In London, walking 200 yards can take you to another country. You can drop several socio-economic classes. Time travel from steel and reflective glass to medieval stone. Emigrate from Little Lebanon to Little America with no need for a green card.
Therefore it should not surprise me that travelling a couple of miles to Kilburn always feels likes an expedition. A feeling enhanced by the fact NW6 never ranks in my mind as a destination of choice. It is a place I only ever go to for specific reasons. There has to be a mission element to get me walking down Kilburn High Road.
Tonight the mission was simple. Enjoy a curry and watch the sardonic pop monsters that form Black Box Recorder play their first headlining gig in five years. If I had been able to accomplish the two objectives simultaneously, the evening would have probably taken on mythic proportions when recalled years from now.
Indian food should be a sensual, satisfying experience, but too often in England it is reduced to little more than the serving rubbish smothered in a generic curry sauce.* Looking at the garish signage and its Life On Mars wood-panelled walls should have put me off eating at Vijay. However I had heard rumours of good vadai and dosai and Ragam had already taught me the value of disregarding appearance when looking for decent southern Indian food.
While no Cleveland Street miracle, Vijay’s food was good. Its heat came from chillies, the tingle on the tongue from freshly crushed spices. The selection of vadai and coconut chutney comfort for my soul frayed by lack of sleep. Surreal Girl pined for her cauliflower Manchurian, but I think even she might be persuaded to make a return visit.
The gaudy retro of Vijay was echoed when we got into the Luminaire. Unintended and without irony at the restaurant, the mirrorball scattering light off of velvet and black walls, the union jack backdrop emblazoned with gold lettering shouting: ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Not Dole’ were wonderfully deliberate. The effect was like being in a working man’s club taken over by students putting on a punk benefit for striking miners.
The Luminaire might lack Bush Hall’s Edwardian pomp and finery, but it has a wonderful intimacy. It also has a militant no talking while musicians are playing policy which I adore. Even when packed to its 300 capacity, it now gives BH a close run for title of my favourite music venue in London.
Support to Black Box Recorder was a skeleton crew Madam. This meant the band imagined as duo featuring a chantreuse called Sukie with Pat Butcher style earrings and cellist called Sarah who I would have instantly fallen in love with if I had been sixteen. Between them they performed songs of noir romance and corroded hope which veered from the achingly beautiful to nail scratch sharp.
Without any undue poncing around, Black Box Recorder came on stage a little after 9:30pm. John Moore and Luke Haines looked like aged Teddy Boys, Sarah Nixey the polished, posh divorcée who has enough glamour and Machiavellian nous to cause a lot of trouble. They exuded something between a childhood gang taking secret delight at a bit of undiscovered mischief and a disturbing menace a trois. It looked promising.
From the opening anthem swell and lines: ‘The English motorway system is beautiful and strange/It’s been there forever, it’s never going to change’ I instantly remembered why I am devoted to BBR. They are pop. English pop. Pop about England’s peculiarities of place and people, about the hidden menaces of the home counties, the unspoken terror and insecurities of childhood, the ablation of living somewhere like Southend-on-Sea.
From joining ‘the order’ in Wonderful Life to ‘keeping your mouth shut’ in Straight Life and ‘doing the decent thing’ in Brutality, the class, coldness and conformity I have spent my life kicking against were all paraded. Tonight the brilliant chill running through England Made Me was more inescapable than ever. The disappointment that Jackie Sixty did not get an airing softened by compensation of new song Do You Believe In God?
The convulsing guitar crash of the boys was just about kept in line by the caramel ice of Nixey’s vocal. Despite the extra guts of a live performance, you were constantly reminded of just how powerful and splendid a proper pop tune can be – even if it is about Lord Lucan. The Black Box Recorder school of song remains a triumphant mix of sugar and razor blades. Five years on, they are a still a bloody good reason for a Kilburn expedition.
*What I usually refer to a ‘dirty curry’ though the term ‘Jacksinated curry’ is also apposite.