(The Story So Far)
BRISTOL THEKLA Feb 12th 2016
“Do you know what…?” says the exasperated man on stage staring daggers at his guitarist. “I fucking hate this band.”
I don’t know at this point whether he’s being serious. I also don’t know that this fella, the man with the gritted teeth and air of annoyance, is called Joe Talbot. To be fair I didn’t know about Idles till 24 hours earlier.
Tipped off by BBC Introducing in the West, who played us a track by them, I’d done some hunting around in the local gig guide and found their name. The day after, the Friday of the 6Music Festival 2016, I bunk off whatever official thing I’m semi-supposed to be doing and walk across Bristol to The Thekla.
Ludicrously, I have never been to The Thekla (the venue that is a boat…an actual boat, although bigger than I’d imagined). Descending into the hull I bump into Nick The Greek, a 6Music listener of old who’s just finished some wildlife recording somewhere remote, and is using part of the rest of his time off from running a restaurant in Greece to go and see some bands.
Nick is brilliant. He ran my Facebook page for years while I was in Socials denial. Anyway, me and the Greek are stood near-ish the back discussing recent records. A couple of minutes later the punk rock onslaught begins. And I then I fall in love with Idles.
The noise, the hulking choruses, the annoyed man. They have this song about two thirds of the way into the set which mentions Mary Berry (“Why don’t you win a medal? Mary Berry’s got a medal”). What type of populist-culture spy comes up with this? Who is this bloke who looks like he’s about to throttle someone? (“Well DONE!”).
Idles own the stage. There is both a simmering tension and an almost cathartic thrill in the air. It would be mildly threatening if it wasn’t for the suspicion that everyone in the room is suddenly on a similar wavelength. That everyone GETS IT. For the first time in ages I feel like someone understands the sound of the frustrations in my head.
Just over an hour after its all over I’m standing at the bar of the Mother’s Ruin pub, a haunt first introduced to me by Paul Tierney who performs under the name The Lonely Tourist. I’m in a world of my own after the gig, until I look up and see that various members of the band have walked in. Tierney was right. This place is a bit of a hangout for musicians.
Anyway, fuelled by west country cider I go up and tell the Annoyed Man that I thought they were really good tonight. He smiles. Quite humbly as it goes and we chat for about five minutes.
Then the guitarist (a man introduced as Bowen), whose eyes are brighter than a lazer beam and have been distilled from shots of lord knows what, focuses on me for a second and says: “I bet you can’t guess what I do for a living.”
No, I probably can’t.
You’re a teacher?
“I’m not a teacher (dismissively)….teacher? Teacher? (Now mildly rankled)”
“(Sarcastically) Local government?”
I’m trying not to lose my nerve. You work for the health service.
“(Taken aback). Ermm. OK….But what do I do?”
Sheepishly. Male nurse?
“Male nurse? Not a male nurse….I’M A FUCKING DENTIST!”
For the second time in less than three hours, I fall in love with Idles.
I spend the rest of the weekend of the festival reciting the Mary Berry Song to people who aren’t really interested. Then back home I look up everything I can find about Idles (annoyingly there’s no Mary Berry Song to be found anywhere, but there’s some good videos including ‘Idles Chant’ and ‘Two Tone’).
Then I do something I very rarely do. I send the videos to someone I know in a band with a note saying: “Think you might like these.” To my utter relief he does. And then puts them in a list of his Top 5 new favourite bands in some magazine article.
Two months later after a sporadic series of e-mails and a Soundcloud link with eight or nine terrific, head-splitting tracks on it, Joe Talbot finally sends us the Mary Berry Song with this e-mail:
“We’ve recorded and mastered that new track I was telling you about ‘Well Done’. It’s the one that many people have said is our best (including yourself) so we’re popping it on the album. We were hoping you’d play it before we played The Great Escape??”
We play it for nine consecutive programmes
VILLAGE UNDERGOUND November 23rd 2017
Bowen tumbles out of the venue as we arrive, sporting a chipped front tooth (oh, the irony!), which is the result of some over-exuberance or other, but definitely not the fault of Dave Grohl.
“This is how nice Dave Grohl is,” explains The Dentist. “He says, you need a better story man. You should tell them I knocked it out.” Reaching for his phone, he shows us a posed photo of The Grohl thumping him in the face.
That’s right. Idles have supported Foo Fighters at the O2 and hung out afterwards. IDLES HAVE SUPPORTED THE FOO FIGHTERS!?!
I was going to say that in the generally mad world of 2017, that the unforeseen but irresistible rise of the unlikely Idles has been the maddest thing of all. But in fact, maybe it’s the sanest. The most logical. I haven’t met a single person who’s seen or met them, who hasn’t found some solace or joy in them (I’m sure they’re out there: the neighsayers. But for me Idles have brought a mix of love and empathy to the year. They have provided an antidote to the feeling of resignation).
They have supported the Maccabees at Ally Pally, been with us to SXSW, played festivals all over Europe. And key to all this: they have released the Album Of The Year: Brutalism. A record scarred by life but not scared of it.
FACT: Joe Talbot has reinvented the way you can illustrate inner turmoil. His use of repetition and his now familiar gouged out mantras are a better realisation of someone’s internal dialogue than anything I’ve heard for years. It is stark and unedited (but at the same time it has a kind of dark humour to it; as if he can’t stop picking on himself; can’t help his own addiction to sarcasm).
Brutalism is a thrillingly honest latter-day punk rock record: intense, relentless and stubbornly human.
If anything has changed in the 18 months since I first saw them, then it is their own warming to their audience, a greater feeling of togetherness when they play live, which is on display tonight.
(FLASHBACK: in 2016 at the Great Escape when Talbot introduced the band and people cheered, he deadpanned back: “This is not Butlins.” When he later announced their last song and people cheered, he eyed them wearily: “Again, as I said. NOT BUTLINS”).
Idles have found a lot of soulmates, it has to be said. At the Village Underground the crowd is split between the converts and the curious; people who tap us on the shoulder to talk about hearing the record on the radio and people who are, I suspect here to see what the fuss is about. Who’ve yet to quite register how these odd looking misfits from Bristol have come so far.
The answer (hopefully) unfolds in front of them. In the live setting Idles are both physical and cerebral. They are both volatile and increasingly reliable and reassuring (I definitely think they’re less nihilistic than in those early days). The mosh pit looks like the contents of a night bus, a random selection of waifs and strays, all looking for a home to go to (maybe this sweat pit is their new home? At least metaphorically?).
Among the songs from Brutalism, including the still-astonishing ‘Mother’ which arrives very early in the set and ‘Exeter’ (where the nihilism returns), there are four new songs tonight from the collection they’ve already written for album two.
‘Samaritans’ is my favourite, though actually ‘Commercial Break’ is good as well. Neither show any sign of the sound letting up (or indeed any sign that Talbot – more in the spotlight now than on their first record – has overthought his topics or is running low on inspiration).
They finish with ‘Rottweiler’ and Joe walks off, surveying the scene for a moment from the side of the stage. One by one the rest of them throw themselves into the throng, crowd-surfing with careless abandon. When they finally retreat there is a gasp for air, a smile and then they’re gone: awkward non rock stars to a man.
A band without a blueprint. Without a grand plan. Without a cynical ‘plot’.
Just some blokes with an itch that needed scratching; a point that needed making.
And do you know what? I fucking love their band.