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Three Songs No Flash

It's Not The Drugs Anymore: UNKLE & The Heritage Orchestra Live
Ben Graham , August 3rd, 2010 07:33

Now generally retired from chemical capers, Ben Graham takes in UNKLE & the Heritage Orchestra's live show at De La Warr Pavilion and is transported back to a different time.

Carefully, you take the last of the ecstasy from out of the safe place, wrap it in foil, and set off for Bexhill.

You had been saving it for a special occasion, like a bottle of wine from a particularly good year. The last pill from the old times, when the drugs still worked, when the nights stretched on into milk-white mornings, and the darkness was lit up with a million flickering candles that only you could see. When you were all still young, and still alive; nearly twenty years ago now. Now, you no longer go out much; no longer stay up all weekend, no longer have either the stamina or the inclination. Day jobs turned into careers; loved-up nights led to families, marriages and children, and all the time in the world crystallised into sand running through your fingers, so that now all you want when Friday comes around are a few glasses of wine and an early night. For much as you hate to admit it, it's finally caught up with you: the life, the constant caning, the 48 hour benders without sleep, or any kind of food intake beyond Red Bull and Pringles. Where once you lived to have it large, now you like to have it as small and as manageable as possible. And now, when you look each other in the eye, instead of dark pupils expanded to take in infinite joy, you see instead the sagging skin and dark lines around, and reflected back the same deep tiredness you constantly feel, the same disillusionment, the same simmering anger and resentment at the fact that you both had to get old.

But tonight will be different. Tonight - well, tonight feels like it's going to be something special. Because tonight you're going to hear those songs again, the songs that soundtracked a thousand after-parties, accompanied dozens of drugged-up drives through blacked-out country lanes and the city's smeared neon heart, eased countless drawn-out comedowns, and that always seem to be playing in every romantic memory you share- from that first time you laid together, in a borrowed bed at a stranger's party, and made love with Psyence Fiction playing on the other side of the paper-thin walls. It's fair to say that UNKLE have made the soundtrack to the film of your life. And that's why it's tonight that you're taking the last of the ecstasy - not for Danny's fortieth, not for Nigel and Sarah's wedding, not even for that old school night you all got back together for, just outside of Hitchin last summer- but tonight, for UNKLE, and the Heritage Orchestra, in Bexhill-on-Sea of all places. Tonight, the orchestra will be playing your song.

You walk towards the De La Warr Pavilion, Mendelhson and Chermayeff's Modernist masterpiece etched across the horizon, its strict lines and clean curves rising sublimely between you and the glittering blue sea. It's pre-war futurism and controlled elegance anticipate, in a way, the music you've come to hear- songs crafted and constructed using the infinite possibilities of digital studio technology, samplers and synthesisers, but re-imagined by an orchestra with a fifteen-piece string section, horns and piano, as well as electric guitar, bass and drums. The future reinvented, using the forms of the past. The still-bright sun hangs low over the flat roof, silhouetting the tall thin figures stood atop it, near the edge. Your stomach contracts, almost before the thought forms; she squeezes your hand and you feel her pull back involuntarily as she sees, matching the old pain in your eyes with her own.

"It's okay," you say, realising. "It's okay, darling. It's an installation; I remember now. It was on the internet. It's by Antony Gormley. They're not real people. They're just sculptures, baby. They're just sculptures. It's okay. Everything's okay."

Outside, on the lawn, are more bodies; actual human beings this time, happy, expectant, guzzling beer and smiling. You relax a little; the faint smell of hash smoke drifts with the sea breeze. You buy some water from the temporary outdoor bar, and discreetly unwrap the last pill. Biting it in half, you share it with a kiss.

Then you go on in.

The lights dim. You shift in your seat, squeezing her hand as the warm glow of the MDMA begins to permeate through your system. A smile begins spreading across your face as the orchestra make those little noises orchestras make before beginning, that only seem to make the silence around them more profound, the event more solemn. And then a wave of sound washes over you, across the hall. 'Trouble in Paradise' from End Titles: moody, cinematic, it catches you up, sweeps you away, downriver, into the past, into the future; into all time simultaneously, and outside of time too, watching it all on infinite screens, seeing how it all hooks up; the beginning, the end, the journey, the million detours, the ultimate resolution.

Lacking beats, shorn of the imperative to party, and rendered instead as stately, organic setpieces, you realise how elegiac much of UNKLE's music seems, as though caught between mourning and celebration, poised, again, between the future and the past. Maybe, too, it's that tonight you're not being distracted by the presence of celebrity guest vocalists; no Richard Ashcroft or Thom Yorke, no Josh Homme, Mark Lanegan or Ian Brown. Instead there's Gavin Clark, looking like a regular bloke in a casual suit, but capable of a soulful vocal for all that; suggestive almost of Nick Drake on 'Heaven' and, when he screws up on 'Lonely Soul' and apologises, saying he's been going through a difficult divorce, you warm to him all the more; he's one of us, you think, going through the same shit as everybody else. And when they do 'Lonely Soul' again, it's magnificent, everyone in the hall willing it on to greater heights. And what of Elle J, that diminutive girl with the huge voice? Elle J, from the band Dark Horses, bringing a gothic presence to the evening, suggesting the doomed grandeur of late-period Siouxsie and the Banshees whenever she brings her talents to bear on a song, like 'The Runaway' or a stunning 'Rabbit in Your Headlights'.

Funny, too, but you'd never realised before how many of UNKLE'S songs seem to be about death. Back when you first heard it, that sample, from the film Jacob's Ladder in the middle of 'Rabbit in your Headlights' had just seemed like a zonk, a head trip; now it seems like a message, a message waiting for you, for when you got older. Or is it just the ecstasy, messing with your head? And what about 'Lonely Soul': a time to cut the cord of life, to leave it all behind and go on your way, alone?

They end with 'The Healing from the new album. It's immense. It feels like a prayer.

"He would have loved it," you say to her, as you walk out into the night.

"I know," she says. Then: "I felt like he was there."

"We'll never know," you say. "About that night, I mean."

"Whether he fell? Or whether he meant to..."

"It wasn't your fault," you say. "It was nobody's fault. It was just..." You shake your head, and look out at the horizon. "Maybe it doesn't matter anymore," you say. "Maybe we just need to keep living."

She looks at you, and seems to smile. And you realise that the ecstasy has worn off; that it's not the drugs anymore. And you walk on, together. And the sea seems like a huge and infinite darkness by your side.