On Pop

Rock benediction

Make-Up gig is a matter of performance

It would be nice to imagine that most concerts end with the performer in some kind of green room bacchanalia. Nice, but wrong, because the end of one concert is usually the beginning of the next: tours are so tightly scheduled that performers will be ushered off stage and pretty much immediately into the big black luxury coach that carries them to their next date while they sleep.

This system is efficient, because it maximises the time spent playing the gigs that make the real money now record sales have been replaced with the piddling revenue from streaming. It’s also safe, because it minimises the artist’s contact with the public. Fans are essential, of course — no fans means no show means no income — but they’re unpredictable. Just ask Orpheus. Best to keep your intimacy digital.

A gig by the Make-Up is not like that. A gig by the Make-Up is all about contact. I knew this before I went to see them earlier this month, because for about as long as I’ve been following music, their shows have been legendary for their intensity. Actually, the Make-Up are so resolutely a live band, their first album (in 1996) was Destination: Love — Live! at Cold Rice.

They’re also a weird band, which is why Destination: Love isn’t the live album its title suggests (it was recorded in-studio with crowd noise added later). There’s something a little bit ersatz about them which I’ve liked since the first time I saw a picture of them — four skinny people in black satin shirts and ultratight trousers.

If the sixties vibe wasn’t obvious enough, bassist Michelle Mae had her hair swept into an extravagant beehive. There was something purposefully retro about them, in their sound as well as their look. They played short, clattery songs with a garage band fervour. This was music that could slip in unobtrusively next to the Nuggets compilations of early psychedelia that my dad introduced me to.

Sometimes they wore their influences on their sleeve: the 1997 single “Free Arthur Lee!” celebrated the frontman of the legendary band Love, who had recently been imprisoned for a firearms offence (later quashed), and a cover of “Hey Joe” on their 1999 album Save Yourself — rewritten so that, instead of being a murder ballad, it becomes a love song about two revolutionaries passionately reuniting after one of them has been on the run from the FBI.

The insurrectionary stylings weren’t insincere, exactly, but they were every bit as retro as performing in matching suits

Other songs play with the idea of being not just a band but some kind of rebel cell, but there’s always a twist of irony in it. “Born on the Floor”, organ-driven and gleefully catchy, lists all the leftist uprisings that singer Ian Svenonius would have taken part in if only his mother had given birth to him in time: “I was packing things for Angola/ She said ‘No, you’re just an embryo!’”

This is very witty and endearing, and it’s also extremely 1990s end-of-history. Left-wing revolutions had burned themselves out in a blaze of violence and corruption, and been rendered null by liberal capitalist supremacy: the insurrectionary stylings weren’t insincere, exactly, but they were every bit as retro as performing in matching suits.

On top of this, there’s a theological bent. The band self-defined their genre as “gospel yeh-yeh sound”, and incorporated spirituals such as “Wade In the Water” into their catalogue. They talked about performances as services, venues as places of worship; Svenonius would hurl himself into the crowd with the uncontained physicality of a shaker, suffering broken bones and smashed teeth for his devotions.

But the band broke up in 2000 (due, they claimed in characteristic Marxist-kitsch style, “to the large number of counter gang copy groups which had appropriated their look and sound and applied it to a vacuous and counter-revolutionary form”). I figured I’d missed the chance to see them live, but then a friend messaged said they were playing the Dome in Tufnell Park, would I like to come?

Of course I’d like to come. I spent half the gig standing awestruck at the back admiring the band’s gold suits and Svenonius’s fearless crowd-surfing, watching him stride across the audience as he yelped out his strange hymns and rebel songs. Then the spirit moved me and I burrowed my way to the front while hissing “I’ve got to touch Ian” to everyone in my way.

Does it sound a bit much to say it felt like a rock ’n’ roll benediction when he stepped onto my shoulder? Probably it does, but it isn’t a lie. There was something very wonderful about being part of a crowd united in its efforts to raise up one small, squealing man with enormous hair so everyone could be touched by his performance; something very beautiful about the way he lurched trustingly into our embrace.

After the show, Svenonius did not make an instant escape. Instead, he stood by the exit so the audience could say hello. “I’ve loved you forever and that was brilliant,” I blurted at him, just before the security guard ushered him back into the dressing room muttering about “causing an obstruction”.

Svenonius smiled with all his smashed- up teeth, the smile of a man who’d just exerted every sinew doing the thing he loved the most: putting on a show.

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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