LEFTFIELD Liverpool Royal Court Theatre – Tuesday 11 June 1996:
Leftism, Liveism, Very Loudism…
People have been muttering feverishly about the loudest thing they’ve ever heard in their life. There’s talk of a PA rig that’ll have you by the balls before the bass drum’s even started. “It’s not so much your ears you have to worry about,” advises the band’s publicist, kindly. “It’s your internal organs. Your kidneys.”
Whether this news has reached the people of Liverpool or not, the Royal Court is packed solid by 8.30. Warm-up DJ Phil Mison certainly won’t be had up for trade description, as the steam’s already rising above the crowd at the front. There’s gallons of beer (and water) being drunk, and it’s only Tuesday.
Leftfield only started gigging at the end of April, but already their live reputation goes before them. Typical, really. As with last year’s excellent ‘Leftism’ album – their debut – they take a couple of years longer to do their stuff but, instead of dying by the fleeting whims of the club fraternity, somehow they manage to emerge as The Definite Article.
Not for Neil Barnes and Paul Daley the life of weekly remixes and two neglected 80-minute albums a year. When they first appeared in 1990 with ‘Not Forgotten’, their unique approach to things earnt them the tag ‘progressive house’, which basically meant their records were house but, unlike most of the competition at the time, they weren’t crap.
Since then, they’ve sauntered along at their own leisurely pace, building a little closed community around themselves and their label, Hard Hands. When, in 1994, they cut a single with an old mate of theirs from the punk days – some old geezer with hardly any teeth left called John Lydon – they too became Top Ten stars. Right up there with the M-People’s of this world, ‘Leftism’ went straight in the charts at number three.
Only now, more than a year later, is its live incarnation upon us. Tagged ‘Liveism’ (rather than ‘Tourism’), Leftfield’s first UK tour sold out well up front, and the atmosphere as the lights slowly dim in Liverpool is one of imminent deliverance.
A single bass note booms out repeatedly like an oncoming foghorn, getting so loud you can feel it like a breeze on your face. Gradually, a sort of ambient dub overture is constructed around it. Through the dry ice, you can just about make out Daley getting comfortable at the drum kit off to the right, while Barnes is stage-centre, tinkering with keyboards, tapping on bongos and, at one point, tootling Augustus Pablo-style on a melodica.
When the flutey hook from ‘Song Of Life’ wails in, the place goes completely bananas. When the bass drum finally kicks in, it’s a lesson in humility. It is big and you are small. It shakes and rattles you as with great hands from above. Bereft of any self-determination, you’re skanking like a total idiot. The rhythm pounds on, mutating through sections of crunching house and magically dancey dub before you’re unwittingly returned to that hook from ‘Song Of Life’. Without any apparent shift, the lights are brighter and a giant African called Djum Djum is soon onstage tribal-rapping the intro to ‘Afro-Left’. Phwoar.
You may know ‘Leftism’ backwards, but it’s never been quite like this. With help from floating member Nick Rapaccioli, Barnes and Daley are remodelling and redefining it right in front of you. In tune with their ever-perceptible West London irie vibes and the fuck-off-dusty-speaker chic of the album’s artwork, ‘Liveism’ is basically a good old fashioned roots reggae sound system in the style of Big Youth or Tappa Zukie, where DJ-ing and synthetically generated sound is just the backdrop for an exuberant liver-than-live performance. Think late ’70s Notting Hill Carnival, Rock Against Racism, Mikey Dread and The Clash doing ‘Police & Thieves’.
And so, as the beats subside on ‘Afro-Left’, Djum Djum shouts nice things and then moves to the bizarre aerial-type contraption that’s been standing ominously to his left. Barnes creeps from behind his equipment with what looks like a kind of biblical staff wired up to the 21st century, and together they make some weird ageless groove for a few minutes. It’s not how most techno groups do anything. In a moment of high spirits, Djum Djum licks the theremin, puts it in his mouth and almost swallows it. Not how Jon Spencer does things, either.
The show proceeds in a series of highs and lows that make even the finest house DJ look a bit pedestrian. There’s a dazzlingly dubby percussion breakdown on ‘Storm 3000’ which has you gaping in awe for a couple of minutes. There’s a fittingly caning version of ‘Space Shanty’, and a Jean Michel Jarre-goes-breakbeat bit, where you almost expect to see Barnes prancing up the keys of the old light piano with asbestos gloves on. Then MC Cheshire Cat, a man who looks like Gibby out of the Butthole Surfers with bum-fluff, comes on to do ‘Inspection (Check One)’. It’s the most thunderously dub-heavy track on ‘Leftism’ so, in the name of research, a wander down to the PA seems in order.
It’s odd. The closer you get, the thinner the crowd seems to be. By the time you’re five yards away, you’ve entered the wedge-shaped no-go zone where even Eberneezer Goode isn’t to be found, just a handful of stragglers with either very good earplugs or no brain left. The bass is like a stiff wind. You have to lean into it to stay upright. At about three yards, your vision starts blurring, your insides go gelatinous and the outsides of your nostrils flap against the central reservation of your face like old newspapers. Blimey.
As the final house section judders to a halt on a single hammering bass drum, by comparison, you realise that your recent gig experiences have been received through a trannie with knackered batteries. There’s more: a jubilant version of ‘Not Forgotten’ which, better than any star turn by John Lydon for ‘Open Up’, or Toni Halliday for ‘Original’, seals ‘Liveism’ as something for a triumph for both audience and creators.
Backstage, the mood is happy, if horizontal. Paul Daley stumbles about in a pair of beige Bermudas like he’s just stepped off a beach in Jamaica. In fact, he’s played practically all the beats tonight live, on the drum kit he spent months assembling for the tour.
“We’re all so chilled out,” grins Neil Barnes, plausibly, “we’ve forgotten what’s going on,” Still, he energetically enthuses about the whole crew, and how it’s all panned out as anything but the kind of “hard-work rock ‘n’ roll tour” they’d feared. “We wanted to get across an attitude,” he says of the PA system, “that you’ll be able to hear it and say, that’s quality.”
You’ll also be able to hear it a few streets away.
“Yeah, but that system will not hurt anybody,” he reasons. “There’s no distortion whatsoever, if you had screeching guitar, that’d do a bit of damage, but there’s nothing dangerous about what we’re doing. It’s loud and healthy.”
Now that’s progressive.
Review by Andrew Perry (nicked from ‘Select’, dated August 1996)