I seem to know an increasing number of people who refuse to go and see any live music. I understand where they’re coming from. Going to a gig is basically like going to the pub, except there’s only one beer on tap and it tastes like farts, there’s nowhere to sit, it costs to get in and some attention-seeking numpty is screaming in your ear the whole time.
But to those people I say this: go and see live music at the best gig venue in Britain, London’s O2 arena.
In 2007, as a last-ditch fix to the most insane vanity project of the New Labour era, the Millenium Dome passed into corporate hands. The hope was it would stem the tide of millions in overspending and lost revenue. The O2 opened with minimal fanfare and some Bon Jovi gigs, but today is the busiest venue in the world.
Going to the O2 is unlike any other concert experience. You can sense the anticipation as soon as you step off the tube at North Greenwich station. Musky wafts of cologne that have been rush-bought in Duty Free on the way back from Kavos rush up the stairs. Everyone is in their finest. High-heels and thick layers of Max Factor for the girls. Button-up shirts and a faint sense of disappointing their parents for the boys. Young people dress up for the O2 the way old people dress up for the theatre - there’s no real need to, as you’re mostly going to be sitting in a dark room with all the lights on someone else, but you do it anyway out of a sense of occasion.
When you walk the long blue mile from the station to the arena, it’s like arriving at some Mecca of anti-culture. A place to worship the dark other. Giant screens advertise a Wet Wet Wet gig (who even knew they’d got back together? And that they were still alive?) and post-apocalyptic conferences of Christian preachers called things like CHRIST LOVES YOU - LIVE and GODSTOCK.
You go inside, having your bag scanned as if you’re about to depart to another internationally recognised state, and then wait in perjury. You can either get some food, chomping down on branded slop from one these nation’s great chain restaurants. Or you can head straight to the arena. Grab yourself a beer (£4.50, no worse than at Brixton Academy) and that’s where things get weird.
Before the band comes on there’s an O2 resident DJ who plays a mixture of Bar Mitzvah classics and recent hits. The last time I went they played Busy Signal’s “Bumaye”, Just Blaze’s “Turn My Music Up”, Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling” and A-ha’s “Take On Me”. Everyone loves it. The crowd sings and dances along like this bit is actually part of the night. It’s insane. They’re being geed up like horses and they’re begging for more. When the in-house DJ finishes he normally gets a massive cheer. It should be naff but it isn't - grown adults reduced to nervous 14-year-olds, hollering at a party DJ and waiting to be entertained.
It’s true there are aspects of the O2 that are grim - outside the main venue are chain nightclubs that smell vaguely of date rape, with VIP sections that no famous person, not even a Daily Mail shamed paedophile, would ever step foot in. The private boxes in the Arena are depressing, giving sponsors the best seat in the house at every show. So when, for example, your eyes are agog at the Watch The Throne tour, some dreadful Susan from HR will start screaming above you in the Nissan box, showing her racist rap gesticulating to another cunt in a Burton v-neck jumper and pink shirt that she’ll later fuck in the disabled toilet of a Tiger Tiger.
But what are the other options? A lot is made of this country’s small venues, these supposed shrines to real music where bands learn their craft and cut their teeth. But a small venue is like a Spectrum computer, a 2D display in which there are only so many variations on which the same theme that can be displayed.
The O2, by contrast, is like a fucking jumbo 5000GB iPad being broadcast into your brain. It can be anything you want it to be. I’ve seen Rihanna straddle a tank there, Leonard Cohen command the silence of 20,000, Jay Z start mosh pits and Florence turn the whole thing into the set of a shoddy 70s debutante ball. It is a blank space with limitless possibilities. They’ve turned it into the Strictly Come Dancing Studio, an ice hockey rink, and a Church. It’s the Transformers of music venues, and you, the punter, are Shia LaBeouf, a handsome young Jew of French descent, taking your prize.
However good the O2 Arena is, it’s no match for its more jokes little cousin, the IndigO2. Bizarrely, this smaller venue has become the home of corporate award shows and turn of the century R&B stars on poorly-publicised come back shows. En Vogue, Ciara, Jagged Edge, Brandy, Craig David and Joe have all performed there in recent months, with a joint-show between Lil’ Kim and Eve happening in a couple of weeks.
Everything about the O2 is magnified in the Inidgo2 - people dress up like they were going to court, they don’t just singalong to the pre-show DJ but follow the moves demanded of them by the songs, getting low when Flo-Rida commands it, putting two hands on their heads as if Gracious K was their overlord. The last two times I’ve been there, there have been mid-set on stage dance-offs, with random audience members backflipping and floor humping for the audience’s gratification.
People normally talk about the gentrification of East London as the spread of hipsters, flat whites and deep house fuckwits moving across from Shoreditch to Dalston, Hackney and Clapton. But there’s a competing wave of gentrification happening - commercial and corporatised, spreading across from Greenwich to Stratford. Big brands and shopping malls, shiny interfaces and late-capitalist uniform culture.
One of these waves isn’t innately better than the other, and while the hipsters are winning out on knitwear and craft beer, they’re losing on nightlife - Dalston’s promise of creating a New York style trendy nightlife location for all of London has been turned sour by new licensing laws, the migration of vest-wearing greaseballs from Camden and those arsewipes on the X Factor.
Right now if I had to pick between a night stomping through piss and Red Stripe on Kingsland Road, and an evening in the warm jaundice-nippled breast of The O2, I know what I’d choose every time.
Sam Wolfson is the Executive Editor of Noisey. However, everyone else at Noisey would like to make it clear they’d rather watch a gig literally anywhere else. Follow him on Twitter @SamWolfson
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