Festival Preview: Don’t Look Back 2005

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion: one of the line-up for London’s Don’t Look Back – All Tomorrow’s Parties season

The inspiration of gig promoters Barry Hogan and Helen Cottage, the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals at Camber Sands in Kent have been notable for avoiding the line-ups typical to ‘corporate festivals’.

Choosing as curators artists of whom they personally admired (Mogwai, Tortoise, and Slint to name but three), the idea has now been expanded this autumn to London’s Don’t Look Back festival, which runs from 30 August to 5 October 2005.

The capital’s venues the Barbican, KOKO, Hammersmith Apollo and Shepherd’s Bush Empire will play host to the ATP curators hanging out their favourite shirts. Favoured artists will plough through their finest extended works, with other repertoire to follow.

Whether this leads to a loss of spontaneity is clearly neither here nor there for the organisers, but will give fans the opportunity to hear tracks never usually performed live. Your humble servant musicOMH duly offers a user’s guide to the series…

Iggy was dubiously manipulating a child’s teddy bear on children’s TV programme No 73

It’s fitting that Ann Arbor’s favourite son kicks off the festival. Its hard to imagine a world where this select band of artists would have flourished were it not for James Newell Osterberg and The Stooges‘ sophomore blow-out on the Elektra label in 1970, entitled Fun House (Hammersmith Apollo, Tuesday 30 August).

Left to their own devices after the first John Cale-produced eponymous album, Fun House was all breathless nihilism and metallic cathartics. Feral and amphetamine-horny Iggy Pop, Scott and Ron Asheton, and the late Dave Alexander were the last word in angsty lust and diverted frustration. The rawness of the Down On The e Street, Loose and TV Eye is enough to make you melt peanut butter on your chest, while Dirt out-self-destructs Jim Morrison.

Now back together since 2003, The Stooges have recruited one-time Minuteman Mike Watt for this return ticket to the Fun House. Original sax-man Steve Mackay returns and is a more prosaic reminder that while other rock bands were looking towards classicism for inspiration, these Michigan mooks were looking to the skronk of Albert Ayler for kicks.

Dinosaur Jr… had none of the hostility towards the bloated ’70s rock generation that had supertramped their way to the Californian coked-out lifestyle

By the time J Mascis, Lou Barlow and drummer Murph had made their second album You’re Living All Over Me, Iggy was dubiously manipulating a child’s teddy bear on children’s TV programme No 73.

To some, Dinosaur Jr were a departure from the American hardcore sound that had toured the backroads and college circuits. Dinosaur, as they were known pre-litigation, had none of the hostility towards the bloated ’70s rock generation that had supertramped their way to the Californian coked-out lifestyle. They had none of the Punk resentment of Jello Biafra, Black Flag, and the their ilk, though they retained the nihilism and mixed it with the stoner-chic they would help to popularise.

You’re Living All Over Me (KOKO, Wednesday 31st August) represented the Massachusetts second long-playing effort, and until Sweet Nothing re-introduced the master tapes to a pressing plant in 2004 the record was impossible to get hold of. Known and admired by East Coast cognoscenti like Sonic Youth and fIREHOSE, Mascis & Co’s gigs were notorious for their blasts of sheer screech and volume. But though they were hardly The Dooleys in the recording studio, You’re Living All Over Me has structure and form. And with Lou Barlow’s Poledo, they were had of touch of runty avant-gardeness about them.

Evan Dando’s finest 29 minutes still sounds as fresh and beguiling today as it did back then

Mascis’ bouncy licks on Sludgefest and Just Like Heaven, while full of leakage, inhabited a world where Hardcore had feared to tread, while In A Jar acknowledged a debt to Lemmy’s lot. And after hearing his thin, languorous, high-register struggling to be heard above the tamed howl, the whole world realised it was OK to like Neil Young again. With the original three now re-united, it could be time to find out what this whole Freakscene was about.

It’s an unwritten rule when covering bands like Dinosaur Jr that one has to mention how they ‘paved the way’ for what became known as Grunge, and the success of some band whose name escapes me…I think it began with ‘N’… Never mind. We’ll come back to it later…

But 1992 was the year that grunge ruled. But in the middle of all the drugs, self-hatred and suicide attempts, along came The Lemonheads‘ defining album, It’s A Shame About Ray (Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Thursday 16 September). Sunny, breezy and utterly irresistible, Evan Dando‘s finest 29 minutes still sounds as fresh and beguiling today as it did back then. And if you’re looking for proof, you’ll need to beg, steal or borrow to get a ticket to this sold-put show.

Mudhoney, still at the coalface of rock after all these years, were named after one of Russ Meyer’s boobalicious movies…

On every track, whether it’s the supremely catchy chorus of Confetti, the sweet pleading of Bit Part, the hymn to illicit substances of My Drug Buddy or the rush of Alison’s Starting To Happen, Dando managed to create that rare thing – short, sweet songs that instantly made you feel happy. He may have had his own personal demons to deal with afterwards, but this was Evan’s true life-affirming album. 

And they also served…. proving that long, lank hair and cheesecloth shirts were kinda gnarly dude, were Seattle originals Mudhoney. Still at the coalface of rock after all these years, the band was named after one of Russ Meyer’s boobalicious movies. Too authentically punk to find mainstream favour, the quartet of Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Dan Peters and Matt Lukin did survive life with a major label in the aftermath of Nirvana‘s success (I knew we’d get around to mentioning them sooner or later).

Their chosen album Superfuzz Bigmuff (KOKO, Friday 16 September and Saturday 17 September) was really their first six-tracked EP, rush-released by Sub Pop when Touch Me, I’m Sick garnered some press attention and not a few sales through its association with Sonic Youth. That’s probably why the collection was appended with a clutch of early singles including the actually quite disturbing Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More and the glorious snub of You Got It Keep It (Outta My Face). Give or take a bass player, Mudhoney are still intact, possibly because no band member ever left to pursue cello studies. However, his did happen to one of the artists on Don’t Look Back’s first double bill.

When Reykjavik’s Múm arrived in 2000 with Yesterday Was Dramatic, Today Is OK (Barbican, Saturday 17 September) Björkish comparisons inevitably gushed forth. True, there was a preternatural fascination with pre-adolescent sensory experience (I’m 9 Today, Smell Memory), but unlike Björk’s magpie attention, the two twins of Mum were knee deep in classical electronica. Expanding generously for touring purposes, Múm’s lengthy debut album is no exercise in soporific surrender. Despite the mollifying cuteness of its song titles, there are moments when Yesterday Was Dramatic… is as uncompromising in its approach as Aphex Twin‘s Selected Ambient Works, both occupying a place where music becomes peripheral vision, subliminal experience and blurry, furry shape.

A whole green world away from the petri-dish thoughtfulness of Mum is bill-sharer Cat Power (Barbican, Saturday 17 September). Wrestling with a variant of writer’s block in 1999 and bored of performing her own songs, Chan Marshall elected to inhabit the darker corners of familiar compositions for her subsequent release after the quiet success of Moon Pix. Some of the famous men praised may be predictable (Jagger / Richards, Dylan, Reed) but with a mixture of traditional numbers and assorted faves, Chan reorganises each into the bitterest of sweetnesses. Only during Wild Is The Wind does Chan struggle underneath the historical weight of the song, resulting in a by-numbers recitation of the Nina Simone standard. But everywhere else, she shows herself to be a masterful interpreter, beating a clear path to the inspiration of the You Are Free a few years later. Making all other covers albums sound like the exercises in stalling and contract fulfilling they really are, the only question remains is will the ever-unpredictable Chan keep to the Don’t Look Back script. All bets are currently off.

Orange saw The Blues Explosion as Huey, Dueyand Luey to Keef’s Mickey Mouse…

Expect similar lack of activity at your local turf accountant at the likelihood of the an ex-Calvin Klein model not yelling BELLBOTTOMS like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins at the witching hour come September 21st. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s Orange (Koko, Wednesday 21st September) was the band’s third honest-to-gosh long player on Matador back in 1994.Hailing from the Exile On Main Street-worshipping NY noize band Pussy Galore Jon Spencer kick-started the Blues Explosion in 1991 with guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins.

Rescuing the blues from beer-commercial hell a good deal earlier than Jack and Meg White, Spencer’s super-charged goofball rock’n’roll and his BigBopper-on-Viagra growl were just getting into its stride when Orange was released to growing critical appreciation. Flat-out party guitars and none of the self-immolation of Grunge or the spandex sheen of G’n’R, Orange saw The Blues Explosion as Huey, Duey and Luey to Keef’s Mickey Mouse.

With strings straight outta Sigma Sound (Bellbottoms) and a guest rap from Beck (Flavour) not all of Orange’s baroque touches will be necessarily reproducible live, but Spencer & Co are promising some special ‘mixes’ for this one-off show.Best catch him now. He is the son of Sister Ray after all.

Gang Of Four’s uptight take on funk has found its way into the tensebass-lines of Red Hot Chilli Peppers…

And returning to remind us that love will get you like a case of anthrax, come the name-drop band du jour, the original King / Gill / Burnham / Allen line-up of Leeds post-punkers Gang Of Four. On the eve of an American tour the band take time-out give their first album Entertainment! (Barbican, Saturday 24 September) a full public airing.

Though the oppositional neo-Marxist politics have been left on the filter paper when bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Kills have nit-picked for sounds, styles and poses, the Gang Of Four’s uptight take on funk has found its way into the tense bass-lines of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and are now feted by all alleged seditionists from Bono to Michael Stipe.

Garlands aside, Entertainment is as firm a record of the disquiet of the increasingly marginalised left of the early ’80s as can be found outside of Tariq Ali’s memoirs. With lines predicting that ‘guerrilla warfare is the new entertainment’ and ‘repackaged sex keeps your interest’, the quartet also specialised inJG Ballard-style prescience. But perhaps Entertainment’s greatest returned gift is being single-handedly responsible for provoking the word ‘angular’ into the Music Hack Thesaurus (1982 and 2004 editions).

Entertainment is as firm a record of the disquiet of the increasingly marginalised left of the early ’80s as can be found outside of Tariq Ali’s memoirs…

Ah, Belle and Sebastian. The masters of expressing teenage angst, even though they were well beyond that phase when If You’re Feeling Sinister (Barbican, Sunday 25 September) was released in 2000. Take Seeing Other People. “We lay on the bed there/ kissing just for practice / could we please be objective? / Cause the other boys are queuing up behind us…”.

Why is Stuart Murdoch’s wispy voice even appealing? How do they create their strange little tunes, with unlikely rhythms and odd lyrics, so that they sticklike limpets in your brain? And why isn’t that annoying? And is it true that their trumpet tunes, injected into songs like bursts of sunlight, are the best of any band? Well, if you haven’t got a ticket already it may be too late as the performance ofMurdoch & Co’s early meisterwerk sold out early on.(HW)

After spending much of the spring touring Europe with Jello Biafra, Melvins bring their unforgiving pummel to Koko’s sound system. Another grateful, if temporary, beneficiary of the success ofNirvana, Houdini (Koko, Tuesday 4 October) was Melvins’ first album of three for major label Atlantic.It also represented something of a shift for this Washington state trio of King Buzzo, Dale, and a bassist called Lorax who just happened to be the daughter of Shirley Temple.

Pearl Bomb is all onamatapeiacally sustained menace…

Though the Sabs-like metal furnace is all present and correct on tracks like Copache and Night Goat, Houdini is host to less ear-worrying textures. Pearl Bomb is all onamatapeiacally sustained menace, while final track Spread Eagle Beagle’s dives gleefully headfirst into the avant-garde. Gig-goers attending on pure word-of-mouth might think the in-house janitors and the roadies have teamed-up to jam halfway through this 10-minute epic of the sounds of industrial site clearance.

Hovering benevolently over this festival is the ghost of the one the noise gods saw fit to call Kurt Cobain. Fans should note that Cobain contributed guitar licks to Sky Pup, and ‘additional percussion’ to the aforementioned Spread Eagle Beagle.

Another spirit hovering over the festival, although possibly less benevolently is, still alive and well, Steve Albini. His 1999 produced album, Dirty Three‘s Ocean Songs (Barbican, Wednesday 5 October) begins the second Don’t Look Back double-bill. Ocean Songs represented the Melbourne-formed trio’s second album for European label Bella Union.

Lacking a vocalist… doesn’t stop Warren Ellis’ eloquent violin speaking volumes about lost dreams…

As famous for their collaborations / guest-spots with artists such as Nick Cave and Will Oldham, as they are for their own material, Mick Turner, Warren Ellis and Jim White’s mournful parade should be the downtempo highlights (if that’s the word) of the whole series.

Lacking a vocalist in the strictest sense doesn’t stop Warren Ellis’s eloquent violin speaking volumes about lost dreams and the heavy-hearted solace of continual travel. Long-form circumspections AuthenticCelestial Music and Deep Waters will make you wish theBarbican had a skylight.

Ending the series on an appropriate low note is the performance of Sophia‘s The Infinite Circle (Barbican, Wednesday 5 October). Essentially the work of ex-God Machine main man Robin Proper-Sheppard, The Infinite Circle was Sheppard’s first recorded output since the sudden death of his bass-playing partner Jimmy Fernandez. Bleak tracks like Woman, andBastards will make the rest of the Don’t Look Back festival sound like the soundtrack from Hair.

If, as seems likely, Don’t Look Back is successful, All Tomorrow’s Parties organisers Hogan and Cottage are looking to turn the idea into an annual event. Good news is that ATP are open to suggestions. However, advocates of such magnum opus as Bon Jovi‘s Slippery When Wet or MC Hammer‘s Please HammerDon’t Hurt ‘Em might be wise to look elsewhere.

• Additional words by John Murphy and Helen Wright

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