“I have brought you many things in my time...” So says the late, great Malcolm McLaren from beneath a rubber bondage mask at the beginning of 'The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle'.
But these words are equally true of Wall of Sound label boss Mark Jones. Since emerging as part of the big beat explosion in the mid 90s, the label has done everything from getting Mad Frankie Fraser and Shirley Bassey into the studio with Mekon and Propellerheads respectively, brought Grace Jones and Human League out of relative retirement and scored numerous hits with The Wiseguys, Royksopp and many, many others.
There, behind the decks at Birthdays, is Jones himself, dropping party anthems from Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love' to 'Pump Up The Volume' by M/A/R/R/S and Prodigy's 'Your Love'. Towards the end of the evening, he hands out roses – well, it is Valentine's Day – before joining the crowd for a full on frugging session.
But more important than that, he's put together a packed line up of WoS-approved live acts that are every bit as eclectic and allk encompassing as the stamp would suggest.
There's a natural arc to the evening, and first up is Sabrina Kennedy. She's come all the way from Nashville to share her endearingly sincere songs, and although she's backed up by only one guitarist, she already shines with an unashamedly belting pop voice and shitloads of confidence. One to watch, definitely.
There's no such minimalism for Gabi Garbutt & The Illuminations, however. Her six piece band pack the Birthdays stage and wherever you look someone is producing a saxophone or trumpet or wrapping her infectiously lively punk/soul hybrid in layers of backing vocals. She may be a somewhat diminutive frontperson, but she remains very much the centre of attention, throwing everything into her performance as she attacks her red semi acoustic with gusto. It's a big, rowdy racket they make – check their upcoming 'Lady Matador' single for further evidence – but you can hear every word of the lyrics, which have hidden depths of reflection and melancholia. All in all, intoxicating stuff, and the swelling crowd expresses its approval with a loud chorus of excited whooping and hollering.
Artbreak are up next and this five piece from south east London are the slickest and most streamlined outfit on the bill, 'Soda Can' has plenty of jerky, quirky intrigue, and 'Will To Survive' touches on the anthemic. Add a singer with a powerful bellow, two duelling guitar playing brothers and some chunky rock grooves and the results are promising.
Purple Lights have brought the lion's share of tonight's audience, partly because it's drummer Akeeba's birthday – and what better venue is there for a birthday party – and partly because, well, they're great. Blending pure rock with heavy reggae is not your average mash up, but the likes of 'Wake Up' and 'Trigger Man' sound more natural than you might think. They go down so well that they're almost physically prevented from leaving the stage before they perform at least one encore.
A few people start heading off for last trains and tubes as we get past the 11pm mark, but like those football fans who nip out early to avoid the queues and end up missing the last minute drama, they've made a big mistake. Because Sir-Vere from Milton Keynes, tonight's headliners, put on a startlingly energetic show that's quite possibly the most punk rock thing on the bill, even though they're the furthest from the traditional guitar band set up. Stevie Vega – pornographic, homoerotic t-shirt and technology – chucks out some seriously heavy grooves, while singer Craig Hammond howls with devilish intent into the microphone, while guitarist Gary rips distorted riffs from his guitar. Their debut for WoS, 'Holy Fool', is a raucous highlight, but the sense of sheer abandon and fuck you attitude throughout is what really keeps there until the bitter end. Prodigy watch out, you finally have some serious competition!
Text by John Robbins 2018
Photos by Chris Patmore 2018