England’s finest genre-blenders Pop Will Eat Itself (aka PWEI aka Poppies aka 80’s grebos) have returned. The last time I saw them I was still at Uni. That was before the glaciers started melting! Yep, for me it has been a long time between sips of the soda pop. I loved their wit and sarcasm, the way they spliced irony, hard-core and retro together and shook up the old tropes of the music industry templates. So I was keen to see if my teenage pop heroes could still live up to the legend I’d build in my own headphones.
They have been going for 36 years, alongside plenty of band lineups, excursions into other musical ventures like Bently Rhythm Ace, Gaye Bykers On Acid, Pigface, Apollo 440 and various DJ projects, to name but a few. Phew, that’s a long time, and the joke must be getting a bit thin by now? Apparently not.
Formed in the Midlands way back when Margaret Thatcher was still in power, they pushed their own special brand of indie-rock that liberally pinched idea, riffs, soundbites basslines from virtually every genre from brass bands to hip-hop and rave, via metal, dub and post-punk. You could almost call them the British Faith No More, fronted by two likely lads who really wanted to be in the Beastie Boys.
This is a band that intentionally lampoons their own image. They know they aren’t the Rolling Stones, but pretending is so much fun – even if you get a little winded from time to time. Original member Graham Crabb and Mary Byker (aka Ian Garfield Hoxley) strut around the stage like two drunken uncles at a birthday barbeque. The youthful energy is there, but the paunches, grey beards and tight fitting clothes somehow undermine them. They bounce in unison like toddlers on a trampoline. It’s hilarious to see middle age men impersonating the members of rap group Kriss Kross – Remember the video to ‘Jump?’
Pop Will Eat Itself was always a cliché and a joke told on the industry and the manufactured Stock Aitken Waterman produced music scene. Now they’ve become a joke of themselves. A cliché of a cliché. Crabb and Byker take turns to tag team their old skool raps over a barrage of riffs and techno troubles provided by the rest of the band. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, Crabb looks like he just stepped off a plane, escaping a family holiday in Rarotonga. Byker looks out of place in his Run DMC crew wear.
Both vocalists lurch into the audience like cartoon rock stars. This is a well drilled set and is almost flawlessly delivered. Crabb holds his megaphone like an overzealous church camp volunteer performing crowd control as he screams ‘Wise Up Sucker’ and ‘She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not’. At times both of them raise their arms like mock fascist salutes, and knowing their politics it’s intentional they are re-appropriating the gestures back from the original perpetrators. They wave their arms in the air like the just don’t care and are genuinely delighted when someone’s Dad has a go at crowd surfing. A dangerous gambit when you can see so much of the exposed wooden floorboards in front of the stage. It’s not a tight mosh.
The mostly older audience filled about three quarters of the room – mainly suburban ravers reliving their best Orientation gigs. Hell, I was. There were a fair few English accents and blue and white striped football shirts with the PWEI logo over it. A few comments about saving cash for the babysitter could be heard at the merch stand and one or two geezers could be seen scrambling for the setlists at the end of the night after the rapturous applause had died down.
Guitarist Richard March, dressed like Tiny Tim, in a striped suit lurks around creating distorted sounds to flesh out the music. Adam Mole pulls focus several times by climbing on his stand like a ladder and holding his keyboards high like a trophy. Emblazoned across the front is the legend: “This Machine Kills Fascists” Woody would be proud!
Fuzz Townshend might be getting on but his percussion is still better than a drum machine, metronomic and driving, a bit of metal and a whole lotta funk. He’s adult in the room and manages to keep it all together.
Davey Bennett’s dreads are insanely long. He pulls out a huge array of rock god shapes while playing his bass, his hair wildly thrashing about like unrestrained limp asparagus spears.
They plough right through the set as if there’s a boxset and a boiling kettle waiting back at the hotel. The energy is crisp and sharp, if a little geriatric. We all bounce around like nobody is watching or judging. Most of our harshest critics have school in the morning and have already retired to surf instagram. So the dance floor is ours.
Tonight’s set spanned over their whole career, including their Flood produced big seller “This Is the Day…This Is the Hour…This Is This!”, of which most of tonight’s material came from. We raved to the funky ‘Can U Dig It?’ (minus a few choice sound clips), the 80’s nuclear threat of ‘Def Con One’ (with the cheesy riff-off from ‘Funky Town’ intact) and the preachy ‘Wise Up! Sucker’. There was the industrial driver ‘Inject Me’ and the cooly ironic ’16 Different Flavours Of Hell’.
I did enjoy re-listening to the biting satire of ‘Not Now James, We’re Busy’ a parody of Bond film classics, if I remember rightly. Also the Riddley Scott inspired ‘Wake Up, Time To Die’ brought back a few memories of late night student radio DJ sessions.
We also got an encore of classics like a staunch ‘Ich Bin Ein Auslander’, a very ranty ‘Everything’s Cool’, and marching ‘Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!’ as well as a stomping version of ‘Their Law’ and heaps more memories from this rapid 22 song set (it was all over in an hour and a half).
The Poppies have played here a few times over the years and they draw small faithful fans out of the woodwork. They were here tonight and appreciated the effort. As Crabb quipped “it’s good to have normal back, whatever that means?” Even the Grebos can shed masks and dance like it’s 1986 again. And they did tonight.
And if you should ask, then yes, for a few moments I was transported back to that Orientation gig, when I first saw them – If I closed my eyes tightly.
This article first appeared: www.ambientlightblog.com/pop-will-eat-itself-wellington-nz-2022
*Cheers to Bruce McKay (who took photos for the Ambient Review)