Live review: The Fugs at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
June 11, 2011 (Ray Davies’ Meltdown)
Every once in a while there is some debate over whoever was the first punk band. I don’t know why there is ever any doubt. On New York’s Lower East Side in 1964, The Fugs originated the idea that you can form a band without knowing either how to sing or how to play. Caterwauling and bashing things, they were led by two beatnik poets: Tuli Kupferberg, who died last year (he was only 86, and appeared in Ginsberg’s “Howl”Â) and Ed Sanders (who has a Simpsons character based on him).
Their objective was to test to the limits the freedoms guaranteed by the US constitution. They also invented poetry-rock (whatever Dylanapologists might tell you), swearing-rock, anarcho-peacenik rock, profanity-rock, and so forth.
I had to go, all the way to that London (from Gwent City). It was only polite. I wanted to see The Fugs, a thing I thought would never happen. My friend’s car has FUG licence plate. We had to stop for the Slutwalk crossing. We were directed by a SATNAV, which assumed we would know the names of London streets, along something called “Constitution Hill”Â which isn’t even a hill. Fugs synchronicity, eerily, spookily.
We had to stop to let the Slutwalk pass. The Fugs, we were later told, had to stop to let by a cavalcade of naked cyclists. Imagine that: Ed must have briefly thought his work was done.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall was half full, as not everyone is as polite as me, and we politely sat through Lewis Floyd Henry, a barely competent one-man-band. I had been told “you will like him, he is quirky”Â but quirky is seldom enough.
“We’re the Fugs, ”Â Ed said. He looks like Mark Twain. He may as well BE Mark Twain for all the weight of history he carries. He looks well for 73, and very well for a man who survived Manson family creepy-kill. He read from bits of paper quite a lot, as befits a heavyweight bardic academic.
They launched into “Slum Goddess”Â, a song written in 1965, with additional words added when they reformed in the 1980s. Unlike the original, barely competent Fugs, these remnants of the revived Fugs from 1984 are pretty good musicians, and Ed learned to sing sometime along the way (it took him long enough but he got there). Their fancy harmonies are easily good enough to grace much of that C21st post-Gorky’s folk blokerama prevalent on Jools Holland’s Boogie Woogie Shitebox, but these songs were magnificent when flailed by bansheeing novices, so it doesn’t really matter.
The hits-from-a-parallel-universe just kept on coming. The perennial Zen chant “Nothing”Â (“Johnson and Nixon humungous pricks, son”Â¦”Â) and, as Sanders wryly pointed out, the still-topical (in light of Bin Laden’s exit-via-the-sea) “CIA Man.”Â From 1965, it was far from being the oldest number on offer – “Swinburne Stomp”Â and “Dover Beach”Â were pre C20th, and “When The Mode of The Music Changes”Â had roots in the 4th Century BC.
And the Fugs could not play on his home patch without a shout out or two to Lambeth lad William Blake. When I did my Eng Lit degree I got a mild ticking off for mentioning the 60s in a Blakean context. The Fugs are living proof that I was right to do so. But hell, those people thought Pride and Prejudice (the tragic tale of a dumb girl suckered into marrying a Bullingdonesque closet) was some kind of classic.
“Shuffling old men,”Â twattered some malcontent who exited after five numbers, but I meantersay what does anyone expect? Indeed, the Fugs addressed this aspect of their career with “You Cannot Wade in the Same River Twice”Â. Of course, I would have been happier if I’d been drenched with spaghetti as a metaphor for Israel/Palestine (a conflict addressed in “Backwards Jewish Soldiers”Â a reasonably contemporary Kupferberg hymn/revision) but you can’t have everything.
Why? Why can’t you have everything? Not for the want of efforts on the part of Ed, Tuli and pals.
The Fugs: they tried to change the world by levitating the Pentagon. Grope for peace, LAMF.
Colin B Morton