A few years ago a lad I knew stopped a bus outside a house on Kings Road, only it wasn't anything to do with pop music. It was his own house. And he was the bus driver.
The place - Oldham Street, Manchester...
I'd love to tell you what I was doing between the hours of 8pm and 10pm on Monday 25th February, but I'd have to kill you. Apparently. "No reviews" is the instruction, albeit third hand and already flouted by the time you read this, but anyway...
I can tell you what I was doing at about ten o'clock - I was standing in the jam-packed back room of the Castle watching Belfast's finest, Girls Names (no apostrophe. This is important.) and I can tell you that I set out to attend this performance just before eight o'clock, which would allow me to see the two supports as well, just a normal sort of Monday night. I just can't tell you the bits in between, at least not without using a bit of Artistic Licence.
I can't tell you that a few minutes after leaving my flat en route en route to the Castle and expecting to meet a friend, I received a text message from the selfsame friend - let's call him Agent A - "Jimmy Muir in Nicht Und Tag tonight. 5 quid in. On about 8.30". Or at least I couldn't, if I hadn't cleverly disguised the identity of the individual in question. Only you don't know who the heckerslike I'm on about now, do you? OK. Leesten very carefully, I shall say zees only vonce...
Mr, er, Muir started his career as a teenager by visiting local Man Of Letters Mr. Stefano Morrison with the intention of forming a Beat Combo. Said Beat Combo - let's call them The Joneses - became massively popular, until Muir got bored and buggered off to join TheTheTheTheTheThe and Morrison made a couple of good solo records before disappearing up his own you-know-what and emerging as some kind of foreigner-baiting Prince Philip without the bits you actually secretly laugh at even though you know you shouldn't. Then Muir joined loads of other bands and then he decided to stop being in bands and make a record on his own, expect with a band. Got that? Good.
Well, you know, I'm headed that way anyway, so may as well. As I turn onto Oldham Street I can see the queue stretching back from the door and I'm still thinking I'm just going to walk coolly past on to the Castle like none of this means anything to me, I can always wander back in a bit, I mean nobody knows about this anyway... yeah, right. Having ascertained that the queue contains about 60 people, roughly one quarter of the venue capacity (one of whom is Agent A) I'm about to go to the shop when local music scene royalty Clint Boon tweets his 33,865 followers some rumour confirmation and we envisage a shitload of people suddenly materialising in the street. They don't, but hey, I've probably missed the first band at the Castle by now and I'll get there in time for Girls Names whatever, so why not...
Which is how I came to be standing about this far (I'm stretching my arms here, but my arms aren't that long) away from a genuine Mancunian Legend, and not one whose only interest in music these days is rehashing his own former glories either, mentioning no names, of course. No, this legend - looking bloody good for his 49 years it has to be said, those press images of a man seemingly a decade younger are not airbrushed in any way - has made a new record, and the word on the street is that it's the best thing he's done since... you know. I can't say I am massively familiar with all of what he's done in the past 25 years, but unless some of it's a lot better than I think it probably is then they're right. He's playing guitar like... well, like himself. He's been the first to admit in interviews that he's spent twenty years trying not to be just That Bloke From That Band, but here he is, pealing chords most of us have never heard of with that beautifully effortless demeanour, looking relaxed, looking happy. Much happier than you'd think anyone could manage after spending about five hours (not an exaggeration) signing copies of today's new release in two different record shops, dashing across the road from the second into a ten minute soundcheck before the doors here opened. Every fan's photo I've seen from the signings, he looks happy too. (A true gent - as I had the pleasure to find out when he accompanied me & others on a 2am Amsterdam ramble - Ed).
The band are great - but then I suppose if you're a legend of his standing you can afford to pick the right people - not that they always do; we can all think of musical heroes from defunct favourite bands whose subsequent line-ups have been leakier than Julian Assange. They serve the songs well, the second guitarist providing the foil he never had back in the day (well, apart from the bit where thingy joined as a fifth member); sometimes there are echoes of the Tom Verlaine / Richard Lloyd interplay that was playing through the PA immediately before they came onstage. And the songs - they're beautiful, full of perfectly rippling minor chords and love for the city to which he's returned home after his recent stint at Portland hipsterdom. "It's really nice to be playing these songs here" he tells us "this is a song about transcendence... I was going to go to India but I just stayed in Wythenshawe, it works better". He jokes that nobody from outside Manchester knows how to pronounce the title of (what on the strength of tonight's one listen could be an album highlight) Say Demesne - actually, most people in Manchester don't, either, though we all know the road that snakes through south-central suburbia, not too far from the house on Kings Road where that fabled early eighties visit took place and where the Mancstalgia tourist buses make a photo stop. (A few years ago a lad I knew stopped a bus outside a house on Kings Road, only it wasn't anything to do with pop music. It was his own house. And he was the bus driver. A newly self-outed gay former Falklands paratrooper considered a nutter even by other nutters that knew him, known in some circles as The Milkman Avenger following an incident involving a would-be mugger and a full crate of silver-top, he just wanted a cup of tea. I'm not sure if there were actually any passengers on board at the time; I hope not. Anyway, I digress...)
We get a few songs that are not new. There's an energetic Bigmouth Strikes Again and - even better - the glorious chiming pop of Electronic's Forbidden City. That bit, that little descending guitar line that comes in in the third verse just after "there is a wind that blows in the northern sky", my god, it's always been one of those bits of a record that just makes me go "yes, yes, that!" and here I am watching his fingers on the fretboard, I'm definitely having a "moment". (By the way - hands up if you can name the third co-writer of said song. If you don't know, google it, you might be surprised.) And yes, actually, he can sing. You'd want to hate him for being so bloody over-talented if he wasn't so modest and likeable. An encore of I Fought The Law (yes, really - and the drummer looks delighted, but then I've always thought the six gun beats in the breakdown are probably the best fun you can have as a drummer) and a sublime How Soon Is Now with the second guitarist's bottlenecked finger sliding us back to our younger days. If this was just a rehersal - the reason, presumably, for the supposed news blackout - then the actual gigs are going to be fucking immense. It's been a stunning hour and ten minutes (ish), and a privilege to have been there.
It's also a salutory lesson from which others of his generation could learn a thing or two: that the past should be a place you visit, dip into, savour like a flick through a treasured photo album, before returning home to the present day.
With this in mind I'm off out the door and less than three minutes later trying to squeeze into the remaining cubic centimetre of the Castle's back room; to be honest I'm quite surprised to get in at all. Girls Names' new album has been getting some good press and the band - whom we first encountered supporting British Sea Power in Belfast a couple of years ago - are suddenly starting to appear in new music tipsheets. And here they are playing a free gig, and they're just starting their first song. Result!
The event is courtesy of a rather mysterious organisation called Beta who've been operating around various venues of the Northern Quarter (though largely here at the Castle) for a year or two now: sort of an online private members' club for Mancunians who like new music. Every gig, their representative prints out a full list of people who Like their Facebook page - and that's the guest list up until venue capacity has been reached. The next question is usually "what's the catch?" and oddly there doesn't seem to be one, unless you count getting more updates about more gigs you don't have to pay to get into. And indeed some you do have to pay for, all managed by a fast-growing national live promotion company, but nobody's forcing you to go are they? I guess for some young impressionable gig-goers it's your classic free-sample-to-get-you-hooked "gateway drug" scenario, but for someone like me who's already up at the high end of this particular addiction it's more like the heavy smoker who finds a full pack on the street: "that's tonight's paid for, yay!" Not that anyone's actually checking anyone off the list by the time I get there...
"Thank you for all coming out on a Monday," says amiable singer Cathal Cully, "nobody in Belfast goes out on a Monday. In fact nobody in Belfast goes out any night of the week... good to see so many of you here, heard some bloke from Electronic was playing tonight... or was it some guy from the Cribs?"
Sorry Cathal, I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA what you're talking about.
The laugh being that The Smiths were often one of the bands mentioned in early Girls Names reviews, as well as Orange Juice and the (already becoming tiresome even in 2011) "surf" epithet. And sure, there's still a certain Marr-esque rattle in the guitars but if you're looking for the rather fey indie jangle of Dead To Me then look elsewhere, as Cully has recently gone on record saying that title is exactly how they feel about it. This leaves me - for the second time in as many hours - watching someone familiar playing music that isn't, and being more than a little impressed by it. I love it when that happens.
Neil Brogan's taut driving rhythms and Claire Miskimmin's angry, Wire-like bass are definitely making their presence felt more these days, not that we can actually see much of them on the low stage even after working our way halfway to the front; meanwhile keyboard player Philip Quinn, who joined the band a year or so ago, has brought with him a kind of dark psychedelia. The overall result, instrumentally at least, is less reminiscent of the bookish end of 80s indie and more of the Bunnymen in their Germanic-flavoured mode. When a band starts calling songs things like "Hypnotic Regression" you kind of know where they've been getting some of their inspiration - not having, as yet, acquired that album I'm only presuming this is the eight minute monster with which they end the set, but whatever it is it's a wonderful driving repeating and extended coda.
We keep reading about how "psyche" is in this year, or "back" (I'm not sure it ever really left Incendiary Towers, though it may have nipped out for some food at some point - it never left: currently it's sat on my knee and I'm stroking it - Ed) and everyone and their uncle is, or soon will be, using the work "motorik" about everything. It's nice and refreshing to see a band making use of those kind of influences on their own terms, mixing them into a strong post-punk sound as opposed to following the inevitable herd.
I'll be the first to admit that while I bought Dead to Me I only listened to it about twice; now I feel kind of exonerated. Their new one, however, somewhat tellingly entitled The New Life, is duly to the shopping list that already includes that other bloke's. To think this was meant to be a cheap Monday night out... ah well.