Why Music Matters: The bands we form in the room

A recent realisation: I don’t go to gigs for the music, or for the bands.

1993
We sat on the train together as it headed to London, telling stories to heighten the mystique of a pilgrimage. He said that he had heard the band was the loudest ever, according to the Guiness book of records. Studying the gig tickets meticulously, we noted that the small print included a waiver that they might play at volumes that could do permanent damage. We laughed. I told him I only needed to hear one favourite track to be content with the whole thing. Maybe I even meant it.

We had actually held back from seeing our first gig until now, though we were 17 already, so we could mark this occasion with full respect. Better still that it was far from our homes in suburban Manchester, and even more so that it was at the Brixton Academy – a place I guessed must be important because I had seen it referenced in the Melody Maker more than once.

And when we got there, and they began to play, it was as immense as we had hoped. It seemed to hit us in the stomach more than in our ears. That guitar sound consumed us. Relentless. Shattering.

No surprise. We had predicted as much, even from the meagre, needling sound we could squeeze out of one walkman earbud each, as we had sat on the fields by school.

When it was over, we caught sight of each other, lying on different parts of the beer-soaked floor, among a mass of half empty plastic cups. We stumbled outside and tried to call a taxi from a phone box, but our smashed ears couldn’t hear anyone on the other end of the line. We took a long, cold walk back to the hotel, beaming.

2012

As we got closer to the lights, we were more and more herded into streams. Passing cars got progressively slower as we spilled from the flagstones onto the tarmac. Eventually we couldn’t tell the difference between them, flowing around trees and lampposts. The ground was uneven as we moved up through the trees to the open field.

We stood around for hours. Murmuring and rumbling in cycles, there was something restful about the threatening clouds – looming but never breaking – and our quiet. Then the band came on, and one bass hook ignited the space.

Minutes later, drugged, drunk, sweating, bouncing occasionally above the lines of waving arms, chanting as the singer moved from one classic to another, the whole city leapt. The city was there with me, until I was elided.

What I remember of that gig was not the sound of the band, but the noise of us singing, shouting, whooping, clapping, and the cackling laughter we threw up into the air. We knew every part of the set anyway – there were, again, no surprises.

It ended with a firework display, and the body of us fell apart slowly, forgetting our shape and power as we went our different ways.

2020

I think back to those nights often. Almost 20 years apart, gigs seemed so important to me for so long. But now I can see that they – and all the smoke and mirrors of live performance – are incidental to me. Stood there in dark rooms or fields, our musical obsessions intersect absolutely, even just for an hour. When the experience is worth anything at all, gigs are where we come together.

Sometimes with great friends, and sometimes lost among strangers, I go to gigs to enjoy the bands we form in the room.

Such a rare thing.

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