27/08/2012

Don't fear the Midnight Beast

There’s a whole generation of singers, comedians, writers and commentators whose work has emerged online rather than through traditional channels such as record companies, publishing, live appearances or television. Yet in an odd way it is only through exposure via `old media` that they have become better known. It is weird that you can have over a million people watching your work on You Tube yet you become much more famous with a series seen by considerably less people on E4. It shows that old media is a bit like a specialist search engine scouring the most popular online entertainment and essentially carrying out the same function as say the music press used to. The Midnight Beast emerged that way and is that most risky of ventures, a comedic pop group. After building up a following on You Tube doing parodies of songs and musical styles E4 granted them a 6 part series which recently finished its run. So, is it any good? The answer –with a few reservations- is Yes!



Course, the whole thing is not really aimed at someone like me. It is built with precision that is a lot less casual than it might appear to teenagers. If I were sixteen and heard or saw The Midnight Beast, it would be by new favourite thing. That’s not to say it has no appeal to older viewers; in fact at times it is super funny and quite clever too. Whether it can stretch beyond four minute clips to 23 minute episodes is something else again.
The premise is simple enough - a wannabe unsigned three piece group living in student-ish squalor writing slightly generic sounding music and becoming involved in amusing scrapes and japes. So far so North and South (you probably don’t remember them). There’s a rich history of this sort of thing going back to The Monkees and even those films where The Beatles appeared to live together while these days plenty of comedians mine the parody music area. What is key is whether the music works and luckily for TMB it really does. Their pop-rap is authentic yet not too hardcore so as to put people off and the lyrics possess a wonderfully British eye view suffused with clever comedy lines that work through the sheer speed at which they are delivered. They probably wouldn’t work if you saw them written down but they are full of energetic character.
Their best songs come on with the swagger of rap which the lyrics then undermine. `I Kicked A Shark In The Face` for example has your archetypal rapper (albeit one boasting how he has his own fridge) facing not a gang but a shark in the first verse and a bear in the second. Brilliantly, it has the shark going “rawr, rawr rawr”. And it has a middle section just so people don’t think they hate animals. `Quirky` is about individualism and you can imagine how self mythologizing a serious song on the matter would be but here TMB celebrate such odd things as drinking peppermint tea, having a beard or best of all “The other day I had a piece of toast, I didn’t even butter it, it tasted gross.”  

The Midnight Beast not being very Quirky (l-r) Dru, Stef, Ash

`Medium Pimpin` is a brilliant parody of bling culture- but on a budget. `Daddy` addresses an absentee parent but manages to end up being about eating as the last thing said father was asked was for a Twix. It’s probably the cleverest of their current songs because it hovers superbly between genuine emotion and extreme humour. As you ,might expect sex is the topic of several songs and here’s where they might out some people off with what could be seen as  sexist lyrics. Except of course they are channelling the insecure teenager so while they seem to be bragging all they are doing is expoising ignorance and failure. Whether teenage fans get this is another matter. So older listeners/ viwers might find the likes of `Begging`, `Videogames` and `Lez Be Friends too gauche or even offensive but please don’t. Some of the songs are very specifically targeted such as `Life is A Musical` which sounds and in the series looks like a cut price Glee number and `Censorshit` which riffs on the infamous `Killing In the Name Of`. The songs are scattered two or three per episode and work tremendously well.

As actors the trio get by on likeable and distinctly different personalities. Stef is the leader, main composer and the only one with a regular girlfriend, Zoe played by Sophie Wu with a marvellous tolerance of the three boys. Dru the drummer and games enthusiast would rather play video games, and has issues about his father walking out. Ash is the sex crazed and slightly thick one. They occupy an untidy flat, located in a graffiti lined corridor they share  with Sloman a bizarre character played with relish by Simon Farnaby whose technical skills do come in useful.
The band is played by Stefan Abingdon, Dru Wakely and Ashley Horne, same names which is handy. With acting as well as musical skills they have all bases covered and they also seem to have co-written the episodes with up to three other writers. Herein though may lie the problem the series. The show is occasionally very funny especially with the music videos, has often amusing dialogue but feels rushed. There are moments when you feel the writers could push things further and other times when the same things seem to be repeating themselves. Despite being advertised as a 6 part series, episode 6 is actually a sort of clips show which seems very early to be running out of material.
Perhaps more use could have been made of Zoe whose relative sensibility kicks amusingly against the trio and also helps offset the idea of chauvinism that can creep in from time to time. It may be that the budget restricted going further afield and the writers did not want to repeat plots seen in similar shows but this lot are tailor made to get more involved in plots that see them being more proactive. The sequences in the second episode where they have to break in to a building to steal something show that. Also, the episode where they become reality tv stars is rather weak considering the potential for comedy in such a situation.
Not to be too critical though, when the show works it works very well indeed. First episode `Someone Called Sam` is actually the best and really does make the best out of a comedy trope – mistaken identity. `Fathers Day` is the only episode that touches serious emotions, if only briefly, but feels richer for it and `Hardcore` where TMB try to get one over on a rival goth band and end up on a kids tv show contains some very funny ideas. It’s great too that the band are always willing to send themselves up and the trio deserve medals for some of the things they are prepared to do for the sake of their art. The show has the hazy look and feel that worked well for The Mighty Boosh, channeling an accentuated version of the real world and keeping to enough logic to stop it just seeming silly. It’s shot perfectly by director Ben Gregor with expansive camera swoops and spot on pop promo routines.

Outside the tv show,
The Midnight Beast have more than 300,000 subscribers to their You Tube channel and a total of 50 million views since they started in 2009. It was their parody of Kesha’s `Tik Tok` that kick started things and their songs are so popular they often turn up on the iTunes download charts and their promo videos are shown on music tv stations. They’ve toured and made several festival appearances as well as publishing a book. Some of the You Tube clips are even funnier than the ones in the series; the best is ``Wands` which  riffs on Harry Potter with tales of wands on the streets and Harry’s wayward brother Gary (“got a bump on my head like a tortoise, Running head first at 9 and 3 quarters”) all sitting on a repeated theme of the film music’s opening bars. `Pizza in Ibiza` is a spot on tale of the English abroad (“it’s just like England with Sun”) complete with club music. Celebrities have not been slow to tweet their enthusiasm and a little controversy probably helped too- last year a safe sex song `Use Ya Head` got them into trouble. There’s a soundtrack album and in October they are touring.
There is a sense that they are trying to wring as much out of the idea while they can and why not. Much of their stuff will sound odd if they are still performing it in five year’s time. It is probable though that all three will enjoy expanding careers because even though the series is not perfect it is good and they certainly deserve a follow up. And take a look at their You Tube stuff too.

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