tue 25/06/2024

Pop Will Eat Itself, Chalk, Brighton review - hip hop rockers deliver a whopper | reviews, news & interviews

Pop Will Eat Itself, Chalk, Brighton review - hip hop rockers deliver a whopper

Pop Will Eat Itself, Chalk, Brighton review - hip hop rockers deliver a whopper

Eighties/Nineties indie-tronic dance mavericks take the roof off

Poppies frontman Graham Crabb goes surfin'© Peter Dovgan

By midway, things are cooking. “Can U Dig It?”, a post-modern list-song from another age (Ok, 1989), boasts a whopping guitar riff. Keys-player Adam Mole, his ushanka cap’s ear-covers flapping, leaps onto his seat, waves his synth aloft.

Frontmen Graham Crabb and Mary Byker fly up’n’down the stage-front, launching airwards for chest-bumps, staccato-firing rapped lyrics about the Furry Freak Brothers, Renegade Soundwave, Bruce Lee, DJ Spinderella and, of course, how writer-magician Alan Moore “knows the score”.  At the end Crabb segues briefly into an obscure sliver of Boys Own Bocca Juniors’ Brit-Balearica; “Raise your hands if you think you understand,” he half-sings, “Raise your standards if you don’t!”

850-capacity Chalk, is bouncing. The crowd are mostly in their forties and fifties, but not fossilised-to-the-floor BBC 6Music dads; there’s plenty of movement, plenty of grinning women, shaking what God gave them. The evening didn’t start this way. A half-full venue and lacklustre vibe greeted the band as they opened with the manic, breakbeat of “Dance of the Mad Bastards”. Pop Will Eat Itself take off with antic dynamism and don’t let up for an hour-and-20. They take the crowd with them all the way.

The lethargic beginning is likely because the gig begins at 8.30 PM. The venue has a club night later. Fair enough but, weirdly, just an hour’s difference from usual gig timing often means a less vibrant audience. Late arrivals trickle in, and a 9.30 PM start is just more rock’n’roll, more night-world and loose, certainly more booze-fuelled.

Pop Will Eat Itself are undeterred. They give it like they’re headlining Glastonbury, each member an individual, watchable, a character. Graham Crabb, thick wavy hair, stomps about, grey goateed, wearing a striped, short-sleeved psychedelic shirt, a megaphone often in his hand or at his mouth. Mary Byker is leaner, snippier, baseball-capped, his tee-shirt black, headphones as smiley face. Guitarist Richard March has aged well, bearing a thick mop of dark curls, sharply check-suited, glasses and tie.

Crabb, March and Mole are original members, but it's bassist Davey Bennett who visually represents for Pop Will Eat Itself’s origins. Multicoloured, headbanded dreds sit atop his head; he has tats, a black vest top, a young, lean, rangy energy. His appearance recalls PWEI’s pomp, mid-Eighties to mid-Nineties, the so-called grebo scene, old Midlands biker slang the NME latched onto, with associated imagery. Indeed, Mary Byker, who joined the band in 2010, was originally in cartoon scuzz-rock outfit Gaye Bykers on Acid. Bennett’s look, though, goes beyond that, to the era of “crusties”, of long-ago bands such as Back To The Planet and Sunscreem.

Accompanied by strobes, a recorded backing track rife with sample-snippets, and muscular funk-rock drumming (from, I think, Cliff Hewitt), the six-piece romp through relentlessly catchy, ear-grabbing, foot-movers: 1994’s “Everything’s Cool?”, the final single of their initial incarnation, with its ebullient crowd-sung whoops; the Clyde Stubblefield-fuelled “Not Now James, We’re Busy”, a preposterously enjoyable song based around the Godfather of Soul’s 1988 two-state police car chase; and “There is No Love Between Us Anymore”, an endlessly repeating chorus line and descending guitar redolent of Buzzcocks’ “I Believe”.

They take a break to dance about to their alternative World Cup 1990 anthem, “Touched by the Hand of Cicciolina”, an Italo-house pastiche tribute to the meta-art porn star-politician - and a Top 30 hit (just) - but are soon attacking one of their best, “Def Con One”. This wild smash-up of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” and The Osmonds’ “Wild Horses” shouldn’t work, a Frankenstein’s monster, but it does. They chew it up and spit it out, Stourbridge’s own rave-era Beastie Boys.

There are new songs too. One called “Loser”, another about “growing old disgracefully” called “Disco Misfits” and, best of all, during the encore, a tribute to Vivienne Westwood and London punk called “Vive le Rock”. But naturally this crowd responds more, in an increasingly hectic, sweaty and euphoric manner, to those old singles, every one a banger. Some now sound better live than in their original versions… “Karmadrome”… “Bulletproof”… and their biggest hit “Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!” (UK No.9 in 1993!).

The crowd roars and roars to haul them back for an encore. They return with “Ich Bin Ein Auslander” which Byker dedicates to its writer, Clint Mansell, a founder member who gradually parted ways with the reincarnated band as he developed a world class 21st century career as a Hollywood film composer. The song is timely, a visceral protest piece, attacking repulsive Daily Mail-style responses to immigration, aided by an industrially pummelling guitar. “No-one likes a Nazi,” says Byker.

They end with a roof-lifting version of “Their Law”, the song they created with The Prodigy for that band’s epochal Music for the Jilted Generation album. The guitar chugga-chugs threateningly. The tension builds. Boom! “Fuck ‘em and their law,” we bellow, pogo-ing like kangaroos. Its sheer loudness and potency made me pine, bone-deep, for a time when it was fashionable to give a shit.

It also reminds that Pop Will Eat Itself were ahead of their time, lone Eighties indie rockers who revelled in hip hop and dance culture, mashed it all together. If they’d just held on a little longer before splitting, who knows… The Prodigy’s global rock-rave crossover Fat of the Land, a very PWEI album, came out in 1997. PWEI in concert are a match for The Prodigy, just playing smaller venues. Those who like gigs that righteously galvanize should go see them.

A fan of the band, back in the day, I’m undoubtedly somewhat biased. But I attended the gig with an Australian friend who’d never heard a single song and didn’t really know who they were (before the gig, in the pub, he said he knew “Can U Dig It?” then sang “Can You Dig It?” by Madchester one hit wonders The Mock Turtles). But he left, as I did, ears ringing, convinced he’d been to something pretty special, something invigorating, a vitally present gig.

Below: Watch Pop Will Eat Itself play "Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!" on Top of the Pops in 1993 (I couldn't locate any decent contemporary live footage)

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