LOCATED in one of those patches of bleak post-industrial wasteland that Manchester used to do so well before all the foreign money arrived, the White Hotel is sort of white but it’s certainly not a hotel. The bar, with staff serving drinks from a sunken inspection pit, seems to indicate a former life as a garage. A dodgy garage, knocking out fake MOTs, no doubt.
It’s just over the other side of Bury New Road from HMP Manchester, in the area of Manchester that once gave the prison its name. They like their evocative place names in Manchester, and this is about as Manchester as it gets. Even if we are in Salford.
Unfashionably late, we enter the warehouse-like space to see the last couple of songs by ace punk rock power trio Girls in Synthesis.
They blast out big, confrontational chunks of bass-heavy, feedback-drenched melodic noise and radiate an insane amount of passion and urgency and intensity. Visually, they have a similar quasi-militaristic aesthetic to Crass, although the guy who sings has an accent that sounds a bit like Steve Lake, accompanied by an angrier Zounds. Or a more energetic Flipper. Or something.
Please note, all these reference points may be entirely in my own head. Either way, it’s all very compelling and very punk rock, and Girls in Synthesis make a big impression in a very short time. We like them a lot.
It’s time for the main event. The story goes that Mark E Smith always wanted Can and the Fall to play together but Can had stopped playing gigs by the time he was in a position to ask the question.
That the final incarnation of his group are at last playing with roaming global improvisational shaman Damo Suzuki, and that the whole collaboration is perhaps only possible now that the boss who wanted it so much is no longer around, seems like precisely the kind of cruel irony that MES would have appreciated.
Everything is intensified by the fact that tonight is the first performance by the group, who now call themselves Imperial Wax, since MES died.
The freeform vibe prompts the band – Melling, Spurr and Greenway, plus Ding on keyboards – to produce a kind of sprawling, primal post-punk psychedelia, with enormous, unstoppable grooves that roll on and on like they’re not going to stop until everyone in the room gets the point, and maybe not even then. It’s mesmerising.
Suzuki, who now resembles one of those little old men who emerge from the jungle to discover we’re not still fighting WWII, seems to do a lot while appearing to do very little at all, apparently content, for the most part, to follow the lead of the musicians. Whatever, his role – catalyst, instigator, visionary, mystic, or merely crooner of incomprehensible lyrics in imaginary languages – he does it very well indeed.
It must be hard for musicians accompanying Suzuki for the night to unthink his involvement in Can – and there are moments where the group bring to mind a particularly urgent, no-nonsense northern version of the teutonic ethno-jazz juggernaut of yore – but I’m not complaining about this. It sounds fucking great.
I find myself thinking, MES wouldn’t have had that guitar solo, that riff would’ve been condemned as ‘too Fall’, that bassline would’ve been “jazz funk” and hence verboten. But if you can’t throw off the shackles of standard practice when you’re jamming cosmic space rock with Damo Suzuki, when can you? The band are on fire. At times, they are simply ferocious.
I could come up with some hokey bullshit about the spirit of MES looming large over proceedings – he wrote a song called I am Damo Suzuki, for fuck’s sake – but that’d just be bollocks. Either way, it feels like we’ve witnessed something momentous and important.
And who knows? Maybe one or two ghosts have been laid to rest too.
[Decent recording of the gig here. Yes, we’re the people who talk at gigs. No, you fuck off.]