...Is this the start of it all?...
In 1979, a decrepit ex-sugar-refinery stood tall, dark and proud in a scruffy street called Rue de Manchester in the run-down district of Molenbeek-St-Jean (or St-Jans-Molenbeek for our Flemish readers), situated to the West of the centrum of the ever-present urbane compromise of dual-language that is Brussels. The old sugar factory had a makeshift arts and new-wave club within it. Artists, audio and visual, peddled their wares within its dank, damp and dingy walls. Musical performers, such as Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, William S. Burroughs and The Names all graced the stage, either side of Christmas 1979, peering up through the holes in the ceiling, wondering who/what was looking down on them (as well as up at them).
In 2009, a smartly renovated ex-sugar refinery stands tall, less dark and still proud in a desolate scruffy street called Rue De Manchester. Tonight, for a very special night (December 12th 2009), one of those bands from three decades ago, started the proceedings as part of a five band bill, all of whom have been previously associated with Factory Records, Manchester and Factory Benelux / Les Disques Du Crepuscule, Bruxelles. Now there are no more holes just huge cracks in the lighting system...
Its cold. Its very cold. Its minus 3 degrees outside and its 20.15. By now, La Raffinerie should be heaving with people. Instead its heaving with stress and icy breaths and a lot of head-scratching from technicians. Basically, the lights are not playing ball. Theyre not flashing either. Merde! And then again they start working, technical hitch finally over. 75 minutes late. In Britain, the place would have been trashed. In Belgium, the doors open, people stream in and a long wait is forgiven (after beer and merchandise of course). Oh yes, for ale-facticians, the beer of choice was Troll. I was prepared to get Trollied. And Fac-ed. And I did.
The Names took to the stage on a mission. Initially not chosen for tonights extravaganza (they played at the last Factory night in 2007), they elected to broaden their sound with the strength of strings in order to win over the organizers. They achieved that. They also won over the eager (and thawing) music fans with a superb warm-up (no irony intended) slot that boasted a brand new song, one forgotten song and five crowd favourites.
Burn sizzled like a pig on a spit and soon the crowd was cheering. They certainly liked the sound a rock n roll new-wave band with strings, but with a renewed energy. Yeah, do it again. So they did. Shanghai Gesture (from 1982s Swimming album) was delivered by a group that doesnt swagger around but sounds like it should do. The highlight of the set, no question, was the radical overhaul of glum-drum album track, White Shadow. This is an archetypal wet raincoat, bleak Monday song tonight its a hot pants, sexy Saturday night anthem. Not a Whigfield type of Saturday night but a Suede one - though louder and a damn site less indulgent. Here, the strings-trio sparkles and the audience nod their still-thawing heads with approval Cold-wave, they call it over here I suggest the opposite on this occasion.
The faithful Hannett-glazed Nightshift single (FAC 29 as it seems to be known as) weaves its usual hopeful charm, as does the still-fresh-today-Hannett-tweaked Calcutta single. Impressive new song, Nature Of The Beast, has a rock n roll shimmer to it Michel Sordinia wraps himself around the mike-stand like a coiled viper, spitting out the words in a modest, yet intense, manner, Marc Deprez opting for concentrated bouts of guitar bursts. Its a good song. As is the lowly and forlorn ballad, The Astronaut, an under-rated and unassuming little treasure that rounded off their, all-too-short, set as an eagerly shouted-for encore. Excellent start.
Its been a bloody long time since The Wake stood in the same place whilst playing instruments twenty years or thereabouts. So you could forgive them for looking just a little nervous prior to striking up the short, sharp vignette, Testament. Oh its good to hear this again taken from the debut mini-album Harmony, its always been a favourite of mine and proved to be a great set opener.
I swear I saw a few punters get all dew-eyed during the rest of the set non-album rarity Uniform and potential chart-botherer Talk About The Past being the main culprits, but the real winners this evening by a country mile were Here Comes Everybody, all moody and brooding yet subtle and softly sung by lead-singer, Caesar, and the gorgeous dub-dusted single Something Outside. John Peel used to cane this on his show and its not hard to see why someone else shouldnt carry on that tradition. A true landmark release and still a fabulous little number to wear about town as good as the one Carolyn sported behind the keyboards this evening! The Sands closed the set triumphantly and hinted at new material to come.
Surprise of the night for me was Biting Tongues. I am only familiar with their Factory catalogue (not sure they actually played any of it though) tunes like Compressor and Troublehand formed part of my 1985/6 soundtrack. Tonight they were damn dirty. Think Blurt. Think Cabaret Voltaire (circa Sluggin Fer Jesus to 2 x 45). Think Liquid Liquid. Think Talking Heads. It was all here in lesser or greater measures with loads of funk-flavoured sprinkles. Biting Tongues are another band that hasnt frequented the stage much in the past 20 years (save for an Islington Mill gig in Salford in 2007) but they have inadvertently been a part of UK dance culture.
Graham Massey went on to form 808 State, one of the most important bands during the Rave scene back in the early 90s and an adversary of Chicago acid-house sounds during later BT and earlier 808 material. I became rather enamoured with their itchy punk-funk and neck-nodding rhythms after two numbers and two more Trolls. Check out their After The Click best-of (I definitely have to).
Section 25 delivered one of my favourite 5 albums of the year and didnt disappoint not until my eardrums packed their bags and pissed off to cotton-wool land. Jesus, they were loud tonight. Distortion started to kick in. However the newer songs, Remembrance, Singularity and Mirror were resplendent in their delivery and only served to make me wonder why S25 didnt crack it 20 years ago. Punchy tech-electro anthem, Looking From A Hilltop, also succeeded in supporting this bewilderment. Wretch was a right little runt (as its name suggests), Friendly Fires sounded fidgety and desolate and Dirty Disco was a restless little shuffle as per usual.
But the biggies for me were Haunted, a track from the Factory Benelux heyday and one that nearly got away, tucked away on the Ian Curtis produced debut Factory single, Up To You. Although the sound wavered a little in places, most notably when new family recruit Bethany was cued to sing, S25 justified second billing with their usual intense performance and minimal movement. But you really should get the Nature & Degree album. Its a bit tasty.
All good things have to come to an end and A Certain Ratio were many more levels than just good. They were fucking awesome tonight. No other description can describe how nifty and funky they can be and, indeed, were tonight. Kicking off with a medley of Choir/Waterline and Do The Du, I peered over my shoulder to see a few people losing control of their lower limbs and upper muscles. Ysee, ACR do make your balls itch and your lady bits quiver and they mean to. New songs, Mind Made Up and I Feel Light prove that classic Ratio pleasers, Shack Up and Flight are not flukes.
Thirty bloody years these guys have been playing music better than sodding U2 and Coldplay and stadium bands, yet still have to tolerate audiences of 200. Tonight though, their fans were ready to offer them beer, gear and a bed judging by the response to Knife Slits Water and the fill-in by Donald Johnson as bassist, giving it a good old slap. A cover of Joy Divisions Heart And Soul went down well as did Wild Party, spurred on by Tony Quigleys resonating sax. its hard to believe that this track is 25 years old and even harder to believe no bastard bought it in 1985 upon its release.
The encore was provided by the point of often-return, Shack Up. To out-funk the original disco-classic by Banberra is no mean feat but the tanned bare legs of ACR achieved it in 1980 with their debut single on Factory Benelux. They did it again tonight. Chatting briefly to Jez, Donald and Martin afterwards, I got the impression they were chuffed with the show. No more new material yet though the cracking new album, Mind Made Up needs promoting, helped by a forthcoming date in Brighton for a charity gig on March 7th 2010. And as a credit to Martin Moscrop of the band I am not going to mention spiky guitars, precision drumming or ankle-deep bass-lines. Even though I just have. The party continued into the night with several DJs doing the do I know one or two didnt get back to their hotels until 4am but, after all, this is Belgium. A place where great things take a bit more time. And a LOT of beer...