Sound City 2017 Review Feat. John Cale, The Human League, Peaches & More

By Shaun Ponsonby
Tue 30 May, 2017

With Sound City’s tenth anniversary celebrations moving them to a new home, and some extra special one-off shows, Shaun Ponsonby and Paul Riley took in the sights and sounds.

The aftershock of the past week was felt all over Sound City this year.

It was apparent from the moment we entered the site. Understandably thorough security checks, police armed with machine guns, sniffer dogs. As much as it was designed to make you feel safer, it is never comfortable walking past a man with a machine gun. And I’m scared of dogs.

But, then, what was the alternative? Not having visible security wouldn’t have gone down well. For the most part, the crowds understood and were supportive that extra steps were taken.

There were several respectful silences during the weekend – right before The Human League on Thursday, Peaches led one at the Sound City+ conference on Friday afternoon, as did John Cale in the evening. The weekend finished with Steve Rotherham and Andy Burnham, Mayors of Liverpool and Manchester, showing solidarity in between White Lies and headliners The Kooks. It never ceases to amaze how the very worst can bring the very best out in people; the love, the unity, the you’ll-never-fucking-beat-us-ness.

The crowds seemed thinner than usual on the Saturday.  We were trying to figure out why that was. Perhaps a few people stayed away after what happened in Manchester. The previous Bramley-Moore Dock was a lot thinner than the new Clarence Dock site, so was it just a case of differing aspect ratios? The weather was pretty lousy on Saturday, and as nice as the docks are when the sun is beating down, there’s a bit of a sandstorm when the wind started blowing – did people have enough dirt in their drinks?

Speaking of drinks, we’re being completely genuine when we say that one of our favourite aspects of Sound City this year was the recycling scheme. First beer costs you £5.50, each subsequent beer costs you £4.50 if you return your cup. At the end, you return your cup and get your extra pound back. The kicker is, if you went round and collected discarded cups from the ground, you could cash in and get £1 back for each one. So, not only was the site much less litter infested than one would expect, but it paid for a taxi home.

Let’s be honest – festivals are a bitch to put together, and every single one has it’s positives and negatives. So here are our Top 11 favourite performances at Sound City 2017. Why Top 12? We were going to do Top 11, but the odd number was freaking us out.

12. Francobollo

After a decidedly shaky start to the day, with not much really piquing our interest, we happily chanced upon Francobollo. They look rather Scandinavian. For three of the members, that means fairly trendy, shoes and socks, at least one pair of above-the-knee shorts, and decidedly unthreatening. The lead singer having ‘Neil‘ tattooed rather shakily on one kneecap completed the whimsical facade. Their drummer, however, shirtless and hairy, looks straight out of a Swedish death metal outfit. We don’t like to judge by appearances in the main, but in this instance it actually worked out quite well. Francobollo are whimsy and riffs in a weirdly harmonious pairing. The quiet/loud/quiet trend of most rock bands is given a very refreshing outing here, as we spent the set grinning, jumping around, and being gloriously pleased by how something that shouldn’t really work, worked so very well.

11. John Cale Performs The Velvet Underground & Nico

This is one of the most polarising gigs to happen in Liverpool for a very long time. But then, were The Velvet Underground not a polarising band? That people seemingly went along to hear The Velvet Underground songs sound like The Velvet Underground was confusing.

Firstly, this wasn’t a Velvet Underground gig. It was John Cale reimagining The Velvet Underground. Logically, despite the build-up and excitement, it was hit and miss, but we were acutely aware that it couldn’t be anything else. Reimagining anything is going to be controversial, especially a back catalogue that is considered as sacred as the Velvets.

It didn’t help that Cale took to the stage nearly two hours after support act Marvin Powell and instantly launched into three of the bands’ most recognisable and iconic songs; I’m Waiting For The Man, White Light White Heat and All Tomorrow’s Parties – songs that probably would have worked better scattered around the set.

Beautiful. John Cale leading Sound City in a reimagining of The Velvet Underground ????

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There were many guests joining CaleThe Kills, Nadine Shah and Fat White Family probably being the most effective. Not that people at the back would have known who were on stage at any given time. Nobody was announced to the stage and the large screens at either side only showed visuals, and not the action on the stage. Truth be told, it felt like the show would have made more sense in a theatre rather than in a large outdoor space.

That said, the highlights were genuine highlights. Shah’s performance of Femme Fetal completely stole the show, and Fat White Family’s take on Heroin wasn’t far behind. It was a massive coup for Sound City to land a show of this magnitude. Any disappointed grumbles on social media probably had a lot to do with unrealistic expectations.

10. Jalen N’Gonda

Maryland native Jalen N’Gonda has been making waves for the past two years or so, so it was no surprise to find him on form. But he was also perfectly placed in the line-up. Sunday ended up being a nice day weather-wise after the unpredictable nature of Saturday. N’Gonda’s stripped back, vintage soul was just what the doctor ordered by the time his set rolled around.

His voice really is impeccable, and his songs never feel forced. Big things lie ahead, catch him before they happen.

9. You Spin Me Round

The line-up of this year’s Sound City wasn’t exactly on the diverse side. Not that there is anything wrong with that per se – you got your audience that you play to, and it was pretty clear that indie is a big part of Sound City’s audience. So it was refreshing to walk into the Tim Peaks tent halfway through Saturday and see a panel discussion on Dead or Alive frontman Pete Burns and his impact on the LGBT+ community in Liverpool.

While you can bet your arse that Burns himself likely would have found the idea of a panel discussion about him monstrous, I for one was grateful that the discussion even happened. It was a cross-generational panel, featuring Queen Zee, Ian Usher from Sonic Yootha, Big In Japan’s Jayne Casey amongst others, either telling stories from Pete’s formative years, the impact he had on their lives or simply what he did for the LGBT+ community. It was a powerful discussion, and it is a shame that there was not enough time for the discussion to go more in-depth. But more of this kind of thing in the future would be tremendous.

8. KOG & The Zongo Brigade

This writer has seen KOG & The Zongo Brigade before, and they brought sunshine in the middle of winter, so I was obviously keen to see them again. Most of the crowds by late Saturday were pretty sparse, so it is no surprise that the same was true for The Zongo Brigade. But it didn’t matter. They brought heavy funk. Hard afrobeat. Dancing wasn’t welcomed, it was mandatory. Have they ever played Africa Oye? If not, why not? If so, bring them back. Once again, they made us feel like the sun was out on a chilly, cloudy day.

7. Pink Kink

Almost reaching a mythical status in Liverpool, Pink Kink have absolutely zero material available for purchase, or even uploaded on Soundcloud and the like. And yet they have gained a huge cult following.  There is an excitement about them that hasn’t waned in the 18 months they have been a band. There was a reason they were billed directly before Peaches. It might be a lazy observation to make, but they clearly share an ethos with the headliner. Aside from the obvious female empowerment, they also take what they do seriously, but don’t necessarily take themselves seriously.  Too many people are too pretentious to take that route, and thank God Pink Kink aren’t one of them.

6. Not The Usual Suspects

A few weeks ago we attended a group discussion at Constellations called “Is Liverpool a Global Music City?” in which we all sat around and talked about how Liverpool could progress culturally. The biggest problem we faced as far as this writer was concerned was barely mentioned; the lack of diversity.

So, to see this panel at Friday’s Sound City+ conference was refreshing. The lack of opportunities present for minorities, particularly BAME individuals, is a problem that just won’t go away. Like the You Spin Me Round discussion mentioned above, simply holding the discussion was a baby step, but a baby step in the right direction. It’s like dealing with addiction; admitting you have a problem is the first and hardest step.

Peaches echoed the sentiment in her conversation later in the day. “All those old white men running things who are clinging on need to go”. Word!

5. !!! (Chk Chk Chk)

Just as final day fatigue starts to wear us down, we head over to the Baltic Stage just in time to see !!! (Chk Chk Chk) and find ourselves re-energised.

The cynic in me wants to chastise them for their gallingly hipster name, because they’re too cool for actual words and they only use punctuation, cos it’s well jackson. But anyone who wasn’t dancing during their set was basically a heathen to be banished for evermore. The absolute highlight was 2015’s Freedom, six minutes long on the album, but it felt somewhat extended on stage. Frontman Nic Offer danced in the crowd several times, occasionally looking joyfully unhinged. With just a criminally short thirty minutes allotted, it was over as soon as it begun. But it was all we needed to bring back that adrenaline.

4. XamVolo

XamVolo followed Jalen N’Gonda in the Tim Peaks tent, and kept the soulful vibes floating along. Except where Jalen provides a stripped back vintage vibe, XamVolo pushes things forward. There is a clear mixture of influences at play. A bit of neo soul here, a bit of jazz there, a touch of blues, a bit of folk…damn!

He has his image down too – he is effortlessly cool and distant. He knows who he is, where he is going, and you are aching to go with him. His latest single, Old Soul, is available now. You’d be wrong to let it pass you by.

3. Queen Zee & The Sasstones

I don’t quite know what I’m seeing, but I like it”. They were the words of a friend with whom we saw Queen Zee & The Sasstones.

For us at Planet Slop, The Sasstones have been maybe the most exciting band in the North West for the past year or so, and Queen Zee herself has morphed into a compelling front person of the highest order. You just can’t take your eyes off her.

They have come on such a long way over the last few months, and there’s nothing to say that they won’t go further still. This is real punk – the energy is palpable, it is about something, the lyrics are awash ith humorous witticisms and by the end we all feel like we’re honorary Sasstones.  Long live the Queen.

2. Pioneers of British Electronic Music: The Human League, Dudley, Jeczalik, and Langan, A Certain Ratio

The first night of Sound City was got things off to the kind of start that is difficult to top. Three heavyweights of British electro came together on a baking hot summers night.

A Certain Ratio came with added funk elements to the traditionally clinical electronica and managed to ensure a summertime vibe from the off. At the other end of the spectrum Anne Dudley, J. J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan of Art of Noise rebooted their In Visible Silence album, which was a bit of a mixed bag. Perhaps some leeway should be granted given that it was their first performance (ergo, another coup for Sound City), but it only really came alive during Moments In Love and a closing, Theresa May-knocking rendition of the Peter Gunn Theme.

The reason opening night is so far up the list, though, is The Human League. Tonight was really no frills. No obscure album tracks. No ballads or risky experimenting. The Human League just brought the party. Pretty much playing their Greatest Hits album on shuffle, they opened with Dare!’s Love Action – Phil Oakey emerged on stage looking somewhat Matrix-esque, before being joined by Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall.

The Human League are a group that have had way more hits than most people realise, and the show flew by, with Louise, Mirror Man, Fascination, Tell Me When, Open Your Heart and The Sound of The Crowd coming thick and fast. Oakey also had a couple of solo spots, including debut single Being Boiled and the astonishing Dare! album track Seconds.

The main set felt like it ended extraordinarily quickly with Don’t You Want Me, a classic if there ever was one, but in reality over an hour had gone by. The first verse was played instrumentally, allowing the crowd to sing along in the warm dusk of the evening, the sun set across the River Mersey. Oakey then took over, with that immortal opening line; “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you…”.

A final encore of Together In Electric Dreams, Oakey’s smash solo single with Giorgio Moroder, left everyone in high spirits, with the girls returning in full-on burlesque outfits.

It was clear that it was going to be a hard job for anyone to top them as the weekend progressed. A perfect summers night.

1. Peaches

As you may have gathered through the abundance of mentions she has already received in this piece, Peaches was the star of Sound City.

Any show that begins with giant, dancing vaginas is going to be special, but when it quite literally climaxes with Peaches inside a makeshift penis and squirting silly string into the audience you’ve reached another level of craziness.

There were so many reasons Peaches stood out at Sound City, but truth be told she would stand out anywhere. A totally unique artist, she is confident and comfortable with her body and who she is. A stage show that owes much to burlesque and performance art, she was topless for a fair chunk of the show, but where most of us appear more vulnerable the less clothes we have on, she only became more empowered.

She also provided the absolute highlight at the Sound City+ conference on the Friday. She spoke with wit and intelligence about her career, literally being spat on by Marilyn Manson fans, working with Iggy Pop and her thoughts on artistry in general.

At 50 years of age, she remains edgy, uncompromising and a true artist.

In conversation with Peaches live at Sound City Plus

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Sound City 2017 photo gallery

  • Images: Vicky Pea

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