Why the British rock band are not
Neil Davenport on the illiberal gig promoters trying to stifle the excitable zombie-garage band The Horrors and their moshing fanbase.
When Southend, garage-Goths The Horrors appeared on the cover of the NME last year, it was clear that these young twentysomethings possessed a sense of humour. With ludicrously back-combed hair, zombified eyes and wearing plastic fangs, they appeared ghoulishly comical rather than genuinely menacing.
So why have these posh public school boys attracted hostility and loathing? Most recently, a London gig promoter presented the band with a 14-point contract forbidding them from ‘turning up the volume’ and ‘jumping into the crowd’. If they did any of these things, they would be immediately escorted from the venue.
For many, it seems The Horrors are indeed horrible, and perhaps should be escorted out of the music biz entirely. Since they formed a few years back, there have been numerous complaints about their graveyard imagery and death fixation, as if bigger controversy-baiters like Marilyn Manson and ‘death metal’ bands hadn’t been doing that kind of thing for years. As Spinal Tap’s manager says in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap: ‘Of course your new album sleeve looks like death. Death sells.’ The Horrors are simply the latest to cash in on death.
There has also been much tut-tutting from other bands The Horrors have toured with. Members of The Horrors apparently ignore members of other bands (which these days counts as bullying); they shake people’s hands plastered in black paint; and they tamper with their fellow bands’ electrical equipment. But since when was back-biting and bitching amongst touring bands ever out of fashion? Once again, these are nothing-to-write-home-about antics. Perhaps one reason why The Horrors have attracted disdain is because they refuse to invent some kind of sons-of-toil, proley credentials – as so many other middle-class guitar bands do these days. Instead, The Horrors wear their public-school badges on their velvet sleeves.
Yet while their peers despise them, The Horrors have managed to win some noteworthy champions. Chris Cunningham, the man responsible for Aphex Twin’s truly disturbing Window Licker video, offered to direct the video for The Horrors’ single Sheena Is A Parasite – the first time he’s done a music video in seven years. The video stars the Oscar-nominated and ubercool actress Samantha Morton. Jim Sclavunos, the cerebral drummer with Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, produced The Horrors’ Count In Fives single. Can dullards like The View or The Automatic boast similar endorsements?
It’s always been the case that the vast majority of bands that the NME blabber about are inconsequential tosh, but The Horrors are slightly better than most. Yes, they are predictably unoriginal, but at least they have musical references that go beyond the first Libertines album. And far from being clod-hopping Goths, their nervy, psychotic-garage rock recalls long-forgotten Sixties oddballs such as The Monks and 13th Floor Elevators. They get that pounding, shiver’n’shake rock’n’roll just about right.
But never mind the music. The Horrors have become the latest targets of the biggest craze stalking the land: the culture of unfreedom. The Horrors might like to act the ghoul, but is that any justification for gig promoters providing lists of do’s and don’ts? As one promoter said, such rules are ‘unprecedented’. ‘The promoters of the gig saw me eyeing up some ceiling fixtures’, says The Horrors singer Faris Rotter, ‘and they took the precaution of saying that if you do anything to them, you’ll be chucked out of the venue. Then later on they said, if you jump into the crowd, you’ll be chucked out of the venue as well.’ (1) Yet stage-diving is part and parcel of the rock experience. In the end, the promoter came up with another 12 rules.
The Horrors have garnered a reputation for confrontational live performances, with Rotter aggressively charging through the crowd. They also encourage moshing, the age-old youthful ritual of kids po-going into each other (it certainly cannot be classified as dancing). Recently, the National Union of Students attempted to ban or restrict moshing at university gigs, and, incredibly, even at Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Ozzfest’ ‘no moshing’ notices were dotted around the site (punishment by Sharon if you disobey, perhaps?). It seems that in actively encouraging their fans to mosh, The Horrors are falling foul of the latest attempt to rein in off-the-leash youthful behaviour.
From what I saw of The Horrors last Friday (Friday the 13th, naturally) at the Coronet in south London, their gigs are pretty tame affairs. Compared to unsettling nihilists such as Throbbing Gristle or early Velvet Underground, The Horrors are about as dangerous as a night out at the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In some ways that is not entirely their fault. Gigs today are simply not allowed to be as violent as they were in the 1970s and 80s. New Order, for instance, had an army of followers (the Blackburn Away Days) who were the gig-going equivalent of football hoolies the Chelsea Head Hunters. For all The Smiths’ supposedly over-sensitive leanings, their gigs resembled a Doc Marten battlefield. More seriously, The Specials’ gigs sometimes descended into a civil war between anti-racists and Sieg Heiling skinheads. Ripping up seats was another frequent gig-going ritual. Back then, promoters saw these antics for what they were: hyperactive, hormonal youngsters letting off a bit of steam.
All of that is anathema to today’s up-tight sensibilities and the dead hand of the regulative consensus. Strikingly, the decision to police The Horrors’ live show didn’t come from the Met, zealous Lib Dem councillors or some snooping ‘Safety First!’ campaigner – it came from the concert promoters themselves. Such individuals are not usually known for having shrinking wall-flower sensibilities. It is widely known, for instance, that the Mean Fiddler’s Vince Power has a ruthless streak longer than the M4. So it is coming to something when hardened rock’n’roll types start fretting about battered microphones and crowd-baiting antics.
This reveals how insidious and pervasive the culture of unfreedom has become. Traditionally, it was the state that curtailed people’s freedoms; now individuals voluntarily seek out restrictions on other people’s autonomy, even if nobody else has banged the drum for such a clampdown. The fear factor expressed by the gig promoter looks like a product of the contemporary fear of freedom, a fear that the autonomous, free-willing subject will be let off the leash to go on the bash. And as teenagers are now constantly recast as a problem precisely because they have fewer binding restrictions on their antics, the suggested solution is always to come up with fresh rules about what they can and cannot do.
Far from duff-haired garage rockers threatening civilisation, the culture of unfreedom is doing a horrible job of that on its own.
Neil Davenport is a freelance writer and lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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(1) ‘Rule One: No explosives!’, Alexis Petridis, Guardian, Thursday 12th May 2007
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