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I’ll Show you Something Special… Balaam & The Angel are back!
It would be no exaggeration to say that Balaam & The Angel played a large part in my ‘formative years’ and directly influenced a lot of what was to come. I first saw them on 2 consecutive nights in 1984, supporting The Cult at two iconic venues, Friars at Aylesbury and The Lyceum in London.
They were labelled, wrongly and lazily in my opinion, as a goth band but looked and acted anything but; if memory serves they were all dressed in white at those gigs, and their sound, although there were definitely elements of a dark post-punk approach, had a lo-fi psychedelic twist that made them stand out from the majority of bands of the time. The Cult – this was the ‘Resurrection Joe’ period – were a blaze of colour at the time, both in appearance and sound; Balaam were similar and the general vibe and feeling created by the two bands on the same bill was an inspirational one for a 17-year-old with less than 20 gigs under his belt. They sounded brittle and jagged but with a dark pulse and the ability to write catchy as hell songs; ‘World Of Light’ from the first EP release being a great example; uplifting and dramatic as so many of their songs to come were to be.
The next time I saw them, now in 1985, was supporting Skeletal Family at The Clarendon, and around that time I must have made the decision to ‘follow’ them; that fairly unique early 80s phenomena that saw the slip roads of motorways and the bus and train stations of the country hosting increasing numbers of kids with kit bags heading off for tribal adventures and good times around the gig circuit of the time. That summer felt like the second Summer Of Love and Balaam supporting The Cult on the ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ tour felt like the epicentre of it all. All of a sudden the 60s were cool again, there was colour everywhere; paisley, velvet, long hair, peaceful vibes. Balaam were ideal for this; it was as if the culture around them had caught up with their songs and taken on the feelings inherent in them; stuff that until then, within the strict confines of a strangled and stagnated punk scene, no one had been willing or able (or allowed..) to show, hear or feel.
After the ‘Sanctuary’ dates Balaam, who released the classic ‘Love Me’ and ‘Day and Night’ EPs that year, played extensively around some of the familiar venues of the time – The Clarendon was a regular, Croydon Underground, Dudley JBs (after which Mark kindly put me up on his floor for the night), Retford Porterhouse, Chippenham Golddiggers. There were also some offbeat one-offs; the Electric Screen cinema in Notting Hill stands out; joss sticks burning, ‘Blow Up’ on the big screen, members of the recently finished Sisters Of Mercy in the audience.
There were a few bands at the time that had a loyal following that would attend as many gigs as possible, regardless of where they were. Getting to know that early Balaam & The Angel crowd, mixing with the band and being accepted as part of the gang (although a part-timer compared to some!) was a life changer for a punk rocker growing up on various army camps, changing school regularly and generally feeling out of place. There was a real sense of belonging, of a group of people who looked out for each other and created a safe place. The travelling camaraderie, acceptance of people as people no matter what they looked like, and all-round tolerance was a massive inspiration. I will never forget a gig at The Bull, a pub in East Sheen; it felt as if I’d reached some sort of nirvana, feeling ecstatic throughout the whole set, finally realizing I belonged somewhere and felt relaxed. I will always be grateful to Balaam and their following for that. I recall telling the band, after the gig in the dressing room, Billy Duffy there as well, that this had been the greatest night of my life! Which I think might have perplexed them a bit! That feeling, cementing what I’d already started to experience with New Model Army, The Cult etc acted like a drug on me and set me on a course that continues to this day – searching out those moments when everything clicks into place, the world lights up and nothing else matters…
Another huge, pivotal event was Balaam playing in Stevenage and being supported by a band just starting out and finding their sound, Fields Of The Nephilim. I knew within seconds that I’d found MY band; I got talking to them and for the next 6 years or so my whole life took a darker, dustier and smokier turn as I travelled far and wide with them….but that is definitely a different story! Throughout those years I regularly went back to Balaam gigs and watched as they really took off. 1986 was a massive year with a batch of classic single releases on their own Chapter22 label (‘Light Of The World’ and ‘She Knows’) before a signing to Virgin Records and the ‘Slow Down’ single and ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’ album release. There were some memorable gigs including a jaunt around the country supported by Rose Of Avalanche. They played the ULU on my 19th birthday; Mark resplendent in crushed red velvet suit!
The sound was moving in a harder direction as time went on, with the album having a tougher feel than early material while still keeping the songwriting at top notch. The guitars might have been heavier but the feel was still there, the optimism and passion and ability to inspire. The next album ‘Live Free Or Die’ moved even further into hard rock territory and gave us two thumping and rousing singles ‘I’ll Show You Something Special’ and ‘I Love The Things You Do To Me’, which, although heavy, managed to avoid the bombastic heavy metal approach that The Cult had taken. Another album followed a few years after but the band then stopped around 1989.
But now, they’re back! The announcement of a ‘Singles 1984-87’ tour throughout April and May 2018 meant it was time to hit the road again! The first date I made was the Fleece in Bristol and I must admit hearing those songs and seeing the band clearly digging the whole situation so much brought a bit of a tear to the eye! Jim on guitar is a total whirlwind of activity; jumping, kicking, strutting and smiling as if it was all totally new to him! Mark is more understated with a laid back knowing stage presence and a wonderfully dry sense of humour. Des sounds like more of a powerhouse than ever; and with the Morris brothers augmented by Chris Williams on keyboards, this band has clearly not lost anything. The sound is harder and rockier than those early years but stripped down without any over the top metal extravagance. It feels more like…a glam rock performance with a post-punk edge, anchored by the bass; a huge sound, an incredible selection of songs and a band clearly loving every minute. On a number of occasions, all three brothers are up on the drum riser! There isn’t a single weak track and I appreciate the ‘Live Free..’ songs more than I ever have before. Every song is received ecstatically and the banter between stage and audience makes it feel less like a gig and more like a gathering of old mates.
The Brighton gig is a celebration from the very start, the band tears through the set with less chat than before as it seems we’re in a venue curfew situation. Everyone in the room seems to know the words to every song, and it brings it home to me just how popular this band were when they were at their peak. The old following, The Sperm Bank, are still there including some faces i recognize from many many years ago; they are obviously having immense fun and act like a vortex, pulling others in who abandon themselves and just relive the old days and the old tunes. People link arms, circles form, shoulders are sat on, arms are raised to the heavens and everyone is grinning from ear to ear! It looks like a pagan celebration in a south coast nightclub, a ritualised ceremonial blessing in musical form.
Everyone searching for another glimpse of that nirvana that I encountered so long ago, and Balaam are the perfect band to help you find it with non-stop classic tracks; ‘She Knows’, Love Me’, ‘Sister Moon’ – what an epic – ‘For More Than A Day’ and ending with ‘Isabellas Eyes’! It’s raining and grey outside but glowing in here, lit up by a band having the time of their lives playing us their glam punk celebratory rock ‘n’ roll back catalogue. Like us they’ve survived the years and whatever has happened to us all in between days and have come back stronger. That as well gives a sense of community and, strangely, pride – those early days weren’t some foolish kids pastime, we got it right the first time! It seems the Greatest Story is still being told! It Goes On!
Balaam & The Angel headline the Islington O2 Academy on November 3rd, 2018. Be part of the Story!
Words: Gary Powell for Enjoy Yourself!
Images: Dave Taylor for Enjoy Yourself!