For a brief moment in the early 1980s, Kirk Brandon’s band Theatre of Hate was considered one of the UK’s most likely to succeed. They were certainly original. Somewhere between the foppishness of the New Romantics and the anthemic, tribal rhythms of Adam & the Ants, they rocked twice as hard, with rockabilly guitars, rolling thunder drums, a squalling saxophone, and Brandon’s war-whooping vocals.
They had the look, too: big cockatoo quiffs and Gretsch guitars, played by Brandon and Billy Duffy. They toured with the Clash, whose Mick Jones produced their sole studio album Westworld, the title based on their sole top 40 hit, Do You Believe In The Westworld, which scored them a slot on Top Of The Pops.
“I just think it was so far left of what was going on,” says Brandon, who is in Australia for his first tour here. “In the early ’80s, people were doing that kind of post-punk. They’d had enough of three chords and the truth and wanted something a bit more inventive, something different. Theatre of Hate was just a one-off.”
The band quickly split, Duffy going on to enormous success with the Cult, Brandon to the long-serving Spear of Destiny, who had another 10 UK singles chart entries without hitting the same commercial heights, remaining a cult act in the more usual sense of the term. Brandon is unfussed. “I’m not a jealous kind of guy about that sort of thing. We had some big albums ourselves.”
Still, he has been through the mill at various times. He was declared bankrupt in 1994; shortly afterwards he took Boy George to court – and lost – over George’s claims in his memoir they had a brief affair (Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, according to George, was written about Brandon; Brandon himself simply says “I’ve got no idea.”) He has also had two rounds of major heart surgery.
Despite it all, he reckons he’s had a charmed life. “My girlfriend says I’m made of iron – titanium, actually, darling!” he says, referring to a titanium valve in his heart.
“To come through all the things over the years, all the way from my first silly little punk rock band the Pack, who were a complete bunch of loonies, I can’t even begin to tell you how lucky I feel about it all.
“I think, how the hell did you do that? And the other thing is I think, why do people turn up to see me play? I’m just a crazy bloke, a madman, and these people are coming to see a mad guy! For a bloke that should be dead – I really should be a dead man walking – I’m actually still walking.”
Brandon is referring to another of his occasional projects, Dead Men Walking, a British supergroup with a rotating cast of members and, I suggest, a name that’s seriously tempting fate. “I’ve been waiting for someone to pick up on that,” he says, roaring with laughter. “No one has yet!”
The personnel who have passed through that band – Jones, Duffy, Captain Sensible of the Damned, Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats, even the Living End’s Chris Cheney, who replaced Brandon for a time – is a fair indication in itself of the esteem in which Brandon is held in British rock circles, and why people still come to see him play.
On this tour, his sound is stripped right back, accompanied only by a cellist, Sam Sansbury, playing classic songs alongside material from a new album, Kinshi. It’s a far more challenging format for Brandon, making him work a lot harder without the aid of volume.
“You can always sit back a bit playing in a band, when there’s a great big racket going on and crazy people shouting and a drummer kicking the shit out of the kit behind you,” he says. “With this, there’s nowhere to hide, every second counts, so your nose is up against the grindstone a little bit.
“When I first started playing with Sam a couple of years ago, people would say well, that’s not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, is it? And I used to say well, it’s rock & roll; it’s just a slightly experimental thing against my songs. There’s still a lot of heart in it.”
First published in The Age, 6 January 2017