All The Kids Are Dead Kids: Fat White Family Live

Fat White Family are the seediest, strangest, nastiest guitar group in Britain today, and The Quietus loves them. We sent John Calvert to review a recent gig in a derelict hospital. Photographs thanks to Lou Smith

Not so much a band as a police line-up, the six fiends above us are tuning and shuffling and smirking, part weary, part tweak-y, half dead.These itchy fools… they look like they smell of cum, and were you to claw at their margarine faces the flesh might come away like wet newspaper. Together they weigh as much as a man, and look like the bits of many men, cobbled together from the aftermath of some machete massacre – intestinal smiles, colonic eye sockets, toes for fingers. Long penises glide to the bottom of light denim shorts, stilted by bone-legs with sores and puncture wounds like brown spiders. Their ribcage frames bear the hallmarks of many one-room adventures holed-up in that squat of theirs in Brixton.

The room goes from red to blue to nicotine yellow, as the stage lighting wheels slowly, and on red again my eyes fall on the bass player. Here he is, the WASP beach-boy predator of your nightmares; the type of guy who fingers your sister in the blue Corvette his daddy bought him. And I watch as he tucks his big tongue into his bottom lip and, with his instrument, pretend-fucks the black back hole of his roadie’s skull, unbeknownst to the roadie, knelt in front of him fiddling innocently with wires. 

And on blue again Luke leans over and whispers in my ear, “This is making me horny”, which feels how I imagine a wet willy would in the meat-play room in some Dutch fuck-dungeon. They play their first note and the speakers groan in complaint, evacuating fluorescent pus out onto the floor and around your ankles. The song is ‘Garden Of The Numb’, the closer to their debut LP, Champagne Holocaust. It is horrible. 

They are smiling. “You would sell your mother’s cunt to open doors. I’d like to watch you burning while you dance.”

Rewind 60 minutes, to just after the sun has gone. I am walking the high-walled perimeter outside an abandoned Georgian-era asylum for the mentally ill. They named it St Clements Hospital. It is the setting for tonight’s show.

Here I am, lost for some lonely minutes on the other side of the fence, circling the site. I am dragging my fingers on orange bricks, in the sodium-orange channel between a halogen Tesco’s and the house of horrors leering from the other side of the masonry, looking for a way in. 

It’s my belief that a lot of people live their lives this way: caught between a halogen normality and the looming threat of mental illness, tracing its chalky walls with their fingers, in the shadow of its night-blue outlines overhead, waiting for a door to open up, through which lies full blown psychosis –  the interior life that’s as big as a universe when you’re prisoner to eternal disorientation. 

This is the door that Fat White Family opened on their own.

When eventually I find the entrance to the complex, and I’m greeted by affable doormen and the fairy-lit path behind them, I notice a sign left of the path. The sign reads: 


Back in Victorian times when St Clements was a workhouse, people died here. So it was down to convenience that the medical brass kept the workhouse’s in-house morgue, complete with adjoining cemetery. In psychiatric hospitals, you see, people also die often. 

It occurs the art-therapy theatre Fat White Family are due to play is, geographically speaking, the last stop before soul paralysis or death. And what I can say is that this band, this strange band, have taken this dangerous project of theirs that far, and that it is by choice. Because, right now, you see, the lives they live are lived fathoms below the halo of golden wellbeing, the garland of the blessed, that I passed through on the way to the theatre: the ringed glow sent from the lives of those happy normal people, the people who perhaps selected tonight’s event from a listings guide, and for whom enjoying their weekends comes easy, and who perhaps are the type of people that can go through a whole day without medicine or crippling boredom, or thoughts of time running out, or headaches and ulcers and the sensation of having lived too long, and time passing too slowly.

In a day and age when anything is marketable, letting a bit of crazy in is perhaps the last option available to today’s iconoclasts, if they’re to create an authentic ‘alternative’. The roots of Fat White lie with Foucault, or specifically Foucault’s ‘limit experience’, a process whereby personal enlightenment is achieved by surrendering to the extremes of what we find most objectionable – be it self-loathing, physical suffering, depravity, disease or masochism – with the final goal a painful but ecstatic epiphany. Call it metamorphosis by deterioration. And Foucault believed that freeing our mind from ordered society meant, above all, ceding to insanity, as did another antecedent of Fat White Family’s – the Surrealists, for whom emancipation meant eviscerating our accepted perception of reality, and by extension our perception of morality as defined by the establishment, as is stated in the Manifesto:“'[Surrealism is]… the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupations”.

So here we are, and "La La La" goes ‘Auto Neutron’, and I like these little voices. It’s like the dead end children at play – the children of the end times and this, the cultural full-stop that is Fat White Family. Or rather, children played by men, high-stepping arm-in-arm like an idiot Can Can line; swimming in the panting blubber of a boudoir drum machine or rolling their hips to Saul’s snake-charming solo, until eventually the line goes dead and the lightbulbs of the song burn incandescent and pop. The band collapse in different directions. They are screaming. The drummer, known simply as Dan, who stares for long periods of time into outer space and who looks a bit like a gay Eminem, is screaming too. Sitting down and screaming. A guy to our left removes his belt and simulates self-flagellation. Saul animates that diagonal smile of his, and a crease goes up his temple like a septic artery. Everyone else just stares.

Then comes The Cramps-ian ‘Heaven On Earth’, and what we have is some prairie punk romp pushed upside down by an empty amphetamine laugh – but which tonight is turned a very British shade of vomit. Now it is an end-of-the-pier terror-ride, panicked by Blackpool wurlitzer and off-tone guitar notes. It is the Britain of Dennis Potter – the twin vocalists’ numb baritone chorus the dreary skies against which rose the sickly ersatz Americana of our seaside palaces, Blighty’s very own 20th Century nightmare.

Indie’s been surf-garage rockin’ for years now, but the freaks do it better. The New Labour kids… they have no ear for the horrors beneath the wash, the rotten America: the macabre undercurrent that ran the length of Californian youth culture, with the shadow of Manson growing, waiting to call time; how the new dawn was also an apocalypse. They’d rather just sing what they think they ought to, buried deep in mass production.

It appears the members are operating at varying levels of cognisance; depending, you sense, on chosen pharmaceutical. Some are here, some not anywhere at all. Utility vocalist and resident banshee Lias Saoudi, for example, is an over-metabolised dynamo; a wired rave casual with Hacienda curtains and the face of a mantis, who when he isn’t bent double sucking air into frail lungs is winding his naked torso with sweaty glee. Conversely, to his left stands Saul Adamczewski. Saul Adamczewski, with his tombstone teeth and Transylvanian eyebrows, with his zombie eye-rings and cut, knobbly knees; a hairy-palmed cunt with a funny secret and something awful in his heart, who wipes his streaming nose with a curled hand and is antsy even when approached by his bandmates. 

Incidentally, he’s also the lead guitarist, and a pretty snazzy one to boot, armed with a surprisingly impressive array of tricks. With burnt-out FX he explodes the psychedelic glam of ‘Special Ape’ beyond its garage constraints and up into peyote hallucinations caught over some nuclear desert town. Then on ‘Without Consent’ a phaser pedal transforms the cherry-pie semiotics of 50s America into some industrial fever dream – all metal-on-bone and beaten-down factory stiffs on the verge of early death. It is good music – none of this practiced ramshackle amateurism the indie boys favour: good songwriting, strong melodies and nice Nuggets-era period detail. More importantly, it is good rock & roll: rock & roll with the blood slowed to a dark sweetness and just like how it began, with Little Richard, Roy, Jerry Lee – psychotic, monstrous, doomed.

But they’re never more menacing than when they’re laughing at your expense; when the killing joke lands and they snigger as oblivion takes them. Introducing the riotous ‘Bomb Disneyland’ and ‘Is It Raining In Your Mouth?’, I haven’t had this much fun since my brother’s cat died and he cried like a Greek nana. Typically mutant and packed to the gills with penetrating imagery, ‘Is It Raining In Your Mouth?’ is like a blowjob fantasy imagined by Busby Berkeley and starring the cast of Ed Gein: The Musical. Lias is dancing again, this time like a lizard in a babydoll dress, while gay Eminem stokes his fire. “Five sweaty fingers on the dashboard,” they sing. “Five sweaty fingers with a criminal’s face,” as the song climbs towards orgasm. Soon it’s HIM being fucked, and soon it’s HIM that’s screaming. And soon Luke is dancing, and then everyone’s dancing. Then, hell’s bells, even I’m dancing. When I dance I look like a goose chasing a yogurt pot around a petrol station.

For 40-odd minutes I have clean forgotten we’re standing in a psychiatric hospital. Therapy by art, indeed: music as day release, with the audience moved elsewhere, outside ourselves. And we all need a bit of that every now and then. Their deadly lullaby, ‘Cream Of The Young’, sashes all the way through my chewed guts. ‘Cream Of The Young’… in which the only cure for the imaginary animals crawling under their skin is sex; in which – part pleading, part titillated – the dead end kids pleasure the pain in them. And it is then I recall that old Ken Kesey conundrum on the insane: is it they who are the mad ones, or maybe is it us?

Still lonely behind the walls, I am rattling the cast iron gates into the complex like a caged monkey, on the outside looking in, my sense of meaningless outrage bubbling over while a couple walk around me in a large wary arc. Symbolically speaking, it’s not the best of omens. I grin moronically because I’m embarrassed, which is what people do in such situations, and which, in a certain respect, is a popularised form of mental illness.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today