Johny Brown and The Band of Holy Joy remain a force for good in a messed-up world
The righteously indignant theatre/music-makers cover topics from William Burroughs to Ian Tomlinson
The last time street-smart Geordie visionary Johny Brown's work appeared in Scotland was when his play, William Burroughs Caught in Possession of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, appeared at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in 2002. While a reignited formation of Brown's troupe of junk-yard baroque soothsayers, The Band of Holy Joy, who had released several records on the Rough Trade label throughout the 1980s, had just released their sublimely euphoric Love Never Fails album, Brown's epic onstage fantasia cast actor Tam Dean Burn as the eponymous author of Naked Lunch on Coleridge's sea-faring vessel.
Also in tow were fictionalised evocations of fellow experimental novelist Kathy Acker, former New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders (played by former Exploited bass player turned actor in The Acid House and Gangs of New York, Gary McCormack), and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
With such a motley crew on board, this was punk theatre personified, and continued an association between Brown and Burn that saw the pair collaborate on a series of plays for online art radio station, Resonance FM. One of these was a view of the late Associates singer Billy Mackenzie as seen through the eyes of one of his pet whippets.
With such a mix of high drama, absurdism and polemic with an underground literary bent, it seems fitting that the first of two shows in Scotland for a decade by The Band of Holy Joy on the back of their possibly ironically titled just released new album, Easy Listening, comes at Edinburgh's premiere live literary speak-easy, Neu Reekie. Sharing a bill with Momus, aka Nick Currie, plus spoken-word artists Luke Wright and Patience Agbabi prior to a full Band of Holy Joy show in Glasgow the following night, Brown's urban folk demotic sounds rawer than ever on Easy Listening, whatever it's title implies.
One song, 'There Was A Fall/The Fall', is an angry report from the front-line concerning newspaper seller, Ian Tomlinson, who died after being struck unlawfully by a Metropolitan police officer's baton during the London G20 protests in 2009. Tomlinson was not a protester, but was on his way home from work when he fell victim to the unprovoked attack by the police officer.
The song is related by Brown in a sardonic but forensic litany of events that sounds lifted straight from a coroner's report. In its intent and its increasing intensity that eventually erupts into a cacophony of rage, it's as close to twenty-first century Brecht as you'll get. Especially when accompanied by a video that features Tam Dean Burn in a theatrical dressing room applying make-up which it soon becomes clear represents the actual wounds on Tomlinson's body.
This follows on from Burn's appearance in the even starker video for another song, 'He Ordered Her To Spit Like A Porn Star'. With 'There Was A Fall/The Fall' previously bearing the more explicitly title, 'Met Police Tried to Hide Police's Disciplinary Record', both songs appeared on City of Tales, a limited edition double cassette package of rediscovered archive material from 1985 and new material recorded in 2012. Other songs, including 'Empty Purse Found in Hotel Lobby' and 'It Beats Up Their Heart, He Said', were equally bleak grimoirs made even more so by their accompanying videos.
Brown and The Band of Holy Joy have been far from idle inbetween Love Never Fails and Easy Listening, with a compilation of 1980s and early 1990s material, Leaves That Fall in Spring – Seminal Moments, released by Cherry Red in 2007. This was followed by several new releases, with much of the new material developed for two song plays, Troubled Sleep – a fictional account of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen's last days at the Chelsea hotel – and Invocation to William, performed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch.
The songs from the show were released on the mini CD, 'A Lucky Thief in A Careless World', with the songs from Troubled Sleep making up the bulk of the band's 2010 Paramour album. A third song play, Beuys will Be Beuys, preceded 2011's How To Kill A Butterfly album and The North Is Another Land the following year.
With Brown's latest, stripped-down line-up of the band featuring extensive visuals, even as their Resonance FM radio show, (…) Such A Nice Radio Show, plays with the aural form, whatever happens this weekend, The Band of Holy Joy's righteous indignation remains a bruised but necessary force for good in a messed-up world they've made their mission to soundtrack until the bitter end.
The Band of Holy Joy play as part of Neu Reekie, Summerhall, Edinburgh, Friday February 28; King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow, March 1st. Easily Listening is available on Exotic Pylon now.