Needless to say, these are weird and wonderful times. They are also extremely stressful for many, as the implications of COVID-19 insinuates its way into the hearts and souls of billions of humans on Planet Earth. But life goes on, as it must, and as it has evolved to. As always, our animalistic spirit shines through the desperation, fear and bewilderment. As the famous psychotherapist Carl Rogers observed, even the most malnourished and deprived plant will continue to strive towards growth and fulfilment. Is it any wonder that Keep Calm and Carry On is such an enduring mantra for the 21st century? Except that it’s now more Keep Calm, and less Carry On. Less going out, for instance. In fact, there is now no going out to see a show, a live gig, or festival. For musicians, along with everyone else, the times have changed, and no-one knows quite for sure if we’ll ever get back to anything approaching pre-CV (pre-Coronavirus).
In existence as the current line up for little more than two years, London-based Dry Cleaning brought together longtime friends bassist Lewis Maynard, drummer Nick Buxton, and guitarist Tom Dowse, before they recruited vocalist Florence Shaw at the end of 2017. An artist, university lecturer, and photo researcher, she had never performed live before, and had never been in a band. But she always kept notes and lists, for her artwork. Lists of headlines, neuroses, grievances, advertising copy; words, and comments culled from the media, social media, youtube commentary and the like.
One of the most welcome comebacks of recent times has to be the return of London four-piece Bombay Bicycle Club. During a whirlwind opening phase of their musical lives they released four albums, the last one, So Long, See You Tomorrow, reaching number one in the album charts, in 2014. But soon after the wheels started to come off, and by January 2016 they had made the decision to call a halt. “Well, I think you have to look at why we stopped doing it,” says Ed, backstage at Concorde 2, before their ‘outstore’ show in celebration of their new album Everything Else Has Gone Wrong. “At the end of 2014 everyone was tired out and we really didn’t want to do it, and everyone wanted to do different things, and do the things that they had always wanted to do. Like, Jamie went to university, and me and Jack made our own albums. And I think in doing that, during those three or four year years we realised that what we had was incredibly special and perhaps we had taken it for granted before.”
It’s been a bizarre year. While Parliament, social media and the country-at-large have been tussling with Brexit and elections, the musical landscape has somewhat reflected that turmoil via a fragmented po-pourri of emotions, feelings and heightened surreality.
One of the few bands to outlast the indie guitar band explosion of the mid-2000s, Field Music’s un-selfconscious, anti-fashion stance has seen them compared to the likes of Steely Dan, Todd Rundgren, Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and XTC. They may not have achieved much in the way of commercial success, but for the last 15 years they have been pouring their hearts and souls into Field Music, as well as a number of side projects including Peter’s You Tell Me band – also featuring Admiral Fallow’s Sarah Hayes - and David’s School of Language project, whose third album, 45, was released last summer, a satirical take on the 45th Presidency, Donald Trump.
Cacophonous feedback informed the beginning, the guitarist and singer Theo Polyzoides bent over forwards next to his amp, before the band struck out on a stridently noisy punk rock beat, Theo hopping on to his amp, back facing the cameras, before jumping off and reaching the mic in time to yelp the words to ‘Speakerface’. This was my introduction to King Nun, filmed in lo-fi, recorded live, but released as an accompanying video. It was electrifying. I loved it from the first seconds.
Who said guitar music is dying? Haven’t we heard this before? Yes, a million times and counting. When synth pop and the new romanticism hit the airwaves back in the early 80s, when dance music took the UK by storm at the turn of the 90s, when Britpop fizzled out in the late 90s and when the mid-noughties four-string revival hit the veritable brick wall. We’ve heard it time and time again. There are no new pastures, no exciting bands, the well is almost dry, and we’re all going to have to deal with the purgatory of computer driven music, soulless auto-tuned r’n’b and probably much worse. And yet, like the Phoenix from the flames, it refuses to die, instead re-inventing itself into new and exciting forms.
The Isle of Wight, it’s in a bit of a time warp, is it not? I ask Douglas Richards, who along with his older brother Jamie, and Chris Newnham, founded Plastic Mermaids earlier on this decade, with bassist Tom Farren, and drummer Chris Jones eventually completing the line up. “Yeah, definitely a little bit. There’s definitely some warped sides to it. There’s a lot of chavs, and then there’s a lot old people, and a lot of Brexit voters. And generally, anyone I went to school with who had half a brain, left the Isle of Wight,” he laughs. “Some people decide to come back, when they have kids and stuff. But, there’s also quite a creative community. I think there’s quite a few hippies from the 70s festival who ended up just staying in Ventnor (on the South Coast of the island) and breeding. There is a lot of really good music here, but not masses of people to go to gigs. It’s a slightly strange dynamic.”
The times they are a-changing, sang the Duluth bard, more than half a century ago. But even that visionary would have struggled to foresee a rock’n’roll world being turned upside down by passionate young men, singing about male vulnerability with a seething intensity that can be both exciting and unsettling to watch and hear. The Murder Capital are one such bunch, the band visually coming across like nattily dressed gangsters whilst they theatrically weave around each other, singing about suicide, romance, fear, impotence, mental health, and weakness, but set against a sometimes violent musical maelstrom. As singer James McGovern says about the brooding and propulsive ‘Feeling Fades’, the first song they released as a fully formed studio recording, “I like brutalism because it’s not trying to be beautiful.” Indeed, their beautifully brutal music brilliantly encapsulates their pent-up emotions, before being released in a torrent of controlled chaos and turmoil, with McGovern repeating the refrain “the now elapsed ‘round you and me, and it kept us all together.” Joy Division, The Pixies, The Birthday Party, The Sound, Savages, Idles, and Shame all come to mind, post-punk old and new, adding new and interesting layers and angles to this most dexterous of genres. A certain genre has proven itself to be a saviour of music, one that allows the political, to mingle with notions of art and the avante garde. The profound social changes we are currently going through are being encapsulated by this Dublin five-piece’s heart-on-sleeve music, along with fellow Dubliners Fontaines D.C., with whom they shared a practice space, and Girl Band.
Formed around the chemistry of siblings and dual songwriters Jack and Lily Wolter, Brighton based Penelope Isles are a classic four piece of guitars, drums and bass, with some keys thrown in to the mix. Debut album Until the Tide Creeps In is an album informed by shared experience. Raised on the Isle of Man, Jack moved away to study art at university at 19, when Lily was 13.
As an early mentor of Jesca Hoop, Tom Waits described her music as, "like a four-sided coin. She is an old soul, like a black pearl, a good witch or a red moon. Her music is like going swimming in a lake at night".
“The bigger the stage, the better it is. For me, as a vocalist, I see the stage as a playground. So, the bigger the stage, the more fun I have.” So says Anastasia ‘Stars’ Walker.