Gig Reviews

Brian Jonestown Massacre, Billboard The Venue – Sunday, 21st February 2010

Self-importance has been integral to rock’n’roll from the very beginning. In any ham fisted definition of what rock’n’roll is, the word ‘attitude’ is frequently employed. Walking hand in hand with the idea that ‘if it’s just a sound then it may as well be nothing at all’ is the idea that attitude can make a good band great and a crappy band even greater. One could say the true power of rock music is in its swagger and not its style. Look at any of the so-called greats (your Dylans, your Lennons, your Jones’) and once you strip away the guitar and the recording studio, what you really have is a bunch of arseholes.

Talented though they may be, their ballsy parade and general arrogance whether towards fans, interviewers or other rock stars cannot be denied. It could be argued that fans of Oasis (who you may remember as the band that professed to be bigger than The Beatles then ended up about as big as The Monkees) were as enamoured with the ‘fook off’-manner of the Gallagher brothers as they were with their mediocre records.

So if self-important arrogance and unwavering, almost pathological self-belief makes a real rock’n’roller then Anton Newcombe is easily a shining star. His dogged fidelity to his own genius has been his trademark since his early days of playing My Bloody Valentine recyclings with the then-foetal Brian Jonestown Massacre. His band quickly became notorious in underground circles for their live performances. Not all of them, just the ones where Anton kicks the fans’ heads in or fires band members after on-stage brawls.

These shows collapsed before the first song was finished and though for the most part shows would be glitch free, audiences were always eager to see the dysfunctional antics of The Anton Newcombe Show. These incidents, coupled with a prolific album output and an eschewing of the usual record company mechanics cemented Newcombe’s place as an underground messiah. It’d be a fair assessment to say that for the majority of the 90s, The Brian Jonestown Massacre would consistently crumble under the weight of Newcombe’s own self-mythologising.

The band is now touring after the release of their tenth LP Who Killed Sgt. Pepper? which follows My Bloody Underground – an aggressively titled and aggressively mediocre record in which Newcombe staked his claim as the creator and proprietor of an ungrateful underground scene. On the new LP the cover, the album title, the song titles (which look like demo names Newcombe never bothered changing) and the track lengths are all classic BJM. It’s beyond my skill as a writer to sum up the album better than Newcombe himself did in an ’08 interview when discussing My Bloody Underground: “We just made them up as we were going on, took a bunch of drugs, did some more on the end of a track…” The formula doesn’t seem to have changed much between albums.

Like many songwriters (your Dylans, your Lennons and Jones’) Newcombe shines when he’s wounded. The broken hearted 1960s echoes you hear on ‘Nevertheless’ and ‘Open Heart Surgery’ are the product of a truly musical mind, albeit an ill one. But on these recent albums it seems he’s just not trying any more and the complacency is explicit.

Standing in line outside the Billboard I’m surrounded by, seemingly, quite a few Dandy Warhols fans (the t-shirts are a dead giveaway). It’s not surprising; the two bands have been virtually interchangeable in the public mind since the release of a certain documentary a few years back. After the standard pre-gig lingering, a few hundred punters make their way inside the venue, ready to witness DiG! On Ice.

The current BJM lineup is as close to the “classic lineup” as the band has been for some time. Previously estranged original band members Joel Gion (who gets his very own round of applause) and Matt Hollywood have returned to the band that first made them veritable indie namedrops.

As far-flung scenes of desert valleys and flowing tides of prescription pills stream across the screens behind them, the band gives the audience what they want: the methodroning guitars of ‘Wasted’, ‘That Girl Suicide’, ‘When Jokers Attack’ and other highlights of their prolific, turbulent career.

Matt Hollywood takes center stage and the set list features many Hollywood-penned songs including (inevitably) everyone’s favourite ‘Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth’. Newcombe, for the most part, scarcely gazes at the audience. Occasionally you catch him giving a curmudgeonly stare or knowing smile. More often than not he just he keeps to the side, with the microphone positioned for the least facial exposure possible, and takes lead on the songs which he must take lead on. Newcombe is now officially in the band, he no longer is the band.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s records have always been, for me, tinted bittersweet – the band members that appear on an album’s credits often aren’t the members that appear on the next. The wavering faux English voice that croons through songs like ‘The Devil May Care (Mom and Dad Don’t)’ and ‘If Love Is The Drug Then I Want To OD’ paints a haunting tableau. It takes a live context to force the kind of vivacity the songs deserve – the vigour and energy courses through every tune though the band may barely move.

While the lineup harks back to the halcyon (heroin?) days, the dynamic of the band is not the same as before. Most importantly, a different Anton Newcombe straps on his hollow body Gretsch. It’s an Anton far removed from the “junkie fall down, make funny” times of old. His ability to craft tender, honest pieces like ‘Open Heart Surgery’ despite a serious messianic complex would often make one wonder if he was the modern era’s Brian Jones or Charlie Manson. But while Anton will always be a guitar-strumming runaway boy with a serious Barrettesque crack in the cosmic eggshell – a lifetime of mass drug use and mass indifference from others creates a monster – at least now he’s not kicking anyone’s head in.

Dan Clarke managed the damn-near impossible on Monday afternoon, interviewing the man himself Anton Newcombe for a staggering forty five minutes. Keep an eye out tomorrow for a podcast of that conversation.

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