Call me Russ L

London Calling

Posted in Music by Russ L on 7 January, 2006

Originally posted on 19/12/4.

”London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared, and battle come down…

Forget it brother, an’ go it alone…” – ‘London Calling,’ The Clash

Prior to this weekend I’d only ever been to London twice, and since both of those were school trips they probably don’t count. When Neurosis announced a gig (one of only four or five they intended to play across the planet) in North London, I was already there. Neurosis are a band who used to tour constantly – 300+ gigs a year internationally. I saw them once, in humble Dudley. After several years their schedule unsurprisingly took its toll, leading them to… stop, and play one-off gigs on an every-now-and-then basis in their hometown of San Fransisco. Even though the very idea of a touring band is that they travel to me, not that I should travel to them (it feels akin to the mountain going to Mohammed), this stood a fair chance of being my last ever chance to see them again and I was not going to let it escape.

Petty annoyances, naturally, would assail at every turn. I booked my train & tube tickets to get to the Travelodge (I’m on my way to that ‘most valued customer’ award in leaps and bounds) I would be staying at in advance, and of course the train I was originally booked for was cancelled. At the other end my tube ticket was rejected by the automatic barrier things at the station; I was told by L.E.D. lights to “Seek assistance.” Whether this related directly to the problem or was just general advice for me remains to be seen, but no employees of the station appeared to be in sight. That combined with the fact that I wasn’t clear which tube line I was meant to be on (and that the maps were of little help) led to a mental pronouncement of “Bugger this for a game of tin soldiers” and my decision to just get busses.

All this and I still managed to arrive at my lodgings far too early to check in. I swear I saw the ghost of Franz Kafka hiding behind a tree, smirking a bit.

Euston and Kings Cross, anyway, both appeared to be dumps. We have many such places at home, I don’t need to travel to Southernland for that. You’ll notice there how I’ve managed to pick up the local place-names. I even now know where they are in relation to each other. A visit will do that for you, but I didn’t really know beforehand. I resent, greatly, the fact that everyone is simply expected to know the layout of London. “You’ll want Euston station,” people all over the country will say and expect you to have the faintest idea whereabouts in London that is. “That’s quite close to Uglybugglyborough, you must know how to get there,” you’ll be told by people who no more live in London than I do. I’m not proud of being ignorant of these things, not by any means, but it does not seem at all fair that everyone else is simply required to know this, especially since Londoners don’t seem to be similarly expected to even be able to do so much as point out Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow on a blank map. While I’m on the rant, here’s one for not just Londoners but southerners in general – I’m from the Black Country, the urban region to the west of Birmingham. This does not make me ‘Northern.’ I am from the ‘Midlands,’ making me a ‘Midlander.’ It’s not a difficult term, and I would have thought if Americans can manage it then you all could too.

I popped down to Camden, to see the renowned market. Initially I was disappointed – I went into the one called ‘Camden Market’ and found it to be a fairly uninspired collection of foofaraw merchants and chi-chi vendors that could be found more-or-less anywhere. Travelling on slightly, however, I encountered Camden Lock Market/The Stable (or something similar) Market…. Ah. This is where the action is. I didn’t buy anything to keep (only food), but there’s plenty there. As well as all of the weird and wonderful clothes you could imagine and the usual festival stall-ish jewellery, there was some absolutely gorgeous furniture. The food vendors are amazing – something for almost every taste, with people leaning over their counters into the crowd giving away samples and beckoning “Try some! Try some!”

My only possible complaint revolves around that being the closest thing to hawking I found – to go to a market in London and not encounter anyone giving it the full Del Boy styled shouting your mouth off seems wrong, very wrong. Ah well. I had a pint of stout in the pub overlooking the first bit of Camden Lock Market. They charged me £3.05.

After I’d been around the markets I stopped for a quick freshener in The Worlds End. I’d definitely heard the name before, and I think it was one of the pubs in which, during the bad old days, you couldn’t flick a pork scratching across the room without hitting at least half a dozen Britpop stars with questionable fringes. I had another pint of stout. They charged me £2.90.

I repaired back to base camp/Travelodge for checking in and a quick afternoon/early evening nap (look, I’m old…) before heading over to Kentish Town (this has probably been said 381,000 times before in wittier fashion, but why is ‘Kentish Town’ in North London when Kent is to the South?) to The Forum. And the queue to get in. It ranged across the front of the building, all the way down the side of the building, across the back of the church next door, and across the back of whatever the building next door to that was. I was standing in this line for a literal half-hour. Queues for bread in Soviet Russia were nothing in comparison.

Inside, eventually, I quite liked the venue. It had the vibe of a tacky theatre, but in an endearing way and the sound was perfect. I had a few pints (well… you ask for a pint, they give you a tin of canned Guinness and a plastic glass) of stout over the evening. They charged me £3.20. For each one.

As I’ve said, I have seen Neurosis once before – at J.B’s in Dudley (5/10/99), on the ‘Times Of Grace’ tour cycle, supported by Voivod and Today Is The Day. It remains one of the most amazing gigs I’ve ever been to, and is really only second to when I saw Carina Round for the first time. I’ve told this story to many people many times, but I remember watching them, utterly absorbed, and thinking “Blimey, they’ve only played for about half an hour” when they finished. I looked at my watch and an hour and twenty minutes had passed.

A band who can alter time and space, therefore, are a good band indeed. Did they manage that again? No. Sadly, no. The first portion of their set struck me somewhat like their latest album eventually did (I haven’t expressed my thoughts on that in writing yet, but no doubt I will soon) – the listener is placed right at the centre of the vortex, while the music swirls and tears around one’s periphery. They don’t attempt to sweep you up in the carnage, but rather to contain you within it. It’s a spectacle, and of that there can be no doubt, but unlike last time I wasn’t completely and utterly transfixed – I was rapt, certainly, but I was also able to think other thoughts while watching and listening to them. Their world was not quite as all-encompassing as I know it is capable of being, and thus despite their performance being better than that of 99.9% of any bands you will ever see it still wasn’t quite what it could have been.

The second of the three distinct sections of their set was the collaborating-with-Jarboe (bless her) bit. I have a feeling that many would disagree with (the one other opinion I’ve heard about this gig so far most definitely does), but I thought this was really good. Their album together was led by their playing, with her vocal contributions at the most adding and sometimes just sitting-on-top-of-with-no-appreciable-effect-to their music. In this setting, everything was centred around her.

I found her performance to be absolutely magnetic, although I could easily understand anyone replacing ‘magnetic’ with the words ‘clichéd’ or ‘bloody silly.’ Spinal Tap’s ‘fine line between clever and stupid’ lives on in her form, albeit in not so much of a traditionally metal way. Her vocal range/variety was considerably wide, her movements were distinctly intriguing, her dress was unnecessarily see-through, and her personal charisma/aura was… spellbinding.

She added a new dimension to Neurosis, although in effect she was reducing their already multi-dimensional sound to purely her own level and no other; as I’ve said, I found myself captivated, but I can fully understand anyone who says they did not enjoy it at all.

There is a thought that cannot help but occur – if they can achieve such wonder with a Jarboe, just imagine what they could do with a Diamanda Galas…

The final part of the set, after Jarboe left (namaste-ing to signify her thanks to the crowd, interestingly/foolishly), was the build-up to and delivery of the pure sense of destruction that many feel is Neurosis’ most effective weapon. I wouldn’t say that, although I might argue that Neurosis are a pure sense of destruction’s most effective weapon – I haven’t yet encountered another band who can play music that sounds quite so convincingly like the world is ending. Their main set finished with ‘Locust Star,’ making the encore (I didn’t expect that from them) of ‘I Can See You’ a slight anticlimax. Nonetheless, I was left stunned.

It’s difficult to contract my thoughts into an overall impression, but I can say that while they weren’t as good as last time and weren’t as good as they could have been, it still barely matters. They were amazing.

Day two… I bid the Travelodge a sad farewell, and headed over to Camden again before going for the home-bound train. I had another mooch around the markets, and stopped for a drink in the famed Barfly pub – I’ve read of the place many times and was intrigued to see what it was actually like inside. I had the good fortune to actually go in while there was an afternoon acoustic gig/open mic session type thing. I had a pint of stout. They charged me £2.80.

First on was Neutron Tears (not a band name, he is a solo artiste), who had travelled down from the Midlands. The name seemed vaguely familiar, and after a bit of brain-racking it occurred to me during my journey home – I’d read a few reviews of him in Rhythm & Booze fanzine a long long time ago. 3 songs of fairly standard acoustic singer/songwriter stuff, anyway, but with songs that seemed catchy and some lyrics here and there that definitely perked my ears up and sounded interesting. I will certainly attempt to investigate further.

The next artist was Michael Vasco (that may not be the correct spelling), who (and I know this is terrible) annoyed me a tiny bit as soon as he stood up on stage, with his gonky haircut and his very carefully, precisely ripped jeans. Again, just one man and his acoustic guitar; he did have a certain charisma about him, and really got into his own music, dancing as far as he could with his guitar encumbering him, but the two of his own songs he played didn’t really seem memorable. Between them was a cover of the Eurythmics “Love Is A Stranger,” although he didn’t announce it as such; perhaps the others were covers too and I just didn’t recognise them. There were more performers after him, but I had a train to catch.

So… my first proper trip to London. Make of it what you will.

– Russ L

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