Live Music + Gig Reviews

13 Most Beautiful… Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, with music by Dean & Britta @ Barbican Theatre, London

30 July 2010

Arguably no one casts as long or as pitch-black a shadow over modern alternative/ indie/ whatever culture as Andy Warhol. More than 20 years since his lonely, unglamorous death after a routine operation in a New York hospital, his aesthetic is everywhere. Blank, expressionless co-option of the consumer mainstream with minimal (but noticeable) ironic remove is still the preferred attitude of the hipster.

Longer and blacker a shadow still is the one cast by the Velvet Underground, Warhol’s rock ‘n’ roll plaything-turned-incendiary-Year-Zero for almost every band who have since donned Ray Bans and turned the feedback up to 11. It is a match made in heaven, then, to find one of Warhol’s most enduring artefacts forming a backdrop to the music of Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips. Wareham has been exploring and refining the echoes of Lou Reed‘s sepulchral, meandering, snarling guitar for two decades now: first as leader of erstwhile kings of glacial guitar wash Galaxie 500, then with Phillips in the more pop-orientated Luna, and now as Dean & Britta, continuing to circle the melancholy heart of the deceptively simple pop song.

Tonight they perform their soundtrack to 13 of Warhol’s most famous ‘screen tests’, his bold and much-copied attempt to drag the portrait into the era of the moving image. As the screen above the stage flickers into life, and the pretty, unblemished features and sensual lips of Richard Rheem tower over the stage, a wash of Kraftwerk-like synth drifts out over the heads of the audience. The image moves in and out of focus, flickers, zooms, vibrates, like the camera is trying to invest Rheem’s blank prettiness with some agency or emotion, and the music matches this with its own little flickers and eddies. The image whites out and the four-piece band take to the stage, dark-clad and slight beneath the screen.

The second portrait is of poet Ann Buchanan, more famously The Girl Who Cried A Tear – apparently from simply trying to out-stare the camera, not because of inner torment. The juxtaposition of the immobile face beneath a shock of black hair with the single tear that pulses over and over from her left eye is quietly unnerving, the soundtrack a Spacemen 3-like combo of shimmering organ, muted electric guitar and Casio percussion. Paul America of My Hustler fame is soundtracked by Teenage Lightning, an old Dean & Britta favourite whose absurdist lyrics (“I can hypnotise a pancake/ I can levitate the Pope”) and laid-back shuffle-and-strum complement the self-conscious, shyly-giggling, gum-chewing blonde above their heads nicely. Dean’s lyrics about “always driving” recall his anecdote about America’s epic drive across the States, AWOL from the filming of Ciao! Manhattan.

The most famous of all Warhol’s superstars is up next. The band launch into the upbeat, bittersweet It Don’t Rain In Beverly Hills as the blonde highlights and arched eyebrows of Edie Sedgewick light the screen above. Billy Name, wreathed in cigarette smoke, impassive and immobile in bright, reflective shades, gets a murmery, Velvet-y carpet of guitar and tambourine, while Susan ‘International Velvet’ Bottomley’s glowing half-moon face is serenaded by lyrics about “Hanoi Jane” and “the Queen of China”. As the embers from her song fade to black, a stuttering electronic tone announces the presence of Dennis Hopper, restless in a tweed jacket, his troubled brow bisected by shadows. The music is another throbbing, machine-like Velvets pastiche which sometimes lapses into placid, watery romance. This perfectly segues into the mysterious, sub-aquatic mood of Mary Woronov’s theme, as she glances tensely from side to side framed by a lustrous mop of hair and almost cartoonishly perfect cheekbones.

In between each song, Wareham keeps us appraised of who we are watching, and why they were significant to Warhol, his languid Bostonian accent lending him the authority of a true storyteller. With his words as much as his music, he knows how to quietly draw us in to a narrative, with vignettes about the moody, animalistic Freddy Herko dancing out of a fifth floor window to Mozart’s Coronation Mass, or the child-like, mischievous Ingrid Superstar wandering off into oblivion, “leaving her fur coat on the bed and her false teeth in the sink”. At one point he gets into a witty back-and-forth with a posh heckler (who it transpires later is one Pete ‘Sonic Boom from Spacemen 3’ Kember, a friend and colleague of the band) who claims to have bought an original Warhol soup can painting. “Uuuuhh, no you haven’t…” he chides, as though correcting a bright schoolboy who is just on the verge of trying his patience.

Britta steps to the mic to deliver a sweet, sad I’ll Keep It With Mine as the song’s original singer, Nico, affects boredom and peers through her magazine like a telescope at the young woman on stage in front of her. It’s the gig’s eeriest and most affecting moment, and brings the project’s intrinsically haunting qualities to the fore. We are watching people who have almost all died long ago, often under grimly tragic circumstances, but whose presence remains here, vivid, alive with the watching audience now. Of course this is something which happens any time we watch an old film, but tonight, at this moment as the words Nico first made famous are sung back to her by people a whole generation younger, it raises goosebumps in the way a ghost story does, and a lump in the throat the way love songs almost never do. Even if they didn’t encore with an echoey, spooky, effects-heavy version of Galaxie 500’s Strange, the audience would still be chilled to the bone in the best way possible.

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