Sasha Selavie Muses on the Queer Credentials of the Annual Indie-Pop Bash!
There’s a cliched assumption – especially from bigots – that LGBT music preferences are irredeemably twee and lightweight. But is that true? Are we really fanatical devotees of lip-synching and vapid Eurovision rejects? To an extent, yes, but what sneering critics of our idiosyncrasies seem to entirely miss is that we’re giving ironic, tongue-in-cheek adulation to the most pathetic gay idols possible! I mean, come on – of course, we, collectively, have scrupulous quality control, and chose to worship bands as laughable as Brotherhood of Man for the sheer, perverse delight of confounding so-called good taste! And yet, isn’t there also a genuinely wistful yearning in some of our dodgier choices, an adoration of fluffy, throwaway trash precisely because that puts us in a subliminal, cultural alignment with juvenile values, in a rather desperate clinging to lost youth? I’d prefer to think that’s not the case – even if, as he made so clear in writing of astonishing eloquence, our undeniable guru Oscar Wilde felt that nothing possibly compared to the precious brilliance of unsullied youth!
Was he right? That, inevitably, is a personal decision, but there’s always been a killingly chic strand of LGBT awareness that’s deservedly feted and lionised extravagant excellence. Why, before ABBA were even a spasm in Sweden’s collective womb, we had the epoch-changing brilliance of Bowie and Freddie Mercury to drool over, and let’s never forget that once, being gay and musically extreme were virtually synonymous!
Why, even back in the mid-80s, London was awash with a confluence of queer relish for avant-garde soundscapes. Each Wednesday, Heaven hosted the queer, indie-pop night Pyramid upstairs, while over in King’s Cross, stellar gay bar the Bell tickled the delighted ears of indie-pop queens with unpredictable tunes to die for! OK, in recent years, that shockingly eclectic, pansexual connection’s become somewhat strained and tenuous, but arguably, it’s alive and fabulously kicking each June at the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival.
Never been? Oh please, dear readers, book up early next year! Simply, Meltdown is most properly viewed as the multi-sexual curtain raiser for Pride itself, a cornucopia of sonic sensuality guaranteed to probe the most outre limits of gendered desires possible! So surely, it’s time to reconsider our entire, collective relationship to ground-breaking art-rock? And while it’s too late to have experienced the extraordinary, genre-confounding heights this year, let’s evoke them as persuasively as possible, so you’ll never risk aesthetic deprivation ever again!
So – opening Meltdown in the gloriously woozy fashion that’s become their trademark, sonic signature – were the Psychedelic Furs, perhaps a name as ancient and meaningless as Judy Garland to some, but detonating electrifying thrills in hardcore indie-queens. Still, the band’s hardly front-page news these days – even for the straight media – so perhaps context helps?
Staggering to uncertain prominence in the immediate aftermath of rigid, three-chord punk, that oafish, year-zero riposte to Bowie, the Furs – like their loose compatriots the Teardrop Explodes, Echo and the Bunnymen and the Mighty Wah – promised immediate, sonic entry to sheer, hedonistic delirium. Forget the socially disadvantaged brattishness of Joe Strummer or Johnny Rotten – Richard Butler, the Furs’ shockingly elegant front man, came across with the magnetic, weary aplomb of a supremely poised Ziggy Stardust. Boasting lethal cheekbones, a consciousness-raising brush-cut and a crushed, hugely damaged voice combining the finest, erogenous rasps of Eartha Kitt, Billie Holliday and Rod Stewart, Butler – even right now – instantly captivates.
Partly, that’s because of the intense sense of risk – psychological, emotional and yes, even sexual – that the Furs astoundingly generate on stage. If you’re unfamiliar with their work, definitely check out their eponymous debut and follow-up Talk Talk, for immediate admission to a sonic landship lusher than the legendary, hanging gardens of Babylon. All shockingly seductive, total immersions in a narcotic, languidly-paced, saxophone and phased guitar haze, the Furs’ best work – India, Imitation of Christ, Sister – pulls one into registering a transcendent hedonism that dumb, aggressive street-anthems and sappy love-songs entirely avoid.
Like the best gay sex itself, the Furs’ music is a bewitching, unparalleled entree to new experiences undreamt of, and – even in his early 60s – frontman Butler cajoles, tantalises and works his audience with the lethal majesty of a king cobra transfixing its’ fascinated prey. It’s stagecraft redefined as jaw-dropping panache, a risking of intensely raw human empathy with an audience, a strategy few, premiere artists indeed would even attempt, their fear of possible ridicule far outweighing the joy of giving to an audience!
That’s not the case here; within minutes, there’s a real sense of almost religious communion in the Royal Festival Hall, of lost souls flocking to the ethereal, razor-throated rock messiah that’s Butler, seemingly levitating on puffy cloud of dry ice. God, have we really become so desensitised we can only thrillingly commune in the presence of similarly-besotted strangers?
Still, if not gay, Butler’s an intoxicating, post-sexual shaman, one wholly unbounded by straight or gay performance cliches. Frankly, he’s making music as instantly, utterly addictive as Kylie’s ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’, but utilising totally different, hypnagogic hooks, a smoky, saxophone ambience that’s pure 3 AM bliss.
Cumulatively, the Fur’s set is a jewelled, slo-mo explosion of gorgeously faceted splinters, a post-punk triumphalism bewitchingly layered with depth, angst and withering contempt, perhaps most effectively in the scathing, anti-capitalist President Gas. OK, predictably, the band close with ‘Pretty In Pink’, their massive, crossover, film soundtrack hit, but throughout, Butler exerts a masterclass lesson in charisma Gaga would die for, pulling our collective heartstrings like some divine puppeteer.
Memorable? Surely, but Saturday – the following night – unleashes the riveting, bonsai charisma of genuinely genderqueer icon Brian Molko, the diminutive frontman of Placebo. And while the Furs drew hushed reverence from their devotees, for Placebo, the Royal Festival Hall explodes with the barely-constrained, mass orgasms of need and willing degradation, the collective frenzy to be Brian Molko’s bitch!
No wonder – Molko’s gorgeous, physical ambiguity – spectacularly adrift between both sexes – is enough to trigger instant lust across the entire, pansexual rainbow. All melting, chocolate-brown and short, spiky brush-cut, Molko’s a boyish, brunette take on Ellen de Generes, but simply light-years sharper. But please, don’t expect the fawning, sheep-herd passivity that brain-dead fans offer to some undemanding, X-Factor imbecile. Rather, a live, Placebo gig has all the brutal, addictive intimacy of an extended, S&M session, but better yet, doesn’t leave bruises!
And fittingly, even the dear, sadly deceased god of art-pop – David Bowie – sat up and lionised the band, in part because on their unrelenting assault on bog-standard, male musician chauvinism. ‘I’ve reacted very strongly against the machismo ad xenophobia of Britpop’ Molko stated, ‘and we’re making a strong, political statement about the fluidity of sexuality’.
Indeed, and quite properly, with the sexually explicit lyrics of the single ‘Nancy Boy’, Molko issued a withering riposte to Suede frontman Brett Anderson’s non-committal quote that he was ‘a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience’.
Big deal. In fabulous contrast, Placebo – awash with dresses, make-up and gender ambiguity – drew disproportionate, heterosexually bigoted fury from critics from their inception. Perhaps, simply, their tiny, tender minds couldn’t handle the indelible image of Stefan Olsdahl -Placebo’s six-foot-four co-founder and lead guitarist – swathed in a frock and inflicting killer chords on adoring fans!
Still, finer minds – hello, Mr Bowie – stormingly approved, leading to Bowie support slots for the band, plus a well-received duet – ‘Without You I’m Nothing’ – made at the eager insistence of the former Ziggy Stardust himself. Pleasingly, Placebo have never fought shy of excess and flamboyance – their impeccable, glam-rock credentials extend to covering Marc Bolan’s ’20th Century Boy’ and appearing in the movie Velvet Goldmine – and tonight, they’re on theatrically rocking fire.
From the opening, thoroughly hypnotic ‘Pure Morning’, it’s clear the band are exceptionally focused, the sound-mix a suspended, sonic chandelier of separate notes, each hanging in our minds with forensic clarity. But, don’t imagine underpowered indie-pop; rather, Placebo unleash a jingle-jangle blitzkrieg, a solid, blasting wall of visceral compression from the speakers, a thrilling sonic thuggery way up there with Lemmy’s uber-heavy metal icons Motorhead. This, my darlings is rock ‘n’ roll as a blistering, live take on Games of Thrones, all thrilling perverse and dripping sex, and any attempts at descriptive superlatives become instantly inadequate in the furious blaze of Molko’s nuclear holocaust charisma!
So, could any band living excel Meltdown’s peak-level Placebo? Frankly, no, and so Sunday’s headliners, the Libertines – fronted by the deservedly infamous Pete Doherty – completely turned their backs on Placebo’s breathtaking, taut transcendence. A wasted opportunity? Hardly. Screw the Sex Pistols, and the stroppy-by-numbers, predictably contrarian John Lydon – the Libertines, astonishingly, with nothing but piss, vinegar and pirate swagger, created an utterly sublime, Sistine Chapel of trash-rock before our delighted eyes!
OK, we’re all fully aware of the tabloid demonisation of Pete Doherty – his continuing issues with smack and crack, his jail-terms and and volcanically pungent liaisons with allegedly coke-snorting supermodel Kate Moss, but the deeper, more private Pete is something unparalleled in modern Britain, a fantastically erudite, hugely flamboyant, heterosexual fop. Simply, for true cultural comparisons, you’d have to reference the shamelessly bisexual 17th-century rake, poet, playwright and spectacular drunkard the Earl Of Rochester, one of Doherty’s crucially influential touchstones. And at Meltdown – pointedly appearing half an hour late in a typical fuck-you to protocols – Doherty and the Libertines exhibit all the rusty bucket, ramshackle charm of the Dickensian trash-band you’d expect.
Still, unlike Placebo’s genderqueer icon Brian Molko, Doherty embodies the pros and cons of a heterosexual, if hugely unorthodox, heart-throb, but his response, brilliantly, is never to capitulate to easy adulation, but use it as contrarian rocket-fuel to test and push the limits of his fans’ pack-rat loyalty.
Always, watching the Libertines, the immediate comparison is with the Stones’ Keith Richards, the poison essence of pure excess, and wondering if tonight’s the night Doherty might die onstage. But tonight, the music meshes like a happy accident, obviously devoted to the manic gospel of don’t-give-a-fuck, with a melodic inspiration reaching back to the Italian Futurist’s manifesto of symphonies ripped from raw, savage metal. It’s all stampeding guitars and hot-wired ecstasy, with Doherty’s rangy limbs spasming like an electrocuted, Raggedy Anne doll, with one disconcerting act of artistic ventriloquism as the band cover the Cure’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.
And the pace, thrillingly, never lets up, the anthems – ‘Barbarians’, ‘What Katie Die’, ‘Up The Bracket’ – meatily dispatched with thrilling aplomb, punishing pedestrian idiocy with gruelling, guitar genocides, an instant, melodic rat-poison to brain-dead bozos and never-ever nobodies in every inch this sadly-sinking island.
And inimitably on fire, Doherty’s a latter-day, cranked-up Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his mind, finger and guitar a firestorm of bucolic, Albion laments and elegies. Quite gorgeously, he’s a doe-eyed, poster-saint poet voiding his contempt on Brexit and the vile pettiness of the cash-till douchebags pricing our dreams, lyric histories and intangible glories by the brutal pound to the cheapest bidder, and he’s a superb, fuck-you to the non-stop shamelessness of our current, Uk.com. The Libertines, tonight, play their hearts and fingers to red-raw stumps, their art of passionate protest instantly silencing even the most reactionary bigots. Nothing, of course, can meaningfully follow them, but the Manic Street Preachers – headlining Tuesday – have unexpected rabbits to pull from their performative hat!
But, what does a band do when its’ most charismatic member disappears or dies? For readers unaware of the Manic’s pop mythology backstory, co-lyricist and guitarist Richey Edward – all pouting make-up and confrontational, Kurt Cobain femininity – presumably jumped to his death from the Severn bridge in 1995. So – as with Queen following Freddie Mercury’s passing – there’s an unavoidable aura of mortality onstage. Always, there’s a vacant, psychic space vibrating with absent charisma, but quite touchingly, the remaining members stake out and revere that absence, in the way that mainstream, tribute singers make space for some possible, visiting ghost of a Garland or Sinatra. But morbidity aside, lead singer James Bradford channels every ounce of outsider cachet he can, from Richey carving ‘4Real’ into his arm with a razor-blade in front of a shocked, NME journalist, to bassist Nicky Wire dragging up as Marilyn Monroe for the band’s ‘You Love Us’ video. And no, they’re not gay, but it’s heartwarming to watch a band attempt to accommodate recent, radical gender and feminist discourse, although in the most clumsy, spoon-fed fashion possible. Still -within their limits – the Manics are dedicated to expanding the possibilities of aural and spoken-word pleasure, a gay Holy Grail since the piss-elegant ghosts of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Quentin Crisp!
The boys’ debut albums – Generation Terrorists and The Holy Bible – pithily staked an anthemic brand of fiery, socialist utopianism, with Richey’s composition ‘4 Stone 7’ – the untreatable death-point weight of anorexics – even then giving cause for his psychological health. And sure, the boys do their best, with the sucker-punch excellence of ‘Distant Colours’, ‘You Stole The Sun From My Heart’ and ‘Hold Me Like A Heaven’, but tonight, they’re like a Ferrari with a misfiring engine, all the threat and danger gone, and only bare glimpses of the caged, napalm fury of their full magnificence. So, unfortunately, Bradfield’s rallying cry -‘Let’s just pretend it’s Saturday and fucking go mental!’ – falls limper than a severed dick, and it’s only with the unexpected, guest appearance of scorching, newbie diva the Anchoress – AKA Catherine Anne Davies – that the gig suddenly soars like a frenzied, amyl nitrate rush!
Radiating pure, female charisma Meghan Markle could barely dream of, Davies channels prime, Sandie Shaw, Swinging Sixties huskiness, and – for one desperate nanosecond – there’s riveting pop brilliance aching through every watching heart. Sadly, she’s gone after stormingly re-imagining ‘Little Baby Nothing’ and ‘Dylan & Caitlin’, but, sheer magic lingers; the Manics, suddenly, punch out their lyrics and guitar solos with the indiscriminate, life-changing frenzy of falling bombs. All elephant-stomp bass urgency, the band access a suddenly-possessed overdrive, as if the tragically-truncated spirit, bile and thwarted promise of Richey has been fabulously slammed, this instant, into the band’s furiously pumping veins!
An appropriate closer for what, quite unreservedly, I consider a queer, indie-pop opener for our official, late-summer gay Prides? Remember, queerness comes in every, possible shade of the artistic rainbow, as much by implication as overt reference, and surely embracing every experience imaginable is a keystone of LGBT consciousness, the willingness to feel, explore and push beyond the mundane? Ideally, it’s that sense of joyous transgressiveness which has always informed the finest Meltdowns, and surely, will continue for many more!
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