ROCK / Rai, smiles and the devil's croon

Click to follow
ALGERIAN superstar Khaled is not too sexy for his shirt: he's too sexy for his homeland. He lives in Paris, where his dissolute lifestyle - incorporating a fondness for a drop of the hard stuff, and not being ashamed to live with his girlfriend - is less contentious. There are commercial reasons too for his exile; and the French music scene, as we never tire of reminding ourselves, is not exactly awash with charisma.

The frenzied approval that greets his appearance at Equinox (formerly the Empire Ballroom) in Leicester Square is no doubt exacerbated by the frequency with which the one-off show has been postponed and rescheduled, but the main reason for it is the man himself. The audience climbs on each other's shoulders to take photographs of him. Casual but smart in black jeans, an orange shirt and just the right amount of jewellery, he sashays smilingly between his trademark saucy croon and bravura note- holding. His musical backing is a sinuous interplay of percussion, keyboards and a horn section sharp enough to be in Earth Wind and Fire. The combination prompts mass loose-limbed rug- cutting and intermittent outbreaks of crazed bouncing more consistent with vintage Sham 69.

The rai music of which Khaled is the leading practitioner is a youthful, anti-establishment modification of a traditional Bedouin folk style - spiced up with a touch of flamenco, some choice Latin-American rhythms and the hint of a Motown or Seventies-funk bass-line. The music's rebelliousness does not show itself in explicitly political statements (though Khaled himself has been explicit enough in his comments on his country's Islamic Fundamentalist Party) but in the openness with which it celebrates sensual pleasure. You don't need to be fluent in Arabic to catch the drift of the lyrics, and the crowd ripples and surges in response to his supple vocal cadences. It's the old story of The Devil's Music, and the seductive gap between the ecstasies of religious expression and the unholy pleasures of sexual or chemical abandon, which is the beginning of all that is best in popular music.

Suede, the domestic flavours of the moment, make a similar effort to emphasise the sensual against a drably repressive background; though what they are rebelling against - the pitiful lack of charisma in so much current British pop music - is rather less physically threatening. At first sight, their only concession to a new glamour is to wear their fringes lank instead of fluffy. This is a start, but it is hard to see how four more young men with guitar, bass, drums and a voice can possibly have anything new to offer.

But then sainted fop-siren singer Brett (I know, but give him a chance; it can't be easy going through life with a name like Brett) Anderson opens his mouth, and the voice which comes out is this absurd fey- Cockney twang which makes Anthony Newley sound like Alf Garnett, and he can hold a note with it, and even move it around a bit. Through the Dickensian smog of his diction - did he really sing 'On the escalator we shit paracetamol'? - glimpses can be caught of an all but forgotten songwriting world of sexual ambiguity and physical and emotional violence.

Brett is on stage at the 100 Club - a vain bid for mythic resonance. I'm not sure if it was a good idea for the DJ to play so much pre-senility David Bowie and Roxy Music before the band came on. The Seventies were clearly a big decade for this group; from the fat guitar sounds to the look the bass-player is striving for, pioneered by the sort of person who spent all his time tinkering under the bonnet of an unsilenced Ford Zephyr. But they do not want to get side-tracked into Glam revivalism. They do have something distinctive to offer - anyone who can sing the lines 'Angel, don't take those sleeping pills; you're a water sign, I'm an air sign' like he does must have some contribution to make.

Suede's rise has been swift - they were being hailed as 'the best band in Britain' on music paper covers before the ink had dried on the sleeve of their first single - but has it been swift enough? Two of the classic pop songs they have in them have already seen the light of day on said debut release, 'The Drowners EP' (Nude): a swooning piece of sexual irregularity called 'My Insatiable One', and the title song, with its swooping return of Bowie's 'Starman' chorus, which is impossible to get out of your head even if you hate it. Their current single, 'Metal Mickey', is not quite as good. The question is, can the mass market catch up with them and enable Mr Anderson to be ripped to pieces by voracious adolescents before they have shot their creative bolt?

'Khaled' (Barclay 511815-2) is out now. Suede tour in October.

Comments