Stephen Pennell looks back at the time of his life.
Mama Roux’s, Digbeth
O’Neill’s, Broad Street
Castle and Falcon, Balsall Heath
Quantum Centre, Digbeth,
I first saw The Novus play live at the Birmingham Music Awards summer party at Mama Roux’s, where they performed a short set that established them in a very small and exclusive club – rock bands beloved of my beloved wife. She’s an avid rap and rnb fan and it takes something special to drag her kicking and screaming out of those genres and into this one – and The Novus are something special.
They’re also very more-ish, and within a couple of weeks of the BMAs gig I was power-walking along Broad Street on the last leg of a mad dash from work to see them again, this time at O’Neill’s on Birmingham’s Golden Mile. It was during the Ashes test match at Edgbaston; Broad Street was full of cricket fans from all over the country, nay world, and whilst vaping outside I made like the Harvey Keitel character in Taxi Driver, tempting punters by telling them of the pleasures within.
“What are they like?” I was asked in a variety of accents.
“Like a cross between the Sex Pistols and The Clash,” I said, and the pitch seemed to work on those of a certain age.
As you might expect, the attention of some of the audience was occasionally drawn to the cricket highlights that were playing on the TV screens around the bar. Over a thunderous beat Connor, the charismatic frontman, was having none of it. He grabbed a bar stool, perched himself precariously upon it, and demanded: “Don’t watch that! I’m more important than that! WATCH MEEEEE!!” He then proceeded to wow the crowd of complete strangers with a mesmeric performance, and nobody I spoke to afterwards threatened me with the Trade Descriptions Act over my Pistols/Clash comparison.
About a month later was the Sonic Gun weekender, and it was a sign of the lads’ progress from playing last year’s event at three in the afternoon, that this year they were promoted up the bill to 8.30pm.
As one of the organisers said to me a few days later, The Novus changed the whole course of the event. They drew everybody in from the beer garden on a lovely summer evening and got the place jumping. They were, for the third time I’d seen them on a multi-act bill, the best of the night, and I promised myself that wild horses wouldn’t keep me away from their headline show at a secret location, finally revealed on posters around Digbeth as being at the Quantum Centre, an exhibition space in Upper Trinity Street.
400 fellow Sherlocks also detected the venue, made gig-ready by the Herculean DIY efforts of the band, who built the stage and lighting rig with the help of family and friends. We sadly missed the support acts, including last minute addition Flares, due to a combination of work, rushing round getting childcare, and having to eat on the move. Still, getting our dinner from Buddha Belly at Digbeth Dining Club is never a hardship, and it certainly beats grabbing a quick Chelmsley dummy*.
We entered the venue and said hello to the band’s manager Andrew Winters, who unsurprisingly I’m on speaking terms with after stalking his band round Birmingham all summer. He was once Morrissey’s assistant tour manager until the daft old racist diva sacked him for having once bought an Elton John record or something, and also used to manage B-town legends Dodgy. So, if he’s good enough for them…
The size of the gathering was another indication of The Novus’ progress, triple the number that attended their headline show at Muthers Studio earlier this year, members of The Clause, Violet, La Dharma and Karkosa amongst them, showing just how heartwarmingly united the Birmingham scene is right now. The venue was a bit on the chilly side, a problem that was easily solved by buying a couple of t-shirts from the merch stall to wear as vests. Good marketing ploy lads!
As three-quarters of the band struck up the thrilling introduction of revolutionary call-to-arms Post-Modern Fairytale, we eagerly awaited the frontman’s entrance. Would it be from stage-left, stage-right, from the floorboards up or from the back of the room on a zip wire? Turned out he was on stage all along.
A black cloak was pulled off a wire cage to reveal Connor, menacingly prowling around inside on all fours, singing the opening lines: “Are you happy/In this life?” Honestly? Stood here watching the most powerful thing to come out of Birmingham since the industrial steam engine, I couldn’t be happier.
“We can be the change to set you free!” he implores, with the kind of passion that makes anything seem possible, and bursts out of the cage. New songs Frosty, New Age and Into the Darkness lead into the more familiar Man on the Bridge, their first song to get airplay on Radio One – a storming punk rock tribute to an old bloke who dances in his underwear at Camden Lock, like a cockney version of Bordesley Green legend Mad Malik. “You can’t tell me he’s an OAP/You’re having a laugh/He’s got more electricity than I have”.
It’s Connor who’s having a laugh now – N-Power hasn’t got more electricity than he has. The Novus are one of the few bands on the scene these days with something worth saying about the dystopian state of the nation, and they keep the rebellious theme going with another unashamed call for civil unrest, Break: “Can you feel the rumble?/Can you feel the rise?/Tell me that you’re with me/We’re gonna break tonight”.
There’s a costume change from boiler suits to business suits, and we are treated to more bold, ambitious and heavier-than-the-sun rockers like Hate is the Cancer and Castaway, on which guitarist Tom and bassist Tyla bring the beautiful noise, and Euan hits the drums harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to get familiar with the studio versions. They know how to pick a cover too – Billie Eillish’s Crown is made for them. Be warned though – they do things to it that you wouldn’t do to a farmyard animal.
Altogether, with Connor mixing the energy and showmanship of Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop, they’re an incredible unit, even more-so when Euan’s brother Harry joins the line-up to add texture with his acoustic guitar on Into The Darkness, Moonlight and show closer, Sanity. I had everything crossed hoping for an encore of the brilliant Greyscale, their first single, sadly to no avail. I’ve heard that the barmy a’peths don’t like playing it any more. (Manager Andrew tells me that his former charges Dodgy felt the same way about Good Enough until one of their dads said he liked it).
But after 45 high-octane minutes of theatrics, crowd surfing and acrobatics, as Connor climbed up everything that WAS nailed down, I couldn’t really complain. One final surprise awaited us as we left straight after the show – Connor loitering outside, all sweaty with make-up running down his face. He almost scared me out of my skin until I realised who he was, and he gave us a hug and thanked us for coming. An absolute showman and humble with it.
“Jesus,” I said to Wifey as we headed into the darkness. “He looked like Pennywise”. “Yes bab,” she replied. “That’s the look he’s going for.” I’d be lost without her to explain things to me.
*Chelmsley Wood is a housing estate in East Birmingham/North Solihull, where mothers who are busy shopping in the town centre are known to pacify unruly toddlers with a Greggs sausage roll – aka a Chelmsley dummy.