Friday, April 08, 2022

Panic stations

Two and a half months ago we saw Panic Shack at Swn Festival. Later that night we made an official statement.

Back then, though they already had something of a home city following, they were a late replacement and an unknown quantity. We had no idea who they were until the day before the (usually) annual three day central Cardiff beanfeast, had never heard them as they had nothing publicly audible and were really only downstairs at Clwb Ifor Bach due to a combination of seeing a recommendation somewhere and rain. It was their third gig and they had six songs, two of which were covers. Even amid post-punk/punk-pop/just punk saturation there felt something different from what was around them, not just in the energy but that they were having fun. For the first time in a while it felt like we were watching an unforced girl gang who'd decided forming a band would be a thing they could do. Their big closer was about their lighter being taken. It caused pandemonium. This was all we wanted.

After that came a slow rise - Radio 1 and 6 Music play from Huw Stephens, three singles in 2020 gradually picking up their momentum, but maybe most importantly the return of live music bodies could fly around to - their Green Man set packed out the new bands stage, and when we got back to Swn they had graduated to packing out the upstairs main room. Last week they got another late call-up to a Cardiff event, this time the 6 Music Festival, and the station seems genuinely taken by what happened, playing tracks from the set (of which this is twenty minutes, though only missing two tracks from their regular, and one of those is very sweary) a few times in daytime over the next few days.

That October 2019 "moment" has practically lasted right through to today, when they release their splendidly titled Baby Shack EP. It is, of course, fantastic, some of it knowingly offbeat if not slightly silly (hey, it's the "you do not shush me in the cinema" one!) on surface but played with conviction underpinned by conviction and personal beliefs and experiences, Sarah Harvey throwing out singular aphorisms and statements made both to be bellowed back to and to underpin that her life as a young woman is not to fit into someone else's gendered expectations. Understandably the band they're most compared to are Amyl & The Sniffers, albeit a version that's less likely to point their runaway vehicle at a brick wall; however those covers they played back at Swn the first time were of ESG and Gang Of Four, pointing to a rhythmical drive - note how many of the six songs feature some kind of solo bass part. Maybe what strikes us most is that it sounds live with all the glorious lack of sheen that suggests. In fact, something occured to us about their unconscious secret lineage.


It was a scene with no name, or at least not one that stuck. Teen-C was aired but that really only consisted of one band even if its situationist ideals were right. The weekly papers attempted to coin Bratpop, but that didn't stick because it was the NME and Melody Maker and thus not to be trusted. The 'glitter scene' was a good one, given it was based around the kind of fanzine and make-up that was heavy on the substance. R*E*P*E*A*T fanzine's memorable piece called it '1997', which is ideologically and chronologically correct but also confusing.

What it was was a stream of bands mostly in their teens who formed in or as a result of the events of 1996, the year Kenickie became the most beloved off the radar band through releasing instant classic singles while being effortlessly funny between songs live, Bis appeared on Top Of The Pops and Ash, who came across as a lot more grown up than they were, released their debut album 1977. Those three were the immediate British (Isles) foundation stones, alongside which often lay the Ramones, riot grrrl, Blondie, Pistols, 60s girl groups, Buzzcocks, early Manics and unashamed love of pure pop. It was indie rock by untutored youths playing songs as if clinging on to them, lo-fi and raw to a fault but evidently trying hard just so as to not be confused with the last youth movement of slackerdom. It was defiantly British in scope but running at a safe distance parallel rather than connected to Britpop. In fact it was if anything a reaction to Britpop's cocaine socialism, especially the Oasis hegemony and the lager culture that was settling in, with its own unspoken, maybe unknowing, debt to the "twee" we-went-and-did-it-anyway era of C86, Sarah Records, Amelia Fletcher and beyond - in fact C96 was another name toyed with, although NME ended up using it for an unrelated cassette offer. Many were sort of affiliated with London's Club Rampage, later Club P*rnstar. And, here's the key, it was mostly female.

Tampasm, Period Pains, Disco Pistol, VyVyan, Helen Love, Pink Kross, Xerox Girls, Lung Leg, Velodrome 2000, Charlie's Angels... nobody talked about gender parity issues or necessary representation then, it was just that young women were getting up and doing it while most of the boys were still perfecting their power chords. (And of course it should be noted there were all-male bands involved: Midget, Gel, Agebaby, The Pin-Ups, Spraydog...) Kenickie's Catsuit City was the Velvet Underground of the scene - it didn't sell many copies, and there were only 500 to sell in the first place, but everyone who bought one either started a band, started a fanzine or bought some facial application glitter like Lauren Laverne - who bought hers from a novelty shop - wore.

There's no Cherry Red compilation of the scene available in print or to stream - most of it was released on labels far too small to have digital distribution sorted - but there were compilations, often through Damaged Goods, the Abuse Your Friends sets or the middle volumes of Snakebite City. Last week we found someone had uploaded to YouTube what at the time was the most high profile of them, And The Rest Is History...

Nodding to the forebears with a short, ragged Kenickie B-side, And The Rest Is History... is an untutored feast of the youth of the day (some as young as 14) at the peak of their abilities and their punk-pop, fizzy lo-fi, garage rock just as ramshackle in tone as the 1960s bands that practised in garages and ended up on Nuggets, British indie with the Owen Morris influence surgically removed, cheap guitars and second hand keyboards/drum machines, handclaps, commanding strident/shouty vocals, big dreams against small room ideals, discos at weekends, sticky floored toilet circuit venues at weeknights. Teenage angst and enjoyment is writ in size 64 bold.

It's almost all undeniably exciting, outspoken in places, racing against the red lights at others. You want to be part of most of their gangs, or at least stand idly within earshot of them as they exchange bon mots and daggers. Some days we think "fuck off back to the Slimelight with your stupid ugly lanky streak of piss boyfriend, you poxy little cunt" (Xerox Girls' Keep Your Mouth Shut) is the greatest lyric ever written.

The glitter scene was always going to be transient, and not just for the obvious reason of careerism versus amateur willingness' natural barriers. If your ambitions are to have fun with your mates in a scrappy loud punk-pop band, play the Highbury Garage and maybe put a limited pressing 7" out you're not looking to build for the long term, especially when you hit your twenties. Even Kenickie were gone by the end of 1998, after their comedown album and having cleaved in two. Symposium, who in this company and with their big rock-facing guitars were the most obvious Band Most Likely To and were already on a satellite of a much bigger label, got some press wind behind them and three top 40 singles. Disco Pistol played a big Reading Festival stage, got signed, changed their name, went crap and quickly disappeared, though leader Mira Manga re-established her cult DIY credentials in the Duloks almost a decade later. Charlie's Angels, who got to support PJ & Duncan, did likewise without the revenge. Tampasm's enthusiasm was destroyed by dealing with the music business and it's doubtful they were alone in that. Girlfrendo, who sounded more than most like people shouting in a charity shop stock room, transmuted into Love Is All and got some Pitchfork cred in the mid-00s. Period Pains singer Chloe Alper, unaccountably, formed a prog band with a member of Gel and now, even more so, is a member of James. Helen Love is still fighting the good fight, having once flirted with the Radio 1 daytime playlist, but out in Cardiff and building her own world of Moogs, Digital Hardcore and Joey Ramone worship she was always the outlier. Practically everybody else disappeared into academia, the anonymous 9 to 5, whatever. 95% of it is almost entirely forgotten now.

The underpinning ideals didn't entirely go away. How could it, even as British indie as it was known to most faded away. There was a mini-revival at the end of the decade - genuine Irish contenders/love-to-hate subjects/industry used gum Chicks, Lancaster's flick-knife between fingers in velvet mittens Angelica, Iceland's Bellatrix, Birmingham's Twist - and even as alternative music got more and more professional there were outliers kicking against the pricks. The mid 00s, the crossover period between fanzine/gig networking and social network, er, networking, brought a brief window where a new generation of DIY kids converged on either bands that may not have evolved in the same way but took their musical cues from an earlier, more scrappy era - Art Brut, The Research, Help She Can't Swim, KaitO (featuring Nik Colk Void and Gemma from Sink Ya Teeth) - or latched onto bands that were sonically slightly different but still sounded like they might have heard, read and watched similar things to you when getting into non-standard music - Los Campesinos!, Bearsuit, the Long Blondes, the Pipettes. The indiepop revival of the start of the 2010s and the rise of Indietracks festival co-opted some of the above - Veronica Falls, the Lovely Eggs (featuring one of Angelica), Shrag, Standard Fare - and like most of their forebears would only occasionally raise their head above the mainstream coverage parapet.

Indietracks is gone, fanzines are PDFs at best, social media does some degree of the work an introductory weekly music press feature did, finding all the new music is both easier and more complex (where do you start?), but it stands to some reason that at a time when "indie-pop" is applied to everything short of Ed Sheeran and all the guitar bands on the radio seem mixed, mastered and generally buffed to a fault for hi-fi arena dynamics, then if the alternative underground is a thing it's surely time to mess things up again. From Sports Team to deep tan to English Teacher, that spirit might not be as obviously back bedroom dreamer brewed a lot of the time but it kind of feels like it's creeping into the wider conscious, none more so than those responsible for this week's biggest new release. Two close female friends formed a band on a whim with a stupid name so they could enjoy playing music and hang out more, with the singer learning guitar after having decided she needed to play it for the band to work, who recorded their first single in a friend's bedroom with an accompanying self-shot video and no more ambition then to get some gigs with mates' bands at a big local venue, then wrote more songs about youthful drift and attention from shitty blokes, and less than a year after that single's release find themselves profiled in the New York Times and Rolling Stone running a headline 'Wet Leg Are the Buzziest New Band of the Year'. And actually, as with Baby Shack, Wet Leg the album is built on both the idea that women in guitar-based music shouldn't have to take up the tortured artist mantle and the neat trick of claiming to have very little deeper to say for approachability while actually being otherwise.

More than any of these, Panic Shack resemble that effective have-a-go attitude that brings with it a cult following and songs, aphorisms maybe, that people cling to. They formed as a reaction to laddish bands just as the glitter encrusted types reacted against Noel acolytes. On forming they took the only route possible, namely deciding who would play which instrument and only then setting out to learn them. Ju Jits You is a song about unwanted male attention and the fantasy of striking back but was written off the back of some of the members having actual ju jitsu classes, in a pleasingly straightforward but actually not way. There's the gang chants and the intrinsic celebration of their coming in packs, the way they dress in tracksuits, leopardprint, modern mullets and gaudy retro because they can. They even have a semi-anonymous bloke at the back. They describe the EP as "a representation of our experiences and friendship: raw, honest and always chaotic", which is absolutely it. What they do is entirely of themselves, but they fit spectacularly into a lineage of kicking against the pricks with joy, company, energy over muso-ness and above all the fun of being in a band with something to say and the electric means to bring the whole package to people. Some might almost dismiss it as "putting the fun back into indie rock". For the people making it, however long for, it's evidently much more than that.