Three Johns / Membranes May Day Bank Holiday All-Dayer! – The Continental, Preston, 7th May 2012

Quite an amazing lineup of bands came together on Bank Holiday Monday at The Continental in Preston.

Situated on the banks of the River Ribble in a fairly hidden location, The Continental isn’t the first place you’d expect to be holding an all-day punk gig. A large, spacious, family friendly boozer with a large lounge room and a superb selection of locally brewed real ales, it looks far more Ramblers Weekly than Planet Punk, but has recently been staging some decent gigs and events under it’s amazing new management team. Recent months have seen sets from Luke Haines and The Magic Band, as well as some acclaimed Jazz and Dubstep nights; plus the walls are adorned with flyers announcing a solo set from Martin Rev of Suicide. Tonight marks the return of legendary Leeds politico-punk-popsters The Three Johns, who are playing their first live dates since 2006, as well as a rare appearance from LTW! boss John Robb’s outfit The Membranes, a seminal noise act cited as an influence by U.S alternative groups such as Big Black, Sonic Youth and Lambchop. There’s a whole lot more to come before all this; the event is split into two halves, an afternoon session and an evening session, effectively making this more of a mini-festival than a gig! You can almost taste the anticipation lingering in the air…..

The Strange are the first act of the day. A young band from Burnley, they enter the stage looking every inch the archetypal indie “hipsters”; skinny jeans, pointy shoes, impeccably styled longish hair, need I go on! However, the music they play couldn’t be further away from this (admittedly lazy) stereotype if it tried. Imagine Birthday Party era Nick Cave taking over as frontman for Arctic Monkeys, then spiking their drinks with Yellow Sunshine acid a few hours before they are due to go on stage whilst he sticks to drinking whiskey for a laugh, and you have a rough approximation of what they actually sound like. Except, if anything, it’s even more intense, made all the more disturbing by their youthful, almost boybandish looks!! Shades of The Membranes in there too, as well as Joy Division and The Mekons (the pace is only softened slightly by a ballad featuring a guest female vocalist, whose vocals recall the haunting strains of Sally Timms), the lads also show off some 60’s garage band credentials with a frenzied cover of Screaming Lord Sutch’s deranged anthem “Jack The Ripper”, playing it in a manner I am sure the great man would only approve of! Quite honestly, one of the most intense, terrifying and exalting sets I have heard from anyone for a long time, and a superb start to the day. These boys are ones to watch out for in 2012, make sure you catch em before they start selling out larger venues.

Three Johns frontman John Hyatt is next, playing a solo acoustic set. This set is the first in the afternoon session’s “Three Johns” trilogy, which features all three members of the band doing their own thing away from each other. Hyatt turns in a good humoured set, cracking plenty of jokes and entertaining the crowd with some amusing anecdotes, all of which is nicely fleshed out by his extremely powerful and often moving brand of acoustic blues/folk psychedelia, held together by his distinctive singing voice, as unique, impassioned and involving as ever before. A beguiling performance which stirs up pretty, pleasantly surreal images in the head in a manner similar to Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde On Blond era Dylan, this is a set which commands the full attention of those present, enchanted as we are by the pretty melodies and slight sense of foreboding. A man of many talents and faces, I am in no doubt that John Hyatt will continue to delight and surprise us for many more years to come. Still one of the most forward-looking musicians in the UK. Go here for more information or to stream some of John’s music.

Vincent Black Lightning are the new project from Stephen Hartley, guitarist of the legendary Burnley punk band NotSensibles, whose anthem “I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher” was recently featured in the little known biopic The Iron Lady. His former bands light hearted, silly-surreal approach is still present in this outfit, although the humour is slightly more subtle and the music more polished. A kick ass punk/pop/rockabilly trio, The Lightning certainly live up to their name; coming, as it does, from a 1948 British motorcycle which, at the time, was the fastest available in the country. Tales of crap karaoke singers, boring nights out and the injustices of the modern world are played out to bouncy, infectious bass lines and guitar chords, with impressive vocal harmonies to boot! Both raw and refined at the same time, Vincent Black Lightning are well worth checking out. A must for punks, mods, rockers and bikers everywhere!

Time for the second volume of the on-going “Three Johns” afternoon trilogy! Bass player Philip “John” Brennan’s band Nights On Mars are on next, and boy, have they got something to say! Brennan (or Brenny, to his mates) starts berating the crowd after the first song, telling those present that it’s “like a bloody morgue in here”, and sarcastically inviting the front row up on stage for a dance “feel free, you know.” The group’s lead vocalist, Fiona Jane Gregg, was the vocalist in cult 80’s indie popsters The Parachute Men, and we are treated to a superb version of her former band’s enticingly catchy anthem “Leeds Station”. The band’s own material is every bit as good, with nearly every track sounding like a potential hit in the making; stand-outs include the dark, menacing drawl of “The Last Train”, the edgy pop-grunge of “Breathe”, the melancholy ambience of “It’s Been Years” and the big sounding glam pop strut of “If You Walk With Me”, which already sounds like an indie club dancefloor filling anthem! A startlingly original, impressively cerebral alt pop outfit, Nights On Mars have a sound which is completely their own. Influences are impossible to detect; there are new wave and pop influences present in the overall sound, but if you’re looking for artists to compare them to, well, forget it! A 21st century band in every sense of the word, Nights On Mars are quietly starting a revolution of their own. Why not join in?

The trilogy is now complete! Jon Langford, probably the most prolific musician of all time (no, really!) has just taken to the stage; I think it’s fair to say we are in the presence of greatness here. Dressed in a black leather jacket, looking every inch the alt country rock ‘n’ roll outlaw from a town named Hell, and accompanied by a solitary electric guitar, you just know you’re in for a rare, once in a lifetime treat! The man’s CV stretches out further than the M6; The Mekons, The Three Johns, The Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, not to mention the countless number of albums, EP’s and demos he has produced for other artists, plus he still found time to collaborate with Steve Earle and paint some portraits of country singers for the Nashville Music Hall Of Fame! Impressive, yeah? Being based in Chicago for a number of years has not put him out of touch with his roots, nor his sense of humour; we are treated to renditions of songs from his solo albums Skull Orchard and Gold Brick plus a selection of Waco Brothers/Mekons material, all accompanied by a dizzying array of wisecracks and music biz stories which never fail to entertain. The solo material mainly deals with his hometown of South Wales; edgy, political stuff sung in a broad, highly distinctive Newport twang. He finishes the set with a Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros cover, “X-Ray Style”, proudly showing off his musical influences in a refreshingly unpretentious, bullshit free manner. A true renaissance man, I feel honoured to have witnessed a rare UK performance like this one. Be sure to catch him next time he enters these shores, you never know how long it may be before he does it again!

The afternoon session is almost over, and who better to close it than The Lovely Eggs? Hailing from Lancaster, The Eggs consist of married couple Holly Ross (guitar/vocals) and David Blackwood (drums/vocals), and specialise in quirky, off beat and often uproariously funny indie punk which John Peel would have absolutely adored! Being a boy/girl duo, comparisons to The White Stripes are almost inevitable; but whilst similar in both appearance (with the gender roles according to instrumentation being reversed), thematically they couldn’t differ more! What follows is a set of quintessentially northern, stupendously tight DIY power punk played at the speed of lightning! Their sound is actually very, very hard to describe, but I’ll give it a go. Imagine The Pixies if they’d grown up in Central Lancashire, or The Moldy Peaches if they went to the football every Saturday, or The Sundays if they took loads of hallucinogenics and locked themselves in a cage for a month, or……nah, I’m out! Deliciously skewed, twisted anthems like “Food”, “People Are Twats”, “Panic Plants”, “Fuck It” and the Gruff Rhys produced single “Allergies” rattle along nicely, very little on-stage banter means there is barely time to take a breath between each song; so by the end, when they play their so-wrong-it’s-right nursery rhyme on crack single “Have You Ever Heard A Digital Accordion?” you’re left in a state of shock, confusion and awe. If you haven’t come across this band before, then do so right now. Your life will be feeling that little bit more complete after hearing them, which is how ALL your fave bands and artists should make you feel. Brilliant, can’t wait to see em again!

The evening session is finally upon us. Kicking off the proceedings is Tom Hyatt, son of John. Armed only with a harmonica and acoustic guitar, Tom treats us to a highly intimate, engaging solo set with a sophistication and aplomb which is incredibly rare in performers of such a relatively youthful age. His music brings to mind singer-songwriters like Nick Drake, Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen; acerbic, reflective, lilting and sometimes ghostly, but blessed with a dry wit and insightfulness which prevents things from ever getting too brooding or introspective. Tom is a witty, confident performer who knows how to hold an audience’s attention; there is absolutely NO chattering or laughing throughout the set, both of which can often completely ruin performances of this nature, although it must surely be testament to the powers of the performer when they are allowed to flourish in respectful atmospheres like this one. As a tribute to his father, he ends the set with a cover of “Brainbox” by The Three Johns, with a 12 inch vinyl copy of said song perched on a mic stand in front of him. It’s a magical, moving moment; a perfect end to a sublime, deceptively understated set which leaves you in no doubt that Hyatt is one of the most intelligent, relevant singer-songwriters in the country, a perfect antidote to most of the commercial codswallop that passes for contemporary songwriting in 2012. 21st century folk-blues with a punk rock attitude, let’s hope it catches on!

I confess, I didn’t catch all of The Rebel‘s set due to chatting with various different people in the pub as he started his set, but what little I did see of the set seemed interesting. Comprised of one Benedict Roger Wallers and a semi-acoustic guitar, The Rebel turned in an interesting performance; specialising in lo-fi, scuzzy country blues punk. Apparently, Wallers was the singer in The Country Teasers, a cult UK outfit with a large underground following in America. Like I said, I didn’t really see enough of the set to digress further, but I have included a link to his music so y’all can make your own minds up about him.

France’s Papier Tigre were a late addition to the bill, not advertised initially but certainly proving their worth! A three-piece, they specialise in noisy, complex prog-punk which proves perfect for the occasion! Highly energetic, the drummer pounds his kit like there’s no tomorrow, seemingly engulfed in the fireball of aural chaos conjured up on the stage! Shades of the righteous punk fury of At The Drive In, the murky nu-prog of Deftones and the nail biting dissonance of John Coltrane at his most free form, this is a fearsome, frantic musical brew of epic proportions. Currently touring their new album, Recreaton, it can surely only be a matter of time before this band start wreaking havoc with their claustrophobic math rock on tv screens and radio stations across the globe. You have been warned…..

Time for the co-headliners to make their way to the stage. From the word “go”, The Membranes are, both predictably and reassuringly, completely terrifying. Opening with their brain shaggingly heavy new single, “If You Enter The Arena, You’ve Got To Be Prepared To Deal With The Lions”, you instantly feel as though you’ve just been strapped to a particularly rudimetary fairground rollercoaster with no brakes, and it really doesn’t let up from there! Imploring everyone to move as close as possible to the front, John Robb casts an imposing figure. Stood in the centre of the stage, bass guitar in hand, stare of a madman in his eyes, he acts as a kind of psychedelic punk rock ringmaster to the nightmarish circus of horrors acted out before the crowd. Peter Byrchmore, a member of classic Brummie punks The Nightingales and a cohort of Robb’s in Gold Blade, stands to the left, an equally striking figure; a towering, tattooed punk rock titan of a man, playing the guitar throughout as though his very life depends on it. Highlights include a riotous “Tatty Seaside Town”, which Robb dedicates to his hometown of Fleetwood, Blackpool; a euphoric “Myths And Legends”, a particularly brutal “Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder”, which features one of the most punishing bass lines of all time, and a shamanic cover of “Voodoo Chile”. Robb never stops to catch a breath, not once, constantly running and dancing around the stage seemingly in some kind of unearthly rock n roll trance, like some unholy cross between Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop and Bez! A climatic “Wounded Bull In Victorian England” sees the entire band working up a truly fearsome sweat, with Robb running around the stage making horn gestures on the top of his head! Pure rock ‘n’ fucking roll, words really cannot do this incredible set justice. Put simply, The Membranes are one of those bands you HAVE to see before you die! Got that? Good! Don’t miss out next time they’re in town….

Wow. Can’t believe I’m finally gonna get to see The Three Johns live! This band hold a very special place in my heart; you see, my dad was an original member, he helped think up the name and everything, played the drums before Hugo the drum machine became a full time member. He left due to work commitments, about a year before they started releasing records. He still showed his support by buying pretty much everything they ever released; I remember the year their album “The Death Of Everything” came out, think I must have been aged about three or four, and just staring at the album cover in sheer wonder and delight. Three grown men, one dressed in a rabbit costume with some wooden fruit in his hand, one clad in a red devil eye mask, wearing a Paul Mccartney “yellow submarine” badge and clutching a rubber skeleton, and a wide-eyed, long haired guy with an earring and a beret holding a rubber dinosaur. Yep, it’s fair to say this was a band I knew I could believe in! Obviously, being the age I was I wouldn’t have been able to decipher any of their lyrics nor made head nor tail of their music, but still, what an album cover! It wasn’t until the age of nine or ten I paid them much attention again, when my dad played me the 7 inch of “AWOL”, which he wanted to include on a cassette compilation we were making for the car. It was great; a funny, slightly scary, feedback drenched glam punk stomp of a track, all yelps, spiky guitar riffs and demonic bursts of laughter. A few months later, I heard “Brainbox”, which I liked even more. Then “Death Of The European”. After that came the albums. And the B-Sides. Guess you could say I became a fully fledged Three Johns fan! For some reason, I missed their previous reunions. Not this time. No way. Wouldn’t miss this for all the money in the world. Damn straight.

As soon as messrs Hyatt, Langford and Brennan launch into “AWOL”, I know this is gonna be a really special concert. It sounds every bit as frenetic, fast and fun as it did all those years ago, when I first heard it as a little feller. Hyatt is in fine voice, Langford’s guitar work is as piercing and precise as ever, Brennan’s bass playing is effortlessly fluid and cool. I’m dancing like a fool, singing along to every word, not bothered about standing there trying to look “cool”, that’s not what gigs should be about. There’s the cover of “The Devil’s Music” by cult Welsh musician Carlton B.Morgan, taken from “Atom Drum Bop”, which features one of the best opening lines to a song ever. “Woke up this morning, feeling real bad, got the worst hangover Dean Martin never had.” Pure genius! “Sun Of Mud”, off the same album, sounding as darkly futuristic and spookily apocalyptic as ever. “Can’t you see the sun, he’s been smoking too much POP MUSIC!”. “Men Like Monkeys” features some great ape impersonations from Langford, “English White Boy Engineer” sounds as fist punchingly relevant as ever; it’s B-Side, “Secret Agent”, is the best song Public Image Ltd never wrote. What else is there? Oh yeah, “Rooster Blue”, B-side to “AWOL”, a Beefheartish blues desert stomp which almost out captains the captain, “Coals To Newcastle”, one of the most damning attacks on Tory Britain of all time sounding distressingly relevant again; “Death Of The European” you all know, right? I mean, surely, everyone knows that song? “World Of The Workers Is Wild”, yep, my thoughts exactly. Can’t remember every single song played, but I do remember a version of T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy” being played right at the end, plus a lot of amusing on-satge banter and japery. Splendid end to a truly wonderful musical event. Why can’t every day be like this?

All words Sean Diamond. Read more by Sean here.


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4 comments on “Three Johns / Membranes May Day Bank Holiday All-Dayer! – The Continental, Preston, 7th May 2012”

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  1. Wicked reviews of what must have been an incredible gig. As a dyed in the wool John’s fan it is really great to have the video footage. John and Tom played in our local pub last year as solo artist’s a gig I will also remember, would have loved to have been at this one too…. or any of this tour…
    Cheers Sean, great posting :)

  2. Thanks, Bobby! Forgot to mention the two sublime renditions of Teenage Nightingales To Wax and Lucy In the Rain; the former a delirous, feverishly catchy glam punk stomper, the latter a mysterious, shimmering proto-baggy psychedelic anthem. Shame you couldn’t make it to these dates, hopefully there’ll be a next time!

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