody Dalle and Courney Love: you could have competition here.
Boy Tomato (a name which probably seemed like a good idea
at the time) are a rollicking bunch of ramshackle rockers, a band unashamedly
intent on having a good time to the sound of some ragged-but-right rock
'n' roll kickarounds. They've got a bit of history behind them: an erratic
path, littered with beer bottles and ex-members, stretching back a good
few years, taking in gigs with (among umpteen others) Sham 69, New Model
Army, De Toten Hosen and Half Man Half Biscuit. In a way they're the
ideal festival band - unpretentious and punchy, adding a hint of rogueish,
Pogues-ish, punker-folk to their barnstorming bashabouts. What stops
the whole thing turning into a beery singalong with the lads is the
band's vocalist, the engaging and self-deprecating Penny, who maintains
a cheerful control over the racket while, at times, looking endearingly
relieved that the band has made it to the end of another song without
anything going horribly wrong. But there's no need to worry. Ramshackle
punkers they might be, but Big Boy Tomato have their musical chops firmly
nailed down. The boys keep it tight, and the bassist never misses an
opportunity to strike another comedy rock star pose. It's the kind of
stuff that would go down a treat in the punk rock beer tent at Glastonbury
(what? There isn't a punk rock beer tent at Glastonbury? Well, here
certainly should be) but it doesn't go amiss in these urban surroundings,
either. Top entertainment from a thoroughly likeable bunch.
Over 25 years ago I remember seeing Manufactured Romance in an assortment of murky music dives around London - they were one of those bands that seemed to be everywhere for a couple of years, and then abruptly vanished. The only evidence of their existence was a 7" single, the sublime slice of new wave pop that is 'Time Of My Life'. I'm not sure why the band have chosen to make a comeback now, after so long. Maybe it was just a case of now or never.
But it's good to have them back, and in a way those 25-odd years haven't changed them much. Back in ye olden days, Manufactured Romance were three geeky blokes handling guitar, bass, and drums, and the band's secret weapon - Nina Spencer, a pocket-rocket version of Siouxsie with tons of attitude and hair out to here, on vocals. And you know what? Not much is different in the twenty-first century. The blokes are a little more grizzled, but they're still splendidly geeky. And while Nina Spencer may not be sporting her backcombed-to-the-sky hairstyle these days, she's still got all her attitude. Sparky and assertive, always ready with a quip and a smile as she stomps around in no-shit boots, she's the focal point of the show, an instant star - and she's not taking any nonsense from the punks down the front.
The band whacks out a set of forgotten classics that haven't shaken the plaster off the ceiling of London music venues for a generation - except they're not forgotten: there are plenty of grins in the crowd as the fans recognise their favourites, and even a bit of shameless singing along. In a way, Manufactured Romance were the pop group it was OK for punks to like, and if things had been different way back when, you could imagine the heartfelt powerpop of 'Chameleon' (half way between Penetration and X-Ray Spex) storming the charts in the early 80s. But, of course, it's 'Time Of My Life' that will ensure the band's niche in history, and tonight it crops up twice, with - interestingly enough - two distinctly different arrangements. Proof that while Manufactured Romance are shamelessly playing the nostalgia card, they don't mind messing with their legacy, either. The song is still has all its lilting defiance, and it's still an overlooked classic that now might just gain the attention it deserves. That's Manufactured Romance - one of the nearly-great bands of the post-punk era, and probably the best band of that time that nobody's ever heard of.