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Nine Songs
Miki Berenyi

Nine Songs: Miki Berenyi

08 February 2019, 09:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Indie legend Miki Berenyi talks Ed Nash through the pivotal songs she discovered at gigs as a teenager and why they still resonate with her.

The 1980s was the best of times and the worst of times to discover music. To borrow the Dickens line a litle further, it was also a decade of wisdom and foolishness.

The foolishness belonged to the political climate. An unpopular Tory government found themselves in power, due in part to an unelectable Labour alternative, and the rise of racism and chronic unemployment added toxicity and tragedy to the mix. The wisdom was to be found elsewhere and youth culture played its part in proving that yes, there was such a thing as society, even as they formed disparate musical tribes of pop fans, goths, mods and indie-kids.

It was into this fragmented counter-culture that a teenage Miki Berenyi entered the world of music and discovered there was no turning back. “It was all-encompassing. Being a teenager was so tied up with gigs, going to see friends play in Slough or wherever. That enthusiasm was key, it was the shared experience of music.”

Which brings us to her song choices. Berenyi says that rather than “my usual things, like Siouxsie and The Banshees and Cocteau Twins” she decided to focus on her initial experiences of going to see bands play live. Her 17-year-old daughter also provided inspiration, “What got me thinking was that she’s really into music and goes to see bands. I constantly hear about the online democratisation of music and that you can just go online and find stuff, but what I’ve noticed with her is the thing of actually going to gigs, having a space and a community and the people you get involved with.”

Berenyi went on to form Lush with her childhood friend Emma Anderson, a key character in these stories. Lush straddled Shoegaze and Britpop yet never belonged to either camp, instead they wrote songs in the language of pop music. Berenyi is now back with Piroshka, comprised of her partner, KJ ‘Moose’ McKillop formerly of Moose, Mick Conroy of Modern English and Elastica’s drummer Justin Welch, who filled in for his friend, the lamented Chris Acland, when Lush reformed in 2016. Despite all of their respective pedigrees, as with Berenyi’s song choices, Piroshka are bonded by friendship

There’s a part of Berenyi that laments the changes in musical culture; browsing record shops and buying an album because the sleeve looked amazing, but she explains that self-discovery through music was more important, a pathway to raise money for the miners strikes, seeing the National Front skinheads outwitted by The Redskins and debating the brilliant idea of women-only gigs.

Ultimately the story of all these songs is one of a lifelong love of music, and a means of finding her creative voice. “My starting point with these songs was how they fed into other things. Going to gigs opened an entire world for me. The dancing, having a drink, meeting people, boyfriends, great nights out. Discovering culture, art, politics and feminism, everything really, it all came from going to see bands. All of those things happened for me through music.”

As Berenyi and now her daughter both discovered, whilst music is a brilliant vehicle for cultural immersion, it’s also about finding out who you really want to be.

"Remember (Walking in the Sand)" by The Shangri-Las

“I first started going to see these garagey bands like Thee Milkshakes, who became Thee Headcoats and then Thee Mighty Caesars, it was all that Billy Childish stuff. Thee Milkshakes were such a weird band; them and their girlfriends were from the Medway towns and it was like stepping into the early ‘60s. They all dressed that way and it was really odd, but I was quite drawn to it.

“The girlfriends had a band called The Delmonas and they were great. It was a real high spot of the gigs when they came on and it was mostly covers, they did lots of girl group songs. Although I knew The Ronettes and the big girl group hits, I didn’t know much about The Shangri-Las, apart from ‘Leader of the Pack’, so rather than just knowing the odd track from the ‘60s, I thought “I really need to bone up on this.”

"I got The Shangri-Las Greatest Hits and there were all these brilliant songs on there, me and my friend Kate used to listen to it all the time and make up dances to it. I associate it with the drama of being a teenager, very over the top, sentimental emotions writ large, the “Look how miserable I am” over something very tiny, but it was really liberating.

“With ‘Remember (Walking in the Sand)’ it was the drama of it. I know it’s corny - you can hear the storm and the sea and there’s this nasal, teenage wailing - but it absolutely hits the nail on the head. As much as I was trying to be a cool, slightly Gothy looking teenager, this song was a better summation of how you felt when you got off with some bloke who then pretended it never happened.

“The lyrics start off with the same old 'boy ditches girl, breaks her heart' but there's something more sexual than romantic about the "Remember" bits that marks it out from the usual teen angst. Walking on a secluded beach at night with a man with an inviting smile, fingertips and softly meeting lips, the seagulls, handclaps and finger snaps. It could be so cheesy, but it's genius.

“People now recognise that the women in those bands were important but at the time it was “The Ronettes? The real genius was Phil Spector” and the men behind the girls in those bands, but the delivery is everything and to denigrate them as puppet performers does them a massive disservice. That’s what engaged me, if it was all about Phil Spector or The Shangri-Las’ manager Shadow Morton it wouldn’t have echoed down the decades with a teenager viscerally connecting to it in Willesden, a million miles away from the glamour of The Shangri-Las.”

“Nightporter” by Japan

“There was a group of four or five of us at school, Emma being one of them, and none of us had older siblings. There wasn’t that route into music - an older brother who was into all the cool stuff, so we were on our own. We started with the Top of the Pops route and the music was pretty amazing actually; Japan, The Associates, Soft Cell, really quality stuff.

“Emma had a video recorder so we used to go to hers after school and watch tapes of Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test over and over. Each of us had to be in love with a different band member; with Japan you were spoiled for choice and obviously David Sylvian was an absolute honey. Although probably half the reason people my age got into Japan was because of how pretty they were - and it probably pissed them off that teenagers like us were swooning over them - for us it was a route into really good music, it was genuinely innovative. When I listen back to ‘The Art of Parties’ and their hits they were weird songs to be in the Top 10. It’s not ‘The Birdie Song’ is it?

“I went to see Japan’s final gig, which was one of the first ten gigs I went to and it was massive. That was one of the nice things about the gigs I started going to, they were at Hammersmith Odeon and Palais, which then trickled you down to smaller gigs and you’d go and see the support band.

“Those bands were all of a time but there was a sneering aspect to it. People would say “I can’t believe you’re into that crap, they’re ripping off Bryan Ferry and David Bowie”, but I remember thinking ‘Well, you saw those bands but I didn’t, this is my version.’ When I compare Japan now to what people said they were ripping off of course I can see the influences, but it’s not a direct lift in any way because of the technology, Mick Karn’s fretless bass and those odd keyboard sounds you didn’t get from whatever people accused them of ripping off.

“’Nightporter’ was on Emma’s video tape and whereas when The Associates came on we’d be jumping about in her bedroom, everyone would go very quiet at ‘Nightporter’ and sit there with a slight tear in their eye. It was sophisticated with this lilting 3/4 signature. Lush did a lot of 3/4 time - which is associated with folk - but I love that ‘Nightporter’ was a straight-up piano ballad. It's difficult to pull off a classical composition in pop music without coming off as really pompous but this feels intimate and lilting, there’s a delicate touch to how the other instruments weave around the piano.

“I had no idea about the Dirk Bogarde reference, but hearing David Sylvian sing like his heart is broken, to the 14-year-old me that was all the context I needed.”

“Come Again” by Au Pairs

“I missed the boat with punk. People would put songs on mixtapes and I’d be “These bands have split up, they were playing eighteen months ago but I’m never going to get to see them.” The Au Pairs were one of those bands, I had a friend who was deeply into them and he gave me their single ‘Diet’ / ‘It’s Obvious’ and then I bought the album which I thought was brilliant.

“Feminism was a real force at a lot of the gigs I went to, especially when you got down to the Anarcho-Punk level, it was quite a strident form of feminism and it was around the time of Greenham Common. The Au Pairs played women-only gigs and I remember sitting with a bunch of people who were arguing about it, who were saying “It’s disgusting and sexist against men”. I initially thought “Well, it does sound a bit much and it’s a bit exclusionary, where’s the fun in that?”

“But it made me think about going to gigs when I was 16 and the amount of times I got groped. It used to happen all the time, if you were crushed at a gig you could guarantee there’d be someone snaking their hand between your legs and you’d have to try and wriggle free. It wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to talk about because it was like “If you’re going to dress like that and go to gigs when you’re that young, then you’ve only got yourself to blame.”

“I suddenly got that of course women-only gigs made sense - the center of the floor at gigs was taken up by blokes who wanted to kick the shit out of each other. Although I got why men were angry about it I thought “Well, you should do more to make gigs more female friendly.” The thought process was “There aren’t many women at gigs because they’re not into music, they like knitting and flowers” but half the time it was because you weren’t very welcome there.

“I loved the Au Pairs being risky and inviting criticism and with ‘Come Again’ I’d never heard anything like it. It was absolutely hilarious that a song about sex was so frank; the line “Is your finger aching? I can feel you hesitating” was outrageous but fantastic. It genuinely unsettled people and they reacted to it with “That’s disgusting, she must be a real slag” but all that criticism became meaningless because it was such a funny and brilliant song.

“I thought it was incredibly brave. You can feel scared to say things because it will invite criticism, but when someone does make a stand the opposition melts away a bit. I could look at ‘Come Again’ as the inspiration for ‘Ladykillers.' I’ve had lots of people say that song was mean towards men, and men were “What are we supposed to do when we’re trying to chat you up?” Really? Fucking lighten up! I’m writing about my experiences. I’m not saying all men are wankers, but let’s not deny that part of the female experience is that we have to roll our eyes and say “Give me a fucking break…”

“’Come Again’ perfectly skewers how some men reject the aggressive, macho dickhead trope - and we thank you for that - but are still really only thinking of themselves. "It's another way to take", wanting to be the 'ideal man' by keeping count and asking for constant reassurance and praise. It feels unselfish, but it's actually about the male ego and she's just exasperated with it. There's something in those scratchy guitars and staccato, stop-start beats that conveys frustration too.”

“Lean On Me” by The Redskins

“I loved The Redskins music, it was like The Jam with that Northern Soul thing, plus they came from the area I grew up in and Willesden and Dollis Hill weren’t on the Rock and Roll map in any way!

“My main pathway into this song was the miner’s strike. The Redskins and Billy Bragg used to play lots of shows to raise money for them, the miner’s strike gigs were an incredibly politicised environment and I got very swept up into that. There were people who’d only go to see The Redskins and The Men They Couldn’t Hang, who’d never cross over into another type of gig and with indie gigs it was quite factional too, people were weird about you liking music from a different faction. Me and Emma used to go and see anything - one day it would be The Alarm, Sex Gang Children the next and then Duran Duran - we were soaking stuff up and it didn’t matter.

“With The Redskins it was the idea of being involved in a political map. I missed out on Punk, so to be involved in the miner’s strike where I went to loads of benefit gigs and rattled buckets on high streets was great. For all the terribleness of that strike there was a sense of community that was broader than a bunch of indie kids at a gig - it felt national, important and life-changing and it massively politized me and opened me up. I was a middle-class girl living in North-West London, so hearing the experiences of people from up and down the country and the implications of what was happening to them was really galvanizing.

“The other side of The Redskins was the idea of anti-fascist skinheads and it was a weird thing to see played out. You’d have racist, ‘skinhead’ skinhead’s who really didn’t like the idea, as they felt, of someone appropriating their look and making it left-wing and multicultural. They protected their identity very strongly and it led to some real clashes, which culminated when The Redskins played a GLC gig and there was a complete riot. It was fucking terrifying, the stage got invaded and bricks were being thrown but it showed The Redskins’ will. Now we’re going through Brexit the idea of racism making a resurgence feels familiar, and that was something I admired The Redskins for, not just bemoaning the rising racism of The National Front but challenging it head on and risking life and limb.

“’Lean On Me' was a high point at their gigs and everyone would jump around together, not in a violent way, but in a really huggy, friendly way. The music was great but it was about more than the music, it was also the politics around it, getting a miner onstage to talk about what was going on in South Wales, it was the whole experience. Everybody was taking in all this information and being involved and there was a huge release of this terrible frustration at the time, of what a shit world it was and what a terrible government we had.

“It takes real skill to write a political song and not sound like a preachy twat. This song has a such a feel-good exuberance - the anger of punk and the uplift of soul - a positive message of hope and it’s a song about solidarity, which is fantastic. It would bring you to tears in a different way to ‘Nightporter’ or ‘Walking in the Sand', it had a lot of emotion and it still gives me a surge of joy when I hear it.”

“Pssyche” by Killing Joke

“I met some people through gigs and I ended up moving into a flat with them. There were these funny little social pockets, two of them were really into skateboarding and they used to go down to the Southbank. I found myself hanging out with these skateboarders and the music they liked was totally unfamiliar to me, but Killing Joke were massively key. They had a ghetto-blaster, blaring this stuff out while they skateboarded around.

“When I think of Killing Joke, I think of them as being quite white but they were a really mixed-race group and the idea of these black kids listening to them, out of the context of looking at Jazz Coleman or thinking about these people and what they looked like, has a street element to it. When you’re playing music in a skatepark, with black and white and different classes of people mixed together it made sense.

“I liked that there was something quite uncool about Killing Joke - they were always getting slagged off by the NME and Melody Maker - but in some ways I was embarrassed that I liked them, it was one of those things I thought “Well, I’d better not mention that…’ It wasn’t until Lush toured with Ministry on Lollapalooza that it wrapped around. They were massive Killing Joke fans and I thought “Oh at last! Fantastic, this is now cool and I can have a conversation about Killing Joke!”

“This was the B-Side of ‘War Dance.’ I didn’t give shit about ‘War Dance’ but I thought ‘Pssyche’ was fantastic. Everything from that howl at the beginning is so angry, he is so angry singing this that it’s almost comical. I was a teenager who was very taken with swearing and I loved that it was so visceral. He’s saying ‘Masturbation’, ‘Nazi’, and ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!’ You can see where Ministry get it from, it’s got those driving, heavy metal guitars; it’s punk but it’s also got a dance thing to it.

“It’s so rhythmic and the more I think about it, the more I think how visionary it was for music that came later, but for me it was hearing something that was pure anger. It was quite frightening but also cathartic because it was so shocking. Some of the lines, "You're living a hoax - someone's got you sussed" - the phrase 'got you sussed' needs to make a comeback - and "Look at the controller, a Nazi with a social degree.” I had no idea what that meant exactly, but it sounded fucking brilliant.

“It was the sort of thing that if my Dad walked into the room, he’d be going “For fucks sake, what are you listening to?” This song is the sound of rage. You know in 28 Days Later and that disease everybody ends up dying of? I think of ‘Pssyche.’”

“Premonition” by Simple Minds

“I saw ‘Premonition’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test and I’d never seen anything like it. There’s been a few times I’ve watched music on TV where it’s totally stopped me in my tracks and I’ve thought “Oh my God, what is this?” and this was one of them. It was so powerful and really unusual for me, because I was such a pop kid. The idea of listening to something that was mostly an instrumental, it’s got bits where the vocals suddenly come in and take off, but it’s such an epic, long instrumental track and it absolutely blew me away.

“It was the whole vibe of them playing live in that club, the performance is amazing and they’re so tight and together. There’s Jim Kerr with his mad, starey eyes and strange, jerky dancing and Derek Forbes is a phenomenal bass player; that anchoring riff and pulse allows everything else to swirl and build to a crescendo without losing the beat. The build to the crescendo is so calm and gradual that when it peaks and then drops at the end it feels like something amazing just happened and you're dazed in the wake of it. I can still remember sitting at home with my mouth open, literally with a fork full of beans poised and staring at the screen going “What the fuck?”

“We had a lot of Simple Minds bonding at the beginning of Piroshka. They were almost like a starting point and this was one of the tracks that me and Justin really bonded over. He sent me a drum beat that was very Simple Minds-y, which was based on the 4/4, 2/4 drums from ‘In Trance As Mission’ from Sons and Fascination. I thought “I’ve got to use that” and it inspired our song ‘Never Enough’. Mick was all over that as well, he sent me a YouTube clip where the producer of New Gold Dream is discussing how they recorded the album and it’s absolutely fascinating.

“That period of Sons and Fascination made me go out and buy those albums, I think they were in the charts with ‘Promised You A Miracle’ but it was this performance that made me think “Bloody Hell, there’s this whole other side to this band that I knew nothing about.” Those records took me down a completely different pathway with music.”

“Alice” by The Sisters of Mercy

“At one of the early gigs I remember going to The Smiths were supporting The Sisters of Mercy at The Brixton Ace - which to this day I still can’t make sense of - but me and Emma were massive Sisters of Mercy fans. The first time we travelled outside of London to go to gigs was seeing The Sisters and we got up to all sorts.

“I remember seeing them at Oxford Poly. We missed our train home and we had to sleep in the bus station but we got arrested and spent the night in the reception area of the police station. It was ridiculous, I remember thinking they could have left us at the bus station, because the police station was full of people off their tits all night and who didn’t stop harassing us. In the bus station it was nice and quiet, we had a bench each and would have got a decent night’s sleep but they thought we were runaways and they called Emma’s Mum.

“I went to see them in Leeds and I stayed at James Brown’s house, the guy who ended up doing Loaded magazine. He was quite sneery about them and said “Why are you seeing this fucking band?” I had a relationship with this guy who was at Leeds Poly at the same time as Andrew Eldritch and he fucking hated him! He hated the fact I liked The Sisters. I used to put their records on to wind him up and he’d go ‘This is just shit’, he thought it was hilarious.

“Everyone thought goths were awful and I kept trying to get it through to people that they didn’t understand, that it was tongue in cheek and really cool. It wasn’t violent at Sisters gigs, everyone was really nice to each other; people would crowd-surf or stagedive, there was a lot of movement going on but no one ever got hurt, everyone picked each other up and it was a really good atmosphere.

“Like with The Shangri-Las, there was a real theatre to The Sisters - there was dry ice and Andrew Eldritch with his baritone, looming through the darkness with his Sandeman hat on. It was totally over the top, even with the people in the crowd and the way they’d throw their arms up towards heaven, it was brilliant. We used to travel the length and breadth of the country to see them and it was worth every night in a shitty police station.

“’Alice’ was the obvious one. I know, I know how cheesy it sounds - the needling guitar like a mosquito trapped in the room and the panto evil of "I am Dracul", croaky delivery of lines about Alice in her party dress, crystals, Tarot and crushed petals, but it's actually saying how pathetic and delusional all that hokey stuff is. I can't hear this song without the live experience coming to mind and the euphoria of hearing that simple, splashy little drum machine intro when the crowd would surge in anticipation.

“Goth became a thing that was a bit ‘feel sorry for us’ but it wasn’t like that then, it was feisty and had a theatrical edge to it. It’s like when people slag off The Smiths and say it’s all about people in their bedrooms, feeling sorry for themselves and you think “Have you listened to those records? They’re hilarious, it’s the opposite to that." It’s “Yes, we’re alone, yes, we’re miserable, but we’re going to throw it out there into the world, celebrate it and dance to it and have a great fucking time.’”

“Garbageman” by The Cramps

“This song is also from the garagey scene I was involved with, but part of my love for The Cramps is the love affair of Ivy and Lux. I remember seeing them on The Tube and they were this astonishing, larger than life couple who were fantastic and stunning in such a weird way. And sexy, but not in a sleazy way, they would say sleazy, but it was actually dirty I suppose, which is better than sleazy. In a weird way it was so glamourous, I felt it was a very American thing to be able to be that flamboyant and theatrical but also so sexual and not be creepy.

“My Mum lived in America and I’d go over to visit her. I met this girl who had a 7” of ‘Garbageman’, she was quite well off and quite Beverly Hills. I remember her toying with me, saying “Well, I don’t know if I really want this record.” I was so desperate to have it that I nearly fucking stole it, I really wanted it and it really upset me that she had it. Did she give it to me? Did she fuck! No, she dangled it.

“On ‘Garbageman’ he's not really singing, is he? It's like a rap - expression, tone and rhythm. The guitar is amazing, those crunchy blasts and squeals, rhythmic picks and big heavy riffs, excellent use of sound effects too. Again, there was this real snobbery about The Cramps and a lot of people I knew were “They’re nothing now that Bryan Gregory isn’t in the band anymore.” People always wanted to one-upmanship you about these things, but they were an absolutely brilliant live band.

“Me and Emma went inter-railing when we were 17 and when we were in Berlin we saw a poster and were “Oh my God, the fucking Cramps are playing!” We went to see them and it was amazing, it was absolutely nuts, but such a brilliant live experience. Then they did three nights at Hammersmith Odeon and I went to every single one and the idea that a band could be like that was mind-changing.

"It must be like when people talk about seeing Iggy Pop back in the day, where you think “This is so mad and completely insane, but it’s really held together. Its chaotic but its tight.”

“The Moon is Blue” by Colourbox

“I wanted to put a 4AD song in because it was such an integral part of my growing up and obviously being in Lush as well. Often the criticism, or even an observation with 4AD, was that it was all very ‘cathedrals of sound’, very po-faced and arty, but this song is just one example of how 4AD really isn’t that.

"It's such a great song, it has the melody and soul of a ‘50s/‘60s ballad but with all modern sounds - well, modern in the ‘80s! - and instead of sounding sentimental and victim-y there's a confrontation and front to the vocals, so that by the end she even sounds happy and triumphant that “Tonight it's over.” It’s really moving and again it has a lot of drama.

“Colourbox were such an odd band. They were behind ‘Pump Up The Volume’ by M/A/R/R/S and were a difficult band to nail down but I think 4AD was their ideal home. If you played this to someone they wouldn’t spot that it was on 4AD, but interestingly if it had been on a major label it wouldn’t have had the coolness that it does.

“I loved the fact they were allowed to go in any direction they wanted to. Ultimately they got fucked off with 4AD because there was a money issue with ‘Pump Up The Volume’, but it speaks of a great label where bands can explore so many different directions. Most labels would find something like ‘The Moon is Blue’ and want more of the same but Colourbox did whatever music they wanted and that was a brilliant thing.

“We have a personal stake with them as well. Moose used to share a flat with Steven Young, who sadly died a couple of years ago and Mick was very close friends with Steven too. Again, it’s the idea of a community and 4AD having a community. These songs are all about friendships.”

Brickbat is released 15 February via Bella Union
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