Picnic concerts: Rock'n'roll and royalty don't mix
The trend for gigs on country estates makes Fiona Sturges nostalgic for the beer-soaked mosh pits of her teens
Tuesday 03 August 2010
Long ago, when I was a lank-haired, Doctor Martens-wearing 18-year-old, I went to a gig at London's Marquee Club. I still can't recall what band was playing. What I do remember is that not long into the set I received a boot to the side of my head from a passing crowd surfer and briefly lost consciousness. When I came to I was being helped to the back of the audience by a couple of sweaty strangers who, having ascertained that I knew my name and what year it was, swiftly hurled themselves back into the throng. I followed them soon after.
I tell this tale not simply to highlight the recklessness of my 18-year-old self, but because at the time I seriously believed I was living the high life. I was in London, hanging with the cool kids and going to see bands every night of the week. That I had, on this occasion, found myself in physical peril was neither here nor there. In those days, the typical attributes of the rock concert – terrible sound, sticky floors, asphyxiating heat, being routinely bathed in beer – were integral to the experience, all part of the glorious and slightly mucky ritual of live music.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years and my gig-going habits are somewhat different. It is one of the side effects of growing up that policemen really do get younger and that one prefers, where possible, to get through a concert without suffering a blow to the skull. And yes, I admit it, there are times when I prefer a sit-down concert. Thus, where in my late teens my haunts were the Marquee, the Borderline and the 100 Club, nowadays you're more likely to find me, if not at home watching DIY SOS on the telly, reclining somewhere around Row H at the Royal Festival Hall.
Apparently, I'm not the only person for whom the concert experience has undergone a change. This summer, music-lovers have already had the opportunity to see Rufus Wainwright and Diana Krall perform in the grounds of Kenwood House, an 18th-century stately home in the midst of Hampstead Heath, in a series of shows sponsored by English Heritage. At these much-trumpeted "picnic concerts" punters were able to order food hampers and pre-book deck chairs for maximum bubbly-supping comfort.
We have also, in recent weeks, had the odd juxtaposition of horseracing and indie-rock at Newmarket Racecourse with concerts by the likes of James Morrison and Razorlight. Meanwhile, last Saturday night saw those kings of reggae-lite UB40 perform in the glorious gardens of Belvoir Castle, the 500-year-old home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, and next weekend fans of Will Young can see the silken-voiced pop idol at the Sandringham Estate, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh's Norfolk retreat. The list of unlikely pop events goes on – Lily Allen at Goodwood, The xx, The Divine Comedy and Corinne Bailey Rae at Somerset House, Blondie and Status Quo at Westonbirt Arboretum, and Doves, Scouting for Girls and Katie Melua at Thetford Forest.
Now I am as partial as anyone to a nice picnic. I also love the idea of injecting a bit of drama into a show through the novel use of surroundings, as Pink Floyd once did when they performed in a Roman amphitheatre in the remains of Pompeii. But gigs sponsored by English Heritage? Concerts in the Queen's back garden? Just when did rock music become about deckchairs, picnics and aristocratic piles? How did it get so comfortable and so very genteel? What will they come up with next? Radiohead at Henley Regatta? Lady Gaga at Royal Ascot?
But then again, we live in a time when the Prime Minister claims to be a fan of The Smiths and former cabinet minister Alan Johnson can talk openly of his once-thwarted plans to become a rock star. In other words, pop music has been stripped of its mystery and, to the more seasoned fans, it has lost its rebellious spirit. Twenty years ago, your musical tastes signalled your independence from the older generation and stuck two fingers up at their old-fashioned ways. Now, in musical terms, the generation gap has closed. Thirty- and fortysomething parents now insist on listening to the same music as their offspring and teenagers appear happy to go to gigs with their parents.
In which case you might argue that concerts are simply moving with the times, and that these refined new venues aren't just a novelty wheeze but part of a wider trend set by festival organisers desperate to make the once winning combination of booze, mud and music more attractive to a cross-generational and largely middle-class audience. Consequently, we have seen the rise of the so-called "boutique" music festival, the kind that comes with chalets, yurts, baby-sitting services, circuses, cinemas, poetry readings, lectures on lifestyle, organic food stalls, cashpoints and live recordings for Radio 4. Last year's Camp Bestival in Dorset was so determined to broaden its appeal that it upgraded its children's entertainers to the main stage. Thus the mid-morning turn, Mr Tumble from the children's channel CBeebies, got a noticeably bigger audience than the evening headliner P J Harvey.
And these "boutique" events come at a price. I've already grumbled in these pages about the exorbitant cost of music festivals. But how about these one-off "event" gigs? After all, stately homes don't come cheap. No wonder that tickets for Will Young's Sandringham concert are going at £35 a pop, while Jamie Cullum's upcoming "picnic concert" at Kenwood House will set you back around £32 a person, and that's before you've booked your picnic hamper (around £50 for two).
Naturally, I'm not arguing that festivals should return to the sordid, stinking mud-baths of old, nor that gigs revert exclusively to events where punters are crammed into basement dives with leaky toilets and where the air conditioning has long packed up. But it can hardly be a coincidence that, as music fans have come to expect Pimm's, Kettle Chips and upholstered seating at concerts, many of our more traditional venues are struggling to survive. The Astoria in London, once a stronghold for up-and-coming as well as more established rock bands, was closed down a few years ago after being bought by property developers while the Hammersmith Palais, the venue immortalised in song by The Clash, recently faced the bulldozers. Meanwhile, smaller venues all over the country are having problems.
Such carping may seem rich coming from a person in her late thirties who has already admitted to relishing the sanctity of the sit-down gig. But that doesn't mean that I don't cherish the memories of gigs gone by, notably the visceral and physical thrill of watching a new or much-adored band at close quarters in a small venue where you could, very literally, smell the sweat. These are the experiences that help to define one's youth and they shouldn't be underestimated. As for incorporating picnic blankets, deckchairs and Thermos flasks into the concert experience? Well, it wouldn't have happened in my day.
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