IF YOU LIKE seriously deranged, outrageously danceable and indisputably subversive music, then clear your diary for December 1st when the Alabama 3 play the Astoria. And anyone tempted to shoot up the venue on that night – beware, this band are an unholy terror, who while they eschew violence in all its forms, are all too likely to bring malefactors to a righteous standstill with their unholy musical miscegenation.
Formed sometime in the ‘80s by two underground ravers, Rob Spragg (aka Larry Love), and Jake Black (aka the Very Reverend Dr D Wayne Love), the Alabama 3 are currently London’s hippest, scariest band. Named after two black men unjustly accused of the rape of a white woman in the 1930s Deep South (the Alabama 2, natch), the band create music that’s not so much a discrete series of songs as a soundscape comprising mountains of blues, rivers of techno, streams of country and western, the whole location bounded by a deep blue sea of aural distortion.
In Brixton, where they came to roost in the mid-1990s, the Alabamas expanded to become a free-floating musical collective. Their local gigs manage to recapture something of what it might’ve been like to witness the Grateful Dead in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 with a head full of acid. Taking the stage with the Loves are anything up to fifteen other individuals, singers, dancers, preachers, healers, whatever. For the Astoria gig Larry promises me “Sisters, a whole lotta the sisters gonna be there strutting their stuff. But you’ve heard of this Polyphonic Spree stuff, with my Mormon background and Wayne’s trade union one, we like a big congregation feel.”
This will be the end of the Alabama 3’s UK tour to promote their new slice of mayhem Power in the Blood, but I caught up with the rasp-tongued Larry Love in Bournemouth, mid-tour. He was moaning about famine and pestilence on the tour bus when we began talking, but as the conversation warmed up, so a certain mellowness seeped into his tones. “We’ve got a junkie nurse and a dialysis machine on the bus,” he lilted, betraying the boy from the South Wales Valleys beneath the verdigris of hip “so we’ll be alright.”
He’s a bit of an anomaly, this wild anarchist son of Welsh Mormons, but as he discourses, both rhythmically and cerebrally, the justness of it all emerges. No wonder the Alabama 3 make the music they do, their front man is the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Jeanette Winterson.
“The first album the record company chucked in half a million,” Larry growled. “The second one was recorded for 350 grand, but we’ve managed to do this one for 50. We did lo-fi laptops and shit like that, which is why I guess it has such a gritty feel.” It is, put bluntly, a lack of sales that’s reduced the Alabamas to such stratagems. “It was a stupid idea,” Love chortled, “this mixing country and western with techno, no wonder the prophet is always unknown in his own land. But I think our management are content to let us play outside the mainstream now, because there’s no point in going for the play list with a track like ‘Woody Guthrie’.”
No point indeed, because the fact of the matter is that the Alabama 3 are that most hideously unmarketable of things, a grown-up rock band. They make the kind of music old rockers would make if they ever grew up, instead of just retiring to the country to play pro-am golf with superannuated company directors. From the opening, heart-attack techno beats, to the massed choirs of ululating sisters rants about faith and losing it, to the last despairing, steely guitar chords, Power in the Blood is a roller coaster ride through sin, redemption and back into sin again. It’s as if To Kill a Mockingbird were being remade by George Romero on a back lot in Shepperton.
When ‘Woke up this Morning’ was chosen as the theme for The Sopranos, it looked as if the proverbial goose had begun laying for the Alabamas, but as Larry wearily intoned, “What happened was [David] Geffen dropped us, then a month later The Sopranos picked up ‘Woke Up’, then two years later Sony signed us up over there, but they didn’t know what the fuck to do with us. A Welshman and a Scotsman singing country techno – they couldn’t figure it out, so they dropped us. We’re without a deal over there at the moment.”
The Americans’ loss is our gain. I don’t think its any accident that the Alabamas are the hip literary world’s band of choice, with their beautiful textures, their compulsive narrative gifts, and their consummate intelligence. Their fans include Irvine Welsh and – most gratifying for Larry – Hubert Selby Junior. I’ll be at the Astoria on December 1st, and if you’re not a teeny-bopping throwback I suggest you make it along too. And on second thoughts, don’t just clear your diary for the day, tell work you won’t be in for the following week either.
© Will Self, The Observer, November 2002