"When I say jump, you jump"
Call me cynical, but I'm almost embarrassed to admit to enjoying Black Sabbath at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena. But I did, and big thanks to George for inviting me and Tim, Guy, Rachel and Naomi for being fabulous company, as always.
|Being there matters less than telling people you were there|
Sabbath were good, as were the support, but being a miserable old sod I like moaning. It makes me happy. Besides, you can still enjoy a show without losing sight of the hopeless sterility of it all.
It's collusion. It's a conspiracy to ruin the gig-going experience. It's not just the promoters. The venue, the band and dammit the audience are all in on this.
First up, the band. The NIA is a huge stage. Geezer Butler stood on his own, stage right, and looked like the loneliest man in Birmingham except when Ozzy shuffled over a couple of times to check his pulse. When you've got a right-handed bassist and a southpaw guitarist, they should be the other way round. Having the necks of the guitars pointing inwards puts enough distance between the players that they're not a band any more; just a collection of individuals. Audience and band keep their distance, just in case any un-approved human interaction disrupts the carefully planned event.
And that's where the collusion with the venue comes in. They want everything to be well-managed and ordered. The approved brand of beer comes in approved plastic bottles, which have to be swapped for approved plastic glasses before you go into the hall itself, where your wristband gets checked for the umpteenth time. There's no smoking, of course, but you can't just go outside any old door for a puff - there's a designated outdoor area squeezed between a building site and the car park, chosen specially for being the most grim and miserable place to stand on a wet evening in December. It's unapproved fun, and if we can't stop it we'll make it as unpleasant as we can. Apart from every single played on Top Of The Pops in 1975-6, the worst thing about 70s music was the drum solo, but here at least it served a function. I managed to barge my way out of the hall, buy a beer, traipse about three miles to the smoking area, buy some merchandise and still get back in time for the crunching opening chords of Iron Man.
Sabbath make a great noise live, and the acoustics at the NIA are the best I've ever heard in a sports hall, but Ozzy Osbourne has to be one of the worst frontmen in the history of rock. He was in very good voice, but there's more to fronting a rock band than just singing. Ozzy knows this, but someone should have told him years ago that shuffling across the stage in a semi-crouch like an old man queuing for a soup kitchen, clapping his hands and shouting "Yeah!" at every opportunity doesn't make you Dave Lee Roth. A couple of times in every song he approaches the mic and bellows, "Lemme see yer hands!" before sobbing "We love you," at the end of almost every song.
Then there's the bossing of the audience. When Ozzy says, "This is Tony Iommi; shout his name!" you either shout his name, and a few of the audience did, or you shout, "We know it's Tony fucking Iommi," as we did. And when Ozzy shouts "Jump!", you jump. Most of the crowd did. They were distressingly obedient.
Rock now has rules, and the audience obeyed them. Old farts from the first time round (us), some of them with their teenage kids, turned it from a gig into a day trip to a heavy rock theme park. Ozzy bellowed “Lemme see your hands” again, but most people already had their hands up, brandishing smartphones and even the occasional iPad set to record video. They didn’t come to a live event; they’d come to a life event and were determined to record the fact so they could tick it off their list of 1,000 Things To Do Before Finally Admitting You Really Are A Sad Old Git And Probably Always Were.
And What did they record? A sea of tiny screens in front of them recording the sea of tiny screens in front of them, and way off in the distance, an enormous screen that dominated the stage, relaying live film of the concert for those too far back to see. Just possibly they might have caught the odd band member, but that was incidental. They didn't come to a gig; they came to to collect social-media-friendly evidence that they'd attended An Event. All this so that when they got home they could upload it onto Facebook and YouTube, so all their friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, former schoolfriends and random people they met at a party four years ago could see their amateur film of a professional film of an event they could actually have seen live if they weren’t so obsessed with their iWanks.
Finally there’s charade of the encore: “We’ll do one more song if you make enough noise.” Or, “You’ve paid for it, but you’ve still got to beg.” I said to Guy, “I wonder what they’ll do if we all keep really quiet.” The audience did their best, but it’s difficult to summon up the passion. Rock’n’roll ceased to be a life-changing experience long ago, and it was all a bit forced. Still, Sabbath played their role in the farce: they went off stage long enough to put the kettle on and put four teaspoons of Ovaltine in four mugs before returning to the stage, noodling around with the riff of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and finally asking what we wanted to hear. “Neon Knights!” we bellowed, but they didn’t seem to hear. Eventually they lurched into ‘Paranoid’, which was a bit of a shock. I assumed they’d left it out because they were sick of playing it. “I preferred the Dickies’ version,” said Guy, but we all bounced along just the same.
Then the balloons came down. They were meant to be black, but most of them were a shade that can only be described as deep purple. Maybe Ian and the boys had been in town and had a few left over. The lights came up and everyone queued for the car park while the band went back to the hotel for muffins and bed.
The rituals of rock are getting as rigid as those of the Catholic Church, and the inclusion of ‘Dirty Women’ – complete with ‘retro’ (thus ironic and not sexist at all) topless photos on the huge screens – shows that rock's attitude to women is no more advanced. In both cases the rituals are slick, well-rehearsed and professional, but the original message was lost long ago.
Into The Void
Age of Reason
Wall of Sleep
End of the Beginning
God Is Dead
Children of the Grave