really. Tonight we're at a gig in a bowling alley, and an authentic
1950s bowling alley to boot, give or take the computers which keep the
score. Tonight's entertainment has a vintage sci-fi theme - Ed Wood's
Plan 9 From Outer Space is screening in the foyer, and the entire night
goes by the name of It Came From The Moon. Our first band, however,
come from Deptford, and are one of the only east London surf combos.
OK, they're the only east London surf combo, but you can be sure
if surf's ever up in the Thames estuary, they'll be right there with
their boards waxed and ready. Until then, the Deptford
Beach Babes will rock up a storm on any stage that'll have
them. Decked out in an assortment of grass skirts, prom dresses, and
hillbilly gear, they rattle out some rockin' tunes that have more substance
to them than the pure novelty songs you might expect. Towards the end
of the set they really go for it, thrashing out an instrumental entitled
'Surf Hell', which hints that they've got black leather jackets lurking
in the back of their wardrobe as well.
have seen many strange things in my time, but I have never previously
encountered a ventriloquist in Burberry pyjamas. Especially one who
shows us a prosthetic penis (at least, I hope it's prosthetic. Or it
could be a hot dog sausage - but I'm not about to get near enough to
investigate) and has a neat line in whimsical little songs with titles
like 'I have a little wank, and I have a little cry'. This, apparently,
is Kunt And The Gang. The gang appears
to be largely in Kunt's head, for apart from his frankly unconvincing
ventriloquist's dummy he's alone on stage, singing his songs of geezerish
dilemmas. Every lyric seems to involve sex, booze, or wanking - the
three cornerstones of male life - and every bloke in the venue is wearing
a grin of part embarrassment, part recognition. Every woman in the venue,
meanwhile, is shuddering at the notion of a 'gentleman's wash' and resolving
that they're never going to go there again. Kunt And The Gang
may be a novelty party turn in many ways, but there's enough grubby
truth in the songs for them to count as a kind of no holds barred social
commentary. And you're never more than a line or two away from a wank
Dead Pixels have the rather unusual status tonight of being the first 'real' band - as opposed to a band that's touting some sort of novelty schtick. In a way, Dead Pixels are the exact opposite of novelty, for they play that new wavey blend of punchy guitars and off-kilter electronics which seems to comprise half the music scene these days. Fortunately, the band has plenty of character - a kind of bantering, knockabout amiability between the songs, which transforms seamlessly into a gritty, ramshackle-but-cool pop sensibility as soon as the music cranks up. Programmed beats collide with guitar lines, and out of the wreckage a neatly skewed noir-pop noise emerges to stake out its territory somewhere between slick New Order-ish groove and grubby garage band grit and grind.
Mention Killing Joke to most people today, and they'll probably think of the band in its current incarnation - a weapons-grade Black Sabbath, all frenzied metal riffs and apocalyptic hollering. Or they might recall Killing Joke's 80s stint as synth rock power-balladeers, purveyors of sub Springsteen anthems for alternorockers ('Love Like Blood' - I rest my case). I suspect very few people recall the band's debut album of 1980, a tour de force of punk-funk minimalism, a bass-driven nihilism bomb precisely detonated on the post-punk dancefloor. Killing Joke moved swiftly on from that album, and never really explored the territory they'd mapped out to any great extent. I always thought that was rather a shame. I wanted Killing Joke to do more of that shit.
Well, guess what? Youth, Killing Joke's original (and best) bassist, is back with a new band. And he's doing more of that shit.
It might be overstating the case to say that Vertical Smile are simply a continuation of what Killing Joke started but didn't quite finish. But nevertheless, Youth seems to be dropping a few hints that point in this direction. There's an oblique Killing Joke reference in the band name: when you're killed, you fall down, and are thus horizontal. When you're alive, standing up and walking around, you're vertical. And you don't need to be a professor of etymology to work out the link between a joke and a smile. The cover of Killing Joke's first album is a high-contrast image of a grim urban scene, with the band name painted on a wall. Vertical Smile are trading under a high-contrast image of an urban scene, with the band name painted on a wall. Before you've even heard a note of the music, everything's pointing in one direction: old-skool Killing Joke.
So, let's bring on the band, and test our theory. Vertical Smile look like a bunch of dressed-down ruffians and they sound as funky as fuck. The band's modus operandi is simple. They set up a series of relentless, powerhouse, punkbastard riffs and they nail 'em to the dance floor. Listen to this: the drums fire beats like a Hilti gun shoots rivets, the guitar fuzzes and shudders, weird electronics dump themselves all over the racket. But, of course, with Youth in the band the basslines lead from the front. We wouldn't expect anything less. Minimal yet essential, Youth's lo-end bump 'n' grind hauls everything along like a locomotive pulling a three-mile freight - and, somewhat surprisingly, Youth sings, too. Well, it's probably more accurate to say that he fires off lines of vocal like a line-dancing caller shouts out the moves, but that's OK because amid the rampant, staccato mash-up of the music, it all fits. 'Automatic Freq' is a manic swagger of a song, striding forward like a Central Park jogger on crystal meth. 'Black Light' hits like a mutant club anthem. And, seamlessly inserting itself into the Vertical Smile originals, we even get an enthusiastic bash at the old Killing Joke stomper, 'Change', which if nothing else confims exactly where Vertical Smile are coming from. It's all impressively tight and frankly rather tremendous: a twenty-first century take on some musical ideas that never really got a proper kick-around back in the original post-punk zone. It's a bit of a genius idea to kick them around now, and Vertical Smile certainly put the boot in very effectively. I predict old Joke-heads will be cracking some big grins very soon.
For more photos from this gig, find the bands by name here.