The Vortex, London
3 December 2010
It’s thirty years now since Eyeless in Gaza released their debut single, “Kodak Ghosts Run Amok” (1980), and in all that time there’s never been a moment when they could be made to fit in with whatever else was happening around them. In the early days they were seen perhaps as part of DIY post-punk; once signed to Cherry Red they were treated as yet another of that label’s line in wistful, weedy acoustic singer-songwriter combos; more recently The Wire has tried to palm them off merely as presursors of the tedious Wyrd Folk trend/marketing opportunity.
Their gig at London’s Vortex brought all of this to mind and gave me a chance to think about how they fit into my own private scheme of things. I’ve been listening to Eyeless in Gaza since the time of that first single but I’ve never seen them as being anything other than completely idiosyncratic, and I’ve never had any liking either for the various trends and movements they’ve been pegged as being part of, which leads me to ask myself why I see them as unique, and why they seem for so long to have stood out from everything around them, and why they continue to thrill.
I don’t know if it’s a design flaw of The Vortex but the acoustics seem to lend it the special property of amplifying the sounds at the back of the room and projecting them right to the stage front. Add to this the fact that half the audience clearly had got in on the guest list for the various support acts and had no interest in the headlining band, and you had a situation where the entire Eyeless set was accompanied by the combined yakking of the various Tarquins and Jocastas who’d made their way up from Hoxton for the evening. Personally I hate the idea that says that audiences should shut up during concerts and adopt an attitude of reverential silence, but tonight was ridiculous, with the chatter in the audience proving a major distraction. Several times I fantasised shoving my scarf down the throat of someone nearby as they talked their way through a favourite song.
What made the babbling really remarkable was that Eyeless in Gaza were clearly in superb form, delivering an almost flawless set of songs old and new. The first (and only other) Eyeless gig I ever saw featured the two original members Pete Becker and Martyn Bates playing a combination of guitars, drums and cheap keyboards in every possible permutation (often with each of them simultaneously playing either a guitar or keyboard and a drum each). Tonight was much the same except for the addition of long-time collaborator Elizabeth S and even more instruments than before, which they’ve presumably accumulated over the years. The most satisfying addition was the banjo, which created an acoustic version of the sort of spikey sequencer lines that were once the responsibility of the band’s synths. The set was billed as an acoustic evening but still we got the full sonic spectrum Eyeless in Gaza are capable of.
An Eyeless in Gaza concert is perhaps not a chance to hear them run through the highlights of their back catalogue, but an opportunity instead to hear Martyn’s voice revisit each song on new ground, and to hear the songs recast around whatever he comes up with on the night. It’s this combination of one of the most wonderfully persuasive and brave voices in popular music with an ear for radical arrangements, schooled as much in abstraction as in folk, that makes them one of the most eloquent groups in the history of British music. Despite the corny bracketing of them as folk artists they are as radical in their own way as Throbbing Gristle or The Sex Pistols.
The set list took songs from across their 30 year career and from Bates’s solo work too (the gorgeous “Morning Singing”). They even had the chutzpah to try an acoustic rendition of “Still Air” – a song so evanescent in its original form as to feel like a wholly private memory, but here delivered successfully to the room as a fully arranged piece, with its original melodica now flanked by guitars. And maybe there is the real secret to the Eyeless identity – their peculiar idea of songs and song construction. Eyeless in Gaza create music that almost assembles itself as you listen. The peculiar nature of their art is that the songs seem not to be ideas planned out on paper and then merely executed in the studio or on stage, but rather they arrange themselves in flight around Martyn Bates’ extraordinary voice. The lyrics have always seemed a bit hit and miss to these ears; some sound as though the lines were grabbed a handful at a time from a lucky dip bag of poetic clichés, while others (“One by One,” missing from tonight’s performance) achieve an almost perfect concision and eloquence, and stand comparison to anything in the history of English song.
What a shame that their originality and commitment to their own vision – the thing that makes them essential in a way that most groups never will be – also means that journalists have never been able to work out which tidy category to place them under. It must be frustrating for the group but, on the evidence of tonight’s performance, as far as the music itself is concerned it doesn’t matter in the slightest.