No One Goes To The Shows (There Ain’t No Shows To Go To)
don’t like live music. I don’t like going to gigs. They’re too noisy, too hot, too busy. I’m only 5’8” and I can guarantee that some lanky asshole will get in front of me so I can’t see anything, either that or the crush for a vantage point will be so horrible that I’d rather hang out at the back than contemplate fighting my way into the thick of it. I wear glasses; what if they get knocked off by some slam-dancing prat and smashed? The sound is never good; venues always pump out sound too loud in order to get people hyper, which means that clarity gets lost in favour of bass that shakes your trousers. Why have keyboards onstage if you can’t hear them? Also most venues weren’t designed for live music, they were designed for conferences or drinking or showing films, and the acoustics simply don’t work the way a live band needs them too. Not that the audience generally notices, because they all get drunk and behave like animals. Factor in the fact that most bands have no concept of theatre or performance and thus you just get some songs instead of a show. And unless you live right by a venue shows will always go on too late for you to get home easily on public transport, meaning you have to drive which means not drinking which means all of the above seems even worse.
Sure, some of the gigs I’ve been to have been awesome. A couple might even go down as legendary. I've seen Muse rock 200 people on local turf at The Cavern in Exeter, people hanging off the ceiling, the band (who I don’t like particularly) working the audience with a phenomenal combination of guile, energy and charisma. And NOISE, battering the shit out of us with NOISE. I've seen At The Drive-In at Camden Electric Ballroom with Cedric jumping off speaker stacks and nearly braining himself, whinging at the crowd for moshing instead of standing stock still (like Dismemberment Plan never happened).
I saw The Flaming Lips at London Astoria and also at Bristol Academy with revolving disco balls and balloons full of glitter and the smoke machine and megaphone and fake blood and mechanical dove and people dressed in animal costumes and Gruff from SFA in a Power Ranger suit. I've seen Sigur Ros at Shepherd's Bush Empire (which was boring and we walked out halfway through and got trashed next door in the Walkabout with lairy Australians [I blame the venue, too rock, not atmospheric enough]). I saw Four Tet destroy his laptop and several people’s cerebellums (not because of the set, but because the acoustics were horrendous), again at The Cavern.
I saw Coldplay do a double-header with Terris at Northampton Roadmender way before they were famous, and the dodgy Welsh no-hopers blew Chris Martin and co off the stage with savage guitar and analogue-squelch-bass. I've seen Fugazi, Idlewild, The Coral and GZA all do exceptional sets at Exeter Lemongrove, a tiny, sweaty student venue. I saw Patrick Wolf do the most remarkably minimal set at Exeter Phoenix (capacity 150) which made my girlfriend swoon (me, prior to gig: “you’ll fall in love with him”, her: “no I wont!”, me: “he’s a lanky romantic indie boy, of course you will!”, her, after gig: “he’s so beautiful!”). I saw The Streets supported by Kano at Plymouth Pavilions (a shitty sports hall of a venue if I ever set foot in one). I saw Embrace nearly level Bristol Anson Rooms in 1997, plus their extraordinary comeback gigs at London Astoria in 2000 and Shepherd’s Bush Empire just over a year ago.
The best gig I ever saw was a load of anonymous old men play Stax and Motown covers in The Charles Bradlaugh pub in Northampton, one Sunday late in September 1999. They had a singer, guitarist, organ, drums, bass, two female backing vocalists and a four-piece brass section. We were dancing on tables. They did “I've Been Loving You Too Long” and it was like Otis was in the room. I have never had another night out like it, and it was 150m yards from our house and free (apart from the numerous pints of Guinness we imbibed).
So why don’t I like live music? Because frankly most of those reasons in the first paragraph are nothing more than excuses, and a good gig will rule them obsolete in seconds. I know people my age who’ve been to literally hundreds of gigs. I’ve been to a few dozen at most. Why? Because no one ever played where I grew up. In the UK you’re lucky if anyone of any renown comes further south and west than Bristol, which is a two-hour drive up a horrible section of motorway. It’s a hinterland. I’ve never felt as if the South West is a part of England at all, and the avoidance techniques of live bookers and promoters seems to confirm this.
And even when there is a gig, the ancient and unmodernised infrastructure of Devon & Cornwall means that there are always going to be obstacles. Gigs at Exeter’s Cavern are always late-licensed and there’s no public transport after 11 o’clock, which is when bands generally go on, meaning that until you’re old enough to drive you’re reliant on the goodwill of parents to ferry you home if you live more than walking distance away. And by the time I could drive myself I’d gone elsewhere in the country to university anyway.
Sure, there were local bands playing in pubs in the town where I lived, but there’s only so much competent folk-rock covers played by middle-aged men who own Bob Dylan biographies and drink real ale that you can stomach. And as for younger bands… well, multi-culturalism hasn’t found its way into the South West yet, meaning the pool of influences that teenage music fans desperate to make their own music draw from is narrow. So you get punk rock and more punk rock, well-off kids whose parents bought them guitars singing about being angsty because a girl in their A Level media class wont pay them enough attention. And punk rock never really spoke to me in the first instance.
As a consequence live music wasn’t something I grew up with, wasn’t a facet of how I fell in love with music. My tastes seldom seemed to intersect with those of my friends either, and so music became a solipsistic pursuit as I would listen alone to records in my bedroom. Aside from the commute to work and occasional solitary walks with my iPod, this is still pretty much how I consume music.
[An aside for a moment; a disturbing trend I have noticed amongst kids in their mid-to-late teens is the habit of keeping one earphone in place while walking and talking with their peers—wtf is this about? Does it not strike them as insanely rude? Do their friends bore them to the extent that they only pay them 50% attention, and give the other 50% to their MP3 players? If they pay this little attention to their friends, are they going to pay enough attention to their kids when they have them? Are we really becoming this insular as a species? If you’re doing this you’re not listening to the music properly either—by splitting attention, neither focus gets any, well, focus. I really don’t think Marshal McLuhan had this kind of thing in mind when he wrote about expanding communication technologies making the world a global village. Is digital technology separating us even more than ever?]
Because of this, how music sounds has always been important to me. Short-sightedness and hours spent working at TFT monitors have shot my eyes, but I trust my ears. When you’re 15 or 16, which is how old I was when I really fell in love with music, and you’ve nothing else to distract you, no gigs and no local scene, records become all. They are music, and the rest is just rumours that happen somewhere else. That’s why I’ve got no truck with hipsters—leave me alone to listen to my music, don’t tell me it’s not cool enough, if my trousers aren’t right, I don’t care. It’s no surprise then that I generally veer towards music which overwhelms me, which surges and swells and picks you up with it, carries you off. Because it mirrors where I grew up, perhaps. Even with a walkman, if you’re strolling hills and dales and coastlines rather than city streets, you want music that stretches the whole way across the horizon. Maybe that’s why I prefer Orbital to M.I.A.—it’s all dance music, but it’s the difference between fields and basements, countryside and urban sprawl, coast and cityscape.
By the time I went to university at 19 I had a few thousand pounds saved up, so towards the end of my (pretty miserable) first year there, I decided to blow it on hi-fi separates. Until then I’d had a shitty boombox and a crappy, own-brand mini-system. I remember listening to “I Am The Resurrection” through headphones at 16 years old and being fascinated by the details that I’d never heard before, by how much was going on, and I wanted to be able to hear those layers and sounds as clearly every time I put a record on. I bought a Technics mini-system before university but aside from looking very pretty, it never quite gave me the sound I craved (although it dwarfed the capabilities of my previous stereos). So I spent weeks reading hi-fi geek magazines, making lists, deciding what equipment I wanted, needed, finding a shop that was recommended, choosing which CDs I’d take to the shop to test different set-ups with. (“Lazarus”, Aphex Twin, Kind Of Blue, “Fools Gold”, Kick Out The Jams, others that I forget.) I tried out equipment made by companies I’d never seen in high street electronics stores; Rotel, Denon, Marantz. I spent nearly £600 in one day on an amp, a CD player and speakers (not to mention interconnects and speaker cable). A couple of weeks later I spent £50 on second-hand stands for the speakers.
Those first few weeks with proper hi-fi sound were astonishing. I already had a few hundred CDs by age 19, but the clarity which was revealed when I played them through my new hi-fi made it seem like a whole new collection. I know that’s a hideous cliché, but it’s true. It was also dangerous—faced with perfect sound (well, nowhere near perfect, but much, much better) I had a few Tubular Bells moments, when records would get played just to take in a hi-hat sound or a bass rumble or a clever bit of stereo imaging, rather than a song. It’s a dangerous road to go down, listening for sounds rather than emotions. Kid Loco and Gay Dad got me out of it, a sudden moment one morning when I listened to one or the other or both (I forget, of course) and it struck me that, actually, you know, this record pretty much sucks, and out came the Pavement or the Marvin Gaye or the whatever, as long as it was something, anything worth listening to, worth feeling rather than just worth hearing. That split second reaffirmed my faith in my own judgement, in my ability to discern the wheat from the subjective chaff. Of course you may not agree, but that’s a moot point.
Most of the system I bought then is still with me—my old Marantz CD player developed a fault in the right-channel analogue output which caused some sibilance and an annoying popping sound between tracks, so I’ve recently replaced it with a NAD deck, but I have the same amp, the same speakers, the same stands and the same cables. I added a record player, a minidisc recorder (now consigned to the attic in its box, made obsolete by MP3s and iPods), and these days I run a DVD player through it too, on the way to the television. If I had the money and the space I might invest in something outrageous, a Naim CD player and a valve amp and maybe some Crystal Audio Melody speakers… But for now, on my modest income… Speakers toed-in slightly and blu-tack’d to the stands, which in turn are weighted with sand, gold speaker plugs, amp and CD player left switched on to allow the circuit temperature to stabilise… I love my hi-fi. I spend more time with it than I do with my friends or my family. It’s why I don’t bother with gigs.