Brian Jonestown Massacre at Koko, London, June 28 2006
Koko used to be called the Camden Palace and before that The Music Machine and before that Camden Palais. Originally an Edwardian music hall, in the 1950s it was used by the BBC for recordings of the Goon Show and it can be seen in the comical 1980s rock movie Breaking Glass as the venue for the final triumphant performance of faux-punk Hazel O'Connor. It's always been one of my least favourite venues. I think the last time I was there it was for a "secret" show by pantomime rock'n'rollers Sigue Sigue Sputnik in 1986.
Its stairways and railings and balconies always remind me of the back of an ocean liner but when everybody has decided to cram into the smallest possible deck space and look back at the same spot on the horizon at the same time. It's hard to see anything from about 80% of the venue especially when it is busy. The spot on the horizon on Wednesday was Brian Jonestown Massacre and the gig was a sell-out.
Three different people had independently told me that BJM have performed the greatest live gigs they have ever seen. I have to admit to not knowing too much about them. I always thought their name, and that of their erstwhile compatriots Dandy Warhols, was just too stupid. Puns in band names always seem somehow witless and with hundreds of others bands to listen too with non-punning names this was enough to have never heard anything by BJM and only that phone advert by the Dandy Warhols. No great loss as far as I could tell. Then, of course, like thousands of others I saw Dig! And realised that there was maybe a little more to it.
Star of Dig! and BJM leader Anton Newcombe looks like a derelict Viggo Mortensen. He stands so far to the side of the stage that he is often completely hidden and he sings sideways into the mic like he really wishes he was as out of sight as possible. Centre stage is given to somebody with no discernible sense of rhythm who plays a tambourine and drinks from what seems from distance to be a bottle of Tia Maria. A little more Paul Rutherford than Bez, this guy with tambourine and sideburns, smiles and dances and enjoys his coffee liqueur while the band conjure swirls of psychedelia around him.
In truth BJM only seem to have two songs. One is Byrdsian whimsy the other an extended psych-noise freak-out. All the songs do sound the same but that's not really a criticism. It's like saying all wine tastes the same. To a certain extent it does but there are subtle variations and the more you pay attention the more the subtleties become apparent.
I have no idea what any of the songs were called. Given the shrieks and hollers that certain opening chords attracted I am guessing that we got to hear some favourites. One song had the audience joining in with a series of Woohs! It was a great song. I wondered why it hadn't been a hit (or a telephone advert at least!).
At one point Newcombe sent the band away and attempted a couple of solo songs accompanied by the inept percussionist. High comedy as he attempted to cue in the tambourine by nodding his head. When I nod my head, hit it! Earlier he had been wearing a deerstalker. As was seen in Dig!, Newcombe has great comic timing.
The final song descends into squalling feedback and looped noise. The band disappears in a fug of yellow cigarette smoke. The crowd stomp and shout for ages. So long that I am thinking this is probably the longest I can ever remember waiting for a band to come back for an encore. But they never do come back. Curfew broken. Lights up.
Brian Jonestown Massacre are all sideburns, bowl-cut hairdos and second hand smoke. They sound derivative, the live show is erratic, the songs all sound the same. They really shouldn't work at all. But somehow, on this performance at least, they were mesmeric.
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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