Blur / The Specials / New Order / Bombay Bicycle Club
Hyde Park, London
12 August 2012
The Spice Girls, Brian May and Jessie J were over in Stratford closing the Olympic Games but in Hyde Park we marked the end of London 2012 with a great line-up of British bands. So, the Olympics is over, but is this the end for Blur too?
While over in Stratford Kim GavinÃÂ curated a celebration of British music that fell a little short of spectacular for most, over in Hyde Park the living legacy of music culture was on show with full sets from Blur, The Specials, New Order and Bombay Bicycle Club.
There is something distinctly Damon Albarn / Ray Davies about the middle Englanders draped in their red, white and blue flooding the capital’s streets. On the train they animatedly debate who will be Sports Personality of the Year – Mo? Ennis? Daley? – while outside the window the decay of abandoned parts of suburban towns slide by. You can almost hear the tinkle of piano and the wry smile behind the observational disdain.
But this is no time to be cynical. This is a celebration. No, we couldn’t afford the Olympics. Yes, the feel-good-factor will be spun into sound bites and hijacked for political rhetoric but there is individual achievement to be respected. And while the rest of the country may be trying hard to escape austerity, London is swinging again.
The sun is shining on Hyde Park as we flood in from all directions, waving flags and wearing chocolate Gold medals handed out by a sponsor. People stretch and stagger and dance around, a round of applause and joyful whoops erupt as the big screen shows Team GB collecting another Gold.
We collectively watch the boxing, the handball and the commentators stunted attempts to emote what we had seen (‘unbelievable’). Then we take to our feet for the Bombay Bicycle Club.
The newest band on the bill they have undoubtedly been inspired by the three acts that follow them.
From the rough cut of guitar across a jangling refrain this is the sound of modern indie. The least challenging act we’ll hear but a good mid-afternoon opener for the event.
They feel very much like the warm-up though. That it’s now time for the serious business of three massively important and influential bands from the last 35 years of British music.
It is in fact a little odd perhaps that the power, politics and force of these bands comes not from middle England, not from the privilege but the kick against. It comes from Thatcher’s demolishing of industry and hope. It comes from estates and a rejection of Daily Mail hate and division.
This is the music of real Britain, while this may be a corporate show to mark the end of a corporate games it feels more of an alternative, closer to a people’s celebration of the people’s games.
New Order set us off with a great set of true classics. They seem to struggle with the crowd a little, constant drill sergeant instruction from the stage to ‘come on’ and self-deprecating comments that they’ve ‘done their best’.
And their best was certainly good enough. They may not have won over many new fans but they lifted the spirits of many an existing one. Ceremony, True Faith, Temptation all feature. The familiarity of Blue Monday finally brings the crowd together as one. They finish with Love Will Tear Us Apart. An iconic black and white portrait of Ian Curtis as a backdrop during the first verse, changing to the words ‘Joy Division Forever’ as the chorus kicks in.
Yes, this is the way Britain is comfortable celebrating. Always one eye on what we’ve lost, what could have been. Always with a maudlin yet reserved restraint. Always half in shadow. This pessimism seems to free us to be joyous.
Joyous is the best way to describe The Specials. The park now is bursting at the seams. This now is your Fred Perry, your Chelsea Boot. Your Ray Ban, your quirky summer dress. This is your beer belly, your balding spot and your bingo wing. This is your visible tattoo, your fashionable piercing and your tatty Union Jack worn as a cape. But this is also all smiles, all dancing and do many fists in the air as we ‘Oy! Oy! Oy!’
The Specials were important when they set out and it is both sad and wonderous that their messages are just as relevant today. They bring us together, calling in the tribes of outsiders with the opening lines of Do the Dog “All you punks and all you teds,ÃÂ National front and natti dreds, mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads, keep on fighting til you’re dead.”
They draw back a little more from the corporations and the politicians for the people to take as their own. They dedicate Message to You Rudi by saying ‘This comes straight from Usain Bolt to you but also is to the volunteers and the security people. Let’s hear it for them. And you can also dance if you want to.”
And dance we do.
They got us going and they made our hearts beat a little faster but now it’s dark and the screens are showing what’s happening at the stadium. Everyone sings along with Madness and then screams and shouts as the televised event is replaced by the word Blur. White letters on a blue background that splits in the middle, and draws back to either side of the stage revealing an elevated section of the Westway, neon-covered and discofied, beneath which Blur begin.
The park pogo as one as Girls and Boys kicks us off, the bouncing bass line high in the mix. It’s one of those unexplainable phenomena that the mainly vacuous Alex James only has to don a bass, his louchely positioned fag hanging from a half-smile, to be forgiven his cheese making, MacDonalds-mongering pastimes.
Songs from Parklife dominate the opening section. From Girls and Boys we go to London Loves. This subdues the casual crowd a little but for the real lovers of the band it’s a sign that this won’t be a safe Greatest Hits show, there may well be surprises in store.
The Westway pulsates above, a futuristic vision simultaneously capturing the constant movement not just in London but around the country. It reflects the songs and glows soft lights as Beetlebum exposes us to the maudlin uplift again, takes us back to the longing of a void that couldn’t be filled be consumerism or drugs.
Graham Coxon, in a suitably geek chic The Abyss t-shirt peers cheekily out, an air of shyness and vulnerability about him even in front of so many adoring eyes and voices. He delivers Coffee and TV with an extended outro. His guitar playing never feels like he’s showing off, merely that he can’t not do it, that he’s in a struggle to tame an instrument that through him has found a perfect conduit into the world.
Damon dedicates Out of Time to the athletes who were unable to compete due to political situations in their country. It’s a nice touch and another reminder of the real people we should connect to beneath the gloss of the Games.
And then here is one of those surprises. A reminder that time is passing and the band on stage are no longer the likely lads of the lager lout generation but family men with growing kids. They dedicate Young and Lovely to their ‘beautiful, beautiful children’ an indulgence we allow them as it makes so much sense.
And the surprises continue as we also get Caramel – which despite it’s age they’ve only given a live airing in recent weeks. The perfect purr of the guitar line over the introspective lyrics, this is a hair’s on the back of your neck song.
It’s a shame then that the sound falters depending where you are in the park. Outdoor gigs are always at the mercy of the elements and the terrain but apart from the fact Hyde Park is flat so unless you’re really tall your view is mainly the backs of heads, the weather gave no real reason for the sound to be so very poor in so very many spots.
The delicate strains of songs like Caramel were completely lost in some areas. I can only be grateful I got lucky and was able to wallow in it’s full,ÃÂ lusciousÃÂ goodness.
Blur control us. It’s not long before they’ve whipped Hyde Park into a frenzy, the ground less solid now beneath out feet as we dance in the detritus of the day it bounces with us. They give us the pomp and march of Sunday Sunday. Then do a little more to reclaim Country House as the social commentary pop it is rather than the music industry, Benny Hill parody it became. They complete this triple by bringing on Phil Daniels for the mockney sing-a-long of Parklife. Harry Enfield in drag as a tea lady serves brews as we consider whether Olympic glory has made us want to cut down on our pork life and get some exercise.
They throw in some older, punkier numbers – Colin Zeal, Popscene, Advert – which bring a pause as the mosh at the front surges when Damon takes to the barrier.
We’re on the home strait now, finishing line in sight. There is a stunning highly emotional version of No Distance Left To Run to which the crowd falls almost silence, enraptured by the soul laid bare. The passage of time has done nothing, absolutely nothing, to erode the raw sentiment of this song
It sets it up nicely for Tender, the audience only too happy to provide backing vocals as ‘oh my baby’ rolls across the field from stage to far back and in return. There is scope for this to become cliched rather than a genuine, spontaneous call and response but it’s not there yet, tonight it just feels uniting.
The set finishes with This Is A Low, a perfect lyrical capture of England’s eccentricity.
They return, of course they do, and surprise us with Sing. A resonating plea that echoes and glows. A treat for long-standing fans and still sounding fresh.
Then we get Under the Westway. Damon tells us they wrote this back in February trying to imaging the Monday morning after the Olympics had finished and how that might feel. He says it is for all of us there that night. It’s a beautiful song in the typical Blur vein, it’s full of the come-down, the blunt dawn in a city where celebrations have returned to rushing strangers. It’s a perfect song for the moment.
Indeed, it is this song that brings together the die-hard fans and the casual party-goers. It is this song which so neatly dispels the commercial and political aspects of the Olympics and gives the spirit of the Games, of London, of Great Britain back to each one of us. This is a song which can bring a tear to the heart as it is without cynicism but equally without romanticism of where we are right now.
It’s the exact reason why while this would be a great memory to leave fans with it shows that a band that is still writing songs like this are really still very much needed.
The full Blur setlist:
Girls and Boys
Coffee and TV
Out of Time
Young and Lovely
No Distance Left To Run
This Is A Low
Under The Westway
End Of A Century