Mark, My Words: my weird weekend of gigging on the edge of lockdown

Just as a shark needs to keep swimming else it dies, columnist Mark Beaumont must attend at least two gigs a week. And last weekend was a very strange one indeed...

You know things are getting dangerous when Ross Kemp shows up. Of the celebrities gracing the guest list of Elvis Costello’s Hammersmith Apollo gig last Friday, only the former EastEnders star put his not inconsiderable balls on the line to take at seat in the noticeably depleted guest rows, and even he wasn’t taking any chances.

This guy’s dodged bullets in Afghanistan, faced down pirates, terrorists and ganglords and risked working with a hungry Jeremy Clarkson, yet he spent the evening elbow-bumping fans and shifting seats several metres away from his nearest neighbours. It was unclear, in fact, if he was a Costello fan at all, or if he was there filming a new series of perilous documentaries called Ross Kemp At Mass Gatherings.

Elvis Costello at Hammersmith Apollo. Credit: Getty

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This is gigging in the age of coronavirus. A week before Boris Johnson finally acknowledges that killing off a million or so of his own hardcore voters in the name of herd immunity isn’t the wisest corona strategy, Costello takes to the stage beneath screens showing photographs of people in makeshift gas masks dating from the flu epidemic of 1918, thanks us for “risking life and limb” to be here, declares “we’re going to keep playing ‘til they shut us down” and knocks out a set of “pre-virus blues” including a none-more-wry ‘Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)’.

He’s a reassuringly jovial ringmaster, but there’s a real edginess to the event; people in medical masks dad-dance to ‘Pump It Up’ like they’ve requisitioned a Butlin’s punk weekender as an emergency field hospital, and coughing here is about as acceptable as considering every working day No Pants Friday. Even though most of the audience probably weren’t planning to see another gig until about 2023 anyway, there’s a general air of resignation that the 2020 party is already over.

Personally, I’m not dreading the lockdown. I’m lucky that I can do most of my job – essentially slagging off Bastille – from the comfort of my own bed mess. I’ve got a novel to finish, a million records to listen to, a virulent online poker habit to feed and Dry Januarys backdated to 2005 to catch up on. I’m actually looking forward to the convenience of watching major bands livestreaming their gigs (as Yungblud set about popularising this week) rather than trudging to an ice cavern in North London to watch them from half a mile away with a 12 quid Coke. I’m lucky enough not to live in too Brexit-y an area, where households will entertain each other for months on end by singing rousing renditions of ‘Vindaloo’ from their balconies. And masturbation is good for the immune system, we’re told, so I hope we’ll all be joining in the national effort to wank Britain great again.

Yet I suffer from an innate, lifelong need to immerse myself in live music that’s become almost a medical necessity. Doctors inform me that, just as a shark needs to keep swimming else it dies, if I don’t watch at least a couple of bands a week then my cerebral cortex might disintegrate while trying to adjust to life at a sensible volume. So as the curtain fell on the big shows of 2020, I was stockpiling euphoria and memories for the dark months ahead.

Credit: Getty

Or, since my last big gig before the shutdown was actually Morrissey, conditioning myself to survive an eternity of forlorn solitude. He’s a grand-master of self-isolation, and no stranger to cancelling the odd gig or two, so it was something of a shock that Mozzer’s Wembley Arena gig went ahead on Saturday.

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But Morrissey’s audience have been practicing social distancing since they first mistakenly, and traumatically, went to a nightclub. Considering which, the virus is doing a good job of wiping out our species, since Morrissey fans are about as likely to repopulate the earth in its wake as the giant panda.

But there was little sign of concern about the pandemic among the Mozzer fanatics. Large clumps of empty seats at the back suggested that, rather than stay at home over viral fears, many had decided some months ago to self-isolate from Morrissey’s queasy political standpoint. The faithful still crammed down the front hoping to inhale their hero’s every spluttering, even if there was zero chance of the traditional stage-invasion hug-athon in the circumstances.

The closest they got to Moz himself was throwing records onstage for him to sign and return – the gasp when he realised that he was signing a record with a pen flung up by an Italian fan could barely have been more audible if he’d licked the nib.

So as the shutters come down on 2020, what can we expect from pandemic gigging? When we’re hitting peak corona, it might be viable to start hosting shows for people who can prove they’ve recovered from the virus – they’d be the safest (and most enthusiastic) events imaginable, and a great chance for a band called Herd Immunity to build a growing fanbase within months. Just remember to keep your hospital toe-tag…

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