Every time I closed my eyes, I saw a different Escher staircase.” “You know the spaceship in Red Dwarf? It was like being in that.” “Mine was more in-tro-spec-tive,” Panda pronounces. “He had to go lie down for a while.” “It wasn’t good,” Panda mumbles, still ringed around the eyes like his namesake bear.
Sunday night in Bournemouth and Joe Lean and his merry Jong are comparing yesterday’s mushroom trips. Last night was Amsterdam’s London Calling festival. Like any civilised English fops abroad, they had the good manners to sample the native cuisine. “We’ve been in and out of sleep today.” Good times. But back in drizzly England, the Joe Lean gang just can’t seem to dodge pesky hype-related questions from journalists, meaning that the air around us soon cools. “I don’t know how I feel,” Joe states. “Being asked if I’m happy about our single only going in at Number 43, five minutes before I go onstage…” A pause begins. A pause continues. Frankly, there’s a sense that the Lean camp didn’t want us here at all tonight. “Why did you want to come to this gig?” Joe queried as soon as we met. It might be expected.
The Old Fire Station is half-empty. Or half-full, depending on your temperament. It’s the sort of news that’ll have cynics everywhere doing the Lambada. “Considering it wasn’t played by the radio…” Joe rallies. “I mean, we’ve only released one chart-eligible song…” Our audience with him ends on this sour note. Worse yet, back in the hall, Bournemouth seems under general anaesthetic, an odd crowd of sightseers mixing lethargically. Then, one by one, the Jong mount the stage. A bassline burbles out drum’n’bass, drums start to thwack metal-loud, a guitar rattles in, another chases it. They knit, and suddenly it’s like driving top-speed on a gravel path in Del Shannon’s Chevy – a brain-judderingly loud jangle of ’60s beatpop, the kind that detaches retinas. Two minutes in, Joe Lean slinks onstage. He flogs a drum as if he hates its guts. The message is clear. ‘Stick this,’ they seem to say, ‘in your effing pipe and effing smoke it, Mr Critic’. We smoke it. It tastes good.
In the past few months Joe, a natural diva, has expanded his range of theatrical stage gestures into a fully fledged book of yoga postures. They include: the heart (hands meeting bowed above the head), the air-traffic controller (see Alan ‘Rakes’ Donohoe), the rear-traffic controller (ditto, but performed backwards), the coquettish hands-angled-on-head stance (big in Hallmark calendars), and the pelvic thrust (big everywhere). Only, right now, this isn’t just yoga. Today it’s attack yoga. Like a rat that’s learnt to snort strychnine for kicks, he twitches in a palsy of rock’n’soul.
Nine months ago, on an early micro-stage at Latitude, we got the songs, but the aggression was dispersed amid enthusiasm. Now, the skidding guitars of ‘Lonely Buoy’ are life-preserving, the mega-hook of ‘Brooklyn’ surges and ‘Lucio Starts Fires’ blazes. Most prominent is the previously submerged ‘Teenagers’, Joe’s most furious, least soul-tinged track, turning on the flick-knife line “I’m just a teenager in love trying to get done” (“It’s about penile dementia,” Joe reports afterwards).
Rage is clearly the suit that fits, and Joe sure knows a good suit when he sees one. By now, the hesitant applause of the musical tourists has morphed into unabashed rapture. Joe mops his angry brow and downs the final dregs of his beer. “I really appreciate you all coming out to see us. Remember: we’re not just faces in a magazine,” he says. “This is our last song. It’s called ‘Where Do You Go?’.” It can’t be topped. Where do they go from here? Not through fame’s revolving door any time soon, thanks.