Saturday, May 24, 2008

Better Than You Think (or, How To Re-Sell Soul To A Nation Of Millions That Forgot It Had A Soul)



"Brixton! London! England!"...

D. "Public Enemy No. 1". The man. Still angry, still hating on guns and gun culture, still incandescent at where US rap has got to and all it celebrates. FLAVOR. "A legend in his own mind". Irrepressible, energetic, taking running jumps into the crowd... Terminator X ? Sadly no, still "retired in North Carolina". Professor Griff ? Not allowed out of the States... The S1Ws ? Yes, they're here. Striking kung-fu poses, pirouettes, throwing shapes, sometimes being statues. Occasionally fishing Flav out of the throng. "Hell yeah"... DJ Lord presides over the decks. And THE BOMB SQUAD are in the house. Wow. Wow. Wow.

It's not just noise. It's noise and shouting. And scratching. And bass, guitar and drums. And more shouting.

This is the 20 year anniversary, of course, of IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK. Both this and "George Best" performed anew in the matter of a few months... Flavor is milking it a bit. Chuck observes him, hands on hips, with a kind of resigned, weary tolerance. Flav carries on with the old-skool call and response. Chuck looks at his watch. Priceless.

But it's a wonderful noise. This is fantastic, more than it could be if it was fuelled *only* by nostalgia. We really weren't intending to write a word on this. But try and stop us now.

(At home, afterwards, we dig out another old fanzine, "What's this generation coming to ?": looks like Pete Dale's handiwork. "Sorry Morrissey, but Public Enemy say more to me about my life than you have for about five years". There's nothing new in loving the PE.)

Tonight they carry on bringing the noise, carry on giving. Take "Night Of The Living Baseheads", "Rebel Without A Pause": these are standards. Almost textbooks on lyricism and technique. Like "Paid In Full", they're songs that are built to last, and have done so effortlessly - every lyric, every beat, the way Chuck emphasises every syllable still imprinted on our mind, two decades on and for always. One day, we'll be humming them in some retirement home.

"Nation Of Millions" is still one of the 10 greatest albums of all time (a little like "Reign In Blood", which it famously samples). And when we say 10 best, we don't mean "10 most influential", "10 you should own", "10 you should have in your collection to appear cool", any of that broadsheet non-sense. This is one of the 10 most MUSICALLY EXCITING, *now*. One of the 10 that SAYS THE MOST... And it's not even their best album.

Tonight's gig is the polar opposite of the Pistols' show here a few months ago. Once having rescued music is the only thing the two bands now have in common...

D reminds us how London welcomed Public Enemy in '87. That tour was a phenomenon. We'd kill to have been there. Remember the controversy ? Seems so quaint - the record still slays now, but the messages are so obviously, overwhelmingly positive. A flashback - "I like that from the people up top". YES... And there's shouting, more shouting. We're shouting. Must be something wrong with us.

"Promoter's dream, fan's fantasy, artist's challenge", notes D sagely of the task set for Public Enemy tonight. He's being cute, almost suggesting he wanted no part in this exercise. But Chuck is wise enough to know that tonight is not just about reluctantly going along with the Man - it's an opportunity. A few years ago, when we saw them at the much smaller Forum (where a respectable music journalist asked us what Flav was wearing round his neck - And a national paper sent you to review a Public Enemy show ?) the place was not so packed. And if they'd been here to play their most recent long-player, "How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul?", the Academy wouldn't be brimming like this with anticipation, expectation, passion. More people in the house means more COMMUNICATION, and in this case more CONNECTION. And PE have always been about messages, as "Black Steel" - for which D uses a couple of pieces of A4 as a lyric sheet-cum stage prop - perfectly illustrates.

So. At the end of the barrage of "Party For Your Right To Fight", the dream / fantasy / challenge is achieved. Then - somehow - things are upped a notch further. D plays up to being freed from the shackles of the contract, and the set goes rogue. "Welcome To The Terrordome" works especially well. "Shut 'Em Down", we've always had a soft spot for: "Too Much Posse", we haven't. But there's a whirlwind of other tunes though: "Can't Truss It", "PE #1", "911 Is A Joke", last year's "Harder Than You Think", "Fight The Power" to properly rip it up. It's all a kind of blistering medley of noise complemented by the ceaseless activity on stage - at any time there are between ooh, 10 and 15 people jumping, rapping, playing, swaying, or just standing nodding. We're bouncing up and down, too.

It's half past twelve and they're trying to switch the lights out. But Flav won't go away. Aaw, he's clearly made up by the occasion, the reception. He needs a few people to shout "Fuck Racism": and in this our 5% BNP city, we need them to mean it. The fanzine we found later on, reminding us how PE did the same at Reading, all those years ago, asked: "... what's wrong with a simple, powerful message ?"

Finally, Flav needs a few of us to shout "Fuck George Bush". Alright then, for old time's sake, one for the road. There's a bundle towards the last tube, but few make it. Who cares.

Really. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Brilliant.