More dance than brass

Why are Britain's premier brass band performing 1980s dance music? Because Jeremy Deller, an artist who gave away chat-up lines in Stringfellow's nightclub, begged them to.

John O'Reilly
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:46

In The Ipcress File Harry Palmer gets a lecture from his boss on the translation of Mozart from a full orchestra to a brass band: "There's a delicacy and precision to it." Harry, a connoisseur of classical music, is unimpressed, and as he leaves replies: "Tell me who wins." I had a similar reaction when hearing of artist Jeremy Deller's "Acid Brass" project. "Acid Brass" was to be a series of performances by the William Fairey Brass Band of late Eighties dance music, from "What Time is Love?" by KLF to "Let's get Brutal" by Nitro Deluxe. The first performance was at the Liverpool School earlier this month.

"Acid Brass" was possibly no more bizarre than other events in Liverpool's own fame school that day. The Osaka Music School was visiting and its choir practised Beatles songs from "Love Me Do" to "Day Tripper". Others attended the "Introduction to the Hip-Hop Music Style" class, which no doubt included swearing skills, and how to diss your contemporaries. But while these were compulsory classes, "Acid Brass" was a public event. Nobody knew whether anyone would turn up, or if it would work. In contemporary art-world chatter, words like "risk" and "dangerous" are frequently bandied about. But "Acid Brass" was worryingly risky. If it failed it would have made the dedicated amateur musicians of Britain's premier brass band look like the butt of a bad joke.

At the inception of the project, Rodney Hampton, who arranged the music, had serious misgivings. "I didn't think it would work. The music had to be taken down and scored from the records." But Deller is one of the few artists around who has both the ambition and the delicate touch required to make something like this work. In the fishbowl that is the contemporary London art world, where unremarkable party snaps of artists in pubs by Johnny Shand Kydd mythologise art as lifestyle, Deller's work genuinely blurs the borders between art and life. Innately boyish, impish and innocent, his work is informed by this sensibility. It has a purity and charm not often associated with situational art that often trades on mockery and irony. His events draw together the incongruous and produce the unexpected.

Explaining what he does as a kind of folk art, he refers to Warhol, who said, "Pop Art was about liking things." "For me," says Deller, "folk art is about loving things." In love with the world of pop music, the songs and the iconography, his 1990 show The Search for Bez documented his search for The Happy Mondays' idiot-dancer-in-residence. For a show at the Cabinet Gallery called "At Home" Deller moved in and turned the space into an adolescent bedroom filling it with the visual clutter of the obsessive teenage fan. Posters on the wall of pop lyrics imitated the posters of biblical quotations outside churches. Another project which showed at a gallery in Norwich is a collection of artwork by Manic Street Preachers' fans. Given the intense outpouring of grief by teenage fans following the disappearance of the band's vocalist Richey Edwards this work has to be handled carefully. The letters pages of the music press are lacerated with the emotional fragility of these kids. In this way, Deller is working with material that is already there. But by inflecting it with an almost intangible difference he can generate something unique and surprising.

Like "Acid Brass", his show at Stringfellow's nightclub with collaborator Alan Kane, brought together two apparently mutually exclusive genres. "It was two different worlds meeting. In that case it was the contemporary art world meeting the glitzy, expensive and sometimes tacky world of the nightclub." Thoroughly absurd and funny, it was also uncomfortable for people not used to being served by half-dressed young women. As in the brass band project, he was working with material that is already there. Every time you bought a drink, you were given a chat-up line. Photos of Deller and Kane's day out with Peter Stringfellow were discreetly framed on the wall by velvet curtains. And at the end of the evening, Deller appeared to the music of Carmina Burana carrying a huge chalice with the most expensive cocktail in the world.

As a debauched mob descended to get a drink and partake in this curiously pagan ritual, the music changed to "Roll Out the Barrel". The mixture of profanity and ritual was straight out of Ken Russell's The Devils. "With the Stringfellow's show we took liberties. Peter was up for a bit of rough and tumble. It was different with both the Manic Street Preachers show and 'Acid Brass'." As an event it generated feelings of disgust and awe in equal measure. But the best thing about Deller's work is that unlike some contemporary art, which leaves you puzzled as to what to think, it has a generosity born out of love for the material, creating a space to reflect on the contradictory emotions it produces.

"Acid Brass" drew a mixed audience whose common ground was a baffled expectancy. Brass bands play to audiences for whom acid brass is the green mould you get on your cutlery. The average age is about 60. On the night, while the audience had a smattering of old-school brass band aficionados, the crowd was mostly old-skool clubbers. As the band took their place there was a palpable air of tension in the hall. Tony Wilson, the North- west's own Mr Motown who was compering the evening by delivering a brief history of each song, explained Deller's thesis. Both brass bands and acid house were authentic forms of folk art, rooted in specific communities. In the Eighties they expressed a form of dissent from the political order, expressed during the miners' strike and the free raves. But, as Wilson said, the practice is more interesting than the theory.

Astonishingly, as the band belted out the first song "Can U Dance" by DJ Fast Eddie, the audience drifted off on the conceptual vertigo of the immaculately uniformed Brass Band blasting out this club classic. The arrangements by Rodney Newton were unimaginably complex and the audience lapped up the drama of a brass band in full blast.

The performance was heroic, bold, rousing and epic. It was also wonderfully daft. As Jo, a clubber who had never seen a brass band before, enthused: "In a brass band you can see how the music is put together." The bar afterwards was as incongruous, as burly band members mixed with waif- like clubbers. The venerable Rodney Hampton, reknowned for his classical arrangements, was surrounded by reporters from dance and pop music magazines. Listening to him explain the difficulties of translating house into brass was both illuminating and surreal. "The biggest challenge was 'Voodoo Ray'. We sweat blood just trying to get the right atmosphere. Brass draws attention to the melodic and harmonic aspects of the pieces and the thrill comes not from the thudding bass but from the brass instruments themselves when they are playing all out. This translates particularly well to acid house." There are other similarities. As someone explained: "Techno, like some brass band material, is marching music. Which is why both are so popular in Germany. Just think of the Oompah bands."

"Acid Brass" is no one-hit wonder. Aside from the record and the up-coming event at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tony Wilson wants them to play at Manchester's The Hacienda. And, perhaps strangest of all, there is possibility of a gig at Tribal Gathering. As we headed out into into the mayhem of Liverpool on a Saturday night, you wondered what this baby of the North- west would bring to swinging London

'Acid Brass' at the QEH, London SE1, 19 April (0171-960 4206). The record is released on Baby First records. Jeremy Deller will be exhibiting at the Cabinet Gallery, Brixton from 12 April

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