(Gig of a Lifetime) Corsica Studios, London, December 2006
published: 14 /
In 'Gig of a Lifetime', Dominic Simpson writes about being evacuated from London venue the Corsica Studios after German avant-garde rockers Faust set off a smoke bomb
I've been to some pretty freaky gigs in my time. I've seen American freakout collective Sunburned Hand of the Man play onstage with various band members covered with horse heads. I've seen David Yow of tThe Jesus Lizard spend practically the entire set by the band surfing over audience members' heads while simultaneously 'singing' all the lyrics perfectly. I've seen Brian Jonestown Massacre fight onstage during three-hour plus sets, and seen Lightning Bolt spend the entirety of their set playing in the middle of the audience rather than on the stage. I've seen crazed Canadians AIDS Wolf play with a drummer only in his underpants running around the audience. And I've seen Iggy Pop writhing around semi-naked and humping the amps onstage with the Stooges.
But one concert that especially stands out for this writer is a performance by legendary uncompromising pioneering German collective Faust. For those uninitiated, Faust came of age in the 70s, emerging from a cauldron of improvisation, left-wing politics, squatting, and experimental performance in an extraordinary scene in West Germany that would equally see in the ascendancy the likes of Can, Neu! and Amon Dull II. Now dubbed 'Krautrock', but at the time part of what would be called kosmische music, Faust gained fame for their abrasive live shows which employed industrial and metal machinery, pre-empting the scrap metal-bothering likes of Einstürzende Neubauten by a few years. In a sign of the madness of the music industry in times past, Richard Branson's Virgin Records signed Faust, boldly releasing their decidedly challenging 'The Faust Tapes' to an unsuspecting British audience for the princely sum of 48 pence as an attempt to market them as the 'German Beatles'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't work out in the long run.
Sometime in the mid-to-late noughties, after hearing that they were playing a (relatively) new venue called Corsica Studios – located not, in fact, in Corsica, but rather in the slightly less salubrious surroundings of the back of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre in South London, underneath railway arches – I decided to check them out. The venue then felt like a squat of sorts, an 'unofficial' venue with unfinished building work and a weird neon light. It was packed, with Charles Hayward from This Heat playing an excellent support set in a room near the main one, joined by a passageway. When Faust came on against the backdrop of a giant gong, it was obvious that the gig was going to be abrasive stuff. The presence of a cement mixer and angle grinder, not exactly your standard band live set-up, saw to that. I'm pretty sure there was an axe and part of a tree somewhere onstage too.
Sure enough, after a normal enough beginning to the set, drummer Werner “Zappi” Diermaier started sending sparks flying from the angle grinder and got the cement mixer going. Not that the audience seemed perturbed; Faust fans are used to this kind of behaviour. Instead, there was a kind of wild cheer from the audience.
Things, however, started to get a bit more crazy when singer/bassist Jean-Hervé Péron decided to walk through the crowd with a chainsaw. Yes, a fully-fledged chainsaw. I was convinced it was a fake, but an acquaintance at the gig insisted it was real, which began to raise my nerves somewhat. It certainly looked very real.
This, as it turns out, was just the start. At the band raged on, Péron then took another walk through the audience, this time dressed in full-length combat gear and mask, looking a cross between like some kind of ageing terrorist and a spaceman on the Moon. He proceeded to attach something to a post protruding from a wall near me. I couldn't work out what it was at first, but it didn't take long to see the effects.
Straight after doing so, the venue began to fill rapidly with an engulfing blue and red smoke. Not the kind of dry ice that wisps around a stage a bit to make a band look enigmatic, or used sparingly on a dancefloor in a club. He had left off a whole canister of some kind of smoke machine (or more than one) that rapidly filled the whole venue, to the point where it was impossible to view anything in front of you. The whole venue was engulfed in a kind of fog which left people unable to see anything. People walked around in a daze; this writer could only see the shadows of people in front, as lost as me. At one point, I looked down on the floor and saw what looked like a ring of fire.
The fire alarm went off, and people, confused, eventually started filing out of the venue. At one point, Péron grabbed me and shouted, “You must leave the venue now!”
While this was happening, the other guitarist in the band, Amaury Cambuzat, had run his guitar riff through a loop pedal, and let the riff loop for infinity. So, we all dutifully left the venue to the sound of a squealing guitar riff, looping at excruciating volume ad infinitum. Whether the band were still onstage at this point was impossible to ascertain: the fog of blue and red dry ice in the venue was total, and the lights had been snuffed out.
Outside the venue, there was a kind of disbelief as we watched waves of billowing dry ice seep out of the open doors into the night. The doormen looked bemused. The distant sound of a police van came closer; then they were among us, with policemen engaged in discussions with venue representatives. All the time, that churning guitar riff at decibel-inducing volume looping hypnotically, adding to the madness.
All of a sudden, there was a sound inside the venue, despite our belief that no-one was in there: the band lumbering back onstage and jamming to an empty audience, with no-one able to see them because of the billowing fog. The police looked confused, before shrugging and going their way. Eventually, we were allowed back in, slowly catching a site of the stage and the band playing as the fog disappeared and the lights came back on.
Faust were pretty much onstage the whole time, I found out later. They had simply stood on stage while the madness unfurled, with Péron leading people out. That chainsaw stayed for the rest of the gig. I had my eye on it.
You would think that most venues would have banned Faust immediately, as the ICA on The Mall did to Einstürzende Neubauten when they tried to dig tunnels below the stage back in the mid-80s (as a result of being convinced that there was an 'art conspiracy' involving the ICA and nearby Buckingham Palace). Amazingly, though, Corsica Studios invited them back. Now that is a venue that knows a mindblowing gig when it sees it. I've still got that excruciatingly loud looped riff burrowing away in my head sometimes.