Saturday, February 18, 2017

What I Did Last Night - The Blue Orchids and The Nightingales at The Cumberland Arms in Newcastle

The Blue Orchids are playing their first song on a small raised stage in a small upstairs room of The Cumberland Arms, one of the best old school pubs in Newcastle on a Friday night. I'm not sure what the song is called but leader Martin Bramah is intoning a sermon about the strange, unreal monotony of life, the way so many people around us seem to sleepwalk their way through it in almost drugged, conditioned conformity.

They were always the most interesting of cult bands. Formed when Bramah and Una Baines left the original line up of The Fall but took with them no small part of the gothic magic and mystery that held them apart and made them so  special in those early days. Their best songs, and there are many of them, are like experiencing a black humoured dark seance somewhere in Lancashire. A sideways look at the skewed rules by which our lives are governed.


I'm here tonight to see a band I've thought highly of since I first came upon their remarkable debut album The Greatest Hit from 1982. An ironic title since The Blue Orchids never had one or probably even wanted one. It's one of the very best underground albums of all, a perfectly realised vision of an alternative way of looking at life.

They play my favourite moment of theirs Bad Education and the hit they should have had, (it wasn't even a single - why not?) midway through. They almost chuck away a wonderful anthem which makes a glorious point very simply;  choose your own way, don't eat what's served up to you without taking a good look at what's on your plate and deciding whether it's for you or not. We all actually do have a choice.

They're gone and the friends I'm with and I go outside for some fresh air. We're undecided about whether to go back and see The Nightingales who none of us were quite so enamored with in terms of their recorded output. But we go back anyway and it's the right decision. They are quite splendid in an utterly bizarre way. Unlike The Blue Orchids they are not playing a similar brand of music to that for which they were known for in the eighties. They have changed. 

Lead singer Robert Lloyd is an enormous, overweight man in his fifties wearing NHS looking spectacles ranting into a microphone while allowing very little that's available for deciphering. He's either very angry or laughing his head off. On the drums is a young, long-haired woman who flails madly throughout the gig and occasionally joins him for utterly ludicrous, fully committed, howled duets which are at once inexplicably funny and utterly bewildering in terms of imagining what might have brought them into being.  The only musical reference point that really makes sense is Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Otherwise the band almost defy description. I leave before the end, not because I'm not enjoying it but because I'm tired and have more than had my money's worth. A wonderful evening! You get the sense that old punks know more than many of the rest of us ever will.

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