Electric Ballroom, London
Friday April 13 2012
Emilie Autumn sold out the Electric ballroom in Camden with no music business backing, no media and no radio. Her theatrical, neo-gothique take on 80’s electro pop does not fit in the classic indie/retro Peel world of ‘alternative’ media but she is a fascinating artist.
Fortunately Michael Johnson from the excellent Nemesis website was there…
Plague rats and muffins form a disorderly queue along Camden High Street. The Electric Ballroom is sold out tonight, stuffed to its dust-covered disco lights with Emilie Autumn’s eager fans – who are either rodents or bread products, according to some arcane filing system that probably only exists inside the head of Emilie Autumn herself.
Selling out the Ballroom is no mean feat. Only five years ago, Emilie Autumn was fifty yards down Camden High Street, playing the Underworld – a venue less than half the size. She’s moved up the street and up the rankings since then.
Emilie Autumn has turned herself into a cult star, and she’s done it without the slightest assistance from the music biz – give or take a few features in mainstream metal magazines like Kerrang!, which probably had a fairly negligible effect given that Emilie Autumn isn’t heavy metal and isn’t even a band.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Emilie Autumn has won success in spite of the music biz, rather than because of it. The insistence of her record labels and management teams on marketing her as a rock act only works up to the point where you get to see the show. Because Emilie Autumn’s surrealist cabaret is a mighty long way from rock ‘n’ roll.
The lights go down. With much drama Emilie Autumn’s grrl gang, the Bloody Crumpets, appear, vogueing mightily to an intro track that seems to be mostly thunderclaps and sepulchral rumbles. Only three Crumpets this time: The Italian noblewoman (or something – I’ve never been quite sure what her character is supposed to be), The Blessed Contessa, burlesque queen Veronica Varlow, and the wayward pirate, Captain Maggot. And then – to frenzied cheers from an audience that’s practically chanelling Beatlemania – Emilie herself appears, stalking through ‘Four O’clock’, the traditional overture. Four am in the Asylum. Time for tea and larks.
It must be said that Emilie’s show relies heavily on a clued-up fanbase that knows the back story and understands the premise. There’s no exposition, no narration. You just have to know that Emilie and chums (and, by implication, the audience) are locked in a Victorian madhouse, where they while away the early hours by putting on a show. A bit like all those old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney movies…but with more mental illness. And more corsets. Definitely more corsets. Just don’t expect anyone to explain what’s going on.
Topped by a teetering mohawk, Emilie is all stylised fierceness and don’t-mess attitude. She struts through ‘Fight Like A Girl’ – the theme song for this tour, and, like many of Emilie’s songs, a pean to self reliance, inner strength, getting your own back, and Not Giving Up No Matter What. Also like many of Emilie Autumn’s songs, it’s a slice of 80s-electro drama, all spunky synths and an assertive vocal. It reminds me of Propaganda, all bristling determination over one of those sampled ‘n’ synthesised wide-screen Trevor Horn productions.
There are old faves in the set, too. The Art Of Suicide’ is all tinkling harpsichord and woe, a song that avoids hand-staple-forehead territory by dint of its affecting, lilting tune. Emilie sings it from a golden wheelchair while the Crumpets sway around her like dreams. Emilie’s entire art exists on the very edge of melodrama, but she never quite lets it fall off.
Even ‘Liar’, a rare brush with rock dynamics, is a burst of harsh catharsis – rather disconcertingly directed at Captain Maggot, with whom Emilie picks a fight – when it might have been a mere shouty-crackers interlude. Somehow, Emilie Autumn can pile on artifice and angst in equal quantities, and get away with it.
‘Liar’ is also, incidentally, the only time tonight we get to hear a brief burst of Emilie’s famously shredtastic violin playing. Paradoxically, for a performer who’s main selling point is her musical virtuosity, there’s less and less actual musical performance every time the show comes around. Practically everything we hear is on the backing track. Even when Emilie gets behind her alleged harpsichord – it’s hidden by artfully arranged drapes; she could have a pile of beer crates under there for all we know – she looks blatantly like she’s miming.
But this is a show, not a gig. It’s all about the performance, not about the playing. The Crumpets swirl and strut and fight among themselves, and have their own moments of glory. Veronica Varlow’s feather dance is quite a spectacle, although I think we could do without the Contessa’s incomprehensible interlude of gesticulating and shouting, which seems to go on for several weeks. Cap’n Maggot, everybody’s favourite Crumpet, doesn’t have all that much to do tonight – apparently the venue wouldn’t allow her fire eating routine – so she contents herself with being the all-purpose disruptive element. Everybody needs a disruptive element, and they don’t come more disruptive than Maggot.
For all that, this production is rather more stripped-down than previous go-arounds. The stage is dominated by steel crash barriers, which are suitably bleak and industrial, but don’t exactly hint at Dickensian Victoriana.
The tea table, a key part of the Asylum furniture, has been unceremioniously shunted upstage. It’s a prop around which the Crumpets gather when they’re not otherwise engaged – and there do seem to be a few moments when everybody’s just…standing around. The sense is that teatime is passing. The older elements of Emilie’s show are being phased out – but the new stuff hasn’t quite been nailed yet.
Indeed, some of the new material feels like it’s been temporarily wedged into place – maybe all that brutalist steel scaffolding isn’t there by chance: it’s a hint that this show is under construction.
At any rate, the scene where Emilie appears, flat-capped like an East End barrow boy, and lines up the crumpets for sale or rent, is downright baffling. And, because nothing happens on stage for a while except a bit of standing around and talking, the show does rather sag like an under-baked teacake at this point. When the scene eventully resolves into a bouncy rendition of the new song ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’, it’s almost a relief that we’ve got all the farting about out of the way.
But the show always recovers itself from these dips and saggy bits. Another song comes along, and it all lifts again. ‘Thank God I’m Pretty’ is a genuine emotional barnstormer, and when the march of ‘One Foot In Front Of The Other’ stomps into view – it’s another toughly emotional just-get-through-it self-help anthem – every plague rat in the place is ready to follow Emilie anywhere. If she decided to march on Buckingham Palace waving flaming torches, this audience would fall in right behind her.
Buckingham Palace might not be on the agenda, but it seems there are other schemes in the works. Emilie tells us that in 2014 the plan is to take the Asylum to London’s West End, and transform it into a full-on theatrical production. The announcement gives me a slight moment of ‘Told you so!” – because I’ve been recommending a move into theatre ever since 2008.
I noted back then that Emilie’s show was increasingly incongruous when shoe-horned into rock venues, with their limited stages and compromised sightlines. Theatre was obviously its natural home.
It’s nice to know it wasn’t such a crazy notion after all. It’s not like I’m claiming credit for the idea – I’m sure it’s been Emilie’s intention for ages. But I said it, in public, first.
Logistically, it’s possible, too. Given that Emilie can sell out the Electric Ballroom (and several other UK tour dates), she could conceivably fill a West End theatre, many of which are no bigger than mid-sized rock venues. The biggest problem might be finding a theatre that has a suitable gap in its calendar in which to slot a short-run show.
But I think if Emilie’s show is to make a real showing in the theatre, it’ll have to be worked up into a tightly scripted linear narrative, with a proper story structure. Good guys, bad guys, tension, resolution, the whole thing rising to a real denouement. Simply transferring the songs ‘n’ set-pieces format of the rock circuit show into different kind of venue will be an opportunity wasted. It might even be necessary to explain the background premise, for the benefit of freshly-baked muffins. And someone really should find the Contessa something to do that doesn’t involve shouting.
But this is a natural, and long overdue, move. Perhaps tonight we have seen the last of Emilie Autumn as a (sorta, kinda) rock performer. Next time round, she’ll be a real thespian. But then, I never doubted that she was.