This Heat at the Barbican Sat 4 March 2017
Second outing for this unusual musical venture which calls itself This Is Not This Heat; two original members from the trio This Heat, plus a number of additional musicians drawn from the worlds of art-rock, free improvisation, and just plain good music. Not the first outing; it came, out of nowhere almost, to Café Oto for a two-night residency in February 2016, which I completely missed. Reports were good – emotions ran high; loyal fans in tears, listeners travelling long distances from beyond the seas to catch the event.
I was overwhelmed by the Barbican night, the power and the beauty of the music. The songs and tunes from the band’s concise output (2 LPs, one 12-inch) which I know so well were running through my head, playing in parallel to these new versions performed on the stage. I’m going to try to account for why it was such a success.
Collaborative, for one thing. Musicians including James Sedwards, improvising bass player John Edwards, violinist and keyboard player Merlin Nova, drummer Frank Byng…not to mention star names Thurston Moore and Chris Cutler. These players are not only able to produce highly convincing versions of the “original” arrangements, but also brought new ideas, new “textures”, to each piece. Purists may have wanted an exact replica of the albums This Heat or Deceit performed on stage, in the manner of acts at the South Bank (which I have seen and enjoyed) that gave us Forever Changes and Pet Sounds, classic albums re-created live on stage, by well-drilled experts. Instead, we got much more, something much deeper.
When I think of added depth…I heard it in the tunes, and most importantly, in the songs. Oh the songs! This Heat wrote great songs! [1. Hayward has spoken movingly of the songs greeting him like old friends, saying “where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you”.] I almost forgot how, on record, there’s such a striking mix of voices, high and low tones, weird harmonies clashing, the grain of many voices, unexpected intervals that leave you breathless. That rich quality was built on, by the trio of dedicated vocalists Jenny Moore, Luisa Gerstein and Laura Groves, joining Hayward and the other singers; a polyphony of voices. The harmonies now became unbearably beautiful. Conversations, previously obscured in the original recordings, suddenly came forth. Meanings were enriched, and deepened. Obscure lyrics – beautiful poetry – were suddenly now audible, and readable like books. Most prominent successes to illustrate this: ‘Music Like Escaping Gas’ (“There She Blows…”), ‘The Fall of Saigon’, and ‘Independence’. And how could I forget ‘Sleep’, on stage a bittersweet delight of unbearable poignancy, an achingly brief moment which you wish you could have put in a bottle like vintage wine. Heck, all the songs benefited from this process of blending avant-garde doo-wop and Gesualdo madrigal singing, by way of angst-ridden post-punk groanings. I’ll say it again – This Heat always wrote great songs, and didn’t just make a “noise” or free-form experiments in the studio. Let’s move the spotlight away from Scott Walker’s latest over-contrived pieces for one moment, and give Charles Hayward his due as a composer.
Pause. Perhaps my readers would like a more prosaic account of the evening at The Barbican. Well, This Is Not This Heat came on after the interval, preceded by two solo sets by the original members. The one by Charles Hayward was a mix of icy-cold romantic and melancholy songs with him performing on the grand piano and crooning. But he also moved strangely about the stage rattling percussion. Even more strangely wheeling a speaker around in a pram. The speaker made a droning sound. Hayward wailed like a baby, but this seemed to have been part of a much wider domestic narrative about a sad commuter returning to his “happy” home in the evening. A bleak view of life to be sure, but an honest one. Hayward was not one for effusive communication with his fans, and entered and left the stage with a very becoming deal of modesty. Charles Bullen, who now cuts a remarkable figure with his Victorian whiskers, was even less demonstrative. Barely looking at us, he sat behind his table on which may have been mounted a prepared guitar of some sort, and set to work with deliberation. What emerged was incredibly minimal tones in a slew of repeated phrases that nearly drove this listener mad – a kind of restricted cross between electronic Gamelan and Terry Riley. Yet something struck home. Overheard in the lobby afterwards: “Yeah, but you can still hear This Heat in that stuff, somehow.” Good observation, stranger. In between these acts: screening of a film by the 1970s structuralist film-maker John Smith called The Black Tower. unlike Peter Gidal and the more hard-core members of the London Film-Makers Co-op, Smith decided to meet the audience halfway, and went back to telling stories in the 1980s, hence this unsettling suburban fable about the pernicious and unseen effects of an unknown outer force (most likely a metaphor for monopoly capitalism).
Then This Is Not This Heat after the interval. A crowd-pleasing ending with green laser lights. Who would have thought that it would be possible to play ‘24 Track Loop’, originally a concoction of the studio mixing desk, on stage? Hayward may say it’s now possible to do that because technology has improved now, but I think there are other factors, other reasons that have brought matters to this point.
To try and explain what I mean, let’s revisit that collaborative theme. At one level, I think it means something that it takes 14 musicians to build one This Heat, indicating the power of the original trio must have been…quite considerable. But I am probably imagining those 1980s gigs (I never saw the band at the time) to have been more than they were. But perhaps it also takes 14 musicians to create this reconstruction, this reimagination of the songs and the tunes, to make them even greater than before. The nuances and details are all there on the original records – incidentally inviting one to go back and re-examine those grooves, where not a single second was wasted in communicating through sound, gesture, word, music, editing, layering…
The team effort also says something to me about how, through music, we can build on stage a working model of how human relations could change, how society could work better. Even if it’s just for two hours on stage, we can learn from it. John Stevens, the UK improviser, believed strongly in this possibility, and manifested it in all of his directed team efforts, harnessing the energy of great musicians to show a way of living, working and doing that was a model of how a co-operative society could work. I’ve always thought This Heat believed in that too; at the Barbican, they proved it.
Some media write-ups and appraisals have pointed out the gap between the original This Heat and this event; for instance, the concert handout tells us it’s been 40 years since the band’s first gig in 1976. Well, maybe this isn’t really a gap; I would argue that it has in fact been a necessary waiting process, a maturation. The band This Heat had to exist in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to influence musicians Thurston Moore and many others (becoming a “cult” band, I suppose, much as I hate that term), and the impact of their work sunk into the culture in a gradual way. Think of it as a slow release of benign energy, a healing and changing power. The time is now right for that cycle to complete; by bringing their own history, with This Heat DNA mixed into it, the 14 musicians were able to realise the “perfect” version of This Heat we saw in March 2017. If I am right in these fervoured ravings, maybe the event says something about the way culture ought to happen; it’s not instant, it’s slow, and mysterious, but when it works – it’s a glorious and unstoppable force for good.
Comparisons therefore with, say, Young Marble Giants, and their reunion gigs, are probably not in the same league. I love YMG and their 1980 album. But somehow their music got hermetically sealed into a 1980-1981 time capsule, and its influence has not really rooted itself in culture, other than being a reference for “hip” bands to name-check, often by people who have little real understanding of their music. I am fairly sure their “reunion” gig at Meltdown in 2015 (I did not attend) would have been pretty much the exact same songs played the exact same way, with no evidence of a deepening process. Sure, a rock fan addicted to the cult of personality and some idea of “authenticity” might well say that seeing the “original members” trumps everything. But This Is Not This Heat gives us a different angle on that. This is Not This Heat, it’s This Heat Plus.