There’s no nice way to say this, but – if you saw Lawrence coming towards you on the street and you didn’t know he was one of British indie rock’s greatest songwriting talents, you’d probably cross sides swiftly to avoid him. Gaunt, bony and suffering from a considerable dearth of teeth, with lank hair poking from ‘neath his baseball cap and a sports top flanked by a builder’s fleece-lined check shirt (on a hot Summer evening) he bears all the hallmarks of the terrible opiate addiction with which he’s wrestled for several years – an illness which, as someone whose best mate engendered the same problem for most of the time that I knew him, I recognise only too well the signs of.
Yet conversely, the fact that at 58, and even in spite of such ailments, Edgbaston’s greatest gift to pop is still recording, touring and writing such incredible material is only further proof of his peerless talent. If anything, he actually seems to be entering his third purple period of unbridled creativity: yes, it’s sad to see him looking like that, especially close-up, but ironically, he’s actually improved as a performer since the days when he was cherub-faced, fit and healthy, and whereas in Felt, his stock-still, statue-like presence epitomised the very essence of Brit indie’s anti-star stance, and in Denim, he always seemed encumbered by guitars far too large for his slight frame, in GKM, he’s finally become the strutting glam-pop star he secretly longed to be.
Most probably because the music demands it: from the opening, throbbing analog synth bassline of Anagram Of We Sold Apes, it’s clear that (as with the quartet’s preceding three albums) the modus operandi is still very much one of good-time, glittery, 1974 youth club stomp’n’roll, with (of course) an ever-present barbed lyrical darkness and a leaning towards angular electronic artistry. In marked contrast (perhaps deliberate?) to both the frontman’s previous bands, there’s a deliberate and noticeable absence of lead guitar: however, grinding, wobbling bass, juxtaposed with what listeners of a certain age would call ‘Grange Hill keyboards’ or ‘Public Information synths’, more than amply compensate for it in combined weight. Fuzzy-felt picturebox rock: or, to put it in more onomatopoeic terms, squerbly-werbly, plinky-plonky, globular denner-nenner-nenner music.
An even lazier description would be ‘Alvin Stardust forming a supergroup with Jeff Lynne and Ralf Hutter’ – and yes, keyboardist Terry Miles, best known for his association with that other perpetual Brummie outsider, Dave Kusworth, does use a vocoderised backing vocal on every song, immediately laying bare the influence of second city superstars ELO. Or at least when he can actually reach it to sing into it, he does – unfortunately for him, though, his mike stand is completely fucked, resulting in a lot of upside-down head-craning, and taking roughly six songs (and the combined efforts of himself, Lawrence and a roadie) to fix the problem, causing much hilarity along the way. “I’m sorry, we’re usually far more on it than this”, sez Loz, and he seems to mean it: yet in the back of my head, I can’t help thinking that this is all part of the songwriter’s deliberately imperfect plan, and that in fact, had everything run smoothly according to schedule, he’d have been disappointed.
And in any case, it makes not the slightest difference to the music. Every song, from Come On Get In (“the birds are thick as shit!!”) through the relentlessly bouncy Chromium Plated We’re So Elated to the earworm-inducing Relative Poverty (which, with its rallying cry of “goodness gracious, a tenner a day” is surely an anthem for 2018’s economic climate) is an 18-carat classic, and though the set leans maybe too heavily on new album Mozart’s Mini-Mart (at the expense of the preceding triumvirate of releases) it amply demonstrates the endless re-invention that’s always been his mark. Besides, if – as he’s said often enough – he has little real desire to be seen as an old git living in the past (hence his plans to rename the band Mozart Estate) then the new material has indeed succeeded in bringing his junkshop-bubblegum influences (such as Lieutenant Pigeon, plugged by Sensateria’s DJ Mack in his pre-show set) up to date with a pointed stab. Who knows, maybe even a future collaboration with fellow Brummie genius Mike Skinner might be on the cards: it would certainly work, anyway.
For this very reason, though Knickers On The Line may well be this year’s contender for the Quirkiest Songtitle Award, the far angrier Black Hood On His Head equally drips with menace, venom and hatred: in much the same way, When You’re Depressed is, for all its chirpy melody, probably the most honest examination of the subject matter since REM’s Low or the Only Ones’ Why Don’t You Kill Yourself. Then again, haven’t half the best pop songs, from Excerpt From A Teenage Opera , Tell Laura I Love Her and I’m Not In Love to You’re Gorgeous, New York Mining Disaster and Coward Of The County, always been laden with subversive and troublesome subject matter? If we could just get radio to openly accept that, and give the great man a late-career hit (he would have had one in 1997 had it not been pulled due to some dozy blonde upper-class airhead and her dodgy boyfriend dying in a Parisienne car crash) we might finally get somewhere. On the other hand, what the fuck is a hit these days? Does anybody even buy records anymore? I know I don’t, unless they’re second hand and come from either ST or the Diskery…
A lot of people have bought tickets tonight, though – perhaps unsurprising as this is actually GKM’s first ever gig on home turf. Don’t forget, Lawrence has lived down London Town for some time – at one point, tragically, in a hostel after losing all his possessions – and currently resides, somewhat ironically, where I used to live, on a council estate just off Hackney’s celebrated Silicon Roundabout (although it wasn’t quite so hip in my day, I can tell you) As a result, the amount of time spent in his birthplace over the last decade has verged on the negligible: despite retaining certain lyrical/titling allusions (and singing, for all his outward Reed/Verlaine mannerisms, in a regional drawl) both his prior bands always held a resolutely ‘anti-Brum’ outlook, a deliberate reactionary stance which was to hold firm until the second Denim album (featuring the Cliff Richard homage Brumburger) and the group’s subsequent morphing into GKM via the Cherry Red subsidiary West Midlands Records. And even now, despite a rejuvenated enthusiasm for his hometown (to the point of the new album featuring a Raymond Froggatt cover) his warm expressions of nostalgia (“Is Silver Blades Oice Rink still gewin?”) are tempered by free admissions of dejection (“it always guz rung when I play ‘ere”).
But that’s Lawrence – forever destined to remain, like his contemporaries Robyn Hitchcock, Simon Fisher-Turner, Martin Newell and Robert Lloyd, a tangled skein of perplexing contradictions. Not to mention composing, in Electric Rock’n’Roll, quite possibly the greatest rock anthem of the last two decades – the irony, yet again, being that most ‘rock’ journalists (with their inbuilt prejudice against all things ‘indie’) ignored it on principle whilst all indie journalists did the same because it openly referenced a love of rock. The irksome thing is, for all their ‘pop’ roots, GKM are a rock’n’roll band: they’re also, for an alleged ‘lo-fi’ outfit, as tight as fucking fuckety fuck, and if they wanted to, the other three could easily go off and form their own prog combo (of which their leader, no doubt, would thoroughly approve) in their spare time. Sadly, I can’t tell you the bassist or drummers’ names, but I can confirm that the latter has an incredible shock of ginger curly hair: evidently the Lozster has gotten over that particular prejudice, then.
Sadly, they lose house points for an encore of songs they’ve already played (When You’re Depressed and Relative Poverty again, a tad cheeky given the multiple yelled requests for Fuzzy Duck, On The Hot Dog Streets, White Stilettoes In The Sand etc) but at least the mike stand was sedentary this time round. And, in some bizarre way, it’s yet another demonstration of their ‘Barry Blue meets Kipper on the set of Phoenix Nights‘ manifesto – sure, we know the Hare is Brum’s premier indie venue, but as far as our man in the cap is concerned, it’s a working men’s club circa 1978, with beer at 60p a pint (I wish) and Making Up Again by Goldie is about to come on the stereo.