Rock: The Butler did it - beautifully
Sunday 15 March 1998
Busk-rock would seem like a particularly unlikely way for Bernard Butler to present his new incarnation to the world (or rather, that very small, privileged part of the world which got a ticket to one of his showcases in the upstairs annexe of north London's Garage). He is known for his skyscraping, no-orchestra-spared arrangements, both with Suede and David McAlmont. But he fell out with his musical partners in both cases, and he even parted company with The Verve after a two-week try-out. After these let-downs, maybe he was determined to do without anyone's help. On Tuesday, he was introduced by Edwyn Collins, and there was a man employed to hand him his guitars - Butler's butler, as it were - a man who bore a spooky resemblance to Suede's Brett Anderson. But otherwise it was just Bernard, a drum stool, and two tables strewn with nightlights. As he quickly demonstrates, he doesn't need anything else.
He is so jokily free of nerves, you'd think he'd been solo for years. With no fear of being upstaged by Anderson's cheekbones or McAlmont's eye-shadow, he is content to be a resolutely normal, denim-clad chap. You'd think he'd specialised in unplugged music for years, too. Rather than just bashing away at the chords, he has arranged his songs meticulously for acoustic guitar, and he doesn't put a note wrong all night.
The material on his debut solo album, People Move On (Creation), is structured and melodic enough to reward this simple treatment. There's no jamming, no fudging; just well-cooked, reflective songs, ranging from gutsy glam ("You Just Know") to country balladeering ("I'm Tired"). Personally, I could do without the Bryan Adams bit in "Not Alone" when he sings, "All I need in my hands is an electric guitar," with a sudden fretboard scrabble to illustrate the point. But otherwise, these are consistently lovely, well-turned pop songs that will be a welcome addition to many a busker's repertoire.
If anything, things could do with being a little less well-crafted. Butler's voice is a definite revelation, but it's too poised and smooth to snag the emotions. Still, it'll no doubt improve with time. Butler's future is assured and he knows it. "I'm off home," he smiles after 50 minutes, and hops off the stage.
Downstairs in the Garage's main room last Sunday were the recently reformed Suicide. A confrontational proto-techno duo, they rose to as much prominence as they were ever going to rise to in the mid-Seventies, in the same CBGB-centred New York scene that spawned Talking Heads and the Ramones. They went their separate ways not long after, but their menacing electronic drones have since been hailed as an influence by Spiritualized and Depeche Mode. Theirs is the latest band name which you may never have heard in '97, but which you have to drop in '98.
Before they came on, though, we had to endure the support act, Panasonic, two crew-cut Finns who stood behind their consoles wearing the mildly bored expressions of men at a urinal. Their monstrously loud beats were either the buzzing thuds of someone tapping a microphone, or the rhythmic sputterings of a lawnmower as it chugs to life. The other sounds didn't stray far from the noise you get when you turn up the volume on a record deck until it's hissing and crackling, and then wrench the stylus across the vinyl.
For the first few minutes I wondered if I were in that Alexei Sayle sketch with the two conceptual artists based on Gilbert and George. After a few more minutes of tinnitus-inducement, I wondered whether this conceptual art weren't genuine. Maybe Panasonic were testing the limits of what people will listen to, and of how boring something has to be to look at before people stop defining it as a show. They nearly reached those limits, but not quite. Hundreds of people watched and listened. One man near me even danced a vigorous raindance, but I suspected he was either showing off or having a fit. If he wasn't, I'll take 20 quid's worth of whatever he was on.
Presumably, Panasonic were chosen as a support band to make Suicide's brutal minimalism seem gentle. Alan Vega, Suicide's singer, is now 50. He wears sunglasses, a beret, fingerless gloves and a long, baggy coat over an old T-shirt. Being generous, you'd say he resembled Yoko Ono dressed as Patti Smith, reciting Jim Morrison's poetry. Being less generous, you'd say he was exactly like a tramp on Special Brew, picked up from Buchanan Street bus station and shoved onstage. He prowls around, stops to snarl and gargle into the microphone, pushes over the mic stand and goes back to prowling.
Behind him is Martin Rev, an ageing Terminator in leathers and visor goggles. On the one hand, Rev has a fantastically easy job: the Korg hammers out beats and riffs of its own accord, and he just adds to the noise by punching the keys every now and then. On the other hand, he does succeed in looking mean and cool, and that's not easy for a keyboard player.
It's an intense, splendidly bizarre show, and the fact that Suicide were doing this sort of thing 25 years ago merits them a chapter in rock's history books, rather than the footnote they have now. Not only did they do in the Seventies much of what Daft Punk are doing today, but Vega was the first person to apply the word "punk" to music. The only let-down was the audience. In the old days, no Suicide show was complete if the band didn't wound each other with chairs and chains, and on Sunday, people hurled beer and swear words at the stage, purely for the sake of tradition. They might as well have shouted "He's behind you!" for all the authentic aggression or spontaneity this took. Suicide may be getting old-fashioned, but not half as old-fashioned as some of their audience.
Butler: Garage, N5 (0171 607 1818), Tues & 31 Mar.
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