Brandon and Mark supporting BSP at Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach 22Nov03
Brandon and Mark supporting BSP at Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach 22Nov03

Brandon and Mark supporting BSP at Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach 22Nov03
Brandon and Mark supporting BSP at Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach 22Nov03
So you grit your teeth: it’s probably over. Maybe it’s been over for a while, you just didn’t want to let go. You clung to the memories: the love at first sight, the thrill and the buzz of those early golden days, then that period a couple of years down the line, you got to see the bigger picture and realised you were still into them – maybe this could be… something? A couple more years, though, and you weren’t so sure. You were moving apart, as people do, and you really wanted to appreciate where they were going but when you tried it just didn’t work. Still, those memories… there has to be something left? And then you wake up one morning and you realise that if you met them now, as they are today, you probably wouldn’t even like them that much. Time to walk away before any more damage is done to the memories of that now distant whirlwind.
Then for some reason you think, ah, go on, one last try…

It started, as many relationships do, in a dark little club. Joseph’s Well in Leeds, a pretty unreconstructed little backroom place (it has been somewhat reconstructed since, saved from closure a couple of times and dropped the “Joseph’s” bit). The date was 20th November 2003, nine years ago almost to the week.

I’ll stop pretending I’m talking about a romantic interest now – but when you love music, your relationships with the bands you watch tend to follow similar patterns: there are one-night stands, brief flings, happy affairs that end before they get a chance to go stale but leave you with great memories once you’ve got over the split, long term relationships and in a very small number of cases, lifetime commitments.

Anyway, it was towards the end of British Sea Power’s mammoth autumn tour; they’d done a British and European stint and then a US stint and then come back to the UK for a final week or so, and they had a new and unknown support act for those last few dates, some youngsters who’d just released their debut white vinyl seven inch on a little indie label. “It’s a fucking shit name for a band”, I said to my mate as we stood down the front in the tiny wood-and-black space. “Yeah but they’re good, promise”. The previous night’s gig had been in Nottingham, her hometown, whereas I’d had a nightmare of a drive after work and completely missed the support, arriving with seconds to spare before my beloved headliners came on. “Even if you’re not sure at first”, she continued, “just wait til half way through the first song…”

They walked on stage, four ordinary looking lads. Young, especially the singer / keyboard player. I liked that, to start with. I’d not seen a lead singer with a stand-up keyboard stand in years. They were clearly American, sounded like a happier Interpol. There was quite a bit of that coming out of the States at the time, bands mixing vintage British post-punk sounds with something a bit more pop and cheerful. The lyrics were great, too, a bloke accused of killing his girlfriend protesting his innocence… and then, yeah, my mate was right. Half way through the song the frontman set down his microphone and played this incredible 1982-style-electropop one finger synth solo; I was hooked. Just seven months later the song, “Jenny Was A Friend of Mine”, would rocket up the world’s charts as the opening track on The Killers’ debut album “Hot Fuss”; by then they were pop stars.

Ooh, look at you, sneering already. Thing is back in 2003 there was nothing much to say these four young men were any different, in terms of the future success they may or may not find, from all the other little-known American indie bands who came over to the UK to slog round the backroom support circuit because it was easier to make a name for yourself here.

Remember Stellastarr*, The Bravery, even bands like Liars who would go on to attract significant critical acclaim. On Valentine’s Day 2004 they played their biggest gig to date at the ICA in London – and many of the fans who helped to just about sell out its 350 capacity were the British Sea Power regulars crew, their friends, and people who had come to the band directly and indirectly via us. This was the heyday of band internet forum culture, long before Facebook, and that was how things “went viral” in 03/04, it was a great way to discover new music courtesy of people with whom you already had taste in common: I’d taken some friends from the old Chameleons fan crew to the Lincoln date and largely because of us, a fair chunk of The Killers’ early fanbase came from this unlikely direction.

It all happened ridiculously quickly. Two weeks after that ICA gig they fulfilled a contract to support Stellastarr* at 500 capacity venues they could have made a decent stab of filling in their own right. By May 2004 they were doing just that – selling out York Fibbers, Leeds Cockpit, Manchester Academy 3 and Liverpool Academy 2.

It was at the latter that we – and they – realised things were about to change for them, and their lives were going to spiral way outside any form of familiarity. Firstly there was the bra incident, more on which in the reprinted review below. And then there was what I suspect may have been Brandon Flowers’ last ever post-gig cigarette break. He was a light smoker, though he respected the fact that at least one of his bandmates was not (remember this was 2004, and venues and their backstage areas were often a dense fug), so after coming off stage he would stand at the back door of the dressing room and have his post-gig smoke. I’d gone out to join him, laughing and chatting. A couple of teenage girls walked past, and I could see them looking, thinking, “yeah, it’s him”. They walked off round the corner. A minute later they were back and there were bloody loads of them, shrieking and giggling ready to pounce. We left him to it; we had a train to catch and he’d have to get used to this. I never saw him smoking again.
This was my review of the Manchester gig two days later. A snapshot from a band on the launch pad. Exciting times…

The Killers, 28 May 2004 / Academy 3 / Manchester
All words Cath Aubergine, c/o manchestermusic.co.uk

Something very strange has happened here. The Killers first caught my eye supporting British Sea Power, a tour which, along with the subsequent Stellastarr* support, bequeathed them an audience of card-carrying indie heads. Many of whom are still here – although becoming quickly outnumbered by excitable young pop kids, some with their parents in tow. At the Liverpool gig two nights earlier the front six rows were made up almost entirely of teenage girls, there was the type of screaming normally associated with Justin Timberlake, and a bra was thrown onstage. I don’t see this kind of thing very often at the gigs I go to…

The audience here is slightly less SMTV than at Liverpool but the screaming still reaches fever pitch as The Killers emerge. Some bands would be uncomfortable with the rather dramatic shift in their audience demographic but Brandon’s clearly loving it. They start with “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine”, a daft indie pop tune about having definitely not killed your girlfriend and why won’t the cops believe you, and of the section of the crowd that’s not really familiar with the songs outside the singles it’s actually the parents who seem to enjoy it the most. Wisely they stick the breakthrough hit single “Somebody Told Me” in next. Drummer Ronnie’s not as theatrical as usual, but apparently he’s been not too well – still beats those drums harder than most people though, and never misses an opportunity to stand up and bang all his cymbals whilst grinning like he’s just done an extraordinarily large line of coke – the knowledge that he doesn’t actually indulge in any stimulants at all making his swivel-eyed enthusiasm all the more enjoyable.

Most of the set is from the imminent album “Hot Fuss”. There’s been a much debate amongst fans as to whether their ridiculous anthem “Indie Rock’n’Roll” is any good or complete toss, but here it fell just the right side of the cheese line. The only weak point is “Andy You’re a Star” – stodgier than three day old pudding – and the rest of the crowd seem a little bemused by it too. We want trashy pop! And we get it, all the crowd favourites, “Midnight Show”, “Smile Like You Mean It” and the set ends on a blistering 500mph “Mr Brightside”. But they’re not off for long – encore “All These Things I’ve Done” with its odd refrain “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier” prompting a mass singalong that carries on after Brandon’s stopped.

It’s a great feat to have crossed over to the Saturday morning TV crowd without alienating the older indie fans, and right now it seems The Killers have managed it. By the morning their name will be scrawled on the pencil cases of kids who have never heard of British Sea Power or Stellastarr*. Next stop The Apollo…

That debut album came out the following week, and by the end of the year we were pretty glad we’d befriended them as it was the only chance we had of getting into their sell-out-in-seconds gigs. Including the Apollo. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the next album, but when “When You Were Young” appeared followed by the Springsteen-flecked “Sam’s Town” (which from the off I considered a far better album then the debut, and still do) I thought bloody hell, they’ve done it. They’ve gone arena-sized without going shit.

And I won’t deny it, I loved it that they had. At last I had a retort to those who mistakenly had me down as deliberately only liking wilfully obscure music (it still happens – I was only recently accused of “not liking anything that’s popular” by a local promoter who presumably could imagine no other reason why I would genuinely rather watch an atonal heavy psych-drone act than the generic la-la-la-lads-an’-guitars acts they were putting on). At last there was a band I liked that my hairdresser would have heard of. She’s my age and they reminded us both of the flamboyant pop bands of our early-80s pre-teen years before our tastes veered off in opposite directions.

As I wrote for this very site reviewing Hurts a year ago, “I am a child of the 80s, Smash Hits was my Bible. The reason I despise most of today’s mainstream pop is that (I was) brought up on people pretending to be highwaymen and gypsies and wielding guitars made of chocolate – not to mention clocking up top ten chart hits with original songs they wrote and played themselves.” The Killers, at least, did the latter. And while by the time of that second album they would have had the stylists all bands above a certain level do, nobody was making them wear identical suits, or whatever the boy-bands of the day were doing.

It seems some people can’t stomach that, however. As if you’re breaking some sort of law by watching (ex-Slowdive drummer turned renowned ambient composer) Simon Scott’s latest mesh of drones and processed found sounds on a Sunday, super-cool New York electrogazers Exitmusic on the Monday and The Killers – ha ha ha, The Killers! – on the Tuesday.

It’s not quite as extreme as the “friend” who told respected Drownedinsound and ManchesterMusic.co.uk writer David Edwards that they “couldn’t take (him) seriously as a music writer anymore” just because David had mentioned he was going to see Girls Aloud on their reunion tour (non-ironically – he likes them, and I can’t see why anyone would have an issue with that) but it’s still a bit sad. A quick audit of good friends I know through shared music interests, and whose taste I massively respect, revealed – without a great deal of digging – a number of supporters of Nadine and Cheryl and co, as well as unashamed fans of Beady Eye, Snow Patrol, Def Leppard, Take That, Ocean Colour Scene, Eminem, Will Young, Coldplay, and even someone who’s been of their own free will to several Linkin Park gigs. And here at LTW we recently ran a favourable review of the latest Robbie Williams record. You might be reading that list and saying, of some or all of the names therein, “er, what’s wrong with that?” – in which case good on you. And if you’re not, well nobody’s saying you have to like them – can’t say I do myself aside from a couple of Coldplay tunes – just don’t make presumptions about people who do.

Another reason I think I stuck with The Killers is that they were genuinely such great people, and never forgot those who had been there for them on the way up. As stadium-packing superstars they eschewed bland label-assigned support acts and took British Sea Power to play with them across the United States, and on a UK tour around the same time they gave the opening slot to Brakes, a particularly lo-fi indie-punk-folk band whose frontman had been in BSP at the time of that 2003 tour. Sad that this is so unusual as to be worthy of comment, but I’ve spoken to people in bands who have found themselves snubbed even for guest list by bigger bands they helped out on the way up.

But as the introductory paragraph of this piece implies, it couldn’t last. I had heard rumours that The Killers’ third album had saxophones on. Bad MOR saxophones, that is, not the good saxophones you get on avant-free-jazz records made by people with unpronounceable names. I bought it anyway, played it once, maybe twice. Went to see them, no longer in several towns but just once, at the Arena half an hour’s walk from my home. It was March 2009, just five and a half years since Joseph’s Well.

The Killers, 10th March 2009 / MEN Arena / Manchester
All words Cath Aubergine, c/o manchestermusic.co.uk

You know – if you’re old enough to vote and drink – “cool” means nothing – and yet it somehow does, if you’re a music fan. A lengthy thread on a national music forum entitled “People ruining music you like with comparisons you hadn’t thought about” contains postings such as “I was listening to Red House Painters and someone I live with asked why I was listening to Snow Patrol, I’ve still not quite recovered” and “Kings Of Leon = Bryan Adams. I won’t go near them now.” What? Has the actual music changed? Stop being so snobbish. Cool is going to see one of the hottest bands of the moment, but only for the support band. This I did in 2004 – like many times before and since – and who remembers Stellastarr* these days? That support though, well… cool is certainly not piling into the MEN Arena alongside a load of screamy teens…

Truth be told, the kids seem to have grown up or moved on. Most of the audience for The Killers in 2009 are old enough to vote and drink. Those in early enough to grab the front spots are sitting around on the floor as opposed to clinging to the barrier, until two fans at the front stand up, causing the sort of Mexican wave of rapid shuffling upwards and forwards that would delight a behavioural anthropologist. Nothing had even happened on stage to warrant it – and when it does, some minutes later, they probably wish they hadn’t bothered. (This was a reference to the support band covered in the original review, who weren’t much cop and have never been heard of since).

The Killers’ third album has been subject to considerable criticism, not least from fans, for being, well, not that good. But you don’t come to see The Killers to wax lyrical about the depth of the music; they’re just not that sort of band. You come to watch a ridiculously over-the-top stage show with a salvo of quality pop tunes throughout. Opener “Spaceman” is one of the better tracks off “Day And Age”, anyway, replete with trademark nonsense lyrics: “They say the Nile used to run from east to west”, apparently. Do they now, Brandon, who would that be exactly? Slimmed down, clean shaven and dressed in simple black, the frontman looks younger than his 27 years, and much younger then he did two years ago with that legendarily silly moustache. Drummer Ronnie Vannucci and bassist Mark Stoermer are both relatively dressed down too, although the never knowingly understated Dave Keuning is still shaking his Robert Plant curls over some sort of gold lamé waistcoat of the sort last seen around the time of Adam And The Ants. After another recent track they launch into “For Reasons Unknown” and suddenly we remember why we’re here – great blazing air-punching perfect pop backed with a shimmer of multicoloured stars. “Somebody Told Me” sends the crowd wild, and we’re back in the zone, then… oh. Back on the new stuff; a session player appears with the sax, the standing crowd settle a bit and in the seated blocks, a fair number actually sit down. This seems to be the theme for the remainder of the set, really. Apart from “Human”, which let’s face it is more like the Killers we’re used to, taking the nonsense lyrics to extremes and not having a sax in it.

Where early gigs saw Brandon standing mostly behind a little keyboard, these days he just gives it the occasional prod as he prances past and lets a session musician do the playing on a rather larger set-up – but he does still love his Grand Piano Moments, maybe harking back to the hotel bars of his Las Vegas youth. Then with the new album pushed finally aside, it’s glorious pop hits all the way to the end – and if anyone says “Mr Brightside” isn’t the greatest pop song of the 21st century they’re wrong.

They end with the stadium-sized Springsteen pastiche of “When You Were Young” and the pyrotechnic explosions are so massive we can feel the heat from our seats; this is what The Killers do best – big, brash and completely over-the-top. Everything, sadly, that the new songs on show tonight (yes I’ve got the album, but I can’t say it’s seen much stereo action) largely are not. If “Hot Fuss” was the trashy glitz of Vegas and “Sam’s Town” the grit of the outlying desert towns, “Day And Age” doesn’t really seem to know what it is. It took U2 about five or six albums before they started coasting and pastiching themselves; has it really taken The Killers just three, or is it just a blip? Whatever, just as there are ageing U2 fans who turn up to hear “I Will Follow” and “New Year’s Day”, we’ll probably still be here next time and “Mr. Brightside” and “When You Were Young” will still be brilliant.

So here I am. Another three and a half years have passed. I haven’t even heard the fourth album; just been too busy since it came out a month or two back – or maybe I’ve just been avoiding it. The reviews haven’t been great, and there’s been more press about the fact that Brandon Flowers had dinner with ultra-conservative failed US Presidential hopeful (description there just in case you’re reading this in about six months’ time when he’s been rightfully forgotten) Mitt Romney – much of it ignoring the fact that the band have also performed for returning President Barack Obama.

Maybe the band are split Republican/Democrat like The Ramones were? Should we sneer at them, too, for this? Furthermore, much of said focus has been on Brandon’s (and Romney’s) Mormonism. Right then. You never see Low, the ATP-feted minimalist/slowgaze band best known for critically acclaimed albums such as “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “The Great Destroyer”, constantly slated for their religion, do you? Yet their founding and sole constant members Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker are practicing members of the Mormon church: he born into the faith and stuck with it; she – his wife – a convert.

So you can stick the double standards: I’m not exactly keen on many of the organisation’s more conservative traits myself, but neither Flowers not Sparhawk is asking fans to follow them; they’re just open and unashamed about this aspect of their lives. And it’s worth noting that on the occasions where I met and hung out with Brandon he was a normal young bloke in a band enjoying a glass of wine and a cigarette and chatting about music and the cultural oddity that is Las Vegas. I liked him. I liked them all. So I’m standing in the Manchester Arena, waiting, a bit nervous. Is this it, that time to walk away?

First things first: if you wanted to appeal to the American religious right, then you wouldn’t choose a support act whose leaders are women. And gay. And Canadian. All of which is arguably more interesting than Tegan And Sara’s inoffensive slightly-indie-ish guitar pop, but hey, it’s the thought that counts – and one of them (no idea, they’re twins as well) mentions how they toured with The Killers years ago. Who was supporting whom I have no idea, but it’s that thread again, that never forgetting those who were there on the way up.

The front crush isn’t what it once was – still rather more female than most gigs I go to, but the days of sliding around on a skating rink of dropped lipsticks and fighting to keep a decent spot (no armed force on this planet could easily take on a batallion of hormonal teens waiting for their heart-throb) are a long time ago now. The woman standing next to me has green streaks in her hair, a fine array of artistic tattoos and a wristband that says “Mosher Freak”. Behind us some blokes are discussing the possible future career options of Johnny Marr. Nobody looks like they’ve got school in the morning, unless it’s to teach in it.

In a move loosely akin to firing one of your best rockets at the start of a firework display to make sure everyone’s paying attention, our headliners blast straight into “Mr Brightside” and the years and bigger stages haven’t tarnished its brilliance one jot. “Spaceman”, too, sounds better than I remember as a projected starfield rushes behind them: I’ve been told the lightshow’s incredible for this tour, and that does matter – it does when you’re playing venues this size. What I presume is a recent song is decent enough stadium pop, while a surprise runout for “Smile Like You Mean It” means two of the first four songs are echoes of that very first date. How much they’ve changed – and yet how little: bassist Mark Stoermer, in particular, to this day appears to have resisted the trappings his fortune could afford him and still looks and dresses exactly like the vaguely bewildered looking 7-11 employee he did when he first shuffled onto that little Leeds stage.

Ronnie Vannucci does his old standing-up-at-the-drumkit thing, Dave Keuning stalks about like he’s living the guitar hero dream, though Brandon himself seems a little subdued. He walks to the side of the stage, has a word with a crew member – not something that usually happens in the slick environment of an arena show – then returns to the microphone. Starts to tell us he’s very sorry…

By the next morning, everyone and their uncle has an opinion on the fact that The Killers’ Manchester gig lasted just four songs before Brandon Flowers said he couldn’t carry on due to throat problems. Not sure exactly what else he could have done, though: to continue for another hour or two wouldn’t have been good for anyone, I’ve been to (rather lower profile) gigs before where a singer’s soldiered on despite throat issues and on one occasion ended up walking out myself rather than hear someone clearly in pain helplessly rendering each song more of an ordeal than the last, never mind the potential for lasting damage and far more cancellations to come.

Yes, it’s massively, horribly disappointing and I feel for anyone who’d travelled any distance greater than the half hour walk across town I had – any regular gig goer knows that occasional cancellations are an occupational hazard, but to pull a gig that’s already started creates a particularly harsh form of anticlimax. Like the fire alarm going off in the restaurant in which you’re half way through a delicious starter, or – well, if you wanted to continue the relationship analogy there are any number of sexual metaphors you could stick in here.

But for this old fan, who only hours earlier was wondering if that should read former fan, those four songs were the answer I was looking for and not the one I was expecting. Point and laugh at me for destroying any little credibility I may have had all you like – for twenty minutes I was indeed smiling like I meant it. Because I did. The show’s been rescheduled for February and this time round I’m looking forward to it a hell of a lot more. They’ve announced a massive summer show at Wembley Stadium (22nd June 2013, tickets from Seetickets) and I don’t doubt I’ll be down for that one too. It’ll probably be the only time in my life that I get the chance to go and watch a band I like at Wembley Stadium – and certainly the only chance I’ll get to stand there and say yeah, you’ve come a long way from Joseph’s Well.

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