Two gigs that prove that rock and pop is never just about the music

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM


O2 Forum Kentish Town, and touring until 4 October

The Courteeners

Emirates Old Trafford, and touring until 26 November

The single most boring and pointless thing that is ever said about rock and pop — and it always comes from the Campaign For Real Rock brigade, with their alphabetised vinyl and back copies of Mojo — is that it should be ‘all about the music’. It is never, of course, all about the music, even among the Real Rockers’ heroes. An ugly Elvis would never have become Elvis; if the Stones had been clean-cut, helpful young men, they might as well have been Herman’s Hermits. Had the Clash made exactly the same records but looked and dressed like the Wurzels, elderly men would not still be banging on interminably about how Joe Strummer changed their lives.

It is, in fact, never all about the music. You can see that most clearly at shows. If it were all about the music, no one would bother with stage productions, or about interacting with the audience. If it were all about the music, in fact, there would be no need for live performance at all, because recorded versions of the songs are almost always better than live versions. Records are not subject to the vagaries of acoustics and systems, to flubbed notes and missed cues, to poor sightlines or bar chatter. But what records do not have — and which no other performing art has, in my experience — is an audience with the communal power to transform an occasion. There are great shows where the fans are very much spectators, but the most exciting and transformative nights are those when musicians and crowd combine and the latter becomes a wave for the former to ride.

I did not have transformative nights last week watching either Beabadoobee or the Courteeners, but a lot of people did at both, and the atmosphere — 78 per cent adrenaline, 21 per cent alcohol, 0.9 per cent argon, and 0.1 per cent other gases — was intoxicating. These shows were not just performances but celebrations.

Beabadoobee’s was a celebration of young womanhood. She’s 21 herself, and her audience appeared to be largely other young women just a few years younger than her. They were singing along to the PA before she came on, they were singing along while she played. They screamed if she struck the faintest hint of a pose. She said between songs that she wanted to see a moshpit, and the young women formed a circle in the crowd. Except, being young women, they weren’t moshing. A couple of lads entered the circle and pushed each other around a little until the women decided that was boring, thank you, and closed the circle on them.

I suppose, if you are 18, Beabadoobee must sound thrillingly different from the prevailing pop winds. To me, in middle age, she sounds very much like American alternative rock of the 1990s. Were you to play me one of her songs blind, I would not disbelieve you if you said it had been released on Merge Records out of Chapel Hill, NC, in 1994. Which is fine — I like that sound, combining melody and crunchy guitars, and she does it very well — but it no longer feels like a cause for absolute devotion to me. I liked the music a lot, but it was not a show all about the music, by a long stretch.

A couple of nights later, the Courteeners was the same, but more so. The 50,000 people in Old Trafford for the biggest non-festival show in the UK since 2019 were so loud I could barely hear the band (who, I think, were far too quiet, though that might have been licensing restrictions). They sang every word. Every single word. They set off smoke bombs and flares (I’ve not smelled so much cordite in the air since I went to the Royal Tournament in 1977, which was a little discomfiting given this is the city in which a pop concert was bombed not so very long ago) and they made what was happening onstage peripheral to the serious business of being together, arms around shoulders, drunk on being young and out on Saturday night with each other

Since I couldn’t actually hear them, it is impossible to make a judgment on whether the band were actually any good. On record, they are the kind of accessible-but-not-threatening rock band that does good business but without ever attracting the interest of critics precisely because it feels machine-tooled to deliver instant gratification. But in their home city, while I didn’t share the fervour of the crowd, I revelled in it, and instant gratification keeps a big crowd very, very happy. I laughed and I cheered and I felt delight at so many people having such a great time. It wasn’t all about the music. It wasn’t about the music at all. It was about life and community and happiness, and what’s better than that?

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