Last Days at The 12 Bar The Membranes, 20/12/14.

“The mad ones are always the best…”

John Robb
The psychedelic sounds of the 2014 Membranes

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road, just round the corner from old Soho, there used to be a venue on Tin Pan Alley called The 12 Bar. Denmark Street is only a couple of hundred yards long at most but as many people know has a very special place in British popular music history for all sorts of reasons. At various times it has been the home of music publishers, coffee shops, guitar shops, record stores, recording studios, even The Sex Pistols who lived at No 6 before they pulled off the great rock ‘n’ roll swindle and hit the big time, according to the ever-accurate Wikipedia. I first knew it for the comic shops I found there in the 1980s, when Forbidden Planet still used to stock the American underground comix I loved, and later the music book shop Helter Skelter. But all of that history was coming to an end thanks to Crossrail and the massive redevelopment that had already swept away the nearby Astoria. As 2014 drew to a close The 12 Bar itself was slated for closure too and to mark it’s passing The Membranes announced a final gig there just before Christmas on the 20th December, and we just had to be there didn’t we…

The second coming of The Membranes had started five years earlier, when My Bloody Valentine asked John Robb to put the band back together in late 2009 for one of the ‘All Tomorrows Parties’ festivals which they had been asked to curate. MBV had played some of their earliest gigs supporting The Membranes, hence the request. Despite being an always-forward looking guy, Robb took the plunge, re-jigged Goldblade and put together a 30 minute set of oldies. A quiet warm-up was announced at very short notice, playing bottom of the bill to a couple of Goth bands around the corner from Oldham Street in Manchester city centre. That’s a story for another day, suffice to say a few dozen people turned up and witnessed a miraculous rebirth – after ATP another gig was arranged at The Lexington in London. Hundreds turned up for that, JR was visibly bewildered, saying from the stage “This is very weird…”. We’d been there for that one too which is a story for yet ANOTHER day. The 2014 Membranes were no heritage band though, being very much a living, breathing, creating outfit again, with new releases behind and ahead of them, and an enthusiastic and growing following. We were set for one of the great nights, one of the MAD ones, celebrating a great venue that was about to be swept away in the middle of a thousand office Christmas parties, far-too-strong bottled cider, and wearing two foot tall black paper hats to boot. Let me explain…

As if marking the passing of yet another much-loved London venue wasn’t enough, John Robb had decided The Membranes set should have a theme and had been all over social media to urge his audience to indulge the band’s Isambard Kingdom Brunel fixation by turning up in stovepipe hats. Well, being the passive, adoring, obedient fan-boys we were and are, we complied – half an hour before I jumped onto the train to London, my wife and daughter were channelling their inner milliners and knocking up the required head gear from black sugar paper. They looked the part and thankfully survived two hours stashed up on a Pendolino luggage rack – they only had to do that once, they would not be coming back.


The evening started as they usually did for London gigs, in the Bree Louise just round the corner from Euston. There’s another institution that’s been blown away by a railway development, HS2 doing for a wonderful boozer this time. An hour or so was spent catching up, swapping work stories, exchanging the compilation CDs which are made for these meet ups, but with one eye on the clock to make sure we could make the venue good and early. There are a handful of bands where we’ll crash the soundcheck if we possibly can, and The Membranes are right at the top of that list. So suitably refreshed and with feet lightened, we almost literally skipped down the Tottenham Court Road to Denmark Street, pausing outside The 12 Bar to don and adjust out faux stovepipe hats before making a grand entrance into what we were both sure would be a sea of similar headwear.

What we actually walked into was a half-full bar of silence. No hats, no smiles of recognition, no friendly faces that’s for sure. We did the only things we could do – doff the paper hats and order strong drink. Then sit down close to the already laid out merch table and wait for friends to arrive. It could have been worse of course, I expect if you’d walked into an off-Soho bar wearing the wrong kind of headgear forty years before you wouldn’t have got away with anything less than a good kicking and an invitation to never return. This was an occasion when we were grateful that all the nastiness has drained away from gig-going. And we were already four pints in, so we struck up a conversation with the merch guy. Once he realised we were going to buy very little (we had it all already – like I say, we are obedient fan boys…), we got talking about how the evening was likely to pan out. We also wondered if Dave, a Londoner we’d bumped into several times before at London gigs, most especially ones with The Membranes on the bill, and had bonded with over a custom-made Bog-shed t-shirt, would turn up. Dave was a welcome attendee at any Membranes show because he maintained the tradition of bringing plastic bags full of shredded newspaper to the gig, which would be distributed wildly into the air at every opportunity. But as the evening wore on, and there was no sign of Dave, we realised we would have to fill the void. The merch guy, knowing an open door when he saw one, and not shy of giving it an almighty shove, pointed out the large pile of undistributed gig flyers sitting on a nearby table. He may even have moved them closer, within reach, leading us into temptation…

Innocence personified

We looked at the pile of flyers. We looked at the running times. We looked at our empty glasses and swiftly had them refilled with 7% organic bottled cider. We looked at our friends, Helena and Chris. We looked at the fliers again. We looked at the merch guy, who had quietly cleared a space on the table in front of us. We got to work.

I can’t remember where we stashed the handfuls of opportunistic mosh pit confetti but I suspect it was right out of site by the time the band came rolling out of the soundcheck which we hadn’t managed to gain entry to. Now The Membranes are good sorts and always up for a chin wag, and as we appeared to be the only punters who had made any effort whatsoever regarding the IKB rallying call, they indulged us massively by posing topped off with the imitation toppers. After all, how could they say no?

Humour me…

We love John Robb. The funny thing is, neither of us saw The Membranes back in the day, Wibble not for want of trying (he once drove from Cornwall to Bridgwater in a dodgy Vauxhall Chevette only to find the gig cancelled) and myself because they were probably too messy back then for my unevolved tastes, before I became baptised into the buzz…

The first time we had the opportunity to see JR in action was when he formed the mighty Goldblade. Wibble saw them in Chelmsford at the beginning of February 1997 then we all saw them at The Station Hotel in Wellington a week later, supported by our friend Nathan and his band Mustard. They were a revelation. Goldblade had been full-on punk ‘n’ soul when they started out, like The Clash meet the JSBX meet a turbo-charged James Brown – by 2009 they had sort-of painted themselves into a punk rock corner, still great fun to go and see mind. Although he didn’t know it at the time, by reviving The Membranes, John Robb opened up all sorts of musical possibilities that would probably not have been available to him in Goldblade. By the time tonight’s gig came around in London, they were airborne and skybound, full throttle, heading eight miles high…

Rob Haynes – he’s everywhere…

Rob Haynes had been in every incarnation of Goldblade and The Membranes we had seen ever since, a LOT of gigs, apart from JR he was now the last man standing from that mad night in Shropshire over seventeen years ago. We’d also seen him pop up in The Inca Babies in Manchester in 2010, we’d see him playing behind a reincarnated A Witness in 2015. A versatile man.

Enough socialising. It was time to get into the gig itself. We’d missed the first support act but next-on-the-bill ‘Faerground Accidents’ were clearly up and running. It was a couple of steps down, then we were in the tiniest room imaginable, TINY, so small they’d had to build a balcony to make the best use if the space available, which we now headed up into. My memories of what Faerground Accidents sounded like are, minimal – I could go on Bandcamp again, but I remember quite enjoying them and I don’t wanna be disappointed.

Psychotronic pop from Sheffield, it says here…

Look how close the balcony is to the back wall of the stage! Insane!

At some point we got back downstairs. At some point we probably bought ourselves a couple more drinks too. At some point The Membranes made it onto the stage and the place went mad for the next hour or so. “Those are not stovepipe hats” pronounced JR before the band got stuck in. That didn’t stop one of them making it onto the head of Pete ‘Tank’ Byrchmore, ex-Nightingale, current Membrane, before both hats disappeared into the moshpit, reappearing with handfuls of ‘confetti’.

The headache collector…

The setlist was heavy with numbers from the as-yet unreleased new LP, ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’, That record is a really good listen but the songs come alive with an enthusiastic audience, especially numbers like ‘Graveyard’ and ‘Do the Supernova’, tunes written to be performed and appreciated, wildly. Which we did. To be honest, they could have played just about anything and it would have worked – this is a band that thrives in small spaces like The 12 Bar – we’ve seen them work the larger rooms like The Ritz in Manchester successfully, but they find it harder to connect when there’s too much of a space between the band and the punters. John Robb is big on audience contact, physical contact, intimate physical contact at times, a communion celebrated with sweat and perspiration. And we are always willing participants.

The set raced to a conclusion with ‘Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder’ and ‘Myths & Legends’, tunes from the old days, before the night ended with ’21st Century Man’, a song who’s title at least nods in the direction of dark psychedelia that went before with King Crimson. The Membranes were taking that banner and running with it. We spilled out into what felt like a warm winter night, still blazing, and disappeared into the tube, bound for Tottenham Hale, a snatched sandwich from an all-night garage, homeward bound party-goers with an appetite for selfies with the grey-haired, no matter if they’d been baptised into the buzz in sweat, and for the posher parts of Essex. It had been one of the good ones, one of the mad ones, and as Mr Robb himself stated, they are always the best.

After. Note distinctive headwear, slight return…

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