Last night I saw The Rolling Stones. Did it matter that every time Keith Richards played a chord it sounded like he was launching his Telecaster down a flight of stairs? No, of course not. It was The Rolling Stones. Tonight, I’m at the SSE Arena, Wembley (a place with the ambience of a meat processing factory and surely London’s worst music venue) to see The Hollywood Vampires. They’ve got a guitar player who isn’t really a guitar player at all. I wonder if he’ll be able to out-trump Keith Richards?
Whether you think an amalgam of rock ‘n’ roll royalty and a AAA-List Hollywood actor principally knocking out cover versions is a slightly odd vanity project or a genuinely worthwhile supergroup, there’s no denying that if you did buy a ticket to see The Hollywood Vampires on this brief run of UK dates, you certainly got bang for your buck. Not only do you get to see Alice Cooper, Joe Perry and Johnny Depp in the headline, you also get The Damned and The Darkness in the support.
My attempts to catch Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible and whoever else is in The Damned these days were thwarted by the M25 in rush hour. Sadly therefore, there are no photographs of the Captain doing his best to look like Dennis the Menace. I was going to post a picture of five lanes of stationary traffic instead, but anybody already acquainted with Britain’s most pointless motorway would have found it too depressing. Instead, be assured that The Damned were almost certainly very entertaining – something they’ve always been, regardless of who might be in the band.
Luckily, I was able to catch The Darkness, who, in Justin Hawkins have surely one of the most engaging front men around. They were introduced by Justin’s namesake Taylor Hawkins, who had high tailed it down from Foo Fighters’ Manchester gig the day before. Suddenly, we were all getting juiced up at the thought of a potential drumming appointment with the headline act. But for now, The Darkness. It’s easy to diss The Darkness. That’s what I used to do until I actually saw them.
Justin Hawkins (probably the world’s only rock star with the word ‘Lowestoft’ proudly tattooed on his midriff), plus his brother, guitarist Dan Hawkins and bassist Frankie Poullain on the front line gurned and posed their way through every song. They’re a photographers’ dream and take themselves even less seriously than the audience does. Unless you happen to be a music snob with a smell under your nose, they’re an incredibly difficult act to follow.
But follow them The Hollywood Vampires must do, and around thirty minutes later to the strains of Sir Christopher Lee reciting Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “Children of the night… What music they make…” and through a thick smog of dry ice, the band appeared.
They opened with some original numbers. I Want My Now and Raise The Dead got us settled in and My Dead Drunk Friends set the tone for what was to follow. The Hollywood Vampires was a 1970s LA club established by Cooper for people who knew how to drink. To be eligible for membership, you had to (a) be famous, and (b) be able to out-glug the existing members of the club. These caveats made it an exclusive affair, principally because that kind of lifestyle doesn’t equate with longevity. Cooper is one of very few surviving members, almost certainly because of his own conversion to sobriety in 1981.
Hence, the Hollywood Vampires band is an homage to friends who have passed. It’s also an excuse for three mates to get onto big stages and have a lot of fun in the process. The tribute part of the evening now got into full swing. Jim Morrison was remembered in a segue between Five To One and Break On Through (To The Other Side). Malcolm Young’s recent (plus Bon Scott’s more distant) demise was recalled in The Jack, Cooper producing a playing card every time he sang the chorus. I assume he was trying to convince any minors in the audience that he was actually singing about a playing card.
The frontman was starting to look like an over-enthusiastic World Cup referee in Ace Of Spades as more cards came flowing from his pockets. Lemmy was projected on the backdrop and big hairy men in the audience got choked up. To add extra credence to the experience, the vocals were handled by bass player Chris Wyse, who convincingly growled the words whilst banging out sixteenth notes on his A string.
Baba O’Riley followed in a tribute to Keith Moon and John Entwistle. It gave a chance for some of the other musicians to shine – principally Buck Johnson on the keys and Glen Sobel on drums. Sobel played a solo high on crossed arms and spinning sticks, but low on kicking things over and blowing things up. Moon would have turned in his grave. The vocal performance on this one wouldn’t have given Roger Daltrey sleepless nights, but Pete Townsend would have approved the whirling arms from the guitar section.
The band also played songs by people who are still around, though in the main the people who are still around were themselves. Hence, we got As Bad As I Am, written by Depp about his late step-father. Depp introduced him as “A criminal”. I’d have liked to hear the words, though Wembley Arena’s famously shocking acoustics saw to that. It was a catchy tune though. We also got Aerosmith (Sweet Emotion) and Alice Cooper (I’m Eighteen) covers – Sweet Emotion in particular was excellent; the brooding intro played by Perry via a talk box, Peter Frampton style.
There was only really one opportunity to hear Johnny Depp’s guitar, when he played a short solo in Fleetwood Mac’s Stop Messin’ Around. Evidence would suggest he shouldn’t give up the day job – though given the rewards of the day job, I don’t suppose he’s too fussed. We did, however, get two opportunities to hear him sing. In People Who Died, Depp delivered a kind of Ian Dury meets Foghorn Leghorn spoken southern drawl. The highlight of the entire evening though was also sung by Depp; an excellent cover of Bowie’s Heroes. The accent was deep south again, only this time south of the Thames and the vocal performance carried real emotional depth. He is an actor, after all. The backdrop featured Masayoshi Sukita’s iconic photograph from the Heroes album cover, though inexplicably, it was projected back to front.
By far the biggest crowd reaction of the night was reserved for the encore, when the band came out and played Cooper’s School’s Out, plus a short segue into and out of Another Brick In The Wall. The audience went bananas and hundreds of Hollywood Vampires branded giant balloons descended from the ceiling. Whilst I’ve no doubt the crowd went home happy from a night of good rockin’ music, it seemed they were more enthused celebrating the living rather than the dead.
Sadly, Taylor Hawkins’ sole contribution was to introduce The Darkness.
The Hollywood Vampires, 20 June 2018. Review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography site at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk