Radio 4 - Melkweg, Amsterdam - 15/02/2005

"This band were ready for us and I wasn't ready for them."

 

"Look I'm telling you, Steinbeck's good, but Kerouac, Kerouac's the one... No, no, you can say what you like Richard, but you can only appreciate what Kerouac's saying once you have done the road thing. To judge him purely on literary merit is to miss the point I think."

We are sitting in the bar, after the gig, with the band at the Melkweg and we are arguing about the relative merits of American literature. They are a good crowd, Radio 4, but I don't get the Kerouac thing. Still...we've had a great night which has involved a great deal of drunken singing (mostly Dylan) to bemused passers by, feeble attempts at rolling joints and the discussion of the relative merits of other bands. In the good camp are the usual suspects, Smiths, Bunnymen, Guided By Voices, New Order etc etc. Great praise is heaped on the likes of The Futureheads and Franz Ferdinand. The bad ones will be unmentioned due to the vitriolic nature of the dissing these unfortunates get. What is evidently clear is that Radio 4 are big, big fans of music and what's more, fans of the purveyors of intelligent, thought provoking music. Hence the praise for the Futureheads, "Barry, that guy, he's about 20 years old and he is so smart and on the ball; yeah, we love them". I am even salaamed when Guided By Voices is proffered by me as my all-time favourite Yank band. Cool, I could do with more of that.

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After I got the drinks in, I joined Richard in the crowd and the first thing I noticed was a set of bongos. Now then, everybody loves bongos, but bongos are usually hidden at the back of the stage. Percussionists are hired to play live and add texture to songs, but everybody who's ever met one knows that percussionists are all a bit mental. People say that drummers are crazy, which is true in the majority of cases, but percussionists are where the real nutters can be found. Drummers may like to spend their working lives hitting things with sticks, but percussionists just like to hit anything and everything that's in front of them (or behind), with anything they can find. Hands, feet, head, it doesn't matter, so long as it makes a noise. Percussionists are always a bit of a livewire and they do so much moving around on stage that bands tend to hide them in the back, because they steal the audiences attention.

I liked Radio 4 instantly, before they even set foot on stage, because they acknowledge the power of the bongo and had their percussionist situated right at the front of the stage. Alright, he was tucked off to one side, but he was definitely given more prominence than any other bongo player I've ever seen. All hail the power of the bongos! I was smiling and the band hadn't even played a note yet.

When they finally came on stage they were all dressed in a smart/casual fashion. Tidy shirts and mucky jeans. They cut pretty forlorn figures to be honest, and looked like they had either just received some very bad news or were preparing themselves for a fight. As soon as Anthony Roman plucked his first bass note I knew it was the latter. This band were ready for us and I wasn't ready for them.

Completely blindsided by the power they created I stood gaping mouthed for the first couple of songs, surprised at how angular and intense they sounded. Anthony was handling lead vocals and as he belted out the lyrics you could see the veins bulging around his head. He looked like something out of Scanners and he attacked that bass like it had just slept with his wife. Dressed all in black he looked rather small and stocky. To pass him on the street you wouldn't bat an eyelid, but on stage, the guy looks hard as fuck. The keyboard player, Gerard, on the other hand, is the pretty boy of the band and is the one member who sports an official hair style, but within seconds of being on stage his lover boy looks disappeared as he got himself so worked up that he was sweating like a bastard within seconds, which I'm sure just made him more attractive to the ladies anyway. Greg the drummer sat at the back, tub thumping away and looked bored throughout, which was rather cool but up there at the front of the stage, if tucked into the side a bit, was P.J. O'Connor banging on his bongos. His name makes him sound like a crime writer, but he looked like some kind of Maths teacher. A Maths teacher with bongos, which I'm sure you'll agree is a pleasing image.

P.J. was in a world of his own up there on stage. He played with an intensity that surprised me, those bongos sure took a beating, as did the tambourines, drums and other instruments he had at his table. Well, he didn't so much play the instruments as beat the living daylights out of them. In fact, he looked like he was constantly trying to stop himself from playing. Every movement he made, every anguished facial expression, seemed to suggest that he was actually trying to stop himself from just annihilating those skins. As Grace Jones would say, he looked like a 'slave to the rhythm', longing for the chance to really let loose but knowing that he needed to keep a settled pace in order to do his job, which is to make people dance.

And dance we did. Well I did, Richard swayed his lager back and forth and held onto his bag for dear life. I scanned the crowd. Geography teachers and star pupils at the back. Rock Dads (bald top, long ponytail at the back) and sons (baggy jeans and chains)by the sound guy. Up at the front was a gyrating crowd of attractive young ladies, which is surely the sign that a band are officailly 'cool'.  The ladies danced, swayed and threw their arms in the air, trying to seduce whatever member of the band they could (with the majority congregating under Gerard's keyboards it has to be said). The Rock dads, Geography teachers and the rest of the crowd stood motionless throughout, but every single one of them turned into pigeons and nodded their heads in time through every song, which I suppose means that they were dancing as well. I mean, how else is a Geography teacher, with elbow pads on his jacket and everything, supposed to dance without making a fool of himself?

When P.J. was given room to bash his skins, then you couldn't take your eyes off him, but I was pleased to realise that he didn't actually steal the show. Sure he may look like a Maths teachers with mental problems, but the other guys made more than a big impression. I kept trying to avoid eye contact with Anthony as he just looked like he wanted to pelt someone in the face, so intense was his approach to every song. The other guys followed suit, with Gerard using the keyboard players bow to full effect. You know the one, when they want to give you the impression that they're really 'in to the moment', any keyboard player worth his salt will bow his head, buckle his knees a little and bow over the keyboard. Greg looked bored, as I said, but he kept good time so we like dhim anyway, but the main reason that P.J. didn't steal the show was the new guy on guitar. Unfortunately I was only told his name after a few more pints and as such I have since forgotten it, but man, this guy is cool.

This was his first show with the band apparently, but the guy certainly knew what he wa doing. His playing was intense, sharp and angular but his posing was what made him stand out. This new guy can cut some cool shapes I can tell you. Jerking back and forth with every change of note the guy held his own on stage quite well, but the best thing about him was that, even for his first show, he looked like he was part of the band and was meant to be there. I noticed a few of the girls chose him as their object of desire afterwards too. Job well done fella, whatever your name is.

On record, Radio 4 have a gloosy sound, their songs are good, but seem desinged to be played in some classy New York clubs, live they strip all that gloss away and replace it with a sense of urgency and venom that works wonders. Transmission, in particular, sounded much heavier, much raunchier than it does on record. Nation became even more Clash like live, its dub bass line pounding and Anthony perfecting his Joe Strummer impersonation. Party crashers stripped away all the loops and clicks and replaced them with raw, energetic drumming from Greg whilst P.J. battered those bongos to death. It sounded more intense, more energetic and became even better to dance to.

Radio 4 won their battle. They came to Amsterdam and played with a power and force that surprised me to start with, but quickly won me over. I can't wait to see these guys again. If they're holding a party near you sometime, I suggest you gate crash it. These guys are immense.

 

Words and photograph : Damian Leslie