Electric Ballroom, Brixton
September 17th 2013
A “secret” gig at Brixton’s Electric Ballroom prompts Frazer Cooke to mull over the gig experience including a plethora of smartphones, a dearth of toilet facilities and…oh yeah, the seminal psychedelic surf punks Pixies.
Prior to embarking on their European tour, Pixies played the iTunes festival followed by an “intimate” gig they announced in their usual understated way to members of their mailing list. “We are delighted to be playing another show in London” the email simply said, followed by a secret link for ticket purchases.
“Intimate” it seems is a euphemism for “small venue oversubscribed by about 500 people”. Organisers advised us to turn up early – things occasionally get a bit ‘stabby’ in Brixton so no doubt security wanted to perform a full cavity search on each and every attendee. As it happens, we ignored the advice and pitched up about 30 minutes before Pixies were due on stage, walking straight in and taking up our position at the back of the packed venue.
Both my friend and I are blessed with long bones, so crowds usually pose no obstruction from our elevated viewing position. Unexpectedly, however, they did cause an issue for our ageing bladders. Before the band took to the stage we embarked on a search for the nearest loo.
Moving through the venue was difficult; people were backed up all the way to the bars that flanked the ballroom. Seeing that we were making slow but steady progress, we picked up a small entourage who fell into our wake. However, we were not blessed with any actual information on the location of the lavatories. Nor it seems were the staff who worked there who shrugged and indicated that they thought they might be on the other side of the dancefloor. I glanced across the thronged masses that stood between us and the proposed location of the toilets and announced that the path was unsurpassable; my newly acquired party frowned at me disappointedly before dispersing.
The house lights went down, the crowd buzzed and the band mounted the stage, kicking off with a cover of The Fall’s ‘New Big Prinz’. Immediately, an array of electronic devices were held aloft, some videoing, others repeatedly photographing. In the 80s and 90s venues would be rigorous in their heavy handed suppression of audio/visual recording devices. On a backpacking trip across America in 2002, I went to an Afrika Bambaataa gig in San Francisco. As part of my travelogue I’d decided that, alongside the usual photographic record, I’d also make a sonic recording of my trip – taping buskers, street noises, station announcements – and on this occasion, the gig I was at. Within no time at all I was ejected from the venue by an irate bouncer. Now in our current era, it’s a begrudgingly accepted phenomenon. It seems to have a distancing effect on both performer and audience. The band tonight were less animated than I’d seen them before, more like waxworks before our passive gaze. The audience initially more concerned with recording their presence for a subsequent social media posting.
Those of us who are long term music consumers have been boring our friends for years about how more culturally attuned we are than them with our tales of key gigs, our early take up of ground-breaking albums and how we championed now seminal acts when they were playing provincial leisure centres. Now, if you are inclined, you can immediately annoy your friends as you experience an event. You can slot into the endless feed of folk’s food, illiterate updates on their state of health and pictures of their boring children, a shaky, distant photo of the gig you’re now at, along with a 30 second video snippet of the back of someone’s head obscuring the lead guitarist and a selfie of “me n jemima @ pixies, brixtun. awesom J”. The difference to the music bores of old is they (I) at least had to pay enough attention at the time to be able to formulate a story to tell. Now no experience is worth having unless it’s filtered through social media.
Two songs in and our toilet quest became more urgent. In my head the tale of the night was already being composed and was destined to be entirely bladder based – the title of this article was now formed. Thankfully, a staff member more familiar with the layout of the building pointed us to the secret stairway to the balcony and a less insurmountable lavatory. The upshot was that, on the balcony, we were now in a much better viewing position and settled into the gig with the pleasant disappearing ache of a recently voided bladder.
The twin stories of this tour were Kim Deal leaving (again) and subsequently the first clutch of new material from the band (bar the Breeders outtake ‘Bam Thwok’) since ‘Trompe Le Monde’ in 1991. The new stuff has met with critical hostility and Deal’s exit (and seeming replacement) has caused rumblings in the Twattersphere. Although the entire European tour is sold out bar Luxembourg, which perhaps reflects how critical and social media opinions differ from actuality.
The Muff’s bassist Kim Shattuck has the unenviable position of stepping into the shoes of her fellow Kim. She has never been identified as a ‘replacement’ by the band; her arrival being referred to by the more palatable; “joining us on stage”. In terms of bassmanship, Shattuck adequately performs; however, the hole that becomes most apparent is the warmth that usually emanates from the stage. Kim Deal would smile and wave at you like your favourite auntie. Genuinely seeming to enjoy the act of performing (although what I didn’t miss, from the time I saw them at the Troxy in 2010, was the annoying twat who would shout “we love you Kim” every 5 fucking seconds).
Frank Black, from this distance looking like Hank Schrader, was impassive and uninvolved for the entire gig, only offering a wave and a smile at the end of ‘Planet of Sound’ at the climax of the pre-encore set. Despite their reported feuds, Deal would still prompt some interaction from Black, even if it was simply to throw a guitar at her.
The band, for the most part, put their heads down and ploughed through the set. I hadn’t admittedly heard the new EP before the gig and the set-list threw me somewhat, I wasn’t sure if I was hearing a new song, a cover or an album track I’d long forgotten. Which made me think, when was the last time I’d actively listened to a Pixies album all the way through? In this day of bespoke playlists and smart playlists that only play the tracks you’ve given a star rating, perhaps this was a Pixies fuck you to the iPod generation, “so, you think you know us from your ‘best of’ playlists do you?”
Having said that, the band didn’t seem to warm up until the end, during the furious rendition of ‘Planet of Sound’ you felt the band were really getting into it, then with a bow and wave they left the stage. On their return, Kim Shattuck appeared to relax, she’d exchanged words with some people at the front at the end of the main set and perhaps their words gave her confidence, she bounced excitedly during the final two songs ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ and ‘Vamos’. During the extended jam of ‘Vamos’, Joey Santiago also displayed more animation than had been witnessed all evening, employing a variety of objects to wring noise from his guitar, including his smartphone which he used to film the crowd down the fret, prompting a cry of “awesome” from the technologically impressed dullard behind me.
The lights went up and the crowd seemed keen to linger, usually the audience filters out immediately, recognising the universal sign for “fuck off now, it’s finished”. This lot didn’t want to go. The harsh light wasn’t kind to our faces and as I looked around there were wrinkles abound. There weren’t many in the audience under forty. For a night perhaps they’d remembered a time when music was exciting and ground-breaking and Pixies epitomised that era. Now they had to return, pay the babysitter and put the recycling out. It was a shallow illusion though because this Pixies incarnation, despite the off kilter set and some new material, were trading in nostalgia. There wouldn’t be a young Kurt Cobain in this audience itching to start a band.
At the end of the night I didn’t feel part of a movement or that I’d witnessed a paradigm shift in culture – which is certainly true of Pixies of old. I had seen a competent, professional band play a series of songs with little acknowledgement of their audience. To be fair, after going out for the last 10 years and performing material from their short four year productive period of 1987-1991, they decided to make some new songs – a decision to move forward that resulted in the loss of an integral member and a subsequent critical panning. Live gigs are often regarded as the epitome of the live experience. Sometimes though, it makes you realise this is simply someone’s job. Tonight was one of those nights.
All words by Frazer Cooke. More of Frazer’s ramblings on Louder Than War can be found here. Frazer is a founder member of Shankfist Wreckage Technique, currently the only hip-hop collective boasting members from New York, Berlin, London and Macclesfield.
Thanks to Richard Miller, gig partner and “Wave of Urination” title writer.