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We like to think ourselves as the cream of the crop, us university types; at least, we’re constantly being told we are. But the unpalatable truth is that the vast majority of us are trying in vain to dodge a rapidly approaching freight train loaded with gallons upon gallons of highly volatile inevitability; the inevitability that the furthest down the path to super-stardom we’ll probably ever get is runner-up for ‘Regional Manager of the Year – Groceries Division’ at the Tesco Business Awards 2027 (if capitalism’s still spluttering on by then, that is). So it’s kind of annoying that the four members of Bombay Bicycle Club are our age too, and they’re playing to sold out arenas packed to the brim with obsessive fans every night. Twenty-two, student-debt free and rock stars! It’d be easy to get jealous and hate them for living the rock-star dream, if it weren’t for them being so preposterously good…
Right, sorry to throw that horrible slab of real life in your face there, but it’s always best to get the hard part out of the way early. And it’s worth mentioning, and not just because we’re all floating along in a bubble that’s about to pop and drop us into a cruel, unforgiving that is itself collapsing at its seams (I’ll stop with this unrelenting pessimism now, honest). No, it’s because the music they make is so imbued with an incredibly youthful zest – music covered with all the melting pot of emotions that being young entails. Basically, instead of investing their youthful passion towards a 2:1 in a business and management degree, they’ve turned it towards making fun, loud and shape-shifting rock music. It’s easy to see how well their youthful exuberance is working for them, too. Tonight’s crowd is full of screaming 15, 16, 17 year olds, some of them probably at their first ever gig, with most of them shelling out 40 quid on a nice Bombay Bicycle hoody they’ll never, ever take off.
Their three albums – I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose, Flaws, and this year’s A Different Kind of Fix – share this youthful exuberance, but that’s the only real line of continuity flowing through them. In fact, as they revealed in their recent interview with SCAN, it’s their age that keeps propelling them forwards, but instead of going to a careers fair to figure out what they want to do with their lives, they’ve made three fairly varied albums instead. It’s probably also the same factor that allows them all to sling themselves energetically around a stage for an hour and a half.
Anyway, to the gig itself! They started out with a few new ones, Shuffle and Your Eyes, but then flung themselves into their own back catalogue, energising a loud but fairly static crowd with some of the songs from their first album and earlier EPs. It’s odd, really, because the album these songs come from isn’t anything particularly special, it’s just slightly above par indie-rock, proper six-out-of-ten-stuff. But you can see why the garnered such attention as a band to see live. Where songs like What If and Evening/Morning splutter along inoffensively on record, swathed in layers of toned-down guitar and poor production, here they explode, running rampant round the entire venue and turning the standing crowd into a bustling, roiling sea of sweaty faces (and sweatier fringes). The impossibly catchy riff of Magnet had people singing along to the guitar parts as well as the vocals, which is always a good indication that a band has done something right.
Unfortunately, the songs from A Different Kind of Fix fare less well. There’s nothing inherent in these songs that makes them less enjoyable in a live setting, it’s just that they’re wildly different from the raucous indie-rock of their earliest material and the band probably haven’t figured out the best way to play them live yet. Shuffle worked brilliantly because it’s so relentless fidgety – not to mention the fact that they faded into straight into it from that Fatman Scoop song everybody knows. But elsewhere the layered vocals, guitar over-dubs and atmospheric synths were a bit too much, even for the expanded line up (there was an extra singer and keyboard player with them). Lights Out, Words Gone – so chilled yet eminently danceable on record – sounded rougher here, as if they were playing it through battered old amps linked to a knackered PA. Sure, there was a certain charm to these imperfections, but A Different Kind of Fix thrived on its perfect sheen, the added glossy coat that should make them perfect songs to dance to live.
Almost surprisingly, it was the songs from Flaws – that weird Black Sheep of a folk album in the middle of the BBC oeuvre – that worked the best here. Songs like Rinse Me Down and Ivy & Gold found new life on the stage, transformed from the pleasant, folky ditties they are on record into proper stomping sing-alongs full of bright guitars and even brighter vocals. Singer and dangerously-energetic-guitar-swinging extraordinaire Jack Steadman deserves some super kudos for his incredibly consistent vocal performance; dipping between three or four totally different genres during one, long gig can’t be easy, but he managed to pull it off with incredible aplomb, his unique voice powering the folkier songs forward during the slower moments.
Nevertheless, it’s a shame that the song that worked the best from A Different Kind of Fix – Steadman’s beautiful voice and piano piece Still – was ruined by an audience that was reluctant to stand still and keep schtum for three minutes. In a way it’s understandable; for the encore to a set as energetic as the one everyone had just seen, you just wanna mosh and jump and dance and sing until every last alveoli glows red hot, not lie back and appreciate the majesty of a delicate piano ballad. But… come on guys, it’s such a good song! So it was probably a wise move to follow it up with early hit What If, the polar opposite to Still, which thrives on its bombastically loud guitar as much as Still impresses with its silences. Steadman et al whipped the crowd into one final frenzy, ensuring everyone left with gigantic grins on their faces.
It was their live ability that flung what was then a bunch of 17 year olds from London into the gaze of a nation that was in dire need of some indie-rock superheroes, and on the basis of this performance it’s not hard to understand why. And let’s not forget, this was their biggest headline gig to date; they’ll have played a bigger show in London by the time your eyeballs pass over this sentence, but they handled the pressure of 3,500 screaming Mancunians remarkably well.
No other band seems to have captured the imagination of the youth (as well as quite a lot of older folk, judging by the audience) since the Libertines broke up way back in 2004, and for my money their songs are just as good as Docherty’s and Barat’s, too. You can’t help but feel that in the unlikely guise of shape of four geekish-looking guys from North London we’ve finally got a home-grown band we can believe in again, who look set to ride the Zeitgeist all the way to the top. All this and they’re still only 22. Erm, why did I go to University and not just join a rock band again?
Click here to read our exclusive interview with Bombay Bicycle Club.