I bought “Magic & Medicine” on the day of its release. Anything, anything to replace "Don't think you're the first", the melody that seemed to have lodged itself in my brain and started spinning everytime I tried to get rid of it.
The album title appealed to me like the glowing lettering on a travelling charlatan's coach, promising me a cure for my weird ailment. Fortunately I didn't spend my pennies in vain: there was enough material on there to dress a fresh open-heart surgery. The side effects felt pleasantly irreversible: my blood started running thick and slow through my brain, forcing me into regular day reveries filled with images of empty seaside funfairs, rickety coffee shacks and salty mist. it was probably time i saw the Coral live: I was starting to mix their neighbouring Liverpool with a romantic representation of Blackpool.
Going to the Brixton Academy was like diving in a pool of cold water: refreshingly sobering. Daydreaming can sometimes make you oblivious to certain obvious facts. For example, that the Coral are terribly young and terribly northern. It was hard to think otherwise on seeing that gang of lads jump onto the stage, following the excellent support by the Stands. There was something about them which reminded me of what some people used to see in the Gallagher brothers, a mixture of aloofness and aplomb. The comparison was quite difficult to avoid, especially on catching sight of new recruit John Duffy, who brought in vital instruments such as a beanie hat, a pair of clapping hands and numerous bottles of beer the handling of which he alone mastered.
“Billy Mc Cai” opened the gig, followed by “Goodbye”, which sent the pit into a jumping frenzy. I must confess I was surprised by the energetic mood of the public, who were beaming and waving and swearing with some accent "fucking grreat!" to the sound of a music I appreciated for being so fundamentally melancholic. So much for me.
The band struggled through “Pass it on”, as the fingerpicking guitar and light-hearted bass which make the very charm of the song got completely swamped by the over-balanced piano. The anthemic “Simon Diamond” put them back on tracks, with its nursery-rhyme-gone-wrong quality and matching lyrics ("Changed from human to plant form, Now he swapped his legs for roots, His arms and soil are in cahoots").
The Coral appeal not only to boys in need of something to rave about, but also to girls who tend to fall prey to laddish charm. And when the lad in question impresses critics with his musical maturity, commands respect from his peers, modestly refuses to be anything other than one of the gang, walks on stage as casually as if he was walking in the supermarket, and sings hand in pocket "Every time I think of Leizah, I break down and I start crying, Although she tore me apart, There's still a place for that girl in my heart", it would be totally inhuman not to melt. There is nothing as enduring as the myth of the bad boy kicking cans and being angry suddenly turning up with a squashed posy and matching prose. James Skelly only intuitively knows it, and that's his charm. If he fully understood what charm was about, he would have none.
Followed the classic singalong "Dreaming of you" and "Secret Kiss", with the trademark Shadows guitar riffs. To my relief, the haunting "Don't think you're the first" was delivered with enough verve and guitar impromptu to obliterate the recorded version.
It is true that James Skelly didn't hide his reticence to take the Coral's material on tour: "I wish we didn't have to tour Magic and Medicine really. If I'm honest it's not that enjoyable to play live." Of course there is always the worry that the live rendition can only be a pale imitation of the intricate studio work. it is not justified. Dismissing the live dimension of the Coral's music would be unfair. Live performances have their own dynamics and their unique appeal. In the Coral's case, the live appeal lies in a terribly engaging crowd, the opportunity to catch guitarist Lee Southall uncannily looking like a young George Harrison with his guitar and trousers high above waist, but with Harrison's later years' dexterity; John Duffy's aerobics performance at the end of the show, in a last spark of Bez-like genius; brother Paul on bass somehow stirring the attention of obsessed 14 year-old-girls (another Beatles' trait?); and finally, as James Skelly would himself acknowledge, the sheer live energy that partially escapes his control. It is that very energy that the Coral have tried to channel and recreate in "Nightfreaks And The Sons Of Becker", a blitz recording to be released January 26th, of which they gave us a preview with "I forgot my name" and the closing number "Migraine".
The latter in particular is a perfect example of the Coral's new direction towards a rawer and more riotous sound. Somehow the artfulness that differentiates them from the average guitar band becomes more visible: the subaquatic sound quality of the keyboards, the sirenlike guitars and ever shifting beats that create temporary deconstructions and correspondences beyond the obvious linear introduce modern painting technique in rock'n'roll.
Now, don't let this alarm you. A critic once said of an early Beatles song that he admired its "flat-submediant key-switches" and "Aeolian cadence". Lennon commented he "didn't know what the hell it was all about". One look at the grinning faces in the crowd as the Coral's set closes with "Migraine" would give you an easy explanation: "it's fucking grrreat!"