“As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you…”
On January 8th 2013, David Bowie’s 66th birthday, he dropped a bomb on an unsuspecting public: a new single ; with a new album, The Next Day, to follow in March; then, we got a second video just before February’s end; and finally, ten days before the album’s release, an iTunes stream. Following nearly a decade of semi-retirement (or was it misdirection?), the release of Where Are We Now? was a PR masterstroke that provoked an astonished outpouring of love and excitement among starving acolytes. Nobody knew it was coming – even The Outside Organisation, Bowie’s long-time PR company, didn’t know until Christmas 2012. In the cold light of day, he did nothing except make a record and keep it a secret. He did this in our online era, where everyone is over-sharing, stealing music is commonplace, the music industry is transforming, against its will, and most public figures can’t buy a pint of milk without media training. In the process, he made what could have been a drip-drip publicity campaign of teasing and snippets and buzz that would have cost millions completely obsolete. There was a rush to explain how on earth this had happened. Sony’s president, Rob Stringer, was so peeved with the perception that he might not have known about the existence of an album his own label was releasing that he insisted on a correction to a Guardian piece that had dared to claim he found out at the same time as the PR agency. He knew in October, he snorted, desperate to appear to be two extra months inside the loop. He didn’t know earlier because Sony obviously didn’t fund the recording – and if record labels aren’t paying for that old staple, what do they even do now? He is oblivious, seemingly, to his own irrelevance – the joke of being so unimportant to an artist comically lost on him.
As I sat, with The Next Day’s iTunes preview before me, I felt like I’d been given a 14-course Michelin-starred meal all at once and was expected to eat every last morsel. Reviewers got a couple of hours in a darkened room with this album. What a task to demand of them: to write defining reviews for serious newspapers , magazines and websites with only a couple of plays under the belt, the first of which is really just reverberation from the shock of the existence of the album in the first place. What’s the point of such secrecy anyway – to prevent leaks? The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing because the album started streaming online 10 days before the release date and can now be easily found, online, for free. The music industry have given up trying to sell music at all but PR companies can’t let go of their tiny measure of control. How pointless. But then, half way through my second play, I was driven to write something too, and it felt possible. Perhaps that’s the lesson of these past two months – everything is possible.
We will each have our own unique relationship with The Next Day. There’ll be teenagers coming to him anew, with this album being the first one they’ll have bought (or stolen). What must it feel like to be at the beginning of such a journey? They have untold riches ahead. But whether you’re a kid or Bowie’s age, you’ll have your own personal connection to this album. I can only talk about my own. My first play was rushed, as I was heading out of the house, and I barely heard anything, I couldn’t take it in. Later that same day, I closed the door and the curtains, turned the light off, put on my headphones and pressed play. As the album was nearing its end, about half way through How Does the Grass Grow? I realised that tears were rolling down my face. Why that song in particular I have no idea. It was just too much, perhaps, and it all got concentrated into that one moment. I’ve lost so much in the last year, and while I have never written about it, never felt the desire to write down how I feel, and have felt, I found myself crumbling to a moment of loss, of my own sadness.
Since I lost my mum my heart has hurt every single day. She would always ask me when Bowie was going to make his comeback, and I’d tell her it didn’t look likely at all. And no matter what anyone says now, it fucking didn’t. In a millennium, I could never have told my mum that I thought he was secretly working on an album. I had no clue, none of us did. So she will never know this joy, she will never hear this record. She was the first person I would have called on that breathless day, January 8th. She loved him and would have been so happy about this unexpected turn of events. She would have watched the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) a dozen times. That I never got, and will never get, to tell her has caused a sadness that will never leave me. And yet, this record does what it’s supposed to do, at its very heart – it makes me happy.
During the creation of any album, there are a thousand creative decisions to be taken. Whether you make an album that takes two weeks or two years, it’s all about the roads you choose to take. I couldn’t possibly trust Bowie more than I already do to make the right choices and, expectedly, every element of this album has been carefully picked to work and fit together. Every guitar break (the three-pronged attack of Gerry Leonard, David Torn and Earl Slick works wonderfully throughout), bass line, horn and string part, and every insistent, powerful, drum beat is filled with conviction; every lyric and thought is crafted with precision and passionate expression, and every charismatic vocal delivery employs the guile and instincts of the seasoned actor he is. He has created an entire world in which these songs live.
Visconti wasn’t kidding when he said the single wasn’t indicative of the album. The whole experience of listening to The Next Day is to find yourself battered around the head by a man who is letting his silence on life, love, death, war, history, religion and politics end. And yet, and this is the crucial point, this is an artistic statement of someone who wants to fight. It is an angry record, one that expresses vicious and contemptuous judgement, but it also talks of the journey of mortality; it’s partially reflective, true, with the odd look back, but it’s very much thematically rooted in the present, in the world he’ll leave for his daughter one day. It would be easy to say that this bit sounds like it could be on Lodger, that bit is straight out of Scary Monsters and so on. But such flourishes are the lesser strokes of a paintbrush on a huge canvas; The Next Day very much lives and breathes in the present. It has its own personality and will find its own place in the canon. You knew it would, because he is far too clever to put something out after this length of time that didn’t stand proudly alongside the rest. Every decision made is a careful one, and there’s nothing wrong with employing his famed level of control freakery if you’re adding to a back catalogue of such immensity.
The first thing that knocks you over is the remarkable pace it sets off at, with the title song having more than a touch of Tin Machine’s abrasive propulsion as it tells a dark tale of medieval death on the gallows. Dirty Boys is like the sex cousin of Sister Midnight , with a groove so filthy you could imagine a tassel-twirling burlesque performer getting off to it in a Soho dive bar. The Stars (Are Out Tonight), divested of its staggering video accompaniment , is a solid gold pop hit, with wonderful melodic work from Gerry Leonard and David Torn and a gorgeous Visconti string arrangement. The dramatic Love Is Lost tells a dynamic yet indifferent, lonely tale of displacement, which seems to lead perfectly into Where Are We Now? For all the talk of nostalgia, it’s the only track that harks back, lyrically at least, to bygone times. When you know you have more years behind you than ahead, and the gift to siphon those feelings into a creative outlet, the desire to blink for a second and allow for reflection is understandable. But it’s a fleeting moment before we’re off again, into a lovely, light pop song, Valentine’s Day, though the subject, a troubled and dark-minded protagonist, muddles its musical sweetness. The face-melting If You Can See Me follows, a song ambitious and portentous enough to have sat comfortably on Outside. The time signature alone is a blood twister and the chemistry of the brilliant Tony Levin and Zachary Alford makes the song what it is.
It’s at this point that there’s a dip, which after the blast of the first seven tracks feels like a surprise. But then again, Scary Monsters aside, it’s par for the course that a Bowie album has a filler or two, which is no crime. Dancing Out in Space is pretty pedestrian (and the title, good as it is, inevitably makes me think of Flight of the Conchords ) and I’d Rather Be High and Boss of Me (great verses, prosaic chorus) are just good songs, they’re not great. But so what? It’s an album where the ideas spill forth unrestrained, and that’s worth a couple of tracks you know you’ll skip after you know it all better. The odd bit of imperfection is offset by huge swathes of intensity and dazzling quality. How Does the Grass Grow? is beautifully crafted and seems to have some combination of cadence and timbre that makes my tear ducts overflow. How does it do that? (You Will) Set The World on Fire is a mammoth track, with a Slick guitar line Pete Townshend would be proud of. It’s the kind of song that he tossed off in the 80s and, because of his general disinterest in his own music during that period, would have let become submerged amid layers of someone else’s production control. Here, it’s powerful, sleek and insistent.
And then, we get to You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (nice title nod to Heartbreak Hotel). If you’re thinking that this straight-ahead rock album is perhaps lacking something, a big overblown epic, say, this is your moment. Bowie knows exactly what he’s invoking here, and you can do nothing but marvel at its sheer bloody cheek. This extraordinary song, a companion piece to I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (itself a parody of a Morrissey homage), or even the hallowed Rock and Roll Suicide, is completely thrilling. It pulls you back and forth, it emotionally exhausts you, and the delivery is off the scale. And just when you think there’s no more emotional heft it can give or receive, as it fades away the drum beat of Five Years comes in and you almost burst out laughing at its brazen flamboyance, arrogance and utter ostentatiousness. The Scott Walker-esque Heat, the album’s closer, is like a Tuesday comedown, a mesmerising mantra-like chant not unlike Heathen.
There are no accidents here. There are no half-thought ideas executed with flippancy. The playing is exemplary and Visconti’s production is imbued with the love and respect and skilled invention that 40+ years of friendship and understanding brings. He knows what’s needed, he knows how to add the right touches intuitively, and the shorthand of their relationship is stitched into every track. Every musician who has spent time making this record has done it with love and devotion in their heart. Asked to keep the album’s existence a secret from those closest to them for nigh on two years, without blinking, without argument, the deal was done. Everyone wants to do their best for him and will wait a decade to get a call then accept the invitation without pause or even a thought of complaint.
All Bowie albums are pictures of his mind in particular moments. Has this set been formed over the last couple of years or has he been collecting and creating, bit by bit, since he walked off stage at his last public performance, the 2006 Black Ball? We will never know, but we do know that recording took place in fragments over two years. Sessions lasting a week, then not a call for months; another couple of tracks, then more silence for more months, until he was ready. If there was external pressure to record or tour, via demands from a record label, from management, from fans, from anyone, he paid little attention. There are no interviews, no explanations. The album says everything he wants to say. He ignored everyone to walk around New York in a baseball cap, and do the odd movie cameo and the school run, and this is what we got.
It’s such a gift, and one I never expected. It’s overwhelming. I could overanalyse it if I wanted. I could try and figure out if, had it come out 18 months after Reality, whether I’d love it this much. I could try and place it in the larger canon and measure it up against albums that have meant so much to me. I could try to think about whether his long absence is affecting how I feel about it. Or I could just answer the simplest question – does listening to it make me happy? Because after all the words are spoken and written, after all the discussion and critical evaluation, and in mind of all of the happiness that I’ve been unable to feel for a year, all that matters is whether it makes me happy. Yes. It makes me happy.
Led Zeppelin never did get a proper send-off. I suppose there’s Knebworth ’79 , with a bloated, but still brilliant, John Bonham behind the kit. That was his last stand, certainly. But by then Plant had grown up, discovered irony and started to parody his own Golden God ridiculousness. Knebworth was good. It wasn’t great. Let’s not even go there with Live Aid (Phil Collins was the drummer). Then, to honour their mentor Ahmet Ertegun, who had signed them to Atlantic after hearing one demo, they did reasonably well, with Bonzo’s son Jason on drums, at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary do in 1988. A couple years later they all jammed at Jason’s wedding. Seriously. And that was that. Until Ertegun passed away and, for his charity foundation, they agreed to do one big show at the O2 in 2007.
It’s been felt that Plant is the one who has moved on most successfully, professionally and personally. He’s a clever and engaging man, a blues scholar, a country bluegrass singer, a wonderful interpreter of song , and a hundred other things including a very private fella (so would you be if you’d had kids with two sisters in different decades). But this show, this one night, was his last chance to just drop it all and say ok, I give in, I’ll shake my mane and tilt my hip and play the part all over again. Everyone who attended went crazy about how good it was and then that was that – a DVD was expected but never arrived. Everyone knew it was recorded so what was the problem? Well, anything that has the Zeppelin name has to be perfect, and every fan knows that. It’s why their Live Aid show was kept off the box set. It’s why Plant refused to let half of his performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert go onto the DVD. That’s how they are. So what a shock when, a month ago, it was announced that, five years after the O2 show, it was coming out on DVD and in the cinema. Cue fan frenzy. I had to go and see it on the big screen. I’ve just returned and I’m waffling because I don’t know how to begin to describe this overwhelming, extraordinary musical experience I’ve just witnessed. I should say that I had a bootleg CD of the show the day after and a bootleg DVD the week after so I knew the content. But seeing it properly fixed up, on the big screen: it just knocked the wind out of me.
Right from the start – Good Times, Bad Times, track 1 from their 1969 debut album – the band crowd round the drum riser, and they barely move from that central square throughout. They’re connected, in a way that very few musicians are, and every nuance, every note, every smile, every single aspect of the performance is utterly, completely, inevitably and beautifully perfect. Every band member is on his own personal journey. If Bonzo himself were alive there’s not a chance he’d have been as good as Jason was that night. His powerful, muscular, frenzied energy powers the entire concert; he’s the rock on which everything builds from, and it’s clear how much everyone else relies on him to provide that explosive foundation, as strong as the one his dad built those 40 years ago. Listen to The Song Remains the Same and tell me that he doesn’t outdo his old man with ease. Listen to Kashmir and try not to feel your spine bending with those thunderous bass drum kicks. And listen to that final flourish in Rock and Roll and you’ll know in that moment that not a drummer on earth could have done it better.
John Paul Jones, then aged 61, has carved out a rather fascinating career as a collaborator, with the likes of Diamanda Galas and Brian Eno, and as a producer/arranger, most notably creating the gorgeous string parts on R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. After this show he found his taste for playing live again with Them Crooked Vultures but at this performance he’s a serene, anchoring presence, though I could have stood to hear his bass a little more crisply in the mix. He comes into his own on keyboards and organ on a flawless No Quarter, fluidly nails the lovely melody line on Ramble On, leads the show during Trampled Underfoot, and what a pleasure to hear that bass run on the big finish at the end of Dazed and Confused. He and Page have an almost telepathic connection, two old stagers butting heads and grinning at each other when they know they've hit a perfect moment, when everything has gone just right.
Jimmy Page, then aged 63, is looking a little haggard these days, but so would you if you’d lived the life he’s had. There’s a reason that kind of guitar playing died out – surely looking at those scrunched up faces just got too funny after a while. In a way he has the hardest job of all, because he’s not played these songs, or indeed any songs, on stage regularly since the band broke up. He turned up for Plant’s 1990 Knebworth Festival encore , and reunited with him for a quite brilliant 1994 TV special for VH1, followed by two well received tours together in 1995 and 1998. But on the whole you know he’s the one who’d most love to be that guy again. The one who is the least creatively satisfied with what he’s accomplished in the last few decades. (Whisper Coverdale/Page if you dare.) He just wants Plant to be his guy again. And there’s no way he can play like he did when he was 25, just as Plant can’t possibly sing like he did when he was 25. But with all that said, he delivered one of the performances of his life. Not every note was perfect, not every run was as fast as it used to be, but he put every single shred of himself into that performance – from riffs to solos to violin bows to a bit of Theremin, it was all there. And he got better and better with each passing song, as if he was finding inside himself some internal clock that he was able to force backwards.
Oh Planty, Percy Plant, the former layer of tarmac on the road to West Bromwich. The Golden God (age at gig time: 59). The man who survived the 80s, somehow, to go on and win the Grammy for Album of the Year . The man who launched a thousand utterly terrible copyists. The man who shook his luscious blond hair, wore the tightest pants in rock, stuck his bare chest out, and howled like the hammer of the Gods was upon him. He has so very much to answer for. It all rests on him, truly. The band played like demons and shook the foundations of the venue, the cinema and my aching, bruised head (I fell off a spaceship the day before, but that’s another story). The groove these guys got going behind him was out of this world – no pressure then. But which Plant would turn up? The one who’s barely bothered to look back to those days, to his credit? Could he just shove it all aside and play that role for one night only, for the last time ever, and not ruin it by winking or getting the tone wrong? He had to be the last hold-out, the last person who wanted to do this, but he was doing it for Ahmet, not for himself. So he just stepped out onto the stage and, like an actor playing a classic role in his twilight years, he howled and preened and nailed the shit out of the songs. He took it seriously, finally. Not the songs themselves, after all, half of them are about rescuing maidens from castles or climbing mountains dressed like Gandalf, but the music. The sound, he just used the noise itself to push his performance to the limit. And, like Page, he just got better song by song and, being as smart as he is, he knew what to hit and what to leave. He knew which songs to excise (no Communication Breakdown or Rain Song; too high, they’d sound wrong sung lower) and he knew which moments to let go. He’s no fool: there were notes he’s a mile away from being able to hit so he used his voice, as he has been doing for the last 20 years, very cleverly and gained power and confidence with each passing minute. He’s still snake of hip (if not of jowl) and manages to exude sex almost every minute he’s on stage. And blow me down, he truly looks like he’s enjoying the night, getting off on every second and the camera captures some wonderful moments of exchanged ‘we’re really doing this!’ recognition and affection between him and Page.
They turn to Jason often, and these precise, insanely powerful songs just come at you in waves. It’s actually highly moving, seeing these four people on stage side-by-side. And that’s why they should never do it again – because it was so perfect. I hear people say that there are no bands like Zeppelin around any more. And perhaps it’s good that the more bloated bands of that ilk are long gone. But I tell you what – there were no bands around like Zeppelin even when they were around. No-one could touch them. They were out there on their own for so many years. And that’s not bad considering that I can’t tell you what a single song lyric is about. It’s the sound, it’s the interplay, it’s the alchemy – man for man, Zeppelin are the best rock band there’s ever been. And that holds true in 1969 and in 2007. I used to say that, if I had a DeLorean, and I could go back in time for certain gigs, I’d choose a particular bunch, like Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon ’73, Hendrix at Monterey ’67, and a dozen more. And then I would always add to that list, Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden July ’73, aka The Song Remains the Same concert film. But now, today, right this minute, I’m taking it back. That night, December 10th 2007, is the one I’d choose as the crowning night of their career and the one I’d have given anything to attend.
Jack White repackages the blues (and a bit of country, bluegrass and folk) in his own dirty, stripped down way, to an audience who probably knows little about its history or leading figures. This can only be a good thing. He’s an old fashioned sort; there’s no frills (or self-indulgence) to his music but, undoubtedly, stagecraft is his speciality. Watching him at such close quarters was a joy: he expressed himself with power and passion, he shredded to within an inch of his life and his excellent band, or bands, back him with the kind of belief and musicianship he’s never been surrounded by before. I say bands, because yes, there are two.
First up were his all-male band, The Buzzards – keyboardist (and Mars Volta member) Ikey Owens, the brilliant Daru Jones on drums, bassist (often on double bass) Dominic Davis, violinist/pedal steel player Cory Younts and Fats Kaplin on second guitarist/fiddle/mandolin. His music has always been rather masculine and virile, and yet, the show only truly kicked off when his first band made their exit mid-song to be seamlessly replaced by his all-female rhythm section, The Peacocks. Punching even harder than their male counterparts, these women laid waste to the songs. Much has been said about his attitudes toward women but only a fool would deny that he is quite clearly musically smitten with each and every member of this band. They all dazzled: the awesome Autolux drummer Carla Azar , pianist Brooke Waggoner , co-vocalist Ruby Amanfu , fiddler player Lillie Mae Rische , Margaret Bjorklund on pedal steel and bassist (formerly a Cardinal for Ryan Adams) Catherine Popper .
Still, this was a free concert to promote iTunes, so no music was on sale. I guess running those two bands needs the odd concession. He ran through his own greatest hits – a dozen White Stripes songs, three from his Raconteurs period, a couple of Dead Weather tracks and half a dozen from his excellent solo album Blunderbuss. This whole show was just plain fun. The interplay was next level, and at times he seemed completely taken over, possessed, ferociously channelling this music, as the electric currents passed through him. What a privilege to watch this extraordinary performer, singer, songwriter and guitarist at such close quarters. These are just brilliant songs: Black Math, Hello Operator, Hotel Yorba, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground, Ball and Biscuit (with a nice snippet of Dylan’s Meet Me In The Morning at the start) and of course, to finish, the frankly iconic Seven Nation Army.
I still have it in me, it turns out, to take on the pit at the front of a gig. But I couldn’t match this southern gentleman for energy, intensity and conviction. I walked out aching, and he’s doing it all again night after night. Of course, the old tropes were there – gently berating the audience for not making enough noise, having his manager (I assume, like his entire crew he was kitted out in a sharp suit so he could have been a roadie) good-naturedly exhort the crowd to leave their mobiles in their pockets and just enjoy the show and so on. It was old school but never felt contrived. It felt primal, distorted, thrilling and, paradoxically, completely current. I love a back of the venue saunter but, truly, you can’t beat looking the performer in the eye. I must do it again.
As she stood, very still, the crowd collectively inhaled. The backdrop, a sprawling, black, metallic silhouetted tree over a latticed screen, which covered much of the back of the stage, started to come to life, and projections started to run. The ambient noise from her side-stage tech guy that had wound its way around every quiet moment, and would continue to between songs throughout, stopped and her band started to play. A visual focal point was her keyboard player – a cross between Mike Garson and Ming the Merciless, and with the fashion sense of Klaus Nomi – who commanded a bank of vintage organs and synthesisers. The guitarist made Torn/Fripp sounds, excellently; the drummer, in his glass box, surrounded everything with consummately played fills. The bassist switched effortlessly from bass to rhythm guitar. However, the sound, one must say, was poor at times. A shuddering bass seeped out of the speakers now and then, overwhelming all. The two female backing singers were sometimes superfluous. The sound mix was, at times, annoyingly poor. Everything was designed to frame her voice, but since it’s not the loudest there is, the mix was an engineer’s struggle. But despite these flaws, the voice everyone longed to hear was to win. Imperceptible at first, this delicate, undulating sound started to come out of the speakers. Like a hummingbird, it buzzed up and down and around, barely noticeable. It’s not a strident voice, and it’s not going to make the chairs wobble and the glass crack, like Diamanda Galas did last week. But it soars and swoops and, quite honestly, is one of the most beautiful sounds that has ever passed through my ears.
The love washed over the stage in waves. As each song ended, applause and feting filled the room. Declarations of love and marriage were suggested. She smiled sweetly. Just less than half of the set was new material – it reminded me a little of the more recent Kate Bush albums (now there’s a Meltdown fantasy: Kate curates) – and the remainder was old Cocteau Twins songs, greeted like long lost friends. I don’t think a single person present thought they were going to hear these dream pop masterpieces ever performed again. In all seriousness, while she’s been away, her band’s music has had an immeasurable influence. A band like Beach House (or Animal Collective or Bat For Lashes or the xx, and so on) simply wouldn’t exist. The esteemed indie-folk-pop record label Bella Union wouldn’t either: started by former Cocteau’s Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie, the label has given us the aforementioned Beach House, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, John Grant, The Low Anthem, Midlake and dozens more.
That her voice is unintelligible, in terms of lyrics, matters not. It’s all about the sound. At times I felt as if I was in a waking dream, with the perfect soundtrack. Her instrument is untouched by years of touring, of slogging around the world and its festivals, and this concert was enriched for it. It’s slightly different, of course, with age, but the mesmerised audience was rapt and thrilled. She must have no doubt now of how much she is loved. In truth, she looked deeply touched at the standing ovations, applause and bouquets offered, and taken, from delirious fans. As she encored with Song to the Siren, a strange and exquisite Tim Buckley song, which, Teardrop aside, she is best known for (recorded as part of This Mortal Coil ), I thought I might dissolve into the seat. Simply, it was the most beautiful rendition imaginable of one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Gratitude fills me – to Antony for the invite, and to Elizabeth Fraser for overcoming her fears and saying yes.
The advance group in any field, especially in the visual, literary, or musical arts, whose works are characterised chiefly by unorthodox and experimental methods.
Of or pertaining to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical or literary material; belonging to the avant-garde: an avant-garde composer; unorthodox or daring; radical.
What has the over-used term avant-garde come to mean? Anything that’s even a millimetre outside of the perceived mainstream; perhaps a Whistle Test prog throwback glaring blankly at their audience through their beards while new instrumental shoegaze swirls around an East London club with a dreadful sound system; or a hipster Brooklyn electronic ‘collective’ declaring their album works best with 12 concurrent mixes. Ok, I’m guilty in this regard: from Okkervil River to Dirty Projectors to the Flaming Lips, count me in. But I know, truly, that calling something ‘experimental’ is a lazy term used entirely too often to describe anything that’s even a little sonically different or visually intriguing, and it’s mostly used inaccurately to label music that isn’t daring or radical at all… and then, among all that wankery, with thanks to Antony Hegarty’s first Meltdown night, I found the real thing.
The audience are always a fascinating barometer of the artist. I keenly observed the Guardian-reading South Bank crowd + a few specs-wearing, plaid-clad hipsters + a hell of a lot of alternatives (a Torture Garden kinda crowd: all tattoos, flesh tunnels and those who graced the 90s as goths). My gig companion had seen Ms Galas at a Brel tribute in the same venue, singing Amsterdam, alongside Marc Almond and other kind-on-the-ear artists: she was booed. I asked why, but he found it hard to explain, exactly.
Within a minute of her striding to the piano, I knew why. Out came this… noise. Operatic and dramatic, enveloped by dark, rolling piano trills, this instrument, this vocal, guttural sound, coming from some unholy place, filled the auditorium. My earholes were being assaulted. I had no idea what this insane woman was screaming about but I knew it was in Italian. The next song was in Greek, then Italian again, then Spanish, then German, then French, one in English, back to German, Italian and so on. Every song was about death. It was unbelievable, truly. You just never knew what was coming next – more ear-splitting soprano shrieking? A chanson-style growl at least two octaves lower? A middle eight which consisted of only high-pitched, but completely controlled, banshee wailing? Yoko’s got nothing on Diamanda. It was sometimes unlistenable, yet often deeply moving, and you wanted it to be over but you never wanted it to end. The most traditionally enjoyable song was a little bluesy, but still ended with a truckload of piano banging.
Near the end I played out several fantasies in my head: Diamanda on the X Factor, the look on Cowell’s face; Diamanda invading a hen-night-jukebox-musical, like Dirty Dancing, and the theatre staff locking the doors; Diamanda on a Lloyd Webber Saturday night BBC1 West End competition show – perhaps she could be the next Wicked Witch? Diamanda on the Royal Variety Show: following Brucie, bowing to the Queen, perhaps a duet with Gary Barlow?
I’ve been watching live music for 24 of my 35 years. I have never seen a gig like this. It was like being punched in the face with sound. Half way through the show an audience member dared to express her devotion with a plain ‘I love you!’ The Cruella De Vil-esque response: “Do you know who you’re talking to? Shut up!”
At the end of the show, as my entire being tried to recover from this unique experience, Antony quietly made his way on stage to hand her a bouquet of flowers. A symbol of traditional beauty, grace and elegance, she accepted it with an affectionate, benevolent smile, took her bow and her standing ovation and walked slowly into the wings.