Two shows separated by two weeks. Two bands drawing on differing genres as their starting point yet finding common cause in their expression. Two moments that suggest reports of the demise of guitar music may be, as is often the case, somewhat premature.
Rough Trade East for Idles. A band that have been talked about in ever increasing circles since people got wind of their ‘Brutalism’ album. Built on US Hardcore and post rock dynamics yet shot through with a palpably English expression, their run through the album tracks in a record shop transcends the usual ‘meh-ness’ of an instore and becomes a rallying point, an out-poring of communal disgust at the system as represented by Grenfell, DUP bribes and public sector slash and burn.
If that sounds less than entertaining know this. These volleys of lyrical subversion, these tales of horror on the breadline, of the sheer mental stress of trying to live in a society that divides to conquer are presented with a showmanship that echoes The Blockheads and flirts, in guitarist Mark Bowen, with the ghost of early 70's Roxy Music. Between the songs, sharp, clever bursts of intricate noise that go way above and beyond the reductive idea of ‘punk’, singer Joe Talbot contextualises and humanises these tales of anger and spite and, most of all, resistance, with off-hand remarks and explanations that are by turns revealing and touching.
A fortnight later, to the current zeitgeist accompaniment of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’; the modern equivalent of the CND pin badge in the 80s, Cabbage land at the Scala. The vein is similar, the base different. A more English post punk augmented by the likes of Dead Kennedy’s cartoon bile is in play yet that is too reductive. The Blockheads spring to mind once more, as does the angularity of The Fall (in both bands), a sardonic yet pinpoint series of revelations that skewer the sheer awfulness of the society we have created and currently ‘enjoy’. The whole could be dry and hectoring yet Cabbage and Idles are here to celebrate with their community, not lecture them. Stage divers are present at both, a phenomenon until recently reduced to sub genres of rock yet now breaking out as an expression of freedoms and the lack of band / audience barriers.
Cabbage nail the DUP deal with the appearance of the ‘ghost of Ian Paisley’, beamed in from the 70’s in beige lounge suit to goad the crowd for the finale of ‘Uber Capitalist Death Trade’, a track that suggested guitars might again be wielded to political statement to create a (potentially) mass audience once more. The ghost of English theatre subversion all the way back to Shakespeare’s mechanicals hovers over the Scala stage.
There is joy in both performances. Joy in the sense that here are artists that are ready to communicate meaning in ways that are inclusive and accessible. That guitar bands can find new ways to take old formats and ideas and reinvent them to carry new and important messages. That shows can once again be a coming together of more than a group of people wanting to sing along to a clutch of hit singles before going back to their conveyor belt in the morning. That music can change minds and make a difference. The audience at both shows exit talking about their night but also the relevance of that to the wider world outside the venue doors.
It’s a long way from a chant to real change but here are two moments that suggest guitar bands may again play a part in the process to come.