The Courteeners just played the biggest show of their lives to a home crowd of 50,000 fans, albeit one that became about much more than finally proving their doubters wrong, says Andrew Trendell
Year after year, album after album, Manchester’s Courteeners have confounded their critics by playing ever-more-massive Manchester venues. From Manchester Arena (2010) to Delamere Forest (2011), Castlefield Bowl (2013) and Heaton Park (2015), a homecoming gig for these boys is never a small – or polite – affair. Meanwhile, each of their albums has either landed in the Top Five or not been far off – yet you wouldn’t know it from looking at the mainstream media and radio, who’ve long written them off as a parochial concern – a diet Oasis for those too young to have seen the real thing.
That hasn’t escaped the attention of frontman Liam Fray, a man too easily caricatured as the inheritor to Liam Gallagher’s ‘gobby Mancunian’ title, yet more thoughtful than that in person. “You can feel this sneery classist undertone,” he told NME earlier this year. “These people think, ‘Oh, you’re only big up north and they’re fucking monkeys who don’t understand anything.’ Give me a break. That angers me. It’s just absurd.”
It’s wrong to say Fray’s band are only big at home, but it’s also a fact that Courteeners are legitimately //massive// in Manchester. So in an act of great bravado, they booked an insanely huge show at Old Trafford Cricket Ground off the back of their fifth album, 2016’s ‘Mapping the Rendezvous’ – and effortlessly sold out all 50,000 tickets. It’s a venue normally reserved for the likes of Oasis, Radiohead and Arctic Monkeys, and theoretically adds Courteeners to that list.
With a support card of Cabbage, Blossoms and The Charlatans, it was intended to be “a gentle reminder that things are still happening up there,” in Fray’s words. Then, just days before, a lone bomber walked into the foyer of Manchester Arena and killed 22 music fans leaving an Ariana Grande gig, injuring 59 more – and the story shifted. “That was an attack on everything,” says Fray before the show. “It was an attack on young people, on creativity. It was children going for a nice time with their parents.”
While the people of the city recoiled in shock and mourning, they also refused to be defeated. In that spirit, the Courteeners declared that the show would go on, and their gig became a symbol of defiance and unity in itself. Before it, the city centre is abuzz: fans stop for selfies with policemen and gather on street corners to howl songs by Oasis. Down at Old Trafford, they laugh, dance, fall, pick each other up and – contra to a request from the organisers – light flares.
When Fray takes to the stage to read a poem by local writer Ryan Williams, it captures the essence of the day, the fans roaring in unison as he clenches a fist to make it through the lines: “Time after time we’ll rise from the dust / You’ll never prevail – not against us / This is Manchester, our Manchester, and the bees still buzz.”
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And so to business as usual: a 21-song indie masterclass from a band that were becoming one of the UK’s biggest while the world were looking the other way. The centerpiece is a solo acoustic cover of’ ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ – a song that’s become the anthem for Manchester’s bounce-back, and one that couldn’t be any better received if it were the Gallaghers themselves on stage. For a band meant to be having their own Knebworth moment, it’s symbolic of the occasion. “I feel like it wasn’t about us tonight,” Fray says after, looking out from his dressing room window as the crew dismantle the stage. “It wasn’t ‘our gig’, it was a celebration of people doing what they love. This will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Jubilation aside, it was the bravery and fraternity of the gig-goers, bands and crew that made the day worthwhile for Fray. He admits that the band felt “duty bound” to carry on with it, but then says that it’s “nothing” in comparison to the security staff, truck drivers, bar workers, and the countless others he sees sweeping up the floor of the Emirates as the rain pours down. In the aftermath of tragedies like the terrorist attack, he says, “you realise that people are good.”
It’s not the Fray you might know from interviews, a man convinced of his own genius where others might raise an eyebrow. “This gig is enough people to prove that we’re not arrogant,” he says. “If you’re around after 10 years, the time for all that chest-puffing has gone. What, you’re the fucking bollocks? Fuck off. Who the fuck are you? Prove to me that you are the fucking bollocks. Do something courageous. Do something meaningful.”
He points out to where 50,000 frenzied fans just lost their minds. “We know it’s all about them. We’re their band. I don’t think there’s another band in the UK that have that relationship with their fans. And I’ll tell you why: because I don’t class us as a big band, I genuinely don’t.”
They are though, and more arena tours will come. The next biggest stadium in Manchester is Manchester City’s ground, and Emily Eavis recently told NME that Courteeners are worthy of headlining Glastonbury. But what will it take for the cynics to get their heads around it? “We just don’t give a fuck,” laughs Fray. “If you have any misconceptions, you should have stood on this balcony and watched that tonight. What else have you got? There has to be a time when people go, ‘Alright, they’re not going anywhere. They’re alright, these’.”
A timeline of the rise and rise of The Courteeners
2006 – Then a solo singer-songwriter, Liam Fray gathers old friends together to form the band
2007 – Debut single and instant fan favourite ‘Cavorting’ is released
2008 – The Smiths and Blur producer Stephen Street produces debut album ‘St Jude’, which reaches Number Four in the UK chart
2010 – Second album ‘Falcon’ is released, and the band play two nights at Manchester Arena
2011 – Their first major outdoor show is at Cheshire’s Delamere Forest. It sells out in 38 minutes.
2012 – A free show in Manchester’s Albert Square to celebrate the Olympics
2013 – Third album ‘Anna’ sees a lengthy UK tour
2014 – Fourth album ‘Concrete Love’ quickly follows, peaking at Number Three. There’s a 25,000-capacity show at Heaton Park to celebrate
2016 – After supporting The Stone Roses at The Etihad in Manchester, fifth album ‘Mapping The Rendezvous’ is released and charts at Number Four
2017 – Band play ‘The best night of their lives’ – selling out Manchester’s Old Trafford Cricket Ground to 50,000 fans
To give to the ‘We Love Manchester’ emergency appeal, visit www.redcross.org.uk/manchester or call 0300 456 4999