Way Out West is a column where Melbourne-based writer and cultural critic Sam West thinks (a lot) about music-related stuff, and life in general. The name of the column comes from an old trance song Sam likes. Read more Way Out West here.
Bloc Party are in Margaret Court Arena playing Silent Alarm in full. Only they’ve flipped the track order, beginning with “Compliments” and ending with “Like Eating Glass.” I’m taking this as a subtle fuck you to the canonisation of an album Bloc Party lead singer Kele Okereke would rather leave behind. When their debut turned ten a few years ago, he went on the record saying the anniversary tour thing is a bit cringeworthy. Before that, he wrote an article about indie rock conservatism and the liberation he found in the club scene as a gay black man, as opposed to the indie scene. He said “Art has to go against the grain. Or else, what is it for?”
Yet here we are. The stage lights begin to strobe as the band launch into their breakthrough single “Banquet.” My girlfriend and I out of our seats. I’m doing the old jerk-swivel, while she jabs her hands above her head in time with the distinctive, spiky guitars. She’s demonstrating how she used to dance at the indie club nights we used to go to in the mid-noughties. We were there practically every weekend, but don’t remember ever meeting each other. Back then she was just part of the sweaty mass of kids in op-shop leathers and recycled sundresses, flailing and party-pashing through the night.
Writing on the Netflix reboot of Full House, critic Stephanie Van Schilt muses, via theory from Svetlana Boym, that our obsession with reboots is as much “a collective defence mechanism toward the current climate as much as an attempt to secure our idealised private mythology.” She’s talking about TV, but she could just as well be talking about album anniversary tours. Of course, the crucial difference is I’m not in bed streaming a reboot right now, letting the nostalgia wash over me. I am in this arena dancing with someone I love, actively participating in this feeling with thousands of people. Everyone seems to know every word to “Banquet” but it still feels like it belongs to the each of us (doing the old jerk-swivel and the spiky air jab) individually. We’re lost in the moment, wistful for the past and analysing how silly all our old moves are all at once. It makes you feel dizzy and connected and alone in ways Netflix can’t.
Then there’s the fact we’re much drunker than we planned to be. Before the show started, we visited the bar we both worked at in our twenties. This bar has a cinema and they were premiering a movie, which meant free margaritas and wine. The movie is called Creed II (the first sequel in the Creed franchise which is a sequel to the Rocky franchise which itself has four sequels.) The guest list included the AFL’s most famous footballer and plenty of influencers. We grabbed drinks and little hamburgers off trays while a DJ with neck tattoos played some kind of dub-infused remix of a Post Malone song and, predictably, we joked about how “now it’s official, we don’t understand the music the kids listen to today.”
But I still understand “Banquet,” even though I haven’t really listened to it for over a decade. I even know some factoids. Like how it’s supposed to be inspired by “I Bleed” from Doolittle, a Pixies album that got its own anniversary tour treatment a little while back. In 1989, Doolittle helped establish indie rock as a genre that’s existed (ideologically and artistically) outside the mainstream. At its best, the scene was supposed to be more curious and accepting than punk while retaining the same DIY, anti-corporate ethos.
Ironically, the world-conquering popularity of albums like Silent Alarm helped kill the idea that indie is an underground thing. It’s not just that album was (and remains) such a tight globalised product (seriously, it just jets from hooks to hook with a few fun bloops and bleeps in-between tracks.) It’s that in 2005, the internet was still in the process of killing the corporate rock machine. With nothing to define itself against, indie didn’t need a recognisable style or sound to exist. That’s why it started to die.
The myth of indie rock hinges on a rebellion from the social norms. On the one hand there was the ‘authentic’ version of you (who got wasted at indie nights and danced to stuff they weren’t playing on the radio.) On the other hand there was normie bullshit that was closed-minded, manufactured and boring. You were not Them. They were not You. But social media helped dismantle this binary. It thrives off user data. So instead of judging yourself against the rampant consumerism of the age, you quite literally became the product the most powerful corporations were selling. This is the logical conclusion of what was already happening. I mean, dancing around in your op-shop leather was always a marketing slogan of sorts—there you were, a DIY style icon for the night, refusing the vapid consumerism of fast fashion while posing for snaps that you hoped might end up in the street press. But now social currency translates directly into actual dollars. Someone will pay you to wear their brand while partying at the premier of Creed II with margarita in your hand. The charade is over.
Yet here we are (doing the old jerk-swivel and the spiky air jab) to “Banquet.” The corporate rock machine is dead (for now.) And spiky guitars are nowhere near the charts. But the live experience is still filling arenas full of people old enough to remember how good it feels. Looking around at the aging hipsters who’ve grown up, gotten the kind of ‘real jobs’ that’ll afford them a cheeky Tuesday night in the good seats, it’s clear that we’re all just as boring as everyone else. And, on a lot of levels, we always were.
But I’ll still always be grateful for this incredibly tight, anxious and joyous set of songs . Because for me, it’s a distillation of what it means to be twenty-something year-old kid who’s a little too preoccupied with figuring out what’s ‘real’ and what’s bullshit (in a world that’s hurtling into unwinnable wars and ecological suicide). Even if it was always a charade, I’ll take it over the pro-Cold War Hollywood propaganda of the Rocky series any day.
Kele might still think anniversary performance is cringeworthy. But, really, so what if Bloc Party’s biggest hits aren’t for anything in particular? They helped kids dance their way through the incurable modern conditions of love and nostalgia. Maybe that’s enough for now.
Nostalgia might stall utopian ideas. But utopia is for fascists and religious fanatics anyway. For now I’ll just dance to a song I used to love, in an arena that was built for tennis and named after a bigot. And I’ll cheer as loud as I can for Kele. Who’s probably just doing it for the money. Because he’s got a young family now. And I’ll keep wanting to believe that if we keep the best bits of the indie ethos alive ( try to take full control of your art and your image and your life, be curious, open and try new things) his little daughter will grow up in a world where we get old without getting torn asunder.
Sam West is a cultural critic and editor from Melbourne. Follow him on Twitter.