Quiet please: rock gig etiquette

Talking loudly at a pop concert these days can get you reprimanded – and don't even think of spilling your beer. Fiona Sturges applauds the new etiquette
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The Independent Culture

Jean-Paul Sartre was missing a couple of words when he wrote: "Hell is other people." Had he been born a few decades later and a fan of live music he might have written: "Hell is other people at pop concerts".

It sounds like Boy George would back me up here. Last week the former Culture Club singer is reported to have let rip an expletive-riddled tirade at a female audience member in response to her loud chattering throughout his performance, after which he is said to have tipped a glass of water on her head. If this response was a bit strong, the sentiment was understandable. Who hasn't been to a gig at some point and had their night ruined by the behaviour of a stranger?

People should be mindful of one another at gigs. Then again, perhaps, like most people I know, I just appreciate good manners. At its best, live music can be a life-changing experience. When everything goes right, the music coming from the stage can lift the soul and make you forget your surroundings. But there are also times when the greatest performers in the world can't compete with the drunken loon in the crowd who decides to sing along with every word, slosh beer over their neighbours and casually grope the person next to them.

A few years ago I went to see Goldfrapp in Brighton. It was a sit-down gig and I had a seat about 10 rows from the front. Despite my prime position, I couldn't hear a thing thanks to a group of women sitting in front of me, who giggled and gossiped all the way through the show. In typical British fashion I endured the racket for around 20 minutes before my patience ran out. Then I leaned forward and asked, as politely as my gritted teeth would allow, if they could keep it down. I might as well have spat in their handbags. "How dare you!" exclaimed one, who proceeded to tell me about the twin babies she'd left at home for her first night out in six months. Another told me that I should loosen up and have another drink. In the end I decided I'd be better off standing at the back. As I got up to move, it was only the thought of an all-out brawl that stopped me from tipping my drink over their heads.

When it comes to audience interaction, every art form calls for a certain amount of decorum and each has its unspoken rules. For instance, it's acceptable to move around and talk in art galleries but pogo dancing is, as a general rule, not tolerated. In the theatre you can sit down and take a nap and no one will bat an eyelid, but woe betide anyone who talks at anything louder than a whisper or forgets to switch off their mobile phone. There are even codes of behaviour when sitting down to watch a film in one's own home. Just ask my poor husband, a little part of whom dies every time I ask him to press the rewind button because my concentration has wandered.

Actually, at one London venue, The Luminaire, in Kilburn, posters around the venue forbid gig-goers from talking during sets altogether. But generally, when it comes to pop concerts the rules are few and far between, but they do exist. Talking is acceptable but not to the point where the strangers next to you are forced to endure the details of your latest personal calamity. Tall people should, where possible, position themselves to one side of the audience or at the back. Singing along loudly is unacceptable unless the artist specifically requests it. Beer should be consumed by its owner and not sloshed down the back of the person in front of them. And anyone carrying banners should be sentenced to hard labour.

Another curse of contemporary gig-going is mobile phones. Like tourists viewing foreign climes through the lens of a camera, swathes of gig-goers seem to prefer peering at their idols through little holes in the back of their mobiles rather than, y'know, using their eyeballs. As the band takes to the stage, a sea of handsets is hoisted aloft to secure hopelessly blurry pictures that their owners can then post on a social networking site in order that their friends can gasp in envy. Whatever happened to living in the moment?

Granted, some gigs are meant to be free-wheeling, disorderly, even mucky affairs. Looking back over the years, it's clear that the habits of gig-goers vary according to the type of music being performed. When punk was at its height, mosh pits would stretch the length and breadth of the venue, while bands were greeted with a hail of flying objects.

From the hard-rocking gigs of my teenage years, I frequently emerged soaked in beer and sweat and thought nothing of receiving blows to the head from passing crowd surfers. Audience chatter was never a problem. Going to dance festivals and raves in the early Nineties, there would be similar proximity to sweaty strangers, though they were more likely to give you a hug than try to use you as a human climbing frame.

Being older and doubtless grumpier, these days I am less enamoured of the thought of hugging strangers, being crushed underfoot or listening in to the dreary details of other people's lives while watching bands. Happily, I have also learnt that the further back you stand in a crowd, the less likely you are to be jostled and trodden on. As for the chatterboxes in the crowd, I say douse the lot of them.

When performers strike back

Van Morrison

He charged £105 for top tickets, but Morrison banned his fans from ordering alcoholic drinks during shows on his UK tour in 2008. The star claimed to find it off-putting when fans go to the bar. Having also been known to reprimand people using mobile phones at his concerts, it's not surprising that the singer was dubbed the "Victor Meldrew of the music industry".

Richard Griffiths

In 2004 Griffiths ordered a man whose phone rang throughout a performance of 'The History Boys' to leave the National Theatre after the sixth ring. A year later he demanded a woman leave a performance of 'Heroes', starring John Hurt, after her phone rang a third time, saying: "The 750 people here would be fully justified in suing you for ruining their afternoon."

Simon Rattle

When a mobile phone interrupted the bassoon solo opening of 'The Rite of Spring' a few years ago, Simon Rattle, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, stopped the performance instantly. He closed his eyes and allowed himself, the orchestra and the audience to regain composure before re-starting the performance which he ended with the words: "This is the best place in the world for listening to music, but please, please tell all your friends not to bring those awful things in here."

Ken Stott

A group of boisterous teenagers prompted Stott to halt his performance of Arthur Miller's 'A View From the Bridge' at the Duke of York's Theatre. Mid first half of the play, he dropped his stage American accent, and in his native Scottish burr ordered the teacher in charge to remove them Fifteen minutes later, when the guilty party had left, the play resumed.

Ian Hart

After telling an audience member to shut up during a performance at the Duke of York's Theatre in November last year, at the curtain call the actor went up to the offending theatre-goer and lunged at him. The Harry Potter actor was playing an emotive role in Andrew Bovell's play 'Speaking in Tongues'.