Angelic Upstarts: Bolingbroke Hall, South Shields

I WAS starting to think the whole thing had gone down the toilet. All the energy and the anger. Suddenly smart suits and cash register eyes are idealogically OK again.

Crap.

Until the revolution (yeah, I know, titter, chuckle, when you’re ready…) rock will be in a ridiculous trap: young music screaming for change with no chance of reaching a mass audience except by leasing itself to multinational capital, bound over to keep the peace in the global village of gold. No way round it right now. But let’s at least make sure it stays a paradox. We can’t let them sell us the music or surrender (can we?) (at least only part of the time).

Hopefully there’s no papering over the cracks that let the Angelic Upstarts through.

Friday night at the Bolingbroke Hall, South Shields, rented from the council for a tenner. There’s six inches of snow outside and a hundred people sweating inside. The Upstarts are singing their best song so far, ‘Police Oppression’. Their manager Keith Bell, retired gang warrior as he describes himself, is standing stock still on stage holding the head of a pig aloft. It is wearing a mock police helmet. To prove it’s real he wipes the oozing blood off his hand on to the shirt of a front line pogoer. Beside Keith the singer Mensi is snarling: ‘Why can’t I go out for a walk/Why can’t I sit down and have a talk/They’re asking me how and they’re asking me why/Have you ever seen grown men cry?’

The guitar, drums and bass – Mond, Decca Wade and Steve – are roaring hostility but what’s more doing it through a compulsive speed riff that is the essence of rock. As they rip through the last chords Keith smashes the pig’s head down on to the stage. Someone kicks it into the crowd, where it becomes a kind of grotesque Football.

You see the Angelic Upstarts are dangerous – barbaric instinctive theatre teetering on the edge of chaos. Right through to the bone marrow they don’t like the way things are for themselves and for their generation (in South Shields that is, they haven’t seen much yet outside a ten-mile radius from the concil estate they grew up on). The band is their deadly weapon, their counter-attack. Punk loud and proud.

But they are not just a case of the North getting there a year too late. For one, rough and abrasive as they are, their musical skill is well past the primitive thrash and on to far more imaginative mayhem. They don’t just tear-arse through a song, they build it: the changing rhythms and weighty silences in ‘Speed’ provide the most impressive example.

And although they have slipped into some of the New Wave’s used-up cliches, such as a number called ‘Leave Me Alone’ (it’s good mind you) and wearing swastikas just to annoy (it annoys me all right – but their back drop says ‘Smash The NF’), they are also focussing their energy on living local issues.

‘The Murder Of Liddell Towers’ is the latest and most direct in this vein. If you don’t know the background you haven’t been reading the papers for the last two years – it’s about a man who was arrested on a drunk and disorderly charge and later died as a result of injuries received in police custody. An inquest jury called it ‘justifiable homicide’, which means they accepted that if you get pissed up the police are entitled to kill you. The Home Secretary has just allowed an enquiry into the case. The campaign to clear Liddell Towers’ name continues.

And it’s a flaming torch of a song. The Upstarts have had a lot of trouble with the police and although I like them I wouldn’t know whether they are more sinned against than sinning only having their side of the story. But that’s irrelevant. What’s important is that they really care, they mean it. That’s honest no matter what the court records say.

© Phil SutcliffeSounds, 4 March 1978

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