Frankie and the Heartstrings, Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, London
Fuzztones, 100 Club, London
History repeats itself, but at least it's short and snappy
Sunday 12 December 2010
Sometimes the choice of venue says it all.
Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, with its gold tinsel curtain and giant heart of red lightbulbs behind the stage, has an endearingly shabby old-world charm. So, non-coincidentally, do tonight's star turn.
Five young men in cardigans and tank tops, grandad shirts and 1950s haircuts (schoolboy rather than rockabilly rebel), Frankie and the Heartstrings look like the British equivalent of "preppy" – grammary, perhaps? The Sunderland band are keenly aware of symbolism and history, yet manage to be as unaffectedly vintage (as opposed to self-consciously retro) in their sound as they are in appearance.
Their yelp and jangle recall the proto-cutie Postcard Records bands of the early Eighties. I'm hearing a lot of Orange Juice, whose Edwyn Collins has produced their forthcoming debut album: it can't be by chance that one of their songs is called "That Postcard".
The occasional flicker – those close harmony a capella intros, that Blondie-borrowed bassline on "Ungrateful" – suggests there's more to them than simple indie-schmindie nostalgia. Nice of guitarist Michael McKnight to throw in a fumbled festive snatch of "Silent Night" and Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas" between songs too, but he won't be getting the call for the local school Nativity play any time soon. What the Heartstrings do is as spindly as it is succinct. If a song needs to be only 1:58, then 1:58 it is. Sure, it's insubstantial, but does everything need to be a solid slab of sonic beef? And the hyperactivity of frontman Frankie Francis, whose unembarrassed geek dancing (imagine a more cheerful Ian Curtis) and impassioned, Mackem-accented pleas of "I wish our love was young again", carries them over the winning line.
If this band can only reinstate the missing "tional" at the end of "emo", their work here is done.
Speaking of venerable venues with historic appeal, it won't have escaped the attention of music-lovers that London's legendary 100 Club is threatened with closure by Christmas due to soaring, unregulated Westminster rents.
This oblong basement has remained unchanged since the Seventies when, famously, it was the cradle of punk rock. There are those who argue that it's only nostalgia and sentiment that are driving the celebrity-backed campaign to preserve the 68-year-old venue by turning it into a not-for-profit trust (see SaveThe100Club.co.uk), and avert its likely fate as a storage space for an Oxford Street sports shop.
But this does matter. It's a microcosm of the battle for the soul of the city. Bo-Jo and his cronies won't be happy till live entertainment is ghettoised in a few streets in Shoreditch, and central London is a desert of All Bar Ones, populated by tourists who wander around wondering what's happened to the vibrant indigenous culture that attracted them in the first place.
Mindful of my own happy 100 Club memories, I pay what may be my final respects by seeing the Fuzztones. Which may inadvertently play into the hands of the who-cares? brigade – a heritage band at a heritage venue – and I'll admit that the Fuzztones, celebrating their 30th anniversary, are a hard sell to anyone who's convinced that literalist psychedelia is a busted flush. The New York-via-Los Angeles-via Berlin band's attention to detail and period trappings is obsessive, with their paisley shirts, wraparound shades and animal bone necklaces, and their Epiphones, Phantoms and Selmer amps. There's no denying the coolness, however, of the classic Vox Continental organ played by Lana Loveland, the "fox on the Vox".
Support band the Lysergics are among the worst I've ever seen, tragic MC5 impersonators. The stale leather and unwashed hair conjure memories of the first garage rock revival, of which the Fuzztones were leaders. At least the Fuzztones have the decency to bring some brutality and (up)tightness to their reheated R&B riffs. In small blasts, it's super-exciting. The rest of the time, there are photos of Humphrey Lyttelton to look at.
The Fuzztones are curators as much as creators, and their original material is outnumbered by covers. They're essentially Doctor and the Medics without the big hit single, and 57-year-old singer Rudi Protrudi is essentially Jim Morrison with a sense of humour. Even if it's a bit of a rubbish one, as we discover when he and Rob Louwers embark on a skit comparing drum-beating to wife-beating.
But whatever you make of the Fuzztones and their clichéd, Cuban-heeled stomp, it's surely preferable to the 100 Club's future as a cellar full of Nike trainers.
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