Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991”, has, to some extent at least, changed my life. For years I have loved Mudhoney, and been a fan of Beat Happening and Sonic Youth. Looking through the shelves at Waterstones the book caught my eye, and a glowing, hand-written, staff-member review, stickered on the front convinced me to buy. To cut a long story short I have gone on to buy numerous CDs by all of the bands covered and many of them have become all time favourites.
How’s this for an idea? Get 7 bands together in a pub, lay on a barbecue, and give each of the bands a chance to take the role of one of their heroes from the book, playing a selection of their own material and covers of that bands songs.
So, let me get this straight? 7 bands who all love some of my favourite bands, and if I don’t particularly like them it won’t particularly matter ‘cos I’ll get to hear a shit load of great covers? And food as well? In a pub that sells Marston’s Pedigree? £7, or £1 per band? You know what I might just go.
The night starts with Dan Ormsby as Paul Westerberg. Terrible start. I hate cheats and this Ormsby bloke ruins the whole point of the night by (1) not being a band, and therefore (2) playing as Paul Westerberg from the Replacements, not as the actual subject of chapter 4, the Replacements.
That’s not true, he did not ruin the night. He posed the ultimate punk rock dilemma. Slightly preppy shirt, shorts you might wear on the beach – should he receive a lecture about failing to be punk rock enough, or is it more punk to look unpunk rather than following the punk stereotypes? A toughie, and I only wish Plato was around now to help me with this one. Anyway, he nips through a few songs, “Skyway“, “Waitress in the Sky“, “Here Comes a Regular” amongst them, just him and an acoustic guitar. The ability to get on stage like that is a really precious skill – and success or failure pretty much comes down to two things. The strength of the songs and the strength of the voice. Success. 100%.
Next up The Jelas as Mission Of Burma. Possibly my least favourite of all the bands in the book, Mission Of Burma’s sound does influence The Jelas, as do all sorts of American New Wave / No Wave bands. Jerky, funky, back-and-forth vocals and shouts distant from the mic, on paper they really aren’t my thing, in the flesh they are. They played “Red“, they might have played “the Enthusiast“. The complete opposite of Dan Ormsby, their success is less about the songs themselves (either their own or Mission of Burma’s) and all about the interaction of vocals, guitar, bass, drums, occasional sax. It just works.
Dutch Husband as Sonic Youth mounted the stage next. Again the parallels with the band they were covering are profound. Sonic Youth have become my default band. You know sometimes you’re not sure what to put on the stereo? In the past I used to think for ages until I either gave up of just put something on at random and was invariable unsatisfied. Now if I haven’t decided after 10 or 20 seconds I just put on Sonic Youth, most likely one of their later albums. Dutch Husband have that same thing, the songs aren’t that strong – you could not just pick up a guitar and play them – yet the way they are performed, the whole sound, is right. It just works.
Not Cool are cool. Minutemen are very cool. Not cool as Minutemen is gonna be cool, right? Wrong! No right! Re-reading my notes I put “fucking good bass and guitar”, but with hindsight I’m kinda overlooking the drumming, and the vocals are fine too. They did “Toadies” and, I think, “The Anchor“. They rocked and I will be seeing them again.
Internet Forever as Beat Happening. I just don’t understand how it is possible to find this many decent young bands that are so reminiscent of the bands that they are here to represent. And to get them all to pitch up in a pub in Brixton the same night. Chaos, instrument swapping, faulty keyboards, tweeness! It’s all there! “Indian Summer’ –”and I don’t mean this as any sort of slight on Internet Forever – is the sort of song that is so incredible absolutely anyone can make sound good. You can even lose 1/3 of the instruments, forget the lyrics, and it’s still incredible. What a fucking song. Best song in the history of everything ever? Possibly. Then they do “Bewitched” and you remember just how incredible Beat Happening were. Not a patch on “Indian Summer”, but still a truly fantastic song. And they do some of their own, including “Break Bones“, a song good enough to sit next to “Indian Summer” in a set. I hope the depth of this compliment is coming through.
OK Dan, get back on stage. Play some more Replacements tracks. 4 or 5 Magicians as The Replacements to be precise, only to start with there’s just the two of them. Sam on guitar, Dan on vocals, they elect to play “Answering Machine“, which is – along with Blake Shelton’s “Austin” – one of the two best songs ever about the effect an answering machine has on a broken heart.
Then Dan pulls out a Fender Mustang, the same mustard yellow as mine, absolutely identical to my favourite guitar, Ivan and Alex step up on bass and drums. And they’re off. I’m gonna have to see them as themselves soon. Yet another one to add to the list.
We have the same effect Internet Forever, songs so fucking good that the band could be shit and you’d still love it, but the band aren’t shit. Seriously, if you write songs listen to The Replacements and learn. As a band if you play “Alex Chilton“, “Color Me Impressed” and “Bastards of Young” the inevitable happens… your own songs sound relatively ordinary in comparison. Just how good were the Replacements? It was a really good set, but the covers were the highlights. I did like the song about the quality of play-lists driving music lovers to Radio 4 – I thought I was just getting old.
The best was left to Winnebago Deal as Black Flag. I’m gonna try and keep it simple. The whole point of this whole rock ‘n’ roll business, is to make the fastest, hardest, dirtiest, most punk, most rocking, most metal noise that you possibly can. Be angry. Shout. Be aggressive. Be loud. Have killer riffs. Basically be Black Flag. And Winnebago Deal did just that. They were, with a bit of help from a bassist, Black Flag. And Ben Perrier was both Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins. Now some people can say, ‘I climbed Everest’, or ‘I high-wired between the world trade centre towers’, but how many people can say they have been Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins at the same time? I never saw Black Flag, but last night I came damn close. “My War“, “Rise Above“, “Six Pack“, “Nervous Breakdown“, “Depression“. 20-odd tracks of fucking heaven. Seriously, if they ever get sick of being Winnebago Deal they owe it to society to keep going a Flack Blag or whatever they decide to call themselves.
Toughest slot of the night for Wonderswan as Mudhoney. The crowd was thinning as people left to try to make it home. Those left have just been pummelled into oblivion by sonic destruction at the hands of Black Flag, sorry Winnebago Deal, and it’s passed bedtimes for some as well. But then again Mudhoney are so deeply ace…
A bit similar to 4 or 5 Magicians in the originals inevitably took a back seat for me. But then Sonic Youth, Black Flag, The Replacements, The Minutemen and Mudhoney, depending on the direction of the wind, could make up 50% of my “Top 10 bands ever” list, so again I have to make the point, I’ll judge Wonderswan when I see them playing a normal set, and I will see a normal set soon I hope. Their first attempt at a Mudhoney song just fell apart half-way through. But they got back in the saddle and nailed “Touch Me I’m Sick” and “In ‘n’ Out of Grace”. Fucking tough gig following Winnebago Deal as I said, but they made it 7/7 bands that I would definitely see again.