The Pastels : Manchester : live review

The Pastels
Salford Islington Mill
November 16th 2012

Glasgow is one of the great music cities.

It’s idiosyncratic groups are united in attitude; they make great guitar music and they make it on their own terms. This is a city that has little truck (train or tractor….) with the capital city trends and wends its own determined route away from the hot air of hype culture.

That’s why is endlessly fascinating.

Glasgow has always looked west towards America and not south to London for inspiration. For the older generation this meant country and western on the radio and for the next generations down it meant American mavericks like Daniel Johnston were the key names in the music culture or Sonic Youth way before anyone else cared as well as the eternal Velvets. This was a city of jangle guitar pop with a switchblade attitude, anti rock n roll attitude with a love of rock n roll music and a Splash One soundtrack where hipsters were actually cool.

From Mogwai to Belle And Sebastian to Primal Scream and Postcard Records to the Mary Chain to Creation Records, this is a city that put the maverick spirit right into the heart of guitar bands. Sat there right at the heart of the whole shebang are the Pastels- the band that arguably carry that whole spirit and the torch for vinyl music, a music that is one part classic and one past personal and forward looking. Once the kings of the anorak scene- the anti rock n roll macho bluster of self-effacing yet subtlety fierce music, they are unlikely refuseniks.

You could not meet a more polite and generous bunch of people than the Pastels- modest kingpin, Stephen Pastel is still exactly the same, he maintains the waif like presence of decades ago and remains the genuine Peter Pan of underground music who has never changed in the thirty years I have known him. He has never changed both physically and mentally and he still has a boyish enthusiasm and politeness about him that has never been chipped away by the silly world of rock n roll. Stephen Pastel still looks the same as he did when he was in his early twenties but this deceptive agelessness masks the steely intent to make music on his and his band’s own terms and that’s a rock n roll roll that is one part classic- with hints of Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman and the American lo-fi underground that the Pastels themselves superseded and influenced and another part of them which is neo-soundtrack almost Miles Davies instrumentals.

Me and Stephen go back a long way. We met when my band, the Membranes, were in the middle of the punk rock wars in the early eighties. We were pop/noise comrades. I was from the bass heavy noise wing and Stephen from the three-chord guitar classic wing. I remember Stephen turning up to the Membranes first Glasgow gig and we hung out- unlikely mates on the noise barricades. It made sense though as we shared a similar attitude even if our music was different. We even ended up playing an annual England v Scotland football game- the Scottish team with the surprisingly nippy Stephen on one wing and Bobby Gillespie on the other and with various Vaselines in motorcycle boots in the centre of the park. Scotland always seemed to win but then the English team had usually been up all night tripping and were just rediscovering where there legs were.

We played a couple of shows together, one of them was the legendary Creation gig in London when the Membranes got sacked by Creation and the Pastels walked out in support- that kind of loyalty and sticking together is never forgotten. Stephen now runs the vinyl only Mono Records in Glasgow and is steeped in music . The Pastels may only play occasionally but when they do its an event and tonight is a night for fierce acolytes.

The 21st century Pastels are a schizophrenic operation. They can switch from those charming, off kilter, classic guitar songs that are delivered in that deceptively laconic style that was once lumped under the great mis-tag ‘shambling’ but is far less untogether than that suggests to complex 3D filmic pieces with ease. There is more than a massive amount of charm about the way Stephen sings, his surprisingly deep sonorous voice carries a conviction about it that makes sense of the songs that he sings when its his turn and his strong Scottish accent suggests a defiance and honesty in the face of the McDonaldsisation of pop culture. He is also a far meaner guitar player than he would like to let on. This, afterall, is a world of anti rock n roll where there are no guitar heroes and, in the spirit of punk DIY, musicianship was never a key part of the equation. Decades later and you have a band that is actually pretty slick and some of Stephens’s guitar parts are exquisite.

The core of the current band is Stephen and Katrina Mitchell who plays drums and sings some of the songs as well and whose voice is akey part of the modern pastels sound. The band’s revolving line up is actually a key strength with the music ebbing and flowing around the inner core and moving into whatever shape is required by the line up. Tonight we have the great Gerry Love from Teenage Fan Club on bass and there is also a flute and trumpet that gives the later period Pastels songs that real film score edge and underpins how far they have travelled away from their neo punk rock guitar songs of their inception.

That newer material is really fab and warm with enveloping songs with great chord changes, hardly any vocals and great jazzy melodies that sound like the soundtracks to great films that you will probably never get to see, unless you chanced upon the Last Great Wilderness which is the band’s soundtrack album from a few years ago- the song they play from that is Charlie’s Theme which is perhaps the finest moment of the set tonight. I stand there, eyes closed, lost in this glorious swirl of sound, enjoying the long and strange trip the band have been on.

The song builds and builds and draws you in with its great composition and you realise that the modern Pastels are a long and glorious way away from their roots of that first great single, I Wonder Why- the perfect example of three chord, DIY guitar punk rock- a punk rock that was related to Subway Sect, Spiral Scratch Buzzcocks, Postcard Records and the celebration of the anti rock n roll rock n roll.

The indie guitar Pastels peaked with Truck Train Tractor, which they didn’t play tonight and the fantastic Baby Honey which they did play and sounds better with age having been drawn out to a near ten minute meltdown of ever building guitars with riffs and drones and those great vocals making it a sublime and superb moment of guitar brilliance.

The Pastels have a new album out in March and on tonight’s form are closing in on the defining moment of their wilful and idiosyncratic musical journey- this gig was a victory to those that refuse to play the game but are untainted by cynicism and bitterness and are still in love with the flame and musical of the promise of original punk rock from moments after that musical big bang.

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  1. If you actually lived in Glasgow instead of romanticed it, you’d know that the Pastels, nice guys that they are, represent and birthed the twee scene that continues to blight the city. Personally speaking, I detest their music and they are certainly not seen as some kind of Glasgow uberlords.
    Glasgow has been dragged down into an anorak-wearing, forelock tugging ghetto by them and their ilk.
    Just saying, like…

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