With Skin as their charismatic frontwoman, the "clit rock" of Skunk Anansie has a firm place in mid-1990s nostalgia. Jess McCabe attends a gig in Brixton in 2012 and finds them sounding better than ever
Skin explodes onto the stage of the Brixton Academy for the last night of Skunk Anansie’s tour. She’s wearing short-shorts, cut out tights, a glittery top and a short coat of what appears to be leather feathers. She bounces. She struts. The 45-year-old Skunk Anansie frontwoman still knows how to put on a show. But it’s her glorious voice, aided by the band’s intense performance, that fills the Academy and is the reason she immediately has the 4,000-ish strong crowd in the palm of her hand.
Tonight is freezing in London. It’s 1 December and Skunk Anansie are coming home to play one of London’s top venues, in the part of town where Skin grew up. It’s nearly two decades since the British rock band released their first single and even the line-up has remained unchanged since 1995: Skin (Deborah Anne Dyer) on vocals and guitar, Cass (Richard Lewis) on bass, Ace (Martin Kent) on guitar and Mark Richardson on drums.
I’m with a group of six people, all about the same age. As we chat before the gig, our expectations for the night are mixed. “It’s nostalgia,” Sam says; we were all teenagers when Skunk Anansie’s most well-known hit ‘Weak‘ was in the charts.
But most of us agree that Skunk Anansie’s records have not been on regular rotation in our respective collections for years. I admit I was only vaguely aware the band had re-formed (Skunk Anansie went on hiatus in 2001, coming back together in 2009).
Although it is probably nostalgia that has drawn many people here tonight – the show is sold out – everything changes as soon as Skunk Anansie take the stage. Song after song is an explosion of energy.
“Look at the audience,” my friend Annette advises (she’s been more of a loyal fan and has followed Skunk Anansie through several tours since they got back together). It is clear it is mostly women here; there are people of colour in the audience. Even all these years later, such facts are depressingly still noteworthy at a rock gig.
And from the beginning, with ‘The Skank Heads‘, that audience is entirely with the band.
A few songs in, we’re getting into some of the best known tracks, such as ‘Twisted‘: “Every day hurts!” Skin sings; “Every day hurts!” chants back what feels like the entire audience.
The crowd seems to be having a brilliant time. And so do the band: Skin even goes crowdsurfing a few times (something that is banned for audience members these days). At one point, she advises those in the balcony seats that if they all stand up, there is nothing the security guards can do about it. From the Academy’s sloping ground floor, we can’t tell if they take her advice.
Skunk Anansie stick mostly to their 1990s catalogue. Unlike some bands, who seem to resent returning to their hits, the four pour even more energy and passion into these older songs and as a result they sound better than ever. Riffs that seem contained and a bit overproduced on the records are raw and raucous live. Everything is amped up.
But joy is the word that best describes the energy put out by Skunk Anansie tonight. That applies even to their more emo ballads. One of these is ‘Weak’, during which Skin comes out into the audience, climbing on the hands of the mostly women in the front.
Any band can play classics from their catalogue to an audience of fans who know all the words. Notably, however, we can’t help but get caught up in the newer material as well. Each song follows another with undiminished energy from the band and enthusiasm from the audience. One of the best moments is actually the heartfelt performance of Skunk’s latest single, ‘I Hope You Get to Meet Your Hero‘.
The band don’t play some of the most outwardly political tracks, such as ‘100 Ways to Be a Good Girl‘ and ‘Intellectualise my Blackness’‘. In interviews, Skunk Anansie have said they want to be seen as a rock band, not a political one. But I think it’s important to remember that back when they launched, Skunk Anansie stood out from the almost entirely white, mostly male rock scene. Skin referred to the band’s music as “clit-rock“: she was a feminist and said so. She was in the charts and popular with kids who were listening almost exclusively to bands of white men. The music was political and popular, which was – and is – important.
The only exception to the lack of political tracks is the last song of the night, ‘Little Baby Swastikkka‘. The band’s first single from 1994 is the perfect ending to this homecoming gig.
Meanwhile, Skunk Anansie are not hanging around – tickets are already on sale for performances across the UK in 2013
Image description: Mark, Skin, Cass and Ace (in that order) of Skunk Anansie, all wearing black and dark grey, standing against a white wall.