The Angelic Upstarts roared through a stirring set of old and new songs when they performed at Thee Parkside in San Francisco last night. Ever since I was a teenager, the Upstarts have been one of my favorite bands, although I never had the chance to see them play live until now.
This is a band with lots of heart and plenty of passion. Starting in the late 1970’s, The Angelic Upstarts recorded albums for Warner Brothers, EMI and Anagram, before producing an almost countless number of EPs, singles and albums on independent labels, the latest of which is the excellent Bullingdon Bastards. I still find myself a bit dumbfounded that a band with the intensely aggressive sound and political stance of the Upstarts was at one time thought a marketable commodity by major record labels; but the atmosphere of the late 1970’s was a unique one. On the heels of the Sex Pistols and The Clash, record executives were apparently looking for the next big punk act to cash in on. The appeal of the Angelic Upstarts, however, is different from these other well known punk bands. The Upstarts are not at all philosophically ambiguous, they are not playfully ironic, nor do their songs dance around the issues, only vaguely hinting at politics. No, the message of the Angelic Upstarts is clear and in-your-face, making them a hard act to package and market to a mass audience. Wearing their left-wing politics on their sleeves, this is a band that unapologetically bashes right-wing politicians and the police, while also promoting socialism and communism. While this might stand a chance of gaining some traction in Europe, here in the US it is an attitude that immediately relegates a band to the underground. But that’s fine with me. Vague, mainstream pap bores me to tears. Say what you want about the Angelic Upstarts; but you can’t say they are boring!
During the show at Thee Parkside, the Upstarts performed just about every song that I was hoping for: 2 Million Voices, Anti-Nazi, Shotgun Solution, Kids on the Street, Solidarity, Police Oppression, Red Flag, and others. The crowd enthusiastically sang along, fists raised skyward, chanting the choruses as one. Despite a single altercation on the dance floor between two fans – which was moderated and diffused by Mensi, the lead singer – the atmosphere in the club was friendly and filled with unity. The message of the music was well heeded by the crowd: we’re all in this together; we are all part of the same movement whether we are young or old. The show came to a fitting conclusion when the band covered Sham 69’s If the Kids are United.
Thomas “Mensi” Mensworth is remarkable on-stage. He is old, fat and not as tall as I imagined. He is not – and has never been – a polished or trained singer, but that is beside the point. It is his passion, humor and authentic commitment to punk that is exhilarating. Punk rock, after all, has been the focus of the majority of his life, and it is obvious that he really enjoys it. When introducing songs that he wrote decades ago, Mensi reminds the audience that he still believes in the message after all these years. In addition to singing, he preaches, he jokes, he spits anger. During a lull between songs he recited poetry provoking a young man standing next to me to groan, shake his head and leave the performance area in apparent disgust. But so what? The Angelic Upstarts don’t just want to entertain; they want to incite, inflame and confront their audiences. Mensi is a master of this art.
Toward the end of the show, as the temperature in the club climbed to uncomfortable heights, Mensi informed the crowd that he was about to impress the ladies by taking off his shirt. Doing so, he revealed a torso emblazoned with tattoos as well as a huge gut displaying a pattern of serious looking surgery scars. “My body is a temple,” he laughed, “but it’s in ruins!”
He is an impressive ruin, and his band is still amazing after almost 40 years!