Big Audio Dynamite, Rock City, Nottingham
Eliza Doolittle, Pyramids Centre, Portsmouth
Mick Jones and Don Letts might be enjoying their reunion, but they make 1986 seem like a very long time ago
Sunday 10 April 2011
If an era can be defined by its artefacts, then in fashion terms the mid-Eighties were all about the MA-1.
A silky black USAF bomber jacket, this briefly de rigueur item was the blank canvas upon which the wearer – if the wearer was a switched-on, Face-reading B-boy – would affix all manner of cultural debris and detritus, usually to make some sort of point using irony or playful juxtaposition.
I bought into it, big-style. My own MA-1 was festooned with partially melted plastic soldiers, Soviet medals, safety-pinned condom wrappers (ooh, edgy statement on Aids panic), a small Volkswagen roundel (in honour of The Beastie Boys), a Def Jam patch to show love for the label that was pioneering the rap-rock crossover ... and, of course, a lurid yellow button-badge with a cartoon crown perched at a jaunty angle atop the letters B.A.D.
Because if one band encapsulated the magpie zeitgeist of 1986-87, it was Big Audio Dynamite. Mick Jones had previous form for punk-funk cross-pollination in The Clash ("The Magnificent Seven", "This Is Radio Clash"), but when he formed B.A.D. with director-DJ Don Letts, he brought the concept to a generation who barely cared who The Clash were.
So, they served a historic purpose. But why reactivate them now? After all, they've dated very badly. They started well enough. Debut flop single "The Bottom Line" mashed Melle Mel's "White Lines" bassline and Cossack hey-hey-heys straight out of Boney M's "Rasputin", with an old film clip of someone saying "The horses are on the track", and it all felt very futuristic. But it quickly ran out of steam, and by sub-"Guns of Brixton" reggae number "Sightsee MC" they were reduced to sampling newspaper sellers shouting "Standaaard!".
In retrospect, those beatboxes are sounding toytown, and the movie samples ham-fisted. And the lyrics? Optimistic call to arms "C'Mon Every Beatbox" rhymed "all the kids from across the nation" with "get your digital watches in synchronisation". Even their pun-tastic abbreviated name reeks of the time. (You see, younger readers, "bad" used to mean "good".) So, why bother?
Well, for one thing, it looks like they're having a blast up there. Jones, with his comb-over, casual suit and expensive shades, looking very Leonard Rossiter/ Campari ad, grinning like mad at the realisation that people still know the words to "V Thirteen", leading a Nottingham-friendly chant of the "Robin Hood, Robin Hood" song and dubbing him "the original gangsta terrorist", and Letts relishing his rap interludes.
And for all the clunky shortcomings of their Eighties recordings, the live versions achieve some sort of alchemy, particularly on a fantastic "Medicine Show" and a sublime "E=MC2".
Fair enough, then. But if all the old punk icons are resurrecting their second bands, let's have The Style Council next, shall we?
Eliza Doolittle's on-stage backdrop is dominated by two pairs of cut-out stockinged legs, each ending in a pair of Nike rollerskates. Call me a moaning old lefty killjoy, but this instantly sets me against her.
Maybe, for Eliza, the Nike swoosh doesn't still carry the stigma of small children working their fingers to the bone for peanuts in a Vietnamese sweatshop. Maybe the 22-year-old is too young to know. Maybe she simply ain't bovvered.
Until now, Doolittle had been a guilty pleasure of mine. I knew it was wrong. I knew that her absurdly privileged background – the granddaughter of stage school supremo Sylvia Young – meant I should reject her out of hand. But "Pack Up", a jubilant concoction of ragtime jazz, vintage ska and jump-blues (which describes pretty much all her material), wormed its way into my brain. It's the sound of being carefree, which is easy to carry off when, well, you don't care.
I could even smile indulgently when she sings of "turning up the music just to block out the sirens" while knowing she's never lived anywhere that the emergency services weren't outnumbered by Ocado delivery vans.
I could just about turn a deaf ear when Doolittle, all but immobile in Daisy Dukes, polka dots and corkscrew curls, disingenuously stares out at the kiddies and parents and says, "This is weird for me...", like the path to success wasn't always smoothed before her from birth.
But the rollerskates tip me over the edge, especially when Doolittle dedicates a song to a three-year-old. In another country, that toddler could look forward to a childhood of sunlight deprivation from making goods for people like Eliza. I'm still thinking about it when she plays the hit, and her backing singer implores us to "pack up your troubles in your old kitbag and bury them beneath the sea". But who stitched that kitbag, Eliza? Who stitched it?
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