see all the photos from this concert here
Soho Dolls
Noblesse Oblige
Hotel Motel
Blow Up @ Metro, London
Wednesday July 27 2005
~ review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I haven't set foot in this murky W1 basement since one surprising night in the 20th century, when I found myself down here one Friday for a glam metal club. Lots of spandex, lots of Hanoi Rocks. Well, there goes my ascetic post-punk credibility. But the beer was £1.50 a can, which even in those days counted as a major bargain in London clubland, and I have a hazy memory of having a good time. These days, the Metro has been taken over by a new bunch of promoters, rebranded as Blow Up, and beer prices have more than tripled. But the main difference between then and now is that the Metro is a regular live music venue these days. In my book, that makes up for having my wallet emptied every time I buy a can of Grolsch. Tonight we have three bands in various stages of up-and-coming-ness, and the first is about to take the bizarrely-tiered stage. Let's give a bit of attention to...

Hotel Motel, who aren't so much a band as an eighties edition of Top Of The Pops come to life. Two impressively impassive dancing girls manipulate themselves into teatime TV show shapes, while, between them, a singer confidently holds forth in a clear pop diva voice, as she gazes appraisingly out from under a hat which was surely stolen from Marc Almond circa 1982. There's also a bloke in the background, squinting at a keyboard, but Hotel Motel are so obviously and unashamedly a showbiz experience rather than anything to do with greasy old rock 'n' roll that the appearance of this token musician (assuming he's actually on stage for any practical reason) is really quite superfluous. What saves Hotel Motel from being a lightweight retro-pop novelty act is simply this: they've got good songs. They've got that elusive knack of getting a catchy pop melody nailed down - in particular, 'I do Better Alone' is an instant classic of the defiant-in-the-face-of-a-broken-relationship genre. In a way, the carefully constructed eighties image, although clearly a deliberate part of the package, is a little misleading, for Hotel Motel have much more to offer than a fun nostalgia experience. They do that torchy electropop thing with exactly the right amount of panache. The gimmick of dressing up like the girls from the Human League is fun, but there's more substance here than you might at first guess.

Noblesse Oblige are not in any danger of being invited onto a teatime TV show, in this decade or any other. They're far too unsettling for the family audience. Valerie and Sebastian - the two people who comprise Noblesse Oblige - have added extra hardware since last I saw them: the stage is tricked out with boxes of electronics, and there's now a guitar alongside the bass. The mutant disco beat cranks up, the bass growls and grinds, and all of a sudden we're in a surreal punk speakeasy, as the duo deliver a show that's equal parts camp and venom, showbiz glam and stroppy, punkish attitude. If the ghost of Derek Jarman ever directed a remake of Cabaret, Noblesse Oblige would be the house band. Vocals and instruments are swapped to and fro from song to song, and the whole thing veers wildly from left-field glitch-pop to outright techno-nutter strangeness. 'Bitch' is a thunderous dancefloor anthem, the beat driving everything before it as Valerie leans forward and fixes the crowd with a baleful glare. It's Noblesse Oblige's most accessible tune; it even passes the singalong test, although it takes a certain strength of character to sing along to lines like 'I'm a rabbit in heat' while retaining a straight face.

Last song of the set has the crowd squirming nervously, as both members of the band suddenly step up to their mics and sing in chorus: 'We don't care if you're Muslim...' - and at that moment you can see everyone in the crowd exchanging nervous glances. What's the appropriate reaction? Do we take offence, or smile with liberal indulgence? The next line doesn't exactly solve the dilemma: 'We don't care if you're Jew...' - but, fortunately, the payoff arrives to save us all from a political correctness crisis: 'We don't care if you're Christrian - we hate all of you!'  It's Noblesse Oblige's anti-religion song, and an admirably even-handed dose of nihilism it is too. That's the paradox and peculiar genius of Noblesse Oblige. They can easily come across as a a spiky and witty weirdo-pop group, catchy melodies, hooks, choruses and all. And yet at the same time there's a dark and slightly dangerous edge to the overall experience, a nagging doubt as to whether it's all just a show, or whether Sebastian and Valerie are really letting their inner demons out for a party. Noblesse Oblige are good disco-punky fun...but you wouldn't want them sitting behind you on the bus.

Hey, all you bands, here's a tip. If you're stuck for a name, try this. Think of a location and then stick 'Dolls' after it. New York Dolls, Dresden Dolls...and now, Soho Dolls. See? Works every time. (Or, at least, it works as long as you choose a suitably gritty urban location. 'Moreton-In-Marsh Dolls' just wouldn't cut it.) OK, here we go: the Soho Dolls are now on stage, getting their gear ready. The fans cluster to the front, exchanging amiable quips with the band. 'You're rubbish!' shouts a girl in a white shirt and assertive heels. She looks like a glam-rock waitress. The band grin tolerantly, as well they might - for the glam-rock waitress turns out to be their lead singer. She scrambles on stage, and the show's on.

There are all sorts of influences at play in the Soho Dolls' sound and style, from the sixties garage-punk outfits of the bassist and guitarist (waistcoats are in, style fans) to the sexy T-Rexy sound of the guitar. Behind it all, there are programmed beats controlled by an elegantly aloof young lady at a keyboard, and in front of it all there's a nimble, poppy vocal controlled by the glam-rock waitress, who hurls herself about the stage in a frenzy of extravagant poses, but never lets her essential in-controlness slip. The overall impression? A gleeful riot of influences slammed together in that time-honoured 'it shouldn't work, but it does' style - one minute the Soho Dolls are all lo-fi and angular, next minute they're giving it that fat 'n' fruity seventies guitar sound. They're fast and brash and bubblegum, but they've also got a kind of warm, fuzzed-out depth to the sound, as if they're channelling the spirit of Mick Ronson. Meanwhile, the programming and electronics sharpens up the sound and keeps things resolutely twenty-first century. If all this makes the band seem like an unholy mish-mash - well, in a way, they are, but it's all done with a verve and swagger that ensures everything stays coherent. The boys whack out the riffs like good 'uns, while the vocalist struts and flops about at the front like a rock 'n' roll rag doll, and the music builds into a glorious buzzsaw turmoil. By way of a grand finale, the band launch into their single, 'Stripper', which is the vocalist's cue to strip off the white shirt and show us all her fancy gaffa tape bra. Ah, now I bet that's something you can't get down at Agent Provocateur. It's a bit of OTT fun rather than any kind of nudge-nudge titillation, and an appropriate climax to the band's freaky-rocky set. Yep, I like the Soho Dolls. They might sound like they've arrived at their sound by putting their combined record collections into a blender, but the result is quirky-cool mash-up pop. We'll 'ave some of that.

see all the photos from this concert here

Soho Dolls (Official band site - best for current info):


Noblesse Oblige:

Hotel Motel:

Blow Up at the Metro club: