Monday, 15 February 2010

Tragedy Rocks...
The Story of The Crimea

There is perhaps no other band that to me quite embodies the spirit of rock n' roll as the turbulent Crimea and their enigmatic frontman, Davey Macmanus. A retroactive fan of his previous project, The Crocketts, his second attempt at musical actualization, the 'sound of four cavemen banging kylie', as I believe he once said, far eclipsed even the brilliance of the Welsh Cow Punk legends he previously fronted.

I came into The Crimea through the Lottery Winners on Acid EP, which was a US-only release on Double Dragon. In particular, I can remember the first time I heard 'Opposite Ends'- it sent shivers down my spine, and to this day I can still recite the frantic, rambling lyrics in full. There's a huge jump in lyrical quality (besides the recycled lyrics that many fans have pointed out) from the playfully nuts Crocketts- who granted, did have some moments of lyrical genius-

You say there is no specific story-line
I am just a figure on a stone mountain
I think I'd like to jump and float into the sky
by and by I will reach the bottom
I will be dead and crumpled
Underneath your ten story
High rise flats

and, from 'Explain'

You never explained to me
why you left me standing
alone on my front door
crying out your name in vain

or from 'Tennessee'

'Coz I'm a man
And I stand on top of a hill
My head is high
And my eyes are still
I said don't you know what I want you to see?
I was born on a mountain
In Tennessee
I said I killed my first bear
When I was only three
I was born on a mountain
In Tennessee

All early Crocketts lyrics share this quality- arrogance, recklessness and a continuing context of girls and heartbreak that's never quite lost; though by The Great Brain Robbery, the sophomore that followed We May Be Skinney and Wirey, there is a noticeable improvement in lyrical complexity, the same tactic of simple imagery and self-deprecating anger remains. Observe single, 'Host':

See the little girl in the parking lot
She sits down by my side
She ruins my life
Then she smiles and she sings
When we were young
You were the one
Now we are old
We're out of control

So anyway, if you want to listen to some great balladry and (admittedly, very depressing) lyrics, pick up the first Crox album- it's more black-and-white as a record; half aggressive punk, half sinister, lyrically focused tracks that basically showcase Davey's hatred of, well, pretty much everything so far as I can tell. He's not too fond of women ("you say you're a beautiful woman/well I've got something to say/'coz I've been to the factory/where women are made") or men ("you think you're a strong guy/strong guy, strong guy, no you're just small/small and stupid, stupid just small"), but there's still (perhaps only by virtue of their being so young at this point in their career) a bizarre feeling that it's not all so bad by the time 'Blue Dog' winds to a close:

You know I always thought
You were fucking supercool
You and your blue dog

You know I always wondered
Why you're so fucking beautiful
You and your blue dog

Their second album, on the other hand, comes with a new sheen; less raw, more inspired by an attempt at a more lyrically aggressive The Bends, it clearly has record label aspirations at a mainstream breakthrough, but to be honest although it's a lot more accessible than their first it seems absolutely shocking that anyone could aspire to that. I mean, the refrain in Lucifer goes "just because you've blown me, you think you fucking own me"- surely any record label taking on this band had to understand that you accept these guys on their own terms...? Evidently not. It wasn't a big hit, despite mental live performances (I've seen a video of a Crocketts set on this album tour, and Davey swinging from the lighting rig, mic in hand, is the first image that comes to my mind as he screams "I DON'T FUCKING THINK SO!"), and the band were dropped in that mass early 2000s label reorganization that claimed (amongst others) People in Planes and Vex Red as well.

So Davey returns to real life. He stacks shelves. He is a toilet attendant in a London park.

According to the myth, he spends Christmas alone in a barn in Wales.

Songs written at the end of The Crocketts' career, like 'All Conquering' and 'Opposite Ends' begin to take concrete form.

And from out of this chaos The Crimea are formed.

So where was I? Ah, yes. Lottery Winners on Acid. Davey once told me after a gig that the couple on the album cover aren't him and somebody else, but that it's actually his parents "back when they were hippies and not so serious". He was going to elaborate, but then he noticed one of my mates had run off drunkenly chasing an urban fox, and that was that. I honestly don't have time to do a track-by-track of all The Crimea's output, but suffice to say I think I own everything they've ever recorded and warts n' all, I recommend you get your hands on it. This is their masterpiece though- it's the point that the rawness of the Crox meet the sophistication of songwriting that is the hallmark of The Crimea.

By their Warner debut, Tragedy Rocks, their record label had tried to iron out that into a more radio-friendly sound, I suppose. It's still a great album, and with the benefit of not being an angry, self-righteous teenager I've come to accept both the album and the EP versions of the songs as being of equal merit. At the time it was sacrilege to add the sheen, but now I kind of like listening to both.

So what should you listen out for? 'White Russian Galaxy', about drunken teenagers skipping school and hanging out in Davey's park; the titular 'Lottery Winners on Acid', one of the most sincere and fucked-up love songs ever; the Crox-like 'Bombay Sapphire Coma', which got an ace reworking on Secrets of the Witching Hour, and, of course the haunting 'Opposite Ends'. Well, that's the track listing, so yeah. All of these feature on Tragedy Rocks, but that album does also boast the incredible 'Losing My Hair', one of the many Crimea songs about dying, and 'Girl Just Died', a hark-back to The Crox' self-deprecating misogyny.

In terms of style, they've been compared to the Flaming Lips, among others, but I don't really see it. The Guardian once called their songs 'mini-epics'- this is more fitting. It's post-Radiohead distinctly British alt-rock with a blues-rock vibe to the leads that is courtesy of the exceptional Andrew Norton on guitar. By the explosive intro of 'All Conquering', the beginning of their second, Secrets of the Witching Hour, released for free over the internet as a 'fuck you' to the label that dropped them, their sound has taken on a space-rock quality that finally recreates the atmosphere of their incredible live shows. It's also interesting to note that whilst they beat Radiohead to the 'free album' punch by a matter of months, they still didn't get the recognition for it that they deserved, but hey, that's sort of typical of their story.

The real story of this band is on stage though. I first saw them when I was fifteen, at the Windmill in Brixton, followed by twice at the Barfly (pre- and post- Tragedy Rocks), and nearly saw them at Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes (two of my mates got ID'd and thrown out whilst I was in the toilet, so I left too). Over the course of these three years, they increasingly lost the plot live to the point where Davey was closing sets by singing 'Someone's Crying' or 'Opposite Ends' in the middle of the crowd, ending up curled up in a ball on the floor, screaming. I've never seen anyone before or since that put so much of themselves into every show, and it's always something I have to allow for when I review these days. Davey was and is one-of-a-kind, and it's not a fair standard to expect other bands to look up to.

During those days, I met the band several times, including running into Andy in the queue for Secret Machines when we saw them at Shepherd's Bush in London, and I've still got three signed posters, a drumstick, a bunch of 'lottery winners' promo lottery tickets, at least three setlists and a couple of t-shirts, but these physical reminders are nothing next to dancing at the front of gigs to 'Lottery Winners' with all of my mates or screaming out the words to their songs at one another while the band left the stage and played around us.

When they finally played my hometown on their Secrets tour, it had all gone sour. Andy had announced he had had enough, and was leaving; my band back home had broken up, I was a little older, and putting on the Crimea at house parties wasn't acceptable to the people we were hanging out with anymore (hell, it probably never was, but we didn't do it anymore at least). When they pulled the show to support Modest Mouse at a much bigger venue, I sent them an email (which I still regret) having a go about having not repaid our years of being their biggest fans, of traveling up to London for their gigs, paying to get in and getting thrown out anyway (like at Bloomsbury), of always jumping around, always asking them about songs and buying their records and cheering. When they played the rescheduled show, I stood there feeling guilty as I saw the band play, a shadow of their former selves. Davey now stood differently. Less cocksure, less manic, he delivered his sermon and that was that. Andy looked ill-at-ease, and the chemistry wasn't there like before. The band quietly finished the tour and disappeared. Updates on their website stopped, and the dream died.

Except that it didn't. A while ago, videos appeared on Youtube of them playing acoustic at SXSW. A video of them live in Beijing with old collaborator Julz Parker on lead guitar surfaced. Vague demos of a new album appeared on Myspace.

Then, after a low-key christmas show, the website began to be updated again. Promises of a new album and live shows were made.

They've been gone a long time, but it's time for them to return. We're sorry we stopped caring guys, we fucked up. This time may be the last gasp, but we still want to share it. Because The Crimea were never just a band- they were a living entity that refused to die, and as long as they struggle back to the surface, I'll be there to listen.

If we don't believe we are all conquering
How shall we conquer?

Send in the Light Brigade. The Crimea are back, and not a moment too soon.

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