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Sheep On DrugsCantankerous
Sputnik 2
Atomizer
Cantankerous
Underworld, London
Sunday March 12 2006

I'm trying very hard to think of a way of describing Cantankerous without using the phrase 'barking mad bunch of nutters'. Unfortunately, I think I have no alternative, because they do come across as a splendidly unrepentant bunch of crazies. Wearing masks and St Patrick's day regalia, deploying instruments that range from cello to laptop, stomping around the stage as if they're gearing up to challenge the audience to a fight - yes, Cantankerous are obviously not your everyday pop group.

But behind the bizarreness there lurks a band which knows how to nail down a super punkoid groove. They've got attitude by the truckload, but they also know how to have a slightly dangerous-looking kind of fun. Their guitar riffs crunch like heavy duty cornflakes, their beats worm their way into your head. The vocals are shouty but cool. In short, Cantankerous are like an unholy mash-up of the Happy Mondays and the UK Subs, and strangely enough it all works rather well. Here's a neat touch: the bassist, throughout all her rockin' and gyrations, keeps a handbag slung over her arm the whole time. Now that's class.

AtomizerHeads up, all you deathrockers. Here comes an icon. Jonny Slut, former keyboard player with legendary Batcavers Specimen, and the man who launched a thousand hairstyles, has a new band. Atomizer have a madly radical website, full of fetishistic imagery and crazily flashing graphics, all of which leads me to expect some sort of techno-carnival of the bizarre on stage.

As it turns out, the band in real life are a somewhat more staid proposition. They're a synthpop duo of the traditional kind: Jonny Slut sings; his colleague Fil Jones stands behind a small noise unit. Both are wearing silver boiler suits, which gives the band a curiously dated mid-nineties Slimelight industrial floor look - ah, remember when self-consciously futuristic stuff actually did look like the future?

Musically, it's...well, synthpop. Accessible and uptempo and easy on the ear. I'm irrestistably reminded of Bronski Beat - not because Jonny Slut's vocal is quite as high as that of dear old Jimmy Somerville, but because the overall lite 'n' poppy feel of the music does tend to nudge us into that area of bouncy eighties electro. It's not bad stuff in its way, but I confess I would've preferred something a little more out there. In the end I'm forced to conclude that Atomizer just don't live up to their website graphics.

Sigue Sigue Sputnik had a brief brush with fame in the 80s, and an even briefer brush with a reformation in the 90s, but now it seems that the band's former vocalist has struck out on his own with what I suppose you'd call a spin-off band. Sputnik 2 are not quite the OTT outfit that Sigue Sigue Sputnik were. That full-on image-overload thing which was such a big part of the original Sputniks' identity (they invented the cybergoth look, basically) has now been toned down. Tonight, only frontman Martin Degville is decked out in big hair and outlandish cyber-rocker garb, while his band keep it functional in T-shirts and jeans.

The music is pretty functional, too - barrelling alternorockers with samples and electronic punctuation fed in from a backing track, always led firmly along by an upfront vocal. It's all done very competently - but, curiously, given the care with which Sputnik 2Martin Degville has retained his instantly recognisable image, the songs and the overall sound of the band don't particularly grab me and stick in my brain. It's as if the music is a peg to hang the image on, rather than the central part of the project.

Among the stuff that does stick in my brain are two big hits-o-yesteryear. '21st Century Boy' starts the set, 'Love Missile F1-11' ends it. We also get a version of 'Personality Crisis', which is included, we're told, as a tribute to Johnny Thunders. A tribute which, frankly, would've come across as a bit more heartfelt if Martin Degville had not simply read the lyrics off a sheet of paper.

For added visual excitement there's even a scantily-clad go-go dancer - but the main feature of the set turns out to be an extended argy-bargy with the sound crew. Apparently, the monitor mix isn't up to scratch (although the out-front sound is fine), so the show progresses in a series of fits and false starts, with Martin Degville becoming ever-more irate as the problem stubbornly refuses to get fixed.

In this sort of situation I always think it's best for the band to plough on regardless - especially if, as tonight, everything's OK as far as the audience is concerned. Complaining about a technical problem that the crowd can't hear merely makes the band look like a bunch of prima donnas. As it is, my main memory of this Sputnik 2 performance will always be Martin Degville exclaiming, with Spinal Tap-ish rock star petulance, 'I've been doing shows for twenty years! And this is the worst sound I've ever had!'

Sheep On Drugs: approach with caution. Well, that's the thought that's in my mind as tonight's headliners take the stage. It must be said that Lee Fraser's latter-day versions of Sheep On Drugs have been somewhat variable, quality-wise. I recall gigs with distinctly ramshackle pick-up line-ups, and performances where Lee himself had, by all appearances, copiously refreshed himself in a rock 'n' roll style to the point where his on-stage moves were...well, let's say, a little random.

Fun to see that kind of stuff once, even twice, maybe. But after that it all gets a bit tiresome. It did occur to me that if Lee was serious about making a go of Sheep On Drugs in the twenty-first century, he'd be well advised to steer a straighter course before it all turned into a car crash.

Sheep On DrugsAnd you know what? Tonight it looks like he's doing just that. Lean and purposeful, fixing the audience with a basilisk stare, he utters a cynical 'Alright, punter,' by way of a greeting, and then the punk rock disco kicks in.

The Sheep On Drugs musical area hasn't really changed: it's still rumbling electronics, danceable in a vaguely threatening shake-yer-booty-or-else manner. But it's Lee's newly intensified presence, reciting the lyrics lin a dryly cynical chant, like Clockwork Orange version of John Cooper-Clarke, that sharpens up the experience no end.

In the background, a green-haired girl squints apprehensively at boxes of technology, then takes time out to shriek some backing vocals. She's never introduced or credited - nobody gets their name mentioned in the new SOD regime aside from Lee himself, it seems - but she's the band these days. Without her, we'd be witnessing the Lee Fraser Electro Poetry Experience.

As it is, there's a little performance art interlude (giant-size syringes and an impromptu wrestling bout on the stage) and some vintage-Drugs guitar thrashing - and plenty of the classic hits. Apparently, there's a new Sheep On Drugs album out, although the realease has not been attended by any great publicity (or, indeed, any publicity), and thus there are new songs in the set. But the oldies - '15 Minutes Of Fame', 'Motorbike' - still bolster the proceedings and get most of the cheers. Frankly, there wouldn't be a show without them.

So, while the set works well and certainly has a focus that was lacking in the recent past, maybe Lee Fraser isn't quite out of the woods yet. The new Sheep On Drugs isn't quite established; the old stuff still props up the new stuff. But at least the man himself is standing upright these days.

 


Essential links:

Sheep On Drugs: Website | MySpace

Sputnik 2: Website | MySpace

Atomizer: Website | MySpace

Cantankerous: MySpace

For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.

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  Page credits: Review, photos and construction by Michael Johnson.
Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston, Red N version by Mark Rimmell.