Monday, April 22, 2019

Dance Craze (1981)


I recently had my attention brought to Dance Craze, a 1981 film depicting British ska bands on stage in the height of the second-wave 2 Tone revival. It's appropriate that I just saw The Specials live; the 2019 incarnation might not quite match the original 1981 version, but it got close. In any case, it's amazing to see the original lineup in full force, playing a bunch of their early classics.

Madness, still thickly steeped in ska, are also given a lot of screen time, and they earn it, particularly with their hilariously hyped rendition of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake". The Beat are also given a prominent place and perform at their peak.

The real highlights are The Bodysnatchers and The Selecter, two bands fronted by Black women that didn't last as long as some of the others. The Bodysnatchers are the only band in the film that are all women, and they only released two singles before dissolving. Considering the relative lack of available material from either band, the footage here is perhaps the best opportunity to experience them.

The only band that didn't speak to me was Bad Manners. Even they weren't particularly bad, but their stage antics and songwriting were conspicuously less refined. The film also inexplicably contains a six minute long interlude with old newsreel footage from 1959 about dance crazes. Presumably that segment is there to contextualize the wild youth of the day or to legitimize second-wave ska as the latest in a long string of ever-changing trends. Whatever the intention, it acts purely as a distraction and can safely be skipped entirely.

Other than the interlude, there is nothing to the film except the six bands performing on stage. Director Joe Massot made a solid choice to focus on the high-energy live acts and keep out (most of) the filler. The film is a blast, and almost every song and performer is solid. It reminds me of Urgh! A Music War from the same year, but it is far more focused and serves as a great document of a scene that splintered and shifted shortly soon thereafter.


Score: A-

Thanks to Slicing Up Eyeballs for their article!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Drenge / The Indian Queen - Live 2019.04.15 Kantine am Berghain, Berlin, Germany


I saw this concert more or less on a whim, knowing next to nothing about even the headliner.

Artist: Drenge
Venue: Kantine am Berghain
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 15 April 2019
Opening Act: The Indian Queen

The Indian Queen were a duo of just drums and guitar/vocals. Their style was hard, aggressive, and thrashy. The guitarist spent most of his time playing metal riffs with occasional breaks for strummed and/or muted sections with some shouted vocals. The drummer was propulsive and carefully followed the rhythmic breaks but offered few additional flairs. I could almost get into the intensity of it, but the vocals just weren't doing it for me. The guitarwork was impressive, but I can only get so much out of that technique, so most of what I appreciated was just the lock-in with the drums.

Drenge appeared in a more conventional rock format with a vocalist/guitarist, a lead guitarist/keyboardist, a bassist, and a drummer/vocalist. I was expecting something in the vein of garage rock or a bit of fun punk, and there were bits of both of those, but they started out by focusing on riffy hard rock and ended up going off in several directions. Most of these diversions were more interesting than their core rock sound. The large keyboard and effects rack was only used a few times, but always to good effect. Their mellower songs tended to be more expressive. One song could even have been categorized as sparse, and it was all the better for it. I again liked the energy they brought to the show, and the instrumental performances were good, but I still didn't find much to pull it together. The lyrics might've helped, but they were often drowned by guitars, and the sound system wasn't doing any favors. At least they could write some decent melodies, and the attempts at harmonies were pleasant when audible.

[Drenge.]

Scores:
The Indian Queen: C-
Drenge: C+

P.S. Thanks to Jochen and Matthew!

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Palais Schaumburg - Live 2019.04.05 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany


Palais Schaumburg came to my attention thanks to the excellent Verschwende deine Jugend oral history and compilation. Their two songs on the album, "Telephon" and "Wir bauen eine neue Stadt", are both unconventional, lyrically confusing, melodically simple, rhythmically creative, and full of weird sound effects and synthesizers. I bought their second album, Lupa (1982), while living in Frankfurt almost ten years ago, and I love its playful, funky, exploratory variety. Once I finally found a copy of their self-titled debut (1981), I was actually quite disappointed. The two tracks I already knew were as good as ever, but the rest felt like it was just second-rate material that was weird for the sake of being weird. Their third and final album, Parlez-Vous Schaumburg? (1984), is a third-rate excuse for dated synthpop. Despite the mixed track record, I thought it would be worth giving their show a chance.

Artist: Palais Schaumburg
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 05 April 2019

The current incarnation of Palais Schaumburg is the same as the quartet that recorded their debut album: vocalist/guitarist/synthesist Holger Hiller (who left shortly after the first album), synthesist/trumpeter Thomas Fehlmann (the only constant member), bassist/vocalist Timo Blunck, and drummer Ralf Hertwig. Despite their marketing language, this is not actually the original lineup; that would include drummer FM Einheit (who ultimately spent more time with Abwärts and Einstürzende Neubauten in particular).

For whatever reason, the band only played songs from the first album, the preceding singles, and a few new compositions that sounded a lot like the old ones. This restricted their palette substantially, and other than the two aforementioned "hits", few of the songs lived up to that standard. Most were in the same vein of dada bizarreness, but lacked any compelling elements of substance. Some were played with an aggressive rhythm that worked up the energy of the crowd, but the primary musical content was just repetitive bass and drum parts. The only other highlights were some sparser, spookier elements and of course the delightful array of synthesizer noises. Oddly, for the second encore, they just repeated "Wir bauen eine neue Stadt" in the same arrangement.

I suppose I should've known that if I didn't like half of the band's recorded material, I might not like the live show. I'd hoped for something more in the style of their second album, but they steered completely clear of that. The charm of their obtuseness has a limit and they reached it quickly. It might've helped if I could've understood the vocals better, but the mix was subpar. It also didn't help that a photographer spent half the show wandering around the stage taking pictures with a bright flash. All that said, I'm curious to see what comes of their new material. If they do release a new album, I'd still give it a chance!


Score: C

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Specials / Swutscher - Live 2019.04.03 Max-Schmeling-Halle, Berlin, Germany


The Specials were yet another band that I was introduced to via Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again. Despite their popularity in the UK, they'd never crossed my radar in the US-American heartland before that. With an unexpectedly strong new album at #1 in the UK charts, they are apparently back in the spotlight. This show was originally scheduled for the Columbiahalle, which is already a decently-sized venue, but it was relocated to a large sports arena in Mauerpark.

Artist: The Specials
Venue: Max-Schmeling-Halle
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 3 April 2019
Opening Act: Swutscher

Setlist:
01. Man at C&A
02. Rat Race
03. Do Nothing
04. Vote for Me
05. Friday Night, Saturday Morning
06. Embarrassed by You
07. Blank Expression
08. Doesn't Make It Alright
09. The Lunatics [Fun Boy Three song]
10. Blam Blam Fever [The Valentines cover] →
11. A Message to You, Rudy [Dandy Livingstone cover]
12. Stereotype
13. 10 Commandments [with Saffiyah Khan]
14. Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys [The Equals cover]
15. Nite Klub
16. Do the Dog [Rufus Thomas cover] →
17. Concrete Jungle
18. Monkey Man [Toots & The Maytals cover]
19. Gangsters
20. Little Bitch
21. Too Much Too Young

First Encore:
22. Breaking Point
23. Ghost Town

Second Encore:
24. Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think) [Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra cover]
25. You're Wondering Now [The Skatalites cover, with Saffiyah Khan]

Despite the advertised start time of 8pm, German 7-piece Swutscher came on stage 15 minutes early. They brought a bro-heavy attitude and played generic and sloppy barroom rockabilly and 90s macho-rock. It seemed like the only reason they were opening for The Specials was because they had a saxophonist and a lot of members on stage. The vocals were so distractingly bad that any good elements were completely overshadowed. They even did a messy version of The Beatles' "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" in German, but the vocals were so terribly yelled that I couldn't understand them.

Then the strangest thing happened: they started playing a motorik beat and went into a long, psychedelic, pseudo-Krautrock jam. The song had a totally different groove and feel. It would've been awesome but for the vocals. They followed that with another long jam in a more classic rock style done surprisingly well. Why weren't all the songs like that? The last two songs hardly seemed like the same band.

The Specials eventually arrived with eight members: guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, vocalist Terry Hall, bassist Horace Panter, lead guitarist Steve Cradock, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, drummer Kenrick Rowe, trombonist Tim Smart, and trumpeter Pablo Mendelssohn. Notably absent were Jerry Dammers (who has avoided all reunions), Neville Staple, Roddy Radiation, and John Bradbury (who died in 2015). Three original members still in the fold ain't too bad after forty years.

The band wasted no time getting down to business. They started with a few classic tracks and then "Vote for Me" from Encore (2019), which was given a bit of an extended dub treatment. They continued in the pattern of mixing early songs with the new ones, including several covers from both periods. The new album has a new version of "The Lunatics", originally performed by the splinter group Fun Boy Three, which was performed quite successfully. They even brought out Saffiyah Khan to reprise her role on Encore's "10 Commandments".

The Specials have always been quite upfront about their politics, and I was impressed by how relevant the old songs still are as well as the quality of the new work. Thankfully, the mix was great and the vocals were loud and clear, so I could hear almost every word. I was also impressed by how solid the performance was: if you ignored all of their socially-conscious lyrics and just focused on the grooves, it still would've been a great show. Panter's bass was the star, holding down the beat and carrying much of the musical structure. He was frequently locked in step with Rowe's drums but yet never felt tied down.

Most of the music kept close to the two-tone standard, but there were a few deviations into some deep and heady dub jams. In addition to "Vote for Me", "Stereotype" and "Ghost Town" (introduced with the single word "Brexit") were given a similar treatment. For these songs (and "10 Commandments"), Hall moved to a rack with some combination of keyboard, synthesizer, and/or reverb unit.

I was amused that the band only played songs from their first two albums, contemporaneous singles, and their new album. Admittedly, that is their best work, and most of albums in between were either all covers or recorded with substantially different lineups. But then why did they perform Dammers' "Little Bitch", one of their only songs with a conspicuously less progressive message?

This show felt like a party. It was high-energy and people were dancing enthusiastically. (There was even a crowdsurfer at one point!) The band played for almost two hours and almost exclusively played uptempo numbers. It's always cool when an old band can put out new work that almost matches their best and then back it up with a successful tour.

[The Specials with protest signs.]

Scores:
Swutscher: C
The Specials: A-