The rock horror shows

What possesses a band to shine a blinding light into the audience's eyes, or to throw offal at the fans? David Sinclair wonders if some gigs are strictly for masochists
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The Independent Culture

A year ago I went to see a ballet called Split Sides, by Merce Cunningham, at the Barbican, in London. The music had been written and performed by Radiohead and the Icelandic group Sigur Ros. As a survivor of more pop and rock concerts than I care to remember, I was struck by how civilized the experience was. The sightlines and acoustics in the hall were perfect. The show started and finished on time. The venue staff were courteous and helpful. Everyone sat comfortably.

Last week I went to see Sigur Ros perform their own gig at Brixton Academy. What a contrast. Having been brusquely body- and bag-searched on the way in, the 5,000 fans were herded like cattle into a vast hall with booming acoustics, where they stood on a sticky floor for anything up to four-and-a-half hours. Whether straining to catch a glimpse of the band from a vantage point among the heaving mass of sweating bodies, or caught in one of the outrageous queues for the toilets, or locked into the almighty scrum surrounding the bars, this captive mob were immersed at all times in an atmosphere of noise, smoke and squalor. But this was merely par for the course at what was actually quite an orderly event as gigs go.

Pop fans have got used to accepting the most unbelievable privations as part and parcel of getting to see their heroes performing live on stage. And often, the band itself will actively contribute to the discomfort. On the UK tour by The Magic Numbers, a line of orange spotlights had been placed at floor level along the back of the stage. As soon as the band started to do anything vaguely interesting, these devices came bursting into life and directed a retina-searing beam straight into the eyes of the audience.

The Magic Numbers are by no means the only group to suffer from duff lighting syndrome, although it is more usual for bands to provide too little than too much. There is a certain sort of group - often comprised of pale young men who feel the need to wear sunglasses in the middle of the night - who imagine that a gloomy, under-illuminated ambience will supply them with an instant touch of mystique. In fact, all it does is make their show hard to watch.

Earlier this year, the American band Taking Back Sunday put on a disastrously under-lit performance at Brixton Academy. The occasional glimpse of their singer trying to strangle himself by twirling his microphone so that the cable wrapped itself around his neck, suggested a lively performance in progress. But apart from the backdrop illustration of an undressed young woman lying on the floor with her legs in the air, it took a supreme effort of will to make out anything that was actually happening on the stage at all. It was so bad that I asked the guy on the lighting desk what the problem was. He explained that although the band had sold out such a substantial venue (at £13 a ticket), they were still only a cult phenomenon, which meant that they didn't have the budget to supply a proper lighting rig.

More often, it is not the lights so much as the noise that groups make at gigs that can cause a grievous degree of discomfort. I am certainly not planning to go and see Motörhead when they play Brixton on Saturday as part of their 30th-anniversary tour. The band are notorious for inflicting GBH on their audience's eardrums. When I last saw them, my ears were ringing for a week afterwards, and my friend, who foolishly ventured too close to one of the PA speakers, actually had a filling shaken loose from one of his teeth.

Metal audiences in general have a masochistic streak, which their favourite bands are happy to cater for. Slipknot, the band from Iowa who wear grotesque face masks, have secured much attention by throwing cow intestines and other forms of offal over the audiences at their gigs. I watched one of their performances at the Ozzfest, in Milton Keynes, from a vantage point at the side of the stage where first-aid staff were positioned, and I saw six fans - all girls - being stretchered off from the front of the crowd during the first two songs.

Festivals provide a whole world of pain for the gig-goer, some of it aggravated by the groups themselves. Glastonbury, or any other field, is not a nice place to be when it rains, and this year's event, during which some fans found themselves and their tents being literally washed away in the night, was no exception to the rule.

However, the worst scenes I ever witnessed at an outdoor event were at the Woodstock Anniversary Festival, in upstate New York, in 1994. After a prolonged downpour, the site had become a stinking quagmire. Green Day were stupid enough to engage the audience in a mud fight during their set. What began as a playful exchange quickly got out of hand, and ended with a stage invasion during which the bass player, Mike Dirnt, had several teeth knocked out by one of the security guards.

Sometimes fans can find themselves the hapless victims of the caprices of the stars, and none has proved more capricious in recent times than Pete Doherty. Many ticket holders have been unlucky enough to arrive at a Babyshambles gig to discover it has been cancelled. But it's the people who turn up to a Babyshambles gig that has not been cancelled who deserve sympathy. During a chaotic appearance at a festival in Leeds earlier this year, the audience found bits of guitars and drum kit showering down on their heads, along with the odd bottle chucked in their direction from the stage.

Missy Elliott, who will jet in to perform at Hammersmith Apollo later this month, is by far the most egregious example of a star whose performances have a habit of turning into little more than an extended bout of rabble-rousing. What show would be complete without the famous Missy walkabout, during which she passes among her audience, gracing her fans with her presence, while her security goons roughly elbow anyone in their path out of the way? And who knows? There may even be a few songs thrown in for good measure.

The live experience is never going to be perfect. But that is part of the fun. Some of the best shows I have seen - from Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, to The White Stripes at the Boston Arms, in Tufnell Park, north London - have been endured in the worst possible conditions for seeing the act and hearing their music. If you go along to gigs expecting to sit all night with an unobstructed view of the band and hear nothing but note-perfect recreations of their best-known songs with no flashing lights, audience singalongs or other distractions, then maybe a concert DVD would be a more appropriate purchase than a ticket to a rock'n'roll show. Or an outing to the ballet, perhaps.

TOP FIVE ANNOYING THINGS AT CONCERTS

1. The Fake Encore Ritual

The band leaves the stage, waving triumphantly, without having played their two biggest hits. The lights stay down while roadies tidy stage, tune guitars. The applause dries up. The band troops back on to play another six songs. Who are they kidding?

2. The Overzealous Lightshow

In an attempt to make the band seem interesting, a bombardment of strobes and spots are shone with blinding intensity straight between the audience's eyes. Notable offenders: The Magic Numbers, Snow Patrol, Muse.

3. The Insincere Greeting

"Hey, I just wanna tell you how great it is to be back here in London/ Birmingham/Glasgow/ Scunthorpe. This has always been our favourite place to play in the whole world." Right.

4. The Feedback Finale

The guitars are left against an amp, feeding back at ear-splitting volume.Yes, everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain has done it. If you have to do something annoying, make it original.

5a The Early Start

Show starts 7.30pm, and no support. Security requires bag and body search. A slow-moving queue of ticket-holders stretches round the block as the main band starts.

5b The Late Start

Ticket says doors open 6.30pm. Main band doesn't show up until 10pm.

5c The Non-Start

Anyone for Babyshambles?

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