IN THE comic Phonogram: Rue Britannia, they’re known as retromancers who are trying to resurrect the long-dead musical magic of the past.
At London’s Heaven on a Friday night, the old punks and new wave of new wavers have come to worship the sound of 1994, in the form of S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men.
If you’re a believer in the transcendental power of rock’n’roll, these are troublingly retronautical times. A quick glance at any venue listings or festival line-up will reveal them heavily dominated by the bands of yesteryear, with heroes forged before cultural and online fragmentation made it considerably more tricky to reach the kind of audiences that a bunch of chancers with a ready wit and a pocket full of tunes could reach 20 years ago.
The past is being consumed and reconsumed and even those paunchy saviours of Arcadia, The Libertines, are back on the nostalgia circuit a mere decade after their cultural relevance began to fade.
But S*M*A*S*H and These Animal Men represent the flip side to this narrative. Excluded by standard rock historiography and clearly not reforming for the money — what money? — they are simply marking the release of a celebratory documentary film Flawed is Beautiful and the fact they’re all still alive. The film has led to These Animal Men’s brief reformation for the first time in 20 years.
“It’s amazing we’re all here, isn’t it?” says an excitable mod at the bar, apropos of my smile, as the venue fills. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.”
First up are S*M*A*S*H, the irritating-to-type but enjoyable-to-watch punk survivors from Welwyn Garden City — a band who, lest it be forgotten, managed to get a song about wanting to kill Conservative ministers into the pop charts and played Anti-Nazi League gigs with Billy Bragg.
Powered by sinewy, wide-eyed bassist Salvatore Alessi, their songs of small-town rage, gender politics, suicide and regret are sung almost stream-of-consciousness style, although they’re clearly anything but, by singer Ed Borrie. He’s looking sharp, too.
“I’m on trend,” he proudly announces between songs. “I’ve been reading Esquire. Double denim!”
Most, though, seem to be here for These Animal Men. Keeping chat to a minimum — a surprise, if you remember the assorted pronouncements of motormouth guitarist Hooligan from back in the day — they seem almost amused at the thrashing devotion of the mosh. “Oh, we’re good,” frontman Alexander Boag seems to be saying, with an amused half-smile. “Had you forgotten?”
If you were being harsh you could say this bunch were the ’90s equivalent of Pete Doherty’s lot, a messy, strutting, gang of mates with the right records and the wrong attitude off on a pop adventure. But they lacked the latter’s pomposity and heroin cliches.
And, on tonight’s showing, had better tunes.
They certainly attract similar devotion — the packed room shouts along to every word as the pit writhes, bounces and threatens to spill my pint. I’m almost embarrassed that I don’t know any of the words and hope no-one notices. It’s like being an unbeliever at a pentecostal prayer meeting.
Fortunately, everyone is having far too good a time to notice my ignorance. (This is the) Sound of the Youth is the big never-hit they build to but every song is greeted like a Top 10 smash.
There’s no irony in these Jam-heavy pop gems — just fast-paced, catchy songs and tight trousers. Speed King is another highlight, even if the singer is no longer “22 and a quarter,” as the lyric goes.
On this occasion, it really doesn’t matter. Flawed is beautiful, and These Animal Men have a belated convert.