Three punk pioneers reunite for an evening of rage, honesty, playfulness and sound experiments. Cazz Blase attends the show and talks to the acts backstage
Because the evening’s soundcheck for Celebrating Sisterhood has overrun, I spend a certain amount of time before the gig downstairs by the bar in The Cheshire Ring, home to The Verge. The Cheshire Ring is a nice pub situated on the main road into Hyde and is not far from the Denton/Hyde border. Inauspicious as this may sound, it’s an established venue and has a very good reputation among the regulars. This gig, along with the knowledge that Vic Godard has played at The Verge two nights previously, would appear to confirm this.
Upon climbing the stairs and entering the venue proper, I am surprised to find myself one of only three women in the room. Not only that, but I appear to be at the lower end of the age group in terms of those attending. I’ve experienced both of these things when attending gigs before, but this is the first time I’ve experienced them simultaneously. “This is going to be an odd one”, I think, feeling slightly discomforted by the lack of a dark corner to lurk in.
Were the audience less friendly and the performers more stereotypically rock’n’roll, then “odd” or awkward” may indeed have been the case, but The Verge isn’t a venue that lends itself to pretensions and neither the performers nor the audience are afflicted by what Mancunian bloggers would term the “Hipster Olympics” mentality. You might come across couples on rollerblades pushing a pram on Oxford Road in Manchester (yes, really, last week) but my own personal experiences of Hyde would suggest such pretensions wouldn’t go down well.
The three artists perform against a very striking black and white city skyscraper backdrop which may have been an artistic rendering of Tameside but which looks more like a Banksy doing a take on LS Lowry. The room is laid out with chairs and tables, which seems oddly polite given that the venue is host to three punk women.
Meanwhile Helen McCookerybook’s daughter Isobel, the youngest woman in the room, is playing an infectious selection of Northern Soul records.
While the number of men present outnumbers the women, more women do eventually appear. Still, by the time the gig begins it is apparent that the small audience is largely comprised of men in the late 40’s+ age group.
Helen McCookerybook is first onstage, and I really enjoy her set. Her songs are very English in tone, not in a chest-thumping patriotic sense or highly dubious nationalist one, but in an eccentric and charming manner similar to Kirsty MacColl or Noel Coward. Like Kirsty MacColl, Helen is clearly influenced by a wide range of musical genres stretching back across many decades.
In Helen’s case, these include blues, skiffle, rockabilly, reggae and punk. She began her musical career as bassist in Joby and the Hooligans, and later The Chefs, before switching to guitar in Helen and the Horns. Her songs reflect this history and series of transitions, but they also feel very traditional. There is a world weary sadness that laces through a lot of her songs, something she is clearly conscious of given that at one point tonight she mentions that some “happy songs” will be coming up too.
Highlights of Helen’s set include the bluesy ‘Love on the wind’, the haunting ‘The house on the hill’ and a song inspired by Wycliffe about a woman caught in the gaze of the camera, which is slightly sinister and very atmospheric.
As a performer Helen comes across not only as being very at ease with what she is doing, but also with who she is. She makes it look easy. She is happy talking to the audience and exchanging lines with Gina Birch and Viv Albertine, who are sat at the table by the stage along with local singer/songwriter Eliza P, who is selling Helen and Gina’s CDs.
Second up is Viv Albertine, formerly of The Slits, who has always struck me as a very different performer from the others. While all three women write very personal songs, many of which are concerned with what could loosely be described as domestic disharmony, Viv is the one who comes across as the most visibly and sonically angry.
Watching Viv perform is a bit like being engulfed by a hurricane. As a performer she hurls the audience through a sonic maze of rage, disappointment and shattered fairytales. Those songs making use of fairytale imagery tend to be her most harrowing ones, and the experience isn’t made any the more comfortable by her guitar technique which is very, very fast, jagged and – in this case – very, very loud. She plays so quickly that her fingers are frequently a blur on the frets and it’s clear that the evening’s performance is providing a large dose of catharsis for her.
“I used to say this song was about heroin,” she remarks by way of introducing ‘Needles’, “but it’s actually about IVF”. This clarification markedly changes my whole perspective on this song, which I initially saw her perform two years ago to a very indifferent crowd at ATP. That the “needles filled with hope” are now revealed to mean couples desperate for children, not teens and twenty-somethings taking heroin in the postpunk period, gives the song a greater complexity and honesty: no-one sings about IVF, but loads of people have sung about heroin.
‘Confessions of a Milf’, ‘Hookup Girl’ and many other songs of Viv’s convey a raging frustration with how life has turned out: marriage, children, domesticity, mortgage… Boredom, dissatisfaction, rage… It’s as though women who grew up hearing songs such as Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Suburban Relapse’ and Marianne Faithful’s ‘The ballad of Lucy Jordan’ have suddenly had a revelation, 30 years on, looked in the mirror and exclaimed: “Fucking hell! That’s me!” It’s the sound of anyone who has ever woken up one morning and realised they can’t stand the way their life has turned out, and then decides to act on that impulse rather than repress it.
At ATP two years ago, a large chunk of the audience left while Viv articulated this. This time, honed and with a Damned support slot under Viv’s belt, the audience stays and listens.
It is agreed by those nearest the stage that Viv has got a lot off her chest as she climbs off the stage.
Gina Birch, of The Raincoats, can be regarded as a more playful performer. That said, opening song ‘Sorry’, which appears on The Hangovers album, actually falls into the harrowing category. It concerns a relationship that is being sabotaged, consciously or otherwise, by one of the parties involved, and the subsequent apologies which are rejected. By the time the song reaches its embattled conclusion, you feel as though you’ve lived it.
At the start of the set Gina announces that she will be playing two songs she has performed before, along with four completely new ones she has never played anywhere, not even at home. After ‘Sorry’ and a blithe but impassioned song articulating Gina’s relationship with feminism, it is time for the new material. A laptop is produced and Gina explains that she has been learning to use the computer composing software Logic and Autotune. The laptop is switched on and a series of successful and highly original experiments with sound, sampling and musical textures follows.
The first piece is a soundscape of looping bass, beats and samples, which perfectly complements Gina’s highly politicised lyrics concerning Occupy, the London riots and the banking crisis. I really hope she finishes and releases this track, if only because it is still reverberating in my head days later.
The next song is more light-hearted in subject matter. It’s a satirical tongue in cheek take on gossip and the follies of it, which is quite urgent and has aspects of glitchy electropop.
The experimental ‘I will never wear stilettos’ then follows, a half spoken, half sung freeform piece revolving around Gina’s adventures with footwear. The ability to run away from Teddy Girls in creepers is a particular highlight and the overall result is extremely funny.
The final song of the set involves the first use of Autotune (the software that makes your voice go all vocoder-y). Normally, I can’t stand vocoders, but I am pleasantly surprised in this case. I think Gina’s success here comes from using Autotune sparingly. Because there is a lot of space in the song, it is reminiscent of the third Raincoats album, ‘Movement’, but the vocoder effect adds a shimmer of disco as another element.
The Raincoats have always been a band who experiment with different sounds, musical genres and codes, and Gina’s new songs can also be viewed as being in that tradition. “Never be afraid to try new things” seems to be the message; “Never be afraid to experiment, you never know where it might take you.”
After the gig I am fortunate enough to speak to all three women about both the performance and their future plans.
Although it is the first time the three have played in Hyde, they have all performed together before, at a gig in Gateshead with Pauline Murray, formerly of Penetration and The Invisible Girls.
We discuss the audience and the mild sense of disappointment that more women hadn’t attended. The gig has been promoted as celebrating sisterhood after all.
“I was on edge tonight,” explains Gina, “and I thought it would be more interesting, on the whole, to women – people in general – who might be interested, not in the punkier side of us, but the more arts-school-experimental side of us. Sometimes when you have a room full of…” she breaks off and adds: “I shouldn’t say this, [she shouts] BLOKES DRINKING PINTS, you think they’re probably more into UK Subs than The Raincoats.”
“Ah,” interjects Helen, “but they enjoyed themselves tonight.”
Things hadn’t always gone so well, alas.
“I mean even in the early days”, says Gina, “there was a kind of vulnerability. You’re standing there and you’re playing to the boys in black leather and they’re kind of looking at you and thinking [adopts surly tone and posture] ‘OK…'”. She turns to Viv: “You lot [The Slits] and Ari [Up] would just fight them but I would blush rather than talk to anybody, let alone facing up to a roomful of leather clad young boys. I was really shy. I’ve come a long way, but still, a room full of beer drinking men put the willies up me.”
“I did a gig in Brighton for Strummerville,” adds Helen, “and it was in Concorde 2 and it was all huge blokes, black boots and black leather jackets. And I’ve got a cello player, she had little glasses and a little cardigan, and we sang and there were all these blokes just standing there glaring at us! And it was really frightening.”
When I suggest that it could be seen as a very brave thing to get up onstage on your own with a guitar, Viv responds: “I always worry when someone says something is very brave. There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity!” Everyone laughs, and she continues: “‘You’re very brave, wearing that dress!’, ‘You’re very brave getting up onstage!’ But I like it because it’s more intimate. I think bring it on. And I always think it gives you an advantage because you’re up there completely naked in that way.”
“It was a very nice atmosphere” adds Gina, “…and of course everyone’s full of prejudices, especially me. We all have a way of perceiving the world or what you think a person represents by their exterior and as soon as you break through that you find that there’s an awful lot of other things going on. Usually, hopefully.”
Helen expands on this, saying: “I think also because all three of us perform stuff that’s really, really personal, having bands – not being solo – you wouldn’t really be speaking for the other people who were in your band possibly, so it’s better to be just yourself, with a guitar and a microphone, because then you’re really saying what you feel honestly and you haven’t got to carry anyone else along with you.”
Viv continues: “I always think if you fail, if you’re telling the truth and you fail to reach anyone, then there’s no shame. If you’re pretending to be something else, or putting on an act and you fail – very, very embarrassing. But I never feel like I’ve failed because I’ve just told the truth. I’ve had a conversation – sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t – but you don’t fail.”
At this point, it is getting very late and the venue is now packing up around us so I leave the three to pack up and head off to find a curry en route to their hotel in Stockport. Even legends need to eat and sleep.
Viv Albertine’s debut album will be released later this year and The Chefs‘ Peel Sessions CD will be released on Damaged Goods this month.
All pictures supplied by Cazz Blase, shared under a creative commons licence. The first shows a “Don’t talk over music” sign in chalk on blackboard on a dark pink wall above the door at The Verge. There are three shots of the performers onstage at the venue, according to running order (Helen McCookerybook, Viv Albertine and Gina Birch), throughout the piece. These are followed by a casual shot of Gina Birch (left), Viv Albertine (centre) and Helen McCookerybook (right) offstage. The final picture is a shot of the outside of The Cheshire Ring (home of The Verge) in Hyde at about 1.30am.