Judging by the scuffed 80s decor, this north London gig-pub was once a trendy watering hole for yuppies. Well, those days have certainly gone. Now, the floor tiles are cracked, the paintwork is grubby, and yuppies are conspicuous by their absence. These days, the Archway Tavern has gone all rock 'n' roll. The pub now hosts nights of noise by assorted obscure (and occasionally mildly famous) bands. Tonight the first of three is Cuckoo's Nest.
I don't know if this is the White Stripes factor at work here, but there seem to be a lot of bands around these days with bits missing. Cuckoo's Nest are missing a bass player: they're simply a guitar 'n' drums duo - very White Stripes, that, of course. But they bash out a big, full sound which seems to owe much to 70s rock grind and 90s grunge: all slabs of guitar and assertive female vocals. There are moments when they sound somewhat like a minimalist L7. Call 'em L three-and-a-half, if you will. Sometimes, the racket veers alarmingly close to the metal zone, but fortunately Cuckoo's Nest always pull back from the brink. I'm willing to bet they have at least one Black Sabbath album lurking at the back of their record collection, but I'll also bet they've got Sonic Youth a bit closer to the front. Subtle it ain't, but here's what it is: no-shit noise that always remains as fuzzy and scuzzy as the pub paintwork.XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
ditties sung to an acoustic guitar are not my favourite style of music
by any means, but I'm prepared to give Morgan
Orange a hearing because he's wearing a vintage Brian Eno T-shirt.
That's enough to get him at least a couple of cool points. His between-song
banter is disarming and humourous, although the audience reaction is practically
non-existent. Tonight's audience wants to rock, with amplifiers
and everything. Acousticky music isn't going to work at this gig. The
only person who seems to be paying attention is a girl who'd clearly a
friend of his, and thus it is that poor old Morgan ends up more or less
playing his whimsical ditties to an audience of one. He keeps his end
up gamely enough - his cheery banter never fails. If we were reclining
on squishy sofas in a New England coffee shop I dare say he'd go down
a treat. Alas, we're in an old England boozer, the seating arrangements
are decidedly unsquishy, and it all falls a little flat.XXXXXXXXXXX
Now, here's a thing. Over the last decade or more, if you wanted to make the music biz run a mile, shrieking in horror, all you had to do was mention one little word: goth. The G-word was the ultimate taboo, the one strand of post-punk musical culture that, for all its early-80s hipness, had come to be regarded as terminally uncool by the time the 90s rolled around. It must be said that this situation did not arise out of an arbitary predjudice - goth itself hardly helped its own cause by becoming bogged down in a set of musical and stylistic clichés which, for most people, amounted to a fairly comprehensive turn-off. The typical 1990s goth band tended to be a collection of dour blokes in black, trying to be as much like the Sisters Of Mercy (or, by way of variety, Fields Of The Nephilim) as possible on a bedroom budget.
Of course, that's a generalisation: even at its nadir goth was always more diverse than that, and spawned several intriguing and creative bands. Nevertheless, there was a period in the 90s when goth more or less collapsed under the weight of its own clichés, and retreated into an insular scene which even now exists without much contact with, or interest from, the music world at large.
All of which makes it interesting - no, downright astounding - that there are now more than a few bands coming out of indie circles which are clearly influenced by the post-punk end of goth, and have no embarrassment about using the formerly dreaded G-word (a term even out-and-out goth bands would studiously avoid) to describe what they do. None of these bands have anything to do with the goth scene, and quite possibly don't even know that any such thing exists. Far from treating all this with amused disdain - which for many years was the best reaction a goth band could hope to get - the media and music industry seem keenly interested. That's good news for X-Ray Eyes, because that's exactly the position they're in. Their MySpace page bravely identifies them as gothic/drum & bass/alternative, and they're doing their thing in indie circles. The right thing/right place/right time equation could hardly be better. That doesn't guarantee that superstardom is on its way, of course. But it does mean the band have a foot, if not actually in the door, at least encouragingly close to the threshold.
Tonight, X-Ray Eyes have their feet very firmly on the Archway Tavern's stage. Again, the line-up is minimal: vocals, drum kit, bass guitar. That MySpace page does not lie - X-Ray Eyes are literally a drum & bass band. They exude a resigned disdain, a magnificent pissed-offness with the world at large. And they sound like Lydia Lunch fronting a ramshackle Birthday Party. Their music is a rough and ready bump 'n' grind, all bottom-end riffing and bass heavy rumble-grumble. The singer, marching around assertively in Doctor Marten's finest, delivers the vocals in tones of aggrieved petulance, as if she's got an entire bag of chips on both shoulders. Meanwhile, the bassist pummels away, occasionally allowng a small smile to flit across her face, as if she knows all the secrets. The drummer, who does much to tie the whole racket together, looks splendidly apprehensive throughout. The way all three members of the band have their own distinct characters is strangely captivating - I can't wait for the action figure range. But the music, that grubby, gritty goth-blues grind, that pissed-off plaint of low life antipathy, soaks everything with rock 'n' roll bile. X-Ray Eyes are not exactly little rays of sunshine, that's for sure, but that's their counter-intuitive appeal. Oh,and there's a cover version, too. The singer starts coughing up a naggingly familiar rhythm: 'Uh-uh-uh-uh...' and just as I'm thinking, hmmm, I've heard that somewhere before, it turns into the old Bauhaus tune 'The Man With The X-Ray Eyes'. Well, of course, it would have to be, wouldn't it? As the band's theme song, it fits very neatly, and, if anyone was still in doubt about where X-Ray Eyes are coming from, it amounts to a calling card very firmly dropped on the post-punk mat.
For more photos from this gig, find X-Ray Eyes by name here.