It was all pork-pie hats, skin-heads and braces as we stepped out once again with the Fred Perry-donned rudeboys and girls of Auckland for the third time in less than a year. There were some familiar faces here. It has almost become a musical pilgrimage and an opportunity to catch up with old friends. This time round we were at Auckland's King's Arms and if the excitable carpark chatter was anything to go by, this one would be a cracker.
Growing up in the UK, my first real memory of Bad Manners was seeing them perform the Can Can on Top Of The Pops back in 1981. I still have visions of front-man Douglas Trendle (aka Buster Bloodvessel) stomping, less than gracefully, around on the stage in bloomers and bovver-boots. But at that time the band was already five years in the making. Never ones to take things too seriously, they grabbed the 80s ska revival period by the proverbial, and made sure they had fun in the process.
Harsher critics might say that no one else took them seriously either, but with five albums between 1980-85 they certainly made their mark. Though never signed to 2-Tone themselves, Bad Manners, alongside ska-compatriots The Selecter, Madness and The Specials became the soundtrack of our youth.
No strangers to our shores, Bad Manners are still firing some 30 years on. Although no longer in their original form, they retain that same essence of lunacy that made them so popular back in their prime. By all accounts they had smashed it in Wellington the night before, so we were looking forward to getting lively.
The night started well, as the AceTones set the pace perfectly with their potent brew of Trojan-infused offerings. I last saw them perform live this time last year supporting The English Beat, but they have raised the bar since then. The amazing Heather Bolton on keys was - as always - a true star, alongside Josh and his fellow 'Brass-tifarians' who filled the space from the get-go; but it was the Mighty Jabsco (aka Darren Bowyer-Warner) on toasting duties who really lifted things to a higher level. He added a layer of transcendence to proceedings and if they were great before, the AceTones are dynamite now. My only regret was that they were not on for longer.
With the floor already shuffling and the space filling nicely, the King's Arms was proving the perfect choice for a gig of this nature. Its intimate pub atmosphere and low ceilings harked back to the revival genre's 80s roots. Ironically, even the six-deep 20-minute wait for drinks only added to the nostalgia.
DJ Lise kept things moving between acts, before Nightgaunts took to the stage. This young six-piece from Auckland lifted the pace with their rappy, fun-punk 'skate-ska'. Musically they are hugely talented, but I never really got into the whole 90s period of this genre and lead-singer Paul's helium vocal effects didn't quite sit tonally with the evening's proceedings. There was something rather grating about his squeaking "rudeboy!" every two minutes like some deranged cartoon character; however, their saving grace was that they dropped a dutifully skanking version of One Step Beyond which got things back on track, if only for a short time. It was an interesting choice of support act here which didn't quite gel for me, but they got a good reception from the already heaving dancefloor. These guys are about to embark on a tour of the US and I wish them every success.
One more quick set from Lise and the signature traditional chant of the Bad Manners' fanbase, "You fat bastard!" had already begun by the time they hit the stage. Sporting a red bomber jacket and leopard-print high-tops, Buster was looking better than ever and was clearly relishing the reception. "I may not be as fat as I used to be," he proclaimed with his trademark grin, "but I'll always be a bastard!"
Flanked by the powerhouse of a brass section that is Dave 'Essex' Welton, Colin Graham and Adrian Cox on one sideand guitarist Tom Massey and bassman Lee Thompson on the other, there wasn't much room to move up there - but that certainly didn't stop them from kicking straight into things.
For the next 90 minutes we were treated to the full Bad Manners experience, with hits across the board including a couple from their 1989 Return Of The Ugly offering, This Is Ska and Sally Brown.
But it was the classics that got the best response; the crowd really found its voice for Lorraine and Skinhead Love Affair, and got into full action mode for a blistering version of Feel Like Jumping. Buster dedicated Special Brew to all the drinkers in the room and even their cover of Woolly Bully from the 1980 album Ska'n'B got a mention, much to the delight of those who remembered it first time around.
As things progressed, it was clear that the last three decades had started to take a toll on Buster's voice, and he almost 'hinted' the lyrics through some tunes, allowing the pogo-ing crowd to fill in the blanks. Yet the band was red-hot and in my opinion performing better than they have ever been. Hearing the instrumental stormer Echo 4-2 live certainly was one of the key moments of the night and Justin Dodsworth's solo on keys during Inner London Violence was simply flawless.
They made it look easy, and the ongoing antics and OTT dance routines from all on stage - especially during a suitably bad-mannered rendition of Frankie Vallis' Can't Take My Eyes Off You - certainly kept the energy levels at maximum.
So what if their repertoire isn't as varied as others from that period or if Buster's voice isn't quite what it used to be? Who's going to be holding that against them? I heard no complaints. If after 30 years you're still doing what you love, and with the same passion and fervour that Buster displayed onstage, then hold on to what you've got. His blunt persona and undoubted charisma should be the envy of many an artist in today's throwaway musical milieu. I guess that's the reason he is flanked by such talented musicians year after year.
An amazing night was topped off in true style with ska-anthem Lip Up Fatty and of course the Can Can, this time minus the bloomers, but still with the same energy and brazen rudeboy attitude that it possessed all those years ago.
"As long as you guys are here, we'll keep coming back," Buster said with a smile. We might just hold you to that one, mate.
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