David Lister: The Week in Arts

The rock'n'roll experience for men in suits
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This week I went inside the Dome. There was a time when that line would have cleared a room. But now what is happening there is quite exciting.

Next year it will reopen as Britain's first national rock venue, run by the AEG group, which manages similar ventures in America. It will seat 23,000 people on cinema-style padded seats and boast state-of-the-art acoustics. A few weeks ago I was lamenting on this page the fact that while we lead the world in rock music, we have no purpose-built rock venue in the whole country. I was invited to see what is being built inside the Dome.

For a start it will no longer be called the Dome. It will be The O2. And it will no longer be located in North Greenwich. The name is shortly to be changed as it sounds a little parochial for Britain's first national rock venue (even if not for the Millennium Dome). As revelations go, this isn't exactly Watergate, but for what it's worth you read it here that North Greenwich is soon to be New Greenwich.

Some Olympic events in 2012 will be held in The O2, which is a nice, ironic twist. For decades, rock music has been played in venues built for sport. Now sport is going to take place in a rock concert venue. The place will also house cinemas, a theatre to host Cirque du Soleil, a smaller music club for more intimate gigs, bars and restaurants, and probably a casino. A Richard Rogers-designed luxury hotel is being built next door.

But what struck me most was not so much the sheer size but the way that gigs and their audiences will change. And it is that fact, for better or worse, that will make this a venue like no other. Certainly for the better there will be more toilets, and more women's toilets, a ratio of 60:40 women to men. Whether that means that more women are going to gigs, or just that the ratio takes into account the different needs of men and women, only a sociologist or lavatory designer or woman could say.

Second, and fittingly for an arena owned by a mobile phone operator, audiences will receive text messages 15 minutes before the beginning of the show: the genuine beginning, not the roadies testing the mics for half an hour. For any regular gig-goer that is a godsend. Then, for users of the O2 network, there will be other privileges, even massages before a concert, though quite how one massages thousands of people I'm not sure.

What struck me most, though, was that the arena is ringed by 96 corporate suites. Most have already been sold at up to £150,000 per annum They are lavish affairs with private bar, armchairs, sofas and screens, plus private rows of seating overlooking the stage. It is similar to what we now see at modern football stadia - and indeed The O2 has the same architects as Arsenal's new Emirates stadium. The VIP area will seat 2,000 people, nearly 10 per cent of the total. Both the corporate suites and the arena's general seating are right next to the planned casino.

I find myself hugely impressed and a little queasy at the same time. I'm slightly uneasy that users of a particular phone network can expect a better experience at a rock concert than users of another network or even the great unwashed and phoneless. And while I'm not really uneasy that rock concerts are joining corporate entertainment, it's worth taking a moment to note the passing of the raw, sweaty rock gig without a casino or corporate suite in sight. The new rock'n'roll will be comfortable, civilised, corporate and in its way fascinating. But will it be rock'n'roll?

Musical imperialism

Awards come and go with such rapidity that it's hard for any of them to make even a fleeting impression. But I was struck by one of the nominations in the Mojo awards on Tuesday. The gong for best newcomer went to one of the great acts in world music, the blind Mali duo Amadou and Mariam. No one could argue with their prizeworthiness. But best newcomer? Would this be the Amadou and Mariam who were around in the early 1990s - before Mojo actually? Would this be the Amadou and Mariam who have eight albums to their credit?

I wonder if such an eminent rock magazine would be so condescending to a British or American band? Hardly. Mojo would never suffer the indignity and lack of street cred by admitting that it had failed to notice a conventional rock outfit for more than a decade. In nominating the Malians for best newcomer award, the magazine is in effect saying: "We have now deigned to notice you. Well done." It's a neat piece of musical imperialism.

* The Arts Club in London's Dover Street has had a quiet time of it over the past 100 years or so. Before that, it saw the odd fracas, notably when the poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne was expelled for trampling on other members' hats. But generally the members, whose number once included Charles Dickens, acted decorously.

Now there's a mood of change about. The University of the Arts has become a partner and its school of fashion students has been given preferential rates for membership. There is suddenly a youthful and bohemian feel about the place. Indeed, the new young members can smoke if they want to and don't even have to turn off their mobile phones. That must make it unique among places linked to the arts. It's certainly not great training for going to the theatre. Swinburne would have demolished a half-dozen trilbies if he'd seen it coming.