Electric Ballroom, London, February 21
Ominous build-up music is bringing the Electric Ballroom to a breath-holding standstill. The crowd awaits the arrival of Savages, the all-female post-punk band who are filling big league venues after barely a year in existence. Then the silhouettes onstage become a band, and in her thick French accent vocalist Jehnny Beth spits, “I think we’re fucking ready, don’t you?” The shaven-headed frontwoman is referring to technical hitches that delay the gig by a few minutes, but in this context it sounds like she’s only just now pushed her sleeves up, pulled herself off a mangy sofa in an anarcho-Marxist squat and declared Savages ready to take over the world. As soon as the London quartet launch into scintillating opener ‘Shut Up’ – a Slits-via-Bauhaus primal scream – the mix of vehement goth-girl fanatics and awed middle-aged punks in the crowd are rendered subordinate to Savages’ imperious horrors.
What makes Savages special is their mastery over nervous tension. Classic bands from the post-punk era such as Gang Of Four and Wire were defined by tension – between savagery and intellectualism, politics and action, the clashing energies of left and right-wing politics.It’s what pioneers of the genre, Television, called the “friction” that results from “too much contradiction“. And Savages are nothing if not the product of contradiction, a band born of what Beth refers to as this “sad but beautiful world” on the apocalyptic thunderstorm ‘City’s Full’. The utterly remarkable Gemma Thompson, her mercurial guitar as loud as a fucking jumbo jet, vaporises each song. As Thompson works, Beth’s banshee-like caterwauling merges with the dry ice like the howl of a vengeful phantom from beyond the mists.
There’s something rebellious and necessary about a 20-something frontwoman revelling in her madness. Beth’s screaming climax to ‘Husbands’ is like a surrender to total derangement, while her guttural grunts on ‘She Will’ evoke a goblin Ozzy Osbourne. Savages, you see, follow in the tradition of X-Ray Spex and Au Pairs – smart women who took post-punk’s mistrust of love and repurposed it for a conversation on modern relationships, on sex as psychological control and on the questionable nature of ‘standing by your man’. Both muscular and slight, neither feminine nor masculine, sexual though never sexy, songs like ‘Hit Me’ invite taut post-punk pogo-dancing and headbanging abandon. As a finale, on the Ian Dury-meets-A Certain Ratio closer, Beth screams “Don’t let the fuckers get you down!” over and over again. You’re damn well sure she means it.