Theatre of Hate/Folkgrinder

100 Club, London - 10 May 2015

"A ferocious yet tuneful kick up the arse"

Theatre of Hate were a revelation when they burst into the world in late 1980, a ferocious yet tuneful kick up the arse for a stagnant punk scene. With a fanatical following and a run of peerless releases, they were set for greatness, even getting onto Top of the Pops with Do You Believe in the West World?.

Then after a disappointing LP with such a weak production that I gave it to a mate a week after I bought it (Hi Veg!), the seriously bad Eastworld single, and a lack-lustre live album (always a bad sign), dissolution beckoned. Core members reconvened as Spear of Destiny and I stuck with them for a couple of OK singles, but the subsequent albums were dull and they became more and more straightforward and rockist in their approach, culminating in the release of the truly execrable Never Take Me Alive a song that essentially rewrites Bohemian Rhapsody to even worse effect (if that’s possible), after which I threw up my hands in despair and vowed never to pay any attention to anything they did ever again.

The intervening years have not been kind: a well publicised court case and subsequent financial losses, various rip-off compilations and half-arsed reunions (we won’t mention Dead Men Walking, the Travelling Wilburys of their generation), soured TOH’s reputation, but you can’t take away from them how good they were in their pomp. I even like the 'Westworld' album now, although I still think the production is terrible.

After the usual travel disasters getting from south east London to Oxford Street, I arrived at the 100 club in my now customary post-travel disaster foul mood. Slightly mollified by several tequilas and the fact that the Dead Kennedys’ version of Rawhide was playing over the PA, I was willing to give the support band Folkgrinder more than a cursory glance. Unfortunately, a cursory glance was all they warranted. Playing a kind of Bluegrass/Sea Shanty mash-up with accordion, accoustic guitar and a snare drum (played with brushes for fuck’s sake!), they had one OK song, but the rest of it was all a bit pointless. They appeared to be having fun, but came over as self-congratulatory and smug, and left the stage leaving no lasting impression whatsoever.

[Theatre of Hate, 100 Club poster]
[Theatre of Hate, 100 Club]   [Theatre of Hate, 100 Club]   [Theatre of Hate, 100 Club]

[Photos by John Marshall]

Seeking solace in several more tequilas and having established a rapport with one of the bar staff after refusing the offer of lime and salt on the basis that “only wankers drink it like that”, I had cheered up considerably by the time Theatre of Hate took to the stage. I’d not even seen photos of the band since the late ‘80s, so I was happy to see that Kirk Brandon was looking fit and remarkable well preserved, in marked contrast to Stan Stammers (bass) who now looks like he could comfortably play a tough Chicago homicide detective in a ‘50s noir. Bizarrely, John (Boy) Lennard (sax) looks EXACTLY THE FUCKING SAME.

Surprisingly, they kicked off with Do You Believe in the West World?, almost as if to get it out of the way. The sound was crystal clear, with the instruments sitting in the mix so perfectly it sounded almost exactly like the single. The reaction (to what is ostensibly their biggest song) was relatively muted, but things picked up when they unleashed Propaganda straight afterwards. I had been worried that the vocals might have lost some power (Brandon’s style being challenging at the best of times) but 30 odd years didn’t seem to have affected him at all. Swooping and soaring over the band, he was in great voice, and most importantly he was totally caught up in moment, and the years just seemed to fall away. Unfortunately, this brought with it the bane of many an ‘80s gig, and TOH gigs in particular; macho fuckwit knuckle dragging chicken dancing cunts.
All bad tattoos and elbows, they took great delight in pasting shit out of each other, and anyone unfortunate enough to end up in their orbit. “But it’s a laugh, innit? Just some mates out having a bit of fun, innit?” No it isn’t. Sod off and see The Meteors you cuntfuck morons.

As I watched them twitch and strut (even ignoring the band, so insular was their little circle-jerk world), I was struck by what a joyless activity it was. Even they didn’t look to be having much fun, seemingly going through the steps of a ritual (“You claim you need”) the meaning long forgotten, the only pleasure found in its reassuring familiarity (“Pavlov’s dogs jerking. In tune, in time”). I also noticed that they were only dancing to the drums; ignoring the bass and moving from the shoulders rather than the hips in a horribly stiff, restrictive motion, missing a vital component to the sound - the syncopated funk of the rhythm section. It’s there in all of the songs, but most obviously on tracks like 63IncineratorMy Own Invention and Rebel Without A Brain, all given an outing tonight.

Seeing the goon squad flail their biceps to the latter had a certain black humour to it, although I doubt they appreciated the irony of the situation. Luckily they were a bunch of out of condition fifty-somethings, so ran out of puff pretty soon, making their hyper masculine dickheadery relatively easy to avoid for the rest of us.

[Theatre of Hate, 100 Club]
[Theatre of Hate, 100 Club]   [Theatre of Hate, 100 Club]   [Theatre of Hate, 100 Club]

[Photos by John Marshall, setlist courtesy of Raye Caluori]

The new stuff passed me by without making much of an impression, but it certainly wasn’t terrible, and I’ll probably pick up the recent Slave EP and give it a proper listen, but this was always going to be about the classics, and indeed it was. Oddly, it was the mid-paced material rather than the up-tempo stompers that seemed to get the biggest reaction, with songs like Judgement Hymn and The Wake in particular provoking (probably hideously out of tune) audience participation. The newer members acquitted themselves well, with the guitarist contenting himself with playing an almost note perfect set without any rock star posing (despite looking like Antonio Banderas’ porn double), and the drummer really nailing the intricate snare/tom-tom patterns that are a hall mark of the TOH sound. And to be fair, drumming for TOH is almost a dictionary definition of ‘tough gig’.

All the three old hands were clearly really into it, Stammers running up and down the stage with a big grin on his face for the duration, and Brandon in particular giving it everything he had. It wasn’t as focussed and intense as the days of yore, but that’s hardly surprising, given the intervening years. Ending with a sublime Original Sin (that saxophone wail and the little bass run in the intro still gives me goose bumps), they came back to encore with a blistering Nero and predictably enough, Legion. Their initial calling card and probably their most iconic recording, it’s became perhaps even more relevant now with the rise of fundamentalism, and in light of the recent revelations of child abuse in the Catholic Church. The lines “In gods they trust to hide the sins. Which they commit themselves” are now almost painfully apt.

Would I go to see them again? Almost certainly. Regrets? It was a shame not to see Luke Rendle behind the kit, as I came to TOH through my love of his previous band Crisis rather than via Brandon and The Pack, and I was disappointed that they didn’t play Conquistador, but those are pretty minor quibbles.

Should you go and see them? Absolutely.

Unless you’re a chicken dancer, in which case stay at home with your King Kurt records. 7/10

Nick Hydra