Friday, May 29, 2009

That Petrol Emotion

All bands reform. It’s inevitable, unavoidable and there are laws of physics that have less supporting evidence.

I’ve learned to live with gravity but my will to live has been tested by Spandau Ballet reforming. Actually that particular and unwelcome reformation has opened up the possibility of time travel for me. I really do feel exactly the same about them as I did when I was 16. Seething resentment and unlikely to be stopping off at the kilt shop.

Some bands rumble on for years after anyone has stopped caring and yet they can still catch you out when they reform. Like a fetish you didn’t know you had.

The Undertones split up after the world had stopped caring (one of the band described the final John Peel session as a “cover, a b side and the sound of 5 pairs of hands enthusiastically scraping the bottom of the barrel”). That Petrol Emotion were Sean O’Neil’s attempt to make more aggressive, politicised music. (Early singles had sleevenotes about strip searches and plastic bullets).

Late period Undertones had been shaped by the bands love of Soul and Psychedelia (and quite right too!) but That Petrol Emotion were more of the sound of the songs they loved to cover. Beefheart's Zig Zag Wanderer, Pere Ubu’s Non Alignment Pact, Television’s Friction, Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl and In A Rut by The Ruts. Discordant and churning.

Initially the vocals were shared between bassist Damian (who’d joined after his post Undertones outfit Eleven had petered out) and guitarist Reamann O'Gormain. I saw this line up at the Mean Fiddler in 1985 but when I saw them a few months later at Thames Poly with The Nightingales they’d recruited gangly American singer Steve Mack. I saw them a lot over the following couple of years. Although at that point Mack wasn’t convincing as a singer (but he got a lot better over the years) they were a phenomenal band live. I saw them with The Long Ryders, The Woodentops in Deptford, Stump in Wolverhampton. The records weren’t as good as the gigs but songs like It’s A Good Thing proved that there was always joyous celebratory pop lurking under their swampy sound. They just couldn’t help it!

Now where it gets difficult is also where it got interesting…and actually where I lost interest. All the band wrote (great for quickly gathering up material…. and even better for arguments in the studio) and they were trying to bring in the Hip Hop and Dance records that they were listening to.

Actually, as band they were probably quicker off the mark than most in terms of the unloved and little lamented Indie dance crossover. So you’d get the “Agitate, educate organise” lyric from Brother D and The Collective Effort shoehorned into their own song Big Decision and a fair bit of sampling and remixing.

Sean O’Neil left after the 3rd album, End Of The Millennium Psychosis Blues and Damian moved back to guitar. Subsequent albums Chemicrazy and Fireproof were more focused than this sprawling sonic ragbag of styles but the law of diminishing returns is almost as fixed as the law about bands reforming. The band split in 94, still on ferocious live form.

The band played a couple of gigs in London and Ireland last summer and have just announced a full tour. If they’ve still got their live form then it should be a treat and I think it’s going to be the scene of much misty eyed reverie for those of us of a certain age. The baby sitters will be much in demand…but actually the baby sitters need to be watching live bands of this calibre for themselves.

Dag For Dag

Dag for Dag are an American brother and sister duo now living in Stockholm. Sarah Parthemore Snavely and Jacob Donald Snavely have rediscovered the Joy Division sound of the spindly guitar, teetering on the edge of musical collapse and given it a bit of Gothic dressing up with the Woo hooOOOH (It’s all a bit scary isn’t it) vocals.

Shooting FromThe Shadows is a “full chunky ep” (that’s bass player Jacobs description) which is released on Conor Oberst’s label Saddle Creek. Main track Ring Me Elise has the kind of single line, distorted guitar snakery of Joy Divisions Transmission or Novelty. They also feel like an amped up Violent Femmes or the Cramps.

Barney’s guitar playing always sounded like he was playing beyond his actual ability and so part of the paranoia and gruff terror of Joy Division was that they were actually all going to be found out at any moment Of course Violent Femmes could all play like demons, they just liked sounding rough. And The Cramps? They need no justification.

With Dag For Dag there is a sense of glee to Sarah's playing and a pleasure in making it snort. You get the same feeling from the way the J Mascis sets about his guitar in Dinosaur Jr despite his apparent problem staying awake.

Silence Is The Verb sounds like a Country ballad version of Atmosphere. It’s a creepy boy girl duet with some heroic (and occasionally in tune) guitar twanging over a probing chiming bass line…The guitar sounds a bit like Frenz by The Fall and yes the bass line does sound like Atmosphere.

There is a version at

I have to approach Joy Division quite cautiously now. Whilst I can go back to New Order quite happily, I just can’t play a whole Joy Division album. I think about them quite a lot still but I just can’t face the hard work.

I did once hear an excellent story about the Joy Division tribute band who realised that the audience wasn’t quite sharing the intensity of the experience. The band ground relentlessly and terrifyingly through Day Of The Lords, with the singer giving it the full blown Ian Curtis gravitas.

The portentious lyrics “Where will it end, where will it end?” rang out and as the band seemed to be shaking before the fast approaching apocalypse, the audience was in fact doing a conga through the upstairs room of the Hare and Hounds.