You Am I,
@ Newtown Theatre
Sunday 29 July, 2001
I wasn't even planning to go to this show - I'd made up my mind to catch You Am I when they returned next month with Even in support, but then on the Big Takeover e-mail list (great rock magazine, disappointingly limp discussion list), a major argument erupted over the Strokes (well, more of a hissy fit really). This followed a well over the top piece in the NME ("A band like The Strokes only comes along once in a lifetime. You should be grateful that they've come along in yours."). Not that the good old NME would ever fall for style over substance, would they (whatever happened to Sigue Sigue Sputnik anyway)? It didn't take long for the battle lines to be clearly delineated ("Rich kids playacting punk" vs "a solid rock'n'roll outfit"). So when I saw that You Am I had them in tow for four nights at the Newtown Theatre, I decided I'd better see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Initially I was amazed that they were playing at what I thought was such small a venue, but it turned out I'd never been to the Newtown Theatre before; the theatre I'd been to was the New Theatre half a block further down King Street - a tiny place occasionally given over to earnest, semi-professional productions of worthy plays. This Newtown Theatre turned out to be a terrific venue (capacity around 700 sweaty punters), upstairs above the Performing Arts College and perhaps even slightly larger than the Newtown Rissole just round the corner from it - how the f@#$ have they kept this place a secret for so long? Looks like this suburb is well on its way to cementing its position as Oz rock central, with this yet another welcome step up from the cramped confines of the Sando, over which everybody still gets misty eyed for reasons that escape me entirely.
Aside from You Am I and the Strokes, there was also a different local band playing an opening set each night. Sunday turned out to be the turn of the Intercontinental Playboys, probably the pick of the four suppport bands on offer. However, between Sunday being an early 7pm start and me misreading the ticket and thinking the doors didn't open until 7:30, I managed to miss the beginning of their set (possibly as much as ten minutes worth - might have known that my run of uncharacteristic punctuality had to come off the rails sooner or later).
The Intercontinental Playboys specialise in what you might call garage/swamp cabaret - '60s fuzz punk, but dressed up in its Sunday best. The band all look suave and outwardly urbane in coordinated suits and ties (though no frilly shirt fronts in evidence tonight), while lurking just beneath the surface is a "B" grade movie sensibility; Dr Phibes in flesh mask and velvet smoking jacket, debonair and charming until finally the facade is stripped away in the last reel to reveal the corruption underneath; beauty may only be skin deep, but ugly goes all the way down to the bone.
If you're not familiar with their oeuvre, imagine a slightly dissipated Frank Sinatra reduced to doing a season in a cut rate Cuban casino with a backing band drawn from disaffected members of the Cramps and the Seeds. The performance is a rich mixture of honest bump and grind, seductive latin lounge lizard enticement, earnest showmanship, jaded indifference (like the maitre'd on an expensive cruise liner, these guys have been everywhere, seen everything and are consequently hard to impress any more) and just a tinge of tense anticipation arising from the ever present threat that Castro's revolutionaries may come bursting in at any moment, shutting down the whole sideshow for good and dragging everybody off to jail.
However their act is not just a collection of songs and a retro attitude; it's a comprehensive blueprint for a complete lifestyle. On their web site they acknowledge their influences as including the Cramps (not surprisingly), the Dictators, the Fuzztones and garage music generally, while Ursula Andress rubs shoulders with Betty Page and Mamie Van Doren to highlights from the Nuggets compilation (and I'm guessing they'd have it on vinyl rather than CD). While they are playing, you half expect Hugh Heffner to turn up leading a hot looking woman on each arm (a couple of Pets of the Year, or maybe Catwoman and Elvira - though with that plunging neckline and her breasts hanging half out she might be a little too... er, unsophisticated for this company).
The end of their set was followed by what seemed like an inordinate delay, after which the Strokes eventually ambled onto the stage. For a band whose "clipped, pulsating swagger of [their] first single marked it out as the best debut for about a million years...", they sure got off to a slow start, but gradually gathered momentum as their set progressed. I don't know where all the hype about them being the quintessential New York band, not to mention last best hope for humanity, comes from because what they were putting out was pretty standard pop. Energetic, tuneful and well played for sure; no denying that it got people dancing, or jiggling around a bit at the very least, but "the new Oasis"? The NME apparently meant that as a compliment by the way.
Don't get me wrong though, regardless of all the hype surrounding them they are a good band and even if no one here had ever heard of them, they still could have sent a demo tape to the Hopetoun or even the Annandale and reasonably expected to be offered a gig straight away on the strength of it.
Given You Am I's popularity and undoubted record company clout, I'm taking it for granted that the Strokes were on this tour because the band wanted them, not because some record company executive foisted them onto the band. On the other hand, I can't help wondering whether they let their disappointment over missing out on signing up Mooney Suzuki for the last tour get the better of them - unfortunately Mooney Suzuki decided to pass up an Oz tour when it was offered, preferring to fire their drummer and stay home instead. Ironically, the Strokes own drummer had been unable to make this tour due to an injury, so they'd brought along a friend to stand in for him (well, sit really). Should one conclude from this that the Strokes have a wider circle of friends than Mooney Suzuki?
Whatever; they rocked, everybody cheered and then after another lengthy delay, You Am I came out and did the business for real - quality merchandise only, cash up front, no cheques, IOUs or luncheon vouchers. Over the course of the opening two or three songs, they rocked out harder and louder than anything the Stokes achieved in their whole set, blasting the audience into a waking trance of rock euphoria.
Any time an Aussie band surfs off to some distant foreign land on a wave of combined cult adulation and media hype, only to have the local rock hacks start claiming that some local band blew 'em off the stage, does anyone give such reports the slightest credence? Or do we all just settle back and clasp our existing prejudices a little tighter to our chests? After all, rock fans around here still haven't forgotten how we gave up our only begotten Radio Birdman as a human sacrifice on the altar of Pommie parochialism.
So is there any point in writing a review like that when it's a foreign band coming here? Do their fans back in their home town/state/country dismiss any foreign criticism that's less than unreservedly enthusiastic as narrow minded ignorance and petty, biased jealousy? Difficult question, but simple answer: who gives a stuff what they think...?
While the Strokes are a good band, You Am I are a better band, with stronger songs, a charismatic frontman, virtually unstoppable rhythm section and secret weapon in the shape of "new boy" David Lane. While Tim Rogers talks the talk, it's Lane's guitar that walks the walk; punctuating, amplifying, underlining, highlighting and generally reinforcing every song; matching Rogers every step of the way (fair enough, you can't expect Tim to do it all on his own).
Meanwhile Andy Kent "on lead bass" stuck to his standard stern, businesslike expression for most of the night (sometimes I worry that boy might not be getting enough roughage in his diet) and Russell Hopkinson pounded out a beat that was not about to be contested by anyone in the room unless equipped with some serious amplification of their own (and none such made their presence known). However, Tim Rogers remained the main focus of the audience, who looked ready to vote him honorary life member, patron, chairman or president of anything he cared to nominate himself for (if the college of cardinals had been here tonight they'd probably have voted him the next pope as well).
For Tim this isn't the point though. Guitar hero/windmill arm waving antics notwithstanding, he's not posing for anybody - merely living out some personal, private rock dream which the rest of us are permitted to share for a while. Like Ron Peno (who coincidentally I spotted dancing amongst the crowd down at the front of the stage), when it's all coming together like you want it, Tim seems barely aware of the audience, completely caught up in that moment, or rather all of the moments. By turns evoking the Kinks (Ray and Dave, sometimes individually, often both at the same time), the Yardbirds during their one of their legendary rave ups, Buffalo Springfield when Stills and Young were both having a really good night or just acting like a stretched Aussie larrikin version of Steve Marriott's impish cockney, there's an obvious and infectious joy in playing both the songs he's written himself and the songs of others that he grew up listening to and loving (as covers of bands as diverse as Kiss and the Easybeats demonstrated tonight).
And the energy radiating off the stage seemed limitless. Every time I thought that the current song had to be their finale, because unmistakably they were giving it all they'd got and how could they possibly be expecting to carry on at that rate, I'd then notice that the guitar tech was working at the side of the stage, getting fresh guitars ready for the next song...
I realise that in some quarters they have been dismissed as toy rockers, radio friendly record company darlings who have had a dream run in terms of marketing support and promotion, which is now required to be held against them. On the other hand, sometimes the band that everybody says is going to be the next big thing turns out really to be the next big thing. You'll get no "rock'n'roll future" bombast from me, but I will tell you that on a good night You Am I are one extremely hot act!
- John McPharlin
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