Covid: Is the rock 'n' roll adventure over? Socially distant gigs are just not the same – Aidan Smith

Shortly after the death of Little Richard, who helped create rock ‘n’ roll, it feels like the music is at risk of dying too, writes Aidan Smith.
Captain Sensible of The Damned, whose gigs are not known for 'social undistancing' (Picture: Sandy Young)Captain Sensible of The Damned, whose gigs are not known for 'social undistancing' (Picture: Sandy Young)
Captain Sensible of The Damned, whose gigs are not known for 'social undistancing' (Picture: Sandy Young)

On holiday in Spain last summer, the kids’ club roped in the parents for a game where, to musical accompaniment, each mum and dad performed a dance which then had to be copied by the entire room.

All the Spaniards were brilliant with natural rhythm and slinky, swaying moves – to quote David Bowie, “like tigers on Vaseline” – and they left the rest of us floundering. Then it was my turn. What would the Scot do? How would he get his team back in the game? Answer: by pogo-ing.

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I’ll never forget the look on my wife’s face – a mixture of embarrassment, horror and WTF. My children still laugh about that day and, if they think I’ve consumed enough lockdown beer, request re-runs. The Spanish? Some shook their heads, the braver ones had a go, but they knew they were beaten.

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For me now, though, the occasion when I took dad-dancing to another level only invokes sadness. It was no surprise that no-one knew what the hell I was doing – all the kids understandably, the Spanish with their cultural difference, but also my wife who in 1977, the zenith of punk rock, was only one year old. The sadness is that before very long, the consternation could well be everywhere, and that it will concern all forms of response to, and celebration of, live music. What do you mean you were squashed together in an enclosed space with other people? How was that even possible?!

The post-Covid new normal threatens there ever being any more rugby scrums, Black Friday scrambles, swingers’ nights, Tory cocktail parties and – for the sake of balance – Labour’s smoke-filled rooms (though the smoke went some time ago). But I am less bothered about any of that than I am rock gigs.

Satin-breeked bahookie

The predictions are cataclysmic. Eighty per cent of venues in Britain may never reopen. Unless there’s a vaccine or the live music industry gets some serious subsidy then experts are predicting that within 12 months everyone will be bankrupt. Already this year the industry has lost £900 million.

Wrinkly rockers – in the at-risk category – may never reappear after lockdown. Some are predicting that the Rolling Stones – and when Charlie Watts turns 79 next Tuesday he will push the band’s combined age to 303 – will soon call it a day. Tease Mick Jagger all you like about him being rock ’n’ roll’s greatest accountant but, aside from the money it makes him, he clearly still loves getting out there and shaking that skinny, satin-breeked bahookie. When the Stones have left the building for the very last time it will be a moment, for sure.

At the other end of the age range, not every musician has Ed Sheeran’s Sunday Times Rich List-confirmed £200 million. Checking on the progress of the Orielles the other day – they’re a young band I like, not long out of their teens – I found they’d had to put out the begging bowl via Spotify: “Hate having to do this right now but we’re in a very difficult position financially...”

Assuming bands can somehow remain bands and not turn to coffee shops in search of alternative employment – assuming there will be coffee shops, that is – then you can imagine them trudging the barren, burnt-out post-apocalyptic landscape with their guitar cases looking for still-functioning venues. What kind of shows would we see?

America’s first socially-distanced gig

Live music and social distancing, which would probably still be required, are contradictions in terms. You go to gigs for the shared experience to commune with your fellow fan, who’s almost as cultured and discerning as you are. You do not go to stand two metres apart from him or her, no matter how loud their opinions or clumsy their feet.

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The mosh-pit will be no more in the post-Covid new normal but even shows which by their nature are less frantic and ferocious will have to change out of all recognition. Already America has tried its first socially-distanced gig – country singer Travis McCready performing in a 1,100-capacity venue for a strictly controlled 229. Drive-in shows have happened in the US, Norway and Lithuania. Online performances, around for a while, have been cranked up.

The recent One World: Together at Home telly tribute to health workers – stars playing in their front rooms – provided a glimpse of the possible future and it was devastating. No applause, no mass singing-along. Like football in its attempt to re-start in empty stadia, this demonstrated the importance of audiences. Without them, or with the numbers drastically reduced, gigs aren’t gigs.

In a box of old concert ticket stubs, an Instamatic snap from Roxy Music at Edinburgh’s Empire Theatre is a votive object. Bryan Ferry is partially obscured by a sea of heads so you can’t see the kilt he donned for the encore, but the throng is just as important to the memory: it reminds me how everyone used to dress up wildly for the band, like Noel Coward had invited them to a cocktail party but the year was 2053 rather than 1973. What became of my fellow aficionados? Did their lives become more bland after that, or even more exciting? Do they still go to gigs?

Four years after Roxy in my punk phase I saw the Rezillos at the Astoria, the Buzzcocks and the Stranglers at Clouds and Elvis Costello and the Damned at Tiffany’s. Pogoing at that last-named riot of a show cost my friend Dave a shoe but that’s a diamond reminiscence of socially-undistanced gigging and we still laugh about it now.

All of these venues are long gone and more seem certain to follow. Back in 1966, Tiffany’s played host to Little Richard, the spark which ignited rock ’n’ roll, who’s just passed away. Surely the music can’t die, too?

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