In Micko and the Mellotronics’ world, Albion is a mess. The loners and beautiful losers inhabiting their songs aren’t English eccentrics beloved of Syd Barrett and the late ‘60s ‘Rubble’ bands. It’s a raw deal within a timeless ‘Broken Britain’ purgatory.
The Mellotronics’ roots are undeniably in celebratory British pop circa ‘Penny Lane’ and punk’s dysfunctional Englishness propagated by Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Jam. The songs on their debut album 1/2 Dove – 1/2 Pigeon would slot nicely onto a ‘Sounds Of The Suburbs’- type compilation if recorded 40 years earlier. A sticky-floored backroom is their natural performing venue. London-based, they have been honing their craft since 2017, and have at last unleashed the results in this obdurate ‘lockdown’ climate.
Micko Westmoreland gained recognition back in 1998, as the silent ‘Jack Fairy’ in Todd Haynes’ film Velvet Goldmine about the intertwining careers of fictitious ‘70s glam rockers Brian Slade and Curt Wild – respectively based on Bowie and Iggy. Jack was a human personification of Eno-style ambience.
Recording under the moniker The Bowling Green, Micko released his electronic-centric debut album One Pound Note with the support of NIN frontman Trent Reznor around the film’s release. His second album Fabrications (2001) – despite being rooted in sampling – was augmented by live musicians: multi-instrumentalist Terry Edwards; members of The Stranglers, and Les Rhythms Digitales. Several of its tracks revealed more conventional songwriting. Using his own name, his first solo release was Wax And Wayne (2009) on Terry’s Sartorial Records.
Micko set the wheels turning for the Mellotronics in 2015, with his solo album Yours Etc Abc on his own label Landline Records. The title drew on a childhood experience: a poison-pen note written by a supposed school friend. The ‘sign off’ of said note gave him a worthy title. It contained Mellotronics songs in the making (‘Schesmos’, ‘Casting Couch’). The guest musicians on the album included Edwards as well as members of Madness; The Blockheads, and Jake Bugg’s band. Micko played guitar, bass, mellotron and percussion.
Now aged 51, he has an impeccable backing band. The current line-up is: Vicky Carroll on bass guitar; ex-Banshee Jon Klein on lead guitar/backing vocals; drummer Nick Mackay, and of course, himself on vocals and guitar.
Their sound? Very riff-based with clenching vocals. Imagine Supergrass crossed with either the Buzzcocks or The Only Ones, along with Pere Ubu and Young Marble Giants jostling for supremacy. Not britpop or new wave revivalists – more of a highly-evolved combo with their agenda mapped out from Day One.
Deep within Lockdown two, it’s time to spin the wax. The opener ‘Noisy Neighbours’ couldn’t be more timely. At gigs, it has been introduced as “about living in a housing co-op”. Another era entirely. Now the planet is in a state of extreme restlessness, and the smug demographic of those who don’t have to go out to cop off is now a living hell. The nagging riff reinforces this point to the hilt. Ditto with ‘Psychedelic Shirt’ which is confessionary in the singer-songwriter tradition, but sans any beardy enunciation. A time trip to early ‘80s Leeds. Tongue-tied nostalgia the key theme. It refers to ‘an incident’ when the young Micko was singled out for wearing the wrong clobber by white-socked casuals. Redolent of the one upmanship of Quadrophenia, it straddles more than one psychological fence within its barbed-wire institutionalism.
This contemptuous grinding continues with their debut single ‘The Finger’. Accelerated by a rubbery bass-line and from the Mellotronics’ early days, it doffs a hat to ‘Well Respected Man’, vehemently portraying the seething pint glass-clutching insecurity of the song’s contemporaneous character. The kitchen sink forever dirty……
The no holds barred ‘Sick And Tired’ and ‘The Now’ are head-shaking mosh pit favourites which provide a nice contrast to Micko’s former ambient leanings. Which are put into great use with ‘The Fear’, evoking an overcast 3pm tableau of tepid tea, candy floss and fairground claustrophobia. Like Pere Ubu’s ‘My Dark Ages’, it begins in a steely fashion before opening the gates for Micko’s intrinsic Yorkshire tones being the didactic focus. Like ‘Noisy Neighbours’, there is a perpetual itch. Specials-like horn interjections are again courtesy of Terry Edwards. The listener is oddly eased, and inspired to accept ‘imprisonment’ as escapism.
‘You Killed My Father’ marks a sudden departure: a moment of butterflies-in-your-tummy reflection. Provincial lyrical detritus is the key focus here intertwined with swirling arpeggiated guitar, and it showcases Nick Mackay’s Bonham-like drum rolls. ‘Father’ is more akin to a ‘lighter-waving’ prog rock anthem, and is supremely elevated compared to the other tracks’ earthiness. It contains piano flourishes and a psychedelic string arrangement courtesy of Neil Innes – formerly of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – who died in late 2019.
‘Imelda’ is somewhat in between the two Mellotronics’ styles. It blisters with backwards-sounding Magazine-style guitar, and boils with scattergun lyrics that depict the Filipino politician’s labyrinth of a wardrobe. This serves as an analogy for her excessive pandering and scheming – also shared by a certain ‘80s Grange Hill character of the same name. And yes, The Beatles’ inadvertent snub of her gets a mention.
The closer is the NYC-centric ‘Halycon Days’. It could easily be interpreted as a homage to their CBGB’s influences. Intense Johnny Ramone downstrokes prevail and seal the deal. With regard to countless ‘best of’ lists, I have yet to see one devoted to ‘Best British Rock Songs About The Big Apple’. But when such a list appears, ‘Halycon Days’ will be up there with the Pistols’ ‘New York’ and ‘Back In NYC’ by Genesis.
Make mine a Mellotronic. Inexorably it’s ‘experience’ rather than boyish ‘innocence’ that matters. The Mellotronics are cross-generational and into different vibes, but somehow, it all converges. Never a dull moment. In the eloquent words of actor and comedian Kevin Eldon:
“It amounts to an entire pigeon hovering majestically on the thermals of pop. When this damn plague is over go and see them live too – your toes will ache from tapping.”