Monday 24 August 2009
Tim Walker: 'What's been lost from the stadium rock experience - puddles of urine on the floor?'
The Couch Surfer
On Tuesday evening I joined 20,000 or so other fans, some of whom hadn't cut their hair since the 1990s, at the O2 arena to watch Pearl Jam play a terrific two-and-a-half-hour show. The band's debut Ten and its successor Vs were among the first albums I bought, so seeing the likes of "Alive" and "Blood" performed live - a good 16 years later - gave me my first real taste of what my Dad feels like when he hears Status Quo in a lift.
Men of my father's age have got used to indulging that nostalgia, which might be why so many of them lament the decline of the traditional rock show. U2's current 360° tour, featuring a preposterous 164-foot high "claw" stage apparatus that makes the group's posturing frontman look even shorter than usual, has been described as the last of a dying breed of stadium spectacular.
All the big stadium rockers, like the Stones or Springsteen, are well into middle-age. Their successors, Pearl Jam among them, will have trouble selling out the sort of years-long world tours in which they specialise. And despite being hailed as the saviour of a struggling record business, live music has also been besieged by the internet and its proliferation of amateur ticket touts.
Meanwhile, the live rock experience itself is being gentrified by an increasingly corporate industry machine. Ticketmaster, which sells the vast majority of concert tickets, and Live Nation, which runs many of the world's biggest venues, are keen to merge, causing a headache for antitrust legislators. The move would undoubtedly dismay fans already enraged by the elevated costs of tickets and the growing list of additional, Ryanair-like fees that Ticketmaster sees fit to charge.
In a recent article for The New Yorker entitled "The Price of the Ticket", John Seabrook writes that "the success of rock shows will always be measured not in box-office revenues and beer sales but in the quality of the party ... in trying to make a commodity out of the live experience you risk spoiling the experience altogether."
As Seabrook reports, Springsteen's efforts to keep his concerts affordable have had the opposite effect, with cheap tickets to his shows changing hands online for many times original their face value (with, perhaps, Ticketmaster's complicity). Pearl Jam sued Ticketmaster over their inflated prices in the 1990s, and the romantic in me was a little sad to see them play in what feels like a hyper-mediated setting, somehow stifled by brand managers and risk assessors.
I, for example, breezily checked emails on my iPhone while washing down a Fiorentina - that's the spinach and egg one - with an Italian lager in the O2's Pizza Express concession before the show. The venue heavily controls any queues for beer or nachos to increase crowd efficiency. You get a five- and 10-minute call ("Ladies and gentlemen, Pearl Jam will be on stage in ... ") as if you're at the opera. Every surface, down to the rubber handrails on the escalators, is smothered in advertising.
And yet, and yet ... for a concrete, corporate-sponsored white elephant, the O2 has a pretty good atmosphere. It feels as intimate as could be expected of a 23,000-seater. The sound is fantastic. You can get to the loo and back between encores without fear of missing "Born to Run". Pearl Jam played a five-star set, and frontman Eddie Vedder managed to smoke on stage without being reprimanded; so rebellion is, to an extent, tolerated. There were even a couple of crowdsurfers.
I can barely remember Live Aid, so I'm probably too young to know what's been lost from the stadium rock experience. But I have my suspicions: puddles of urine dotting the floor? Muddy sound? Mile-long ticket queues? The band appearing onstage an hour late? The possibility of being trampled in the moshpit? The impossibility of getting a decent view?
When, midway through his band's set, Vedder asked the crowd to take three steps back and relieve the pressure on those at the front, he invoked the ghosts of Roskilde festival in 2000, where nine audience members were crushed to death in front of him - the sort of incident that's likely to occur less in today's scientifically-crowd-controlled venues. So maybe we're actually getting what we pay all those extortionate credit card fees for. Maybe we should be thankful that things ain't quite what they used to be. Maybe the old-school rock experience is live and kicking, and we ought to just shut up and enjoy the show.
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