Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Fire Engines @ ICA, London

17 September 2005

I don’t remember when bands started being “spiky”, but it sounds like a recent invention. Back in the day, I guess it was “jagged” or “angular”, or any of those other terms commonly used to describe a guitar band whose songs refused to follow an obvious path. The Fire Engines stuck around just long enough to make their statement: tight, repetitive, discordant yet funky guitar music that knew not to outstay its welcome, preserved in less than a handful of singles and a mini-LP. There’s much to be said for such brevity.

Hearing the Fire Engines 25 years on, in what is said to be their last-ever live appearance is both strange, and at the same time the most natural thing in the world. There they are, having reconvened, encouraged by acolytes Franz Ferdinand. But when they say this is the last time, you’d better believe it. They came out of the same young Scotland that produced The Associates and Postcard Records’ finest. Compared to the Fire Engines though, all of their contemporaries are a picnic. And that’s what still grabs you about this lot.

Typically the rhythm section sets up something insistent for ears, hips and feet, and while one guitar walks all over it like a dizzy bird wandering an electricity pylon, another comes in and pushes the envelope just a little further. Post-Captain Beefheart‘s Lick My Decals Off Baby band, it’s hard to think of a rock group who slashed at musical structures with such razorblade wonderment. When laconic frontman Davey Henderson, miraculously unchanged despite the passing of time, is not blaming Josef K (long defunct) for a missing bass drum pedal, or riding roughshod with a tinny one string solo over the other just-slightly-out-of-tune guitar, he’s yelping, whining (sparingly though, of course). It’s thrilling.

Most of the audience look like they might have caught the Fire Engines first time around, or if not, are making amends. They don’t look like they own many Bloc Party or Maroon 5 records. And it seems a) such a shame that no-one picked up their fuzzy baton and ran with it, and b) little surprise that Franz Ferdinand are doing so well for themselves.

The Fire Engines’ set is comprised of various bits of their Lubricate Your Living Room album, and a B-side (Meat Whiplash, if you’re taking notes). They don’t play Candyskin, their singalong indie hit. At least two songs in tonight’s set lent names to a fanzine and a band. They play 30 minutes and they’re off, and despite much hollering, the audience look secretly pleased that the stubborn sods left it that way. When they played Glasgow with Franz Ferdinand, the new young Scotland tried to bottle them off. Just different ways of showing affection.

Almost perfect, and that in itself is perfect.

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The Fire Engines @ ICA, London