We’re back once more at Paper Dress Vintage (you can’t keep us away!), and again we are there for three very different bands, one of which (Sheep on Drugs) was a band close to the heart of one of these two reviewers (Tristán), having been raving to them in the mosh-pit as a young student in the very early 1990s in Camden Palace. This was going to be a nostalgia trip!
But first, the support acts. First up was a band that were completely new to us: Micko & the Mellotronics. They have an interesting sound, with a nice rolling beat, a bit Buzzcocks in places.
Singer and guitarist Micko Westmoreland once played Jack Fairy in the Velvet Goldmine movie that starred Eddie Izzard among others. The other guitarist is Jon Klein, who was one of the founders of the Batcave, a trailblazing London goth club from the early 80s, and was part of Siouxie and the Banshees for seven years. Nick Mackay (drums) and Vicky Carroll (bass) complete the foursome.
Following a song called “Psychedelic Shirt” which was, according to Micko, inspired by growing up in Leeds, the band played the first real toe-tapper, a track called “The Now”, which got very spacey in the second half, finishing with a really good instrumental. Unfortunately, the microphone that Micko was using was set up in a very unidirectional manner, which meant that we could only really hear the lyrics when his mouth was right in front of it. Every time he moved his head down to look at his guitar, the sound would cut out. Fortunately, Micko opens his mouth very expressively when he sings, so it was possible to fill in the gaps by lip-reading.
A lot of their songs were quite diverse, from the very dark “You Killed My Father” (…’now you must die’), which Micko told us was dedicated to people who have departed us, to the happy-bonkers “The Finger”, which was their first single, released just last year. The highlight was when a chap in a suit started dancing in a joyous but crazy fashion at the front of the audience. ‘It’s Steve from accounts’, we joked. We had no idea that it was a set-up, and thought that it was a genuine outburst of energy from someone who had spent far too long on Excel spreadsheets all day and was letting his hair down. So we recorded the end of the song and uploaded it to YouTube here:
We were a little disappointed when we got home and had a look at the official video of this song, only to discover that the video indeed features the same gentleman. Since not that many people knew who he was, as I imagine most of the audience were there for the next band, we are sure that we were not the only ones to be left very bemused by this.
The band finished up by playing a few more songs, culminating with a very screechy song about Imelda Marcos which certainly would have woken up anyone who was starting to drift off. It was time for a break and to get ready for band number two.
R.O.C. were up next, a new-wave indie-electronica group from Brixton that have been going strong since 1990, and which was once championed by the late great John Peel. With at least seven band-members on stage (there could have been an eighth lurking amongst the smoke), this was another band with a wide variety of musical styles, as demonstrated by the opening three songs alone. Following a pleasant atmospheric intro, R.O.C. played a track from the first album (Bile & Celestial Beauty). It was called “Think Again”, with male singer Fred Browning screaming in anguish down the mike, punk-style, lyrics such as ‘I don’t wanna go through this again, I’m sure I’ll have to see it through again’. We have no idea what it was that he was describing, but we felt for him.
Unfortunately, it did appear that R.O.C. were going to be concentrating on the aforementioned new album, which we had not heard before and did not really know what to expect. We much prefer it when acts intersperse new stuff with old. But the first five songs were entirely from Bile & Celestial Beauty.
Vocal duties tended to alternate between Fred Browning and Karen Sheridan. So when Karen took to the mike for the next song, we were hoping for something a bit jollier. However, this was another song full of anguish. Called “Journey”, it includes lyrics such as ‘I’ve got to-oo be strong, I’ve got to-oo move on’. We filmed the footage for your delectation.
Next up it was Fred’s turn to sing. “Sea of Storms” had even more anguish, with lyrics such as ‘what would be the point of staying around’ and ‘How can I keep on holding on. I’ve gotta gotta gotta gotta hold on’.
A song called “Chateau” was up next, which was probably one of our least favourites, not just because Karen sings the lyrics ‘I will kill you before you kill me’. However, the next song was old of the oldies! “I Want You I Need You I Miss You”, which is from their 1994 album Girl With a Crooked Eye, has the joyful lyrics ‘one day you will soon be mine’, ‘you’re so sweet to me, like the fruit of the cherry tree, you’re so good to me’…. This is a lovely song, cheesy as hell but such a breath of fresh air after all the angst.
Another great song followed, “Princess” from 2005, which was much more breakbeaty and very dancey. “Silver Highway” came next, which in spite of being from the new album was much more chill and laid-back. They finished off with another classic, “Cheryl”, which came out in 1997, and was probably their most psychedelic tune, starting with a disco beat and ending a with great drum outro.
R.O.C. are a very experimental band and there’s nothing quite like them, to be honest. Their music is often interspersed with recorded video footage and various incongruous sounds, which work well. It is clear why John Peel championed them all those years ago. However, we found the lyrics on the songs from the new album just a tad too depressing for a Tuesday night. We needed cheering up.
Thank goodness for the glorious and shameless fun that are Sheep on Drugs. A flash of bright yellow glowing in the UV lighting on stage immediately attracted our attention. This was someone’s hair, and upon closer inspection it was none other than Dead Lee (Lee Fraser), the original guitar and keyboardist from Sheep on Drugs, his face painted up to look like a nose-bleeding drug-fuelled rock god.
Setting up her trusty keytar was the strikingly sexy techno-punk bundle of energy that is Johnny Borden, who has been part of Sheep on Drugs for well over a decade now. Sadly, no King Duncan, but Borden’s vocals (and occasionally Lee’s) combined are more than a match.
There is not a single down-tempo song among Sheep on Drugs’ repertoire. It is banger after banger, mixing punk in with industrial techno, and occasionally very x-rated lyrics. After their intro, the first song was called “Step into the Light”, and was from the brand new album, Does Dark Matter. But Sheep on Drugs know how to entertain a crowd. They knew that we were here for the classics. There was only one other track from the new album, buried towards the end of the set. That’s the way to do it!
Next up was “Let the Good Times Roll”, from their 1994 album …On Drugs. Proper rave classic. It was amazing what a great sound the two of them made on stage. Music speaks louder than words, so here is our footage from the beginning of our great trip down memory lane. We should however warn anyone with photo-sensitive epilepsy to look away now.
A special word really has to go out to the exceptional lighting that we enjoyed during Sheep on Drugs’ set, as can be appreciated in the photos that accompany this review.
The lasers were particularly awesome, and it really did look as though they were actually emanating from the performers’ instruments. Paper Dress Vintage certainly do have their lighting sussed.
Borden would occasionally play her keytar but most of the music was up to Lee, when he was not also on singing duty. Lee played guitar occasionally, but for most of the set he played a first generation Kaossilator that was embedded into a toy guitar (or perhaps the latter was one of those consoles used for playing guitar-based videogames). Onto his leg he had strapped a Kaoss Pad, which he used not only to distort the sound coming from the Kaossilator, but also for creating very fast looping and sampling. To do this while standing up, rocking out, singing and not looking at it is a talent that puts some of today’s laptop musicians to shame.
Next up, the very punk-rave classic “Still Ill”, from the band’s quite remarkable 2010 album Medication Time. We filmed this one too, but we’re afraid we were standing a little too close to the speakers, so the sound is very distorted. Not that it really matters. It’s still eminently enjoyable.
Next came two tracks from their ironically-titled Greatest Hits début album from 1993. “Track X” was the song that Grace Jones then went on to cover, calling it “Sex Crime” (a title that probably made more sense). It is easy to forget just how influential a band Sheep on Drugs actually were! Then Borden did something extraordinary, and appeared to set light to her leg. I believe she had some lighter-fuel-soaked tissue-paper tucked into her boots and it flared up and gave everyone a bit of a surprise. Did that really get past health & safety? Come on! do you really think Sheep on Drugs would clear anything with health & safety? Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission!
With all this pyromaniacal excitement, we had forgotten to get the beginning of “Motorbike” on camera, which was the next song, also from the 1993 album. To make up for it, we let the camera roll on for “Hero on Heroine”, which is on Medication Time and we loved it, and reminded us of some early Prodigy. Borden starts this song by taking out a whip, singing how she can ‘take it harder’, while a crudely-drawn cock-and-balls spins around on the projection behind her. It’s all very raunchy. Enjoy!
“Rip it Up”, from their often ignored 2005 album F**K, was next, which featured some great vocal effects courtesy of Lee’s Kaoss Pad. This had us bouncing around the floor, at times reminding us of Sigue Sigue Sputnik at their greatest. Then came what has to be the finest cover version of Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” (Lou Reed would have loved it), followed by the only other song from the new album, called “Going Soon”, which was very entertaining and ended with Borden holding a mannequin or doll’s arm between her legs, in the style of a giant phallus. Well, her name is Johnny after all! This led us into into another song from Medication Time, “12 Good Years”.
And then, the final two songs. The fantastic “15 Minutes of Fame” from their début album, and “Life’s A Bitch”, off of F**K, came next, and we filmed it for you here (with the usual caveat about flashing lights):
What a way to end. Punk rave at its finest, with Lee chanting shouts into the mike, and Borden on her keytar. Talk about finishing on a high!
We loved tonight. But we were mainly here for Sheep on Drugs, whereas we got the impression that a lot of the rest of the crowd were here for the first two acts. Had more industrial electro-punk acts been chosen as the support bands, not a single punter would have left before 11 o’clock. Mixing genres can be a fun concept, but it does mean that the last act sometimes doesn’t get the crowds they deserve, especially if the support acts have a half-decent following of their own. We thought Sheep on Drugs were ten out of ten, tonight. Not just for sheer entertainment, but for talent also. We are also very appreciative that there were only two “new” songs out of the thirteen played, though since the new album is pretty fantastic we look forward to hearing more of it in future gigs, once we are a little more used to it.
So, now the question needs to be: how does the 1990 Sheep on Drugs compare to the Sheep on Drugs of thirty years later? Very, very favourably, to be honest! OK, there is no King Duncan, who was a real livewire on stage. And Lee doesn’t have the same vocals. But Borden is an outstanding entertainer and an excellent singer, plus she has added all that crude and sexy pizzazz that Duncan didn’t exactly have. Lee is a good singer, not enough people give him credit for that. We believe that some of the videos above, in particular the last one, will convince people that the man certainly does have a powerful voice. We would even go as far as to say that he was the best male singer of all those we had enjoyed listening to last night.
No disrespect is meant to either Micko Westmoreland or Fred Browning. They were entertainers too, in their own way. But there’s entertainment… and there’s a show. And Sheep on Drugs gave us a show we will not forget in a hurry.