How all hell broke loose when two indie icons celebrated their past

When Alex Turner and Lightspeed Champion hit Madame Jojo's for a secret covers gig, all hell broke loose. Oliver Duff reports
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The Independent Culture

For sure, it is not the most eye-opening act to have trodden the stage boards in Madame Jojo's. That accolade goes to the Soho club's portly former fancy dress chicken, Ruby Venezuela, who stood behind a gold cardboard cage and sang "I tawt I taw a puddy tat..." Or perhaps the transvestite cabaret, the stubbly drag waiters on roller-skates, or the Napoleonic bondage floorshows.

Nevertheless, punters there last Tuesday found themselves rubbing the sweat from their disbelieving eyes: before them stood the curled figure of Alex Turner, thrashing out the opening chords to The Strokes' "Reptilia" and growling like a pub cover singer. Despite his status as one of the music industry's most bankable assets, the Arctic Monkeys frontman seems to like a bit of karaoke, head jabbing and beer chucking as much as the next indie kid. Turner heads a new cover band, the Pun Lovin' Criminals, specialising in indie tracks from 2001 to 2004.

Twelve hours before the club doors opened, some 300 friends and fans were invited to the secret gig by text message and email. Only the band members knew Turner was involved: even Madame Jojo's "White Heat" night promoter, Matty, was unaware until Turner walked on. Joining him on stage were the country-pop musician Lightspeed Champion (known to his mother as Dev Hynes), Wirral bassist Joe Edwards from The Rascals, Fred Les of Ox.Eagle.Lion.Man, guitarist Ferry Gouw from Semifinalists, and, on the drums, Ipso Facto's Victoria Smith.

The impromptu crowd, which included The Horrors and Kelly Osbourne, was rowdy: plenty of old-fashioned shoving and glass smashing. One man wandered around in an insignia-free Nazi uniform. A chump in a stripy blue T-shirt performed the entertainment world's least successful stage dive since Johnny Vegas's 18 stones kissed Manchester tarmac during a comedy gig last April. An aloof bouncer had to intervene shortly afterwards to push another invader back into the panting throng.

"That's the best atmosphere, I think it's the best gig I've played in my life," says Hynes, 22, a chic geek in a furry, earflapped hat, who used to be an electro-metal headcase in the Test Icicles before his new melancholic, country-pop incarnation. He arranged the gig just 24 hours in advance to promote his new album, Falling Off the Lavender Bridge, and texted his "supergroup" bandmates the track list.

"I called Matty late on the Monday night and asked if I could put on a set the next day," says Hynes. "Matty is getting used to that kind of thing. I didn't have everyone agreed to do it and I didn't tell him Turner was going to play. But me and Turner play together because he's in London a lot, so I knew he'd be up for it."

Turner and Hynes met two years ago because both are signed to Domino Records, but they really know one another more recently through Turner's television presenter girlfriend, Alexa Chung. When Turner comes down from Sheffield and stays with her in east London, he and Hynes play their guitars together, usually songs by The Strokes and The Libertines. Hence their enthusiasm to form a cover band, and Turner's insistence on playing The Strokes at Madame Jojo's (no longer a transvestite joint).

Without any time to rehearse together, Fred Les (*é MacPherson) had Googled the lyrics on his BlackBerry and spent the day squirreled away, furiously reciting. For drummer Victoria, the exhausting set was a daunting task: she downloaded the tracks onto her iPod and, without access to a kit, worked out beats and fills on her lap. Such is 21st-century rock.

"When we got out on stage there was a slight feeling of 'Shit, there's a lot of people here and we haven't played the songs at all,' " says Hynes. After a cry of "Who wants to hear some indie?" the gig began with The Von Bondies' "C'mon C'mon", Interpol's "Slow Hands" and The Walkmen's classic "The Rat". Then came The Vines' "Get Free" – dedicated to Heath Ledger, who had been found dead earlier that day – and the "Reptilia" finale. Turner scared his bandmates when he failed to join them on stage, forcing a second Interpol number, "NYC", while a search party found the Sheffield strummer dazed backstage, bleeding from his head, after a slapstick accident in which a door was opened into his face. After a sit down, Turner walked on at the front of house to a momentary, stunned silence, then roar, from the crowd.

The tracks from that three-year period were selected "because they show the excitement around indie at the time," explains MacPherson, 20, the one-time boyfriend of Bob Geldof's daughter Peaches. "A lot of those garage rock bands only had a couple of big songs and ended up not having the staying power. Look at The Vines and The Von Bondies. We felt there was a period of indie – leather jackets and stone-washed ragged jeans – which deserved to be celebrated."

The Pun Lovin' Criminals left the stage to The Libertines' "What a Waster", then the DJ played the likes of The Rapture and The Moldy Peaches.

The band was conceived as a one-off. Individual work commitments mean there are no scheduled gigs. But Hynes says that the members had so much fun they would like to do something similar again: "It started as us wanting to have fun and it turned out to be good. We might organise another. If we do it again we'll have to have completely different songs."