Dead of night. Armed with a pot of red paint, BORIS that is called BORIS surreptitiously scrawls a slogan on the walls of the Cabinet Office. From behind, a CENTURION approaches…


CENTURION: What’s this then? ‘Brexitis EU domus’? ‘People infected by Brexit they go the House’?


BORIS: It says ‘Get Brexit done’.

CENTURION: No it doesn’t. What’s Latin for ‘Brexit’?




BORIS: ‘Brexitis’?

CENTURION: Goes like…?

BORIS: ‘Anus’?

CENTURION: Vocative plural of ‘anus’ is…?

BORIS: Eh. ‘Tori’?

CENTURION: ‘Brexitori’. ‘EU’? What is ‘EU’?

BORIS: ‘Go’. ‘Going’. Er–

CENTURION: Conjugate the verb ‘to go’.

BORIS: Uh. ‘Ireland’. Uh, ‘eo’. ‘Is’. ‘It’. ‘Imus’. ‘Itis’. ‘EU’.

BORIS: Ah, huh, third-person plural, present indicative. Uh, ‘they go’.

CENTURION: But ‘Get Brexit done’ is an order, so you must use the…?

BORIS: The imperative!

CENTURION: Which is…?

BORIS: Umm! Oh. Oh. Um, ‘i’. ‘I’!

CENTURION: How many Britons?

BORIS: Ah! ‘I’– Plural. Plural. ‘Ite’. ‘Ite’.


BORIS: Ah. Eh.

CENTURION: ‘Domus’? Nominative? ‘Go home’? This is motion towards, isn’t it, boy?

BORIS: Ah, dative, sir.

CENTURION draws sword.

BORIS: Ahh! No, not dative! Not the dative, sir! No! Ah! Oh, the… accusative! Accusative! Ah! ‘Domum’, sir! ‘Ad domum’! Ah! Oooh! Ah!

CENTURION: Except that ‘domus’ takes the…?

BORIS: The locative, sir!

CENTURION: Which is…?!

BORIS: ‘Domum’!


BORIS: Aaah! Ah.

CENTURION: (writes) ‘Um’. Understand?

BORIS: Yes, sir.

CENTURION: Now, write it out a hundred times.

BORIS: Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Hail Churchill and everything, sir.

CENTURION: Hail Churchill. And if it’s not done by October 31st, I’ll cut your balls off.


“Always look on the bright side of lies”

He’s NOT the messiah; he’s a very naughty boy.




Gorillaz & friends

De La Soul / Danny Brown / Vince Staples

Dreamland, Margate, UK

They might bear the dubious distinction of ‘world’s biggest virtual band’, but Gorillaz have all but phased out any ‘virtual’ pretentions. What began as cartoonish conceit has, perhaps inevitably, become more real and binding in development. And while they limply persist with certain gimmicks – the inexplicable presence of death figures roaming Dreamland’s grounds all day; the frankly distracting stage animations (which goes for ALL screens); the fact we’re in Dreamland (geddit?) – you get the impresssion this garish Hewlett factor is now extraneous to Gorillaz’ newfound verisimilitude.


The architecture of new album ‘Humanz’ mines a deeper musical trench, and perennial show-off Damon Albarn has made a surprisingly happy transition into musical egalitarianism. Onstage, he seems to relish the plethora of ‘special guestz’ – including Kilo Kish, a luminescent Kali Uchis, a frenetic Kano, a Graham Coxony Graham Coxon – neither of whom steal or promote his thunder; it’s a perfect storm, typified by the distant thunder of ‘Sex Murder Party’, a deeply salacious ménage abattoirs comprised of Albarn, Kelela and Danny Brown, whose earlier warehouse party made for some thrusty, bass-filthy foreplay. In their own set, De La Soul made faint gestures of some classic tracks; as nominal Gorillaz they stamped bombastic class all over ‘Momentz’ and ‘Feel Good Inc’s windmilling finale, all the while Albarn dipping in and out, impishly jocular as if in, well, Dreamland. It’s infectious too; the party vibes spill frothily from the stage with untamed abandon, as does a bewildered Shaun Ryder’s sleepy lunge through ‘DARE’, which seemed like just that.


And while the circus acts may provide animated distraction – ‘Clint Eastwood’s “sunshine in a bag” casts a novelty shadow – it’s Gorillaz’ emergent humanity, exemplified by the tender Kelela duet ‘Busted & Blue’ and ‘We Got The Power’s call-to-arms, that brings a whole other reality to virtual dimensions.

10 June 2017

*edited-for-print version of this review in Record Collector – OUT SOME POINT!

Set list:

Ascension / Last Living Souls / Saturn Barz / Stylo / Tomorrow Comes Today / Rhinestone Eyes / Charger / Momentz / Submission / Sex Murder Party / She’s My Collar / El Manana / Dirty Harry / Let Me Out / Andromeda / Busted & Blue / Strobelite / Kids With Guns / DARE / Out Of Body / Garage Palace / We Got The Power

Encore: Sleeping Powder / Feel Good Inc. / Clint Eastwood / Don’t Get Lost In Heaven / Demon Days



Richard Ashcroft: live @ Roundhouse, London


London, Roundhouse

Armed with a brand-new album and a same-old attitude, Richard Ashcroft resurrects the 1990s with some old-school Northern swagger at Camden’s Roundhouse, a venue once home to the Gallic gaudiness of Cirque du Soleil. Ladies and gents, welcome to the Cirque du Salford.


And it suddenly occurs, like some occurring thing that was standing in front of me all along in a pink Ben Sherman: the middle-aged are taking over.

The queue outside the Roundhouse is like a biscuit tin of Rich Tea-type middling – fresh enough to dunk, but liable to go floppy and break apart if left to linger. Tonight, the going-stale assortment of 40-somethings are gathered to unfurl the red carpet for Sir Richard of Ashcroft – the grand Garibaldi of rock (chewy, misshapen, and apparently immune to decay) – who’s here to herald a much-needed distraction from lives that have accidentally become like a box of biscuits: you know exactly what you’re gonna get.

And sometimes it’s heartening to know what’s coming. Strutting onto the stage like he’s just nipped out for a piss, Richard Ashcroft sashays back into the spotlight as if he’s wandered in off the set of the Bittersweet Symphony video, a bulldozer with cheekbones on a headlong collision into anywhere a face happens to be. You can almost hear the refrain of “No change, I can’t change” punctuating each footfall.


It’s all a little anachronistic, you think to yourself sniffily, having since grown up and become a citizen. Meanwhile, you’re surreptitiously wanking at the cartoonish arrogance with a Red Bull mixer and the words ‘Come ON!’ punchbagging your epiglottis.

Decked out in impeccably tailored suit (and a gas mask, for some reason), shaved head and aviators, Ashcroft looks like a grim approximation of Liam Gallagher interviewing for Top Gun. With a gas mask. And thus feeling the need for speed (and alcohol and anything else on the table (a gas mask?)), he blasts into album opener ‘Out Of My Body’ with sentient authority, his ventriloquist-puppet vocals still averse to the odd diphthong but brooding up a nice alphabet all its own. “Aahhdaahvemahbahdayy,” goes the song’s title, coursing eminently from a jutting kingfisher jugular that swoops upon every note with glottal alacrity. “Feeelainyeeknoorrh/Eezwhaanbeeegllaayyiiee,” and so forth.

On the evidence of new album ‘These People’, Ashcroft has eschewed the diffident route to middle age in favour of building big massive choruses, standing atop them and golden-showering sincerity all over everyone. A mere two songs in, and the exalted one whips out a colossus in the shape of ‘This Is How It Feels’, a massive arm-waver that seems to be just one perpetual chorus woah-yeahing its way into oblivion atop the Glastonbury Tor.

As a measure of his square-mile reach, Ashcroft is a ley-line ordinance survey, still headlining in his head at the End Of The World festival, and this is the lullaby that lighter-waves humanity through the apocalypse and beyond. Almost immediately it becomes clear: this ‘Lucky Man’ is not counting his blessings while ploughing through some old faves, nor is he invoking some jazz-flavoured, doo-wop-shoo-bop nodding appreciation in the back of a pub. No; Richard Ashcroft is back TO RULE THE FUCKING WORLD.


“Thank you for sticking with me,” he says, humbly, unconvincingly. His appreciation may be genuine, but there’s no way Ashcroft was expecting anything less than the adoration that’s swelling in this packed arena, even before any of the old tunes kick in. If he were cryogenically suspended for a million years, he’d defrost with his arms in the air, going “come on!” and expecting what’s left of humanity to join in. Time is simply not a factor for this man.

In fact, RA (as his album cover declares, like he’s become a football manager) is less a human condition than a geological one; he is pure rock. Even as he’s easing himself out of his suit jacket to reveal a waistcoat tailored to James Bond proportions, he’s possessed of a certain immovability that almost dares time and trend to come square on. As if to prove this, the hymnal Science Of Silence unfurls its call-to-arms mantra with unashamed echoes of Bill Withers’ philanthropic classic Lean On Me, and suddenly a paean for black oppression becomes a hymn for the plight of the (middle aged) indie kid.

Under the glow of harsh white light, as the song weaves its way to a typically grandiose finish, Ashcroft’s foreboding chock-full-o’cheekbone face looks like an Easter Island edifice.

And in such a timeless state he delivers the perennial ‘Sonnet’, the true ‘urban hymn’ from said album, and a transcendent moment tonight as the Roundhouse is compelled to time-travel back to days when arm-waving was acceptable. And while I blame my unapologetically retro plus-one for my involvement, there’s something to be said about holding one’s hands aloft without wielding an LCD monitor. It feels free.

Thus emancipated, another newbie squeezes its way into the free zone, the defiant ‘They Don’t Own Me’ a mellifluous protest that soars with taut strings (sans string section) and tauter heart (avec Ashcroft beating his bespoke chest), all marinating in a rolling mantra that typifies Ashcroft at his loftiest.

And while he’s undoubtedly on top form, rock music’s Alexander The Great is rarely content with those laurels of his – sometimes to his detriment. Even when he’s standing atop the most mountainous song in Chrisendom – in this instance, the grandiose Music Is Power – the breadth of his domain is seemingly never enough, prompting an outro so overblown it loses itself up a labyrinthine tunnel of its own intricacy, then farts itself out.


Having said that, much of what’s played tonight – especially the new material – points the way to Ashcroft regaining whatever mantle was left in his wake. By the time Lucky Man puts a full stop on the main set, the sheen that adorned Ashcroft in his highest pomp is back, even though most of his sartorial refinery has been refashioned into that of the most pissed man at the wedding.

Thus in tatters he leaves the stage… for an encore, presumably.

Yes, an encore surely. Any minute now…

(Anyone seen an encore around here?)

(Joke to unsoliciting +1: ‘Hey. Encores – they’re coming back!’)


He returns after an age, looking for all the world like he’s had a shower, a shit, a shave… and a Shawshank redemption. (It’s been that long.) And thus, arms aloft, he plunges back into the spotlight like a man emancipated, with no apologies for the delay whatsoever. Whether he really was performing ablutions backstage or just milking up the adulation is soon forgotten – an acoustic version of ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ perfectly contradicts its subject matter by instilling the sedative that works wonders on a restive crowd. And while its sparse evocation leaves a vacancy where the strings of a full-blown version reside, the ghostly rendition just makes the absence more palpable – and the heart fonder. Truly, Ashcroft’s voice has never sounded so fibrously vulnerable.

Not a trait you commonly associate with The Big I-Am, but if there was ever a doubt Ashcroft wasn’t here to take on the world, the biggest and brightest surprise comes with the dancefloor ripper-upper Hold On. An obvious highlight from the new album, tonight it’s delivered as a commandment from on high that thou shalt move thy arse to the groove. What Lord Ash of the Croft didn’t reckon on, however, was London crowds and their own collective commandment of ‘thou shalt always be a chattering, posturing gobshite’.


Taxi for gobshite?

Atop Mount Olympus the song pours its infectious hook onto an apparently sterilised crowd, but it hardly matters: sooner or later, as with most things involving Richard Ashcroft, the world will catch up. The look on his face at the end of a rousing Bittersweet Symphony says as much.

“I can change, I can change” goes the crowd eventually, echoing Dickie as he conducts the root-taking, middle-aged, utterly hip floppy-biscuit crowd into a grim paradox. And even though the performance is starting to invoke visions of King Richard pedalling it out in a Vegas swansong decrying his kingdom for a hearse, the song itself is a reminder that, even when time catches up – as middle-eights become middle-aged – there are some things you’d never want to change, even if you could.

As for Richard Ashcroft, he’s here in his mould – no change, he can’t change. He is a rock, and that’s how he’ll always roll.




Out Of My Body

This Is How It Feels

Science Of Silence


They Don’t Own Me

Music Is Power

Break The Night With Colour

These People

New York

Lucky Man

Encore (eventually):

The Drugs Don’t Work (acoustic)

A Song For The Lovers

Lonely Soul (UNKLE cover)

Hold On

Bitter Sweet Symphony

* An edited version of this review appears in Record Collector magazine

BREXIT WARS I: England v Wales vs Europe



England vs Wales vs Europe:

The Empire Strikes A Familiar Tune


While I strongly suspect the Brexit folk were feeling pretty gleeful about there being a European Championship during the referendum – there’s nothing like a football match to stir up some rampant jingoism – they might not have reckoned on a jarring contrast that was the pre-match battle of the anthems during England vs Wales in Lens.

While God Save The Queen sidled up to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau with a note of boisterous superiority, the Welsh anthem (that’s the second one, by the way) was a beautiful, heartfelt incantation (I still don’t know what they’re singing, but it gets me, an Englishman, every time), emanating a note of warm and humanity that left a pretty sweet feeling. I got a lump in my throat. I truly did.

In the (royal) blue corner, we had the cold imperialist march of England’s – and, lest we forget, Great Britain’s – monarch-saving dross. When the pious notes rang out, a tuneless massacre (new collective noun) of England fans bawled at the top of their voices about saving a queen who was raining on them – and why does it always reign on them? Or somesuch.

It seemed like they were angry about something.


Happy and glorious: that’s one safe queen

As a battle on the anthemic front, it was null and void: only one side was audibly fighting. The others were probably rhapsodising about leeks.

And so, while the propagandist hyperbole continues apace on the Brexit side about glorious togetherness within the UK, these anthems, set back to back in such a politically charged event, illustrate just how flimsy and supercilious the banner under which the Brexit camp marches.

What, exactly, is egalitarian about upholding – and bankrolling – a long-forgotten and outmoded dynasty?

Real togetherness is about acceptance and understanding, not hoisting the royal standard and constructing barriers.

Paying the penalty

As the plebeian hordes gave voice to their monastic mistress during the English anthem, you could hear reflected in its feudalistic sentiment the rally cry of the Brexiters, and years of international diplomacy crashing down like so many pissed-up England supporters – and anyone who got in their way – after a penalty shoot-out.

(It’s only a game – if you allow it).


Gareth: it’s a Welsh name, you know

The sentiment of a football match, and its supporters, is a reflection of a tribal instinct to belong and, once belonging, conquer those who don’t dance to the same tune. It is a caustic and crude instinct, but we’re shaking hands with Neanderthals here. And the anthem is its tune – Tarzan’s jungle cry given a uniform and set to brass.

And yet, the song remains the same, as does the anachronistic institution around which it rallies.

Once the match was under way, a particular lull in proceedings brought rise to another choral rendition among England fans, this time to the strains of ‘I’m H.A.P.P.Y.’ – an apt interlude, set to a maudlin jingle about pretending to be happy when sad, of staunchly ploughing forth with illusory notions of contentment and a stoic determination to eschew the truth.

Sound familiar?

With this ‘HAPPY’ song – taken from drab seventies sitcom Only When I Laugh, which, given the show’s depressing scenario, was in truth painful, though laughter could in no way be held responsible – and, in parallel, the national anthem, the pathos lies in the blind defiance of quintessential truths. To wit, insisting that you’re happy, and thereby obsessing about it, will in fact have the opposite effect (see every advert and reality show ever for promotional samples); in the other case, asking God to keep an eye on a pretty safe queen that doesn’t need our help, and probably asks that you get off Her property anyway, is kind of disrespectful to this God fella, for whom apparently all men (and women) are equal anyway, so what’s so special about this royal bint of which you speak?

Pretend, or faux, happiness is the pathetic side of poignancy. And it’s within this sentimental aspect that advocates find strength from its primary source: harking back to tradition – never moving on and never letting go.

Such attitudes are the very essence of prejudice.


H.A.P.P.Y: they’re pretty sure

The mosaic of tradition

But hey, it’s not exactly the fault of the composers; and it is most certainly not the fault of those who sing it, proudly, passionately, and innocently. The mosaic of tradition is pretty, but its pattern is intricate, the pieces, added over a period of centuries, make a picture composed entirely out of context.

Often overlooked – or simply not noticed – is the sometime lyricist of this eternal tune, Shakespeare.

Himself a British/English institution, the Bard’s work has been miscontextualised (new word) and paraphrased more than most.

Indeed, the man himself proved a contextual nightmare for aristocratic nobs and the academic hoi polloi, who are forever laying claim to the works, despite the Bard’s round trouncing of both (*for more on this, watch this space*).

Of Shakespeare’s rich pickings, the speech most oft declared in gloriana regina atop the mightiest Union Jack-draped pedestal, probably bellowed into another dimension by ball-calling town crier Brian Blessed, is the “Royal throne of kings…” snippet from Richard II.

Brexit 14

Brian teaser: this Blessed plot

A deathbed speech (itself a curious accolade) rattled off by the pious and unremittingly arsey John of Gaunt, the glorious sentiment that begins the mortal oration is cut short before the arsed-off bit comes in.

With all the juicy stuff about how crap the country was, the poor old curmudgeon’s final words are read – and remembered – as a glorious tribute, whereas in truth it was a death rattle of pure Blighty-bashing bitchery.

In this glorious democracy of ours, even dying man has the right to be taken out of context.

It’s all quite apt, really, for a nation whose glorious empire was founded on such contextual anomalies.

Taken in context – that of literally contradicting the words of a dying and rather pissed off man whose death proves catalytic to everything else – it’s the definition of liberty-taking.

The words New and Testament spring to mind.


This other version: you were saying…?

“This precious stone set in a silver sea…/This blessed plot, this Earth, this realm, this England” was actually Blighty getting a bit of a roasting, from an old-school fart who, though staunchly royalist, decries the big fuck-up regality has made of the (Brian) blessed plot – a country undone by its own hypocrisy – hoist, in fact, by its own petard.

For the most part, much of Shakespeare’s seemingly sovereign-boosting speeches were in fact thinly veiled (and obviously unnoticed – see Hamlet’s play-within-play) illustrations of the disgusting nature of sovereignty and its humane contradictions.

And the song remains the same.

In terms of God Save The Queen – essentially a blue-blooded ballad set to an emotionally vapid tune with alienating, oligarchal lyrics – the barriers are hoisted high, high above the heads of those who are singing. The higher it climbs – the loftier the pomp – the louder they cry.


Je suis Francais: oui are the world

La Marseillaise

All you need to illustrate the point (or rather pointless) of the national anthem and its alienation of the common people (and hierarchal enforcement), is the atrocities in France, and the reaction it provoked from other nations.

In an en masse show of human solidarity (particularly in the UK), the French national anthem was heard soaring through the lungs of football fans in stadiums up and down the country. Quite mawkish, but still touching. Kind of missing the point too, considering the words to La Marseillaise wax lyrical about raising bloody banners, and generally talk about kicking arse, much in the same vain as the atrocities imposed upon them.

“Let’s march, let’s march/Let an impure blood/Water our furrows” are pretty weird lyrics to be encouraging your children to stand up to (words that flirt with terrorist-like separatism and superiority).

But worse than this – and here comes the TRUE context – imagine how that would have played out had the atrocities happened in Britain.

With God Save The Queen sounding out around the stadiums of France and across Europe, how would those empty and hollow words ring out in the hearts of foreign brethren trying to reach out to us.

God save who again?


The F regime: safe as houses (of P)

The fact is, it would have rung out as the empty and meaningless death knell it is, an altogether hideous and anachronistic anthem that clings on for dear life with jaded political claws.

The anthem itself, as an empty, inhuman show of elitism and oppression, is in many ways more egregious than Uber Alles (hey – Cameron and Bojo the Clown caninvoke Hitler whenever it suits; and in terms of invoking WWII imagery, it serves their purposes very well). At least the Third Reich’s jingle was inclusive – they were ALL uber. Only the Queen is to be looked after in this scenario.

And after all, in the upcoming referendum, it’s this fair monarch and her crumbling institution who would fair greater in the Leave camp; thus lending credence to the notion that the entire agenda of the referendum is of one momentum: to Leave.

Even the nomenclature is geared toward making ‘Remain’ appear as a pejorative.

In this context – in the definition of the word – to remain is seen to affect no change, to go on as before, to sing the same old song – which is exactly the momentum of the Leave campaign (stay British by saving monarchs and constructing barriers).


Bad Cam-Bo Nation: song literally the same

The word remain: stay indolent, idle, complacent, immature.

The word leave: fly the nest, make a change.

The definitions are apposite; the campaigns are opposite.

To wit: to leave would in fact turning away from change and staying the same; to stay would be to seize the opportunity to grow and build a larger human understanding.

Think it’ll catch on?

Game plan

That the referendum itself fell on 23rd June, just after the final games of the group stages, is itself no small coincidence. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it was a premeditated political strategy to reap the greatest nationalistic dividends.

Neatly positioned just inside the cooling off period of the group stages of the competition, those of influence would have been as confident as England supporters generally are (most rugger-bugger politicians feign footie interest but are geeks statistically), expecting England to get through, possibly in heroic fashion.

That the reverse scenario was also in their armoury made it even more failsafe.

Should the unthinkable happen, an England exit would provide an altogether different buffer: glorious failure, followed by hurt, and the steady but healing osmosis of foreigner bashing.

In this period of the competition, two things are guaranteed to be happening in the public mood: a win: hyperbolic patriotism (superiority) or failure: seething xenophobia (inferiority). In either scenario, England is best, glorious in defeat/triumph (delete as applicable), and the enemy still exists.

It doesn’t.

These enemies of old are only kept alive by irrelevant, oppressive institutions whose vainglorious reminders of their past stand proudly on plinths and pedestals adorning the most luxurious sections of the highest pillars of society.


Over the ‘Hill: “We will shite on them til they’re bleachy

For me, the only redeeming feature of pigeons is that they copiously pour shit all over our monuments.

The cold faces that stare out with dead, rusted tears tell tales of a glorious past that is best forgotten, their blank expression a confused and unenlightened mask of nevermore.

Boundaries are what hold us in. Boundaries create refugees, and propagate the prejudices against them. We all occupy this world. Nobody is excluded. And nobody – absolutely nobody who claims to be a human being – is worth more, or is more worthy of saving, than anybody else.

The next time we sing in unison – or consider something churlish like closing the door in a neighbour’s face – it might serve to remember that every vocal contrast, every juxtaposition of pitch and tone, is what makes life beautiful.

Time for a different tune, methinks.


All together then, and now

All together now…

Jim Apple, London, France,

June 2016.



Cymru as you are: dragon it out a bit

* Chris Coleman has put forth the preposition, pretty artlessly, in a pre-match wind-up, that there may be more passion in the Welsh than the English. To this I would say yes – of course there is. The Welsh are the oppressed in exile; but the joke’s on the English – they’re the oppressed in residence.

**As I write, Roy Hodgson is in the process of a blatant PR stunt by bringing on Marcus Rashford, who can ONLY become a hero in this scenario. I’m reminded – as I’m sure Mr Hodgson is – of the Glen Hoddle “Hand Of Hod” masterstroke of bringing on Michael Owen in 1998 and becoming a godlike (in this case literally) genius manager. But as a supposed England supporter (by default – I’m actually of Irish descent), I’m torn: I want England to win, but I intuitively want to encourage PR stunts towards abject failure. I am the epitome of ambivalence.

***But there’s the end result, and you really couldn’t have written a better script: England win, Wales made a good game of it, and BOTH will go through. The UK wins; the tide is rising ever higher against those unhappy lands…


Candid Cameron: all condoms are prone to splitting and transparency

****What’s this? Cameron pretending to want to unite Europe, while invoking Churchill – a la his clownish counterpart Johnson (who absolutely will not stop until he’s PM) – to subliminally unearth feelings of fighting against the enemy abroad; his “we should drive out intolerance” spiel was a flagrant paradox: zero tolerance towards intolerance. He’s waving banner for pro-Europe, but he’s thinking of glorious failure, planting seeds of doubt about the issue from the inside. He even had a Freudian slip almost saying “better off in the euk…in Europe”. He’s not fooling me for a second, the rubber-faced stooge.

Vök – live at The Lexington, London



London, The Lexington

“Apparently, our Icelandic gear doesn’t agree with your electricity.”

It’s not really a complaint from the Vök keyboardist, delivered as it is in that languid, minus-two-shits Nordic manner. But the point is pertinent:  there’s a conflict of currents here rarely seen in these parts – a charge of electrical particles that shocks a typically English crowd out of its comfort zone. It’s the Bloody-Nora! Borealis.

Born out of Iceland’s forbidding landscape, Vök’s glacial sound, while unmistakably of its region, forges an identity that’s paradoxically alien. The three figures on stage are certainly of mother-ship material, stationary and rigid as pens shoved up Kraftwerk’s shatwurst, while frontwoman Margret Ran’s voice broadcasts from all compass points, hypnotising in a directionless reverie that retains improbable grounding as it pulls with ferocious gravitational force. A cathedral of sound, the beauty of her voice is so ubiquitous it’s disorienting. Like saccharine strychnine, she sounds like a euthanasian angel of mercy, beautiful to the final breath.


Circumnavigating this vocal like a centrifuge, the music pulsates with magnetic resistance, a confluence of minimalist old-school analogue through industrial gothic to striated dub-disco that finds light from the darkest sources. In a room so intimate, the effect is womb-like, as if wrapped in fleshy fluidity and amnio. Typified by the sax-led sultry pop-poltergeist of ‘Before’, the almost Brutalist architecture of the music is beyond language, a Tower of Babel that brings its own special electricity from an alien sky, with Ran’s voice weaving a sonic tapestry that makes patterns from half-missed whispers.

Transcendent and intransigent, Vök’s is a tangibly fluid sound channeling Archemides as it moves the Earth while standing absolutely still. It’s a presence that comes from everywhere and nowhere: the Northern Lights on strobe; déjà vu in situ. And once they’re plugged in, there’s just no turning off.

Apparently,  electricity doesn’t agree with them. Tonight, the currents fell in line as Vök settled the argument by giving it watt for.

Aurora? For realis.

Stephen Brolan

*This article is published in Record Collector (UK) and Flood (US) magazines

Vök / Roch – live@ The Lexington, London


Vök / Roch

London, The Lexington

While we’re principally here for the debut London headline show of Icelandic trio Vök, it would be remiss not to make mention of the support. After all, what grabs our attention is a rare thing, not least on the capital’s live circuit: silence.

On stage, a diminutive singer calling herself Roch (and pronouncing it “rock”) is flanked by two minimalist males (one a Chris Lowe-esque synth zombie; the other strapped to a bass, possibly dead). The noise they make as we enter almost hides in all corners of the room, dark and conspiratorial. Suddenly, Roch locks her voice mid-song. A bassline fizzes, then fades into fibrous silence. In a Wild West scenario, the piano player has just shut the fuck up, and someone is about to get blown away. And when Roch’s crystalline voice, after a seeming eternity, returns to slice the silence like a blade, the entire Lexington saloon is effectively just that.

It’s a rare gift indeed to instil a note of respectful deference upon the capital’s customarily garrulous gig-goons (although tonight’s Vök crowd are not your average ape-like ilk), and for that Roch deserves rich applause. More than this, hers is a contemplative sound composed of such soul-bearing honesty as to expel exhibition: repose, not pose. And while most of the artsy crowd are engaged in the latter, the space in between their practiced stances is suffused by treacle-thick tendrils of noise that recoil and collide with magnetic resistance, with cleverly overlapping, undulating chord structures almost waltzing in opposite directions.


Roch: star quality

The sound is so familiar yet alien – incongruous, like midsummer currents lost in midwinter. Roch herself is slight and statuesque, with a voice straight from a cloud’s catacombs – weightlessly deep; a million miles away yet somehow in your face. Around the room, dark musical shapes are on the move; Roch’s sonorous vocals sweep them ever on. Truncated beats tiptoe conspiratorially around rhythmic incantations like priests in purple cassocks, and the whole room transmogrifies into a gothic version of Alice In Wonderland directed by David Lynch. So weird; so, so close.

“This next song is ‘Closer’,” she announces, invoking more claustrophobia as the walls get smaller and oxygen darts out the fire exit. We draw a final lungful as ‘Closer’ draws things to a close, its seductive pop showcasing Roch’s Mazzy Star-like bone-china voice, which cracks for the last time like a brittle plate at the Mad Hatter’s party. The crowd remains respectfully silent, still and contrived as statues, but now almost amorphous – a collective closer to humanity than their shapes suggested at the beginning.

And even when we later discover art student Roch is potentially one of them, her craft eschews esoteric posturing in favour of incandescent, insouciant honesty. This is Roch: star (in the sculpting).


Vok: ahh quality

After which, the organic craft of Vök shows what Nature herself can sculpt with the tools of geographic circumstance. Born out of Iceland’s forbidding landscape, this triumvirate’s glacial sound is one that demonstrates how geometry too can be a compositional element. And while it’s true the sound emanating from their homeland has a tendency to evoke Sigur Rós, Björk et al – just as, on the opposite side of the globe, Australian bands rock in perpetuity on an adolescent highway to AC/DC – the generic strain in the northern hemisphere is one that consistently evolves. The polite term for this contiguity would be ‘homogenous’ (in Oz: ‘homunculus’ ); the similarity, however, is redeemed by one simple fact: they do it so… fucking… well.

In the case of Vök, theirs is an evolution of sound that, while unmistakably of its region, forges an identity that’s paradoxically unidentifiable – alien. The three figures facing us from the stage are convincingly mother-ship material, stationary and rigid as pens shoved up Kraftwerk’s arse, while leader and frontwoman Margret Ran has a voice broadcasting from everywhere and nowhere – a series of points in time that converge at the slightest tilt of her elfin head.


Surrounded by a mixture of beats and melodies that run the gamut from minimalist old-school analogue through industrial gothic to striated Blue Weaver-style disco, the chaos is anchored by Ran’s nursery-horror vocals that seduce and scathe with alternating abandon like a hibernating banshee. And while she remains fixedly positioned centre stage – flanked by synth-bound goalpost men – her distracted, almost desultory vocals writhe like fidget like knotted serpents brimming with poison. During soporific seducer ‘Waterfall’, the venom is like a whispered osmosis drip-drip-dripping into the heart of a cavernous, black-hole melody that implodes and impregnates itself. It’s as if original sin has found a soundtrack.

But despite the reference points – smatterings of Jan Hammer, Portishead, Kraftwerk, The KLF; Prussian hauteur meets Icelandic auteur – we’re still floating somewhere in the middle of nowhere, neither hot nor cold, neither human nor alien. This is music to simply exist to, with no definitions – no country or boundaries.


“Apparently, our Icelandic gear doesn’t agree with your electricity,” one of the goalposts says, trying to hook up his synth and unearthing some cantankerous English voltage. The metaphor is as irresistible as the currents apparently are: theirs is a life force that can’t be translated; regions are so alien to their output that special adapters are required. And while their sound is fiercely and studiously confining, it staunchly refuses to be confined.

As the saxophone comes out on the sultry pop-poltergeist of ‘Before’, the musical shift is like a tapestry, its pattern familiar but alien, like déjà vu in reverse, with Ran’s voice running back and forth, weaving in and out, and sculpting itself around the living melody with ergonomic precision. With the sound of water overlain with soporific effects and throbbing, robotic bass, eventually evolving into metronomic beats and saxo-cacophony, it’s like a scene from Bladerunner the porno (dir. Fiddly Scott) wherein replicants upstage humanity with precision love-making. Passion never sounded so mathematical.

By the time the throbbing trance-like genesis of single ‘Circles’ brings us aptly full circle, it’s difficult to know whether this has been a cerebral or a sensual experience. The feeling is like love as an equation: precise as Cupid’s arrow unleashing chaos in the heart. The music is so replete with angles, its architecture a mixture of Brutalist and Romantic, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where and how it comes to meet you. All you know is: it just does. Vök’s music is a force that arrives without invitation, yet is somehow uninvasive; the sound, like the entity that makes it – on the surface of it yet another Icelandic triptych with synths and a frontwoman with airy, Björk-like vocals and dodgy, Björk-like hair stub – is just welcome without rhyme or reason – the expected unexpected. That this collective comes under the moniker of Vök is the only definition on offer.


In fact, with regards the band’s name (pronounced ‘verk’), rumours abound that it’s a phonetic encryption, a composite word fusing various European linguistic pronunciations to make a rude word (basically ‘fuck’ in three languages). Whether it’s true or not is moot – it’s very apt: this is a sound that ventures out beyond all confines and structures to become something that defies geographical provenance. And a surreptitious, multilingual profanity is fine with us – it’s as good a definition as any: a Fuck-you Tower of Babel set to confound national grids and electrical currents all across Europe and the known world, with everything and nothing lost in translation.

By the end, we’re lost for words. The only thing that springs to mind has, like the music that prompted its utterance, seemingly come from nowhere: Vök me!

Stephen Brolan

* An edited version of the Vök review is published in Record Collector in the UK and Flood magazine in the US

SUEDE – live at The Forum, London



London, Kentish Town Forum

Oop. Sorry I’m late. Shit; it’s started. Have I missed much?

As I eventually shut the fuck up and take my, er, pigeon-jostle perch amid an over-sold Forum crowd, the screen on stage shows some random images synchronised to the strains of Suede’s newest long-player, and I feel like some late-coming cinema knob immersed in a missed plot. A colleague had earlier texted the jolly news: film starts in 5 min & ur going to be l8 u dik. x

Not being made aware there was a film to be late for in the first place, my dyslexic friend’s taunt is nevertheless apposite: this is an event that, unlike any other gig, you can be LATE for. Not the sort of thing that’s customary of a Friday night in London town, nor even of the band in question: Suede cordially invites you to a night in front of the telly. Amyl nitrate optional.

With new album Night Thoughts still a relative stranger, When You Are Young makes for a disconcerting entrance, all ominous strings selling science-fiction romance and death (probably), being given a sexual bashing by Bretty-blue’s gyrating meerkat vocals. This is rompingly rampant Suede here, so sex is like a dribbling thing everywhere, but there’s also a warm familiarity that’s like coming home. It’s Sunday lunch and porno at your parents’.

Yes, perversity reigns and anticipation humps the air like a randy goat, though the atmosphere is more brooding than seductive; where much of their formative oeuvre strove to get in our pants, this feels like the stirring consequence of succumbing. Thus impregnated, a night in front of the telly is probably just the ticket.

Except that’s not it at all. While the screen holds the entire auditorium under its spell, the allure of image-induced passivity is suddenly roused from its slumber as the house lights illuminate what’s going on beyond.Inside



“She puts her faith in the moment – OUTSIDERS”…

The words erupt like liquid hormones and horror from the depths of Brett Anderson’s bowels, and the lights come streaming onto familiar angular limbs that hide just behind the screen. At the sight of this prurient, perfectly preserved praying mantis sashaying in the murky near distance surrounded by his rhythmic conspirators, the suspension of disbelief one normally takes to the movies is jolted into reality where incredulity is the paradoxical law.

Up until this point, it is conceivable this is simply a recording set to visuals, such is the sound’s implausible perfection. It’s a Wizard Of Oz moment in reverse; once we glimpse the men behind the curtain, the broken illusion heightens the majesty. There is alchemy here, and it’s showing its working.

Visually, it’s like a surreal incantation that has the eerie slow-motion effect of a snow dome – of life preserved in perpetuity beyond the flurry that dances in the foreground. In parallel, Anderson’s voice throws out crystalline nodes of music that resonate in a sonic stasis. The accompanying images – ostensibly a montage of life in all its beautiful mundanity, and all that crap – lend a haunting air to the music that begins with shivers and ends with earthquakes riding through colossal basslines. It’s all very metaphor central, I’m sure, like a Mike Leigh metafilm of a day in the life of a day in a life, set to a soundtrack by, well, Suede – but Suede screaming in an isolation tank.


In fact, there’s a sense of closeness here that borders on claustrophobic, not least when the screen starts filling up with water and we’re submerged into a Radiohead video. And while the No Suprises treatment is no surprise to me – another colleague had warned I was in for a swim – the effect is nonetheless breathtaking, literally and figuratively. The woozy vertigo of Tightrope plummets like a deep-sea dive into the unknown, enticed by the sonorous sonar of Anderson the merman’s ethereal, submarine vocals as the screen becomes fully submerged below the water line. It’s an aural and visual drowning that’s refused mouth-to-mouth as it segues relentlessly into the amniotic fluid of Learning To Be’s womb-like somnolence, before squeezing through Rosemary’s Baby’s creepy la-la-la birth canal into (aptly) Like Kids, a brattish bouncing thing born in the image of Suede’s newfound paternity. It’s a visceral, organic segue that moves from hanging at the end of one’s rope to falling into regressive, baptismal rebirth in a three-song progression. From tightrope to umbilical cord, only Suede can make these connections appear seamless, pervaded as they are by a shared sense of life’s delicious precariousness.

Inside the screen, way below the water line, Anderson is on his knees (in the middle of the road, according to the images, though anywhere but in reality), imploring his vocals into being like a phantom of the operatic, the dying seduction of epic album closer The Fur And The Feathers a recalcitrant final breath. Accompanied by images of wading through water and cornfields, the cycle-of-life theme is blatant – as naive as a child’s drawing and just as perversely accurate – but at the same time perfectly aligns film and music and draws all matter back into itself, as if to begin again. The bookend of When You Were Young’s stirring finale echoes the beginning while portending the end… and another beginning, fledgling, sparsely feathered and on the verge of flight with a colossal, emergent outro. And as the spotlight fades on Anderson coiled double centre stage, a foetus suspended in fluid and fluidity, Suede’s new beginnings wash over a subaquatic Forum crowd like a biblical tidal wave – a deluge of regenerative destruction awash on a strange but familiar shore.


If this is the end, the world and Noah are gonna need a bigger boat: the Drowners are back…

Part two

And then they are. And when they are, they are.

The new operatic proclivities of Suede mk… um, three-at-least apparently requires an opera-style intermission, so we’ve sought oxygen after the scuba dive, only to return to see the aquarium now become a suitably attired dive.

Screen removed, the stage is newly adorned with sleaze-swatch purple velvet beloved of whoever directed Suede videos in the 90s; all looks like a brothel again, and mankind’s parity is restored. Anderson has crawled out of his trench at the bottom of the ocean and is once again Madame Androgyny in his/her lascivious lair, grabbing his crotch and shagging ears all over with some dangerous aural insertions.


Hump-hump. That’s Anderson’s magnetised pelvis thrusting its way centre stage as This Hollywood Life fires up the second half with a sledgehammer thigh-slap. Click-click: that’s the pushing-50 dude in loosened shirt and discarded tie in front of me throwing some Brett shapes… and possibly his back out. If the first half were a sombre David Attenborough affair in front of the telly looking at fish and their plight, part two is fucking JAWS vs. PIRANHA The Porno in 3D, and we’re gonna ponder the error of thinking it was safe to go back in the water – while our nuts get bitten off.

So, as the man in front ably demonstrates that mid-life crises have external symptoms (who knew?), a well brushed and distinctly leathery Suede go about the business of eviscerating anachronisms and showing that turning back the chronometer doesn’t have to be chronic. The still snake-like Animal Nitrate slithers about the place with its original original-sin allure, Anderson’s jutting throat a come-hither Adam’s apple to the slither of baying Eves (and Steves) down front. As he vocally pirouettes and preens from falsetto to baritone, etching each note with a variety of body shapes like a collapsible clothes horse, the prurient ambiguist (new word: n. Brett Anderson; his arse) teases and temps, by turns berating and becalming, scorning and seducing, and ultimately loosening and unzipping a deliriously confused audience down to a very sticky floor. Whether it’s the de-suited middle-aged uncle-dancer or the newer generation being born Freudian slippery into this cultish cauldron, the age boundaries are as blurred as the sexual preferences; the ensuing celebration that fires up when Filmstar parades the collective red carpet engenders a kind of pan-generational amorphous coming together of which Suede are the highest proponents.


There are no ages here; there is no prejudice or politics; this is music for being alive to, without condition or conditioning. Even when cocksure anthem So Young ruffles its spring-chicken feathers – with Anderson somehow suddenly in the middle of the crowd, getting plucked to death by his plugged-in battery coup – its call-to-arms teenage mantra is emancipated by its lack of restraint. Unlike the stigma Supergrass face with the minty-fresh Alright, this young ‘un doesn’t need to embody in order to feel. By the end, everyone is chasing the dragon, with the legendary Anderson riding its hide like Kinky Arthur the nuclear knight; even my newfound embarrassing-uncle friend (who I’ve decided is a banker – he holds not himself to account) is somehow more congruent, even if just on loan (by the end he’s pissed me off again, with interest). There is mayhem here that belies its years – an aberration of nature that feels so natural, so timeless, so absolutely fuck-it.

And didn’t this night start out in front of the telly?

As he stops stripping off and starts stripping things back, Anderson has to orchestrate some calm among his enlivened stock of spring chickens and old goats, turning inward to sentiment and retrospection. A few of the herd don’t get it; dedicating a beautifully sparse acoustic version of High Rising to a collection of European fanatics who have shadowed them across the continent, Anderson spots some unruly chicks still chattering. “You can talk about fucking EastEnders later,” he says pointedly, and the fuck is upwardly closed. In the stillness, Anderson folds inward, physically and emotionally, as he excavates the living soul out of the music’s blackened depths with a miner’s blindness.


“I want to thank the Forum for all you’ve done for us over the years,” he says to the Forum, before revealing that the last time they were here (in 1992), a girl had just fled from his life. Rolling back the years with candour, the surprise appearance of Justine Frischmann seems more coincidence than contrivance, Anderson making the comment offhandedly. He seems sanguine. So sanguine, in fact, that he thanks the frigging Bull & Gate next door, clearly oblivious to the fact the once-beloved venue has ditched the sleaze and gone gastro. Suede, on the other hand, have dragged their sleazy arses into a new generation and nestled their leathery hips right in the middle, planting their flag right in at the end with New Generation, an unscrupulous, untameable, ungovernable riot – led by Anderson’s screaming “Here they come!” and echoed to the rafters with “The beautiful ones!” – that’s always and forever heading this way, like a tidal wave, coming for us all – drowners, waving…

In front of me, the banker who likes to play Brett has stopped shorting his assets and is coming back into himself. Show is over; the time machine has hit the brakes, and… I swear this man looks younger. Has he lost some years, or have I gained some? After a slight pang of fear, I shrug and decide it’s all relative.

As the homogenous crowd files away to once again become filed away, the uncategorisable (another new word: adj. free) sense of boundlessness is a resonant tune. What started out as a night in front of the telly (albeit a massive, subaquatic one) and ended with having it largely unrestrained on the dance floor seems to evolved some pan-generational indifference to time; because we’re young and naive, we can be born every minute.


In this case, we’re reborn Suedean slippery.

Stephen Brolan

*An edited version of this article is published in Flood magazine in the US and Record Collector in the UK




(full album: Night Thoughts)

When You Are Young


No Tomorrow

Pale Snow

I Don’t Know How To Reach You

What I’m Trying To Tell You


Learning To Be

Like Kids

I Can’t Give Her What She Wants


When You Were Young

The Fur And The Feathers


This Hollywood Life

Killing Of A Flashboy


Animal Nitrate



Pantomime Horse

High Rising (acoustic)

For The Strangers

So Young

Metal Mickey

Beautiful Ones


Everything Will Flow (acoustic)

To The Birds

New Generation



NIGEL THOMAS ‘Travelling Man’ – album review


Nigel Thomas

Travelling Man

(Keo Records)

Release date: 14 March 2016.


Some people can’t sit still. Just as we were getting a grip on him as frontman of jangly indie outfit The Foxes – that’s ‘The’ Foxes band, hence the plural, not the Michelin-lipped honking car park who sings under a collective noun (what’s her car called, ‘Convoy’?) – Nigel Thomas upped and disappeared into the theatre for a spell.

Emerging from this thespian hiatus, it seems the boards have crept their way into his chords, lending a more dramatic soundscape to his repertoire.

While infectious single Fever treads –  nay, stomps – a familiar ground that’s all angular vocals and truncated cabaret favoured by Maximo Park and other ilk from The Foxes’ formative years, its incongruous inclusion just serves to wrongfoot us.

With prologue as epilogue, what follows is a journey that similarly makes a focus of its influences with smokier depths of field. The Beatles-tinged Anne gargles McCartney’s saccharine syrup with some minty-freshness that conjures the Mr Soft song (in the sky with Softmints?); its mirror image, Que Sera, is a twinkling childhood dream that perhaps gets too snug in its slumber – an elegiac lullaby of interweaving vocals that’s an elongated outro away from a singalong classic. The sparse mid-album segue of Drift does just that, but its lethargy feeds with restless urgency into the title track’s spiralling wanderlust, a dusty country-funk paean with a cleverly rambling bassline reflecting its titular nomad – a forgotten Oasis b-side that got abducted on Route 66. As if to punctuate the Gallagher strand, following track Destiny does Lennon’s stripped-back insouciance in far subtler tones than Our Kid.


The two-tone drama of Ghost Hunter couples Thomas’s obvious mod leanings with something more playful, like The Specials’ Ghost Town populated by rambunctious (Phil) spectres. Within this rural conurbation there are feral connotations – porous walls of sound through which beastly reggae-plagued apparitions ethereally transgress.

The real drama with Travelling Man, however, is its creative fusion: Dancing is a mystic, harp-led serenade to an undiscovered Shakespeare play that casts Thomas as the lovelorn fool of the forest, adrift in Pink Floyd’s dream of a midwinter’s night; and exiled ballad 5476 Miles, a trans-Atlantic sea breeze that reflects the oceanic divide of its subject matter by plonking Chilli Peppers and Badly Drawn Boy on a desert island in the middle, where they discover it’s not such a long way for either.

Travelling Man shows Nigel Thomas himself has come a long way with a masterfully crafted collection of songs that give performance to perseverance – a solo journey that comes full circle when there’s no other role to play but yourself.

He might have ditched his theatrical tights, but Thomas here demonstrates with unerring grace there are other ways to break a leg.

Stephen Brolan


CD and vinyl available from:


Photos: Chris Pressman/Jane Hoskyn

*Nigel Thomas plays a special album launch show at Camden Barfly on Saturday 12 March 2016.

For tickets visit:

William McCarthy – The Lexington, London


William McCarthy

London, The Lexington

“It’s been a long time.”

When Billy McCarthy says this to me outside the Lexington’s band entrance, it’s as if his eyes are focused on the three years since indeed we had last met. In an instant I see it: he’s in the zone. A brief hug ensures the moisture embalming his person in this freezing February night makes its way onto me. It can’t be sweat – this is pre-gig greetings; the ‘zone’ is a thing into which he’s about to enter, ready or not. It’s possible his customary nap prior to performance seems now to require being water-bucketed awake. It works; he’s flying about the place like a wet nun. His mumbled “Goddahgo” is not taken the wrong way: this zone is a rampaging storm not to be denied, and it has William McCarthy’s green eyes. I watch him go, smiling to myself. It’s been a while, for sure, and it’s nice to see some things are in full disorder.

“It’s been a long time,” he rediscovers, to the crowd this time. Is everything a long time from Billy McCarthy’s universe?

Onstage, against a black and white seascape backdrop with a distant ship, his exile seems to have been lost at sea: he looks like Robinson Crusoe who hates Fridays. His wet hair is matted like seaweed against his forehead; his eyes blaze with unchartered, savage wonderment like the caveman who discovered wanking; his flies are undone. Billy McCarthy looks dangerously at large.


At first he doesn’t seem to even notice the sweating packed house waiting for him. He’s much more preoccupied with his drenched follicles, which are causing some arguments on his forehead. A truce is called as the hat comes out. Underneath this Indiana Jones headwear, he looks as if he’s peering out from a cave. It’s a rare outing for him as a solo performer  – the other two-thirds of Augustines are present only in spirit (and anecdote) – but standing alone on a stage armed only with a guitar and a hat to hide under, there’s something weirdly cosy about his demeanour that makes the sparseness of the stage irrelevant.

Billy McCarthy pretty much commands your attention from the outset.

As if aware of this, he launches straight into a new song. Instantaneously subcutaneous, its buoyant melancholy pummels its way under your skin like an old favourite. That’s not to say there is anything remotely formulaic at play here; this boy simply has a way with a tune, and the urgency with which it’s delivered is almost invasive – an impertinent stranger, it wipes its feet and enters with a nonchalance you barely notice and a presence that lingers. By the end of it, we’re reminded why Billy McCarthy’s music is so essential – it’s haunted. It’s been a long while, but there’s a presence here that feels like a welcome return.

“It’s great to be back in London,” he says genuinely. “Fucking love this city.” The city roars its approval, and with that off comes the hat – he’s home.

Launching into Augustine, the reaction from the room illustrates just what familiar surroundings Billy McCarthy finds himself. The song’s urgent call-to-arms verse rustles the audience like a sharp breeze through a cornfield: the crowd are all ears. If Billy McCarthy decided to now hold his breath until he went blue, the crowd would likely follow suit. As it is, they appear breathless anyway – a silent, swaying sea of grape-heads turning blue, like a vineyard about to pass out.

From our (disad)vantage point amid this semi-vintage bouquet (old and young, there is no age bias with Augustines crowds), the stage appears sliced into two sections with a big black bit in the middle where a pillar stands, behind which often hides a singer. Luckily, McCarthy’s not in static mode. Prowling panther-like from left to right and back again, his demeanour seeming to get meaner each time he passes the divide, it’s like looking at stills from the transformation scene of a b-movie horror. Certainly more Phantom Of The Opera than Friday the 13th, whatever ails him is graceful, and more than a bit romantic.

Conducting the audience, which is already tuning up but soon becomes his full-blown orchestra, McCarthy’s hypnotic vocals undulate like a current, the words “Keep your head up, kid; I know you can swim, but you’ve gotta move your legs” like an incantation to the immersed group of heads and arms treading choral waters – waving and drowning.


With such sparseness of onstage accompaniments, offset by a barrel-load of charm, McCarthy fills the room with an energy that couldn’t be outdone by the biggest pyrotechnics. When he moves, the whole room seems to shift on its axis; when he’s stationery, the muscularity of his facial expression has its own dance, as does the clumsiness of his movements. During Augustines favourite Chapel Song, the stampeding rhythmic heart of the track takes on a life of its own, McCarthy’s vocals soaring like a sermon, and the rousing sentiment of moving on becomes a mantra for supplicant hands: “It’s a bright blue sky”. It’s actually an oppressively low black ceiling, but it feels like freedom. That fucking roof is coming off tonight, thinks I briefly.

Next to me, an affable chap named Mark is so replete with the vibes he’s spilling over onto me. But he’s not possessed of a pisshead’s leprous camaraderie; his is a fully-conscious state of grinning and of happiness, brought on by maddeningly ticklish music and McCarthy’s impish abandon. He’s feeling infectious. “There’s just something about them,” Mark says… of one man on a stage. He’s not seeing double; he’s talking Augustines. “You can’t always hear what he’s saying, but…” He looks at me; I look back, synchronising. “You can feel it,” we say, finishing the thought in tandem and becoming best friends for a bit.

As vertiginous, quasi-religious rabble-rouser Now You Are Free sparks a choral love-in, with High Priest McCarthy brandishing guitar over head like a lightning conductor, the music and audience become almost one homogenous, amorphous mass. And it becomes clear what makes Augustines and McCarthy’s music so vital – a feeling of understanding and being drawn irrevocably towards without necessarily understanding how or why. This is the sort of music that whispers chords at you in the Field Of Dreams: if you build it, they will come in their pants. And while that is undoubtedly crude, it fits the picture: the ‘something’ instabuddy Mark identifies about this music does tend to access the body with not so much a carnal ‘knowledge’ as a PhD.

And onstage, madcap professor McCarthy is the pedestal pedagogue issuing instruction on how to mesmerise to a classroom of hungry learners – the hymnal and savagely tribal Cruel City inducting the undergrads into a choral cult as the “oohh-ooohhh-oohhhhhhh”s of the chorus reach the kind of apotheosis that usually makes a mess. The raised hands are a group of students who suddenly understand the answer. They’re also dying for detention.


Sexy stuff is afoot; McCarthy himself looks like a shipwrecked Brat Pitt and sounds like a hitch-hiking, poetry-spouting, utterly romantic Springsteen, the bastard. Seriously, you’d need to a S.W.A.T. team of swatters to fight off the female flies around this piece of shit. Having said that in largely justified male resentment, men are not completely impervious (er, Mark told me). Add to that the fact he can also tell a story like your dad, all assured and comforting, you might as well write off all the ladies in the room and the world beyond, and some of the men for that matter (See ya, Mark).

The ‘stories’ he shares are loosely linked segues between songs, a series of seemingly autobiographical and completely unlikely events Billy has happened upon, each one progressively less credible than the other, but somehow, paradoxically, more believable in their sequence (the story of the Australian lesbian stripper and the dildo will linger long). Told from a very personal point of view, with no exceptions (he chronicles very matter-of-factly the illness and subsequent death of his brother James with touching candour), when McCarthy is on stage, there are no parameters, no boundaries between him and his audience. After all, the songs say it all, with painstaking honesty; what’s to hide?

Mixing humour and pathos with proficient comic timing, McCarthy shows himself to be quite the raconteur – yet another hidden corner in the multi-talented bastard’s inner labyrinth of brilliance and aceness. While his timing is not always spot on – some stories go on a bit; jokes are sometimes milked – his ability to roll with the crowd and ad lib under such scrutiny bears a nonchalance that’s almost professional. It soon occurs there’s a healthy resemblance to another multi-faceted musical Billy.

Having seen the Bragg at the Hackney Empire with pretty much the same set-up – amp; guitar; hat-titude – the comparison is stark and worthy of note. While not as politically charged, McCarthy harbours a humanitarian heart but is still young enough to stave off the Braggian social invective. It may yet come in later years. For now, a weary but hopeful Billy McCarthy cuts a fine figure as a social commentator (of life squared) in his own right.


As he relates an incident where he visited his brother in prison wearing a dress, the comic scenario ends with the unsentimental revelation that this would be the last time he’d see James alive. “It’s OK to laugh,” he assures a dubious audience juggling awkward giggles amid his naked candour. With less genuine people, this might come across as mawkish or grandiose. With McCarthy there really is no fanfare; his heartbreak is not exclusive to him, and he makes no time for sentimentality: it just is. Segueing into a song in which the melancholy of life mellifluously flows, you see where the conduit lies. The song is king; the playing’s the thing.

The inclusion of a projector – a faulty one at that – would be a superfluous accompaniment even if it weren’t fucking up; the stories and the way they’re told are enough on their own. In terms of the music, even though with some songs you crave the feral urgency of the Augustines rhythm section, McCarthy’s stripped-back deliveries bring whole other perspectives. It’s like glimpsing the man behind the curtain.

But for all his Oz-like wizardry, McCarthy can’t magic away a venue’s curfew, nor the encroaching scarecrows here to enforce it. One of his stories leading into the final segment has gotten carried away with itself, and we’re running late. A minor conference between McCarthy and Lexington staff reaches an impasse. Even his winsome little-boy-lost smile can’t hold sway with straw-stuffed security. After quite reasonably offering to go unplugged, and being brushed away, McCarthy unplugs anyway and heads into his cornfield audience.

“OK, we’ll finish it outside,” he announces. Unfortunately, he’s not offering the brain-seeking staff out for fisticuffs. What he’s actually doing is inviting the entire venue outside. Undeterred by restriction, McCarthy is apparently getting this show finished no matter what. If that means going al fresco, fucking smoke em if you got em.

“Is he serious?” a friend asks incredulously.

Having known him in sporadic bursts over a period of time, many things have changed in the interim. The only unrelenting constant is that William McCarthy – a man who coaxed me onstage to introduce his band to a packed venue because nobody else was on hand; who hopped into an interview because the missing shoe had been sent hurling after a discourteous driver; who attended prison as the belle of the ball – is somebody who will just make do. Whatever the situation. If the Lexington were airborne, tonight’s encore would be on parachutes. Is he serious? Never and always seems about right.


“Only you could do something like this.” I say this as Billy comes rolling, sweaty and grinning, towards me, audience in tow. He looks insane and benevolent, like he might attack me with a love hammer. He’s glad to see a familiar face; in fact, his is the look of a man who loves to see the whole world right now. Quite apt, really, since the whole world is now following him, Pied Piper style, out of this explosively hot venue into the chill February night. Wait up, mate…

Once on the street, steel guitar in hand, he instantly looks more comfortable as a rapt audience envelops him in a huddle. Plucked from the platform of the stage, McCarthy is now physically on the same level, and it’s what suits him best. The night is beautiful; the warmth and love generated inside grows defiantly warmer against the cold; security are shitting themselves. This party is far from over.

Launching into a sparse version of Book Of James, the opening lines “On a park bench sat a crimson beating heart” like electrical pulses trigger voices into explosions in the frosty night as sidewalk karaoke kicks off. Teasing his guitar in and out, from rousing to a capella, the choral crowd undulates like the swaying ears of corn McCarthy has sewn, and the night breeze is like a harvest of beautiful noise, inside of which farmer William of Oz revels in the fruits of his organic crop. Scarecrows look on bewildered.

Mid-verse, he stops. “Is it Friday?” he asks, transforming the Thursday night crowd into a chorus of Friday night-style whooping. “Who’s gonna call the cops?” He looks up at the windows of the residency houses above the street – all of which remain implausibly unpeopled by occupants. With a shrug and a mischievous grin, he bashes at his guitar, opens up his larynx and chaperones his choir of street urchins from the gutter to the stars, Book Of James’ “Oohhhh-ohhhhh” outro sounding out like the whalesong for lost souls. All around me are grins so wide they’re in danger of parking fines.


And then the authorities, sensing that everything is alright with the world, decide to remind everyone of their version. The itchy-limbed Lexington scarecrows, feeling a last straw coming on, are adamant McCarthy ceases his guitar-based shenanigans. Billy, being the peace-loving man he is, gently complies. Then Billy, being the life-loving man he also happens to be, says fuck-it to the guitar and goes full-on a capella with a song so bruised and broken it belongs right here in the darkened doorways. “A pale blue afternoon in a deathtrap town” is the picture he paints for us; in a starless night in a loved-up city street is the acoustic gallery in which the colours now shine, McCarthy’s tortured vocal strains hanging on the night like a siren for lost souls. Stripped of venue, electricity, and then guitar, his one remaining facility cries out with raw emancipation, freezing notes in the night air and making shards of them – shards that shatter their glass with crystalline music upon the cracked paving. Only Shakespeare plays should have this kind of finale.

And with that, he’s gone, stolen back into the night. An echo lingers, and lingers some more, forever. The night slowly starts to fall apart; life unravels again with gentle nonchalance as a crowd drifts dreamily away and a suddenly quiet city holds its breath.

Did that just happen? Quite possibly; and I may well have just seen one of the greatest gigs of my life.


Stephen Brolan

 *An edited version of this article appears in Record Collector in the UK and Flood magazine in the US

**For Augustines biography:

***Augustines live at Shepherd’s Bush Empire:


AUGUSTINES – official biography

Marking the return of Augustines frontman William McCarthy’s return to the UK for a solo tour, here he is with his emergent troupe bobbing up and down on the banks of the Thames in London, on the crest of an impending wave…




Written by Stephen Brolan 

“Keep your head up, kid/I know you can swim/But you’ve got to move your legs…”

March 2011 – a ship on the River Thames in London. Though the weather is unusually clement for this time of year, the waters beneath us continue to ripple at a seasonal gallop, rocking the ship’s hull back and forth in a rhythmic canter. Billy McCarthy and Eric Sanderson, the engine room behind Brooklyn, New York’s Augustines, are themselves no strangers to turbulent waters. McCarthy in particular, whose volatile upbringing is candidly documented in both his band’s biographical notes and the lyrics of his songs, has felt himself frequently capsized by the vagaries of life. Having spent much of his formative years in foster care – a castaway from a schizophrenic mother and a non-existent father – a sense of self-reliance is perhaps more finely attuned in him than most.

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