Tuesday, 8 December 2009

gigsplurge 23: queens of the stone age etc., november 2000

Queens of the Stone Age, Snake River Conspiracy & Backyard Babies, Astoria, London, 23 November 2000

Live venues enjoyed mixed fortunes across the decade. Increased revenues from live music masked a shift in the balance of payments in favour of the bigger venues and bands. In Oxford, half the small venues already mentioned have folded, ceased promoting new bands, or re-emerged under new management. In London, the Astoria was the most high-profile casualty.

Its closure was initiated by populist Mayor Ken Livingstone, but caused only a minor ripple of nostalgic protest. Its rivals had more obvious qualities and friends in higher places: it could not be defended as part of a community's musical heritage like Camden's striking Roundhouse; nor was it among the elite of Newsnight Review crossover venues like the ICA, the Barbican or the RFH--attacks on which would have the boradsheets editorialising on cultural decline; nor was it even a particularly nice venue, like the Brixton Academy or the Union Chapel. Yet it performed a key function in the career cycle of a certain class of band. The Astoria's claim was to be the biggest toilet venue in Britain: hosting bands with an NME buzz, one-and-a-half hit singles, and a shot at the big-time on the back of a national tour.

It felt, too, like an overgrown indie boghole. A strange, dank smell. Sticky floors. A shitty 'Star Bar' covered in cack-handed, unsettling portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon, in which errant members of Three Colours Red could be spotted sipping warm lager from plastic pint pots. A weird tension between indie drudgery of weeknights and the second-rate pop acts booked for the G.A.Y. nightclub on weekends. Unfortunates flyering in the rain for nightclubs offering, appealingly, "indie / metal".

For all the mediciocrity of the venue, I'd seen some great gigs there: Pavement in their pomp in 1997; Machinehead playing heart-punchingly loud in 1998; Mogwai lifting the roof off in 1999. This gig was not among them, but it was sort of archetypal of what I remember about the Astoria. All three bands were typical fag-smelling "indie / metal" nightclub fodder. Backyard Babies were a 'glam / sleaze' metal band from Sweden, who wore sailor hats and leather and said lewd things into the mic. They didn't have any tunes, or any redeeming sense of humour, and hence weren't the Darkness. Snake River Conspiracy fulfilled the "indie / metal" quotient: Kerrang pin-up lady singer, flabby industro-metal blokes, laughable cover of 'How Soon Is Now'.

Queens of the Stone Age would go on to produce one of the best records of the decade, and to assemble one of the best live bands I'll (eventually) write about here. But in 2000 they were the familiar Astoria headliners, one-and-a-half singles in, nearly there. The Astoria gave them a big stage--the sort that they'd eventually fill with Mark Lanegan's howling vocals, Dave Grohl's irrepressible drums, and Josh Homme's weird, sideways take on stoner rock. On this night the skewed funk riffs broke up the flow; Oliveri and Homme never gelled; the band poised uncertainly between indie and metal, lacking the confidence and swagger to forge their own sound. The Astoria was a staging post: rarely the scene of triumphant victories, never an all-expenses-paid consumer experience, but consistently interesting and engaging as a place to watch the music scene change.

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