ROCK / Heaven knows he's tedious now

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The Independent Culture
You couldn't ask for a much more imposing venue than the Alexandra Palace - a great reconstructed Victorian greenhouse, perched on North London's only mountain range, with the splendour of Wood Green stretched out beneath. A hard rain lashes the rustic-style car-park as troops of bedraggled Morrissey loyalists make their way up the hill. Outcasts from respectable society, they are hoping for something special from a man who, after August's Finsbury Park debacle, has plenty to prove in this neck of the woods.

Ever the party pooper, the clove in the custard, Morrissey refuses to oblige. He could have rewarded their loyalty with a lusty hike through the high points of a now pretty substantial solo songbook, and a few ringing quotations from his Brodie's Notes on Oscar Wilde to reinforce their conviction that he is a persecuted artist, not a borderline bigot. Instead, he gives a flat and apparently non-committal performance, lacking even the physical vitality of his last indoor London shows. The road crew wear lame, which is a nice touch, but the rest of the show is wholly lacking in sparkle. Morrissey's band of third-generation rockabilly rebels swagger and strut, but that is all they do. And their master's voice tails off into a bored yodel as he writhes uninterestedly about the stage.

Two songs from his latest album Your Arsenal (Parlophone) have given rise to charges of racism. Naturally he plays both of them, finishing a meagre hour- long set with the depressingly celebratory 'National Front Disco'). When he sings, not entirely ironically, 'England for the English', some of his most slavish admirers wave Union Jacks. This is not so much dangerous - the idea of Morrissey fans ganging up to march on Poland was always a little far-fetched - as sad; that the man who began his career as an icon of nonconformity should turn up a blind alley of blinkered patriotism.

The real irony, given Morrissey's Anglocentric world-view, is that the only place where he commands the sort of large-scale uncritical admiration he expects is America. You'd think that for a committed Little Englander (albeit one weaned on James Dean and the New York Dolls) this would be a spur to greater efforts, but Morrissey's only attempt at patter is to harp on about his totally uninteresting hate-love relationship with the New Musical Express. The fans, still throwing daffodils after all these years, seem to think this is good enough.

One of America's nobler institutions put in its annual appearance this week. The Ramones' Yuletide manifestation at the Brixton Academy is now a ritual of Gary Glittery predictability, but that doesn't stop it being fun. The chant of 'hey ho, let's go' that goes up as their piquant backdrop unfolds (band name, brick wall, US constitutional coat of arms with the eagle holding a baseball bat instead of the Bible) has grown fonder with the years, but the melee at the front is as healthily psychotic as ever.

There aren't many signs of the band slowing down either. Perhaps the pause between each 'one-two-three-four' and the moment when guitar and drums come barrelling in is slightly longer than it used to be. And time has exacerbated the bizarre resemblance of Joey, their nasal- grunt virtuoso, to Janet Street- Porter. But the iron discipline of their structures shows no rust. And if the Academy's stodgy acoustics ensure a sound that is not what you would call crisp, well, crispness was never really what the Ramones were about.

Their latest album, Mondo Bizarro (Chrysalis), is actually their best in some time, but they don't do much from it beyond a rather puzzling version of the Doors' 'Take it as it Comes'. Instead they concentrate on the same old stack of between 25 and 30 great two-and-a-half-minute pop songs, beginning with 'Teenage Lobotomy' ('Don't know how I'm gonna tell 'em/That I ain't got no cerebellum'). 'I don't care about history, 'cause that's not where I wanna be,' sings Joey in 'Rock'n'Roll High School'. It's hard to square the idea of historical importance with a group as uncompromisingly entertaining as this, but it shouldn't be.

Bronx jazz-rappers Gang Starr have a more complicated message to put across at the Clapham Grand, but they make a bold fist of it. Their main voice, Keith E - or The Guru as he understandably prefers to be known - is a judge's son from Massachusetts with a degree in business administration, but he still puts on an effective show of sharp-tongued street-force. He wears a natty quilted jacket and golf cap at a rakish angle (though the night's fashion prize goes to lively support act Force N' K-Zee, for combining full combat gear with a Burberry-pattern baseball cap) and dispenses rhymes and curses with stern aplomb.

Unfortunately, the complexity of his DJ Premier's beats - a rich tapestry of booming bass and sharp be-bop horn lines - is lost in the mix. And the three supporting voices called up to give Keith a bit of live muscle are not as subtle in their inflexions as he is - songs from the album Daily Operation (Cooltempo) tend to degenerate into shouting and polyrhythmic clutter. Things pick up after the seductive 'Jazz Thing', familiar in earlier form from the soundtrack of Mo' Better Blues, but it's strange how as hip- hop has evolved, it has become harder to reproduce in the live environment that gave birth to it.