The first time I saw Tricky, he wasn’t on a stage. Some time back in the mid-1990s, I was on an assignment to cover the Beastie Boys’ tour of Europe and, back stage in some North Sea port – it might have been Rotterdam, it might have been Hamburg – there, inexplicably, he was.
Two things instantly stood out about Tricky, then at the zenith of his commercial powers. The first was that, even off-duty, he was wearing a floral dress (which, under the high-tide tyranny of Lad Rock, took cojones the size of Bristol). The second was that he appeared oblivious to the backstage revelry, slouched against the dressing-room wall, smiling enigmatically to himself, completely in a world of his own.
Which is precisely where Adrian Thaws has always been. If Maxinquaye, his debut, was sufficiently well-behaved to bring to dinner parties, then his second album Pre-Millennium Tension expressed his darker purpose. Paradoxically, as he has retreated from the spotlight of fame, he has emerged as a performer. Back then, if you went to a Tricky concert, you were lucky if you saw him at all. Venues would typically be plunged in darkness, the diffident star lit by a stuttering red bulb. Tonight, he’s illuminated by bright blue spots, and, in his bare chest and baby dreads, rages into the microphone like a man possessed. It’s as if someone’s switched his meds.
On tonight’s rendition of “Hot Like A Sauna” he declares himself a “street dog with a Molotov cocktail”, invokes the IRA, and issues violent threats against casual racists. He’s just channelling the tough mood of his latest album, Knowle West Boy, which, in its title and lead-off single, proudly proclaimed his council estate origins. On “Council Estate” itself, he turns his back to the crowd, his bony spine bent over so the vertebrae stick out like stegosaurus scales, and goes completely postal on his bemused drummer’s kit.
He seems uncomfortable with presenting the Maxinquaye material, while remaining conscious of his duty to include some of it. For “Overcome”, his reworked version of Massive Attack collaboration “Karmacoma”, he vacates the stage entirely, leaving his co-singer Veronika Coassolo to get on with it. It’s no chore: as she proves on the rolling piano blues of “Puppy Toy”, she’s a hell of a singer.
By contrast, on PMT track “Vent”, he’s a supremely physical presence, repeating the echo-laden roar “Can’t hardly breathe!” over soft-rock Pat Benatar chords by clutching the mic to his ribcage. Sadly, that album’s stand-out track, “Tricky Kid”, is only partially performed: he gives us the chorus, but omits those sinister, cryptic lines about “German-Jamaicans with twisted faces”, or about having the hots for Mary Magdalene. It’s when he and his band delve deepest into the hypnotic and haunting end of their musical palette that you fully appreciate that Tricky belongs to the generation who grew up on 1980s nuclear paranoia and took the reggae buzzword of “dread” literally. Then again, much of his later material is essentially heavy metal, a fact he acknowledges with a curfew-busting cover of Motörhead’s “Ace Of Spades”. Try taking that to a dinner party.
Room for one more camel through the eye of the needle? Some readers may feel that I harp on about the bourgeois coup that’s taken place in pop. In my defence, it is undeniably one of the most significant tropes of early millennium music. There’s one simple way to escape my Class War wrath: be any good. La Roux – nominally a duo, but led and personified by self-confessed posh kid Elly Jackson – are any good.
As any student of French will know, the name “La Roux” (the redhead) is grammatically incorrect. It’s either le roux or la rousse, according to gender. It’s possible that the error is deliberate, adding to Jackson’s androgyny. Poor French never did Les Rythmes Digitales any harm, or, for that matter, Depeche Mode, both of whose music, you suspect, feature in Jackson’s collection.
Of all the vying trends of the early millennium, it’s Electroclash that has survived and prospered. Its styles have been co-opted by the mainstream (from Lady Gaga to Britney to Kylie), its progenitors (Peaches, Tiga, Fischerspooner, Miss Kittin) are all poised to reap the rewards with new albums, and there’s a new generation of electro-brats ready to sweep all before them, with La Roux very near the front.
Pet Shop Boys’ victory at the Brits, which had previously cold-shouldered electronic music, shows that, if you stick around long enough, history will prove you right. The track on their new album, “This Used To Be The Future”, is redundant: this sort of thing is the future again.
This time next year, La Roux, on the evidence of tracks like “Quicksand” – Jackson’s pure, sexless soprano gliding over ascending synths – and their fellow upstarts Frankmusik and Little Boots, will surely pick up a Brit or two themselves.