8 October 1999, London

No pop in this record collection: 1977 is billed as a trip through 22 years of “music and anarchy”, part club, part gig, part showcase for organisers Satellite Records. Sounds like a good night out – sounds like an opportunity to check up on what’s crawling out near the margins of British music-making. Let’s see.

The venue’s appropriate, a paintball arena full of faux-factory atmosphere, all exposed steel and big staircases and grey paint and wire mesh. Moving round it feels like being in a cross between a school disco and Quake, everyone’s fantasy vicarious combat zone, apt given that 1977 never quite manages to move from being the fantasy of an event to an actual happening.

You can tell ‘77 is a hyperreal event because Momus is there, flanked by Japanese girls and chic fans. He’s not performing, probably just taking notes: if headliners Add N To X – who we end up not seeing – aren’t ‘analogue baroque’ I don’t know what is. But his presence is as reassuring and predictable as the flickery loops of black-and-white boxing footage projected on the wall, and the backdrop stills of surly, skinny black kids with their hands resting on primitive turntables. Three years ago this crowd would have been at a place like the Scratch Club, with cropped hair and thick Spud glasses, nodding along as bands like Boymerang phutted their way through their pointless, deracinated music. Back then being ‘intelligent’ was the key, nowadays being ‘experimental’ and ‘underground’ is – same thing maybe, different emphases.

It’s an improvement, mostly. The first band we see are the best, a bunch of shitfaced, shambling teenagers called They Come From The Stars who are just about together enough to talk to the audience and to batter some fabulous noise out of their instruments. They sound like cavemen trying to play an Add N record, their drums are incredibly loud and hugely primitive, and they’re the only group this evening who don’t have a straitjacketing sense of their own capabilities. They ask us whether we want to hear “Block Rock” or “Astro National Anthem”, and we all enthusiastically yell for the latter, but we’re at the back and “Block Rock” it is. “This is a very complicated one to set up” slurs the 70s-urchin singer, an astonishing claim since the thrillingly stupid “Block Rock” consists of the drummer bashing something noisy about once every couple of seconds and everything else just being left to freak out. It’s also a duet of sorts, as every time the singer yells “Block rock” the girl on his left yells “Tick tock” back. In all honesty it sounded ace, especially because the conviction of the band that they were creating a black-hole psychedelic sonic meltdown was so total, they were almost right. Christ knows what “Astro National Anthem” would have been like, but I intend to find out one day.

Upstairs are Sand, a much bigger draw and a much bigger bore. I’d read something on them by Kevin Martin (one-time compiler of brilliant Isolationism compilation, gradually turning into a finger-in-every-pie 21st century Laswell) which had roused my suspicions, and sure enough Sand are ‘difficult’ in the most guessable way possible, i.e. they sound abrasive and focus-free. They do that dreary Mogwai quiet-loud thing, and then a guy whose face portends impeccable seriousness and attitude steps up to the mic with a trombone. The audience are well into this shattering of musical boundaries, and we catch a few black looks for laughing so much, but the truth is he looks just like Bill Pullman in the ridiculous ‘jazz club’ bit of Lost Highway, but portlier. Their second track is identical, only backed up with tinny beats that would have shamed a B-Side by Jefferson Airhead, and we leave in glee, our lily-livered liberal ears defeated once again by the bold onward march of experimental rock.

Downstairs the next act is setting up so we get some drinks and dance a bit. The music policy is somewhat confused, with obscurities and good-taste choices sitting next to the bleedin’ obvious (“White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)”) and the faintly inappropriate (“Once In A Lifetime”). Adding to the befuddlement, the DJs keep leaving big gaps between the records, a practise I’d read about in the paper but had assumed was Jacques Peretti making things up again. Hey, DIY spirit! It’s great! Really! The reggae being played between acts on the top floor is much more coherent, being reggae, and reminds me once again to track down a copy of “Under Mi Sleng Teng“. But all good things come to an end, and over projected footage of men in the trenches a scary bald guy (one of Add N to X, we thought) with a spooky ventriloquist’s doll plays a brutal militaristic drum tattoo. The beats crash around me, and on the screen I see doomed yet beautiful young men suffer and die, and find myself transported back to an earlier, more heroic time: the mid-80s to be exact, when this kind of pseudo-industrial blather probably seemed a whole lot fresher. We lose our nerve by the time he starts a spoken word bit.

Upstairs. More reggae. Downstairs – o-ho, what’s this? We’d noticed a small but prominent Goth contingent at 1977, and here they all are, as loud, sleazy, floury-faced metal hits the speakers and a mysterious masked woman hits the stage. The crowd went wild, for it is a stripper. But no ordinary stripper, oh no, this is a Goth stripper with a huge papier mache snake and some apples, and her dance is to be a symbolic representation of the fall of Eve. Heavy allegorical stuff, the nuances of which we miss as the room becomes curiously fuller than usual. It’s good to know that the audience for radical art remains strong even at 1 am on a Saturday morning.

And there we are, knackered. We dance to “Rebel Without A Pause” and get our coats. On the way we pass Bell, who are playing upstairs, fusing pulse-tone minimalist techno with New Beat aggression in a way which might have sounded pretty marvellous to our selves of four hours earlier. And then we’re out of 1977 and back into 1999.

So what do we think? 1977 was pretty entertaining but it wasn’t exciting. Even with a past as exciting and glorious as this, looking back is still looking back, and spinning the old records just points up how knowing all the new bands seem to be, how aware everyone is of the mix-and-match games they’re playing, and of what’s ‘dangerous’ and what’s ‘different’, with the result that nothing ever is. Of course if you say that you’re experimental and different enough times there’s a real chance it’ll end up coming true, but only the naive desperation of They Come From The Stars had any kind of spark for me. I suppose the lesson is that if we really want a new 1977, we’ve got to have the guts to kill off the old one first.