The Continental, Preston
Aug 20th to 22nd
A couple of weekends ago, whilst the established festival circuit was kicking back into gear with the Green Man in Wales, another, less corporate, mini-beast was stirring in a gastro pub on the banks of the River Ribble in Lancashire. Preston Pop Fest, which took place in the wonderful Continental pub next to Avenham Park, just outside the city centre, certainly punched above its weight, stretching over 3 days, with wilfully diverse line-ups on two stages, apparently curated by a shih tzu called Coco (owned by erstwhile local promoter Tuff Life Boogie), and headlined by Close Lobsters, The Wolfhounds and, on the Sunday a real coup in The Bluebells.
You might not have heard about Preston Pop Fest, because, after tickets sold out in 3 days when it was announced in March, it didn’t need much promotion. But if it happens again next year, you should make sure you attend.
Pop Fests are a sort of an unofficial indie pop franchise, usually held in big cities and lovingly put together by local aficionados, although this is the first time I’ve heard of a dog doing it. Recent years have seen Pop Fests in Berlin, Paris, Madrid, New York, Copenhagen, London, Manchester and Glasgow. The School organise their own annual ‘Wales Goes Pop’ event in Cardiff, too. Preston Pop Fest had its own distinctive take on the basic Pop Fest template, including a lot of noisier acts from the mid 80s to early 90s UK indie underground, including some of those covered in John Robb’s Death to Trad Rock book, (you can buy the book here)as well as the guitar jangle and melodies that come as standard at these events. The 16 page A5 photocopied Pop Fest programme, which everyone was handed with their wristband on entry, even looked like a fanzine that could have appeared at the same time as Rox, Attack on Bzag or The Legend!
So we kicked off Friday early evening in unorthodox fashion with Glasgow’s Sumshapes, who feature Richie, Jer and Ali from Dawson, the scratchy noiseniks who originally operated from 1988 to 1994. Now sounding a tad more mathy and jammy than their teenage selves, almost prog at some points (one of them was proudly sporting a Genesis T shirt!), Sumshapes would have shocked anyone who was expecting a traditional indie-pop Pop Fest fayre, but they made perfect sense as the rest of the event began to unfold.
Next up on the main stage were The Great Leap Forward swiftly followed by a short blast from Meatmouth, both of whom featured ex-members of bIG fLAME, one of the most incendiary (sorry) and fondly-remembered UK acts of the mid-80s. The Great Leap Forward was the vehicle for BF singer/bassist Alan Brown’s subsequent clandestine pop manoeuvres, which he reactivated in 2010 after an original run of an album and a slew of 12” singles. Alan has recorded 2 LPs since then, with the second, the superlative ‘Revolt Against an Age of Plenty’ coming out earlier this summer. The GLF have regularly featured on previous Continental shows and turned in their usual accomplished and sublime performance. Meatmouth, however, were a different kettle of fish altogether. A proto-Beastie Boys rock/rap crossover featuring BF guitarist Greg Keefe and soon-to-be acclaimed novelist Nicholas Blincoe (who later ended the day with a sinister short story in the literary ‘tent’, ie: the pub snug), they produced a lone 12” single in 1987, ‘Meatmouth is Murder’, allegedly the worst-selling Factory Records release ever, and then exited the scene when too many clowns started biting their style. Meatmouth reproduced their recorded oeuvre in full (set length: 5 minutes) and delighted those in the know who were aware that they were witness to Greg’s first guitar-shredding appearance on stage in 34 years. Meanwhile, on the second stage, Manchester’s Thee Windom Earles pinned everyone in the room to the wall with blistering organ-fuelled garage rock in the vein of the Mummies. They definitely deserve the extra ‘e’ in their name and any Mancunians reading this should check them out at your earliest opportunity.
Meatmouth photos : John Woods
Friday closed out on more familiar ground. First, Stuart Moxham produced a beguiling and emotional solo set that delighted the audience, switching from guitar to organ and book-ended with two classics from the Young Marble Giants’ ‘Colossal Youth’ LP. He was followed by Crewe jangle-meisters The Train Set who packed out the snug and, finally in the main room, Paisley’s Close Lobsters, who brought the house down with a carefully balanced mix of old C86 era classics like ‘I Kiss the Flower in Spring’, ‘Let’s Make Some Plans’ and ‘Just Too Bloody Stupid’ (all of which beat The Wedding Present at their own game) and a couple of new ones from last year’s ‘Post Neo Anti’ LP. Like quite a few of the older bands on show over the weekend, The Lobsters have not been resting on their laurels and their new material is at least on a par with, if not eclipsing, their more well-known earlier stuff.
Stuart Moxham photo : John Woods
I hung around in Preston city centre for a bit on Saturday afternoon and missed a bunch of acts, including The Strange from Burnley and Normal Service from Glasgow, both of whom I heard were very good. Because the main stage was running behind, I did get there in time to see The Bad Daddies, a covers band from Spofforth near Leeds. “Why did Coco choose these?” I wondered to myself, as an energetic, yet otherwise unremarkable version of ‘I Bet that You Look Good on The Dancefloor’ bounced around the room. Well, towards the end of their set, all was revealed. For The Bad Daddies include one Neil Howson, ex-Age of Chance guitarist, and they proceeded to finish up with five, count ‘em, 5, nuggets from his hipster AOC back catalogue: Motor City, Bible of the Beats, Disco Inferno, Morning After the 60s and their famous re-working of Prince’s Kiss. Satisfied that nothing was going to top that for at least half an hour, I nipped into the beer garden for some of the tasty barbeque food that was on offer, only be to drawn back in shortly afterwards by the strained strains of Vukovar. Another band who would normally get nowhere near a Pop Fest, Vukovar presented like an apocalyptic folk outfit, with a backs to the audience performance in front of a Czech avant garde film. Really different, really striking, really good, Vukovar’s set also included a cameo vocal from ‘Ideal’ writer Graham Duff (who also turned in a late night set of his own).
In the snug, local heroes Ginnel got in everyone’s face and made a big impression, newcomers Cowgirl drew people into the room throughout their set with an engaging indie/garage rock formula and Robert Sekula (he of 14 Iced Bears) turned in one of those under-rehearsed but charming performances that only true masters can pull off. On the main stage fans were treated to a one-two from the ‘classic’ pre-lapsarian Creation Records era: The Jazz Butcher and The Jasmine Minks. This latest iteration of the Butcher was as a laid back guitar duo and Pat Fish charmed the filling-up room with some classic tunes, not least the perennial ‘Southern Mark Smith.’ The Minks delivered a punk rock version of themselves at breakneck speed, firing off HUGE singles ‘Think’, ‘Where The Traffic Goes’ and ‘What’s Happening’ and ending with turbo-boosted version of the TVPs ‘How I learned to Love the Bomb’, sung by their keyboard player, and ex-TVP himself, Dave Musker.
Ginnel photo : John Woods
John Peel favourites Yeah Yeah Noh had apparently been a big enough draw to entice a couple over to Preston from the USA (others attended from Germany and Spain, as well as all corners of the UK) and the jesters from Leicester did their best to satisfy their resourceful fans. Derek Hammond and John Grayland still look pretty much the same as they did 35 years ago, but that is mainly down to them always appearing a bit prematurely aged, like 1960s footballers. However, the band has expanded to a 7 piece since minting early singles ‘Cottage Industry’, ‘Beware the Weakling Lines’ (which received a rare airing tonight) and ‘Prick up Your Ears’ and they put this to good use on the final number, a monstrous version of their psych epic ‘Blood Soup’, an anti-war song that is sadly always relevant, not least as news started to come through about the nightmare unfolding in Afghanistan. Saturday’s headliners The Wolfhounds have obviously been busy during lockdown and were frighteningly well-rehearsed. They completely justified top-billing and reeled off a blitz of agit-p(r)op with teeth and tunes that was so mesmerising, I completely forgot that they hadn’t played ANY old songs at all until they dropped ‘Anti-Midas Touch’ about 45 minutes in. Apart from their 2013 single ‘Cheer Up’, everything was from the last 2 albums, 2016’s ‘Untied Kingdom’ and 2020’s ‘Electric Music.’ The Wolfhounds are as vital today as any Gen Ys or Gen Z bands you care to mention and were absolutely un-followable tonight.
By the time you get to the final day, a lot of weekenders are winding down but Preston Pop Fest was just hitting its stride. Sunday was the day all the indie-pop ‘kids’ (well, they were kids a couple of decades ago!) had been looking forward to since the day splits had been announced and no one was disappointed. Kicking off with two of the brightest newcomers from Sheffield’s renowned Bingo Records, Potpourri and US Highball, and moving seamlessly into canonical acts with Sarah and Postcard connections, Coco’s programming today was worth at least a couple of extra Scooby snax.
Liverpool’s Dave Jackson has never stopped creating great music with emotional heft since The Room in the early 80s and his latest incarnation as The Room in the Wood, alongside ex-Room bandmate Paul Cavanagh, was no exception. Swansea Sound, featuring Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey from Tallulah Gosh/Heavenly and Hue Williams of the Pooh Sticks, the first of a couple of veritable indie-pop supergroups on the bill, pulled together an invigorating and genuinely inspiring debut show for the Pop Fest. Rob and Hue provided the cynicism, Amelia brought the joy: a winning combination. Their unimpeachable singles which illuminated lockdown, ‘Corporate Indie Band’ and ‘I Sold My Soul on Ebay’, explored some of the more uncomfortable realities of the modern-day broke and streamed-to-death indie scene in a hilarious, couldn’t care less fashion and Swansea Sound certainly brought the party to Preston. Let’s hope they got paid more than 0.00001p for the show. Jetstream Pony up next included Beth Arzy from one of the non-UK Sarah Records acts, California’s Aberdeen, on vocals and Shaun Charman, the first Wedding Present (and later Pop Guns) drummer on guitar. They specialise in an indie pick ‘n’ mix of fuzztone, wistful vox and propulsive linear bass and emerge sounding wonderfully a lot like a non-past-it Pixies.
Arguably Sarah Records’ finest, and certainly most under-appreciated act, The Orchids had been waiting patiently for their turn all weekend (quite a few of the bands hung out at the Fest before and after their spots because the line-up was so exceptional) and finally took to the stage at 8.45pm on Sunday evening. No longer the wallflower understudies, The Orchids are now mainstays of the scene, still with the original line up, still producing new work, still great. Their extensive back catalogue must have given them a few problems deciding what to leave out of the 60 mins they were allocated, but they managed to pack it out with gems like ‘Good to be a Stanger’, ‘Tiny Words’, ‘It’s Only Obvious’ and the show-stopper, ‘Something for the Longing.’ It was going to be very difficult for The Bluebells to follow that, but they managed it with aplomb. Original members Ken and David McCluskey (on vox and drums respectively) and Robert Hodgens on guitar had wisely deployed a crack team of Scottish indie vets to take Preston, no Fools these blokes. Campbell Owens (Aztec Camera), Mick Slaven (Bourgie Bourgie and The Jazzateers) and Douglas MacIntyre (The Sexual Objects, Creeping Bent Records) ensured that this was not going to a repetition of the Jacobite Rebellion, this time the Scots triumphed in Lancashire and the English even loved it. Of course they played ‘Young at Heart’, with the Dexys raggle-taggle influence being emphasised by Ken’s bizarre mechanic’s boiler suit, and they ended with a couple of stand-out covers of the VU (‘What Goes On’) and Todd Rundgren (‘I Saw The Light’). You could imagine being in Alan Horne’s tenement flat in Glasgow’s West End with the stereo on and him and Bobby plotting Postcard’s mythical eleventh single which never happened, The Bluebell’s glorious ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’, which also got an airing tonight. In a nice coda to the weekend, it emerged at the Fest that superior Preston boutique reissue label Optic Nerve have cut a deal with the band to put the 7” out as Postcard had originally intended in 1981. Watch out for that one later in the year.
I don’t want to leave it there though, as the final 3 acts on the second stage in The Continental snug really summed up what was special about this event. James King and the Lone Wolves were a typically astute selection from Coco, neatly dovetailing the Postcard and canine threads running through the weekend. James King first came to the attention of indie fans outside Glasgow when Alan Horne put out their ‘The Angels Know’ single on his post-Postcard major label imprint Swamplands (the band played the B side, the terrific ‘I Don’t Care if you Live or Die’ in their set), a raucous and thoroughly rock ‘n’ roll addition to his roster, which at the time included Win, Paul Quinn and Memphis (James Kirk from Orange Juice). It never really worked out for the Lone Wolves though and they faded into obscurity. Since the band got back together their long-awaited album, ‘Lost Songs of the Confederacy’ has finally been completed and they’ve played live, but rarely outside Scotland. The Lone Wolves were chomping at the bit to get back in the fray and their ferocious attack was barely contained within the Continental snug. James later commented on social media that “there’s nothing like physically feeling the rattle of a loud amp” and it was a blisteringly loud and rocking set witnessed by pretty much every one of the Scottish bands who played the Fest (quite a few!). The highlight was the last song, ‘Step Away from Home’, a monumental Sister Ray-type chugger that the band rode off into the riverside sunset.
The next band on, London’s Barry, could not have been more of a contrast. Uber-twee, in matching yellow sweatshirts that proclaimed ‘Barry’ in a friendly font, they sounded like they’d only picked up their instruments after being dared to form a band at a drunken party. Don’t be scared, these are all good things, in the right hands. ‘Liz Naylor’ cleverly recasts the ex-Mancunian music biz scenester into a gay icon, with a nifty set of memorable couplets like “Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill/drugs, booze, feeling ill.” Coco had sniffed out another winner for their first show in the North and you could not fail to exit the room smiling after Barry’s super performance.
Ending the night was a band that have hitherto only existed on the internet, at the wonderful https://www.michaelandtheangelos.com/ . The Kool Aiders, featuring Michael Angelo (who is also in a gang of mystery-solving teens from Nixon County USA, that star in their own cartoon series called Michael and The Angelos. I know it’s confusing but check the website and it will all make sense!), dig their own garage pop nuggets and this was their debut show. Looking slightly older in the flesh than in 2D, I think the Kool Aiders had a difficult paper round. Those big houses in the American suburbs sure do have long drives, man! The Kool Aiders set up with 3 guitarists including one playing the bass notes on the top strings, like the Oh Sees before they went, y’know, dull and boring, and also use a stand-up drummer like a Merseyside band on Probe Records from years ago called The Mel-o-tones, who surely couldn’t have anything to do with these guys, could they? Another great act from out of nowhere that left everyone buzzing.
Preston Pop Fest was a tiny triumph and, at a time when everyone and his dog is jumping on the festival bandwagon, it is rare and heartening to find an event that carves out its own niche and actually has a reason to exist. It was put together with care, none of the acts clashed, and took place within a lovely venue in a great setting. Prestonians should keep their fingers crossed that Coco dips her paws in again next year and does another one. Woof!
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