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Sunday is always chill-out day at Deer Shed, and the lineup today bears this out, with spoken word replacing the second stage, and less guitars all round. Indeed, more than once was the opinion mooted that Sunday’s main stage trifecta of AlascA (Amsterdam-based multi-instrumental folk), Moulettes (whose violin, cello and bassoon overlaid with a female duet take the string-based ensemble to places never before suspected possible) and the genteel lilting of Fifer King Creosote neatly summarises the ideal vision of Deer Shed’s musical programming. But in parallel were two world-class multimedia performances in the Big Top tent. Despite a gulf in musical styles, Public Service Broadcasting and The Unthanks (presenting ‘Songs From the Shipyards’) are thematic bedfellows, both utilising the emotional power of historical events to both inspire the music itself and take part in directly it via audio samples and video clips.
I’ve already reviewed Public Service Broadcasting at a recent headline show – suffice to say that the reception at Deer Shed was no less rapturous than that in Newcastle. People just lap them up. What does become apparent on a second reading is the subtle differences in each performance – it’s easy to assume that given the sequenced and sampled nature of the songs, that they sit within a rigid framework. However, on careful examination, it’s clear that Wilgoose and Wrigglesworth are delivering a genuine performance, with all the natural variation that implies. Even more impressive, then, that they can manage such a note-perfect performance every time. The only slight slip-up this time around was the demise of a snare drum skin, and even that mishap was an opportunity for more merriment from the now-famous sampled voice. “Silly boy!”
‘Songs From The Shipyards’ is a collection of songs, mostly covers, chosen to accompany a compilation of short films curated by Richard Fenwick, telling the story of the past century of British shipbuilding, with a particular focus on the Swan Hunter yard at Wallsend in North Tyneside. Arranged chronologically, each section has a title (“Taking on Men”, “Big Steamers”, “The Strikes”), and most have an accompanying song of the same name, although some sections retain the narrative soundtrack of the source film. The visuals are deeply compelling in themselves: the immense physical presence and forthright majesty of a newly-built ship towering over rows of humble Tyneside terraces is unforgettable; the very enormity and power of heavy engineering writ large on a cinema screen is a thrill in itself. But The Unthanks’ poignant performance heightens the mood and deepens the emotional response – over the course of the hour the 100-year history of modern British shipbuilding is laid bare, from the early glory days to its slow, painful decline.
The Unthanks have an otherworldly knack of taking a song about what on the face of it might appear a dry or unglamorous subject, and by their powers of delivery elevate it to as glorious a height as is possible in music, comparable in emotional impact with midnight Mass at Westminster Cathedral, or the Berliner Philharmoniker delivering the final bars of Ravel’s Bolero. In other words, the definitive performance of a piece, by which all others must be judged. In a nice plug for Deer Shed, Mark Radcliffe had already tweaked the expectation skywards in demonstrating what The Unthanks are capable of by playing ‘King Of Rome’ in its full 7-minute glory on his 6music show just a few days before, a song which begs the question: if grown men can be brought to tears by a song about a single pigeon, how much more impactful can a 1-hour cycle about events which involved thousands of people be?
The performance is intended to be taken as a whole, but one can pick out moments of particular note: local singer-songwriter Jez Lowe’s ‘Black Trade’ enumerates trades long forgotten: boilersmiths, platemen, riggers, coppersmiths; skills which used to be commonly found within shipbuilding communities, giving each specialist a sense of pride and place – now, if they exist at all, it is only in tiny pockets of endeavour, a loss which, like so much described here, has had a profound effect on the very fabric of society. ‘Big Steamers’ takes Rudyard Kipling’s peerless words, profoundly evocative in their sense of time and place, and frames them in a delicately unsettling call-and-response arrangement:
Then I’ll build a new lighthouse for all you big steamers
With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through
Oh the channel’s as bright as a ballroom already
And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe
all accompanied by Adrian McNally’s grand piano which gathers in portent as the song reaches its uncomfortable denouement. A true highlight in a figurative sea of excellence.
This year marks 110 years since the zenith of Wallsend shipbuilding – the birth of Cunard’s pioneering ocean liner RMS Mauretania, a ship who not only held the Transatlantic speed record for an impressive 22 years, but played a significant part in the success of the Great War effort as a troop-, and latterly hospital-ship. Indeed, the grandeur and optimism of Tyneside shipbuilding truly belongs to the pre-WWII period. By 1966 the government’s Geddes Committee found that British prices for tankers and bulk carriers were uncompetitive, and the industry was rife with inefficiency and industrial disputes. Governments of all stripes tried various means of artificial support: Conservative Edward Heath included support for shipyards in his ultimately futile package of generous Keynesian giveaways in 1972, none of which were enough to give the economy any more than a brief respite from its downward slide, or indeed save his own political fortunes. Even if the shipyards had been in tip-top condition, the further deterioration in the British economy under the watch of the wafer-thin Labour government of Heath-Callaghan, culminating in 1978’s “Winter of Discontent” and the three-day-week, would have been enough to discourage even the most enthusiastic customer of Tyneside shipbuilding from placing an order.
In a move guaranteed to bring even more disruption to an already unstable industry, Labour’s 1977’s Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act brought swathes of Britain’s heavy manufacturing under forced public ownership, a move too rich even for champagne socialist Alfred Robens, ex-chairman of the National Coal Board, who previously oversaw a more than 50% reduction in Britain’s coal mining workforce. Quite why the government at the time thought they could run shipbuilding better than the private owners is unclear. What is apparent is that all they touched turned to rust: in just five years of public ownership half of Britain’s shipyards had shut, and a mess of recrimination festered over compensation for the forced takeovers. After building over 100 warships, including HMS Illustrious in 1978, and HMS Ark Royal in 1981, Wallsend’s shipbuilding came to an ignominious end in 2006 with the half-finished RFA Lyme Bay being towed to Govan for completion after delays and cost overruns. To date no further ships have been laid at Wallsend, and it is unlikely any more will.
Richard Fenwick’s selection of news footage touches on the industrial disputes that inevitably rose during the industry’s slow but steady decline. We see picket lines, dire warnings of the potential consequences of strikes and workers’ opposition to modernisation; most poignant is a section which shows unedited soundbites from the workers themselves. They are clearly being prompted, given lines which on paper sound optimistic, but their unconvincing delivery tells a very different story. Margaret Thatcher even pops up as the pantomime villain, but in truth no government could have stopped the rot: even if Thatcher had been minded to prop up the industry with subsidy, European rules forbade it. Not a restriction that the Far Eastern shipyards suffered, and one which highlights Britain’s uneasy subjugation under the European parliament which continues to this day.
Even though on the surface this is a story about Tyneside and its people, the same arc of proud rise followed by slow, bitter collapse can be traced through the majority of once-great British industry. Given Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, single-handedly inventing modern industrial practice, it is a particularly cruel irony that those skills that she taught the world should be used to destroy their practice in their seat of invention. The consequent loss of employment and income has done untold harm to countless regional communities, a great many of which now linger in a curious netherworld of state-sponsored vacuity from which it is next to impossible to escape.
Wallsend itself survives as a community, but only just. The once-proud shipbuilding workforce has either retired early, or moved on to take lower-skilled and lower-paid employment elsewhere. Many ex-labourers are resigned to a lifetime of benefits and poor health, having no useful skills outside shipbuilding and being too old to retrain. Diabetes is rife; the local discount bulk snack-food shop does a roaring trade, dishing out refined sugars and saturated fat to a population either too ill-informed to know better, or too bitterly resigned to care. Many school-leavers face a dismal prospect of menial work or call-centre purgatory – the skilled apprenticeships provided by the shipyards are sorely missed.
Thusly, ‘Songs From the Shipyards’ is an important piece of living history: a fine tribute to a once-proud industry and the people that served it. Never again will their like be seen again; the world has moved on, and it is the responsibility of everyone to move with it. The region is lucky to have such a vigorous history, and such fine musicians to remind us of it. Not only remembered, but celebrated.
As is the Deer Shed way, no sooner had such cerebral thoughts coalesced, they were rudely set aside in favour of constructing a novel yet vaguely functional monotonal wind instrument from an enormous pile of plastic plumbing pipes. Earlier I had shared in the wonder of an 18-month-old boy watching a vintage tractor drive a machine which crushed large stones into smaller ones. Rather a highlight of the weekend, both for him and me. The soft play area was very popular, to say nothing of home-made elastic-band-propelled buggies, and a tree made out of plastic piping with CDs for leaves. A number of mysterious machines made an appearance throughout the weekend, best described through the power of photography, but particularly notable was the bench upon which two humanoid robots sat perfectly still – until an unsuspecting human sat between them, at which point their heads turned towards you in a gently unsettling manner. For the older kids there was soldering practice, Raspberry Pi programming, actual robotics, and a brilliant Scrapheap Challenge.
As we ambled away from the site to begin the journey home to the comforting strains of King Creosote, it was time for reflection on how Deer Shed 2013 had treated us. There were some hiccups – the bar was too small and ran out of several beers, the campsite shop was deeply underwhelming, and it did actually rain a bit on Sunday morning. But everything else was as pretty close to perfect as a family-friendly festival gets. 2013 might be the year that Deer Shed comes of age – the biggest crowd, some site jiggery-pokery, but they didn’t lose the essential friendliness, and even cosiness, that defines the event. Well done to all the organisers, and the numerous volunteers who worked all weekend to things running as we were all having a great time. Early bird tickets for 2014 go on sale in September for what will undoubtedly be a bargainacious price – snap them up and I’ll see you there!
Saturday at Deer Shed Festival 2013 dawns bright and sunny again, and the search for sustenance before the day gets properly going commences. Now, on that topic, a word about Thomas the Baker. The esteemed purveyor of sweetmeats was on target for being absent this year, for reasons unknown. But at the last minute, their attendance was announced, to the delight of those of us who consider a cheese straw and a sausage roll to be a delicious and satisfying snack. And Thomas does the best in the business. But the real highlight of their range is quite the definitive Yorkshire curd tart, the reference for all other boulangers to aspire to. The place wouldn’t have been the same without them, so as a personal favour, please can Thomas and Deer Shed never part? Thanks.
Blood Relatives continue the Scottish flavour which continues throughout the weekend. They are a very young four-piece from Glasgow trading in summery, jangly tunes, who wouldn’t be out of place on Edwyn Collins’ Postcard Records. Along with deep-fried pizza and brutalist council estates, it’s the sort of thing that Glasgow churns out seemingly without effort. First and only single ‘Dead Hip’ sums up their sound – all chiming guitars, intertwining vocals and clever wordplay. Lovely to listen to, and the perfect way to ease into a long day of music, but perhaps their chip-off-the-old-block stylings mean they need a few more releases before they can stand apart from the immense back catalogue that their part of the world carries. (3.5/5)
Moving from Scotland’s west to its east coast, the four young lads that make up Bwani Junction bat away various technical problems to deliver an energetic, good-humoured set of funky guitar pop with chiming, trebly, afrobeat-inspired guitar overlay. Latest single ‘Papa Candy’ actually gets pretty heavy in places, whilst maintaining a surreal edge (“The milkman is evil,” anyone?) There’s a hint of ‘London Calling’-era Clash in their mashup of styles – the backbone of punk is ever-present, the world music influences keep things fresh, but their essence lies in observational songwriting in the vein of Arctic Monkeys. A great find. (4/5)
Spring Offensive are no stranger to these pages; we reviewed them just over a year ago when they were touring single ‘Worry Fill My Heart’. Back then they seemed destined to be the next big band to come out of Oxford. Today… is it my imagination or have they perhaps lost a bit of their sheen? The WWII threads have been all but abandoned; today there’s less of a sense of genuine menace and portent that they are capable of at their best. Losing a superb bass player into the ravenous clutches of Gaz Coombes can’t have helped matters. Although it may all be down to the incongruity of it being a sunny afternoon at a family festival, a point acknowledged when they launch into ‘The River’, a particularly maudlin affair with the chorus “I suggest you slide into the river / like the rat that you are”. Hello children, everywhere. Nobody else does a sense of modern despair like Spring Offensive, as they evoke grey clock-watching employees and care-worn lovers with ease on ‘52 Miles’. All told, Spring Offensive not quite firing on all cylinders is still of a level of quality that many bands would envy. (4/5)
Zervas and Pepper are a Welsh singer-songwriter duo – you may have heard their latest single ‘Jerome’ being promoted by Lauren Laverne on her 6music show just the previous day. An atmospheric slice of country rock straight outta the 1970s, ‘Jerome’ is named after the eponymous Arizona town, a place which neatly summarises the music’s windswept desolation. The obvious reference point for the combination of acoustic and electric guitars, and the mid-tempo vibe is Neil Young’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ period; there’s a touch of psychedelia in the spacey reverbs and multi-layered backing vocals that previously Young had the exclusive rights to – not anymore! What’s most impressive is how genuine the sound of giant-sky Americana being conjured actually is, considering the protagonists aren’t from round those parts. ‘Somewhere In The City’ is a brilliant primer as to the power of Z&P – a beautiful acoustic guitar intro, those fantastically widescreen vocals throughout, and even a flute solo all add up to a beautifully atmospheric piece as good as anything released in the 1970s by proper Americans in big cowboy hats. (4/5)
To Kill a King’s Ralph Pellymounter proudly strides onstage wearing a Brudenell Social Club t-shirt – a badge of honour that obliquely declares the band’s city of origin, and also pays homage to the cult music venue nestled in terraced Leeds suburbia which continues to play an important role in the development and support of local bands. In which category To Kill a King are the latest, and perhaps one of the best. In Pellymounter, they have a deeply charismatic, if unusually-bearded frontman, whose infectious smile and direct eye-contact enchants the audience from the very beginning.
Musically, TKAK are from the stable of Noah and the Whale (close your eyes and it could be Charlie Fink on vocals), and (whisper it) Mumford and Sons, but dispense with the cod-folk stylings of the latter in favour of a far more contemporary approach. The majority of debut album ‘Cannibals With Cutlery’ is played: something like ‘Funeral’ (perhaps a nod of gratitude to Arcade Fire there?) has the radio-friendly sheen of melody and climax of the aforementioned megabands, but still manages to carry a reasonably complex message; ‘Besides She Said’ manages to be romantic without ever resorting to saccharine sweetness. If everyone who owned a Mumford’s CD replaced it with something by To Kill a King, the world would be a better place. (4/5)
I’ve discussed the importance of The House of Love elsewhere on this site (read the retrospective here), so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say that Guy Chadwick looks older than one would expect, and could do with a decent manicure. Terry Bickers has lost nothing of his legendary guitar skill, and could pass for a close relative of Bernard Butler both in looks and playing style. Perhaps it’s simply the power of familiarity, but the old songs sound stronger and in a way fresher than the post-reformation material. Time hasn’t dulled the power of an anthemic ‘Shine On’, and ‘Beatles and Stones’ works brilliantly live. Much as with Edwyn Collins, I suspect a neutral listener may not appreciate the portent of it all, but in its proper context, any performance by The House Of Love is special. (4/5)
It’s fair to say that Darwin Deez is hardly a household name, so perhaps an odd choice for headliner. But if there were any doubts as to his ability to carry a top billing, a few blasts of virtuoso guitar work instantly dispel them. Deez specialises in funky, jazz-inflected ditties with witty, observational lyrics and regular forays into complex fretwork. Comparisons with Prince are to a certain extent valid: they both share an ability to conjure a potent blend of funk, soul and rock, even if Deez doesn’t quite aspire to the vast artifice that is ‘Purple ‘Rain’ live. Neither does he carry the massive ego: everything is deported in a humble manner, even when at his highest level of fret-shredding. An ambitious choice of headliner for a Yorkshire family festival, but an inspired one – in his 90 minutes, Deez really does turn in a wide-ranging performance; yes, heavy on the guitar but also carrying a full-on party vibe, which gets the crowd all worked up for… (4/5)
DJ Smoove is the production brain who, along with John Turrell, make up the creative heart of Tyneside funketeers Smoove and Turrell. After their live set earlier on in the day, Smoove is back for a two-hour DJ set of old-school tunes, to keep the crowd (mostly dads who have escaped the family tent for a bit of out-of-hours boogieing) going into the small hours. And thanks be to the God of DJing, because Smoove brings to the party those increasingly rare accessories – a pair of turntables and several circular black plastic discs commonly known as records, which I believe are still used occasionally by those who learned their DJing trade before the advent of CDs and the various digital shenanigans commonly seen on a DJ’s desk. Smoove totes a couple of decks and a mixer, nary a Macbook in sight, and his set is all the better for it. His set ranges through soul, funk and house, blended with beatmixing and proper vinyl scratching that’s simply world-class. He may not be a household name, but DJ Smoove is a class act on the decks. (5/5)
Right in the middle of his Saturday night headline set at Deer Shed Festival 2013, Darwin Deez brought his band to the front of the stage, and all four men lined up in silence. Then a metronomic electro beat kicked in, and they began to move. Initially, just an arm would go up in response to a recorded note. Then each dancer took on a musical motif as his own, limbs locked in time with the music, until they were a blur of moving body parts, aligned in rhythm but diverse in motion, as if the internal workings of a wristwatch. It spiralled from there: in pairs, each couple chiding the other – using nothing but the power of dance – to even higher levels of highly-skilled yet light-hearted boogie-banter. It was a moment that summed up the entire ethos of Deer Shed Festival: do something fun; do it well; do it with the unselfconscious devotion of a child. And if it involves putting a cardboard box on one’s head and pretending to be a robot, so much the better.
Rewind a day or so, and the famously clement Deer Shed weather made putting up a tent both a pleasure and a chore – baking hot sunshine is perfect when the work of tent-erection is over, cold beer in hand, but slightly less enjoyable whilst in the process of whacking tent pegs into baked-hard ground. Still, it beats rain in any form, and Deer Shed still has a 100% record for no significant rain at any of the four events so far, a record which leaves many festivals blushing with envy. The site itself was significantly rearranged this year, cleverly making use of Baldersby Park’s natural bowl-shaped amphitheatre, although this sadly leaves the eponymous Shed outside the arena, looking very much unloved and forlorn. Perhaps it could be brought into use for… ooh, I don’t know… housing deer for the weekend?
No sooner was the tent upstanding then it was time for music. First up was Gaz Coombes, late of Supergrass, and what a superb opening gambit he turned out to be. His recent work, as chronicled in long-player ‘Here Comes the Bombs’, was very much in evidence, as expected, as was heartbreaking recent single ‘One Of These Days’. Songs such as the sub-3-minute stomper ‘Whore’, and the more circumspect, spacey almost-prog of ‘Universal Cinema’, were rapturously received by a crowd who appeared initially not to know quite what to expect.
What they got was a spectacular performance from a well-drilled and vastly experienced practitioner of alternative guitar-pop. A lady or two might have swooned at the sight of his impressively-sideburned visage. Imagine the delight of the crowd when treated to an acoustic interlude of a couple of Supergrass numbers, including the divine ‘Moving’, which excels when given a stripped back treatment. Then imagine that delight transforming into headbanging ecstasy when the very last song turns out to be the storming ‘Richard III’ from Supergrass’ sophomore release. Not a brow was left unsweaty. (5/5)
By chance, a member of our entourage is acquainted with a good friend of Edwyn Collins, and from him has learned how devastating the double cerebral haemorrhage and subsequent complications Collins suffered in 2005 actually were. Thusly, we’re under no illusions about how impressive it is that he’s here at all. Which makes reviewing his performance a little tricky. Collins himself isn’t overly mobile, his right side clearly considerably weakened. He sits on an amplifier throughout and plays no instrument. He has an odd way of speaking – in short, sharp facts rather than conversational sentences. His speech is slurred. Yet here he is, confidently headlining. It cannot be overestimated how significant an achievement that is, and a tribute to Collins’ efforts of rehabilitation. Such sentiment is largely irrelevant, however, in the context of musical criticism. And whilst on the surface this could be a difficult listen – a bald reading of some relatively obscure songs from a man who slurs his words and is liberal in his approach to perfect pitch – anyone with even a casual familiarity with his work will appreciate the resonance of this performance as a whole.
The set ranges widely over Collins’ long career – the white funk of his Orange Juice period still sounds fresh in ‘What Presence?’, time hasn’t dulled ‘Gorgeous George’’s edge, but it’s the new, post-illness material that’s most impressive. We get a smattering from 2010’s superb Losing Sleep LP, including the Northern Soul-influenced title track and the touchingly romantic ‘In Your Eyes’. But the best bits come from this year’s ‘Understated’. If Collins’ voice is damaged, his ear for a tune is still factory-fresh. There’s a strong autobiographical thread running through his newest songs: ‘31 Years’ and ‘Understated’ are barely-concealed musings on his past, his achievements, and what the future might hold, all bound together with expert songcraft. Bad health may have robbed Collins of his ability to play his cherished guitars, but it has thankfully left his musical brain intact. A performance for connoisseurs, but what it lacked in accessibility it made up for in depth. (4/5)
A particular highlight of last year was Darius Battiwalla’s piano accompaniment to the eerie ‘Nosferatu’. This year, Darius was back with 1925’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. ‘Phantom’ tells the story of Erik, a hideously deformed figure who lives deep in the bowels of an opera house, falls in love with a leading lady, and proceeds to terrorise all those who would stand in his way. A disturbing portrait of manic depression, it contains some genuinely chilling scenes, notably the casual way Erik dispenses with his first underground caller.
The production is astonishing even when viewed with a jaded modern eye – the subterranean lair is a romantic gothic masterpiece, and the restrictions of black and white film are used to its advantage when portraying the inky blackness of water, and by the use of tints to reinforce the emotional context of a scene. Battiwalla’s playing is an absolute joy, so expertly reflecting the on-screen action, one could close one’s eyes and imagine how the story was developing. Beautiful melodic vignettes of disparate theme, pitch and tempo flow together to create a seamless soundtrack, all the more impressive for being played without sheet music. Cinema doesn’t get any better than this. (5/5)
Head on over to Martin’s Flickr for high-res versions of his photos taken at this year’s Deer Shed Festival.
Update: as of 26/11/2013, they’re now called The Orielles.
Every so often one comes across a band that so perfectly defies expectation – and, occasionally, reason – that they deserve to be written about just for that. The Oreoh!s are just such an act. Comprising sisters Esme and Sid Hand-Halford on bass and drums, respectively, and Henry Wade on guitar, this Halifax-based three-piece are notable for being the youngest in age I have ever seen on the professional circuit: we’re talking between 15 and 17 years of age here, folks. Not even old enough for a refreshing post-gig lager. Which in itself isn’t a special talent – after all, we were all young once – but what’s more intriguing is that they’re actually a really good band. My thoughts on their appearance at Liverpool Sound City are already out there, but after the buzz of that weekend had died down I had the opportunity to sit down and have a listen to their independently-recorded EP ‘Sunny Daze and Sleepless Nights’. [Our copy was handed to me personally by the band themselves at Brink cafe on the third day of Sound City 2013. Eat your heart out, Lammo, with your Bloc Party demo at the Franz Ferdinand gig outside the toilets at the ICA. - Ed.]
Slightly dodgy puns aside, this recording really shows the depth of ability that these three West Yorkshire youngsters display. ‘Truth Be Told’ (stream above) is the opener – after the riffing builds into a decent garage-band groove, the beautiful crystal-clear voice of Esme is introduced, at once powerful and delicate, with a fine knack for a catchy melody. The lyrics advise, “do it all before you get old”, a surprisingly mature sentiment considering the singer’s tender years. ‘Deduce’ (video at the end of this post) is the standout track, and one that rollicks along at a fine pace, with a massive serving of fizzy guitars, tinny drums, and Esme’s lovely vocal. This could genuinely be an underground garage-rock classic – slightly lo-fi, incredibly catchy chorus that comes round exactly the correct number of times, deceptively basic yet heartfelt musicianship. A real triumph. And just to show they can do downtempo as well as up, ‘Midnight In Paris’ is a delicate ballad based around squeezebox rather than guitar, and again that surprisingly mature sentiment is clear to hear.
The Oreoh!s have been a pleasure to discover. All four songs on this EP are great and show incredible potential. It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating here – if they’re this good this young, how good will they be in a few years’ time? Let’s hope that they’ve got the staying power to properly realise their potential.
The Oreoh!s’ EP ‘Sunny Daze and Sleepless Nights’ is available from the band’s own merch store.
Drenge have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.* But opportunistic recommendations from politicians aside, what’s all the fuss about Drenge? With a slender lineup consisting of brothers Eoin and Rory Loveless and nobody else, the Sheffield pair conjure a mighty brick wall of distorted guitars and scarily thrashed drums. If vocal styles could be patented, Nick Cave would be filing a suit against Drenge for his singing on latest single ‘Backwaters’ (video below): the drawled, echoed vocal will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, but the portentous riffing belongs firmly to 2013’s post-punk scene. The lyrics are pretty impenetrable, but the disturbing video evokes the violent energy of disenfranchised youth: all vandalism, alcohol, and casual violence, to the incongruous backdrop of dry stone walled countryside.
There’s to be an eponymous album in August, featuring both singles and their B-sides. Lead-off track ‘People In Love Make Me Feel Yuck’ can be previewed on Soundcloud (play it in the widget below); it’s funkier than either of the singles, and perhaps the closest Drenge have yet come to a love song (although apparently the album will showcase their tender side in a track improbably called ‘Fuckabout’). ‘I Wanna Break You In Half’ is perhaps the most outrageous recording yet, boiling over with bile (“If you had a soul I’d like to eat it”) and monstrous guitars. Drenge do what they do very well – the question is whether their schtick can be extended over the course of an album without becoming repetitive or stale. However, there can be no doubt that this will be spectacular live, and in this, Tom Watson does indeed have a point. Drenge have a headline tour scheduled for late August onwards, and are playing countless summer festivals before then, notably the main stage of Kendal Calling in just a couple of weekends’ time.
‘Drenge’ by Drenge is released on the 19th of August.
*Tom Watson MP, the self-appointed policeman of the country’s free press, was forced to resign his position as general election co-ordinator of Her Majesty’s Opposition over the union seat-fixing scandal, when it was revealed that the union-backed candidate for the allegedly Unite-rigged Falkirk seat was his personal office manager. In his resignation letter, Watson argued wrongly that it should be acceptable for party leaders (and therefore, presumably, prime ministers) to attend Glastonbury, before recommending Drenge as an “awesome band”. He was correct in his recommendation, as he was in his selection of Glastonbury headline band in this article for Noisey. But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that political resignation letters are for resignation, not discussions of popular music. The Drenge reference in this context is one part vanity, and one part attempt to deflect attention from the far more serious hot water that Watson finds himself in, a tactic that has been partly successful in the short term. In that way Drenge have found themselves being “used” for political purposes, something that bands rarely appreciate. No wonder they were so underwhelmed.
One of the great mysteries of popular music is exactly why fate chooses a particular band to become legendary – treated with holy reverence by great swathes of the listening public – when the vast majority either tread the boards for years to an enthusiastic but small fanbase, or disappear completely after a promising start, to the notice of, well, nobody. The example that springs to mind is The Stone Roses – only one-and-a-bit decent albums, a singer that couldn’t really sing, but they are quite justifiably worshipped by those whose lives they entered and changed forever, generating countless spin-off books, photography exhibitions, and finally a feature-length documentary.
It has to do with timing, of course, and geographic location – if you wanted to become a legendary band in the mid-‘80s, Manchester was where you had to be from. The story of The Stone Roses is inextricably intertwined with that of James, The Smiths, New Order, The Hacienda – the Manchester musical family tree can be extended almost without end. So were The Stone Roses great and just happened to be Mancunian, or were they Mancunian and therefore automatically revered as part of that zeitgeist-defining scene? Would they have become the legend they have had they been from Swansea?
All of which rumination brings us to The House of Love. By any reading they are contemporaries of The Stone Roses, having formed in 1986 and released their debut album just a year earlier than them in 1988. The Stone Roses even supported them at an early gig. But in comparison with the Roses, their legend has been largely overlooked. Chiefly comprising singer and songwriter Guy Chambers and guitarist Terry Bickers, the story of The House of Love contains all the essential elements for a classic rock ‘n’ roll narrative arc including a promising start with a signing to Creation Records with Alan McGee proclaiming, “One of the great Creation bands… they could have taken on anybody live.”
But then they began to shed peripheral band members like confetti. Heavy drug use was rife, particularly during the mixing of the first album – with everyone high on LSD, band members and friends alike all had a go on the mixing desk, with predictably disastrous (and no doubt expensive) results. The better-than-fiction endgame came with Bickers ranting in the back of the tour bus, setting fire to banknotes (the KLF would later take this incendiary protest to its logical conclusion and burn a million quid). He was unceremoniously dumped at the nearest railway station, and one of the two personalities which made up the marrow of The House of Love was out of the band for the next decade.
The essence of The House of Love’s achievements are crystallised in their first two albums, neither of which has an official title. Both albums are strong in songwriting terms, the debut coming wrapped in a charmingly naive period production style, which is just as well – the effects and recording flaws are part of its charm. ‘Salome’ is an enormous, anthemic thing, with a sneering, supercilious vocal (“I love the way she cries”), ubiquitous driving guitar work and an enormous solo. ‘Love in a Car’ is a mysteriously circular, quiet-loud affair with a whispered, oblique lyric. ‘Man to Child’ proves they were equally as at ease with balladry, delicate acoustic guitar fluttering around a lyric so poignant you can just about taste the tears. And not forgetting ‘Christine’, the song that kicked the whole affair into gear: an anthemic slice of post-punk, proving that the guitar drones of shoegaze could be put to good use in the context of proper songwriting.
A couple of years later came what has become known as The Butterfly Album, featuring a significant bump in production values whilst keeping the trademark effects-heavy guitars, and a more coherent running order with a proper beginning, middle and end. In the opinion of this writer it represents the pinnacle of THoL’s output. From the moment a couple of minutes in when ‘Hannah’ shifts up from being a wash of slow-burning guitars into its keening vocal refrain, it’s clear that the band have progressed in every area since their first record. ‘Shine On’ should live in the pantheon of perfect pop songs forever – the enormous chorus that emerges before the one minute point yet doesn’t outstay its welcome, the lyric manages to reference the band name yet still make sense, the song itself ends just after three minutes but the band stretch it out into a stunning downtempo outro: unforgettable from the very first listen. ‘Beatles and Stones’ is a beautiful major-chord reminisce about the power of heroes to give one’s life meaning and succour, and even dares to evoke a little Beatles-esque nostalgia with a string-laden middle eight. But before the pastoralism gets too much, there’s a trio of upbeat ditties, including ‘Hedonist’, which neatly summarises Oasis’ whole career in its 3 and a half minutes, down to their penchant for mid-tempo riffing, guitar feedback, and even Liam’s vocal sneer. If Noel Gallagher had realised that someone had released a song that had already set out every decent thing that Oasis would achieve, he could have saved himself a lot of bother. Twelve tracks, and not a duffer amongst them.
Two fine albums then, at a time when the world was eager for a decent British guitar band. So why aren’t they revered for their achievements like their contemporaries? Part of the answer is the band’s implosion into drug use, depression, and personality clashes. But something else pertains: they simply didn’t fit the media narrative of Manchester, or, more accurately, “Madchester”. They were perhaps too good, too competent as musicians and songwriters, too focused on what made good music, to realise, or even care, that what the world and its press wanted was the propagation of a particular scene. Without doubt they must take a great deal of the responsibility for their drawn-out downfall upon themselves. But one cannot escape the conclusion that, despite the internal disagreements, The House of Love still deserve greater credit than that which history has deemed theirs to claim. So there we have it. The House of Love – the best pre-Britpop era band not to come from Manchester.
The House of Love’s latest album ‘She Paints Words In Red’ is available now on Cherry Red Records. The only place to see the band live this summer is at Deer Shed Festival this weekend in North Yorkshire, for which a handful of tickets are still available. The House of Love performs on Saturday.