Fat White Family | Shame | O’Connell & Love
The Railway Tavern, Tulse Hill, London
October 5th 2019
A secret gig with a legendary line-up, Phil Ross reports from an electric night in South London’s vibrant music scene, with photos courtesy of Viola Spanu.
Tonight is about family, yes just like the Sister Sledge song, ‘I’ve got all my sisters with me’! It’s all about family; brothers, sisters, mothers, lovers, fathers, sons and daughters. Everyone is here to celebrate the 50th birthday of one of South London’s best loved and much missed pub landlords, Simon Tickler the former owner of The Queens Head in Stockwell Road.
The Queens Head was both the breeding ground and birthplace of cutting edge acts like The Fat White Family and Shame, and the scene of some of the wildest and most hedonistic parties.
Famously the Fat Whites lived and wrote in the rooms above the bar, playing regularly to hone their skills and pay their way. Shame also practiced and performed while many others, including the Alabama 3 in various forms were a frequent fixture.
But if we’re perfectly honest, most people here tonight have travelled from far and wide to see The Fat White Family, Shame, O’Connell & Love and the many other special guests, who have agreed to play at Simon’s party. The rumor is that the proceeds from this sold out show are being donated to help a mate who is unfortunately being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
As people stream in via the side entrance to the Secret Garden, Shame sit nearby supping Guinness and smoking roll-ups, and quietly the tension and the excitement build. They played here a couple of years ago before they hit the big time, and the pub was rammed then as it is tonight.
There’s no stage at The Railway and that’s kinda fine for a normal band night.
But if you’ve seen a front-man with the energy and attack-charimsa of Charlie Steen raging at you full face on, with the ferocity of Henry Rollins and Malcolm Owen combined, then you know this won’t be no normal night cos this ain’t no normal band.
On that 2017 gig, the band and the audience merged into one heaving mass. The band, the audience and the pub floor merged, the walls merged, Shame and The Railway Tavern roared and ached like some huge beast raging against the machine.
Already tonight there is little room for movement as the opening chords of I’ll Sing Hallelujah To You are rung out and the crowd chant the chorus.
O’Connell & Love, the Alabama 3 singer’s side-project with collaborator Brendan O’Connell are playing an acoustic set tonight, joined by vocalist Stephanie Clift. The wall of song elevates them as the packed room sings along loud and proud, seamlessly swaying into The Pirate Radio Station. Outside the queue to get in streams endlessly past the window next to the stage.
They play a perfectly formed set, highlighting their sublime songwriting with beauties such as It Was the Sweetest Thing from their second album Minesweeping, and appropriately after nine or so numbers, they finish with the very catchy Hangover Me. Appropriate because the video for this single was actually shot in The Queens Head. Tickler, the publican who made so much possible is here in the room, hands in the air singing with the audience as Larry Love’s gruff Welsh baritone blends beautifully with Clift’s bluesy but angelic vocal. But like Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl’s fairytale duet, it’s all over far too soon.
The beer garden and smoking area are packed now too, as Shame prepare to go on. Twenty one year old Sophie has bunked off Uni and come down from Glasgow to see Shame and Hannah has does the same, coming from Leeds. The excitement is palpable and neither the teenage girls, nor the balding punks are prepared to give way in their bid to be at the front. The band can hardly get to their instruments and climb along the benching at the side, jumping down into the gap where they have to play.
If you haven’t seen Shame, you must, there is no other way to say it, you must! If you’ve heard their Songs of Praise album on Spotify or somewhere, you might think they sound like Black Grape or as The Guardian’s Dave Simpson described them, like Fugazi or Gang of Four. But if you haven’t seen them live, quite simply you must!
It’s quite possible that no machine has yet been invented that can record the combination of power, energy, rage and relentless rhythm that these boys exude.
Charlie Forbes counts 1-2-3-4 on his drum sticks, Steen shouts “Huh” and motions the crowd to come close with a beckoning right hand. There’s no-where to come and he knows it, so he struts and frets around this tiny space like a caged beast before unleashing his torrential raging vocal of Another onto the wall of fans up close face to face.
It’s the unique joy of live music, when it’s done right. It can’t be captured, not on iPhone or on YouTube or in a recording studio. Nothing can replicate the feeling of the air being forced at you through a huge speaker system, the overwhelming power of noise and the sweat and adrenalin of the band and the crowd. Nothing can replicate the energy you see before you. The energy that you experience around you and which you becomes part of you.
Josh dashes across the polished floor we could call the stage, brandishing his bass like a lethal weapon, leaping high, Eddie thrashes rhythm on his Telecaster and Sean assaults us repeatedly with stabbing guitar lines. Nigel Hitter is the next number before the distinctive shout and reply vocal of Finerty and Steen on Concrete. There’s no way Steen can make his way through the mob and after the third track his shirt is soaked, he is topless, crowd surfing over the heads of young and old.
Finerty leaps untamed through Lampoon, Forbes flails wildly. The energy continues to build and build until they finish off with the driving, pounding climactic Tasteless, this too feels like its over far too soon.
It seems like a long time before for the Fat White Family come on. The main bar is packed, waiting patiently, and when they finally do, there is an eruption, the crowd go crazy, dancing, jumping.
The space where the bands play has shrunk even further, but people continue to encroach inch by inch until the audience and band are virtually singing together, sharing the space, it’s almost uncontrollable.
Nathan struggles to keep people at bay through the relentless driving Whitest Boy on the Beach. Lias, shirtless with oversized Ski-type glasses teases and whips the crowd further to fevered frenzy with the sleazy drawl of Touch the Leather.
Climbing the hypnotic Tinfoil Deathstar, sheer joy is in the room with more than just a hint of danger, the band and the crowd love it. At one point the Fats are so completely mobbed, it’s a little concerning. They turn their backs conspiratorially to the audience and play the middle chunk of Fringe Runner facing the drummer before erupting outward again into the creshendo.
Is It Raining In Your Mouth is just wild, this is old school. The few and far between moments in life like this must be savoured when they arise, and that’s exactly what has happened tonight. The bands, the guests, the audience, they’ve seen it for what it is – something special that they might never experience again and they grabbed it with both hands. They grabbed the family jewels.
All words by Phil Ross. More writing by Phil can be found at his author’s archive.