Well it’s taken us a while to get this one together after I was left speechless (I know, that’s difficult to believe) as I watched Sound of the Sirens’ unique set of twentieth century acoustic anthems in support of Mad Dog Mcrea earlier this year. When I heard they were coming to London to appear live on the open mic session on Chris Evans’ show on Radio 2, it was an opportunity that was too good to miss. Here’s what happened when they turned up south of the river, buzzing with adrenaline and caffeine and ready to tell the world about it:
Allan – Well, it’s been five months since I saw you at The Half Moon in Putney. Quite a lot has happened since then, so tell me what’s been going on?
Abbe – Doing the mini tours with Mad Dog completely exhausted us, left us on-our-knees-tired, but always worth it because they’re lovely. Then we applied to Glastonbury and Mike Mathieson of Mad Dog, who knows everyone, who knows everyone, who knows everyone, said try these people so we tried other avenues, followed the routes he gave us and one of them paid off. They must be inundated with people applying, so even to get a ‘Oh hello girls, yes, brilliant, we’ll have a look at what you do’, we were excited, and then getting that email to say we’d got in to Glastonbury was just brilliant.
Hannah – We screamed and jumped on couches.
Abbe – I couldn’t see because I smiled so much my eyes closed.
Allan – That started off with one gig, didn’t it? How many did you end up with at Glastonbury?
Hannah – Four in the end, because each stage only has a certain amount of tickets to give out, so once you’re in there, they want acts.
Abbe – So we just ran around begging people to play…
Hannah – And they had us.
Abbe – And it was quite funny because one of the best gigs we did there was the backstage hospitality and catering for all the staff, who were just hilarious and they were so up for a party because they’d been working all day and everybody was in such good spirits. To do the sort of mini-gig in their world within Glastonbury was really fun and then we realised that was the way forward, so we started approaching all the backstage bars like the Circus Tent. Who knows, if we get back next year it would be nice to go and play some more of those.
Allan – Was it at Glastonbury that Chris Evans saw you, initially?
Abbe – I think a few people have put that on Facebook, haven’t they, and people just assume that, but we got in to Carfest (North) through a lovely girl called Chloe who put us on to the Wigwam Stage and when we were there she said ‘I’ve also managed to put you forward for the friends and family glamping area…’
Hannah – I’ve still got my band on for good luck…
Abbe – And we said ‘Oh brilliant, that’s great’ and she said ‘I don’t think you realise what a deal this is; this is an access all areas pass, even I can’t get in to these areas’. So me and Hannah put on these bands and waltzed around Carfest flashing our bands here, there and everywhere and it was just brilliant. So we went to set up and we had to do the sound as well, so we were having this big faff and panic when Bob Geldof walked in. It was just berserk and then we set up and it was a lovely tent; everyone was outside around the fire enjoying themselves, so we just settled in to the fact that ‘It’s cool that we’re here but no-one’s really going to watch and we might meet Chris Evans if he comes by but we’re just the background and that’s that.’ Then in walked Chris Evans and sat about two metres in front of us tapping the table and with his feet tapping. If someone had filmed us, the reactions on our faces would have been so funny but then he stayed for the entire set. Brilliant.
Hannah – Me and Abbe couldn’t look at each other.
Abbe – We’ve developed this thing over the last few weeks where we have to avoid eye contact with each other.
Allan – So that was what led to this morning.
Hannah – Yeah. We played at Carfest, then we got a text message from Chris the next day, back at the van…
Abbe – We gave him our CDs the night before…
Hannah – And we spoke to him and he said ‘What can I do for you girls, I listened to your CD this morning.’
Abbe – To which we coolly said ‘OK’. (Laughter all round). It was really funny because we went back to the tent to get breakfast and he came in and said ‘Hello again, I’ve got your music playing in my car and I’ll take your details and get in contact and we’ll sort this out.’ So we were just trying to be really cool and collected. He’s so friendly, he’s so down to earth; he’s lovely. And he left and the chef who was making everybody breakfast just came over and leaned on the table and went ‘Look at you trying to keep it together’
Then we got a text saying ‘Let’s sort this out’ and we thought ‘Shall we just give him a ring? Who dares wins…’
Hannah – Then we got invited to The Mulberry Inn, his pub, to play and open mic night last Friday which was amazing and we ended up playing our whole set at the end of the night.
Abbe – It was two songs, then it was four. Then ‘No, don’t stop, we’ll tell you when to stop. Right, close the doors, keep playing”. It was brilliant.
Hannah – Then he saw the state of us in the morning the next day…
Abbe – And he still liked us.
Allan – And presumably that’s what led to where you’ve been this morning; at Radio 2.
Abbe – (More laughter) That was the long answer.
Hannah – It was the teapot that did it; the teapot in the van, our RAC van. (Probably too complicated to explain here, but it’s a good excuse to point you in the direction of the show on iPlayer at 1:42:20 and 02:25:55).
Allan – And how it did it go at Radio 2?
Abbe – Amazing! It’s so funny; we were obviously nervous, but I don’t think I‘ve thought about it enough this week because it’s been a case of ‘Right this is happening, get that planned get this organised, do that…” that you don’t actually think about what you’re planning towards until suddenly the day was here and my stomach was just turning in circles. Then we got there and it was fine, don’t even think about it, don’t look at Facebook, don’t look at your phone, don’t look at messages, don’t think about everyone we know sitting around the radio like the 1940s or something listening to us.
And then I went off to the toilet and you see faces that you know so I just did this casual nod like ‘Oh there’s my friend, oh hello, oh wait, no, that’s Moira Stuart…aaargh!’
Allan – I listened to it and I was listening out for any signs of nerves; I couldn’t hear any at all.
Hannah – That’s brilliant. We haven’t heard it back yet so we don’t know how it sounded.
Abbe – There was a point where I felt a bit bleaty; there was a lot of nervous vibrato…
Allan – Was it the intention for you to do two songs right from the start?
Hannah – He had asked us to do one and then the producer said that he wanted us to do two…
Abbe – But then the way it was all structured today with us playing and then Jonas and Jane and Mancie Baker we were just waiting to see what happened because obviously they’ve got their playlist and you can see it all on the computers everywhere and people are running in handing him text messages and notices and I thought there was a good intention but it might not happen because they’re on such a schedule and then suddenly… He doesn’t give you much notice for things does he? Everything’s so casual, like Chris knows what’s going on, but no-one else does.
Allan – Do you know if they filmed any of it?
Abbe – I don’t know. I think there were notices around saying if the red light’s on, there’s a webcam being broadcast, and on the red button (interactive) you can see the DJs, so there may well be something.
Allan – So, to go back a bit, How did Sound of the Sirens start?
Hannah – Many moons ago. We met each other about ten years ago when we worked in a nightclub together and clicked and got on really well. Then we started singing together, probably about three years later?
Abbe – Probably about that. I remember being sitting in your Mum and Dad’s house singing and your Mum going ‘Oh, that’s nice’ and then when you moved house we used to sit there doing harmonies on “Chasing Cars”.
Hannah – We started a band called Route Two, but we soon realised that was a bit of an error.
Abbe – We had two gigs supporting the Fab Beatles in Devon.
Hannah – And the amazing Kev Day (of the Fab Beatles), was really supportive and encouraged us.
Abbe – Then we left that and joined a functions band with Lisa, so there were three of us and then we became Sound of the Sirens when we got bored of singing covers and thought let’s write our own music.
Hannah – And learn to play guitar.
Abbe – Then Lisa fell in love and moved to London and there was good intention there for us to stay together but it just didn’t happen. We got lovely messages from Lisa this morning. She’s been so supportive throughout; we still see her all the time. I think people always want some scandal, you know, what happened to the third one?
Allan – It must be difficult keeping a band together in those circumstances, it’s like trying to keep a relationship together at long distance.
Abbe – Especially when it’s essentially a hobby, when you’re working full-time and then every weekend you’re committing to a band and trying to keep a relationship going and you live in a different city, it’s just never going to happen, but we’re all still really good friends.
So, Sound of the Sirens has been going six years, nearly seven and it’s been me and Hannah for the last three. When Lisa was with us, we just had a very simple stomp box in the middle which Johnny (band chauffeur, organiser, minder and all-round good bloke) fashioned out of MDF with a mic in a box; job done. Then Lisa left and to fill that gap we added in the floor tom and the tambourine.
Allan – Well that’s my next question ruined then. I was about to ask if the percussion had been there right from the start because that’s quite a big element of what you do, isn’t it?
Abbe – I think it is now, more than it was originally.
Hannah – It was difficult trying to choose songs today for Radio 2 without the percussion; it was quite tough because a lot of our songs are driven by the rhythm.
Abbe – (To Hannah) Did you notice this morning that when they said ‘We’ve got the mics set up, girls, can you try and stand still?’. We’re used to floor tom and tambourine to bashing our feet around on everything and it’s really difficult to stand still; we were air drumming.
Hannah – So it did take a while in the beginning; we were often at random beats, flying everywhere.
Allan – So my really big question now is how do you decide who gets to play the floor tom, because you don’t always have the same configuration?
Abbe – I think naturally… I can’t even remember how we did that in the beginning; I think I must have just done the drum on one song and stayed on it, because I drum a lot and play tambourine a lot and I think we just got used to doing the on beat or the off beat, so it’s difficult when you try and change it. There are songs that we swap…
Hannah – Because of the rhythms we’re playing on the guitar, and sometimes trying to do the opposite on the drum felt, at the time, a bit impossible because we were new to it so we just did whatever worked more naturally.
Abbe – I think we probably could do it now but it’s quite nice to swap and do something different. We wouldn’t get that lumpy thing when you’re drumming and you lose it and go all ‘lost it: lumpy leg’.
Allan – When you first started writing your own material, who were you influenced by?
Hannah – I think you’ve got influences wedged in your brain anyway from when you were growing up; from when you were little and teenage years; we used to listen to very different types of music.
Abbe – What was the music in your household, growing up?
Hannah – The music was Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, a bit of Alice Cooper; my Mum only had one CD really and that was Alex Parks (More laughter). Love you Alex Parks, but… And as a teenager, I tried to be cool; I listened to a bit of happy hardcore, but I think that was on purpose, just trying to be cool and I don’t do that anymore. And Hanson, Gloria Estefan as an eleven-year-old (Hannah, not Gloria).
We had our own influences but together, the bands that we loved when we started playing, were Mumford and Sons, Damien Rice…
Abbe – We were saying that this morning weren’t we? I grew up with country; my dad’s really into country music, we’re talking Foster and Allen.
Allan – Not outlaw country then…
Abbe – No; on Sunday mornings I can remember me and my brother, our bedrooms were next to each other, and we were ‘He’s doing it again!’ and shouting at Dad who was downstairs singing. My Mum was really into The Kinks and The Carpenters and me and my sister used to record ourselves singing Carpenters songs because we loved Karen Carpenter so much and those were our growing up songs.
Freddie, my older brother, was really into Nirvana so I tried to get into that, just because you have to follow what your older brother does. I think it’s a mix of everything but definitely there’s a few bands in your lifetime that really stand out and Mumford and Sons came to Exeter and they played at the Exeter Cavern supporting Johnny Flynn and I went along with my boyfriend Woody to watch Johnny Flynn. When the support act came on, we were both blown away so we were looking for them online and there was nothing for ages and the next thing you they’ve got an album launch at Thekla in Bristol. Then we went to watch then on New year’s Eve in London and we saw them right from their roots and watched how they exploded and I just think at the time they burst on to the scene they were so original and I’m so inspired them, we both are.
Hannah – Yeah. And female singers as well; Alanis Morissette…
Abbe – Oh yeah, and Natalie Imbruglia who coincidentally is there (Radio 2) tomorrow. So exciting; we could say we were her support act, maybe?
Allan – I always like to ask songwriters about this; when you write now, how does that process work? How do you create songs; do you have a fixed way of working?
Abbe – Different ways; I like taking things from books, certain words. Part of my degree was textual practices in finding ways to make songs and poetry and taking certain things and linking them together. I’ve got this American verse book that we would take some stuff from. Also, just walking along, if an idea comes into your head, just finding a quiet place to sing it into your phone and record it, so we’ve got little snippets of half-made ideas.
Hannah – Some of them are experiences that we had, conversations written down, so each song is born in a different way. There’s a different story behind each one, we haven’t really got a formula.
Allan – With your songs, I think I said something like this in a review, it’s not just the words or the rhythms, it’s the way they work together. I find that interesting and it feels like a lot of effort must go into that, or does it just come naturally?
Hannah – I think because we teach and we’re constantly playing pop songs, I think we do get used to songs sounding quite samey so I think we work against that and make sure that the melodies aren’t just going with the chords and it’s not just an obvious structure. I think that’s why we don’t come out with a song every day, because we want to make sure that they are different and stand out.
Abbe – I think, as well, not being too precious with what you create because sometimes you come up with a song quite quickly and you sit there going ‘Yeah brilliant, job done. Let’s go and have some food. We’re sorted’. Then you come back to the song in a week and go ‘I don’t like it it’s really happy, it’s really cheesy; let’s make everything minor notes and change it and just play around with it until it works…
Hannah – Until we’re both happy with it.
Allan – And lyrically, some of it’s quite dark and Gothic as well, isn’t it?
Hannah – We’re massive angsty teenagers inside.
Abbe – We played at a wedding a few weeks ago and we always make a point of saying (it’s only friends and things who would ask us to play, and we’re really flattered) that we’re not wedding material; people wants songs they know and people want to dance. So we sat down to write a setlist and we’re saying ‘Oh, no, not that one that’s really dark, and not that one, that’s about a breakup, and that one’s about a horrible person and that one’s really negative’. All of our songs are big and quite punchy but they are quite dark.
Hannah – Positively sad songs.
Abbe – Shiny darkness.
Allan – Ok, and just to finish up on, what’s going to happen in the future. Where do we go from here?
Hannah – We’ll get a call later today with a record deal offer.
Abbe – The head of Virgin’s just tweeted or sent you an email, so we’ll probably deal with Richard Branson later.
Hannah – And Chris Evans is going to manage us personally as well.
Abbe – Yeah, he’s going to open a new label. We’re playing at Looe Festival. We’re playing at Carfest (South) next week…
Hannah – We didn’t mean all that, by the way, that was only joking…
Abbe – But we’re playing at Carfest next week and we’re opening the Main Stage with a few songs, which is brilliant. Jools Holland’s going to be playing there, so obviously we’re going to make that contact as well, so we’ll be on “Later…”, then “TFI Friday” and then we’re set. That’s it, so it’s as simple as that.
Allan – Well that sounds good to me…
10pm Friday is always a tough gig on a Butlin’s Music Weekend; most folks cover some distance to get there, and most folks come from work earlier in the day; so your Friday night crowd is normally enormous (here we are now – entertain us!) but are a bit stunned either due to the aforementioned circumstances (or they’ve been heavily pre-loading, or both).
So in the Centre Stage venue, The Damned. No, I can’t pretend I’m a diehard fan but they will always be the band who arguably got the first punk single to the pressing plant in ‘New Rose’ – and I will always remember the thrill / shock of hearing those over-amplified and some might say ham-fisted chords hammered out on a limited edition Stiff 45 with a groove so thick it virtually ate any stylus you dared to wave at it. We are talking real pioneers here and whereas it would take someone with serious recall problems to describe them as the best of the class of ‘76, they did plant the flag. Respect Due.
Enormous crowd, thousands strong, but somehow not quite up for it yet. On troop The Damned. Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible – originals, of course – shared the pre – song raps and crowd orchestration ( ‘And now it’s time for Singalongasensible!’) and they burst through two well- chosen set openers; “Love Song” (etc) and “I Just Can’t be Happy Today”.
The mix is muddy, and whereas Dave Vanian has rarely been described as the strongest voice of his generation (more sort of Tony Hadley meets that bloke from The Cure via Max Bygraves) he can barely be picked out. Fortunately about three songs in, the sounds starts to come around and the Sensible guitar starts to chime with a bit more conviction. The true believers down the front are loving it but to be fair they aren’t reaching the far flung recesses of the room particularly effectively.
They do “Eloise” with a sort of embarrassed aplomb – but later in the set comes an absolutely blistering “New Rose” and a spirited dash through “Neat Neat Neat”. But the sound and histrionics are very, very rock’n’roll; and the emerging theme of the weekend seems to crop up. This is a very successful touring rock band, with an established repertoire and fan base. Nowt wrong with that of course – but it’s all a few squillion miles from the ‘Alternative Music’ ethos of yore. And I don’t blame them at all. They got their break, as hundreds did before and since, when your jib had to have a particular cut, or you’d spend the rest of your life playing for fifty quid in your local. And they grabbed it with both hands and never looked back. So yes, they were fine, the people who turned up to see them enjoyed them; what more do you want? It’s only rock’n’roll. And I have to say it was a hoot seeing hundreds of middle – aged Captain Sensible lookalikes in the bars around the venue all signing fake autographs etc, etc. And ‘middle aged’ assumes everybody’s going to live till they’re 110 or so.
Quick dash across to Main Stage 2, Reds, to catch UK Subs but Charlie and Co had already done thangugudnite and disappeared. So the choice you now have is the Anti-Nowhere League’s orchestra and chorus, or Bad Manners.
Bad Manners it is then. Oh come on, don’t be like that. Peter Powell once said to me when he was presenting Top Of The Pops, whilst I was watching a fat bloke in a dress and Doc Martins, dancing and miming and sticking his tongue out to a hundred or so year old French music hall tune, that ‘this what the British pop music scene is all about’. And who am I to argue.
Because at the time me and my brother were working six nights a week as party DJs and as the very 80’s conclusion to the evening’s entertainment we’d let off pyrotechnics which these days would get you Health and Safety’d out of existence whilst totally pissed audiences leapt all over each other to this slab of vinyl, which had itself been liberally pock-marked with blast marks due to same. We’d spend a happy three minutes with our fingers crammed under the turntable mountings till they bled, yelling at each other to grab that Frankie 12 inch or whatever. So I’ve got a soft spot for Bad Manners. Bear with me.
As show time approached, the audience raised the endearing chant of ‘You Fat Bastard’ until the band rumbled onto the stage. I very much doubt any of the other original Manners are present with us this evening, but Mr Buster Bloodvessel very definitely is. The band blasts its way through “This is Ska”, which, well, it is and it isn’t, and the Large One then launches into a melange of greatest hits; and he’s had loads. “Lorraine” gets an airing, as does”My Girl Lollipop”, “Just A Feeling”, “Special Brew” etc, etc. He wisely takes a two song breather – the guy must be about 60, and has lost A LOT of weight since the glory days – but with intelligent timing, a classy enough bunch of musicians and an audience prepared to sing the bits when he wants a few gulps of air – he makes it through to a deserved encore of “Lip Up Fatty” and “The Can-Can”. Band were perhaps a bit more individually talented than the sum of their parts, but hey, they more than did the job. There is something about his voice as well – it is ludicrously well suited to the angular Ska sound and phrasing. And actually to paraphrase another of Peter Powell’s favourites, ‘Just for fun – it’s too much!’ Served up between a couple of intelligently chosen 2 Tone / Trojan / Ska / Mod DJ sets, this was a whole bunch of that Fun stuff. Also – where else could you find yourself dancing on a sticky carpet to Toots and The Maytals at two in the morning and the bar is still open north of the Watford Gap?
Saturday is all about The Boomtown Rats. You could hang about all night and listen to The Chords UK, The Rezillos and a Jimmy Pursey-less Sham 69 if you felt the need, or indeed cop a bit Ed Tudor-Pole around half eight if that floats your boat. Or you could take your pick of first sitting Rats at 4pm, or second sitting Rats at 10pm. 4pm Rats meant a leisurely evening and a rather nice Italian meal, so that won hands down. 4pm in Reds it was on Main Stage 1 for The Boomtown Rats.
Bob Geldof spent about 3 years as one of the most famous people in the world. He probably will grace the history books in a few years as one of the most influential people of the previous century. That really does not seem to be an outrageous statement having written it.
So you’re kind of a bit surprised to see The Man Himself bound onstage of a Saturday tea-time at Butlins. And to be fair, they absolutely rip into the audience with a real intensity, which goes up a gear when the band kicks into “Like Clockwork” as third song of the set. Geldof prowls around the stage in a circular motion and the Rats go through the kind of slick, polished set you only get when a band has worked hard rehearsing up front of a tour – and has resolved to tour itself silly, which they are doing. At one point Geldof laughingly accuses the audience of ‘Alternative Music’ supporters of using it as an excuse for a weekend piss-up at Butlin’s – quickly adding ‘and we have no problem with that!’
The hits come thick and fast. Given a life – and by anyone’s standards not always a happy one – lived largely in the full glare of an unforgiving media, “There’s Always Someone Looking at You” sounded a difficult song to sing. “She’s So Modern” hasn’t aged well but at some point during the set they were going to have to launch into “Mondays”. And they did and from spooky piano intro to theatrical hand claps to eyes – closed power vocal, they nailed it and the audience loved it. But that’s not what The Rats were there for – they wanted to rock and whilst wild applause was still hanging in the air Bob is declaring his intent to ‘play some rock n roll’……l refer you to my previous comments regarding The Damned.
And rock’n’roll they did, and extremely effectively. They did a great – and I mean great – version of “Mary Of The Fourth Form”, where the band used the structure of the song to allow ‘Mary’ to chuck a few shillings into the jukebox and say rude things about Mud and The Bay City Rollers, but selecting a few rock n blues classics which enabled the band to noodle along on a very entertaining blues groove, until she finally hit on something by The Boomtown Rats……
“Looking After Number One” is probably the only out and out ‘punk rock’ song in the set. The first hit single, it concludes with ‘I wanna be like me….’ which is very Bob Geldof. Must have been very disappointing for him to hear the crowd sing ‘I wanna be like you!’ More Jungle Book than determined personal statement but hey, that’s not his fault. And so on to a show stopping “Rat Trap”, which is a truly great song, and a real grandstanding anthem in anybody’s language, and a richly deserved encore which featured “Diamond Smiles”. And off they went to get ready for second sitting. By the sounds of it plenty of folks were considering coming back for another helping of the same.
Now as I’ve alluded to before, given his personal circumstances Bob Geldof is unlikely to ever be ‘happy’ in conventional terms. But he did seem very much at ease with his current role as enigmatic front man and talented lead singer with a very, very successful and powerful rock band with an established following and the sort of song book most of their contemporaries would sell granny for. And maybe in musical terms that was all he ever wanted. And if so, relax Bob, you and your mates finally cracked it. You can repeat that whenever necessary and there aren’t many who can say that. And that’s me for the day and I’ll have extra parmesan on that, thanks.
Sunday, on the other hand looked like a bit of a marathon. The Blockheads were due on main stage 1 at around 4pm, followed by The Lambrettas at 8 and From The Jam at 10. Unfortunately this clashed with John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett on Main stage 2 and later, Big Country. I was never not going to see The Blockheads – having seen them a few years back in London, I’m having some of that – but what do you do? Big Country without the late lamented Stuart Adamson, or From The Jam without The Modfather?
It’s a big decision in a town called Skegness. I’ve seen John Otway twice in recent years and he’s great fun but I hadn’t clocked The Lambrettas before and, well, I had heard pretty damn good reports of Bruce Foxton’s return to treading the boards and well, I’d somehow contrived to miss the Jam live first time around so…..
The Blockheads were awesome. They were a great night out in London last time we saw them and they’re actually a lot better now. Sunday afternoon virtually anyone who is about piles into the venue but it takes some performance to have people staggering out claiming they’re the best musicians they’ve seen for years. Chas Jankel, looking very much the elder statesman these days, sort of cajoles a range of great performances out of this outrageously talented bunch of players with “Wake Up and Make Love” and “I Wanna be Straight” from the kick-off; followed by a trip down memory lane with a variety of supple and funky versions of “”What a Waste”, “Reasons to be Cheerful” with, I seem to recall, a smattering of “Jack Shit George” hurled into the mix, “Sweet Gene Vincent”, dedicated to Wilko Johnson, “There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards” and a couple of what appeared to be new tracks to my ears, all rounded off by a triumphant blast through “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and an encore of “Blockheads”. You could spend ages waxing lyrical about the individual virtuosity on display from all areas of the band; indeed, you’d have all on trying to marshal all that talent into the discipline needed to play such a tight, targeted set; but if one band member deserved a gold star in his exercise book it was Norman Watt-Roy. If a funkier, more fluid, and downright filthier bass player exists anywhere else on this planet I have yet to hear them. I doubt I’ve ever heard an audience sing the praises of a band so genuinely on the grounds of pure musical ability whilst filing out at tea time.
And thence to Mod Night. Queuing up outside I could hear Big Country tuning up and they sounded positively majestic and I started to have second thoughts about From The Jam. However. You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it. The Lambrettas are an interesting one on paper. Vanguards of the ‘Plastic Mod’ mini-movement in about 1980 or so, they had it mercilessly ripped out of them by the music press at the time. They signed to Elton John’s Rocket Records and recorded two albums, the rather dated but quite tidy ‘Beat Boys in the Jet Age’ and another one, and had two full-fat UK hit singles, an outrageously catchy cover of “Poison Ivy” and an original in “D-D-Dance”.
Both of these were staples of the school disco circuit of the time along with the 2-tone / ska revival stuff;dozens of kids discovering parkas again, and then by the back way, rediscovering great Atlantic soul and Motown tracks which would stay with them for life. So they might not be musical heavyweights in their own right but pretty much like the Merton Parkas, Secret Affair and to an extent and but briefly, The Jam, they put their handprints in the concrete mix marked Great British Popular Music under the sub-section ‘mod revival’.
On they bounced, kitted out in a selection of shiny suits, skinny ties and Fred Perry. The first two songs were ritually murdered by the mixing desk guy, a recurring theme this weekend, but things were turned around by a very sporting version of the Small Faces “All or Nothing”, largely led by the enormously enthusiastic guitarist / second voice guy. Wherein lies part one of a two-part problem. The main man who fronts the band is an original Lambretta (great name, by the way, I honestly wish I’d thought of that one) but he is also of indeterminate age and struggling a bit – at one point he asked to borrow an inhaler from a member of the audience. He is also clearly quite worn down with the constant battle required to stretch two hits out over a whole set – having made the decision to bung them in right at the end – and spent most of the evening pleading with the audience to show a bit of patience as he will Definitely Be Playing That One Later. Consequently he introduced the songs almost apologetically and without conviction. Come on, if you want me to believe what I’m going to listen to for the next few minutes is worth the time then please sound like YOU think it is.
Part two of the problem this band has is accepting what it is. The cover of the Small Faces song – and the later Sam The Sham cover – went down well enough. If you want to go down as well as some of the acts this weekend – have a look at the set. By all means do Beat Boys etc. Title track from the album, which is about to be pushed out again, by all means play the two hits, keep the two killer covers and by all means play a new song especially if you have or are thinking of recording again. Rest of it, mod / 60’s cover versions. Why not try a Motown / Soul Medley. Didn’t hurt The Jam any as a live feature back in the day. The Jam also did a killer version of the original 60’s Batman Theme……get the idea? As it turned out, despite a lot of huffing and puffing, they did OK but not great, got a predictably cheerful response to The Hits and the cover at the end, and earned a deserved encore for effort and sticking to the task. But it could be shed loads better for the same amount of effort, lads.
Main feature of the evening – From The Jam. Bruce Foxton must have reached the point where being introduced as …..’From The Jam’ to the point of cliché, decided that inevitability is well, inevitable. Now there’s two ways of doing this; he could either trot out and ‘be’ Bruce Foxton, From The Jam, with the best bits of a competent The Jam tribute band, possibly called Jamnation or some such thing, take everybody’s fivers and laugh all the way to the bank. Or he could, out of respect for, the music, the people who love the music, and The Jam’s legacy, do it seriously. And from the opening bars of ‘Going Underground’, it is pretty much apparent which it is going to be, played with attack, verve and total conviction, followed by a vicious ‘David Watts’. Foxton looks in great nick, completely unfairly denying the passing of so many years, and his other two Jammy Dodgers are more than up to the task; The drummer has the metronomic accuracy of Rick Buckler replete with that 100 ton thwack which some of the songs require, whilst Russell Hastings is a revelation; got the phrasing, is a phenomenal guitar player – hasn’t quite got the angry snarl of Weller but then again who has? “Start”, “The Butterfly Collector”, “Strange Town” and “Eton Rifles” all whizz past and, if you shut your eyes, please complete the sentence. A new tune which fits in well in context with the hits, “Beat Surrender” and an electric arrangement of “That’s Entertainment” cause near-pandemonium and then – “A Town Called Malice”, complete with the squeaky ice-stadium-stylee keyboard figure. Off they go, absolutely spent, and come back after a short recovery time for a killer version of Martha and the Vandellas “Heatwave” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” complete with backing vocals from a few thousand of the assembled.
Mr Foxton, not seemingly one given to overt displays of emotion whilst onstage, admits at the point of exit that they’ve really enjoyed the evening and find such events ‘very worthwhile’. I’m not surprised. It seemed to me he’d spent the entire evening barely able to suppress his glee at the way in which hard work and a sound plan had come together. Again. They’re off to Australia but are back to tour next year. Go and see them, I implore you. Just because the esteemed Mr Weller seems to have no further use for these songs doesn’t mean you should be debarred from hearing them played live again – especially played by a bloke who has every right to play them.
And that was about it. And what have we learned, if anything? Well, from the stadium-sound drums virtually all the bands adopted as the default position down to the rock n roll theatricals, to describe this as ‘Alternative’ is having a bit of a laugh. I heard around fifty hit singles and classic album tracks which had shifted millions over the weekend. Most of these bands have long since joined rock’n’roll’s merry mainstream, and most at least had the decency to own up to it, whilst at the same time saying ‘fuck’ quite a lot. But then again, that was always going to happen. And from the point that single hit the charts at 18 with a bullet and Top Of The Pops came to call, you were always going to be playing Butlins one day. Ask Robbie Williams. He knows this and has publically admitted as much. But as Hunter S Thompson once observed, ‘when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro….’ Not trying to cause a big sensation. Just talking about my generation.