Despite Charlie Watts' death, Johnny Rotten's defeat and Abba's holograms, rock ’n’ roll is back – Aidan Smith

It was the week Johnny Rotten was defeated in the courts, Abba turned themselves into a hologram and Charlie Watts died. In short, not a great one for rock music.
Out of the shadow of Covid come Black Country, New Road, a young band playing the Edinburgh Festival and making our writer feel like he was back at his very first gigOut of the shadow of Covid come Black Country, New Road, a young band playing the Edinburgh Festival and making our writer feel like he was back at his very first gig
Out of the shadow of Covid come Black Country, New Road, a young band playing the Edinburgh Festival and making our writer feel like he was back at his very first gig

The Sex Pistol and former public enemy No 1 lost in his bid to stop Disney retelling the story of the band’s brief terror reign and now they will become a TV show, just like the Monkees and the Archies.

Abba, having teased their fans for years over the prospect of them getting back together – and extending the menopause as a result – are to send digital laser-drawn versions of themselves onto the stage which presumably means they’re either too lazy or too scared to do it in person.

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But it is the passing of the Rolling Stones’ drummer which is the most poignant and maybe the most final. How can the Strolling Bones still call themselves the greatest combo on the planet – and still continue – when they’re now three original members down (four if you count Pittenweem piano-man Ian Stewart)?

Well, last week could quite easily be written up as the end but for me it was a beginning. My first gig since the pandemic. My first public event of any sort. And it felt wonderful.

It felt like nothing so much as the first time, the first concert all of – jeezo – 48 years ago. The same anticipation. The same incredulousness: “So let me get this right: these guys are going to turn up in my town, not anyone else’s town, and plug in to the local electricity supply and play the songs on my record, the one I have at home?” The same thrills, too.

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Now I want to borrow a famous piece of music-press bombast: I have seen the future of rock ’n’ roll and, in a surprise turn of events, it’s a tent with the sides open, a bit like the one in Bake Off, situated among gleaming offices which may never be full again, with seats in twos spaced out like for a couples’ therapy convention and apps for drinks to be brought to your safe spot.

The first band I saw live were Argent at Edinburgh’s old Empire Theatre where bingo held sway and concerts couldn’t start until after midnight. We thought we were conquistadors for enduring the interminable tuning-up, the sludgy sound and – last bus long gone – the long walk home in stack heels, loon pants dragging in the gutter.

“God gave rock ’n’ roll to you,” sang Argent – and then Covid took it away. No gigs for anyone, not even the sainted Coldplay. So imagine being in Black Country, New Road – four boys and three girls, plenty of mouths to feed, debut album just released, then: lockdown. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if they’d jacked it all in.

But it would have been a shame because the record is brilliant and, to the ears of this old prog-rock fan who’s stood too close to many a Marshall stack, the band sound a little bit like King Crimson and so this added to the excitement of being at Edinburgh Park last Monday.

Probably, I would have been happy with Black Lace performing “Agadoo” but I was glad it was Black Country, New Road being fast then slow, quiet then thunderous with saxophone, violin and strange spoken words like this: “Mother is juicing watermelons on the breakfast island/And with frail hands she grips the NutriBullet/And the bite of its blades reminds me/Of a future that I am in no way part of.”

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After a delay, this adventurous young band can be part of the future of British music and maybe this venue can be part of the future of Edinburgh’s cultural life, a pop-up space for pop during the Festival which could and probably should become permanent.

Yes, the experience is antiseptic – clean tram ride out there, no moshing, no pogo-ing, no crowd-surfing, no hoisting girlfriends onto shoulders, clean tram ride back – but isn’t that going to be our lives for the foreseeable?

Every day at the moment we are re-appraising and re-ordering. Because concerts cannot be what they once were, the sweat, spilled beer, trodden toes, loud, boring chatter and not being able to see the band over tall heads no longer seem quite so vital to the experience. And anyway, Black Country, New Road weren’t antiseptic and neither was the sensation of being whooshed back to when I was 15.

I enjoyed this show so much I returned for another one at Edinburgh Park, this time Black Midi who Black Country, New Road actually namecheck in their songs and also seem to be inspired by King Crimson. Suddenly I was in the school common-room again, arguing over which band had the longest hair and the longest drum solos.

If I’m going to attend any more shows with an ever-chillier east wind gusting through the place, then I’m going to need a greatcoat like the one I wore back in the 1970s – and while I’m at the army surplus store I might as well pick up a gas-mask bag like the one I used for a satchel where I can felt-pen the names of my fave groups, superior in so many ways to yours, in bubble writing.

Not every band can become a TV show or a hologram and not every band should. Live performances, even Covid-restricted ones, will always be preferable.

Black Country, New Road and Black Midi chime with the here and now: both have songs with as many false endings as you’ll find in a Boris Johnson-managed lockdown. They also have fantastic drummers who can go a little bit jazz. Dear old Charlie Watts would definitely approve.

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