Speaker by Various Artists

Dead wringers

by Malcolm Burgess

Alternative Washing Machine, 14 November

Margaret Thatcher was right up there with the other greats of music journalism with the saying she made famous at the height of the 80s - "There Is No Alternative". Yes, she alone understood the fate of the great unwashed with their check shirts, long hair and goatees, who would reign brightly but briefly in the years to come.

Ten years on the era that spawned this gnomic wisdom found itself lampooned in a good-humoured way at 80s "retro" nights at the Box. Madonna, Culture Club, Duran Duran - all unceremoniously hauled from the burning mess of PLO bombings and Mossad counter-insurgencies as if nothing had happened.

Flash forward yet another decade - and Margaret's spirit lingers like Radon. The Alternative Washing Machine is aging: a great concept, but, like most ideas of quality - even the most underground of greatness - doomed to failure. But then that's the appeal, right? Suddenly, on November 14 (well, 15 by the time I made an appearance), the inevitable happened: the SS washing machine's journey to the centre of indie foundered like the stillborn Queen Mary 2 on Galatos' dry dock basement.

Having enjoyed the August AWM at the Paradise Bar - before its untimely closure - I was keen to sample the last one for 2003. But, I ask you, 'Counting the beat'? Has someone rewritten the dictionaries? I know a decade is a long time and (say zeitgeist experts) it never begins with the year as such but that was beyond the pale. I did arrive late - and maybe all the good songs had already been played. But Coldplay? Where was the distortion?

It was hard to know whether to feel relief or regret at the end of a dream. Still, such programmed redundancy is what makes events of this kind worth attending. But that doesn"t make it any easier. We need answers.

"Alternative Washing Machine first appeared in 1992, when opportunities to dance to your favourite pop tunes were few and far between" proclaims the background blurb at withoutdesign.com/awm, the phenomenon's official website.

That was its reason then, but now? An antidote to the acid march of House? A manageable span of time on which to hang flashbacks for the attention deficient? Or something else?

This is really a tale of two Kurts - of Vonnegut and of Cobain. One of them aged but with no love for life; once ebullient, but always managing a child-like optimism in his prose. The other having died young at his own hand (still debatable) but with the pain of an old man longing for death. Vonnegut, because Alternative Washing Machine is like his last novel, Timequake, which was about having to live the last ten years of your life all over again, exactly as it was, doomed to repeat the same faltering steps through a life on high rotate. And Cobain, because he was the pea of grunge, on which all the other princess bands would toss and turn.

Only in hindsight can the musical kernels that grew up to become grunge be recognised for what they were. And one of the only survivors of that era is the guy who, passing through the 90s, started the whole scene as casually as a cigarette butt starts a forest fire. While Eddie Vedder now looks like an old man singing his heart out at 9-11 specials, it's Neil Young who's still churning out the concept albums, riding back to popularity on the alt-country wave. Yippee ki yea mutha...F***.