There is no way to stop the time (not that I am aware of), however it can be refreshing and reassuring to forget the present and travel back to live again the old good days once more.
Let’s fix this before I move on, because I believe this is the only reason why bands reunite, any band. To cash on people’s nostalgia and eventually to have some more fun under the spotlights.
It is not a criticism, I just don’t like all the attempts of justifying a comeback claiming “artistic reasons”. I have never seen an artist with whatever successful career to gave it up and reunite a previous band for a comeback destined to fail. Go guess.
I saw Skunk Anansie live at the top of their success. They were selling gzillions, they were a young outburst of energy. Stoosh was just out, the nineties just turned their first half and the rock world was overwhelmed by naughty guitars, radical politics and fights for civil rights.
No frills and social consciousness was the rule, the obvious reaction to the glittery eighties.
Skunk Anansie were a strange entity. They had one foot in the alternative side of music and the other in the pop mainstream. Which is the reason why people either love or hate them. Typical.
A big commercial success doesn’t help gaining the “alternative army”. Charting triggers a veto on what you are allowed to listen to. It’s probably the most universally accepted rule about alternative music.
Signed to a Major? Pop-charts? Keep away, avoid.
A more rational reaction could be that Skunk Anansie music didn’t come out of the blue. It was, in fact, the perfect cocktail of some of the trendiest sounds that where happening those times. Cocktail to be drunk watching the catwalk at the London fashion week, circa 1996.
On one side they picked the blossoming crossover of funk with heavy guitars coming from the States.
It had started (guess) at CBGB with the likely of Living Colour which understood the feelings of a black community getting bored with Rap (now Hip-hop) altered course. Their mix of slap bass, hard drums, flamboyant guitar solos along deep lyrics took the Public Enemy lesson into rock arenas. With the help of “funk the preacher” hard rock for the first time wasn’t a matter of white people anymore.
Living Colour debut masterpiece, Vivid, opened the doors to a tornado that, among the others, hit LA and gave us Tom Morello. Electric guitar was plugged back straight into the ampli, radical politics were back in fashion. Rage Against the Machine were born, and Skunk Anansie got to know their album very well.
At home, London, music fans came out of the eighties split in two halves. One followed the rock decadence of Brit-pop. The hard partying, alcohol-fuelled, coke enhanced stories of the Gallaghers and friends was one.
The other half used to wait for weekends to swallow pills and raving relentlessly till late mornings afters the obsessive waves techno.
Bands like the Prodigy got the idea and put together the post-punk rebellion with the electronic music that those masses loved to dance giving them a Music for the Jilted Generation.
Skunk Anansie found themselves at the right moment in the right place. They combined these two aspects using the glue of fashion. Fronted by Skin.
Skin. A black, lesbian, feminist, skinny, bald woman. A political activist in the body of a model. A terrifying look (on stage), an irrepressible energy with a tender, sweet voice always on the brink to explode after a nervous breakdown. There was nothing similar around.
A well manufactured product. There is the idea, there is the image and let’s admit it, there were the songs too. Inevitably a pop-rock band destined to a big success.
It lasted three albums and about five years. The first two, Paranoid and Sunburnt and Stoosh still on the glorious One Little Indian label, than the signing to the major, Virgin, for their last effort Post Orgasmic Chill.
That closed Skunk Anansie intense career just when the 90s and their music were all going to end. Living Colour, Rage Against the Machine and Prodigy curves were all on a steep drop.
A new decade opened. A decade where heavy sounds and anything reminiscent of a funk groove was going to be banned. Time came for a lighter, jingle jangle garage rock played by bands in fashion design. Julian Casablanca and The Strokes, Jack & Meg and their (red and) White Stripes blew the grungy nineties away. It’s the noughties, the 00s.
That was 10 years ago. Today, October 2009, we are 2 months away from the end of even 00s decade. The Strokes and White Stripes, if they still exist, have been on hiatus for more than a while.
You can see the parallel I am getting at. As at the end of the 90s, bands defining these years will inexorably leave space to the next generation. There is no way to stop progress.
In this panorama, Skunk Anansie reformed. The environment is totally different. Rage, raves and funk are gone for now. Brooklyn still leads the scene, but its sound is more complex, multilayered, experimental, electronic beats pioneered by Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Yeasayer.
The image of the angry, lesbian, feminist is today embodied by Beth Ditto, the furthest image of woman you could choose to compare to Skin.
But Gossip, her band, are the mirror image of what Skunk Anansie where in the 90s, projected in the 00s.
Their music is crafted with the same philosophy. Putting together the most interesting trends and boosting it up with an explosive frontwoman.
Some coarse guitars, bits of garage rock, the contradictory concept of punk attitude in fashion dresses.
Like Skunk Anansie, Gossip published the first albums on the independent Kill Rock Star label before moving to Columbia at the court of Rick Rubin who, when not dealing with immortal artists (Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond), is not that guru that the press depicts.
History repeats itself, but time doesn’t.
When I read that Skunk Anansie were going to reform, I imagined another market survey on nostalgia sitting on the desk of a managerial meeting.
Graphs, tables, indicators suggesting there is enough people in Europe wanting to listen Hedonism again (just because they feel good).
Skin, Cass, Ace and Mark are back.
Skunk Anansie played two gigs at Monto Water Rats in March. Same place where everything began in 1994. Than they have been recording, managing a Greatest Hits album (out in weeks), reharsing and, here we go, reunion tour.
Several sold out dates including Brixton academy suggest that survey wasn’t wrong.
London 7th of October, Electric Ballroom hosts the opening night. Thirteen years later I am waiting for the band to come on stage, again.
What to expect? Would they try to adapt to present taste or pretend time has frozen and give the fans the same feeling of their twenties?
A look at the crowd is revealing. There aren’t many teenagers here but loads of thirty-something people chatting about their old memories.
Skin comes on stage hidden inside a sort of gigantic, metallic pom-pom, which reflects any possible lights, makes any camera go crazy. It is difficult to understand where she actually is. The “wow effect” mode is on.
Not really possible to photograph properly I get distracted by the song, inevitably, Selling Jesus. The first song of the first album. Marketing is someway predictable once you know its mechanism.
Thankfully the giant pom-pom goes and I Can’t Wait arrives.
With a greatest hits about to be published, a greatest hits set-list is what people expects and what people will have.
Skin doesn’t seem to have lost an inch of the energy I remembered despite she’s in her forties. Cass, who is almost in his fifties, doesn’t seem to have lost a single hair of his dreadlocks either.
Time does flow, but for rockstars it does slower. The rock’n’roll deal with the devil must have been revised and extended recently.
Song after song, the band becomes more confident. Ace‘s guitar starts to play its angular riffs, Skin voice is tuned up and better balanced at the sound mixing desk. The concert becomes more intense. Because of You, a new single goes, then Charity generates the first big jubilation from the public.
100 Ways To Be a Good Girl follows, ironically, Skin behaves as a bad girl. She introduces the song as “this is a song from MY first album” which is a bit of a gaffe when you’re finally back with your band. Nevermind.
Charlie Big Potato is one of their last good songs. Skunk Anansie distinctive mix of heavy riff and Skin sensual voice. When you are able to make thousands of people dance, nothing else matter, it is working.
I Don’t Wanna Kill You is another new song that answers my question. No new exploratory direction, Skunk Anansie are back in the nineties. Time has stopped, lyrics are classic Skin lyrics:
“I don’t wanna see you,
I don’t wanna touch you,
I don’t wanna talk
‘cos I just wanna fuck you”
Ok fine, got that Deborah.
Weak has signs of ageing while Brazen eternal arpeggio, a must-be track on any “Best of the 90s” compilation, produces a mass sing-along once more.
“Why don’t you weep when I hurt you,
why don’t you weep when I cut you,
you don’t bleed and the anger builds up inside”
Twisted (Everyday Hurts), Cheap Honesty, On My Hotel T.V., Skank Head all comes one after the other. You know where you are, they know what to give. The concert finishes, ecstatic fans ask for more. Non fans simply are not here.
More they obviously get, and predictable is the encore.
Hedonism (just because you feel good) is what everyone have been waiting for. After Brazen, this is the other ballad where Skin‘s sweeter side and Skunk Anansie mix of influences all build up to converge on the guitar solo. Tonight longer and openly acknowledging Tom Morello.
Listening to the words, I read a different meaning, the lyrics tonight seem written for the fans reunited
“I hope you’re feeling happy now
I see you feel no pain at all it seems
I wonder what you’re doin’ now
I wonder if you think of me at all
Do you still play the same moves now
Or are those special moods
For someone else
I hope you’re feeling happy now.
Just because you feel good
Doesn’t make you right (oh no)
Just because you feel good
Still want you here tonight”
and the audience seem to agree. Happy it tolerates another new song, Squander, before the closure with Little Baby Swastikkka, back from the debut.
Another reunion is on for fans (not anymore) orphan of their heroes.
Skunk Anansie are back for them, and they are excited about it.
They played exactly the concert fans wanted. They try to look as similar as possible to what they were. The songs, the energy, the music, the appeal even the age.
They won’t recruit new followers. They are not mythical and “alternative” enough to attract new youngsters (as Dinosaur Jr or Pavement, for example) but are still young enough to gather some fans wanting to get that dance floor feeling for few more times, if they manage to find a baby-sitter.
What to do when you can’t do nothing?
When it is impossible to focus, frame, set the camera because at the same time is too dark, too unpredictable and too hectic.
With Skin wrapped into a shiny ball jumping here and there relentlessly during the first song, shooting was a matter of a surrealist approach to photography a century later.
One option is to enjoy the song and hope it’ll change.
Another is to attempt a slot of random shooting.
If you can’t really control the results, simply don’t control anything.
Failure is guaranteed but if you are lucky out of the bunch there may be some interesting stuff.
As long as there is enough light to impress your sensor (whichever it is) there will be an image.
Fix the focusing and the lens. My suggestion is to manual focus to a point of the stage that gives you some rough certainty that when the subject will be there it will be on focus.
Use a wider angle to avoid undesired cropping. You can always crop in postproduction, there is not shortage of pixels in modern DSLR.
Set a slightly faster shutter time, Let’s say for a 28mm shoot at least at 1/60s so to frozen the madness. Ignore your anti-shaking system, it is not you moving it’s your subject so it can’t help.
Most important stop trying to understand what is happening, let it go.