This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
The ringing is slowly fading from my ears as I write this, in the wake of Alice Cooper’s concert at the Birmingham NEC on the 10th November 2007. Supported by Joan Jett (known in this country for I Love Rock and Roll on the Guitar Hero soundtrack and… little else) and Motörhead (known for Ace of Spades and a million million million other songs which sound exactly like Ace of Spades), the show turned out to be a four-and-a-half hour celebration of loud guitars and distinctive lead singers. But are trashy New York punk, gruff British speed metal and heavy Detroit glam rock musical flavours which go well together?
For those of you who’ve never been to a concert there, incidentally, the NEC Arena isn’t at all bad. Clearly signposted from the M42, it has plenty of conference facilities – which means you’ll usually be able to grab a moderately-priced and moderately-bland dinner before the gig if you’re hungry – and the arena itself is well-lit, has plenty of toilets, snack food stands and (most importantly) water dispensers, and for this gig offered both standing and seated tickets. It’s the hallowed ground where such cultural icons as Wolf, Shadow, and Panther reigned supreme in Gladiators, back before we realised that it was just a tame and less entertaining form of professional wrestling, and it doesn’t seem to have changed a bit since then. The floor is sticky, but not as sticky as, say, those in the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford. Some of the toilets are unpleasant.
The exciting thing about standing on the arena floor for an NEC concert is that a) you aren’t a spineless, lily-livered weakling who can’t cope with a little bit of rocking out and needs to sit down munching on your copious bags full of snack food like some sort of Roman Emperor watching Lemmy from Motörhead choke his guts up for you onstage, and are therefore showing the rock-and-roll gods (present here in the trinity of Jett, Kilmeister and Cooper) a modicum of respect and b) you get a cracking view of said spineless cowardly etcs. in all of the seats. I was particularly struck by the sight of one Cooper fan who had done an excellent job with his makeup and wearing typical mildly-gothy concert clothes sitting next to his very boringly-dressed mum, dad and sister. Clearly, his parents weren’t going to let him go to the concert on his own. Poor bastard.
Meanwhile, I have an exciting new fashion innovation to report to my faithful readers. In the standing area I saw not one but two individuals who had dressed and groomed themselves in a manner distinctly similar to the character “Jack Sparrow” from some obscure Johnny Depp film called Pirates of the Carribean. No kidding! I can only assume that these two decided that through dressing in that manner they could express their admiration for and desire to emulate certain worthy characteristics exhibited by that movie character. This was such a daring and unprecedented act of unrestrained individualism and originality that my monocle shattered, blinding me permanently in my left eye.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are on first because nobody in this country has heard of them. Because they are the smallest and weakest band (the runt of the litter, if you will), they are not allowed to disturb the equipment belonging to Motörhead or Alice Cooper; they are corralled in the central area of the stage. Off to the left a mysterious old man who looks like a grumpy history teacher lurks. For some songs he approaches a keyboard and presses keys, sings backing vocals, shakes a tambourine, concentrating intensely on shaking the jangly instrument in precisely the right manner. Other times he withdraws, and is motionless. Googling around establishes that this mystery man is Kenny Laguna, Jett’s record producer and business partner; it’s nice that this quiet but apparently surprisingly influential musical figure gets a turn on stage once in a while, but that doesn’t change the fact that having a man who looks like someone’s grandfather on the stage simply isn’t punk rock.
The rest of the band is punk rock. The lead guitarist and bass guitarists are in their black vests, showing off their muscles and tattoos. Joan is in her (very tight) leathers, showing off her muscles and tattoos. The drummer… is very blonde. Anyone who doubts their punk rock credentials should check out this quote from their punk rock lead guitarist on their punk rock official website.
I live to play punk rock and will never do anything else. Punk rock is my life and without it I would rather die. It is the greatest feeling in the world to perform punk rock in a packed club full of punk rock fans.
So, anyway, punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock punk rock.
That aside, the Blackhearts do try very hard. It is difficult to whip up wild punk rock enthusiasm in a crowd which simply doesn’t know your songs, so a lot of the attempts at audience participation fell a little flat, but they played an engaging set which gave us a brief tour of their back catalogue. I Love Rock and Roll was wheeled out, but seemed incongruous – it really doesn’t sound like the rest of their repertoire, which deals with such punk rock subject matter as bisexuality, freaky sex, and taking your clothes off. Joan sweats a lot and asks us if we want to touch her. Women in the audience question their sexuality and their sexuality gets back to them after a while and says “Yes, you do want to touch Joan Jett”. The men feel inadequate (and also want to touch Joan Jett, but are a little scared). The old man in the corner looks on approvingly. I do not know who he wants to touch.
The act draws to a close and we all applaud and toy with the idea of picking up a Joan Jett compilation, possibly, if there’s a not-too-expensive one easily available. Most of the audience, however, are simply waiting for one of the other acts (most people didn’t even bother showing up for Jett). The Blackhearts seem happy just to be performing.
The gentle ballet of the roadies entertains us between the acts. They remove the Blackhearts’ drums. They take a big blanket off of a sinister pile that was sat behind them, revealing Motörhead’s drums. They haul up a giant banner featuring Motörhead’s incredibly ugly mascot. Shortly afterwards, Motörhead’s even uglier frontman is on stage, along with a bandana’d guitarist and a drummer who… is very blonde.
If you have heard one Motörhead song, you have heard them all. The next hour is filled up very loud guitars played through amps turned up high enough to make it impossible to tell one song from the next (as opposed to simply very difficult). Lemmy’s voice, that legendary gravelley shout, is completely overwhelmed. There are only two noticable shifts in the music: an energetic drum solo from Mickey Dee that made everyone’s trousers shake, and an acoustic blues song, both brief pauses before the very very loud guitars come back again.
The difficult thing about Motörhead is that all of their songs sound the same. This is not hyperbole. All of their songs really do sound the same, especially when they are played at such a crushingly loud volume that all of the fine detail is simply drowned out. I found it oddly hypnotic, in a way; I found my mind wandering in a way that it didn’t during the other sets, and towards the end I actually yawned. I don’t think Lemmy saw me, but I am sleeping with a gun for the next few weeks just in case.
Motörhead’s set winds up. Our ears feel like that we’ve had cotton wool hammered into them. A bunch of terrifying skinheads who only showed up for Motörhead (one of whom has “ENGLAND” tattooed on the back of his neck) file out, chanting “Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?” I resist the temptation to say “The guy who got more of your ticket money than Motörhead did.” I am more than ready for something a little more… varied.
The gentle dance of the roadies commences once more. They remove Motörhead’s equipment. They raise the big Alice Cooper banner. They complete their preparations in secret behind this veil; I notice that the man in front of me has a denim jacket that’s absolutely covered in tour patches from such extreme metal bands as Slayer, Kreator, Overkill, Megadeth… and Genesis?
Eventually, the lights dim again, the backlighting comes on, and Alice Cooper is revealed in silhouette on the veil. The crowd goes wild; then another Alice Cooper silhouette appears with a sword and kills the first shadow. The veil raises, a black-clad Cooper drops his white-clad counterpart, and the show begins. The guitarists are scary and loud and tattooed. Cooper is on top form. The drummer… is very blonde (and delivers the requisite trouser-shaking drum solo during Halo of Flies).
Theatrics in rock concerts are a rarity these days. Peter Gabriel is no longer in Genesis and would still not want to dress up as a giant flower any more if he was. David Bowie isn’t pretending to be a space alien come to Earth to give big slobbery blowjobs to Mick Ronson. Alice, on the other hand, is still going strong, still staking vampire babies through the heart, still getting menaced by hooded monsters, still tossing all kinds of souvenirs into the audience, still getting executed by hanging at the climax of the act, and still returning at the end to inform us that school is, indeed, out for summer. Until the “psycho-drama” that gives its tour its name is complete and he’s gotten into the encores, he does not address the audience; it’s up to the music to do the talking, and the touring band, the backing dancers (including his daughter) and the man himself make sure that’s precisely what happens. Cooper concerts have a lot of well-rehearsed elements which I suppose will be no surprise to regular attendees – there’s the usual execution sequence, the obligatory straitjacket, and the traditional fake US presidents (and presidential candidates) fighting onstage during Elected – but Cooper’s set is just as fun for those of us who don’t have as full a command of the man’s back catalogue – and since Motörhead’s set seemed to be an exercise in preaching to the converted, this is a welcome gear change.
If Joan Jett, Motörhead, and Alice Cooper have anything in common, it’s that they’ve all consistently pursued their artistic vision over a course of decades, and in that light it’s interesting to see where they’ve ended up. Jett – at least in this country – has ended up in obscurity but doesn’t seem to mind it there. Motörhead have made a virtue out of repetition and consistently serve up the same sort of material which they always have, and have earned a loyal cult for their efforts. Alice Cooper, meanwhile, has managed to update his sound – there’s a decidedly heavy metal spin put on songs that were originally delivered in a classic rock style back in the 1970s – but has kept his stage act true to its roots, and for my money is the most entertaining of the lot. Joan Jett comes close, but Motörhead are so unfailingly uncompromising to their ideal of “everything louder than everyone else” that they end up being about volume first, entertainment second. You can pick up a box set of 4 classic-era Motörhead albums for 10 from Zavvi (formerly Virgin Megastores), and that’s really the only Motörhead I need – neatly packaged, there when I need them, and at a volume I control. On the other hand, I’d totally go to the next concert Jett or Cooper play. So should you.