Then current album — Sebastopol Rd.
Opening act — the Black Watch
Back of ticket ad — so did KLSX just buy out Ticketmaster those couple of months or what?
The blur of shows around this time is more than a little amazing to me in retrospect. I clearly wanted to maximize what I could in terms of opportunities before I headed south for grad school, and I haven’t even touched on one show yet that was among the most memorable, though there was no ticket from that one — more on that next week, I figure.
But in the meantime, a band, a singer, and years later, a death.
Which sounds unduly grim. Yet inevitably, if one sees a band where someone in it is no longer alive, for whatever reason, there’s a sense of holding on to retrospective moments just that little more strongly, to see if there’s anything more that settles in the memory. Thus was the case with me thinking about the one Nirvana show I saw, the Lush shows, and now this one, featuring a guy who, oddly enough, probably had his greatest American fame some months later on a tour he had absolutely nothing to do with.
Mega City Four — its name a combination reference of two separate things, in this case the MC5 meets the setting of Judge Dredd — were, ultimately, probably never going to succeed in the big time in America. The album they were touring for was, I’m pretty sure, their only American release in the end, sneaking out on Caroline Records as part of a ‘well let’s see if it sticks’ deal. At the time they were lumped in with a variety of bands like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (I’d seen at least one of their number sporting an MC4 shirt either on stage or in videos), Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, the Senseless Things, Midway Still, a grab bag of acts that were all kinda sorta T-shirt-oriented/jump about indie/this and that. I realize that sounds dismissive — I already know a few Carter USM fans that will still speak for their virtues and hey, I liked them then and now — but a number of these bands were on balance just pleasant, immediate rushes that didn’t last much longer than that, things I played and enjoyed and then a couple of years later I was all ‘well…why do I have these again?’
Mega City Four, to give them a more proper due, were a band that were about spiky, sometimes nicely harmonized guitar indie punk pop, ragged on the edges but ultimately a bit conservative in just simply wanting to be what I described. Where they had something more individual to offer was largely summed up with their frontman, Wiz, a tall, gangly and always warm-hearted-sounding guy who also had a huge mass of dreadlocks. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen any UK performers rocking those looks — Swervedriver in particular — but I saw Mega City Four around the time I first gained a very fragmentary and unsure idea of what exactly ‘crusty’ culture was supposed to be over in the UK. Rightly or wrongly Wiz’s looks became something of a symbol of what that was all about in my head, even though the band’s music didn’t seem to match what said culture was supposed to be all about. Then again, therein the danger of reading about everything from thousands of miles away and trying to square it with one’s own experiences.
Anyway, I’d heard enough about the band and had picked up the album and liked it, so I thought I would give them a chance live. For the first time in a long, long while, though, I had nobody to go with — I was literally the only person I knew who was interested, so for the first time in three years, since the New Order show, I found myself bussing to a show and back. This was ridiculously easy, as it turned out — all I had to do was catch a bus on Sunset near UCLA to go down to the venue and then back again — and in retrospect I wonder how many shows I could have just gone to had I gotten it more together on that front. Regrets, etc., but in this case I found myself outside the Whisky with not one but two tickets, having picked up a pair in anticipation someone else would want to go with. No dice, so I half thought I could sell the other outside the venue — but in a sign that this was not the hottest show in town that night, it was far from sold out. So I had to swallow the loss and head on in, feeling weirdly alone with not anyone else to talk to or just hang with. I saw fellow Ned’s fans everywhere but that was about it in terms of obvious commonality.
The opening act (and I confess I’m not 100% sure if it was them on this night for this show but I’m still pretty convinced it was) was a pleasant surprise, though, and was the start of a gentle obsession that’s lasted to the present. The Black Watch have always been led for over two decades now by John Andrew Fredrick, a guy who in a weird way was a perfect role model for me at the time — not only did he lead a clearly indebted-to-UK-rock band (his vocals at the time made me think approvingly of Ian McCulloch’s in the early days of Echo and the Bunnymen), he had received his graduate degree in English and was teaching at a local college. That was pretty much exactly what I thought I was going to be doing myself so finding out about this was fun news — I am not sure if I’d already picked up their album Flowering at this point or if it was after the show, but the elegant, crisp, strong performances on it remain favorites of mine, Fredrick’s singing further complemented by J’anna Jacoby’s vocals and violin work, adding further to the art pop kick. Live they all sounded just as great, and while Fredrick’s long since the only remaining member he keeps releasing new albums as he does — I have at least ten around, possibly more, and he’s varied his style enough over time to ensure he doesn’t simply rewrite things over and again. There is something to be said for making your life’s work what it is as you go.
As for Mega City Four, I got a sense from them that they were a little older and, if not wiser, then less frenetic than their compatriots in bands like the Neds — as such they probably did make more perfect sense in comparison to Carter USM, similarly with a few more years and shows and releases under their belts. The set itself I couldn’t tell you much about — I remember songs from Sebastopol Rd., as well as “Shivering Sands,” the stand-alone single that was either out or about to be released. I don’t remember Wiz himself saying much to the audience — one of the other members, I think the bassist, did more of the bantering, while Wiz tended to either look up with his eyes closed while performing (and when not singing) or else was a bit…perhaps it was shy, or a natural diffidence or something else? It wasn’t that he didn’t seem to be out of sorts, but then again, it was the end of an American tour and there aren’t many bands who have gotten through one of those without having it hit them a bit somehow. At other shows he might have acted differently, but who can say? The band’s live reputation was always considered one of its strongest points and I don’t deny it was a good time, but the strongest show I’d seen that year, no, and perhaps through no fault of their own.
It was still all fun enough, had a nice time — as the back of the shirt I picked up said, it was all about ‘posi-vibes,’ and you can’t knock that sentiment at base. Still, I didn’t pay much attention to them at all after that, but there was a strange coda — later that year, Melody Maker sponsored the Rollercoaster US tour, and more about that later in the series. As part of their promotion, they shipped over a huge stock of issues to be distributed for free at concert locations, an understandable move. What wasn’t understandable was the choice of issue — a cover story featuring Wiz (as Mega City Four had just released a live album), with the singer goofily sticking his tongue out at the camera. It was, frankly, unappealing, and given the band’s next to nothing profile in the US, hardly designed to win over people. I just remember tons of trashed, scattered issues around, probably at most flipped through and then ignored — create your own metaphor as you choose.
Mega City Four continued to record and perform — and Wiz even returned to America as part of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin during a 1995 tour — then broke up a few years later. Wiz continued on with various groups, eventually forming an act called Ipanema (and cutting back his hair along the way — but not completely, which I admit I liked learning about). They made it to the US for a tour in 2006, but during a band rehearsal back in the UK he suddenly collapsed and was taken to the hospital. It was a blood clot, and he sadly passed in December of that year. By a strange coincidence I arrived in London in March 2007 the night of a tribute show to him which would have been fun to attend, but jet lag and other factors meant that wasn’t going to happen.
This year has seen a little bit of a mini-revival in that Muse, on a single earlier this year, covered a song from Sebastopol Rd., “Prague” — turns out the members of said band had been big MC4 fans growing up and that they had helped inspire them to start on their own musical road. Drawing the throughline between the half-full crowd at the Whisky featuring a now-gone singer, into the music above all else, and the crush of a crowd that now accompanies Muse with every arena show they play worldwide is one of those odd but understandable experiences that time allows for us, those of us able to see them through if fate allows for it, as it didn’t quite for Wiz. Here’s hoping he rests well.