INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Wire MARCH 2010 - by Adrian Whittaker with Michael Bracewell
NON-STOP EXOTIC CABARET
Pitched between high concept performance and low rent music hall burlesque, The Moodies emerged from the same UK art school ferment as Roxy Music and Brian Eno, dazzling and appalling audiences from London to Berlin with gender-challenging high octane cabaret routines that were closer in spirit to The Scratch Orchestra than early '70s rock orthodoxy. But was it seriously subversive art or just fun to dress up?
In a June 1974 edition of The Sunday Times Magazine, a double page colour photograph depicts an unsmiling group of five young women and one young man, wildly dressed and intensely made up. Their style resembles that of The New York Dolls combined with kabuki theatre, early Roxy Music and an amateur pantomime. They glower into the camera: Hostile, haughty, inscrutable and absurd.
These were The Moodies, a group of former students from the Fine Art department of Reading University, where, during the late years of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, catalysed in part by the presence of artist Rita Donagh among the teaching staff, there was an ongoing (if controversial) interest in the relationship between fine art and contemporary classical music. The Moodies, however, were more concerned with the slippery but rewarding dialogues between high and low cultural forms, gender, androgyny and sexuality, performance arty and pop. Their project was a musical and performance art group which linked the worlds of fine art, pop and rock music, subcultural fashion and avant gardist tactics. What you got was a theatrical troupe who performed - sometimes shakily, but usually to bewitching and often comic effect - a selection of pop, rock, showbusiness and cocktail lounge numbers, in a manner which was at once kitsch, aggressively subversive and camp. The effect was both a deconstruction and reconstruction of 'glamour' and musical styles, in which - vitally and consciously - creative failure could become a component of artistic success.
During the early 1970s, The Moodies attracted a steadily growing cult following; their creative language was drawn from a confluence of kitsch, irony, amateurism, improvisation, conceptualism and the manipulation of image and camp that George Melly (a Moodies fan himself) later defined in his aesthetic handbook, Revolt In Style. With nearly forty years' hindsight, one can see, in their chance-ridden yet deeply sophisticated approach to performing, much that rehearsed and analysed - like performance art test pilots - the principal strands of British art rock, 'avant-cocktail' pose groups, punk and post-punk. Referencing the artistic/musical cabarets of the dadaists and Futurists, the group take their place on a musical timeline somewhere between The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and The Sex Pistols.
Central to the concept of The Moodies was a tension between those members who saw the group as 'serious' or 'fine' art, based on conceptual thinking, and those who regarded the entire project as 'fun', 'showing off' and 'dressing up'. From this combination of opposing outlooks emerged the group's mesmeric blend of high-mindedness and chaotic performance, predating the later vogue for burlesque and postmodern parody. Over the following decade this ran through the bandwidth of the subcultural production line, from The Rocky Horror Show to New Romanticism's near self-parodic theatre of alienation, to the earliest incarnations of the self-reconstructing Leigh Bowery. Interviewed in 2004, two ex-Moodies, Polly Eltes and Anne Bean, agreed that the group's abiding talent had been "to let people down"; to embrace the tension between success and failure, between acceptance and obscurity, was recognised as both a shaping and driving force within the group's short history - a career which began with a mix of triumphant failure, audacity and dissent.
By chance or intention, the group's degree show submission at Reading University in 1973 comprised a masterclass in ambiguity and divided reaction. Four bemused visiting examiners sat stiffly on a settee in a darkened art studio, watching four figures dressed in artists' smocks and berets 'sketching' a model wearing fishnet stockings and posing as a Michelangelo. Enter Moodies pianist Rod Melvin, an androgynous figure in wig and voluminous skirt, who takes his place at an overgrown, ivy-festooned piano, and exclaims, "He's beautiful - he's divine - he's the boy from the Sistine Chapel!" Artists and model break into a tacky '50s doo-wop number complete with dance routine. It was a performance which, according to their professor, did "more harm than good".
But it also seemed to bring the honed amateurism of The Scratch Orchestra (a project much admired by the young Brian Eno, in which musicians of hugely differing ability would play together) to the art school rock of Roxy Music or the cartoon Americana of Sha Na na. The earlier networking between Reading University's New Music Society (attended also by future Roxy Music member Andy Mackay) and Winchester School of Art had already forged a relationship with Eno; as the first two Roxy Music albums achieved stratospheric commercial and critical success - taking the avant garde to the high street - so Eno, already engaged on new solo projects and new ideas, was perfectly in tune with the ideas that converged so entertainingly within The Moodies.
Championed by Eno, The Moodies moved on from intimate student shows to British theatre residencies and European tours. And for a while (as it would later for Leigh Bowery), mainstream success threatened. Reviewers actually took to their mix of "extraordinary glitter, high camp and ambiguous sexuality" (Time Out), while The Financial Times enthused about Rod Melvin and "his insolent spangled harem". The Hamburger Morgenpost dubbed them "the biggest sensation since The Beatles". Only The Guardian's Michael Billington kept his feet firmly on the ground, finding that "style greatly outweighs content" - which was precisely what The Moodies had in mind.
The Moodies achieved recognition at a time when both pop fashion, and self-inquiry within the visual arts, were experimenting with concepts of 'pose'. The most famous examples within the art world were living sculptures Gilbert & George, whose meticulous fusion of avant garde strategy and self-representation as inscrutable vaudevillians can also be read in aspects of The Moodies.
For most of The Moodies' brief career there were seven members. Melvin, Annie Sloane, Suzy Adderley, Anne Bean and Polly Eltes would all at times sing lead; Becky Bailey and Mary Anne Holliday sang backing vocals and choreographed the dance routines. A slapstick pantomime element could prevail, within the musical and pop-cultural dismemberment. For example, a show would often start with the group emerging through a pair of huge stuffed-satin Mae West lips. "We had a giant cigarette hanging from them," says Anne Bean, "and I put a smoke pellet in it so we all emerged through the smoke - to sing Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Rod Melvin: For Catch A Falling Star, Anne Sloane had a kangaroo costume made from brown chenille fake fur, which someone had cleverly adapted from a coat. Anne was up a ladder throwing silver-foil-covered stars..." "Which I caught," adds Sloane, "and put in the kangaroo pocket. It was typical of our literal interpretation of metaphors in the lyrics." Melvin: "For Return To Sender, we made this large stuffed heart, a bit bigger than a large football, and fastened it onto a strong elastic so when you let it go it would wham back right across the stage - again, a visual representation of some metaphor in the lyric."
As reconceived by The Moodies, Remember (Walking In The Sand) featured a rubber blow-up seagull dangling from a stick, with bean creating the seagull noises in the background. To add to the group's ever present sense of confusion about gender ans sexual orientation. Melvin left the female protagonist's lyrics unchanged, singing to "the boy that I once knew".
"This might all sound very amateur dramatics, but we were actually quite a powerful presence on stage," Sloane recalls. "We were quite scary and intimidating and possibly looked very in control," adds Bailey.
Though none of The Moodies ever cracked a smile onstage, the shows were very funny. As their career developed, the props and costumes became more extravagant. For the song Lonesome Cowboy, Eltes dressed as a cowboy riding a hobbyhorse, whilst Holliday had a tricycle with a giant horse's head which she "rode energetically in circles round the stage". Bean was "a greasy old Mexican in a poncho" with a cap pistol used as percussion in the song. Some gigs incorporated the glamorous french chanteuse and funambulist Hermine Demoriane, who was later to work with david Cunningham and other left-field performers.
Melvin: "We were doing a show at the New End Theatre in Hampstead and we wanted to incorporate her tightrope walking. For Poison Ivy, Hermine lay on the tightrope with green dripping fabric which she threw from above onto the performers..."
Bean: "I loved Beefheart - [when we did his] Those Little Golden Birdies I had these golden wind-up birds on my shoulders and on my hair, and it began with a fluttering of those wings providing the percussion."
Much of The Moodies' material came from Melvin's vast collection of songbooks (he had been performing since he wasten), with Eltes championing early girl groups like The Shangri Las. Songs from Eartha Kitt's Down To Eartha were also heavily featured.
Make-up was an important dimension to The Moodies' performances, introducing personae that played games with both sexual norms and, punkishly, the dictates of countercultural radicalism. Melvin, for example, would be described by The Sunday Times as looking like "a cross between a clown and a kabuki artist." "Years earlier," he recalls, "I'd seen David Bowie performing with Lindsay Kemp - a whole show about traditional pantomime - which I thought was a great look, and borrowed."
Again, the fusion of fashion and parody, seriousness and flippancy, high-jinks and confrontation, is all but impossible to disentangle - a fact not missed at the time by the feminist journal Spare Rib. Bailey: "In the early performances in reading we all thought we had to have blue eyelids and wear hats to go onstage - it was a bit like growing up and going to church - then we realised that was not necessary any more." Adderley: "The white pancake became completely universal." Costumes tended to be at the seedy end of glam, "simultaneously glorifying and ridiculing glamour", as Spare Rib remarked. Cross-dressing, heels and (torn) fishnet tights were key ingredients, alongside long gloves and a lot of Lurex. Holliday, Adderley and Eltes made a lot of costumes, and other members would raid jumble sales for clothes, which, like the kangaroo coat, would be customised. Eltes: "Later on we would sometimes borrow Roxy Music's costumes - I remember Bryan Ferry lent me his jacket with tigers on the shoulders. I think it's in the V&A now."
Kangaroo coat and all, this approach to performance can be seen as a pop version of the Futurists' adoption of 'low' cultural forms. At the time of The Moodies' performances during the early 1970s, this could also mean defying the etiquette of prevailing countercultural attitudes.
Bean: "We liked playing with a gender issue - but in terms of just throwing it completely off centre... We could also be deeply politically questionable in other contexts! At the time there was a real maelstrom of feminism, gender politics, social politics, Marxism - some feminists would have thought we were awful, but Spare Rib loved us. In Germany we all came on stage on a motorbike to do Jailhouse Rock - I was in Elvis drag, with waders on up to my thighs and a heavy leather jacket, my hair slicked back under a leather cap - but we weren't that interested in rock'n'roll as such, it was more a high energy take on it, rock'n'roll being in a strange sort of way a shamanistic practice. I remember these girls gathering outside the stage door and asking for 'that guy' and we'd say, 'Sorry, he's left the building!'"
Playing games with appearance, identity, gender and sexuality was the basis of much of The Moodies' style - an approach which, to the blues-based religion of rock music at the time, was nothing short of heretical. Frequent changes of wigs, make-up and costume meant the show was so visually confusing that audiences often thought there were more members than there really were, leading to one German paper captioning a photo of Bean in full Elvis drag as Rod Melvin. Adderley: "For me there was something about being a female impersonating a male impersonator - growing up, drag artistes like Danny La Rue were always around and I thought, 'Why can't women take this a step beyond?' In The Moodies we were skating along the lines between male and female imagery. I work as an artist and writer now, and it's an issue I'm exploring in a book called Strangely Gendered, a series of stories and essays about the formation of gender identity." Sloane: "In my normal art life, I was probably quite right-on and Moodies was this wonderful chance to wear lots of make-up, high heels and frocks and be gorgeous - at that time it was quite difficult to do that and to be taken seriously as an artist.
As among the members of Roxy Music, everyone in The Moodies had a different take on what precisely the group were 'about' - where their existence lay on the high-to-low cultural continuum. This led to both their appeal and, as it emerged, their eventual break-up. The seeds of the group were sown back at Reading University, circa 1969-70, when Melvin and Bean were already doing performance work together, and were both involved in tutor Rita Donagh's White Room project. Donagh: "For three weeks, in May 1970, the studio became a stage - action and performance being a natural expression of group creativity. A room was painted white throughout, with a grid on the floor; crosses on the grid marked where movement was prohibited." Bean: "It was quite influential in opening up new ways of looking at things and looking at process... Rita gave us permission to look at who we were as artists. The White Room project was basically a life-drawing class but the model became like us - just a being in a space."
Donagh: "It was informed by the 'democratisation' of art set in train by John Cage and Joseph Beuys and enabled intense concentration on artistic process, breaking down the distinction between tutor and student, and providing a venue for discussion and debate, and freedom from needing to look for an end product." Bean: "A few of us slept in the studio - there were typewriters, there was string; we did blindfolded life drawing, research into what was going on at the time... And that year we happened to have a particularly brilliant peer group - all of us feeding into each other." Sloane had previously been at Croydon College of Art, where she had located a similar vein of enquiry: "One teacher there was Marc Camille Chaimowicz [subsequently a tutor at Reading] who made his class not just about life drawing, but about process... He opened it out into 'happenings'. Malcolm McLaren was also there, as a student, but he soon took over... In 1968, '69, there were a lot of interesting things going on."
From such a background, the stage was then set for the Reading University Fine Art Department Christmas party in 1971. A group was formed for the occasion; anyone who wanted to be in it was in. "That's why we had six guitarists and two drummers," says Eltes. Adderley: "The expectation was that, being girls, we would be the backing singers... We used to rehearse regularly, though not necessarily with the band." It was during these rehearsals that The Moodies gradually took shape. Elte's husband Simon Puxley had been at reading with Roxy Music's Andy Mackay, who had studied music and English there. Puxley, now the fledgling Roxy Music's publicist, asked if the nascent group could make their debut at the party. Eltes: "There was a lot of interconnecting between art departments - Newcastle, Winchester - we all knew each other." Bean: "I had an old ambulance which served many purposes, so I drove them up - I seem to remember Brian Eno lying on top of the equipment all the way from West London to Reading." This event, coupled with Eno's enthusiastic support, provided the catalyst for The Moodies to take their project further.
The following year, The Reading University Battle Of The Bands was perhaps a slightly incongruous venue for a performance from Moody And The Menstruators (their original name), though judge Paul Jones, ex-Manfred Mann frontman, did give them a special mention. It led, however, to their first big official engagement: A late-night run at that summer's Edinburgh Festival and a London gig. Robin Klassnik, an early performance contemporary of Bean's, had also been impressed by the Reading show and put them on at an artist's party housed in the All Nations reggae club near London Fields in Hackney. Artist and creator of automata, Bruce Lacey, who was the caretaker there at the time, provided giant jellies for the event in the form of breasts and penises. Bean: "I think that was our best beginning. We were all wrapped up as these big parcels with party paper and glitter. There were plinths on stage and the bouncers, these big black guys, carried us in, put us on the plinths and unwrapped us..." Melvin: "[Jazz composer] Mike Westbrook was there - he came up to us afterwards and he said he thought it was wonderful!"
In its turn, success at the Edinburgh Festival led to seasons at Hampstead's New End Theatre, and then, in November 1973, at West London's Bush Theatre. Richard Williams, the head of A&R at Island Records, and the writer who championed Roxy Music, became interested: "Brian Eno got me intrigued in them - they seemed to be taking a certain strand of what Roxy had done in one direction - very performance based and rather kitsch, like people who'd been in an audience at a Roxy concert and thought, 'We'll have a go at this'. They were very amusing, very stylish - and in Rod they had someone who could deliver a torch song extremely effectively. It was problematic to record, though there was a certain interest in the irony with which they were doing it - what would be called, years later, postmodernism. We nevertheless arranged to record them live at The Bush Theatre - with the thought of releasing it on the Help label, which was our cut-price label for experimental stuff. We thought that live we could maybe capture the movement, the swirl of what they were doing. But we quickly came to the conclusion it was not a record."
Williams was also aware of the intimate relationship between The Moodies and the current trends within the visual arts: "They take their place on a continuum from Roxy and all the machinery of the music business, to something called Nice Style. This was a performance art outfit run by Bruce Maclean, the sculptor, who didn't do any music at all: The performers were accompanied by records - they dressed up and posed. It was 'taking sculpture off the plinth'. In '72, '73, people were breaking new ground in that area. Part of the problem for The Moodies was that they arrived too early - a few years later they could have been part of the video age, captured in a more appropriate medium than just sound; they might have become someone like Kid Creole And The Coconuts."
Reviewers took to The Moodies' live show, with Time Out's Dusty Hughes memorably describing them as "looking like half a dozen friendly whores after a night on the Reeperbahn". Though Island producer Guy Stevens left, appalled, after one song, Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Malcolm McLaren came and stayed. Soon after, music biz managers including Harvey Goldsmith and Billy Gaff Management showed a keen interest. But it was at this precise point that a mechanism within the group seemed set to engineer their obscurity - their ability to "let people down". Misunderstanding and misconception dogged attempts of both the msuic industry and the art/pop fashionistas to claim The Moodies as their own. Once again, conflicting views of their own purpose lay at the core of their endless reversals of career opportunities. Reflected in the modern fable of The Moodies, the monolithic music industry of the 1970s becomes like Alice's Adventures In Wonderland in its absurdity, absorption in fantastical schemes and capriciousness.
Adderley: "There was this whole succession of guys who took us out to lunch - I'm not sure to what extent they were just interested in being seen with us." Bailey: "We were having fun and it was being taken too seriously. We had a disastrous performance in [notorious music biz hangout] Dingwall's one New Year's Eve - the audience kept telling us to get our clothes off and booing, though there was another section that seemed to enjoy it. When we finished, someone came up saying he was in Pink Floyd and they were going to be doing a tour of the States and would we like to play support..."
Eltes: "We had tea with George Melly. He thought we were all lesbians." Bean: "He wanted to put us on in Chiselhurst Caves with various people, like Led Zeppelin before us." Nobody was in real control, though. "As we'd not started off with a grand plan," says Melvin, "we basically ignored it all." Bailey: "Malcolm McLaren took us out to the Hard Rock Cafe - he had a pink Cadillac waiting outside. He certainly wanted to get our names on a piece of paper." Bean: "We were so much our own people we didn't want anybody coming in. It had taken us all by surprise that we were [so successful anyway - it was like a comment on celebrity, because it started to be what it was parodying, which was very, very weird. I think... that we generally disappointed everybody... They weren't sure where we were coming from, because basically we weren't sure." Adderley: "There was definitely a svengali-ish feel to quite a lot of it; and that we would have to submit ourselves to this moulding process to become a fit product - money would have to be made." Bean: "I think we had a genuine feeling of fame being vulgar, in a way..." Eltes: "It was safe and cosy to hide behind not caring."
Later in 1973, The Moodies took their show to Munich, performing rather appropriately in a basement theatre in Schwabing - nicknamed Schwabylon at the start of the century, when it was the birthplace of German playwright Frank Wedekind's ironic, uncompromising cabaret The Eleven Executioners. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, The Moodies fitted more easily into the European cabaret scene that into the British gig circuit. Sloane: "Whereas in England people were rather cool about showing they liked us, in Germany people were tremendously enthusiastic, building on that whole cabaret tradition." After this, though, Bailey left to resume her art career, working as a portrait painter: "There was a feeling of disintegration about it - I thought maybe if I left things would improve..."
The comment proved prophetic, in one sense, as 1974 was The Moodies' most successful year - but ironically (and perhaps typically) their last. They made the cover of The Sunday Times Magazine, toured Europe (garnering the "biggest since The Beatles" quote in Hamburg), and played further residencies in Munich and Berlin. In Berlin, too, independent film makers Wolf Gremm and Renate Ziegler filmed a one-hour showcase which was broadcast on German TV. Although The Moodies felt it was too heavily directed, and thus didn't reflect their usual spontaneity, the film is interesting in that it documents the start of a move within the group towards experimentation with sound - which presages, for example, Bean's later work with Paul Burwell on the Low Flying Aircraft single and with The Bow Gamelan Ensemble. Bean: "I was trying to push Moodies into more experimental ways with producing sound. Performing the song Hot Chillies, we ate hot chillies, which completely changed our voices - that's a very Cagean way of doing things. We were just starting to experiment - there was an exhilaration we could create between us; and that's a very seductive thing about groups, because you know each other well enough to push things at certain times and then the audience travels with that."
Bean's performance of Wild Thing and Jailhouse Rock, both in the film, also reflect that kind of experimentation with different vocal 'personalities'. In much of what The Moodies did, there were echoes of Futurist Tommaso Marinetti's Variety Theatre, which, amongst many other things, intended artists to appropriate popular culture for the purpose of serious artistic experiment.Similarly, Luigi Russolo's 1913 tract The Art Of Noises was certainly a reference point for what Bean, at least, was experimenting with.
Bailey's feeling of the group's "disintegration", however, was correct, as the individual members' unarticulated vision for the group started to become clearer in the face of fame. Sloane: "I lost huge interest at that point." Bean: "We didn't know how to put it forward ourselves, everybody had a slightly different viewpoint. It had come together so organically so it felt very artificial trying to find a way of keeping it going." Adderley: "Coming more from the frame of cabaret and music hall - so I did have regrets that it felt aborted." Sloane: "In retrospect, we could have done more with it but we were scared to lose control like we did in Germany."
Today, the legacy of The Moodies might be read as an examination into the vexed relationship between the avant garde and popular culture - with each member of the group representing a different perspective. They articulate, above all, a moment of creative anxiety, prior to both the iconoclasm of punk, and the pasteurising side effects of postmodernism on cultural production. Bean saw The Moodies most definitely as art; Eltes and Bailey saw it as "fun". Somewhere in the middle lay the truth. Eltes: "I didn't actually think then that it was art - I thought of it as showing off. But now I agree with what Marilyn French wrote in The Woman's Room, that artists are basically saying, 'Look at me, Mum'." Adderley: "Also, there was that movement in art which was very anti-decorative, and there was a shadow aspect - a vulgarity and energy that had to emerge from the restraints..."
Bean: "It's difficult to articulate something from a completely different context... I was very interested in what style was, in what being an artist was - you saw these people like Rothko and Beuys who had this very definite style. I couldn't imagine what my style would be, because I loved everything. So Moodies for me was part of trying something out - a great brilliant exploration; and within Moodies I liked that idea of being lots of different people. Gurdjieff's notion of 'being anything' grabbed me very much: it's a pre-punk thought, in that you don't have to have particular talent in any direction, [just] real desire and verve."
Bailey: "My take was entirely frivolous. I went in because it was going to be huge fun and an antidote to the high-pressure seriousness of the Art Department, which I found really difficult to take sometimes..." Adderley: "My mother's stage name was Angela Barrie. She was a music hall artiste, a glamorous blonde who would come on in between acts and do gags with the impresario Freddy Forbes. I see my part in Moodies in some ways as following on from that music hall tradition, like our fast turnaround of numbers as the show developed. The other aspect for me was to do with democratisation of art, which was bubbling around: this idea that anyone could do it - which came out in punk later. Even though you couldn't really sing and dance, you could actually make it entertaining. In the end we became able to do really good shows and that was important to me."
Sloane: "It was fun - I loved dressing up - and I also loved the idea of allowing everyone to be creative. When people came to our shows they all went away thinking, 'I could do that.'" Bailey: "Some time after The Moodies ended I spoke to one of The Slits and she was overwhelmed - she said, 'That's the one group we really looked to for being all girls - we couldn't have done it without you'."
To whom did The Moodies pass the baton? In their complete disrespect for showbiz values, The Slits could certainly be seen as carrying on where The Moodies left off, and the art/cabaret/feminism mix of The Sadista Sisters (1975 onwards) set many of The Moodies' stylistic preoccupations in a more marketable context. Had their manager, Steven Berkoff, been in the audience in The Bush Theatre? And the dadaist principle of art as process, the extravagant series of 'happenings' of Cabaret Voltaire, was not only referenced by the White Room project and early Moodies, but by a whole host of 1980s performers.
When The Moodies dissolved towards the end of 1974, Bailey and Adderley returned to being artists, with Sloane becoming a prolific writer on interior design. Holliday, now an artist again, spent ten years in America working as a dancer, choreographer and showgirl, appearing in big dance spectaculars. Eltes, now a photographer following a post-Moodies career as a leading model, guested on Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and recorded a duo album with Can's Michael Karoli, Deluge, in 1984. Bean, now a respected contemporary artist, followed her work with sound sculptor Paul Burwell and the London Musicians Collective by continuing to explore the space between music and performance. Melvin worked on two Eno albums, Another Green World and Nerve Net, and co-wrote several songs with Ian Dury as a member of Kilburn And The High Roads (including What A Waste). He is currently the resident pianist at London's Groucho Club.
"I'd always played piano and sung since I was a kid," he concludes. "[The Moodies] was another opportunity to do that, but with a fantastic group of people. It was significant that they were all women, all very strong artists individually. So that alone overrode any lack of technical ability in terms of music, because what the audience got was this group of very strong individuals who you could not ignore."