Rock: It's a cruel thing to do to a pop group
Sunday 31 January 1999
Black Star Liner Jazz Cafe, NW1
As P T Barnum put it: "All publicity is good publicity, except in the UK music industry, in which all good publicity is bad publicity in waiting." The British media are renowned for their build-'em-up-knock-'em-down policy, and the cycle of hype and backlash spins as fast as a compact disc.
To start with, a journalist will hail some inchoate band as the new Messiahs. For the hack, it's a no-lose situation. If the group are never heard of again, who cares? No one's going to remember what you wrote about them anyway. But if they become famous, you can claim to have discovered them, and bask in a few rays of reflected glory.
Then it's knock-'em-down time. Either a journalist decides he/she has had enough of all the acclaim that's being heaped on someone else's building, or the builders themselves realise that they've constructed a carbuncle, and they bulldoze it quick before anyone scrutinises their architectural qualifications too closely. Which brings us to Gay Dad.
They featured in every one of this year's bands-to-watch-in-'99 articles - including my own. I make no apologies; Gay Dad are an intriguing proposition, and would be even without that eyebrow-raising name and their singer's chequered past: he used to be a rock journalist himself. Their primary selling point is their debut single, "To Earth With Love" (London), which was first heard on the radio three months before its release last week, and hasn't budged since. It's a blast. Setting out as a cheeky Britpop jaunt, "To Earth With Love" grows and grows for four minutes, as if the engineer were pushing up the faders on his mixing desk one by one. In come the harmonies and the shuddering guitars, then the vocal distortion and the backwards guitar solo, and the single keeps spiralling upwards, stacking Space Invader bleeps upon piano splatterings until it hits a radiant choral climax. Not bad for a first attempt.
I can't say the same for Gay Dad live. It turns out that "To Earth With Love" isn't half as much fun on stage as it is on the radio - but it's twice as much fun on stage as the rest of the band's material. Take away the dizzying aplomb of its glam-rock production, and the single is not overly burdened with melody. And it's by far the catchiest song in the set. No one was whistling a Gay Dad tune on the way home.
More likely, the punters were discussing the band's dress sense. With the exception of the Danny Baker lookalike on drums, Gay Dad have established their image scrupulously: it's New York circa 1975, just as glam was filing down its heels and turning into punk. Cliff Jones, the pouting peroxide singer, believes that if he looks like a rock star and poses like a rock star he will be a rock star. But he reminded me less of Iggy Pop than of Ewan McGregor impersonating Iggy Pop in Velvet Goldmine - not quite convincingly.
A more worrying case study is that of Chicks. If Gay Dad have been hyped on the basis of one song, the foundations of Chicks's fame are even wobblier. Three teenage schoolgirls from Dublin, they're another one of those shouty, squealy, cartoony, girly punk bands: Bis without the keyboards, Kenickie without the comedy routines, Shampoo without the bloke who does all the music. All the same, Chicks had barely hatched before they were on Jo Whiley's TV show and Melody Maker's cover.
The music media hope for eternal youth by feeding on the flesh of the young. If you can champion some children as opposed to some corporate sell-outs who can actually play and/or sing in tune, you can congratulate yourself for keeping in touch with fresh, alternative sounds. Of course, this patronising patronage is slightly less transparent if your proteges's random intonation is balanced with a killer attitude. Chicks's isn't. The guitarist feels she should jump around, but is too self- conscious to go the whole hog, and ends up doing a knock-kneed Shadows walk. The band conclude their set by bashing and kicking their instruments, but they make such a pathetic effort of it that the instruments nearly win the fight. However young Chicks are, they aren't young enough to get away with this.
They could learn from Choque Hosein, the frontman of Black Star Liner. In his quieter moods, he demonstrates his own style of angular body-popping, like a clockwork toy doing t'ai chi. When he's feeling more active, he lassoes two strobe lights around his head. All the while he has a glazed stare which would have you scrambling off at the next stop if he sat opposite you on the bus. He is one of pop's most riveting performers. And to be fair, he has to be.
You know how Asian Dub Foundation would be more accurately renamed Asian Punk-Rap Gang? Well, if you imagine what the name Asian Dub Foundation actually does suggest, you'd get Black Star Liner. Their new album, Bengali Bantam Youth Experience (Warner), is a dense, tense, cinematic record, united by the patter of tiny tablas and the twist and shimmer of the sitar. But when BSL put on a live show, they try to match this largely instrumental album without most of the instruments. They make do with tapes, supplemented by drums and guitar, and while they do get a nice groove bubbling along, it's nowhere near as distinct and subtle as some of their tracks. Mind you, I wouldn't say that to Hosein's face, especially if he had a strobe light to hand.
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