Gonzo Review: “Who Took Utopia?” by the Girobabies

 

It was a Saturday evening in June. I had been out the night before and my mate Dunny had phoned to see if I fancied attending a barbecue at his flat in Govan, catch up and that over a munch, and ease out of my hangover into Sunday. Sounded good, so I headed across Glasgow to where he stayed. My mate lives in what might be described as an anarchists’ commune, sharing a disrepaired Govan house with a fluid population of activists, artists, outcasts, and asylum seekers. The residency of the house seems to move between around five and fifteen folk. They share the housework and hold meetings; they grow their own food and steal from supermarket skips. They throw great parties.

I turned out of the Ibrox subway station, past the Rangers Pub, exchanged greetings with a stoating alkie, and headed across the wasted lots and barbed walls, one wall with FTP scribbled, and the opposing wall with FTQ, houses jungled with weeds and ivy, flats that seemed vacant but maybe weren’t, and turned into the blind street in which the anarchists dwell. Muffled music was humming; a distant drum was beating. I approached the innocuous looking Victorian semi-detach (its neighbour boarded up), and I opened the gate tied shut by bicycle tubes. The music, especially the drumming, was loud now and clearly coming from inside. The sun was setting on a long June evening and I knew that this barbecue was not going to be white wine and golf stories. Buckfast wine and ecky stories instead would be the flavour of the night. I cracked my knuckles and opened the front door, after knocking for the sake of politeness.

As I let myself in, the music suddenly increased in volume and then just as suddenly stopped before I could really discern a tune.

Then from the livingroom opposite the staircase I heard an amplified voice say:

“Hink that’s the mic workin now, mate.”

Then a cheer came from behind the livingroom door and drums started to beat and the cheer grew louder and I could feel the hall floor start to vibrate. Some people came running from the kitchen at the other end of the hall and a couple came leaping down the stairs. A guitar rang out: distorted and loud. The newcomers burst through the living room door and everything became further amplified as the door swung open and I ran in to follow them.

Immediately I was crashed into by the swaying mosh pit that filled the stripped-out livingroom floor, and the band (which I could only catch the odd glimpse of, even though they were but a few steps in front of me, due to the hoachin madness of the crowd) started to up the energy as they fully launched into their first tune:

“Stabbed in the back, hit with the sack, social not working, kicked out yer flat, under arrest, under attack, walk under the ladder with a magpie and a cat, a tug of war tussle with the mental muscle, must muster something above the lacklustre, such is life .... STICK A GRIN ON IT! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? EVERYTHING! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? ANYTHING! WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? EVERYTHING! EVERY DAY IS A FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH!”

It was about this point in the song that someone offered me a swig of their bottle of bucky. No going back now! Chug! And leap into the moshpit!

The guitarist was rocking choppy and jumpy riffage and making his oversized amp squeal with the strain, the bassist was making the walls of the tiny room throb, the drummer was trying to destroy his drumkit by drumsticking it to death, and the singer was just growling and spitting out this poetic vitriol as though he didn’t give a fuck while giving out fucks. Everyone else was just a riotous, sweaty, drunken mess. No chatting between songs. Just belter after belter.

It was probably at some point between the call and response chant of “Daily Mail! Fuck that shit!” and the anthemic “Jeremy Kyle has been fucking my wife!” that I decided that this was one of the best gigs I had ever been to in my life. In fact, I didn’t even go to this gig, I just landed in it. After the last song, “Fuck the council tax bill, I’ll camp on a hill, I’ll camp on a hill, I’ll camp on a hill, it’s the Giros, it’s the Giros, it’s the highs, the lows, the Gi’s, the rows,” the singer went: “Cheers. Cheers to aw the folk who live in this flat for daein this. Never got shut down! We’re the Girobabies. Cheers.”

Everyone cheered and left the room to go into the kitchen and back garden in that post-gig haze of booze, adrenaline, and serotonin. As I followed everyone out, after giving the band a dopey thumbs up as they unplugged, I thought to myself: “The Girobabies ... Yass.”

 

So the party went on and I never did get something to eat from the barbecue. I met Robbie Gunn, the Girobabies guitarist, at some point and he told me I could get the band’s music online, which I did the day after the next day. The reason it took so long to for me to get online to download the music was that I never went home for another 24 hours or so. We stayed up the whole night talking music and politics and dreams, ended up back at another flat at some point, and then, when the sun was fully up, we all headed to Festival Park with a guitar and a few cans. We (‘we’ being a group of sleep-is-for-the-weak reprobates) huddled on the grass amongst the dog walkers while Gordy Duncan, the Girobabies drummer, played the acoustic guitar, and the mystery man, Girobabies singer,  Mark McG, jammed a mixture of rap, spoken word, and Giros lyrics over the top of the strumming. This was the first time I actually got a close listen to the lyrics of the band. Great word-play, internal rhyming, rhythmical flow, a sense of anger and humour, political awareness, a moral core, and general smartness. A lovely revelation for a Sunday afternoon as the Orange Walk marched on by, ruining the sunshine, and the police eventually told us to move.

 

I woke up the next day half the way to work. Something about that two-day day had woke me up and my whole day at work was dominated by reflections upon it. It was the general atmosphere, the camaraderie, but it all revolved around the music of the great new band I had seen. There are few things better. It inspired me to write about it, and the poem I wrote somewhat serves as a precursor to the inspiration that listening to the Girobabies albums has had in leading me to write this ‘review’ which you are currently reading. The poem goes:

 

In Festival Park

 

We are reprobates – predestined to existence

And in Festival Park we ingest chemicals

That dose our senses into sobriety

And tell life stories and the woes of society

And when we hear the march of hate

We create to quell the demon drums

That comes tormented as the whistle hums

We make free-making music

For it is we who are the hope bringers

Song singers –

Reprobates clinging together

Through the bright night of the sun

As one we whisper this sleepless day, this sweet desperation

Communicate our joyful sorrow

As we hurtle through space to tomorrow.

 

I included this poem to give a sense of the inspiring effect that witnessing great artistic energy can have; to give a sense of some of the energising effects of the Girobabies’ music. It made me want to create.

I bought their E.P. “Social Not Working” and their debut album “Bus Stop Apocalypse” off Bandcamp and paid the optional fee. I ingested both and loved them and went to see the band live several other times around Glasgow and the summer festival scene. I learned that singer Mark McG also rapped under the name Jackal Trades, and this introduced me to other Glaswegian hip-hop such as Loki and Ciaran Mac who he champions and often shares a stage with. I soon learned that Mark McG also performed highly political spoken-word poetry wherever a microphone would have him as he stage-crashed and forced people to listen to his satirical wordplay under the moniker “Mark Mywords”. He also performs stand-up comedy under the guise of Frank the Foodie, a politically illiterate racist who loves spaghetti hoops. Indeed, I discovered that McG was a cultural force unto himself, organising gigs across the vibrant underground Glasgow music scene as well as running stages at festivals and putting on his own festival on a boat in Loch Lomond. All this from a guy who is perpetually skint with his day-job being simply his own artistry and ‘making things happen’ attitude. Whenever I see him, he tends to be rushing around with a megaphone trying to get someone to bring him a snare-drum stand or kicking about in a spraypainted boiler suit trying to find the Giro’s drummer, Gordy, for an impromptu gig on a stage they weren’t invited to play. After he finds Gordy asleep under a haystack by some drum’n’bass speakers, he realises his bassist can’t make it as he’s got a wean now so he needs to find a new bassist from one of the other bands, which he inevitably pulls off due to his inimitable energy and get-shit-done attitude.

So having become a fan of the band, I knew from their live sets that they had amassed a large body of new material. A new album was coming. I already knew it would be good - songs “Secret Animal” and “Brain Rocket” had already become staples and crowd-favourites in the live sets - and so I was looking forward to it. The Girobabies are an unsigned band, so all the marketing and prerelease work has to be undertaken by the band members themselves. Not to mention the sourcing of artwork, recording time, production, printing, ‘brand management’, and all that other pish. However, just because we must work within the capitalist system, doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it. Mark McG is an expert marketeer. The first step he took to marketing the album was on social media, building up excitement about the upcoming release among the band’s large online following. He started by asking fans, “Who took utopia?”, and by doing so he revealed the upcoming album’s title which asks the same question. A question which anyone who would stand still long enough was filmed answering according to their own opinion. The answers ranged from “The fucking Tories” to “Colonel Mustard and the Illuminati.”  The next step was to release the music video for the album’s first single, Equinox, a summer anthem in its own right (aptly) - a song I will discuss later. In the music video the band plays on a hill overlooking Glasgow while unveiling their new mascot, “Jaggybaws”, aka the statue of the Commonwealth Games mascot that was mysteriously stolen during the Games from a street in the East End ... this act of hooliganism made national news at the time. After this video caused much internet hilarity, it was time for McG to get paranoid. He started posting videos of himself ranting that the company, Yorkshire Tea, had hacked into his laptop and had stolen the band’s artwork and album title in their latest advertising campaign, “Who Took Brewtopia?” McG filmed himself ‘RAGIN” beside Yorkshire Tea’s new Brewtopia billboards around the city. The tea company actually responded to his barrage of paranoid tweets with “You must be joking?” after he threatened to sue. McG responded by filming a crowd of hundreds of fans at a gig screaming: “He’s not joking!” The plot thickened: it appeared that Yorkshire Tea were in cahoots with the band The Libertines, and then Mark McG’s kettle broke, which for him was the last straw ... he moved out of his flat. Hashtag Social Tea-dium Hashtag The Liber Tea-ns.

Needless to say, after all this insani-tea it was about time to release the fucking album. To my delight I was offered a pre-release copy in order to review it, and already being a huge fan, there was a fair chance that I was going to write a positive review. I put it on and turned it up and sat back.

My first reaction, believe it or not, was a sense of utter annoyance. I was really pissed off by it. It was quite clear, even from first listening, that it was fucking brilliant. And this pissed me off because I wished I was in the Girobabies. I chilled out though and started to instead feel the joy you get when you listen to something great.

The band’s earlier releases were great because they were catchy, punchy, tight, smart, and angry. But Who Took Utopia? is all of these things and more. The elements that set it apart from the earlier recordings are: intricacy of the musicality, quality of production, ambition, consistent tune after tuneage, and thematic unity. Indeed, it is astonishing that an unsigned band can pull something off like this, essentially powered by mates’ rates and DIY. Social Not Working and Bus Stop Apocalypse contain songs that express a general ‘Fuck You’ to the shitiness of our world (power, greed, and corruptible seed), songs that grab you on first listen and shake you about and make you want to smash shit. Who Took Utopia? has this effect but it also achieves something more subtle, which for me, is what makes it great. It still shouts, “Fuck This!” but it also analyses ‘this’ and tries to come to terms with it. And musically, the songs grow in complexity, and after multiple listens you are still hearing new things in them.

The opener, Equinox, is, quite simply, a tune. It has a great singalong chorus and is an excellent way to start the album. McG sings about being free from the trappings of the Scottish winter; a summer of laughter and taps aff lies ahead. Robbie Gunn lays down and impeccable indie guitar riff and we’re off. Again, a great ‘fun’, relatable song. But there is something going on at another level with this tune and with the album as a whole, as revealed by the first lines of the song and album, perhaps one of the cleverest first rhymes of any album ever:

“Acting normal is a portable portal I report to, whether or not I even want to, I’m gonna fool you...”

This wordplay is a typical example of McG’s lyrical prowess, but more than that, it introduces a theme that runs through the album. This is Mark McG expressing a sense of growing paranoia, confusion, and disillusion from the dark and dirty world that he increasingly feels less angered by, but more distanced from. It’s not that he hates the world, but more that he is increasingly doubtful about whether there is any salvation in it, whether Utopia actually exists (Utopia literally meaning “No Place”). The album’s eponymous question echoes through the album, to be answered only in the last song, and through humour and wit and ‘bravado steeped in irony’ McG asks questions about the insanity of our world in which only nutters could ‘act normal’ in.

In “Secret Animal” he raps about being “perched up high observing the madness” and again this lyric exemplifies the general ‘feel’ of the album. The idea of being a part of a crazy world and being apart from it at the same time. Why do we believe all the mental shit we’re told? “The turtle is a hundred and fifty years old. How do they know!?” - the chant at the end of “Brain Rocket (and the Evolution of Turtles)”.

And this questioning of reality comes from an apparent “Giro baby”, unemployed but highly intelligent, who could have a stake in this system but so despises it, he’d rather be a down-and-out, he’d rather be a reprobate; a “heroic dose of wine” while brewing up potions even though “realizing the fear is rising, this bleak horizon.” And “not hiding” but “fighting on if we can keep the light on” - all this is a rebellious act in a bar-coded world, “void and ludicrous”. He sings about how having breakfast before lunchtime is an achievement, as is drinking slowly (even when you aren’t really), and if you disagree with him then “follow the sheep, baa-baa, to the abattoir.”

This feeling of caustic disillusionment is reiterated throughout:

“Have a laugh, after all, I`m told I`m only half lonely; 
I barge through the graveyard, they telled me - ‘Staff only’,
Sorry the dreams you were sold were not meant for your sort, 
The dreams you dreamt were only meant for the other ones ...”

He asks more and more questions throughout but seems to find that he will never find the answers:

“What’s the matter? We’re all howling in the moonlight.”

But on the excellent “Planet Fort Knox” (“with a paltry population of just me”) he imagines himself in the persona of a paranoid American survivalist. He claims to not be angry, shocked, or bitter by this lot in life. In fact, beyond this “mind-warped brainwashed bubble”, he sings, “I have my own theories - I’m the king of this rubble.” The irony is clear. He searched for a way out of his shitty rundown hometown, “Where the closest thing to human life is a condom on the beach and a ramp up the theatre”, but only to find it was always inescapable in the end: we’re all “burnt at the stake when we were promised rainbows, the emperor reigns but we’re still wearing the same clothes.”

The songs themselves ramp up as the album develops, they continue to innovate their sound throughout with a variety of styles and instrumental trickery. This is all held together by generally excellent wild-but-tight drumming and intricate guitar work, always maintaining the central grimy but sharp-edged Giros sound throughout. The singing moves across rap and rant, to provide perfect chorus catchiness where required, and every song is supplied with a potent hook. McG’s deep and gravelly growl expresses the lyrical weight of the album brilliantly, at times aggressive as though he were singing through a megaphone, at times gubbed as though he were just back from a bender. The vocals overall add character and power to the harmony-dissonance of the rest of the band. This all builds up to the final song in the album “Escape! Routine!” where Mark McG tries to finally answer the question which has haunted every song on the album so far: “Who Took Utopia?”

McG portrays himself out at sea, alone in a dinghy, rowing away for days on end, recording his thoughts like a diary. He seems confused and hallucinatory, perhaps worn down by his minority-of-one insanity ... until finally out of nowhere:

 

“There’s a helicopter overhead!

Escape! Routine!

Helicopter overhead!

I know what’s real!”

 

Is this helicopter his saviour or his capturer? Or is it a figment of his paranoid imagination? Does he need to follow the escape routine in order to be free? Follow the other folk. Always on the run. Or does he need to escape routine in order to be free? Run away from the ‘normal’ world to get out of the rat race. The desperate cry of “I know what’s real!” only emphasises that he is no longer sure what is real anymore and his salvation may be his own destruction.

But then at the end of the song, now back at Day 1 in McG’s mental diary, we finally have the album’s valedictory validation. The album’s first truly positive statement since feeling the joy of the summer coming in the album’s first song. McG has the balls to not just be a critic but to offer hope beyond despair. You can’t find freedom outside yourself. You cannot escape your fears by fearing them. You took Utopia, and only you can give it back. Embrace your helicopter!

 

Day 1: the snakes became butterfly`s
the pain became nothing but mere sleep in our weary eyes
it starts with a shooting star and parts with a sunrise
dazed by the beauty in everything - I felt good! 
Words are but a memory - I speak in colours now 
I wanna spend another hunner summers with no count 
fear was the temporary illusion of ego 
we shed our last shred of sanity we don`t need it now where we go 
who took utopia? 
well there`s no place like the present 
there`s no passport for a state of mind 
whether superstar or peasant 
you took utopia! 
and you are only me 
and I was born yesterday so it was never really me 
and aye I have sinned aye but it was never truly me 
I quantum leaped into this instant and rose up from the sea 
you have been trapped but you can break free 
coz I think I spy a torch-light that will never bother me 

We all take the same way out

Hello helicopter!

Dougie

30/08/15

 

P.S.

I have written over 3,500 words about this album and I still feel like there is more I could say. Just fucking buy it yourself and listen to it. Let the music do the talking.