Where a person stands at a music gig can often make all the difference in their perception of a band/artist’s performance. But what about all the contributing factors invading that person’s space, and the attitudes which bind themselves to those behaviours? Poet Stephen Watt investigates.
On a balmy, mid-June evening in the summer of 2017 inside Webster Hall, located in the east village of Manhattan, New York, punk legends Buzzcocks were firmly in the throes of delivering a blistering set. On my Honeymoon and suitably ‘buzzed’, I threw myself into the shuffling throng wasting airspace at the front of the gig during single “I Don’t Mind”, released thirty years previously, and pogoed along with complete abandon to Pete Shelley’s hangdog words. As it prevailed, the NY crowd did mind a “pathetic clown hanging around”, and stormily tussled with me until I was safely away from their lifeless position at the barrier.
Something clicked. Whether it was the type of music such gigs spawn, or the age that I was, or being invigorated by the quite-brilliant Rock Junket Rock n’Roll Walking Tour that we had been on that afternoon (check it out at https://rockjunket.com/), or god-forbid, the suitably intoxicated state I was in, there was a time and a place for people – tourists – nuisances, like me and throwing yourself around like a defective jack-in-the-box was certainly not the expected behaviour at a punk gig in the arguable fatherland of Punk Rock. What a silly notion!
Had this been ten, even twenty years earlier, then this may have been accepted. No one is fond of inebriated arseholes slamming their elbows into eye sockets or spilling your extortionate pint all over your newly-purchased t-shirt from the merch stall, but in a society where irritability towards invasion of personal space is on the increase, a party reveller is more than likely to find him or herself being videoed from behind with a tag line that goads fellow sour pusses to criticise, mock, or troll online. There’s every possibility that someone dancing to a band they enjoy will brush elbows or shoulders with someone intent on filming tinny, blurry, and pixelated footage on a smartphone, unable to hold a memory in their head without the need to document it on YouTube or other.
“Men feel they have a right to a space and whatever other bodies are unfortunate enough to occupy it” : Ki Murphy
It would be imprudent to allot all collisions during live gigs with persons who are either drunk or on drugs when a great many are simply and innocently bewitched by their favourite artists playing their favourite songs in their favourite venues. There can be a great many reasons to the enjoyment of any punter’s memory being tarnished. Victoria McNulty, a 32yr old spoken word performer from the east end of Glasgow, explains: “Mobile phones and excessive video are turn-offs. Then there is the throwing of pints, folk off their tits on Cocaine and acting the eejit, unwanted advancing and groping by said-eejits; not forgetting the over-crowding and poor facilities at larger gigs such as TRNSMT and The Stone Roses at Hampden”. Ki Murphy, a 28yr old musician in Glasgow, validates McNulty’s concerns: “At TRNSMT, a young Tory was groping a woman in front of him. Someone he had never even so much as said hello to. I imagine a lot of that is going on in concerts across the world with, in particular, men feeling they have a right to a space and whatever other bodies are unfortunate enough to occupy it”.
There is always a case that there is a gender basis for which space at music gigs will raise concerns, with men frequently accountable for skirmishes and violence triggering in the audience. Alcohol-fuelled violence at the Oasis gig in Murrayfield Stadium in 2009 resulted in eight arrests, two reports of assault, and one man hospitalised as a gang of five thugs showered boots upon his face during support band Kasabian’s set (Oasis violence article). “Overly obnoxiousness is easily one of the worst features of Scottish live music”, explains Ross Quigley, 34. “At Conor Oberst, one guy was being a massive prick to everyone nearby. I don’t even know why he was there as he didn’t seem to like the music. His bird then fell on her arse spilling drink on the people nearby. There’s having a good time and then there’s that shit”. Graeme Caldwell, 29 is quick to sympathise with the plight of those on stage: “There’s not a lot of patience/appreciation for support bands here, and too many people in the crowd are far too quick to throw a pint or a punch if they get restless, or – rather more likely – too drunk”. Sometimes though, it isn’t always alcohol or drugs which stir the feelings of frustration. “Sweaty guys with their tops off”, says Emma McDougall, 36, from near Loch Lomond. “There is always one or ten pushed up against my face – and couples who cuddle all the way through gigs. Why do people do it??”
“Small venues are about getting up close and better assessing new talent and band dynamics” : Grahame Young
If the Scottish mentality of getting MWI (Mad With It) is supposed to be a positive trait, then it would seem that an invasion of space fuelled by chemicals, or stronger, counteracts such notions. There cannot be so many similar stories emanating from Monday nights inside the cosy surroundings of the 13th Note in Glasgow or Liquid Rooms in Edinburgh. That particular venues or nights of the week could influence how persons carry themselves, or identify areas inside a venue where sound vanquishes loutish behaviour and focuses on the music itself – or indeed, lends itself to those once-in-a-lifetime discoveries where everyone yearns to be at (see The Quarrymen at Cavern Club, 1957 or Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall, 1976, etc). Grahame Young, 59, from Dumfries is into his fifth decade of gigging and sees the merits in such venues: “In small venues like King Tuts, (Nice n’) Sleazys, etc I try and get close to the stage. It has nothing to do with sound. It’s to get up close and better assess new talent and band dynamics”. Young should know – he was present at King Tuts when Oasis played their seminal gig in 1993.
For the younger fan, new bands play every night of the week across Scotland to varying sizes of crowds – but a lot lies at the door of the promoter to get the right venue at the right time for any band. Siobhan Jensen, a 29yr old rock and metal fan from North Glasgow, considered the spectrum of gig venue size in her home city: “I love the QMU. No matter where you stand, the band is right in front of you – but I also really love the (SSE) Hydro as the sound is amazing and regardless where you stand, you can see the full stage”. Murphy appears more juxtaposed in his opinion of Glasgow’s largest indoor arena: “The sound in the Hydro is pretty good, but it’s hard for an artist to create an intimate connection with an audience when they’re in an airplane hangar”. With Scotland’s rich history in generating so many quality musicians, especially over the past fifty years, sound is always going to play a key part in where a person chooses to stand during a live gig – and audiences are never shy in letting a band or performer know if the venue isn’t up to scratch. “There’s too much noise on acoustic type numbers”, suggests Raymond Lynch, 40. After years of travelling the length and breadth of the country, and to as far-flung reaches of the world such as Singapore to see the Super Furry Animals in action, Quigley believes he has found the formula for where to stand for the perfect experience: “A combination of proximity to stage, where it is not too crowded, finding a spot for the sound quality to pour through (too close to the speakers kills my hearing) and in some cases, where it is easy to nip to the bar/toilet – definitely an age thing there”.
“I enjoyed Pink in concert even though I was surrounded by teens” : Mike Friel
An age thing. Something which is apparent in every passing year one gets older. More and more bodies appearing between you and the stage. An oppressive attentiveness to the guy or girl standing to the side of you being younger, a better dancer, better-looking, and appearing to know the lyrics of that band you love more than your own mother, better than even you do. The response is overwhelming in favour of feeling the age thing. “I don’t feel the need to be in amongst it any more” / “I think it’s a factor – I would be in the mosh-pit down front ten years ago” / “My hips don’t move like they used to”, offers a flavour of some of our interviews. Not so Irish punk Mike Friel, 49: “It isn’t a factor to me. I tend to move towards the front/middle and stop before it gets too packed. I enjoyed Pink in concert even though I was surrounded by teens”. It’s a refreshing, if brave, attitude to take. John Peel’s omnipresent existence at new, upcoming bands was always considered a revelation – something to aspire to, but there is little worse feeling than finding that Gloria Estefan’s sage advice materialising when ‘the rhythm is gonna get ya’ comes true, and boy – it doesn’t look good. “I would say age is an issue”, offers Young. “If I find a band draws a younger audience than my age group, I tend to stand further back. I saw The View in Tuts and the average age was 18 when I was 51. My Bob Harris moment”. Certainly better than a Rolf Harris moment, in any case! Speaking from my own experience, I often found that dance gigs warranted persons of my own age drifting further in towards the front as limbs loosened, gaps appeared (often seeking pints of water to cool down), and the beats of Orbital, Chemical Brothers, or Japanese Popstars squelched into something more danceable than the oft-riotous opening to proceedings. However, for the more subdued indie-rock performance, depending entirely on if it was a new act in the primary stage of their timeline or a Britpop band egged on by similarly-aged supporters, would sway my position during a gig. Confidence would breed in the shape of a crowd, or filter if accompanied by just one other friend – the latter more often the case during my thirties. McDougall signs up to this notion: “I think it’s more the band I’m there to see. For example, when I saw Placebo, I loved it right down the front simply because they so many top tunes”. Music wins!
“It’s a sad fact but after the Paris attacks, I tend to look for fire exits now” : Emma McDougall
The contemporary live music scene was forever changed in November 2015 during an Eagles of Death Metal gig in Paris when a terrorist attack led to the death of over one hundred people in attendance (Parisian terrorist attack article). I can recall attending The Prodigy/Public Enemy gig a week or two later in the Aberdeen Exhibition Conference Centre where huge queues were forced to stand outside the venue while security meticulously frisked every person attending, allowing only for women to come forward first out of the biting cold. It was unwanted but very necessary. “It’s a sad fact but after the Paris attacks, I tend to look for fire exits now and make myself really aware of them at venues”, offers McDougall. Closer to home, the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017 following pop star Ariana Grande’s concert spiked all gig-goers concerns that the greatest risk to them was no longer the pogoing, drunken idiot at a Buzzcocks gig but rather something much darker and dangerous. Twenty-two people, including young children, never returned home that evening and raised alarm across the country if the entrances to the gigs you were attending were not greeted by a tsunami of fluorescent bouncers ready to poke and prod every orifice in efforts to ensure that everyone’s safety was paramount. But both in Manchester and in Scotland, there is a need to let loose and enjoy the moment. Regardless of what hazards socialising anywhere may present, music or alternative, a diversion from the cold political world during the working week’s waking hours is often savoured.
“What makes Scotland so special is nostalgia, the rich mixture of established touring acts, and socialising in a vibrant local scene” Victoria McNulty
It is November 2010 and a crowd of us have travelled south to London Olympia, waiting to see Primal Scream perform their ground-breaking ‘Screamadelica’ album in its entireity. The crowd is uncommonly reserved, staring at Bobby Gillespie with sterile expressions painted upon every face. The lads with which I have travelled south from Scotland with shuffle forward, mirroring every invisible maraca shake, every twitch of the hip, hoarsely echoing “MY FUCKING LIGHT SHINES ON”, moving closer and closer towards the barrier. It becomes apparent that the accents around us have changed. We are now parallel with Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow men and women, fists pumping the air like town criers. The t-shirts are saturated in sweat, hair glued into tight curls on the forehead. “We’ve the best fans in the world”, states Jensen. “Atmosphere is the key ingredient”, proffers Lynch. Add those two ingredients and perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise that the stylishly dressed Londoners have vacuumed backwards from the stage, allowing a more northern contingent to vacate that space. “Scotland is special because it is steeped in nostalgia, a rich mixture of established touring acts, and socialising in a vibrant local scene”, suggests McNulty. It is a true statement. Britpop bands still win sell-out crowds across Glasgow, the Edinburgh Festival has welcomed the likes of Sigur Ros and PJ Harvey over the past couple of years, and with several local festivals operating including Tenement Trail, Stag and Dagger, and King Tut’s New Year/Summer Revolution to name a few, it clearly still grabs the interest and excitement of both students and seasoned ravers. Glasgow, especially, wins favour among those interviewed. “I don’t know about Scotland as a whole, but Glasgow normally goes for it”, hints Murphy. “It has that reputation among artists as well, creating a madforit feedback loop”. Young sums it up: “Its Scotland. Our home. Its kin folk with a common understating. It’s tribal. It’s a connection. It’s in our DNA as a progression of our ancestral Celtic roots to accepting all genres of music. It’s in our veins. We live for it”. Clearly someone should have this engraved into the Barrowlands’ brickwork.
But is that mentality enough to overcome the infuriation or fear of drunks, molesters, terrorists, or simply appearing past-your-best? Is there anything which the public appears to bypass? McNulty raises one final issue: “I prefer to stand at the back at music gigs, away from the speakers. I have Aspergers and part of it makes me really sensitive to sound, so bass and bass drums make me quite uncomfortable. I prefer the Barras for sound because it is less tinny, and sometimes less booming than other venues”. Illness, physical obstructions and social unease all have a part to play. “I can’t say my choice in where to stand has ever been dictated by the sound from a quality point of view, but volume is an issue if I’m right in front of the speakers – I already have to wear earplugs because of the tinnitus due to attending too many loud gigs”, states Caldwell. In 2017, music festivals in Scotland now cater for Blue Badge parking, accessible viewing platforms, assistance dogs, and more but several venues remain without facilities for wheelchair users. Only last year, a BBC survey UK-wide uncovered that 12.5% of people had been refused entry owing to their disability, and nearly half of all respondents felt worried about asking music venue staff for help. That is a tragic statistic, and with many mental illnesses not being so apparent on the surface raises questions about the attitudes of the staff permitting entry – and those fellow revelers standing alongside.
Personal space has an important, invisible role to play in everybody’s lives. Finding your place at a music gig can be as arduous as finding your place in life, but when it’s found then try enjoy what led you to be there and remember those with whom you share that room. Get in the zone – and stay there.
Rich thanks to Raymond Lynch, Victoria McNulty, Graeme Caldwell, Ki Murphy, Grahame Young, Siobhan Jensen, Mike Friel, Ross Quigley and Emma McDougall for their input during this piece.
Stephen Watt is the Dumbarton FC Poet-in-Residence, a crime poet, one half of gothic spoken word experimental act Neon Poltergeist, and author of the poetry collections “Spit” and “Optograms”. You can follow more of his writing on his Facebook page or his Twitter handle @StephenWattSpit.