Imagine a band playing six gigs in a row at the same venue over six consecutive days playing their six studio albums in order? If the idea sounds utterly bonkers it’s because it is. But then so is Alex Johnson. The teetotal, hyperactive, workaholic front man of Wonk Unit and only he could pull this off.
The upstairs bit of the Camden Black Heart is almost packed which is quite an achievement for a Monday night. The support acts are visibly chuffed to be playing to so many people having made the 450 mile journey down from Glasgow.
Make no mistake, this week of gigs is just as much about Alex’s favourite touring buddies as Wonk Unit itself. He is very much the punk impresario and is quite legendary at discovering new and exciting noise to bring to his audience.
First up are the Kimberly Steaks an extremely tight & engaging three piece who have been compared to Greenday among others. They chuck out a fast & furious set of tracks drawn from their debut album ‘To Live & Die in West Central Scotland’. It’s harmonious punk that makes for a joyous live experience. A top start to this week of mayhem. Only another 13 bands and 6 performances by Wonk Unit to go…
They are quickly followed by The Murder Burgers who continue the meaty themed tartan-thrash vibe to ear splitting effect. Despite having literally just arrived back from an exhaustive tour of the USA the energy is incredible. They are better known in these parts and the is crowd merrily singing along to their familiar songs while enjoying new material being previewed from ‘What a Mess’ the latest album. ‘Shots in my skull’ & ‘Pick a knife, any knife’ really stand out among the new stuff.
Then from Wonk Unit we get 2005’s ‘Flying the Japanese Flag’ in all its stomach-churning glory. An album that sounds just as relevant now as it did back then. The original line up are playing it and it is almost like they never went away. Half the mosh pit would have been toddlers when this record came out and they are loving this opportunity to see its tracks live for the first time.
We also get a string of explanations for many of the tunes. Much of the album was inspired by Alex’s disastrous love life and his brutal honesty about his feelings of helplessness & vulnerability help to offset much of the cartoon sexism that courted controversy when this record came out. Highlights include ‘Anna’, ‘Murderer’s shoe’ and the skanking brilliance of ‘My girlfriend is a loonatic’.
He confesses that ‘Idiotic train loony’ is an account of his own pissed up antics prior to his extended period of abstinence, which is now hitting the 20-year mark. It also turns out that ‘St Lucian Holiday’ was transformed into the deeply troubling anthem it became by a single word change from ‘hole’ to ‘girl’. Without going into unnecessary detail it turns out to be about anal gaping instead of the less palatable theme assumed by many. Glad that has been cleared up. Roll on tomorrow…
Tuesday begins with a serious bang as nihilistic Manchester hardcore band Incisions take the stage and treat us to some of the most brutal ear splitting songs imaginable. They play a fast & furious set beginning with ‘Deny’ the opening track from their debut album. Other tracks of note are anti fascist anthem ‘Follow’ and ‘War in your head’. Jordon hangs up his guitar after the first few songs to concentrate on his guttural vocals and spends much of the rest of the gig amid the audience thrashing around like an absolute madman. They barely pause for breath and don’t make the mistake that tarnishes so many hardcore shows by boring the crowd with lengthy explanations for their songs. They just get on with it and squish an impressive 14 numbers into less than 30 minutes. Great stuff.
Next up from the world down under we get Blind Man Death Stare. The Zombie obsessed Aussies are almost impossible to describe in terms of other punk bands you may be familiar with. Their multi-layered guitar is almost reminiscent of Sonic Youth. Well Sonic Youth on mescaline with a huge sense of humour. They leap around the stage and it is hard to gauge which one of them is the greatest exhibitionist. In the end I settle for the guitarist in the red dress though all the others come a close 2nd equal. Chatting to them outside afterwards they reveal that they work all year round in tedious low paid jobs to make enough dough to bring the band to Europe before returning to their hated jobs for another round of working & saving. Punk as fuck!
Then we get Aerial Salad. They may look about twelve compared to the other bands and most of the audience but they have certainly grown in confidence & stature since they first started playing with Alex & co a couple of years ago. They kick off with ‘97’ and the place pretty much goes wild from the first chorus. They have an enormous sound for a three piece and are now at that enviable stage that bands arrive at after extensive touring, where they can reproduce their songs note perfectly while also actually enjoying themselves. All but two songs come from the debut album ‘Roach’ and if I have one complaint it is that I still haven’t heard them play ska-punk tune ‘Conservative values’ live. Sort it out lads!
Closing the proceedings Wonk Unit play all of their second album ‘Trollys thank you/Wonk Unit saved my life‘. It is probably the darkest of all their records and largely continues to explore the grimmest recesses of Alex’s tortured psyche. The entire venue come out in collective goose bumps for ‘Different’ a song of such timeless beauty that you can’t help wishing that it would appear in their set more often. Absolutely everyone is singing along to it and it ends with the biggest collective roar from the crowd that we’ve witnessed thus far.
‘Photos of the tired’ gets played for the first time ever. Hopefully not the last. Duncan the drummer deserves a medal for performing the song after nothing more than a brief and slightly confusing verbal description from Alex. ‘I just love the way’ reminds us all that the man is also capable of writing a thoroughly touching love song when he puts his mind to it. ‘One for the missus’ also get gets explained to us in graphic detail for those who hadn’t already worked it out. We’re only a third of the way through this epic journey and already it is obvious that the average set just isn’t long enough to incorporate even a fraction of this band’s best material.
Wednesday comes and everything has been shunted forward by 30 minutes because last night everything overran due to Alex’s lengthy, if thoroughly fascinating, monologues between the songs.
So Mean Caesar are starting at 7.15, though happily most seem to have received the memo on the Facebook event page so they’re not playing to an empty venue. Their music is reminiscent of early Therapy? albums with a bit of Killing Joke thrown in. Their vocalist may look like a doorman but he is a sensitive soul and the lyrics explore a range of themes like loneliness, isolation and mental health. Most of their set comes from their recent debut album, stand out tracks include ‘Blinded eyes’ and the recent single ‘South London summer’.
Then The Dub Righters take the stage to remind us all that anyone who doesn’t like reggae is quite frankly a bit weird & untrustworthy. At the end of last year Lawrence handed live guitar duty to Ryan, which has improved the gig experience no end. The former is free to bounce around the stage and concentrate on projecting his earthy voice and quite staggering vocal range. Meanwhile the latter is one of those axe men who appreciates the concept of ‘less is more’ which is kind of important if you’re going to compliment a dub section rather than drown it. We also get a new track ‘Just a robot’ which is a skanking beauty of a song in which Lawrence seems to effortlessly fit a million words into a few seconds and make it look easy. If you haven’t seen this band yet folks then get your shit together.
Youth Killed It are next in line and waste no time in reminding us what a tight & professional act they are. Live they have a much harder edge than the polished studio releases of their last album/two EPs and the experience is all the better for it. They kick off with the hilarious self piss take that is ‘Jean Claude Van Man’ and then pile into the glorious anti-national anthem that is ‘What’s so great Britain’. The single ‘Headbutt’ follows and from here on they’re on an absolute roll. The guitars of Carlos and Josh intertwine in complimentary symmetry above the thunderous rhythm section of Ben and the other Josh. Meanwhile Jack moves effortlessly between tuneful rock vocals and abrasive rapping. Anyone who says that white boys shouldn’t attempt this kind of vocal style deserves to have their head shoved in the bass bin till their ears bleed. They finish with the epic brilliance of ‘Popstar’. It’s also kind of nice to see a band that are nicely turned out in this week of endless scruffiness. Adidas are missing a trick not sponsoring this lot.
Tonight Wonk Unit bring us Muffy. An album written in a single night as Alex added music to his already pretty vast collection of barking mad/genius poetry. It’s the weirdest chapter of the back catalogue, much of it being recorded with acoustic rather than electric guitar. Yet despite its quirkiness it contains perhaps more essential tracks from the regular live set than any other.
The criminally underplayed ‘Spooky house’ is a fantastic Ska tune which just forces you to dance like a Cossack on speed whether you want to or not. ‘Stigmata’ which usually closes the show is a gut wrenching abyss of seething agony that makes you wish you’d been tortured by the Vietcong prior to shooting up a small town of American morons with an M60. ‘Horses’ has to be one of the loopiest and most infectious acoustic punk songs ever written and produces the hilarious spectacle of very many middle aged punks being equine playthings in the mosh pit.
There are just too many songs of merit to count in tonight’s set and it feels like everyone is at one with the wonk universe as Alex explains each and every tune in all its gory detail prior to its airing.
‘The woods’ for example is an ode to those males in the crowd who were born long enough ago to go scavenging for their porn in forested areas. Finding rain and semen soaked wank mags to knock one out over decades before the internet brought graphic shagging to our mobile phones. Many in the venue of a certain age give a nod of affirmation, hoping that no one else notices, while everyone aged 35 and under is left wondering what the fuck he is talking about?
As with all the other releases, this record delves heavily into the author’s autobiographical sexual disasters. We always suspected that ‘Sinking’ was about the pain and humiliation of erectile dysfunction. But among tonight’s epiphanies we are informed that ‘Pearly white awkwardness’ is about that moment when you squirt hot jism over the person you’re making out with, while simultaneously realizing that the whole thing has been a big mistake. As you do…
We’re only half way through this epic journey with three more days and albums to go and the path to wonkish enlightenment continues unabated.
Words and images by Guy Smallman
(Wonk Week part 2 coming next…)