Published on Art and Music
Not the New Grunge, then
Judging by his taste in alcohol, Dan Ormsby is a man who appreciates innovation yet can also laugh at the notion. While on stage with band 4 or 5 Magicians he breaks off mid-set to raise a bottle of his new favourite tipple and announce with cheerful irony: “It’s Magners Pear Cider. 100% pure pear.”
That said, the band launch into some old fashioned US pop rock. But if they sound like something from the 80s, that’s well intended because this is a high concept weekend which mixes the old with the happening now. Ormsby has picked 11 other UK bands to play alongside his on condition they take on one of the bands that features in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a classic book that chronicles the pre-grunge era. He’s added grilled snacks and called his weekend Our Band Could BBQ Your Life.
“It’s about 30 years since the SST label was formed and I guess I see alternative music coming in waves,” says the singer, guitarist and promoter. “We are getting a lot of 80s electro, I think maybe guitars are due a revival.” SST is the groundbreaking California record company who gave you Black Flag, Minutemen, Hűsker Dű, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, all bands represented here.
The Jelas, from Bristol, set the tone early on. They play three faithfully rendered tracks by Mission of Burma, and a handful of their own dadaesque jazz rock numbers. Singer Colin is passionate about the band he’s been chosen to cover: “They were pretty awesome,” he says and, 26 years after their break up, adds, “They’re definitely my favourite band.”
Elsewhere there is less reverence, but no less commitment. The Muscle Club play their own melodic punk for fifteen minutes before stripping to the waist for some classic tracks by heroes of hardcore Fugazi. Simon from Amy Blue wears an evil-looking mask and goes wild covering the Butthole Surfers. And Winnebago Deal perform no less than 20 Black Flag songs with such intensity it provokes nervous grinning all round.
Most sets include original material, but the lines blur between the sound of 2009 and that of a quarter century ago. Although it’s three taut three-piece bands who provide the most excitement. Not Cool (who take on Minutemen) play bass-driven punk with very strong vocals. Everyone To The Anderson (Big Black) are inventing prog hardcore. And The Xcerts (very modest as Hűsker Dű) play with a fury that will never go out of style.
Bands like this demonstrate that raw energy and abrasiveness still have a place in music, if not in the current mainstream. DJ Rachel from the Silver Rocket Club says: “People talk about a new grunge, but this type of music has never gone away.” She also warns: “The peril of making a scene is that the moment it becomes popular then the clock is ticking. Once you are in a scene you are counting down the hours until you become unfashionable.”
For the time being at least, this group of UK bands who share a love for a certain group of US bands are a safe distance from the beaten track. The Windmill in Brixton is a pub with a missing sign and it looks like a squatted community centre. But when Ormsby’s band take the chipboard stage to play a stunning cover of SludgeFeast by Dinosaur Jr, we could be in Amherst, Massachusetts, circa 1987.
Except for that bottle of pear cider. That’s definitely new.