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Wire, Issue 233, July 2003, "Biting Tongues, ICA, London"


It has been 20 years since the original line-up of the Manchester based post-punk/avant funksters Biting Tongues last played together. In the mid-80s they went their various ways - drummer Eddie Sherwood left to join Simply Red, while Graham Massey co-formed 808 State - after the dialectical impetus of their punk-funk thang petered out. That seemed to be that. In 2003, however, in advance of an upcoming CD reissue of their 80s albums, the original Tongues have reunited to revisit their old terrain, only to find it surprisingly pristine and still fully funktional.

The Tongues formed in the late 70s, with a view to providing a soundtrack to their self titled 16mm film. Like many of their contemporaries, including The Pop Group, Cabaret Voltaire and Clock OVA, their music was a maniacal mélange which drew on John Cage, JG Ballard, Captain Beefheart, WS Burroughs, etc, co-opting and inverting the exuberance of funk to provide an agitated, cut-up and noirish yet vivid critique of a society apparently on the verge of 1984 for real, The Tongues' politics were sublimated, their gigs more like 'happenings', with a built-in allowance for the spontaneous, whether it was hammering on oil cans or tearing up psychology handbooks onstage. The songs were nightmarish, pain-filled scenarios ("Reflector", "Heart Disease"), sweating in the sauna anguish of the 'Feverhouse'. This early period, 1980-83, is the one from which they draw for tonight's set.

Despite their long lay-off, The Tongues' playing hangs together extraordinary well. Even the tricky song suite "Evening State" is disposed of with an effortless ferocity. They're 'eclectic', of course, a much debased word in the commonplace Ambient soup of today, in which the disparate likes of Miles Davis, Can, Neu!, etc are too often reduced to a pleasantly liquefied, digital electronic puree. Biting Tongues' influences and elements, by contrast, from raw analogue keyboards to Howard Walmsley's angry, desolate sax - always a key component of funk noir - and Graham Massey's eviscerating rhythm guitar and violin, come at you in undissolved, uncompromised lumps.

Fears that The Tongues might revive cliches about early 80s Manc music - glum, enervated, listless - are turned inside out. There's a scathing ferocity about their set that takes aback some of the younger spectators especially as they ascend to the climax of their set, with "Everywhere But Here" and "Aaircare" gathering momentum. "One day, you'll be able to tell your grandparents about this," quips vocalist and Wire contributor Ken Hollings. What's more, they play with a manifest glee. Walmsley, cheery in his Hawaiian shirt, grins throughout as affably as English cricketer Phil Tuffnell, Massey's guitar practically flies out of his hands as he tears from it great chunks of distressed funk, Hollings lurches upfront, looking like a cross between Greg Proops and David Byrne. The atmosphere is part jolly boys' reunion, part elation at having collectively reignited their old fire. The dialectical wheel has come full circle and The Tongues, in the present day context, in which we've unlearned how to take them for granted, are as exhilarating and urgent as ever.