Live at Rough Trade, London
November 18, 2017
Warped Reality readers will know Ut, the legendary No Wave underground band that formed in New York in 1978. A reminder: Jacqui Ham, Sally Young and Nina Canal were Blast First label mates of Sonic Youth. They left the USA to tour with The Fall (1981), and even more interesting to those comrades who fight for active, not passive, listening daily, a young Steve Albini engineered the 1989 Griller album. Consequently tonight’s Rough Trade audience is made up of a generous portion of the alternative music world’s patrons, champions and groundbreakers, including Ana (Raincoats) and Bjork. Lovely.
Even more adorable is how their loud sound, jazz attitude, building layers of rhythm and awkward guitar shapes still swallow you whole, exemplified most in “Wailhouse” tonight (off Griller), and by which time they’ve warmed up.
Hooray for Rough Trade Records, and all she stands for. However, it’s a cold, cruel place to appear and create immersive art. It’s painful to actually watch them initially, until they’ve stopped caring and actually enjoy playing (not necessarily performing). Yet from the start, (ironically, “Swallow”), there’s the reassuring sound of dirty rock and roll driving everything forward, the classic depth and swell of any Blast First band, and the people that influenced them.
In other words, rock music played by intelligent people, with the Ut twist, a jazz element, a bad (good) attitude to messing with anything passive and pleasant going on. Ut throw the security of a melody or mood out (the jazz part) before you can say “here comes the climax,” and leave you chasing its tail again, intrigued, absorbed, never bored.
It’s all about change — no song fits nicely with the next, or last, be it live or on a recording; a change of rhythm, mood, instrument or vocalist — and yet the overall result, even in a busy record store, is all-consuming and emotional, from the punk march of “Dr No,” (Sally’s violin tune, hinting at a dark folk tale told on stormy nights), to the tribal drumming of “Sham Shack,” originally from their own self-released 12” EP Ut/ST (1984).
It’s all about change — no song fits nicely with the next, or last — and yet the overall result, even in a busy record store, is all-consuming and emotional.
The season is celebrating the re-release of this EP and Confidential, re-packaged as a double 12,” download, or tri-fold CD — with, golly, lyrics. (How I love this band, but I do not want to get inside their heads.) They’re reissuing their re-mastered catalogue on Out Records, but I didn’t expect to see them live again (since Bristol October 2011).
Last time I saw one of Ut was at the 2016 Hyde Park Carole King concert. This thrilled me: of course they love a great pop song in standard format, like us all. They do nice things, and have sensible conversations, but that’s not the idea of Ut. They make art, and art demands you make your own meaning, and you dig deep. I always felt it has been significant: that Ut were my first review for the national music press, sent by Everett True, the ex-The Legend. The experience shaped much that went after it, including my musical choices, studies, and a time as reviews editor at TheGirlsAre.com.
Ut were, in many ways (and still are), breaking new ground. They are rebels even within the ghetto genre creates for them. There is no star performer or instrumentalist, there are few choruses or climaxes, and there is no narrative, rejecting the guitarists’ role of poetic troubadour, or voice of a generation, rejecting the notion of a gang against the world. They couldn’t hold a moment if you offered them hard money, fussing around with swapping instruments, adjusting knobs and microphones, kicking leads into place.
Ut, as composers and live musicians, serve me up the opposite of the stoic and suffocating traditions of the rebellious (?) alternative rock genre, its key words, typologies, props, and self-identifying champions that put indie bands on front covers before they’ve even had a record out, who have strangled our industry.
In fact, Ut members part to lead lives, then come together again to feed Ut, the creature, all writing the songs, and choosing the instrument they play for that song. And now they’ve, allegedly, re-formed. What’s for afters Ut? New songs? We’re happy with the old ones, which have been heard so rarely live, released in limited editions decades ago anyway, and have clearly matured, in a good way.
They have super smart musicality but (perhaps) No Wave pioneers Ut, should have remained in New York all those years ago, just opting for having a blast, with Blast First cohorts, and releasing the odd album? Instead of touring, and hanging out in the UK with Mark E Smith, being wry and interesting? Maybe they were already in exactly the right place, and at the right time (NY)? But perhaps being in the wrong place at the right time is what makes Ut?
– NGAIRE RUTH
NGAIRE RUTH used to write for the music weekly Melody Maker, and more recently worked as live editor at TheGirlsAre.com. She writes reviews, opinions and essays with a feminist agenda, relating to her interests in music and theatre. Find her on Twitter @NgaireRuth or contact her via email.