Craig Austin gives a critical view of the Welsh punk band The Sick Livers and their show at The Pipeline in London.
For a cultural phenomenon that first rode into town under the ragged ensigns of anarchy and chaos, punk doesn’t half seem to have a lot of rules; an inexplicably bizarre (and ultimately boring) conundrum that all too often pits rigid conformity against the disorderly flamboyance from which the movement initially emerged.
Thankfully no one seems to have handed any kind of dusty punk rock rulebook to The Sick Livers, a gleefully thunderous mess of maximum rock’n’roll lawlessness rooted in a minimum wage world of tragi-comic rebellion. This is a band with a resolutely proud pop culture lineage to (dis)honour, one defiantly steeped in the gloriously unapologetic post-punk South Wales valleys traditions of heads-down rama-lama rock and Sunset Strip glam aspiration.
Though thrust into the demanding spotlight of a two-day event organised by various chapters of the endearingly barmy Turbojugend – the impeccably attired devotees of Scandinavian mondo-punk outfit Turbonegro – lead singer Ginge Knievil takes to the stage with the infectiously animated air of a man who can’t quite believe his luck. Riding high on the almost unanimous critical acclaim that’s greeted The Sick Livers’ most recent release, the rollicking ‘Mid Liver Crisis’, Knievil channels the whirling good-time stagecraft of those once derided by punk as either embarrassingly archaic or (worse) culturally blackballed.
Though evidently fortunate enough to have been blessed by the evangelical rock’n’roll church of San Diego’s Rocket From the Crypt, this is a frontman who is markedly unafraid to parade the kindly face of Shakin’ Stevens upon a jacket that acts as a lovingly curated denim canvas upon which to project his counter-cultural anti-heroes; an act entirely devoid of irony (much like subtlety, irony is not something that The Sick Livers really go in for) and all the more endearing for it. Indeed, and in spite of the primal glam-punk racket generated by his doggedly relentless band, Knievel’s approach to taking care of business draws parallels with the likes of Noddy Holder and Ian Hunter as much it does with any of the ‘year zero’ provocateurs who subsequently sought to render them obsolete.
The Sick Livers’ current live set is robustly book-ended by its two most riotous anthems. Album opener ‘This Is My Denim’ comes wrapped in the aforementioned patchwork armour of their singer and echoes the heartfelt ethos of Nicholas Cage/’Sailor Ripley’ in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, a man for whom a snakeskin jacket comes to represent ‘a symbol of my individuality and belief in personal freedom’. Set-closer the shamelessly self-mythologising ‘Rhymney Rock City’ seeks to bestow a righteous sense of glamour and occasion upon the hedonistic excesses of the provincial high street in an unseemly collision of Caerphilly and Detroit. It’s a raucous and celebratory ‘fuck you’ to the enemies of the socially and culturally downtrodden; its opening chords being met with a sticky arc of flailing pints and an oversized inflatable banana that at one point threatens to upstage the band themselves such is its ability to bob and weave in time with the wayward commotion of The Sick Livers’ ocean.
On tonight’s showing punk’s not dead, it’s just handed in its bondage trousers and cultural manifesto in exchange for a mirrored top hat and a subscription to Viz. Yet either by accident or by design this is a band that has quietly swapped being ‘funny’ good for being good good without compromising any of its infectious ramshackle charm.
This unexpected, and no doubt unintended, streak of critical success comes at a time when both artistically (The Pre New) and commercially (Sleaford Mods) the doorway of opportunity appears to have been temporarily left ajar for what can only be described as ‘noisy fellas of a certain vintage’. They may be more turbo than jugend these days but as a live proposition The Sick Livers are vital organs.
‘Deathtime Assembly’, The Pipeline, London E1, 20/02/15
Craig Austin is a Wales Arts Review senior editor.