China Drum syndrome

27th September 2009 – 3.28 pm

Too long ago I consider telling my China Drum story, and now seems like an appropriate time.

Many years ago, for two or three years in a row Radio 1 held a week of gigs for new bands and artists, broadcasting the music live. The best and brightest of new talent was on show and the bands enjoy the live exposure on national radio. I pick up tickets for a couple of the gigs one year, excited to be seeing Manson, who soon afterwards have to change their name to Mansun, and Whale. Manson's gig is fabulous and I go on to see them play live at least half-a-dozen times over the next year, yet somehow getting bored before their debut album is released. Manson are first on the bill, being almost unknown at that point, supporting the long-forgotten Echobelly. The second support band that evening is China Drum, a band unknown to me. Sadly, after their set I want them to remain that way, as their music just wasn't for me. But sometimes we suffer support acts to see who we really like, and Echobelly are good fun.

The second gig, to see Whale, is a few days later, but the billing is still to be decided. Even the posters in the Camden Underworld venue only list Whale as headlining, their name in big letters at the top of the poster, with supporting artists to be added in smaller text below. I turn up a little later than the first gig, entering the Underworld as the first support band is finishing. 'We have been the Cardigans, good night!' I hear shouted over the PA as the music stops. The Cardigans?! It's a shame I missed them, because even though they are also virtually unknown at the time I would like to see them play. I also wonder if it is a coincidence that the Swedish band are on the same bill as Whale, also from Sweden. It's a shame, but I came here to see Whale and that is still the main attraction for me.

I sit through another support band, maybe it was Northern Uproar, as I remember seeing them supporting a couple of times in their nascent days before they disappeared, then patiently wait for the main act to appear. Whale are noisy and exuberant, I am really looking forwards to seeing them! And so China Drum come out on stage as headliners. Despite Whale being billed from the start as the main act, the posters showing them as headliners and my ticket displaying the same, the billing has been moved around for reasons unknown. I had in fact turned up just in time to hear Whale leave the stage, make self-referential fun of their nationality, then waited to see a band that had almost put me in a music coma a few nights previously. I am seriously disappointed with the turn of affairs and leave the gig not terribly happy. But such is life.

I am reminded of my tale of China Drum because of recent events. I turn up fairly early for the Slow Club gig at Scala and get to see the support acts. The first artist is a solo woman and her acoustic guitar, apparently choosing arbitrary notes to croon on occasion whilst strumming away. Whilst I have nothing against acoustic performances, quite enjoying Slow Club's later in the evening and Johnny Bramwell's solo efforts during several I Am Kloot performances, the scope of the instrument is drastically reduced when limited to playing block chords in unchanging rhythms, leading to repetitive-sounding music. There may be something familiar about the music this woman is playing, but I attribute it to the lack of variety in the mostly one-dimensional playing.

It is only when a new song starts with a particularly dreadful metaphor that I realise I have seen this artist before, but in a different context. She supported Emiliana Torrini at Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks ago, after which I see her heavily promoted in the NME, for reasons that escape me, where I find out that she is Cate Le Bon. She is accompanied by a band at the first gig, although the lead and bass guitarists almost refuse to face the audience, and Cate is playing a keyboard, the psychedelic sounds of which are so discordant to the rest of the music that I simply cannot be pulled in to the mood. This time, at Scala, Cate is by herself. But, again, the monotony of the music and banal straightforwardness of the lyrics bores me.

As with the previous gig there are plenty of people enjoying Cate Le Bon's music, which is good, but it's not for me. I can't help thinking about China Drum all those years ago, though, making a surprise appearance just when I didn't want them to.

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