Reuniting for sporadic gigs since 2007, Cardiff’s Young Marble Giants were always unlikely candidates for a lucrative nostalgia tour. The trio seemed shocked even to have made it as far as the Festival Hall, at the behest of this year’s Meltdown curator David Byrne. “Somebody pinch me,” said chief songwriter Stuart Moxham as he slipped onto the wide stage.
His band, completed by his bassist brother Phil and singer Alison Statton, set the blueprint for meek indie underchievement, splitting around the time their only album was released at the start of the Eighties. Today the term “indie” more likely describes rowdy men in skinny jeans hungry for a chart topper. It’s hard to imagine a more lo-fi, unambitious sound than this one, once backed by a tape recording of a drum machine and tonight aided by third Moxham brother Andrew. He had so little to do on drum pads that he could rest his left hand on his knee throughout.
Statton, now a chiropractor, performed like someone thrust on stage at the last moment because the real singer hadn’t shown up – stock still, arms at her sides, in a soft, dispassionate voice that has since become more familiar in bands such as Belle and Sebastian and Stereolab. On Collossal Youth, the title track of that lone album, Stuart poked a keyboard like a man in a shop thinking of buying one and learning it properly one day.
Yet there was an aesthetic purity to Wurlitzer Jukebox and Salad Days, with their crisp guitar, wiry bass and abrupt endings. Statton has described the songs as sketches or haikus, floating past with barely an ounce of excess weight. Though they sound nothing like Nirvana, it’s perhaps this audible dread of showiness that made them one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands.
The word “cult” can sometimes mean something that would be huge if only more people had heard of it. This band haven’t dated but continue to stand apart from rock’s melee, unlikely to appeal beyond a select few that forgives them their slightness. When that few includes David Byrne, they must be doing something right.