How I learned to stop worrying and love arena shows (thanks to Gorillaz at the O2)

The cartoon band played the UK's first event of its kind since March 2020. 20,000 fans, including our columnist, were reminded of the power of the big gig

A 10 quid glass of supermarket merlot never tasted so good. The sweet smell of parking frustration and rushed Zizi came over me in a Proustian rush. I leapt over the piss puddles in the toilets with a jubilant spring and surrendered to an invasive body search with the enthusiasm of inadvisable mid-lockdown ex sex. Even fishing my jacket out of a pool of indeterminate fluid beneath my seat at the end brought on a nostalgic reverie. Arena gigs were back, and I was finally home.

I wasn’t alone. The 20,000 double-vaxed and/or negative tested people packing the O2 in London last week for Gorillaz – the first public indoor arena show in the UK for 16 months – had an air of wild abandon rarely witnessed outside anti-vax dogging sites or Matt Hancock’s office. The same people who would have been clawing each other’s eyes out over the last sheet of Andrex in Tesco’s last March were now locked together in communal love and appreciation, greeting every album track like all their ‘Mr Brightside’s come at once. Even as devout a sociopath as myself couldn’t help but be moved by the spectacle. When all the iPhone lights came out for the slow bits, I felt the same awe and wonder that Jeff Bezos must have felt as he gazed down across entire continents of exploited workers he’d underpaid to get himself quite high up for four minutes in a five billion dollar wang.

There is much to dislike about arena shows. Having to battle battalions of toutbots for vastly overpriced tickets. The cramped travel to some soulless out-of-town big shed. The impersonal distance between star and fan. The hassle of re-mortgaging to pay for the parking. Security that make you feel as welcome as a socialist in the Labour Party.

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None of that has changed in a fallow 16 months that could have been spent considering ways to improve the experience. Even after all the NHS selflessness and consideration for the greater good that might have renewed our faith in the essential decency of (checks vaccination figures) 89.3 per cent of humanity, arena gigs are still very much about monetising music fandom into maximum profit for sponsors and conglomerates. They’re still a bit like live music but with ‘in-app purchases’.

But being back at the O2 last Wednesday gave me a fresh appreciation of the arena. Blinker yourself to the ads and temptations and it’s the closest we come to feeling part of real achievement. Club and theatre gigs are all about ambition, struggle, dedication and community. Arena and stadium gigs are about success, accomplishment and self-belief paying off to a vertical spinning drumkit degree. At arenas we get to dream a little.

Those people on the stage either gigged and slogged their guts out to get to fly across the audience on an inflatable DeLorean or were very ordinary singers who happened to have the best cheekbones on a talent show. Either way, for a few hours they make anything seem possible for every one of us. Ed Sheeran in the back of a pub in Lowestoft: a nuisance. Ed Sheeran at Wembley: an inspiration.

We might not all feel like undiscovered pop superstars capable of writing a ‘Happy’ or inclined to try to squeeze ourselves into such groin chaffing stage outfits. But there’s something about looking around at 10s of thousands of people sharing an enthusiasm for something that shatters the solitary nature of the digital age, and upends the endless struggle against inadequacy that is our social media lives. Long nights spent waiting for Insta likes that never come only serve to discourage us – it’s at arena shows that we determine to write that novel, start that business, launch that next-gen HMRC text phishing scam.

They’re also where music takes on the scale and hyper-reality it has in our heads. Where your dedication to an act in the face of the “whevs” of your peers is vindicated 20,000-fold. And where you can really feel part of something strong and bonding. Early on in our arena-going lives we’re just overwhelmed to be verifiably within a quarter of a mile of our idols. But once we’ve followed an act from micropub to enormodome, we’re so embedded within their success that we’re virtually crew. Those monster shows, and the achievement attached, feel every bit ours. In a fair world, we’d get a cut of the merch.

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There’s definitely a frisson of concern to being around so many people before the exit wave has burnt out and the threat of a Boyzlife Variant emerging from such events still lingers. A sense of distrust that a government which has allowed 120,000 needless deaths would  fhave our best interests at heart in letting major indoor gigs go ahead. But with so many acts rescheduling their arena shows as infection rates inch downwards – and most as COVID-safe as they can make them – the coming months are looking like prime time to join the big gig bonanza and fall back in love with tipping over an eight quid pint while letting an accountant out to the bog.

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