Live music? I can't stand the sight of it

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The Independent Culture
FOR SEVERAL thousand years, nobody paid much attention to the live band at gigs. The Plato Experience, the Rockin' Togas, the Hey Nonny No Band, Jake and his Jacobeans, Gus and his Augustans, and every other combo throughout history were just there to provide the sounds; nobody wanted to watch them, just to dance to them. What, after all, was there to watch?

We don't watch the records go round and round when we are listening to music at home; who, then, would bother to peer intently at the lead lutist's fingers during a performance? But some time during the 1950s (Elvis, who is responsible for most things, seems as good a person to blame as any), all this changed. We stopped dancing to dance music, and started staring at its creators instead; turning your back on a pop musician in a dance-hall became an almost unpardonable act of impoliteness. It is a little like going to a cinema and gawping at the projectionist instead of the screen.

For a long time, I was unaware of the absurdity of sitting in a draughty town hall looking at a man thrash his drum kit for an entire evening; it was supposed to be fun, so fun is what I forced myself to have. I listened patiently to the support band, waited the obligatory hour or two for the headliners, nodded my head enthusiastically (and occasionally put my hands together, or waved my arms in the air like I just didn't care, if anybody asked me to do so) throughout their set, stamped my feet for an encore and then left before the end to catch the last bus home, stopping on the way out for a tour poster. That was it, week after week, year after year.

One friend used to annoy the band by pushing to the front, reading the set list that was taped to the stage, and shouting for the next scheduled song before the lead singer had a chance to introduce it. (' 'Johnny B Goode',' he'd yell in the silence between songs. 'This one's called 'Johnny B Goode',' the lead singer would announce, like an echo, seconds later, looking daggers at the irritating boy beneath him who had just stolen his thunder.) But beyond that there was very little we could do to vary the monotony.

Over the last decade or so, however, I have come to suffer the whole gig experience less gladly, and as a consequence have almost stopped going. 'I never listen to this lot for two hours without a break at home,' I find myself thinking. 'So why should I do it here?' And then there is the peculiar isolation that the volume of live pop music engenders, and the fact that more and more bands either succeed in sounding exactly like the records, or fail miserably to do so; it takes hours to get a drink and there's nothing to eat, and anyway Friday night is Chinese takeaway night, and I don't want to miss that, and Saturday night we get a video, sometimes, and . . .

There were some people worth looking at: Bob Marley in 1975, the Clash in 1977, Springsteen in 1981, Prince in 1985. These were thrilling, unforgettable evenings. But for every unforgettable evening there were 10 which I have long since forgotten, where the only concession to showmanship was provided by the bass-player walking over to his amp to fiddle with the controls - Prince can dance, but the Groundhogs, as far as I recall, could not. Rod Stewart and the Faces were the most spectacular proponents of the rock-group-as-anti- spectacle; several times I paid to watch them getting progressively more drunk on stage, and once they all lay in a heap on top of each other, like the Cameroon team in the last World Cup. We looked on, smiling benignly, although our contribution to the bonhomie was handicapped by the fact that our cans of Watneys Party Four had been confiscated by the bouncers. Never mind, eh? As long as Rod and the boys were having a good time.

Muddy Waters never expected people to look at him, not when he started out; he wanted people to eat and drink and be merry, not stand there like puddings and study his every chord change. And what do African musicians, who at home are employed simply to provide the sounds, make of playing to a sea of expectant faces over here? 'Talk, everybody, talk]' Erik Satie is supposed to have exhorted an audience which was paying his incidental ambient music more attention than he felt it deserved; and if Erik Satie can manage that sort of humility, then surely Kool and the Gang, who have just as much, maybe even more, to be humble about, could follow suit.

I was as appalled by rave and its attendant culture as everybody else of my age and older (although I have seen some very old and very mad people on television who wear flowery hats and claim that they go clubbing every week and that young people adore them): no bass, no drums, no tune, all sounds the same, they don't even play their own instruments, they've never even heard of Iggy Pop, and so on. But in every photo I have seen - the lifestyle pages of newspapers being as close as I have ever got to a rave, tragically - I have been struck by the fact that everybody is facing each other. Interaction at an event involving popular music? It shouldn't be allowed. I never got to meet girls at Sensational Alex Harvey Band gigs (what was I supposed to do? Offer them a borrow of my tour poster?); why should this lot be allowed to go round meeting people willy-nilly?

It may well turn out that the last 30 years have been just a blip in the history of popular entertainment, and that even though every rave record ever made goes 'EEE-ah-ah-ah EEE ah-ah-ah', it doesn't really matter. Rave has returned popular music to its rightful position behind its audience rather than in front of it. My generation may have a better record collection, but we had a much more miserable time when we were young. We paid thousands of pounds to see and hear drunk, drugged people mangling our favourite songs, while we stood open-mouthed and alone. Woody Allen once said that if he could live his life all over again, he'd do everything the same, except this time he wouldn't read Beowulf; I reckon I'd pass on Status Quo at Reading Town Hall in 1972.