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Pizza: invented approximately three centuries ago, yet it has never been hotter. Pizza is having something of a moment right now. Beyoncé wore a head-to-toe pepperoni pizza-printed ensemble to a raw, vegan eatery; Ellen DeGeneres – ever the philanthropist – handed out slices to the undernourished, over-celebrated A-list masses at the Oscars; and – most importantly – Macaulay Culkin is in a comedy, avant-garde band called The Pizza Underground.
Celebrating Italy’s tastiest export whilst simultaneously parodying New York’s eternal icons of impenetrable cool, The Velvet Underground, is what the Pizza Underground are all about.
Formed in 2012 as a joke (obviously) a year later they were performing at tribute shows for the late Lou Reed and filming a brilliant take off of Andy Warhol chowing down on a Burger King Whopper for 1980s documentary 66 Scenes From America. Replace Warhol with Culkin and the beef patty with a slice of pizza, and there you have it – an intriguing pop art update. Macaulay’s conceptual consumption has received over 1.5 million views online.
With just a scrappy eight track demo to their name, The Pizza Underground – consisting of guitarist Matt Colbourn and vocalists/percussionists Austin Kilham, Phoebe Kreutz, Deenah Vollmer and Macaulay Culkin – have now brazenly embarked on a world tour. This week saw them touch down in the UK for the first time.
Playing their debut show in the student town of Reading and free-of-charge at the Oakford Social Club, The Pizza Underground Variety Hour was bound to be a popular draw. So prevalent was local hype that the venue owners shut down the joint during the evening to prepare for the increase in punters that lined the street in waiting.
With local newspaper reports ahead of the show printing the headline “Home Alone Star Macaulay Culkin To Play Reading Gig” and illustrating the article with a 1990 image of the cherubic child star (as if Kevin McCallister himself would be playing the show…), my fears of people turning up to simply ogle at the acting prodigy were realised.
Macaulay Culkin is, of course, a fascinating figure. A working actor aged 4, successful enough to nigh-on-retire at 14, took action to protect his multi-millions from his estranged father whilst still in his teens, married at 18, divorced by 20, a long-time, true friend of Michael Jackson (Culkin is godfather to Jackson’s two eldest children and took to the stand in 2004 to defend Michael against allegations of child molestation), penned a semi-autobiographical novel about a fraught life of fame and family strife, arrested for possession of controlled substances, and a fixture of tabloid speculation over his health and lifestyle. Yet since leaving his precocious childhood film roles behind he has lead as quiet and unassuming life as possible, doing nothing to court the continual intrigue that he inspires.
Warm up acts for the gig consist of individual members of the main band taking to the stage for short comedic bursts; the highpoint being Phoebe Kreutz’s delightful ditties which range in subject from Queen Elizabeth I to falling in love with a Taco Bell cashier. The stage is prepared by a man who goes by the name of Anchovy Warhol – complete with snow white wig, rounded spectacles and Breton tee. As the visuals of a continually spinning pepperoni pizza fades the arrival of the Pizza Underground is imminent.
The majority of the band wander casually on armed with tambourines, glockenspiels, pizza boxes and drum sticks and a lone guitar (they’re a percussive heavy act) whilst Culkin, quite rightly, has two personal body guards assist him through the crowd to the stage. It’s not an ego trip – the man obviously requires protection from enthusiastic onlookers.
The band quickly work their way through their Velvet covers – ‘All The Pizza Parties’, ‘Pizza Girl’ and ‘Pizza Day’ (featuring the lyric “Oh such a pizza day, you just keep the oven on”) are the clear highlights. Banter between songs sees Macaulay extolling the virtues of UK chain Pizza Express, an excellent joke from Phoebe about the similarity between a pizza delivery guy and a gynaecologist, and the band having to check if the word “box” as a slang term for female genitalia is in use on this side of the Atlantic to ensure their quips about someone’s “greasy box” doesn't go unappreciated.
There are two intervals in the set. Firstly, Mr Warhol and a supposed Liza Minnelli look-alike don neon balaclavas to dance manically to Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’. Secondly, and brilliantly, musician Toby Goodshank dresses as Gus Van Zant’s idea of Nirvana’s deceased frontman under the name “Kurt Cobained”. He plays Nirvana songs in the past tense (“We were there then, entertained us…). It’s subtle but hilarious and unfortunately lost on the rowdy audience.
As the night progresses it becomes evident that, actually, the entire point of the band is wasted on some highly unenlightened members of the crowd. “Why are you all wearing sunglasses?” one moron bellows. They’re pretending to be the Velvet Underground, duh! “Why are you talking in that weird accent?” another demands of Phoebe and her adopted German tone. She’s playing the part of Nico, duh! I am assuming/hoping that these people know what pizza is otherwise this must all be very frightening for them…
It all adds up to the fact that too many people in attendance are doing so to stare and point their camera phones at dear Macaulay Culkin. I can’t help but feel sorry for him as people fall over themselves to get a shot of him and get a close-up gaze. I also feel utterly disgusted by some asshole both rude and ignorant enough to yell out a libellous comment about Michael Jackson. Behind his bug-eyed, blacked-out shades Culkin remains unfazed, wholly adapted to the walking-spectacle treatment he is given.
So, what can one expect from seeing the Pizza Underground live during the rest of their UK dates (which I encourage you to secure a ticket for)? A helpful serving of self-aware comedy and laugh out loud fun but with a mandatory side of idiots in the audience. Do as the band preach and “take a bite of the wild slice. Chew, chew, chew, chew, chew, chew, chew, chew, chew…”
Written for PLANET NOTION