For a band much-acclaimed for their eclectic and dynamic body of work, determined independence and massively collectible output, Stereolab are often overlooked on the list of great live acts. But this does them a disservice. For a time in the 1990s they were the best live band in Britain, and without them this period would have been a long, dull slog through the most dismal excesses of Britpop. Stereolab delivering us gig-goers from an unrelenting diet of Echobelly and Sleeper and this must be added to the list of reasons to hold them to the ears of our bosoms, or something.
Summer in 1993 was hot and concerts were sticky affairs. But my brother had picked up a copy of Peng!, Stereolab’s 1992 debut LP after a chance overhearing in a record shop and bought it home. He and I were quickly hooked by the way it rocked along in parts and grooved in others, intrigued by the French-English lyrics and, most of all, enthralled by the way the entire LP, like Stereolab’s entire output, relied only on one chord. The famous Chord X was employed throughout the bands career and across many excellent albums, but never in such a pure and sprightly way as it was on Peng! So when we spied their name in the small ads in NME a Friday night in Islington at the Powerhaus was in order.
Neither of us could rustle up any idiot friends so it was just the two of us, unusually. Maybe this is one of the reasons I remember it so fondly. The Powerhaus occupied a site now filled with a Halifax and an All Bar One, and was one of the last remnants of a time when now hugely bourgeois Upper Street was more like the southern part of Camden High Street. It’s actually on a street officially called Islington High Street, where it segues into Liverpool Road. Other landmarks are London’s biggest news-stand and an always incredibly busy traffic crossing from Angel tube.
As still is my wont, we arrived stupidly early, before the first support had even sound-checked. Three bands for six quid. As Rocket Monkeys, like the other support band, Herzfeld heard from neither before nor since, played their set Matt and I were able to sit and talk with two friendly types sitting cross-legged on the floor of the venue. This couple, it turned out, were Laetitia (Seaya) Sadier and Tim Gane, the singer and guitarist and songwriting team behind Stereolab. Kids these days who can Twitter and Face-party Will Young or whoever it is the hell you like won’t appreciate the simple thrill of sitting and talking in this way. It felt like a treat then and it does now.
As the room filled Matt and I met more unusual people. First up, an older couple, already in the know about Stereolab called Dave and Wendy who we bumped into at all the best gigs for years to come afterwards. A Belgian called ‘Boods’ who pointed out London indie scenester Miki from Lush and invited us to a free gig at the old Rough Trade store in Neal’s Yard the following day that he never turned up to. It was rubbish. I’ve met dozens of people who claim to have seen the Beastie Boys play a punk set down there in 1993 when there were skaters moshing in Slam City Skates upstairs, but never anyone who yawned and scratched through the Hair and Skin Trading Company. Some things are secret for a reason.
The temperature was rising too. The Powerhaus was sweaty at the best of times and this was a near-aqueous evening. Stereolab came on and proceeded to play an electrifying set. They were always slightly too clever to attract a moshing crowd but everyone was dancing. Tim Gane’s pogoing as he played Chord X all night with a beatific look on his face was unforgettable. Laetitia and the late Mary Hanson, as beguiling a chanteuse as her partner in crime next to her, with a near-identical singing voice.
The show finished on a massive high with an extended version of Stomach Worm (on the setlist as ‘Jealousy’). It was a crashing, bashing, chordant mess by the end, as were the crowd. The Islington night air was broken by the shouts of minicab touts, the laughter of happy drunks and the noise of sirens.
Stereolab avoided the over-hyped and under-talented guitar rock scene of the 1990s and kept their credibility intact to this day. They would do perverse things: release albums with the same song played a slightly different way twice (‘We’re not adult oriented’ from ‘The Groop played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music’) and appear on The Word playing French Disko and then shy away from the fevered hype around this marvellous song. It was good but they made many better and seemed to loathe the idea of having a hit. They virtually gave away fantastic songs on limited edition 7-inches at concerts which now sell for hundreds. But Stereolab were a fabulous band then and remain so now.
The evening has long been a benchmark for excellent evenings out and for sheer musical exhilaration has never been bettered before or since.