One thing to be said for punk quite decisively is that it failed miserably. At the end of 2018, a second film revolving around the music of ABBA has cleared £65,000,000 at the box-office; a QUEEN biopic looks set to catapult the band’s album sales into the stratosphere; Prog magazine sees healthy sales and a well-respected annual awards show at which no bands shrink like salted snails at nomination; a woman is leading the Tory Party as a dead-eyed nation makes its opposition felt by voting for something without reading the small-print. Punk – it’s changed things less than skiffle did.
Of course, like any haphazard label, to be “punk” was more about what you weren’t than what you were. THE RAMONES were punk, but what did that mean? Essentially they were a cutely-styled bubblegum pop band who played at volume. There is but a hair’s breadth and some chromosomes between THE RAMONES and THE SHANGRI-LAS – and the world is all the better for it. With punning pseudonyms, two-and-a-half minute singles, a gang mentality and catchy choruses, punk was regularly more pop than pop. It failed because its most manufactured element were its morals and politics, neither of which have any place in entertainment.
So, October 2018. The view from The Dublin Castle in Camden is limited, due entirely to the fact that a tour bus of such enormous proportions has pulled alongside the iconic venue, where the spit has been removed but the sawdust remains. Red double-decker buses meekly edge around Buszilla apologetically. WARTOAD have turned up. They don’t do things the normal way. It’s as if they were sent a telegram with the ingredients for a band but misread the quantities.
It’s past ten o’clock by the time WARTOAD begin patrolling the stage, guitarist Butch Dante donning a white, band-branded boilersuit whilst actually in the audience. There’s almost certainly a dressing room for each band member on Buszilla, but then, that would be what “other people” do. Assorted roadies crowd the stage tuning up the gear before kick-off…except they aren’t roadies, that’s the band up there. Six of them. Their support bands had had to huddle up to get four on there. Something’s got to give. Something isn’t…well, normal.
No two members look like they belong in the same band. A blue boiler suit is sported by an angry-looking singer, Kip Larson, who is staring through the audience at something his third eye sees several furlongs away which is vexing him. I assume he’s the singer as he’s hanging on to the mic stand like it’s the mast of a sinking ship, otherwise I’d suspect he was gearing up to eat people. There’s a somewhat haunted look in the eyes of the drummer, Jads Watson, who has something of the arachnid about him. It’s as if he’s had a couple of extra arms thrown in for free at the limb sale, cramming himself behind his kit like a hermit crab in a shell many times too small for its body.
Seemingly thawed out from hibernation at CBGB’s 40 years ago is Mike ‘Super’ Johnson, a magnificent amalgam of Johnny Ramone, Otto from The Simpsons and Zoot from The Muppets. You’d swear there was a cig constantly dangling from the corner of his mouth but this it seems is some sort of phantom projection from New York in 1976. One person who doesn’t seem to have turned up mired in demons and flesh-eating proclivities is Calvin, the lead guitarist. He looks on the brink of hysterics. He’s the Howling Mad Murdoch of the musical A-Team. A very polite-looking man stands behind a keyboard. It seems likely he has taken a wrong turn after leaving the office earlier and is playing along out of sheer niceness. If I had no shame, I’d have gone and patted him on the head. My thread of shame remained intact.
As the band roar through Shove It, time signatures are roundly mocked and kicked as Kip leans forward from the stage, oblivious to both audience and fellow band members, howling intently at something in the inscrutable distance. It feels as though we’re aboard not Buszilla but the car driven by the Slag Brothers, the boulder mobile, in Wacky Races, something brutally primitive with little thought given to a braking system. With this in mind, the band stop dead. Despite looking like they’ve never even been on the same planet before, their unity is jarring.
I Get High, the stand-out from their debut album, What Rough Beasts, offers the best insight into where the band fits musically, should you still not have got the memo not to pigeonhole things. Kip’s disappeared – he’d walked off-stage towards the bar, though looked rather more like he was “going to have a word” with it than buy a glass of Tizer. Mike has taken over as lead Toad, drawling into the microphone, an object which already seems to have decided it hadn’t agreed to any of this, having to be replaced by a kindly technician repeatedly.
It’s no longer 2018. It’s 10,000 Years B.C. It’s 1969 (Butch’s helmet, an actual relic from Altamont sits behind him, a reminder of the sixties dream being punched in the face amid petrol fumes and mud. It’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It’s your birthday, Christmas and driving test, all at once. It’s thrilling. Like, properly thrilling. This isn’t normal.
Coming On Strong postures as if it’s going to break out into THE DOORS‘ Five to One but turns at strange angles and develops into an absolute bastard of a thing, and proves me to be a liar – Jads hasn’t got four arms, there are loads more than that. It’s like someone’s pointed a pistol at Squiddly Diddly’s head and he’s playing for his life. Arms are everywhere – long arms, reaching beyond the traps and clattering everything in sight. I was tipped off in advance that there was an element of Mitch Mitchell to his drum patterns. This was untrue – Mitch only had five arms. LED ZEP‘s Dazed and Confused pokes its nose in briefly but is given short shrift.
Prog elopes with space rock and then back to its adulterous ways with psychedelia. Al Dijon, the polite keyboardist, wheels out a riff which resembles QUESTION MARK AND THE MYSTERIANS’ majestic 96 Tears…because that’s what it is, though it’s starkly skeletal, perfectly capturing the original’s slightly sinister undercurrent. At some point Jads has disappeared and Kip has taken over on drums. This could have been several songs ago or a few in advance – nothing makes sense any more unless you accept this isn’t normal. It isn’t conforming to any rules or conventions.
There’s a DEVO-like unwieldiness (maybe it’s just the boiler suits) and something which is as bestial as their album title suggests. Butch is singing now. He’s not on stage, that’s just something other people do, he’s wandering around, twitching his guitar like a diving rod. It’s unclear if he finds what he’s looking for.
As the set ends, Al is singing DEAD KENNEDY’S Too Drunk to Fuck, absolutely the least appropriate song for him to sing and therefore exactly what he should be doing. This is comfortably one of the most punk gigs I’ve ever seen. Ironically the DK’s cover was about as fun and jolly as any song in their set (though obviously Calvin thought all of it was hilarious). It was punk because they did what they wanted, played the styles that felt right and used every band members’ skills to their absolute maximum, regardless of what their “job” was on paper. At around 50 minutes, their set was less than their support bands. Get on, attack the jugular, get off. Wartoad are not normal They are unassumingly ferocious. Something in music changed tonight.