Blam Blam Blam, Neck Of The Woods, Auckland, Thursday August 29 REVIEW
GARY STEEL attends a Blam Blam Blam reunion gig and finds the power of their songs and performance is undiminished.
Blam Blam Blam was around for what now seems like a split second of time. In its short lifetime, the group made one 12-inch EP and a glorious debut album, Luxury Length, the recording of which must have strained the resources of its fledgling record company, Propeller. By the time of its release in 1982, I was already a huge fan, but after one listen to the album, “the Blams” (as they were affectionately known) had become my favourite New Zealand band.
And then they were gone. Injuries sustained in a road accident saw to that.
I never expected it to happen, but 37 years later, here they are again, on a short reunion tour. Like so many reunions of bands from the ‘80s it’s reasonable to expect that this is mostly about nostalgia; a chance to relive our youth through the music of one of the bands that mattered. But it’s so much more than that, because they were stopped in their tracks in 1982, when given the right circumstances they might have evolved and flourished. Instead, the Blams and their music is trapped in aspic, which makes it hellishly hard to really feel how important they were at the time, despite that great album as evidence. (I should point out, too, that Luxury Length was fucked with when released on CD and turned into a hodgepodge of extra tracks that destroys the original running order).
I’m expecting an audience of 60-somethings and yes, probably half the audience tonight is in their late 50s or early 60s, but the other half is much younger and that’s surprising, and it’s probably one reason that the applause isn’t quite as pumped up and enthusiastic as I would have expected it to be. (Well, I guess it’s hard to clap when you’ve bought a $14 wine out of a can and you need both hands to hold the can and glass and there’s nowhere to put them down).
Amazingly, the gig doesn’t feel at all like nostalgia. The trio of Mark Bell (guitars, voice), Tim Mahon (bass, voice) and Don McGlashan (percussion, euphonium, voice) looks middle-aged but plays with the vigour and kinetic energy of 20-year-olds. Back in ’82 but they weren’t quite this self-assured or determined to serve both the songs and the audience with such a superlative performance.
The music, in a sense, sounds very much of its time – post-punk with that unique Kiwi accent that defines them. It’s not quite so evident on record where the sound isn’t as pumped-up and bass heavy, but in concert you can hear in the music some of the groups from which they must have taken their inspiration, including Gang Of Four, but unlike those very serious English groups of the time, the Blams never tried to be cool. This is a key point, because most of the acts on the Flying Nun label (which was taking off at the same time as Blam Blam Blam) were from the too-cool-for-school aesthetic, influenced by Lou Reed’s famous nonchalance, and too often, it was camouflage for lack of chops. The Blams were satirists and they were funny and unafraid to be a bit nerdy. Heck, the drummer even farted away on a euphonium, for Christ’s sake!
Does humour belong in music? Many find humour an uncomfortable bedfellow, but for those who don’t give a fuck about fake “cool”, the Blams were (and are) a revelation. In short, their set – which included most of their small repertoire – sounded nearly as vivid and vital as the day it was birthed, even if times have moved on and Muldoon and his draconian government isn’t in power and we’re not quite the police state that we seemed on the cusp of turning into at the time.
As I discuss on my monster-sized profile on Don McGlashan on AudioCulture, the assumption that Don was the leader and chief songwriter of Blam Blam Blam is wrong, and it was great to hear some of Mark Bell’s songs come alive on stage tonight. They may lack the finesse of McGlashan’s best pieces but they go a long way to defining the character of the group, in the sense of lyrics discussing the mores and morals of the time. But regardless of which member of the group wrote the songs they’re all of a piece, and have clearly been written to fit a project with a specific agenda.
I got the feeling that a large section of the audience only really knew the well-known classics – ‘Marsha’ and ‘There Is No Depression In New Zealand’ – but it’s to the group’s credit that they also excavated never-performed songs like the psychotic drum-machine madness of ‘Respect’ and possibly the greatest Don McGlashan song of all time, the spooky ‘Call For Help’.
While the trio is faithful to the original versions, it’s clear that they also feel enough freedom to have fun with them, and really, it’s the dedication to performance that makes this gig so special.
Those who have only seen Don McGlashan in a solo context or with his 1990s group The Muttonbirds are in for a shock. A true polymath, with the Blams it’s his drumming that astounds. Even with the knowledge of his early training in classical percussion it’s still a revelation to see the energy he puts into the unconventional (borrowed) kit and the skill with which he performs on it. Special mention, too, for Mark Bell’s superb guitar playing. I’d always wondered how he managed such a distinctive mix and match between choppy rhythm work and beautiful strung-out melodic lines and solos, and I couldn’t help but wonder tonight why we haven’t heard more of his playing over the years. Perhaps he’s seldom found quite the right context?
In essence, although the return of the Blams had a smattering of nostalgia about it, this was really something else: the successful reanimation of a genius moment in time 37 years after the fact. And that’s quite astonishing.
Postscript: Pity, then, about Neck Of The Woods. The stage is so low that to actually get a clear view of the performers at any one time I would have had to be wearing stilts; and because the room is so thin and long you’ve really got to be near the sound desk to hear the music properly. Why go to a gig not to see a band? Why can’t Auckland do better than this? It’s shameful. Whammy is even worse. It’s interesting that on the NOTW website they blather on about it being a non-violent, gender-inclusive space, but what about having a space where customers can actually see and hear the band they’ve paid to see and hear? I’m of average height but couldn’t see a thing. As for the $14 glasses of wine: this is not a premium space offering a premium experience, so why the premium prices?