Fat White Family @ SWG3, Glasgow, 7 May
How do you fix a reputation after it almost kills your band, stone dead? For garage rock hell-raisers Fat White Family, it’s by going mostly – and spectacularly – disco
If you saw Fat White Family back in 2013, a single image above others is surely emblazoned in your memory: frontman Lias Saoudi, naked and oiled like a pig sweating in line for the slaughter, squealing in the faces of his stunned audience. At a time when rock in the UK certainly felt depleted, cordially invited to a stage in a quaint English garden, Fat White Family felt like a group at the edge of taste. A cretinous, sort-of-anarchist-socialist troupe fronted by a man who made Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet seem like the perfect dinner guest. The house band for a scorched earth.
So strong was the inferno (and, as it happens, the various hard substance abuses among members) that, when the time came to record their two LPs Champagne Holocaust and Songs for Our Mothers, their wild energies could hardly be committed to tape. In fact, the weight of expectation, among other things, almost killed them. Then came the acid disco refresh Serfs Up!, the focal point of tonight’s Glasgow show, and indeed something like a pivotal moment for the group.
Having kicked harder habits for ‘milder’ drugs like ketamine and weed and embraced a relatively cleaner lifestyle, the Fat Whites’ transformation from a formidably chaotic band into a formidably virtuosic one may have come at the cost of expecting the unexpected. As always, Saoudi is the centre of attention, his bald head curtailed by the party side of a mullet, which sways like a mare’s tail when he nods to the beat, Liam Gallagher-style. He’ll remove his shirt this time around, but his beige trousers stay hoisted, darkened with sweat by the time he departs the stage. Mesmerising as Saoudi is, you can’t help but wonder: have "the most dangerous band in the UK" finally had their teeth well and truly corked?
Just when you thought Fat Whites’ grooves were supposed to be pummelling, like a predator jumping its prey, new state-of-the-nation tunes When I Leave and Fringe Runner disarm with their stealth, alien parasites that slowly takes over the part of your brain that moves your hips. Older cuts Bomb Disneyland and the riotous Whitest Boy on the Beach supply a gnarled thrill but seem like edge-lord juvenilia next to the contained clangour of Bobby’s Boyfriend.
Oiled and naked bodies aside, the group’s most surprising stunt to date is the sudden widening of their sonic palate – reflected on stage with the supply of sax, flute and even a comically small gong – into various strains of disco swagger, matched in the revelatory Feet by some of Saoudi’s most confounding lyrical imagery. 'My refugee is throbbing, underneath the sound / Deep inside a man, all loyal to his alms', he sings. Suddenly, he even looks like Leonard Cohen.
Iggy Pop-ish acts of bloody unraveling, the sort you were likely to see at a Fat White Family show years ago, have given way to something else – better isn’t the word, exactly, but it’s certainly a maturation. What’s more, it’s growth mirrored in the group’s fanbase, no longer bought by performances of self-annihilation. Fat White Family may not be the all-consuming fireball they once were; even forces of nature can burn themselves out. But what they’ve started chiselling out now is a legacy fit to last.