Tonight, London is rock and roll's beating heart, the Underground its circulatory system, pumping hordes of devotees out on the streets and into the clubs. And it's not just because the high-profile music mag NME is holding its annual awards show this Thursday, along with a week-long slate of affiliated gigs about town: Unusually vigorous levels of rock appreciation seem the norm here.
In the lovely flat I've rented for the week--otherwise occupied by a young family of three--a photo of Iggy Pop hangs in the kitchen, ticket stubs taped to a cupboard boast recent concerts by Yo La Tengo, David Bowie, and the Flaming Lips, and the first magazine in the bathroom rack is a November 1981 issue of The Face with Julian Cope on the cover, and featuring reviews of Joy Division, Human League, and OMD. A troubadour in the tube plays a song by the Kinks, and heads turn as a friend and I discuss bands we plan to see in the coming days (although maybe that's just because we're obnoxious, loud Americans).
In America, we love our Brit rock, even though a self-imposed Monroe Doctrine usually blocks out cultural cues from the rest of the world. We've made an art of emulating it, regurgitating it, and selling it to the rest of the world. American bands championed at Spin in recent months--the Killers, Interpol, Green Day, among others--are both lauded and admonished for drawing significant influences from ancestry of British descent. But here at the source, the fountain of guitar-wielding saviors springs eternal.
If I could revisit my later teenage years, I'd wear out my Nirvana records more than I did, save up money for a Gibson SG guitar, and start a band just like the Subways. That's because frontman Billy Lunn totally has it made. His band includes Charlotte Cooper--Lunn's button-cute, bass-playing girlfriend--and his brother, Josh Morgan, who provides near-Grohlian thunder on drums. Despite a mean age of 19, the Subways stood confidently on the Astoria stage last Sunday night. "1AM," the band's breakthrough single, found the young lovers trading verses about falling for each other in a Human League sort of way, but without the innocence lost. And the simplistic but beautiful rejoicing of "With You"--"When I'm with you, it seems so easy"--had equal potential as a teenage mantra or a big juicy wad of aww-shucks cuteness for the grown-ups. Lunn got a bit prophetic on "Oh Yeah," singing "These teenage years, well they don't last." That's right, Billy. Not when you're in a band this good. But it felt like each successive adorably vicious ditty fired up synapses in a dozen more teenage brains across the Astoria floor, encouraging them to run home and create something meaningful.
Something else that doesn't last too long: the week a band has the cover of NME to itself, an honor currently bestowed upon the Others. But the ballyhoo here is quickly justified. The Others are part of a scene being called "London's Burning," a group of bands sparked into action by the success of the Libertines and that play music for and about the "proles" (or proletariat). For frontman Dominic Masters and his crew, subverting the usual hype machine is priority number one; he's grown the Others' loosely linked fan club, the 853 Kamikaze Stage Diving Division, into a massive community using tactics like guerilla gigs (unannounced shows at sites like the Beatles' Abbey Road crossing) and by passing out flyers with his own mobile phone number so fans can have direct access to him at any time. More recently, the band gained lots of attention for Masters' frank admission of drug usage and openness regarding his homosexuality.
Masters appeared onstage looking just like your average punter on the street--shaggy hair, tight fitting Adidas t-shirt--and by the midway point of the set's second song, he was leaning over the barricades and singing into the faces of the 853, who rode the mosh pit over and over again and sang back every word with equal passion. (Note that the Others' eponymous debut disc just arrived in stores here two weeks ago.) Songs like "Stan Bowles"--a tribute to Masters' troubled friend, Libertine Pete Doherty, that reminisces about "smoking bone" in Pete's bathroom--and the obviously titled "This Is For The Poor" sounded like anthems in the fine tradition of British up-with-the-people acts like Pulp, the Clash, and, of course, the Libertines.
Headliners the Ordinary Boys definitely wanted to assert their own musical lineage as they arrived onstage, blasting Madness' "Night Boat to Cairo" and draping their amps in the Union Jack. But the songs they delivered fell between the cracks of their influences; they were too loud to channel the clean-cut energy of ska, but too jangly to light a fire under the rockers. Performing the hit "Maybe Someday," singer Preston (no last name, apparently) yelped that he was "waiting for some inspiration," and that was obviously the case. If Brit pop is North American emo, the Ordinary Boys are its Simple Plan. They're cute and all, but inevitably they're just whiny little boys, and they had absolutely no business doing an encore cover of the Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away," especially after suggesting that the crowd "go fucking mental" before playing it.