Leftfield: alive and kicking and very, very loud
Sunday 16 June 1996
Sure enough, the arrival of Leftfield at the Liverpool Royal Court on Tuesday was heralded by a wall of blue light, a tidal wave of volcanic smoke, and a foghorn groan that shook the contact lenses out of my eyes. The beat started pumping, yet the audience were more intent on watching the band than on dancing, as if in Pavlovian response to the pounds 10 ticket fee and the presence of a stage. They cheered when a man tapped a bongo, and cheered louder when another man shouted, "Leave a poo" - a confusing instruction that turned out to be the name of the city. Considering that Leftfield are, in anyone's record collection, a dance act, this all seemed a bit pointless.
Their album, Leftism (Columbia), was shortlisted for last year's Mercury Music Prize (an award they deserved for obtaining a listenable vocal performance from John Lydon). Labelled "prog house", it's an album of extra-terrestrial world music: Jean-Michel Jarre with street cred. It was made by Neil Barnes and Paul Daley, with the help of a lot of expensive machinery. Trying to recreate it onstage would appear to have as much point as adapting Jurassic Park for the local theatre group. It's guitar-envy. If you want to play live, why not form a proper band?
I soon changed my mind. Indie crowds are too busy clambering over each other's heads to notice that the "live" band are as mobile and vigorous as a set of traffic lights, while here was a "dance" crowd expecting a show, and getting it. The lighting alone kept those of us who still had our contact lenses in entertained.
The expensive machinery was supplemented by energetic drums and keyboards, not to mention the Leave- a-poo man playing a theremin as if he were strangling an invisible neck, and someone else hitting a single-stringed instrument that could have been stolen from an archery club. The songs were rearranged almost beyond recognition, negating my why-not-just-play-the-album misgivings. Were those burbling arpeggios part of "Space Shanty"? Who knows? Leftfield probably don't.
None of this explains why people would buy a ticket to see them in the first place. Probably the main reason why people attend rock concerts is for the brief apotheosis of occupying the same room as someone you always assumed occupied a different universe. We feel that bit nearer stardom if someone from TV-And-Record-Sleeve-Land is chatting and mucking about this close to us.
In which case, Bo Diddley's show in north London's intimate Rhythmic Club was the ultimate rock concert. After all, Bo is a founding father of rock'n'roll, and, if his innuendo-laden blues-brags are anything to go by, a father hundreds of times over. His songs have been covered or copied by everyone from Buddy Holly to the Jesus and Mary Chain, and his attitude has been copied by the whole of the rap world. Some of his influencees repay their dues on his new album, A Man Amongst Men (East West), which has as many guest stars as it has songs. (There was less chance of Ron Wood being absent than there was of Diddley being absent himself.)
Diddley's legendary accoutrements were all in order: black suit, hat, TV-screen specs and guitar disguised as a flight case. Otherwise, he was a little too human. The band was indifferent, the mixing was worse, the songs dragged, and Diddley, 67-years-old and recovering from a back operation, had to stay seated. He played some classics, but these were undermined by the question of whether any of them had developed beyond his first single, in 1955. The A-side was "Bo Diddley" (cf "Bo Diddley is Crazy" and "Oops! Bo Diddley" on the new album), the B-side was "I'm a Man" (cf the title of the new album, while you're at it). Seven inches of vinyl is a small surface on which to balance a 40-year career.
Still, he made some moves that his physiotherapist wouldn't approve of, and he had a veteran's charm and authority, threatening us with obscure curses if we failed to buy his record: "You gonna turn on your gas and your chicken ain't gonna fry." Crumbs. In the end, it was a successful performance. But for a time, there, it was a close one. This close.
Space can't help but invite a particular comparison. They're four young men, they come from Liverpool, they write classically catchy pop songs, and at least one of their haircuts could be justifiably described as a mop-top. The inevitable question: are they the new Cast?
Answer: No, but they do have a similar taste in anoraks. Space prefer psychedelic ska to Merseybeat, and have more to fear from the Specials' lawyers than the Beatles'. Their wonderful single "Female of the Species" has taken them into the Top 20, on to Top of the Pops, and, last Wednesday, into the backroom of the Joiner's Arms, a Southampton pub. Presumably the tour was set up before their career left the launch pad. Soon their dressing-rooms will be bigger than this whole venue.
Space come across as a sweetly boisterous and unpretentious gang who update their influences with dance beats and a gaggle of samples. And while the drummer is the only member of the band to show real mastery of his instrument, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the guitar parts.
The songs are the thing. They're delirious horror stories, mostly sung by bassist Tommy Scott in a voice that sounds like Speedy Gonzales, or sometimes like Ray Davies. My two favourite couplets come from their first hit single, "Neighbourhood" (Gut): "In number 666 is Mr Miller / He's the local vicar, and a serial killer"; and from another song called "Drop Dead": "I'm your number one fan. I've got your picture / The more I see yer, the more I wanna hit yer." The inevitable conclusion: Watch this Space.
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