Men of my age, sinking with a half-smile into a stupor of anonymity, tend to pronounce on the evils of the world from the safety of our four secure walls, more poorly informed informed than ever before. Told that we should “get out more”, we venture through the front door for some real life action, only to scuttle home shaking our heads, wishing we’d saved ourselves the price of a ticket to see The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre aired its core idea in full last night at the 9.30 Club in Washington DC - a strummed intro, followed by four electric guitars all more or less poorly playing the same chord, the statutory drummer who sends it all up-tempo after 30 seconds, and a roof-shaking bass that in a live setting is adjusted to drown out almost everything, including a half-hearted vocal stranded somewhere between death and purgatory. If the bassist was a virtuoso, you could maybe understand why he’d been cranked up to cover the ham-fisted efforts of the rest of the band, but the instrument’s sound is pure thudding indie-plod.
I wondered if I was the only one who noticed, or if my ears were now so knackered that they only pick up low tones. I thought about yelling out in between songs, “Could you turn down the bass a little please, gentlemen?” But this is the first time I’ve ever seen The Brian Jonestown Massacre live, and I’m scared that everyone will turn round and stare at me, and someone will say, “Don’t you know that the Brian Jonestown massacre live sound is built around the bass? It’s been like that for 15 years.” Plus BJM lead man Anton Newcombe has a reputation for attacking members of the audience.
Twenty years ago, if I’d spent the entire afternoon drinking, I’d have thought they were genius. They swill bottles of spirits and smoke on stage and can barely handle their instruments, just the kind of anti-work ethic I always admired in a band.Proficiency was for people who took the whole idea of popular music way too seriously. On the other hand, everyone in The Brian Jonestown Massacre is deadly serious. Bands like this were not formed to smile, and are obliged to hold up indie’s unwritten manifesto that life is grim and unrelenting, like a two-note bass riff turned up to ten.
The only sign of amusement on show is the special needs 1930s farm worker with hamsters for sideburns who stands in the middle of the stage playing tambourine. This is Joel Gion, the bloke Newcombe famously beat up on stage in 1996 the night that music industry reps came to see the band. That Gion’s still in the band could mean that the fight was a set-up to alienate The Man and establish alt cred, or else there aren’t many jobs going for indie-pop tambourine shakers who look like they’d rather be mucking out your mules. Then I remember what I'm reading, Juan Eslava Galan’s excellent ‘The Mule’, and I head for home, lured by the idea of a book on the train over a bass in my brain.
Still, I like this band, and the way it shaped its one idea, sucking up several influences and creating one gratifyingly big, if easily identifiable, sound. At home, when everyone else is out, with the bass turned down, and with a far too sensible measure of whisky in a crystal glass.