I don't get it and I don't want it either


In rock terms, the first week in September is the Twilight Zone, the interregnum between the summer's big festivals and the autumn's big tours, the week when we get over seeing bands in fields, and get ready to see bands in arenas. A perfect time, then, to go to London's smallest venues. The smallest of them all is the 12 Bar Club, a room of such doll's- house proportions that the singer balanced on the soapbox stage can lean over and read what the reviewer is scribbling in his notepad: an especially unnerving situation on Tuesday, because the singer was Robyn Hitchcock, and I wasn't scribbling anything very nice.

When the rest of the country was going punk, Hitchcock was flying the goat for surreal psychedelia of the English-eccentric variety, in the hope that he would be mistaken for the long-lost son of Syd Barrett and Sergeant Pepper. In the 12 Bar Club there was no room for a band to help foster this illusion. Instead we had to concentrate on the sweating, sinister man himself, and his lyrics, which are baffling, contrived, miserable nonsense poems about German planes circling a chess board, and a woman asking the Egyptian god of death to lengthen her headphone lead. It would have saved us all time and discomfort if he'd just worn a baseball cap with an arm and mallet sewn on, and emblazoned with the words: "I'm kerrrazy! Honest!"

And yet, Hitchcock is a cult celebrity. He has been adopted by American college radio, and by REM, who were heavily influenced by his former band, the Soft Boys. You either get it or you don't, I suppose. I don't get it, and I don't want it, either. After all, rhyming "Stalin" with "darling", as he does on his new album, Moss Elixir (Warner), is not big or clever; the trick is to make it seem as if the words are where they are for some purpose other than just to rhyme with each other, and Hitchcock never pulls it off. It's possible that he's a misunderstood genius, but if so, he's not one of those useful geniuses who invent helicopters or formulate laws of physics, he's one of those lesser geniuses who irritate people with their persistent daftness.

What do miniature cellphones, Benjamin Franklin, Seventies pornographic films, and BR5-49 have in common? According to this month's issue of Rolling Stone magazine, they are all "hot". You shouldn't believe everything you read in a publication which, in the same issue, categorises the Manic Street Preachers as "raunch-rock", but Rolling Stone is not alone in its opinion of Nashville's BR5-49, a country-rockabilly five-piece who have been mentioned in the same breathless breath as Hank Williams and Carl Perkins - and as the Ramones and the Clash. From that you might assume that they're going to propel country music into the next century by fusing old styles and new, turning up the distortion, and exploding amplifiers and preconceptions alike. You'd assume wrong. The Forty-Niners sound as old-fashioned as they can, even dubbing vinyl crackles on to the beginning and end of their new album, Mike Flowers-style. Not that they're being ironic and post-modern about it, thank goodness. At London's Borderline on Monday, they couldn't get the grins off their wide-eyed fresh faces, amazed by how much fun they were having.

They wear period dress (between them they have one fringed suit, one set of dungarees, two cowboy hats, three bootlace ties, and four pairs of cowboy boots), and while their own originals have contemporary lyrics, there is nothing in the music that would have been out of place or out of time in the Grand Ol' Opry, circa 1950. Nor are they noticeably wild or Ramones-like. Mind you, double bassist and Dean Martin double Smilin' Jay McDowell rocks - literally - like his shoes are attached to the stage with a spring. And if country music has come to mean Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Shania Twain, then BR5-49's sugar-free, old-time, good-time approach is a welcome antidote.

On the other hand, why should these hillbilly historians be hotter than any spirited and authentic tribute band? Had they come from Newcastle instead of Nashville, they'd be the hapless heroes in a bittersweet comedy drama starring Jimmy Nail and written by John Byrne. Meanwhile, there is another hot young American group who specialise in, I kid you not, Twenties dixieland jazz. And you thought that Britpop had one foot in the past.

From these shores, the current hot band - warmish, certainly - are Kenickie, three girls and one boy (on drums, a la Elastica) from Sunderland, who take their name from John Travolta's lecherous sidekick in Grease. Because the movie turned them on to rock 'n' roll when they were at school? No, because the year the film was released - 1978 - was the year that two of them were born. Yes, they're just about as young as you can be without calling your band Musical Youth, and they have already had a single, "Punka" (EMI), in the Top 40, their faces on The Big Breakfast and their voices on Radio 1. Did I mention that one of them has just got three As at A level? Ah well, everyone knows that exams have got a lot easier since my day ...

On Tuesday, Kenickie filled the Splash Club with admirers who shared their taste in Oxfam glam: suits for the boys; bleached hair, glittered cheeks, pink dresses and leopard-pattern coats for the girls. What you can't buy at Oxfam, though, is something that Kenickie have by the shedload: astonishing confidence, especially on the part of Lauren Laverne - the Drew Barrymore of pop - whose self-assurance lets her chat to the audience wittily in a Geordie accent for two minutes between each song, and who sings and plays guitar with a nonchalance and poise that are positively regal.

But watching her play is more rewarding than listening. The music is a largely inept and unoriginal indie-pop racket built on stop-start New Wave foundations. Kenickie's attitude can carry them through the straight- ahead punk numbers, and they have assets worth developing in their wispy, girlish voices, and in Johnny X's hyperactive drumming. However, compared to what Supergrass, Ash, and even Bis were getting up to at this age, there are no songs worth getting excited about - yet. What a relief.

Robyn Hitchcock: Southampton Joiners' (01703 225612), Mon; 12 Bar, WC1 (0171 209 2248), Tues.

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