The Agit Reader

Idles
PhilaMOCA, Philadelphia, March 11

March 18th, 2018  |  by Brian O'Neill

John Sharkey III came to some prominence fronting Clockcleaner. The band’s noisy art-punk got less dissonant as they went, though the same couldn’t be said about Sharkey. He was a character, “Don Rickles meets GG Allin” according to The Village Voice. You can find a show review online where it mentions how he spent the whole set taking batting practice using a bat to bash beer cans in the direction of a rapidly dwindling, terrified crowd. You never quite knew what would happen when he opened his mouth, onstage or off of it.

Maybe he has mellowed in his older age. Having kids will do that to a man (he has two of them now). Possibly his beloved Eagles finally winning a Super Bowl did the trick. Or maybe it was his time spent in Australia that took the edge off. This night, a vintage black and white documentary about the continent played on the backdrop behind his current project, Dark Blue, and he pointed to it several times to indicate inspiration for the songs played during his set. No wonder he’s going back later this year.

The band, which formed four years ago, puts on a show that doesn’t need a showman. Replacing his acerbic sneer and unpredictability is uncontroversial stage banter and a stately baritone that fits perfectly with 30 minutes steeped in ‘80s New Romanticism. Comparisons to Joy Division are apt, but not only because of his Ian Curtis–esque voice; the trio’s rhythm section of fellow Philly stalwarts Andrew Mackie Nelson and Michael Sneeringer is bottom-heavy and plodding, a path that allows Sharkey to stand out for something other than indiscriminate instability.

Idles (pictured top) released Brutalism almost exactly a year ago, and it’s been a whirlwind between then and this handful of dates leading them to the South by Southwest Fest where they will perform for the second straight year. Spurred on by critical acclaim and steady European touring, including dates supporting the The Maccabees and the Dead Kennedys, as well as at a Foo Fighter show in London’s O2 Arena, the band signed with Partisan Records who released the debut for America. They sold out this Philly date as well as three Brooklyn shows.

It’s good to be Idles right now. But it might be even better to get to see them live. Ask the girl who drove all the way from Virginia to be front and center in the former mausoleum showroom.

The band doesn’t embrace the postpunk label thrust upon them, which is understandable since the live show is a lot closer to the undiluted promise of punk itself. They gleefully tear down the figurative barriers between musicians and audience by leaping into the crowd, with or without instruments, sometimes with microphones so the audience can join in on the gang choruses. At one point guitarist Mark Bowen gave his guitar to a bewildered fan to riff along with the band while he watched approvingly.

Starting off with the first track on Brutalism, “Heel/Heal,” it set the stage for a reliance on the debut – the band would play ten of the thirteen tracks from the album – and how Idles makes grand socio-political statements fun. Donning goofy headgear that they would all soon lose the five of them were unchoreographed, acting like they were each playing a different song as vocalist Joe Talbot sarcastically screamed about wanting to move into a Bovis home – the British equivalent to a homogenous suburban hell. Conform or be cast out.

“The Idles Chant” is an obvious homage to “Monks Chant” by ‘60s avant-garage pioneers The Monks. Other points of reference are almost as easy to see; take the wit and whimsy of McLusky, add in a healthy pinch of Pissed Jeans’ nihilism (it was probably not a coincidence that the band’s frontman, Matt Korvette, deejayed at the show between bands), and make sure the end result is tighter than a duck’s ass. “1049 Gotho” emblematized the depths of depression in lines like, “Help me, help me. Won’t someone set me free? There’s no right side of the bed with a body like mine and a mind like mine.” But how can you be bummed when you’re dancing so hard to those clanging guitars and chugging bass? “White Privilege” starts off with a joke (“How many optimists does it take to change a lightbulb? None! Their butler changes the lightbulb!”) and breaks into a chant of “Swing, batter, batter,” so maybe you are headbanging so hard you don’t notice its scathing take on class warfare, just as “Divide & Conquer” swings like a pendulum while criticizing the privatization of the NHS.

Especially emblematic of this juxtaposition is “Mother.” Adam Devonshire’s throbbing bass swaggers like vintage Wire or The Jam, the chorus is repetitive and comically profane, yet the final punchline is inspired by a Margaret Atwood quote on sexual violence. Oh, and Talbot literally pressed his mother’s ashes into a limited pressing of the record.

The band ended the set by playing the spastic “Date Night” (because Amber, the girl who came from Virginia to see Idles, plaintively requested it) and the as-yet-unreleased “Rottweiler.” In the last of a long line of seeming contradictions, Talbot introduced the final salvo with a plea for love right before Idles plowed headfirst into the most primal, thrashing song of the night.

Idles are snarling and sincere, unpretentious yet virtuous, smart enough to dumb things down. They look outward at the political decay of their homeland through introspective eyes. They’re caustic and carefree and relentless and brilliant. They could prove to be too good for the world or take it over. Either way, it’s going to be a lot of fun watching them try.

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