Art-rocking beatniks with altitude, The Blue Aeroplanes are back on the road with a new album. Michael caught their London show, hoping they could recapture the glory of his youth.
Blue Aeroplanes at O2 Academy, Islington
It must have been 1987 when a friend first enthused about his new discovery, The Blue Aeroplanes. He played me their new album Spitting Out Miracles and I hated it. Jangling guitars, spoken lyrics, discordant layers – I just didn’t get it. But he played it again and again until the catchy riffs and turns of phrase began to win me round.
We noticed a banner, advertising a Blue Aeroplanes gig, hung on the outside of a nightclub on the approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel. The Tunnel Club had once been lauded as the birthplace of alternative comedy, but by then it was a large, tatty pub, marooned on a traffic island beside the A102M.
That gig was amazing. Frontman Gerard Langley, dressed in a black suit and shades, half spoke his cut-up poetry, conjuring images, spouting philosophy. Behind him it looked like chaos. A man in a wedding veil stabbed at his guitar and span like a pinball, bouncing between two other guitarists and the bass-player; they all ‘owned’ their space and invaded each others. Behind them the drummer was crashing between rhythms, stopping and starting, thumping the beat of these poets. And weaving between them all was the then incongruous sight of a dancer (long before Bez made them popular). I struggled to believe what I was seeing, I had no context, nothing to compare them to.
I probably saw The Blue Aeroplanes twenty times during the late 80s and early 90s. They inspired my friend so much that he formed his own band; they laughably called me their manager but really I just drove the van and acted as their roadie.
One of their highlights was supporting The Blue Aeroplanes back at The Tunnel Club. By then our favourite live band had been through numerous changes of line-up and several record labels. Sadly at that gig there were just as few people as had been there the first time. Despite critical acclaim The Blue Aeroplanes seemed destined to attract devoted but tiny audiences.
About a year later I found myself, wildly over-excited, in a back room at HMVs flagship store on Oxford Street. The Blue Aeroplanes had signed to a major label and had the support of their publicity machine. They were there to perform and sign copies of a new album, Swagger. It seemed they’d finally made the big time with a hit single, …And Stones. I was there because I’d been commissioned to design two t-shirts for their forthcoming tour of large venues.
The first t-shirt was a pastiche of a British Airways ticket with the tagline – The World’s Favourite Rock’n’Roll Band. The second was a two-colour illustration of a plane: I hand-scratched the films with a scalpel to produce a unique mix of colour. At the request of Gerard Langley, both designs featured the sleeve-print – ‘Beatniks with altitude’. I remember him being very pleased with that line (with NWA riding high in the charts). Sadly I have no images of either shirt.
They played a sold-out gig at the Astoria with around 20 guitarists joining them for their encore. It was another huge highlight but the crowds didn’t stay for long, record company support started to wane, and they were soon playing smaller and smaller venues.
I think the last time I saw them live was in 1993, at ULU, supported by Midway Still and the criminally under-rated Kingmaker.
They retreated out of my view until last year when their name popped into my Twitter timeline because of a big BBC 6 Music gig at Colton Hall, in their home city of Bristol. A couple of months later Stewart Lee picked them to play when he curated an ATP festival.
So now, thirty years after that first gig, The Blue Aeroplanes have a new album,Welcome, Stranger!, and I’m in Islington, in a room full of middle-aged men (it’s nearly all men), with another member of that band who’d provided support at The Tunnel Club.
A torch flashes from the stage and the tech-team play-in their entrance ‘music’. It’s the sound of a jet taking off. With a little encouragement they turn it up and up and up again until it feels like we’re on the runway. On come the band.
Despite a changing line-up that rivals The Fall (apparently 42 people can lay claim to playing with the band), their core is surprisingly recognisable: a slightly heavier Gerard Langley in his trade-mark shades, his brother John on drums and Wojciech the Polish dancer (in a #KeepCorbin t-shirt) looking as trim as you’d expect from a man who dances for two hours each night.
The set is a mix of old and new but Langley is keen to point out, several times, that “this is not a nostalgia exercise”.
The Blue Aeroplanes have always been able to introduce new material without fear of losing the attention of the crowd. The spoken delivery might seem pretentious but Langley isn’t pretending he is a art-rock poet and he doesn’t take himself anywhere near as seriously as his appearance suggests. Lyrical English phrases sing out like Bowie or the Kinks.
“In Victoria Park there’s a dead tree. Dead Tree! Dead Tree! It isn’t a symbol of anything it’s just a dead tree. Dead Tree! Dead Tree! But if they cut it down. Dead Tree! Dead Tree! It’ll still mean something to me”.
Of course it’s the recognisable anthems that get us all dancing. …And Stones, Jacket Hangs, Bury Your love Like Treasure and I Wanna Be Your Lover (a cover of, as Langley points out, this year’s Nobel prize-winner for literature).
For their encore, we’re treated to a return to stage by Nick Jacob (the guitarist in the veil from 1987) – still as spiky after all these years.
And for a second encore we all know it’s going to be the Tom Verlaine classic Breaking in my Heart. A guitarist starts the riff from the front row of the crowd, she’s joined by the thumping drums, gradually the now five other guitarists join in the attack, then the bass, and a guest saxophone. It’s chaos, people are running, guitar leads are tangled and need to be plugged back into amps. Wojciech is bounding between them all. The energy is frenetic, the floor is bouncing, the strobes are on and I’m back in the Tunnel Club.
That friend from 1987 now lives in Oxford, he’s got tickets to see the band at The Cellar on Wednesday night. He’s in for a real treat.
Update 26th January ’17: This is the daughter of ‘that friend’ wearing one of those elusive t-shirts. She’s about the age her dad and I (and her mum, whose t-shirt it is) were when we first saw The Blue Aeroplanes.