Sunday, 5 July 2009

Agitate, Educate, Organize...

THAT PETROL EMOTION - Birmingham Academy

It was a rather poor turnout for the return of the Ulster/Seattle rockers, with the Academy 2 barely half-full. It was good to be one of the youngest people in the audience for once, as I found myself amidst a number of hardcore fans who had probably been following the band since 1985, with quite a few old, faded t-shirts from early tours on display. As with several gigs I've attended recently, I was hoping to relive part of my teenage years. I was particularly keen to see singer Steve Mack again, as for a brief period in 1987 I had been obsessed with him (in a purely heterosexual way, of course) after seeing this clip on Channel 4's "The Tube":

That performance made a lasting impression on my 16-year-old mind and for a while I thought he was the coolest person on the planet, although I ditched him as a style icon a few years later when he started to sport bleached dreadlocks.

I was wondering how the band would have survived the ravages of time. Obviously they look a little older now, but one of the O'Neill brothers (I'm not sure which one is which; the one with the glasses, anyway) was still quite fresh-faced and Steve Mack was in fine form. He certainly looks better now than in his dreadlocked phase and most importantly, he is still as energetic as he was 20 years ago and still performing the same dance moves that I first witnessed on "The Tube". He soon had most of the audience dancing but few of us had the stamina to keep up with him.

Although the performance was undeniably intense and it was a joy to see that Steve Mack has lost none of his charm over the last 20 years, the setlist was surprising and, I have to admit, a little disappointing. It was heavily biased in the direction of the last two albums (which I've never listened to that much) with a couple of songs from "Manic Pop Thrill" and just one song from "Babble" - I'm sure you can guess which song.

While I don't like bands to be predictable and just play the hits, it seems odd that what is, to many people, their best release has been sidelined like this. I heard several shouts for "Swamp" from people at the front, and a friend asked me if I thought we were likely to get any more tunes from "Babble" as this was the only one of their albums that he really knew. It may just be that in their old age, the band find that the more recent songs are still fresh in their minds, but I'm wondering if they have decided that "Babble" no longer fits in with the vibe that they want to create.

I've never consciously thought about this before, but "Babble" is very different from their other albums. It has a harder guitar sound, courtesy of producer Roli Mosimann (better known for his work with the likes of Swans and Foetus) and the overall feel of the album is much more serious than anything that TPE released before or after it. It is overtly political, both lyrically and in the newspaper headlines and slogans that emblazon the sleeve, making references to the situation in Northern Ireland at the time of recording. Many of their later songs, particularly the ones aired at this gig - "Sensitize", "Tingle", "Hey Venus" etc. - are lighter in their sound and subject matter. It seems TPE now prefer their shows to be about having a good time and forgetting about the problems in the world. Which is a shame, because with the current political and financial state of the UK, the songs from "Babble" have never been more relevant.

I'm not sure how permanent this reunion will be and if they plan to record new material; I didn't notice any new songs played during the show. I would love to see them again, as Steve Mack is still one of the best frontmen I've witnessed live, regardless of which songs are played. But next time if they could include, at the very least, "Swamp" and "Creeping To The Cross", then I'm sure many people would go home very happy indeed.


Caedes said...

I too used to love TPE and can confirm that Steve Mack was indeed the coolest man on the planet until the dreadlocks appeared.
It does seem to be a common theme for alternative bands to lose interest in their more popular songs. TPE do seem to have moved away from their more political early songs and perhaps that is a good thing considering where they come from. I must admit I never understood why TPE wheren't a much more popular band when you compare them to the wonderstuff for example. Good tunes, lots of energy, perfect for bouncing around to, what more could you want?
Great review, I hope they travel as far south as me sometime!

Richard Burton (NTDO) said...

It just goes to show you can't be too careful!