Words & live pics by Matthew Osborne
The evening started well, with a conversation between my brother and I about our shared suspicion we might be invincible. Joe recounted to me a couple of pickles he had recently got himself into and out of, and I, of course, have been pronounced clinically dead in days gone by…
We’d never voiced these suspicions to each other before, but something in the arrogance of our shared genetic coding had led us both to the same conclusion. Armed with the knowledge of our own invincibility, we stepped boldly out into the blustery dusk of a Digbeth Thursday and loosened ourselves up with several pints at The Ruin, before heading to the O2 Institute to watch Gang of Four – one of the most influential bands of punk’s second wave – attempt to resuscitate their ageing audience and prove to me, in particular, that punk’s not dead either.
Things started a little ropily on stage, with the first two notes of ‘Return the Gift’ being played loosely and for what seemed like far too long by current guitarist David Pajo. But once the rhythm section of Sara Lee and Hugo Burnham kicked into the insect-like angular groove of what my brother loudly described as “their best song”, we began bopping along to the propulsive beat. As we were singing along to the chorus, “Please send me evenings and weekends”, I looked around at our fellow audience members and wondered why something felt wrong.
Was it that singer Jon King was parading, crablike, across the stage like Morrissey crossed with a post-butter John Lydon – wearing what looked like a slowly unbuttoning red ringmaster’s tunic?
Was it that Sara Lee’s bass seemed unusually large, or that Pajo’s undershirt was the exact colour of his flesh?
Could it be that there were five of them (in the Gang of Four) from time to time, as they were joined by a backing vocalist?
I was unsure and uneasy for a while, but when my jittery pogoing upset a third audience member I realised what it was; the crowd was not moving. Riotous applause followed every song, yet throughout the famously danceable post-punk outfit’s tunes, the audience could barely be seen to sway.
King worked hard to get something out of them, and I felt sorry for him when I wasn’t feeling embarrassed by him. Try as he might, there was no whooping and tearing up the furniture, even when he rhythmically introduced a baseball bat to a microwave for the unsettling ‘He’d Send in the Army’. What had seemed edgy, unusual and gripping when he performed a similar stunt on The Old Grey Whistle Test back in the Thatcherite eighties, was now more akin to a gimmick – not a statement of pent-up fury that we, in this country, are as much within our rights to feel now as people were back then.
My mind wandered to the logistics of performing this stunt every night. How many microwaves were they travelling with, and wasn’t that a terrible lorry-load of landfill I would rather we didn’t bury under the increasingly bulging earth?
Politics aside, the music was tight, loud, and jerky, just how I like my post-punk, and I tried to separate it from the politics and look at the concert objectively… but punk rock has always been intrinsically linked with politics.
And whilst I could hear huge chunks of the band’s songs that have been borrowed and resubmitted by bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Interpol, I felt as though Gang of Four themselves were past their prime. With nothing to say but the same songs they sang forty years ago, I wondered why we are currently lumbered with this trend for ageing rock stars wheeling themselves out once more before retirement for a victory lap.
I understand the desire to play again, myself, having been off the circuit for a couple of years since leaving my own band. The pull of a rapturous crowd is addictive. But I strongly adhere to the belief that the brightest flame burns quickest, and that punk is dead, and has been dead for some time.
My brother and I were amongst the youngest people in attendance, and we are both in our forties. Rock and roll needs the spark of youth to keep it alive, and modern music has a very different energy that makes it more relevant.
No matter how many of the songs I recognised, no matter how well the band played them, no matter how many kitchen appliances were destroyed, there was a lack of energy in the room that the band seemed incapable of adding to. As the encore inevitably came, I worried about the woman who was leaning on the banister in front of me, and wondered whether she may have actually expired. I hadn’t seen her move for quite a while before her husband hobbled over and led her out into the darkness of eleven o’clock and they both yawned and looked ready for bed.
My brother and I may have tipped the balance of alcohol consumption onto the higher end of the invincibility scale, and we staggered out into the night to find someone who would let us onto public transport and get us to some form of fast food.
In the morning I was woken early for work and realised with deep regret and sadness that I was not invincible after all. In fact, it was clear that I was a mere mortal and may even have slightly poisoned myself, which made the day at work an almost unbearable chore.
The evening and the unpleasant morning that followed had been a stark reminder that nothing lives forever, that we all age into irrelevance and immobility, and that no amount of smashing defenceless objects with baseball bats is ever going to change that.
For more on Gang of Four visit www.ffm.bio/gangoffour
For more from the O2 Institute, including a full event programme and links to online ticket sales, visit www.academymusicgroup.com/o2institutebirmingham