Letters From London

Illustration by Jennifer Daniel

Attending the NME Awards With Pete Doherty and a Whole Bunch of Actual Musicians, Feeling Nostalgic

When you’re young and you love music, you can’t imagine losing touch with the new sound. And then it happens.

Up on stage, awards are being dispatched at a brisk clip. Grace Jones fluffs her lines. A gangling black-clad Pete Doherty strides offstage with a half-drunk bottle of red wine, swiftly pursued by a two-person entourage/clean-up team. Oasis fail to attend but their “best album” award is roundly, soundly booed by the entire hall. The presenter tries to laugh it off but a rockstar type seated behind me flings a bottle top toward the stage, making him flinch awkwardly. Florence and the Machine, who may or may not be one person, takes the stage with Glasvegas (prior to the event, I wrote down descriptions of the bands I’d never heard of, based on their names; “I’m seeing sunglasses and sparkly guitars, pointed shoes, and the carefully concealed onset of middle age,” I noted, wrongly), who manage to both transcend my preconceptions and thoroughly confirm them by kicking up a dirge-y, drone-y version of “Suspicious Minds” that is one of the highlights of the evening. Elbow, a band who have perpetually hovered beneath my radar throughout their entire career, perform something rather wonderful with a horn and string section. The man standing next to me tries to text the word “blur” as Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon play together for the first in a decade; he is foiled by the predictive text system until eventually he gives up. Dizzee Rascal wins an award and then jumps into the crowd, nearly landing on my head because I’m trying to text someone and am not paying attention. The Friendly Fires’ jerky nerd rock suddenly morphs into a full-blown carnival spectacular, with Samba dancers, drum majorettes, and cascades of glitter (the idea I had, that they might be “part-time librarians who don’t look at the audience and trigger every song through a bank of compact black boxes on sticks” is apparently wide of the mark).

A concert is the perfect place to think. Scrunched up in a crowd, immersed in noise, the mind is free to wander off into unexplored nooks and crannies. Questions like “why am I here?” seem to take on increasing pertinence with each passing show, as the crush gets more uncomfortable and the crowd gets younger. But at what point do we finally switch off our new-music radar, happy to stick with the songs and albums we accumulated and absorbed over the previous decades of our life?


* * *

When I was young, it seemed impossible I would ever grow out of the things that I loved. New music was a constant companion and a hobby, something I sought every Wednesday through the near-religious purchase of not one, two, but three independent U.K. music weeklies. The NME, Sounds, and Melody Maker each came with their own tastes and personal favorites, their own preferences and prejudices, all spun into thrilling prose that could last an entire week’s worth of dissemination.

All that has long evaporated. An inky weekly is an irrelevance in the internet age, and NME’s sales are sliding while Sounds and Melody Maker were long since confined to the dustbin. Last year, the NME still managed to squeeze out 48,000-odd print copies a week, a figure that was down more than 24 percent. Today, it is online where the money and attention is made, and nme.com regularly ratchets up millions of users and page impressions, acting as a conduit between the neatly pre-packaged content that passes for music news—downloads, ringtones, gossip, voxpops, videos, and mp3s—and the apparently eager modern consumer, for whom the feature-length interview is an unwanted antique.

Two members of Girls Aloud bask in a night of unexpected indie credibility. Everyone looks slightly famous, but positive identifications are woefully thin on the ground.This is an NME event, the magazine’s annual awards. We’re not really here by design, having picked up tickets by chance, but the icy sound of teenage screams and the hundreds of thrilled faces around us attest that our luck should not be dismissed lightly. This is a proper event, with television cameras and celebrity presenters, with surprise appearances and special guests, all headlined by a band we have been following for more than two decades, the Cure.

What are we doing here? We have been shepherded into the “pit,” a narrow slot of standing room between the stage and a raised dais laid out with tables, around which sit the glitterati of modern indie rock. Before we were taken through the crowd into our pen, a man with a microphone gave us a little pep talk. Watch the bands. Wave your hands. Cheer and clap. Don’t look round or talk to the bands behind us. Pay attention to the presenter.

There are 15 minutes or so before the event starts and everyone is still looking behind them, trying to work out who the celebrities are. There are the occasional screams of recognition, but mostly we’re just quietly cogitating. The longer we stand there, the more I feel disassociated from the situation. Once I would have given almost anything to be standing here, perhaps 20 feet from the microphone stand.

The oldest people at the tables above us—older than us—must be industry. That much we are certain. Then there is a nebulous generation of young-dressing 30-somethings, many of whom have bushy beards, complicated-looking haircuts (appropriately enough the awards are sponsored by a hair-styling product), or who dress like awkward teenagers. These, we decide, are either PRs, slightly older musicians, or television personalities without their makeup. Then there are the real teenagers, thin, fresh-faced young men and women who either are the bands themselves or their slavish imitators, awaiting their stab at the big time. The evening is hosted by a nervous, befuddled M.C. with Buddy Holly spectacles. He swears a lot, and spends his time off-microphone being dragged around the stage set by a bossy-looking production manager. She is continually barking into a walkie-talkie that she cannot possibly hear over the noise.

Band members mill about between the tables, drinking the complimentary Jack Daniels and Red Bull (we have free beer, so we’re not complaining), looking studiously cool and apparently revelling in our inadvertent swivel-eyed approbation. Two members of Girls Aloud bask in a night of unexpected indie credibility. Everyone looks slightly famous, but positive identifications are woefully thin on the ground.

Few bands define nostalgia better than the Cure, still the gold standard of teenage angst, and subsequently a soundtrack for the early onset mid-life crisis, first Robert Smith’s, then mine.And this is what I think. What marks the watershed of our cultural engagement? At what point does new music suddenly cease to stimulate the brain? When will I step back and refuse to engage with what is happening now in favour of the golden past locked within my mind? We think about music in different ways as we grow older. Inevitably, to look back, to re-listen is to try and recapture a point forever lost in time, a fleeting moment, that unique and magic instant when life and love and hormones and brain chemistry collided to nail a piece of music to a specific and unrepeatable point in space and time. To revisit the music of one’s youth is like waking from a vivid dream and feeling it literally slip from the memory, leaving one clinging for a shred of the experience while all that surrounds it tumbles away. The act of listening to a track again and again and again is a doomed attempt to bring that moment back.

When served up with something new, I realize I’m looking to feed the inner nostalgic (and quash my inner cynic in the process), rather than be seduced. This is why the cyclical nature of sound and fashion dominates cultural discourse, why we are condemned to seek out the strange conjunction of the new—if not necessarily the thrilling—and the elusively familiar. This is the perpetual dilemma of the ageing music fan: We’re constantly seeking novelty that will give us the same warm glow of the familiar. And yet nothing new sounds influence-free, and we tend to give our influences too much credit.

Nostalgia is what brought me here, not hunger for novelty. Thankfully, the NME appears to be as conflicted as me, parading their self-created mythology of a golden age of alternative rock on the big screens above the stage, while simultaneously channelling new bands into pre-defined niches that continue rock’s grand narrative. I feel cynical, and the first band to take the stage doesn’t help. White Lies appear to these tired old ears to be Joy Division 2.0, a slicker, more bombastic version of the original pumped up by beefy modern music technology. Nothing is left to chance, no crackle of static or arc of unintentional feedback; the band plays as crisply as their black suits and short, neat hair.

And my description of the band prior to the show is hopelessly out of touch: “White Lies implies turgid electro-driven disco rock with a tight panted, thrusting delivery, scowled vocals, and bullet belts slung post-ironically around slender hips. American Apparel would be number one on their would-be sponsor list.” When did my aesthetic compass lose its bearings?

Setting out to sate nostalgia never works, it has to be a happy accident. The song is an art form that exists to be repeated, consumed over and over again.Eventually, we come to the climax of the evening. Few bands define nostalgia better than the Cure, still the gold standard of teenage angst, and subsequently a soundtrack for the early onset mid-life crisis, first Robert Smith’s, then mine. For the past decade, their concerts have been exercises in frustration, as favorite songs are shelved in favor of big hit singles and new albums that never quite hit the same spot, for all the reasons outlined above.

After Tim Burton and Smith have eyed each other admiringly but also warily, like a couple of overfed, slightly mangy tomcats, the band takes to the stage. I am standing shockingly close, certainly close enough to really feel the age of the band in front of me. Inevitably, a pre-show build-up of video clips, the receipt of a “godlike genius award,” and an apparently genuine standing ovation from the whole crowd fails to be sustained by the first few songs. The crowd-pleasing pop singles sound shrill and empty without their keyboard parts, which are played busily on the guitar. Although my brain is so adept at filling in the gaps that it is practically a fifth band member, able to summon up phantom instruments and ghost passages, long excised through over-familiarity or the casual sloppiness for which they’ve become famous, the performance still disappoints.

The Cure’s set is an abrupt half hour (due to TV scheduling) in which every hit single feels like five precious wasted minutes. Only toward the end do they ever really tussle with my high expectations, and a corrosive, flanging version of “Killing an Arab” (in its 21st-century “Killing Another” guise), is just about enough to redeem it. But only just.


* * *

The following night I go to the 02, London’s former Millennium Dome, to see a proper gig, without the TV cameras and the second takes and the truncated sets. My companion from the night before is here as well, seated in a corporate box lost in the gloom on the other side of the arena. We semaphore each other with the glowing screens of our cell phones, but meaningful communication is futile. “Tish and pish” I text him grumpily as Crystal Castles take the stage, seemingly lost and impotent in the vast space (“They dress like a cross between Olivia Newton-John and a Japanese traffic policeman.” From this distance, I could be spot on). And then, all of a sudden, everything coalesces. The band starts a piece of sullen electronica, sing-song processed vocals folded into a simple descending chord pattern and an urgent beat. For a minute or two the music is my sole focus, not the lights, or the scale, or the steep rake of the seats, or my phone, or my worries about being lost to new music forever.

Setting out to sate nostalgia never works, it has to be a happy accident. The song is an art form that exists to be repeated, consumed over and over again. The transition from something genuinely new to something with an embedded memory can happen after a single play. Music facilitates nostalgia, and the impulse to associate music with time and place slowly kills the impulse to redefine the world with a new musical frame. This is a slow, welcome death, being smothered by familiarity, and it lurks just ahead of us all.

But I like Crystal Castles. So maybe it’s not all over yet.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell