The World’s First Science Fiction Music Festival
Words: Ian Penman and Andy Gill. Pix: Kevin Cummins
Three daring men board their spacecraft for a disturbing journey into Futurama ’79
A selection of the year’s best musics brutalised and crippled by incompetence
FOR SOMETHING claiming to be “The World’s First Science Fiction Music Festival”, Futurama ’79 had, on the face of things, precious little to do with science fiction. If it comes to that, it didn’t have an awful lot to do with music, either. And if you take the dictionary definition of “a joyful or honorific celebration,” the “Festival” bit’s a trifle out to lunch, too.
In fairness, the “SF” angle was apparently only intended as a (quite unnecessary) hook to hang a hat on, although, as Saturday wore off, the affair began to resemble nothing so much as a production of National Lampoon’s Lemmings directed by J G Ballard, complete with “Bob is here!” rumours updated for the 70s.
It’s only to be expected that the presence of John Lydon should overshadow everything, given the scarcity of PiL gigs. Speaking personally though, the day was overshadowed more by a pervasive, depressing sense of “the end of an era” — this is, after all, the last great festival of the ’70s — and of a wheel having turned full circle, Buddhist-style: exaggerated by personal memories of the Isle of Wight festival of (almost exactly)a decade ago, parallels with the start of the ’70s were painfully evident; in the music of The Edge, The Invaders and Punilux; in the disgustingly condescending, cossetted attitude of PiL; and in the absolute squalor of the whole affair.
I’ve always felt that one of the main troubles with this beast called rock’n’roll is that it lacks dignity (by which I do not mean the laboured pomposity of Yes and Styx, but just simple, honest-to-goodness self-respect). For all its claims to be dynamic and energetic, it just seems to flop around, grunting occasionally with pleasure at the gratification of its basest desires.
Decades of being told that rock’n’roll is “all about” fun, frivolity and fashion have made the average fan into a passive, malleable, utterly predictable animal which seeks peer-group respect through conformity to the most trivial of tribal mores — attitude-dancing, acquisition of over-priced tribal regalia — and which is quite prepared to wallow in the most utterly squalid conditions I’ve encountered for quite a while.
A quick double-take between those people bouncing on the inflatable and those spread over the floor amongst the remains of their rampant consumerism is quite illuminating here.
No dignity at all.
Leaving aside the organisational inadequacies and general filth of the occasion, the line-up of bands looked quite tasty on paper. What they looked like onstage, however, is still something of a mystery, thanks to the extremely clever placing of the lighting gantries behind the stage, so that instead of illuminating the band, they blind the audience.
Here again, something was remiss: a varied selection of the year’s best musics brutalised by bad sound, crippled by incompetence…
The ulterior motive of Futurama was the financing of a Leeds-based label for local bands; a better motive than most, admittedly. But of the three local outfits I saw, only Stranger Than Fiction — situated somewhere between XTC and Pink Floyd — seemed a worthwhile vinyl proposition. The Expelairs, prole-rockers with a masturbation fixation, ground on for far too long, and The Void would be well advised to change their name, it being embarrassingly appropriate.
The Edge were the first ‘big-name’ to play, and I have to admit that they drove me to drink (a cup of tea in the local British Home Stores, actually). When I returned, they’d finished.
What a pity.
More of a pity, though, is that I missed much of Spizz Energi’s set, for, although I’ve never liked Spizz’s anal monotone rantings, his current band possess a quite pleasing chunky power, rounded and abrasive, especially on ‘Soldier Soldier’, which I believe is their new single.
Who knows — Spizz could yet become the star he already thinks he is…
Both prag VEC and Cabaret Voltaire suffered cruelly from unsympathetic sound.
At times, it seemed as though of all the directions open to them after the Bits EP, prag VEC had chosen the least interesting ones to investigate. But it’s difficult to be definite on this showing. Some of the guitar-work was interesting, but then that was all I could hear for much of the set. Things improved slightly towards the end, ‘Third Person’ being particularly impressive; but by then it was too late.
The Cabs had no vocals at all for the first few numbers, which ruined ‘Nag Nag Nag’, but at least they did manage to dispel the notion that they’re impossible to dance to with ‘Here She Comes Now’; just as the treated-drum tapes on ‘On Every Other Street’ dispelled that old rhythm-generator millstone.
The most compelling part of their performance was the mounting tension of ‘The Set Lip’, a more urgent, unnerving reading than that on record. ‘No Escape’, like Joy Division’s ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, took on a rather ironic meaning from my position in the pig-sty, but I was getting a bit tired by then…
A Certain Ratio, first of the Factory package, battled manfully against the bad sound and lost.
I imagine it’d be quite useful, given their unusual matching of jazz-funk drums with grainy drone-guitar textures, to be able to hear the latter once in a while. But the man on the mixing-desk apparently disagreed with me, as such men usually do. Funny, that…
Orchestral Manoeuvres, notable for the prat-of-the-year scale posing of vocalist Andy McCluskey, are mixed by their manager and get the best sound (and reception) so far. Hmmm.
Am I the only one, I ask myself as all and sundry go ga-ga over the irredeemably twee, puerile ‘Electricity’, who finds them completely worthless?
Is there anyone else who thinks they’re about as satisfying and substantial as a bag of crisps? I never realised so many people dug the Magic Roundabout theme.
Unquestionably, the real stars of the night were Joy Division.
Just as each song is an exercise in controlled musical dynamics expressing a particular emotional state, so the set as a whole builds from a somewhat sombre start to a feverish, cathartic climax, pressure added little by little rather than piled on suddenly. Small details add to the tension, like the slight tinge of vitriol Ian Curtis lends to the line “I remember when we were young” in’Insight’ — because, after all, we’re not children any more, so let’s stop pretending.
The final build-up and resolution of ‘Shadowplay’, ‘She’s Lost Control’ and ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ is quite magnificent, proof that rock’n’roll and dignity can co-exist without lapsing into pomposity.
Joy Division moved me, physically, emotionally and mentally. They did not insult me. This is rare, and it is good.
To follow their harrowing intensity with a comic magician is an act of supreme bathos masquerading as light relief. The Invaders must have been grateful for the break, as their brand of ‘clever’ power-pop would have appeared even worse in direct comparison with Joy Division.
They don’t seem to have realised that tarting-up weak, insipid pop with fancy keyboard frills is just not good enough in this day and age: what ‘Gimme Some Space’ — their (ostensibly humorous) sour-grapes dig at the press — overlooks is that they don’t deserve any.
Tymon Dogg, an eccentric, whining fellow with a fiddle who kicked various kinds of incongruous shit around, was followed by Punishment Of Luxury, who, though they went down well enough to get an encore, disappointed me immensely.
Since I last saw them, they’ve become a lot slicker, more professional, but they’ve lost the grass-roots spontaneity and intimacy which gave their gigs that electric edge of unease, a state of affairs exacerbated by the transition from small club to large hall.
In a nutshell, their music — that idiosyncratic and often enervating Gothic HM funk — has expanded to fill the larger stage, but their presentation hasn’t; the theatrics are dwarfed, their sense of personal assault lost. They just look silly.
In the circumstances, Punilux were probably right to concentrate on riff-bombardment; unfortunately, the net result was that their most impressive pieces on record — ‘Laughing Academy’ and ‘Obsession’ — came across as heavy-handed, overblown and pompous. And after 12 uncomfortable hours, I could do without that.
And so to the unveiling of the emperor’s new clothes…
Public Image Ltd were so dire, so totally devoid of musical merit, that I have great difficulty in seeing their performance as anything other than a continuation of the exorcism begun with their album, or a kind of Zen Lesson concerning idolatry and expectation.
Certainly, these are the only explanations which leave John Lydon’s credibility intact.
The Zen Lesson Theory’s quite attractive — taking the anticipation, the curiosity and expectation which pervaded the whole affair (the true star of the show, in fact); taking the star syndrome and the ‘headlining band’ syndrome; taking the spokesman/figurehead albatross (and by extension, peoples’ willingness to delegate their responsibilities to others); taking the desire to be “where it’s at”, and the gullibility of those prepared to wait in squalor just to see you.
Taking, in short, the entire edifice of falsehood, fantasy, fashion and foolishness which is rock’n’roll, and throwing it back in their face. The ultimate joke.
The difference between the individual numbers in PiL’s set is negligible: nearly all have an amorphous, booming bass intro, followed by what is, to all intents and purposes, an undifferentiated, formless thrash, over which Lydon wails incomprehensibly.
‘Public Image’ and ‘Death Disco’ are just about discernible, and the applause they receive is probably due as much to the relief of recognition as to any merit in their performance. I think I heard ‘Annalisa’ mentioned in one song, and ‘Low Life’ in another, but I wouldn’t swear to it. As for the rest, your guess is as good as mine.
It is dreadful.
For almost the entire performance, Lydon has his back to the audience; bar the occasional scathing comment, there’s no attempt at communication, and he stalks off mid-way through the ninth “number” without so much as a backward glance.
In fact, he’s a model of clockwork predictability: he behaves exactly as I expected.
Wobble spends most of the set in his armchair, a posture which matches his bass-playing perfectly, and Levine wanders aimlessly about the stage, a manner which matches his.
Any other band would have been canned off by the second number, but the reaction to PiL is one of spineless deference. Some people really do ask for it…
And for this rubbish, PiL apparently got £3,000. Rarely have supreme arrogance and absence of talent coincided in one person to such an (economically viable) extent.
Before Punilux went on, the entire backstage area was cleared so that PiL could evade the prying eyes of the plebs. During the clearing operation, a girl was said to have had her nose broken.
Boy, am i glad the star-system crumbled in 1977!
DISMANTLE A weekend’s splash of sensory indulgence, crop it into shape, question the relation between youth music and festivals of same… before the moon falls; before the stomach juices revolt; before the heart aches begin.
The idea that the press have it too good, wouldn’t recognise a ‘good time’ if it hit them, and sneer at festivals for the sake of it, is frequently heard. Personally, the idea of travelling miles to a weekend of inadequate accommodation, food, drink, toilets, sound and sights stinks regardless of notepads and expenses.
The festival space is stagnant; the relation between it and beat music is tenuous.
It’s a spectacle, and as such it promotes mostly mouldly older aspects of the music — ways of judging that are lodged in the past. Audiences behave the way audiences should, passively admiring the grand performance: no spontaneity, intimacy or frequency. The dull thud thud thud of youth music going through (some) motions.
The Leeds SciFi Festival was another occasion to gape in disbelief at the impersonality of the festival institution…
Amongst all the paraphernalia — the fairylight lawn sprinkler lasers, the stalls — was a ritualistic routine which seemed unreal. For an event whose banner (no one knew why) purported to celebrate the future, the past was dismally in evidence: from swastika T-shirts to Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ encore.
The Queen’s Hall was about as big as two aircraft hangers, the PA straight from Reading. A big air cushion in one corner provided people with a neat excuse not to regard onstage activity as anything but a sideshow.
Everyone who played was loud — 21 bins loud, and two stages strong.
Openers Nightmares In Wax and the Gotham City Teenage Werewolves are two groups sleeping in image — some ’70s pose, all day-glo po-faced angsty and starchy.
“This one’s a love song… to Einstein.”
Moving up the rungs, it got less hacky but only relatively more bearable. The Tunes and Agony Column play slick, formal, retread beat music, humourless and dull; suits and guitar solos and Op Art and… it’s not even dance music.
From this dodgy area onwards, critical tolerance rose and fell with tiredness, disbelief and alcohol supplies.
Ex-Bonzo Dog Roger Ruskin Spear supplied a set of fairground ‘robots’ and nauseous sub-Goodies undergraduate humour. It would’ve been limp in rag week circa ’69; it was an insult now. The laughs really came when I realised that the Rasta bible reading of (token) nice reggae band Revelation coincided with Sunday tea-time, normally the prerogative of the TV Godspot.
Revelation’s lightweight Britreggae went down well, but was too end-of-the-pier — a Seaside Special red, green and tombola knees up, however well the rhythms rolled off the section.
Echo And The Bunnymen (trio) and Teardrop Explodes (quartet) played one after t’other with only the Teardrop drums separating the levels and textures of the two.
I couldn’t raise much interest in their respective music-makings as they stand. The regularity and pace put me in mind of a brass band, the leaky cheap organ frills lead back to other Doors. Solid noise; no playground; just showroom.
Echo And The Bunnymen have tightened up a lot since I saw them at the YMCA gig, when they were best summed up by one jovial punter’s comment, “Let’s have the real Neil Young!!” But they have to sound less like it’s their hobby; those peaches and cream ‘new pop’ lines don’t mean much to me, not hard enough, no definition.
With both there didn’t seem to be much difference between live and recorded sound (a criticism applicable to many). In something as massive as that Queen’s Hall, constraints placed on the musical idiom were enormous: usual problems blown sky high.
Only three groups tackled this difficulty realistically: PiL, using an arrogance that verged on utter contempt; Scritti Politti with an arrogance flawed by inexperience but restored in belief; The Fall… by simple arrogance.
Another interesting common aspect with Scritti and PiL is the fairly unique lack of gigging experience. Whereas The Monochrome Set and The Fall are well into the hundreds, Scrits are on about 20, PiL maybe less.
Scritti Politti were obviously nervy at the off, but publicly dealt with it — demystification in action; praxis.
The first song was made up on the spot and mostly revolved around the phrase “Can I have more bass in my monitors please?” Every second ‘song’ in their set was made up there and then.
There were songs spilling over, splitting apart, lots of subtle resonances, invention and courage. Along with the other two bands mentioned (and others not here such as Pere Ubu), they’re questioning what’s normally taken for granted, accepted as ‘second nature’ in beat music: a blatantly silly idea to cut away at.
What’s being taken apart is rock ‘n’ roll’s daft trad codes — which is why it’s so risky to do it in the holiday camp atmosphere of the Queen’s Hall (people seemed quite fascinated by a certain kind of silver balloon you could waste a lot of your money on).
But no big deal: one more thing to talk about.
When their sound was finally sorted out it was the freshest of the day, the one most primed to trip up preconceptions and puncture chit chat. There was nothing legitimate about either the improvised or the more familiar bits of the set — songs like ‘OPEC Imac’, ‘Hegemony’, ‘Scritlocks Door’, ‘Knowledge and Interest’ are still all evolving. A reconstituted audience/performance relation is being aimed for. There are problems and contradictions — but they’re important ones, decisive ones, decisions, conversations.
Ditto The Fall.
I’m about to write a lot about them so some secrets get kept for now. They’re a different group now — physically and in terms of approach. This is a Fall which seems to be maintaining the constancy without losing the arrogance and perspective that has always been the group’s core. It shows in both the newer songs (‘Shadow Walks Behind You’, ‘Before The Moon Falls’) and the treatment of older ones (their ‘Psycho Mafia’ was wonderful).
The music didn’t seem immediately inventive, but that’s the (pit) fall… the difference between signifier and signified (we’ll get to this later).
They won the weekend unnervingly when I didn’t think anyone could bully back the environment — they are tall, do talk back, and not with the usual language.
The ‘usual language’ is what I expected and what I got from the remainder of the bill, dotted here and there.
Nik Turner’s Inner City Limits and Hawkwind were indistinguishable; The Only Ones and The Monochrome Set slightly less so. The Only Ones obviously got a good deal somewhere — it was one of their very fast nights.
But after PiL’s accusation, Scritti’s advance, and The Fall’s anger I had no time for the chemical and cosmical head pelling of those others.
If that’s rock’n’ roll here to stay then I’m off. Bye Bye!
© Andy Gill, Ian Penman, New Musical Express, 15 September 1979