If you’re a punk fan, you’ll probably know that the Membranes were an integral part of the punk scene in the 70’s (and the post-punk scene in the 80’s). If it wasn’t for the Membranes, and the other bands that started up at the same time, there wouldn’t have *been* a scene.
The band has always been about as DIY as you can get – to be any more DIY, their lyrics would have to be about plumbing. Case in point – when the band first started, they didn’t have a drummer. Not to be put off, they used two bin lids.
How many bands these days would do that? How many of the school leavers who start a band would care so much about the fundamental soul of music that they’d make their own bass guitar? Then, despite not knowing how to play, they invented their own chords and tuning scheme so that they could get the sound they wanted. There’s a lot of people these days bemoaning their lot in life; the attitude of the ’70s was this – don’t wait around for things to happen. That was the point of Do It Yourself culture. In their most recent album, they’re reported to have used a plastic bucket, some rocks they banged together, and a fire escape (like, literally played the fire escape itself).
The Membranes embody everything I love about punk. They don’t conform to anything.
And while I always assumed I’d catch them at Holiday In The Sun (now called Rebellion festival), I actually ended up seeing them at Thursday’s Therapy? gig.
Surprisingly, they were the supporting band. Given that I’ve also seen Alice Cooper as a supporting band, that doesn’t really mean what people think it means. Which pretty much sums up the Membranes. They are deliciously obscure and delightfully inscrutable. I love that.
The line up is: John Robb as the frontman and singing and playing the bass and mouth organ, Rob Haynes on drums (and apparently anything else he can hit) – there was also something that looked like a large greek vase with a skin stretched over it, which I thought was a stool until he started hitting it.* There were also two guitarists – Peter Byrchmore and Nick Brown.
*I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about music, but I know what I like and I know that I like stuff that sounds good and I don’t care what instruments (if any) it’s played on.
Here’s some pictures (email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are in the band and want the full size versions of any of these at no charge for use on your website etc, the full size versions have better definition but they don’t fit on my site due to the cost of data):
What I liked most was the amount of energy they had on-stage. I mean, they were fizzing with more energy than calcium carbonate that’s had acid dropped on it (which is pretty fizzy). They seemed to be playing their own thing, as if the audience’s lack of enthusiasm was inconsequential (the crowd weren’t biting… until they suddenly were).
I said yesterday about how when I don’t know the music, I’m quite happy to go along with it as long as it’s sounding good. Well I didn’t know any of the songs but I was headbanging from my vantage point in the weird side balcony beside the stage.
I’ve never seen a warm-up act manage to win over an audience like that… stepping back from my role as a member of the crowd, and going into analytical mode, I was awestruck by the audience’s transformation – at the start, the audience was mostly indifferent, then about halfway through, they very quickly got into it and suddenly there was bouncing and cheering and participating and all that sort of thing.
My favourite part? When the mouth organ came out. I mean, I guess that must be what a mouth organ looks like – I’ve never seen one of those before.
So by the time the band finished, I was sad to see them leave. Before Thursday, although I knew of the band, I didn’t know anything about their music (except that it was recommended by my stepdad who played drums in a punk band in ’77). I’d only really come to see Therapy? (I hadn’t actually looked at who was supporting, more fool me), at that point when the Membranes stopped, I would have been quite happy if they were the main act or if they’d done a long set. All in all they contributed to Thursday being a very memorable and outstanding gig out of the long list of gigs I’ve been to so far on my quest to fulfil my Bands Bucket List, despite not actually being on the list because I totally overlooked them when I was writing it. Don’t make the same mistake I did – they’re not a band to overlook.
Supporting bands get a lot of shit, and sometimes they get too much credit when they shouldn’t have any (the Last Internationale who were supporting the Who really failed to engage me on every level, I couldn’t believe anyone had hired them as a band for such a big event – perhaps this went a long way towards explaining why my patience wore too thin and I ultimately walked out of the Who early and got an early night sleeping on the floor of Dublin airport). It’s a tricky line to walk, to be a good supporting band, because it takes different skills than being a good main act. A lot of people think that supporting acts need to be new inexperienced bands who do it for the exposure to new audiences. Sometimes this works out ok, other times it bombs. Not many supporting acts understand their role well enough to really run with it. I think of all the bands I’ve ever seen in their supporting role (rather than their headline act), The Membranes sit up there alongside Anthrax and Alice Cooper as the three best bands you could hire to really get the crowd stoked (and I’d actually say slightly better than Anthrax).
And, as with Anthrax and Alice Cooper, I was left wanting to see, hear and know more about this band. I particularly liked the part when John Robb said to the audience “ask me any physics question” (I know for a fact that there were at least two physics teachers in the audience). So someone asked something like “what’s inside a black hole” and the whole audience went silent. Everyone’s attention was focussed on John Robb. Everyone was waiting, thinking “what’s he going to say?” He had clearly thought about all this stuff a lot and knew what he was on about, and I thought his answer was pretty impressive, especially since it was a random question asked by a member of the audience. I like randomness (all my Youtube videos end with “subscribe for more randomness”), and I like thinking about the nature of the universe. So I thought that was an excellent lead-in to the next song.
If the universe is being destroyed and remade from one moment to the next, then I never actually saw them because the past no longer exists. Which means I need to go and see them again. But when I see them again, they will be different and so will I, because you can’t cross the same river twice. Hmm…
At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a testosterone-fuelled shoutfest using three (established) chords, go and see Agnostic Front or someone similar. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that side of punk, except that everyone thinks it’s the *only* side to punk, which just isn’t true. If you’re looking for a thought provoking, entertaining, wide variety of music that defies definition (and thus becomes what punk is supposed to be about), the Membranes are for you. Or you could take the blue pill instead.