Stiff Little Fingers' Inflammable Material provided a soundtrack for our teenage years, every single one of its three chords forever fused with our memories of youth. As we grew a bit older, it remained a favourite and was soon joined by Mark Stewart and the Maffia's As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade and the many productions of Adrian Sherwood. Trawlling through used record shops, anything with Sherwood's name on it went home with us. Naturally when Southbank Centre announced that they'd have all three acts performing on the same bill at this year's Meltdown, it was the one night we couldn't miss because this music made us who we are.
Whilst ordering our first drink at the bar downstairs, we could already hear the bass from above. We knew immediately that national dub treasure Adrian Sherwood had begun his set. On entering Royal Festival Hall itself, wobbly rumbles filled the air, at first making us think that perhaps the previous night's dubstep event never ended. The perennial producer behind Mark Stewart and the Maffia's recordings, Sherwood finished his brief run on the turntables to take up position behind the mixing console for their performance.
If this band only ever recorded as Mark Stewart and the Maffia, they'd still have one of the strongest back catalogues in modern music. Consider Stewart's roots in the post-punk revolutionary outfit The Pop Group as well as his Maffia's past as the Sugarhill house band, however, and you have an entire career spent blazing recklessly and beautifully through genre borders. For their performance at Royal Festival Hall, they played the entirety of their new album, Edit. It was our first time hearing this material, but it fell completely in line with what this band does best, mixing dub reggae, hip hop, industrial and electronic styles into an anxious, yet funky, social critique.
Mark Stewart's two greatest talents are his flailing cry of a voice and his ability to pen phrases that would sound simple sung by anyone else, but in the grasp of said voice are lyrical Molotov cocktails. The mantra "The way out is through the door, how come nobody uses it?" becomes a call to arms and "7% of the population, 94% of the wealth" a demand for revolution. We could easily listen to Stewart wailing over dubby beats for hours, so his set was always destined to feel too short to us. Fortunately, the band agreed to play a second set in the ballroom after Stiff Little Fingers.
One of the most marvellous aspects of Meltdown each year is the subcultural parade of punters drawn out by acts with a long history behind them. At the Gong gig, throngs of hippies were dancing down front that probably saw them in the early 1970s, while at last year's The Jesus And Mary Chain performance many of the band's first wave of aging indie kids turned up to hear the noise pop they were raised on. Of course every event brings in a diverse audience as well, but for Stiff Little Fingers' Meltdown appearance, as with Gong and The Jesus And Mary Chain, what you remember most is the group of fans most represented. In this case, that meant the subcultural salt of the earth: punk rockers.
Welcoming the band with singing and chanting, a giant mass of punks old and new swarmed the front row as the four piece took the stage. Since Inflammable Material has only twelve songs with an average length of three minutes each, the band started with a full set of their not as classic, but still incredibly fun, pop-punk tunes. When it came time for the main course, singer Jake Burns informed us that this would be their last time performing the entire album live. This made us feel quite special, but fuck it, punk's not about special: let's set this shit on fire and watch it burn!
Although security tried many times to stop us from dancing, the defiant lyrics of songs like "Suspect Device" and "No More Of That" ensured that we didn't listen. Possibly the only punk rock doo-wop song in existence, "Barbed Wire Love" made us pogo every last bit of puff out of our lungs. Hearing album closer "Alternative Ulster", without exaggeration one of the greatest punk singles ever recorded, played live was like a warped, punk version of an anthemic stadium show as fists pumped in the air and a wave of smiles spread across the crowd.
Fast, loud and powerful, Inflammable Material holds up brilliantly nearly thirty years on from its creation. The raw, gargled-on-broken-glass sound of Jake Burns' vocals backed by quick stabs of guitar, bass and drums rocks on a primordial level. There is something about a simple pop song that resurrects the vibrancy of emotion that aging tends to dull. Brief, intense and out of control like youth itself, a great punk song is one you want to play again immediately after it's over. After bashing out the 59 second "Here We Are Nowhere", Jake Burns said it best: "I always liked that one. Two chords, two verses and it's all done in under a fuckin' minute." Burned up before it was barely on fire, that's how we like it!