August 11, 2006
The Automatic: ULU, London, Monday July 24
What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a hyperactive indie band in danger of becoming a one-song wonder?
Two teenage girls belt through the doors, sweat muddying their mascara, panic in their eyes. “Did we miss ‘Monster’?”, they wail. NME reassures them that The Automatic have only just taken the stage. They crumple with relief and wander off towards the bar to search for boys to snog. Later, there’s anxiety in the queue for the only toilet still working after ULU’s plumbing melted in the heat. “Did we miss ‘Monster’?” No, only turgid album workout, ‘Lost At Home’. And on the edge of the moshpit, unrest. “When are they going to play ‘Monster’?” The crowdsurfers shuffle impatiently, waiting for their cue.
The Automatic have a dilemma. ‘Monster’ has achieved such staggering ubiquity that, at the World Cup, sunburned men with tattoos were heard bellowing “What’s that coming over the hill, is it a Rooney?” in between lobbing plastic chairs. ‘Monster’ is a 50-metre high, plane-swatting gonzo-pop beast – none of The Automatic’s other songs can match it, and the crowd know it.
Still, there’s no shortage of energy expended onstage in an attempt to jump-start the party. White-drainpiped Pennie is the star, jabbing at his keyboard, pummelling a cowbell or strangling himself with a mic lead, eyes rolled back in his head and tongue lolling like a madman. His partner in crime is guitarist Frost, who jerks violently on the spot like his foot’s caught in a high-voltage electric fence. Their Ramones-style one-note backing vocals are an exercise in thrilling dumbness, barking wildly in the general direction of the microphones.
But hyperactive goofing alone can’t force the audience to reciprocate. Musical muscle is required to strong-arm the throng into action and The Automatic’s Manga-fied punk-pop – like the Kaisers in eyeliner or Editors on alcopops – is just too puny. The band have been soundchecking with AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’, but their own songs have little of the protein of their rock heroes.
‘Keep Your Eyes Peeled’ is wired and propulsive, but the same trick is pulled four times in row, at which point the novelty of The Automatic’s mocky-horror minor chord builds and cracker-snap choruses fades faster than a North Korean missile.
When they try to display some ambition, the whole caboodle comes unstuck. ‘You Shout You Shout You Shout You Shout’ unravels as a spidery guitar line fails to keep pace with the hiccupping drum machine. ‘By My Side’, a song fuelled by loss and slow-burning resentment, is delivered blithely, without enough vitriol or ugliness to connect.
In a tactical error up there with Sven’s squad selection, The Automatic don’t unleash ‘Monster’ until the very end, because of course, when they do the place goes wilder than the Amazon – although ultimately it’s more out of relief than euphoria. An hilarious cover of Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ -– with Pennie relishing the MC role and support band Viva Machine appearing wrapped in bandages and bodypopping into the pit – is a home banker. ‘Recover’, brash and brilliant, ensures everyone is finally sated.
Five days ago, The Automatic finished a similarly sweltering gig in Brighton by running into the sea in their scuddies. There’s no such charge into ULU’s indoor swimming pool tonight. That’s because the band know for 40 minutes they were rumbled, unable to crack the ice without recourse to their one sledgehammer song.
Indie-pop history is littered with the corpses of bands who sprung out of the traps like rocket-assisted whippets, only to find their momentum dissolve after a few hits. Time will tell if The Automatic can carve out a career as punk-pop hitmakers like Ash, or if they will disappear up their own foreskin like EMF. They’ve created a ‘Monster’, now they just have to prevent it from becoming an albatross.
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