On Friday last my flat mate and I had tickets to the hottest grown up indie disco in town: by way of The Vaselines gig at XOYO on Cowper Street, Shoreditch. This relatively new and compact club venue had a night lined up after the headline act, so that meant a rather school disco-esque start and finish (turning up at half 8, we’d long missed the support). But the grot-chic interior with chipped paintwork and industrial pipes and pillars faithfully served the memory of lo-fi grunge. The backdrop looked particularly delicious bathed in candy-coloured pastels, the musicians illuminated like so many Love Hearts personified.
I’d like to lay claim to being a life long Vaselines fan, but unlike most of the seasoned crowd who could clearly remember the first time, I was still five years away from buying my first album (PJ & Duncan’s Pysch! on cassette, I shudder to recall), when their much vaunted debut Dum Dum hit the alt-radar in 1989.
The band split the very week of that release, after only two years spent carving a niche in Glasgow’s garage-pop scene. The legend of The Vaselines might have vanished altogether were it not for the lasting impression they made on Nirvana’s frontman- Cobain hailing them as his favourite songwriters and paying tribute rather than lip service by covering several of their songs, most famously ‘Jesus Don’t Want Me For a Sunbeam.’
Fast forward the best part of two decades and their anthemic comeback single ‘Sex With an Ex’ has been receiving generous air play on 6 Music, seducing me and hordes of retro-centric generation Ys to download the back catalogue (Enter The Vaselines is last year’s handy compilation) and quite literally jump on the bandwagon. Refreshingly, founder members Eugene Kelley and Frances McKee’s creative reconciliation surpasses the lackluster offerings of so many nostalgia-trip tours that come in cycles of predictability and guaranteed returns, (I’m thinking more of Take That here than Blur and Pulp, you understand). Whilst the early material oozes the brazen charm that bespeaks the audacity of extreme youth, their recent work is more accomplished, more assured, more brittle. Songs like ‘Overweight But Over You’, there’s a perfect marriage of middle-aged cynicism with all the swaggering defiance of their precocious 1987 cover ‘You Think You’re A Man.’
Although there was an added air of authenticity around tunes from the archive- with Frances flattering the old school crowd, ‘we don’t play this for just anyone you know’- the barn-storming new track ‘I Hate the 80s’ had the basement chanting in unison. You’d be forgiven for thinking they had an axe to grind, perhaps made all the keener by the de ja vu of impoverished public services. Even those for whom the ironic implications of the line ‘what do you know, you weren’t there’ ought to have stuck in the throat (myself included), were resolute: ‘the 80s was shit’.
The core Kelley/ McKee duo was joined on stage by a regular backing band including the bass player Bobby Kildea, on lone from contemporary Glaswegian songsters Belle and Sebastian. Like a prettier version of Ian Brown, he was a floppy-haired model of chiselled stolidity. Thankfully what was lacking in cross-band banter was compensated for by the Kelley/McKee dialogue- unremitting riffs around the hormonally-charged, red-blooded theme of much of their lyrics. Cue on stage ponderings over female masturbation and declarations of band mates’ unlikely sexual prowess from Frances- ‘he may look quiet but he’s a BEAST!’ Eugene was the more reserved of the two, making fey observations on their respective dress sense, he in a waistcoat and she in an A-line frock- ‘I’m Last of the Summer Wine and she’s Happy Days.’ Despite my limited knowledge of their hey-day credentials, it seemed to me that their on stage persona encapsulated the twin impulses of The Vaselines musical output- thrashing guitars meets saccharine melodies, riotously sordid content sugared in irresistibly innocent form, as in ‘MonsterPussy’ (meow) or ‘Rory Rides Me Raw’. It’s not nudge, nudge, wink, wink Music Hall territory, nor is it out and out vampish/ macho ‘cock-rock’ (as I believe Rod Stewart et al are sometimes termed). The beauty of The Vaselines is their ability to deliver shamelessly libidinous floor fillers with bittersweet nonchalance, part Undertones, part Pixies. No matter how bolshy, how smutty, there’s guileless vulnerability just a coquettish flick of the hair away- ‘Kiss me I’m in season, please lead me astray, my tired bones need healing, like kissing with a K.’ A Valentine to promiscuous, jaded singletons everywhere.
The Vaselines next single ‘Mouth to Mouth’ is released on 14th February 2011.