Slight Return

Doesn’t everyone at some point dream of going back in time to their youth? Who wouldn’t want to experience life again without the crushing reality of adult human existence weighing us all down?

After the last eighteen months of coronavirus hell, I was craving such a moment. So when I saw the chance to get tickets to see two bands I had loved as a teenager – Britpop legends Sleeper and the Bluetones – it felt like a strange kind of serendipity. Restrictions had just been lifted in Scotland. I was double jagged and desperate to get some kind of normality back to my flatlined existence.

I’m not usually one for nostalgia tours. Usually I avoided seeing bands whose music I hadn’t listened to in twenty years and who hadn’t released anything of note since. The idea of seeing old irrelevant people trapped in a musical time capsule felt depressing to me. But the pandemic had made me anxious to see any live music, especially since restrictions might be imposed again at any time.

On arriving at the venue the first thing we saw was the security guards, all masked up and armed with raffle tickets. I showed them my fancy QR code in the hope of exchanging it for the little numbered tickets I’d only seen at coffee mornings in my village hall as a child. It felt like a strange, surreal step back in time.

Except then he asked me for evidence of my coronavirus test which I hadn’t taken and didn’t know I needed.

My absurd dream of normality evaporated instantly. By now it was past seven and most shops were shut. I didn’t even live in the city and even though my sister had tests in her house it was miles away and getting there and back would mean us missing the first band who I really wanted to see.

How could I have been so naive? I turned up to the gig like nothing had changed when the world had turned on its head long ago. Denying that reality nearly ruined my night.

Of course it would have been nice if the venue, promoter, bands or anyone at all had let the audience know in advance that they would require lateral flow tests before entering. That would have been helpful. It’s not like we haven’t spent the whole pandemic following clear instructions.

At least we weren’t the only fools being turned away. I laughed as one bloke told the security guard who asked for his test results ‘Nah you’re alright mate’ in the most passive aggressive tone you’ve ever heard, like Ian Brown had an ignorant Scottish brother. His face when he realised this wasn’t a choice was what I imagine Noel Gallagher looks like every time someone mentions Liam.

So off we rushed to the late night chemist, luckily not too far away. We logged our negative test results and waited for the text message proof needed to get inside. My message came through right away but my sister’s had not appeared, despite logging it on the system at the same time. We waited and waited. The band started playing. I could hear the distant sound of my old life mocking me through a concrete wall.

We attempted to negotiate our entry with the surprisingly pleasant security guards who, to their credit, did everything they could to help us but still wouldn’t let us in. More time lapsed. Other more sensible and organised people showed their results and walked straight inside. My sister ended up having to take another test sitting down on the pavement outside. Then as if someone really wanted to punish me, I ended up whacking my head against a metal railing as I got up from helping her.

By the time we actually got inside, over an hour since our first attempt and eighteen months since I’d last stepped into a music venue, it felt less like a celebration and more like blessed relief. The bouncers told us we had to wear masks except when we were ‘holding a drink or dancing’. You can imagine which of these two we went for.

Sleeper were almost through playing the entirety of their debut album ‘Smart’, an ironically mocking title at the best of times. Alice in Vain was playing as we stood at the bar, a vicious scream of a song about self harm, bullying and anorexia. I downed my wine and laughed.

We found a spot in amongst the crowd of aging indie kids who looked slightly shell shocked to be there, everyone leaving an unnerving amount of space between themselves and those around them. One bald dude was moshing, but I think most likely he had just got a new knee or something.

The band then played their other hits from the album ‘The It Girl’, which I still love and think holds up to this day. Despite my mask I felt a comforting wave of deja vu settle over me at last. When the band played a cover of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ we even danced again.

Sure Louise Wener made some provocative comment about ‘not believing what the media tells you’ which made me think she hadn’t grown up from her controversy seeking nineties heyday but I forgave her for that. Her voice still sounded good, had the crackle of energy which we all needed. She’d replaced a couple of sleeperblokes with women too which was nice to see, and the band sounded great overall.

The co-headliners the Bluetones were one of those bands whose singles I liked in the 90s but I never owned any of their albums. I was always more into spending money on bands with bigger personalities like Sleeper or the Manics. However I always had a soft spot for their biggest song ‘Slight Return’, a melancholic anthem of hopeful realism which still sounded perfect. If you squinted from a distance you couldn’t even see the frown lines or baggage from faded glories weighing the band down. By the end of the set I’d remembered the words to songs I didn’t even know the titles to anymore, singing along with a gusto which suggested while we may not be young at least we weren’t so old that we couldn’t recall the feeling.

On the train home I realised that the future is going to look different for all of us, in a myriad of ways. We can’t go back to pre-pandemic normality any more than we can go back to our teenage years. Anyone who wants to hasn’t learned a damn thing.

To even get the music industry back from flat on the floor safely to its knees is going to be a struggle. Can we get through the winter without going backwards? Will big overseas acts touring here actually happen next year? Fans need clear, consistent information and as much mitigations as possible to make this work. Even then I fear obstacles and setbacks are inevitable.

My advice to everyone for the next few months: Don’t go hoping for a miracle. I’m just grateful that I got to go home again, even for a short while.

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