On Sunday night I finally got to see without question my favourite ever band, playing live at Dingwalls in Camden, London.
It’s funny to think of the journey my musical tastes have been on, but I remember a classmate at school playing the Final Day single by Young Marble Giants to me in 1980 when I was just 16. I went down to Past & Present Records on St Albans Road, Watford, the next week and bought it. I was captivated by the sparcity of the sound, the short songs which tell their tale in three minutes or less, and how the clipped bass drove the song along, plus those beautiful vocals with the captivating lyrics (I’ve since learnt that the songs were Stuart Moxham’s, and he wanted to sing them, with more emotion. However, Alison’s flatter delivery works perfectly). I’ve always been a sucker for a bass-driven sound; around the same time I was starting to listen to early Cure recordings like Seventeen Seconds and later Faith which have much the same structure. When I started tuning into John Peel’s late-night Radio 1 shows about a year after that, I discovered Joy Division, with Peter Hook’s bass line driving the songs along. Much later on, Single Bass (Jennifer Moore) has captured for me that sharp, plucked bass line/girly singer sound, although she doesn’t gig much these days.
I’ve still got that Final Day 45, although my Colossal Youth LP and Test Card EP got sold on a few years ago. Those tracks have since appeared in CD collections, the most recent of which has sleeve notes by Simon Reynolds. I’ve only played that 45 a few precious times, committing it to cassette tape to “preserve” the vinyl, and I made a cardboard outer to protect the sleeve. [As an aside: in my fresher year at college, I had the room next door to Simon Reynolds. He was always dressed very “punk” for an Oxford University student, but the sounds coming out of his room were quite familiar to me. Being a year below him he slightly intimidated me though and we never spoke. An opportunity missed! Colossal Youth was something of a talisman for my student years – Never far from my turntable, all my friends seemed to have a copy and if they didn’t, I soon made sure they’d had at least one hearing of it.]
My Final Day record (note the sticky bit, top right corner on the front where the price sticker would’ve been). I used to be able to draw that Young Marble Giants logo by heart, on my school exercise books.
Young Marble Giants split up very soon after they’d released the Test Card EP, in 1981. In a way, this has worked in their favour, they have left this brief, but near-perfect list of songs, no acrimonious second LP or any of that nonsense. What-you-see-is-what you-get, refined, much like the brief period of time each individual song occupies.
They split long before I started going to gigs in earnest, so I never got the chance to see them live (later I was curious though, to wonder how those songs would’ve worked in a gig). In the early 1990s I went through a phase of going to loads of gigs, sometime three or four a week, and I’d seen Alison Statton playing with Spike Williams at the Jazz Cafe in the 1990s. Her voice was still as distinctive as ever so when I became aware that YMG had been playing the odd gig or two here and there from about 2005/06, my interest was piqued. Mostly festivals though, some in France. I didn’t think their sound would carry well in a field and anyway, I wasn’t going to pay £150 just to see one band. At the time I was distracted by my cycling/sporting ambitions, as well as going through a divorce and the consequences of that in the years after. Eventually a gig came up that I’d be able to get to – Dingwalls in Camden, February 2013. It sold out but I got a ticket.
I was so excited that I got to Camden a minute before Dingwalls even opened. No matter, it was only snowing (again!) outside, bah. There was already a queue, and I’d seen from Facebook that people had travelled from Paris by Eurostar, and Edinburgh by ‘plane to see this gig! First we had the support act – The Flowers – they were a three-piece doing a kind of twee girl singer/loud guitar & drums noise combo. Pretty good actually. And then the main act.
Dingwalls is a pretty small, intimate space, and I’d managed to get a good place, down by the front, although (frustratingly for me) I realised too late that I was the wrong side of the stage to see Phil Moxham’s finger-work on the bass. No matter. From the opening bars of the first song (should’ve written the set list down – I have a terrible memory for these things), the emotion of 32 years ago, listening to the minimalist Final Day in my schoolmate’s room, came back to me. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. Wow, I wasn’t expecting that. The guy standing next to me also appeared to have caught some dust in his eye ;-)
The whole gig was a delight from start to finish. Alison’s voice was as light and distinctive as ever; she almost non-sings the songs, which I think is what makes them so fantastic. Stuart Moxham was clearly enjoying himself, and Alison was far from as shy as she used to be on stage – she had the odd quip or two for us in-between songs (we loved “did you get bored there?” when they played Radio Silents, in a version of the song which must’ve been a whole three minutes long, and “can we take you with us, you’re great” to the audience after a particularly rapturous reception for one song). Stuart quipped “back to the beginning” before Ode to Booker T. They had Andrew Moxham on drums, substituting for the drum machine as he has done for the last few years. Phil Moxham’s bass playing was as sharp as ever, driving the songs along and playing the bass with a plectrum (!) – the whole performance was electrifying. I think the audience made more noise in the applause than the band in the playing; damn, we were quiet when they played. We got a slightly rough-and-ready version of the fantastic Final Day towards the end of the set (introduced to a ripple of applause), and I’d never realised that for this tune Phil and Stuart swap places, with Phil playing the keyboard.
All too soon, we’d had 50 minutes of magical songs and Alison seemed as surprised as the audience that we’d got to the end of their set list. Of course they came back for an encore of two more songs, including Salad Days. What a wonderful evening, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, only had to wait near-on 33 years for it.
The journey home was a bit epic, with snow falling and so on. I was glad I’d taken the next day off work so I had time to assimilate the evening in my mind. I went for a couple of hours walk in the slush and snow, with my MP3 playing Colossal Youth for me one more time.
[PS. They posted up the set list last night:
[Flickr pages of recent Young Marble Giants gig photos HERE]