ROCK / The unkindest cut of all

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THE NEW year has begun with a casualty. The WOMAD organisation, which from its Wiltshire base has brought pleasure and cultural enlightenment to hundreds of thousands of people, has fallen victim to recessive thinking. The outrageous thing is that WOMAD's public profile has never been healthier. In 1992 it put on 17 successful festivals around the world, from Adelaide to Morecambe. But administering these obviously entailed a certain amount of deficit finance, and just before Christmas their overdraft limit was cut. No money could be found, and the organisation went under.

What really grates about this is that it is impossible to imagine a more suitable case for corporate sponsorship, and not just because those who attend WOMAD functions tend, for complex cultural reasons, to be pretty well- off. You'd think that the benefits of being seen to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony would not be lost on boardrooms with worldwide promotional aspirations, but they prefer to give their money to pop stars who already have too much. But all is not entirely lost. Last-minute intervention from the Arts Council did at least safeguard the future of the small educational charity the organisation was built around. WOMAD has achieved strength through bankruptcy once before (the first festival a decade ago was a financial calamity); perhaps it can do so again.

Back To The Planet, the main attraction at the NME's annual new bands showcase in the glittering surroundings of the New Cross Venue, find themselves in an accustomed state of pecuniary well-being. Their admirably independent-minded mail order cassette releases and frenetic tour schedule have built up such a sizeable following among the capital's great unwashed that London Records have made them the subject of a substantial investment. The plan - to storm the hearts and charts of the nation with a rainbow hair-extensioned alliance of the disenfranchised and the dissolute - is a good one, but are the band up to the job?

Well, they might be. People are dancing all the way to the back, which must count for something, and Back To The Planet's bouncy, keyboard-centric concoctions make a change from the stale guitar fare that prevails throughout the rest of the evening. They combine the Charlatans' weedy-but-still-full-of-itself organ groove with an agit-ska upbeat that has won comparisons with The Selecter and even the Slits, but is alas more reminiscent of the Belle Stars. They have one catchy pop song, 'Daydreaming', built around a cheeky steal of Erik Satie's most familiar Gymnopedie. Unfortunately, they also have dancers with painted faces. It would have been hard to forgive the Beatles for that.

There is one reason to be cheerful this week though. A real rock and roll comedian has come among us at last to send the Mary Whitehouse Experience scurrying back to their burrows. Denis Leary, the New York superstar, is not for the squeamish. He is the ghoul who can't say no, morbid and mordant, with a fine ear for pop star hypocrisy. 'I was reading an interview with Keith Richards recently,' he tells us, lip curling almost up to his temple, 'in which he intimated that kids should not do drugs . . . Keith, we can't do any more drugs because you already did 'em all. There's none left.'

Leary's album No Cure For Cancer (A & M) is a rare thing among comedy records; it gets funnier the more you listen to it. Not just because the vapour from his high-octane delivery takes a while to burn off, but because there is more to him than meets the ear. His material is mainly cigarettes and drugs and rock and roll, with the odd lump of raw red meat thrown in for good measure, but non-smokers and vegetarians are not his only targets. Unlike most other current comedians who pick at the carcass of a liberal consensus, Denis has a good heart (spiritually, if not physically), and is not afraid to satirise the redneck consumerism he projects so eloquently. 'This country was founded on two things - meat and war,' he observes patriotically. 'Watching the Gulf War live on TV, I had a six-foot erection with a giant cheeseburger on the end of it'.