‘You’ll have trouble keeping that suit clean!’ laughs the 537th person today.Â Yet when I take off my jacket and neckscarf and pretend to be normal, I find myself envying some other besuited dandyish guy walking about.
I just like to look like myself. Only problem is, to most people I am not myself, I am ‘Oy! Suit!’ until further notice. Roll on further notice.
Latitude is more eclectic than ever: this year’s bill includes Mew, Squeeze (the two following each other), Patrick Wolf, and Chas And Dave.Â Not Patrick Wolf AND Chas and Dave. But I would never rule out such a team-up here.
A group of 11-year-old boys passes me. A plump, posh one – clearly the leader – suddenly shoutsÂ ‘Hands up who wants to see Spiritualized?’
My Friday is very much a day of bits. Bits of acts watched, bits of bands heard. The way sound carries from the various PAs, it’s possible to stand in the woods some distance from the main stage, and hear a kind of organic remix. I can make out the Pet Shop Boys, sounding half underwater, with Bat For Lashes over the top, plus the occasional angry burst of existential swearing from the Poetry Arena. As the wind changes, the mix changes.
Today, I don’t see a single act from start to finish. It starts with me sticking my head inside the Literary Tent for a few minutes to catch Shappi Khorsandi, the Iranian-born comedienne who is currently everywhere. She’s reading from her book, ‘A Beginners Guide To Acting English’, specifically a conversation held at cross purposes with a taxi driver. The cabbie assumes that because she is a lone woman doing two ‘pub gigs’ in one night, she must be a stripper. When he asks her, ‘What do your parents think about your job?’ the daughter of an exiled Iranian satirist replies innocently, ‘Oh, my dad doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he does something similar himself…’
John Joseph B says hello, and I catch a bit of his show in the Cabaret Arena, called I Happen To Like New York. It’s a cross-dressing, picaresque monologue in the vein of Hedwig And The Angry Inch. As it’s more of a scripted story than a cabaret turn, one really needs to see the whole thing from start to finish, and I feel a bit guilty when I pop in about halfway through.
The latest score from the Ashes (or Test Match, or whatever it is), is displayed on a special hand-made board outside the festival’s Supermarket Tent. Years ago, one would assume the person doing the updating would have had a portable radio. These days they could be getting the score from their iPhone. But the score board is still hand-affixed numbers on bits of card, and that’s what pleases me.
I catch a little bit of Lykke Li (though miss her actual song ‘A Little Bit’). By this point I have Fickle Festival Goer syndrome, deliberately wanting a brilliant artist’s next song to be less than brilliant, so it’s okay for me to go and get my jacket from the yurt, or get a drink, or go for a pee, or whatever. Her opening number is heart-stoppingly wonderful, and I am happy. Her second song is just okay, so I am happier still. It means I can get my jacket.
FFG syndrome applies even more to established acts, as nostalgia enters the equation. When the Pretenders are on, you don’t want to be in the toilets for ‘Brass In Pocket’, so the more recent stuff has the Time For A Pee feel. But it can work the other way around. For some, dusty old hits might feel overfamiliar, even stale, and thus toilet-break bound. Going through the motions in every sense. Tracks from poor-selling recent albums may sound fresher live, performed with more gusto.
It depends what people want from their concerts, and what the artists think they might want. Cosy old destinations, or trips to unknown territory? It’s odd how people prefer new material to come from younger acts only (when everything is new), with the exception of Seasick Steve. He’s the Right Kind Of Old.
In my case, I flinch when bands reform just to play the old stuff, if I’ve already seen them first time around. My Bloody Valentine and the Pixies – whom I both saw circa 1990 – are back, but with no new albums. Take That can come back with new hits which eclipse their old stuff, so why can’t MBV and the Pixies?
Every other friend of mine has been raving about the concerts by the reformed Blur. As much as I like a few Blur singles, I can’t get over the sense of Pavlov’s jukebox – a conditioning for nostalgia. It’s as Philip Larkin described his later appearances when his poetry was drying up – ‘pretending to be myself’.
Is the appeal of the Pixies playing ‘Doolittle’ live any different to the appeal of ‘Mamma Mia’? And is there a Pixies musical yet?
There’s hypocrisy here, though: last year I watched the Buzzcocks run through all their old hits, and utterly loved every minute.Â So there goes my own argument.
Never quite a nostalgia act themselves (I think they’ve resisted the ‘classic album in full’ gigs), the Pet Shop Boys typically pull out all the visual design stops, transforming a standard rock festival stage into their own Devo-meets-Gilbert & George installation. The theme of this one is cubes, squares, boxes and pixels, with a backdrop of white cubes as a projection screen, somewhat recalling Pink Floyd’s The Wall, of all things. Both Boys start off in blocky, Lego-like costumes with gauze cubes over their heads, accompanied by two robot-mannequin dancers whose cube heads revolve in sync. I notice how the older Neil Tennant gets, the higher and sweeter and more nasally-androgynous are his vocals. It’s like Leonard Cohen in reverse.
Despite all the synchronised videos, backing tracks of umpteen synth parts and programmed drums, the only aspect which feels unreal is Mr Tennant swaying slightly on his legs, or indeed moving about at all. Anything other than deadpan stillness seems too much like Rock. Which would never do.
The PSBs do a medley blending ‘Can You Forgive Her’ with a newer track in the same 6/8 time signature. This really does test my ‘old v new’ feelings. ‘Can You Forgive Her’ is one of my favourite songs by anyone ever. By playing snatches of it alongside bits of an unfamiliar new song, I feel frustrated. Medleys are not trying something new: they’reÂ non-commital dips, unsatisfying gestures, the musical equivalent of a DJ playing the start of a record for it to morph into a bootleg ‘mash-up’ with something else. Which might please the head (‘how clever!’), but rarely the heart (‘Aw… my favourite song. Where’s the rest of it?’)
On the recordings of Noel Coward’s 1950s supper-club performances, his medleys are outrageously cheeky: 20 seconds of one hit, followed by 15 seconds of another and so on. Just enough for the audience to recognise the song and to do that irksome thing of clapping to show they know what it is:
‘Don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)…. Someday I’ll find yooooooo (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP)… Mad dogs and Englishmen go out – (CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP).’
Ultimately I’ll always want a whole song over any messing about with it. It feels okay to wander about a festival, sampling little bits of different acts, but not okay for the acts to do the same thing to their own material.
I meet up with Charley Stone and company (including Charlotte Hatherley) in one of the open-air Obelisk Arena’s raked seating sections. Combined with the huge video screens either side of the main stage, magnifying the performance with lots ofÂ camera angles, it’s far and away the most comfortable audience option. At least, if like me you’re getting to that stage when you crave A Nice Sit Down, and can’t sit on the ground. My days of standing with the packed crowds Down The Front and braving the constant shoving are over. The only problem with the Obelisk Arena seats is being exposed to the elements, but it’s easily solved with an umbrella-cum-parosol.
[Update Sat morning: A strong wind turns the umbrella inside out and splits its spokes irretrievably. I did wonder why it was so cheap. Duration of brolly ownership: less than 24 hours.]
Charlotte H is playing twice this year, as guitarist for Bat For Lashes and as a solo act. Charley and I go to watch her with ‘The Lashes’, headlining in the Uncut Arena. It’s the largest marquee, with standing room only. The options are either standing at the back if you like a little space, though with a severely obscured view, or going further forward into the crowd and suffering the constant pushing and shoving. I remember how I used to deliberately follow bands with limited fanbases but brilliant records, so I’d never have to worry about this happening.Â The Garage or New Cross Venue was my limit for standing-only gigs (or The Luminaire today).
Although I’m pleased that BFL’s brand of unbashed artiness and love of dressing-up (the singer enters in a big gold cape) is so popular, after two songs I am nearly kicked in the face by a child sitting on their dad’s shoulders. I read far too much symbolism into this.
By half past ten I’m in bed, utterly exhausted.
Tags: bat for lashes, catcalls, latitude, nostalgia acts, old hits versus new songs, pet shop boys, pretenders