Friday, 7 August 2009

PHONOGRAM: The Singles Club - Issues 1-3

It’s the 23rd of December 2006, and a girl named Penny B. busies herself with preparations for a night out at a Bristol club night called ‘Never On A Sunday’ – the kind of forensically cool club night that flourishes as a direct response to its creator’s painfully laboured set of golden rules:

1: No Boy Singers

2: You Must Dance

3: No Magic

We know where we are immediately, in the heartland of every weekend pre-occupation, the preserve of clubbers and their overt, near predatory zeal for the dance floor. Only this time we’re invited along, swept up in Penny’s mania for dancing, for never hearing what her friend Laura is saying, for a boy, and most of all, for The Pipettes. Her winsome self absorption and nuanced confessions for us as she nonchalantly breaks the fourth wall are all a pre-amble for her mission for the evening: to hear the DJs play “Pull Shapes”

Alternate reality: It’s the 23rd of December 2006, and I’m at the Roundhouse in London with my brother Stuart, actually watching the Pipettes play the song “Pull Shapes” in front of a packed crowd of giddy fans already well into the Christmas spirit. It’s one of the most genuinely happy and fun gigs that I’ll see all year. The girls sashay and sway, they sing like cheeky head girls and pose like models. Even though I am completely out of my element, I know that at times like these, music truly is magic.

Phonogram was one of the very best comics to appear this decade, all the more so for bringing the seemingly disparate and unyielding worlds of rock ‘n’ roll and comics together in a form that was a seamless blend of both. Far too often these worlds have been sorely diluted when coming into contact with each-other, but Gillen and McKelvie have brought their considerable talents to bear on first a multi-layered treatise on the legacy of Britpop, and now this, a series of one-shots that take place at a fictitious night spot in Bristol that entertains the denizens of a certain kind of 21st century cool aesthetic. Needless to say, it’s a place I wouldn’t be caught dead in if it were real, but in comic form “Never On A Sunday” might as well be Studio 54, it’s that emotionally compelling.

Penny B’s adoration for Marquis, the boy of her dreams is of course a red herring, and when that crush is called to account in the most unmerciful fashion, her true love of “Pull Shapes” is what saves and redeems her. The set that plays out is like a repository of the only truly great moments that a band may leave behind, like “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above” by CSS, the song that by issue two Marquis has allowed to plague him with past memories and past love, as if it were his own inescapable sonic prison. We all have songs like that, don’t we? And I’m not telling you what mine are. I’ve actually got far too many.

The dramas that play themselves out in the pages of all three issues so far are of the most ordinary and most unflinching kind, the ones that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever set foot out of their door in the hope of a great evening and found that the magic of music is there to protect and condemn them in equal measure. Gillen and McKelvie make their characters and their worlds live and breathe with affection and hard-won recognition; you get the feeling that everything you see and read has occurred to one or both of them at one time or another. Their faces and figures are commendably ordinary; there is no faux glamour to the lives of these 20-somethings. Which makes the third issue the darkest and most affecting thus far.

The rapacious to-die-for persona of Emily that dominates issue three is so clearly a mask that it is slipping even before we know who we’re meant to be looking at. There she is at the club at the behest of Phonogram anti-hero David Kohl, eyes aflash with power and authority, dancing to Elastica and Madonna as if there were nothing else to life, and all it takes is a look in the mirror to bring it all tumbling down. It’s an achingly powerful scene that runs right to the heart of anyone who’s ever dreamt of a cooler, better self to present to the world, and what they’ll do to obtain it – often to the point of destruction. The intrigue only grows with each page and panel.

“The Singles Club” is the most musically literate and passionately commonplace comic to be found anywhere right now, and the perfect follow up to the esteemed first run of Phonogram. I cannot wait to find out who else I’m going to discover in the corners of this indie world. Maybe Seth Bingo or the Silent Girl will play Essential Logic for me if I want it badly enough?

Review by Kevin McCaighy.

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