A heartfelt plea
I haven’t written a letter, the kind we used to write before we had computers and email, for a very long time indeed. With our myriad forms of communication in this age of information technology, it is a dying art. Just as we gave up using paintings on cave walls, or the sounds of hands pummelling animal skins stretched over wooden shells, putting ones thoughts, feelings and sentiments down in the form of a letter, directed to an individual recipient, is an increasingly rare thing to do. Why am I prefacing this document as such? Well, I simply want to reinforce the strength of feeling that has compelled me to reach out to you in this manner. Despite the fact that it is increasingly easy to contact the previously uncontactable, sometimes a simple, direct method is the most effective, probably because it stands out so much more in a world full of noise, discourse and crosstalk. However, the irony of this letter being published in an online magazine is not lost on me.
Firstly, I must thank you. I am sure I speak for anyone that has been moved or influenced by your work (although I would never claim to be their voice) when I say that your art has been incredibly important to me for many years. It has inspired and motivated me. Caused me to think, ponder and appreciate a great many things. I recall, as a young boy, hearing ‘Wuthering Heights’ and being bamboozled by the music, the voice and the lyrics. It embarrasses me to say that, as a boy of seven years old, I was one of the many kids of the day to think it more a novelty song, such was its stark contrast to everything else I’d been listening to. This was the beginning of the so called ‘post-punk’ era. We were rebellious youths and our songs and anthems were simple, noisy, brash and fun. My generation had never been properly exposed to intellect and intelligence in songs before. Prog Rock was the music of our older brothers (and occasionally, although rarely, sisters) with their long hair, long coats and long monologues on the works of Tolkein. Meanwhile, our parents mocked and moaned at the young girl in red, belittling the works of a great literary heroine. But, aside from your physical beauty, there was more that drew this young lad to your musings. Subsequent releases drew me further in, never completely, mind, as peer pressure forced me to appreciate you mostly in private. It seems so awful today, thinking that one’s masculinity and/or sexuality would be defined by the music you listened to. But that’s how it was. And until ‘Babooshka’, most blokes would dismiss you as nowt more than an artsy-fartsy, posh bird with a squeaky voice. And yet it was that music video that caused some of the most masculine of stirrings in my being at that point in my life! Your foray into the world of the Fairlight was devastatingly important to me as an aspiring musician and music technologist. You were at the forefront of something that still, to this day, informs a large part of my life.
And so when, in 2014, you announced your live shows to the world, I was one of the millions sat at their computer, utilising a technology that you so presciently described in ‘Deeper Understanding’, desperate to get tickets. For nearly 40 minutes, I failed at every attempt, constantly encountering ‘SOLD OUT’ notifications, coupled with an increasingly dark mood that grew darker as each minute passed and the slow realisation that I might never witness you sing live loomed large. And then, suddenly and without warning, two seats became available on opening night. I struggled to click the buy button because my brain was still trying to recover from its sullen mood, but I managed it and within minutes, I was the proud owner of two seats on August 26th 2014.
The following five months are still a bit of a blur. But when the day arrived, and I crossed the road out of The Broadway, under the flyover and approached the doors, your name writ large above, I truly felt that I was having MY Ziggy moment. This was going to be MY Lesser Free Trade Hall experience, MY Live Aid, MY ‘Dylan Goes Electric’ event. That is how important it felt, to be there, on opening night, surrounded by thousands of like-minded, lovely people. Camera’s were everywhere. The press were stopping all sorts of people and the outpouring of affection and anticipation was a quasi-religious experience.
And then, once we were in, and settled, the nervous excitement reached levels I have never experienced before at a live performance. The stage, lit purple, gave away nothing of what was to come. A simple band set up glistened in the violet glow. And then the lights dimmed, the opening prayer played, the band struck up ‘Lily’ and on you strode to a wave of 30 years pent up adulation.
But you know all of this, or at least most of it. You know the impact these shows had, both personally and culturally. And from the moment you walked off stage to this very moment, right here, right now, I yearn to relive that experience over and over again, in its entirety, both in sound and vision. Knowing that at least two shows had been filmed, I, and millions of others, felt safe in the knowledge that we would be able to revisit this glorious show again soon. We all thought that a Xmas release was almost inevitable, but when the festive season of 2014 came and went, we hoped for something the following year. Maybe there was to be some kind of indulgent, artistic presentation of the event in a way that only you might be able to do. But 2015 passed so quickly and there were no Kate-shaped presents under our trees. And yet, we never gave up hope, convinced that our great and mighty mistress was concocting a mesmerising delight of epic proportions, or even just a 2-disc Blu Ray. And finally, when pictures leaked in the summer of 2016, showing discs and cases, we finally felt our patience had paid off and we were soon to be able to immerse ourselves in your magic once more. But alas, these reports only made mention of an audio-only document. Nevertheless, we hoped, nay prayed, for something more.
And so here we are, and the album is out. It sounds as good as it did in the Hammy, without question, but it feels like I’ve been served a turf with no surf. My paella has no rice, my beer no hops, my Morecombe has no Wise. I listened intently to your interview on the radio, desperate to hear you say the words, “There will be a video release in the new year”, or some such. You used a lovely analogy of how you listened to Elton’s ’17-11-70’, eyes closed, recreating the event in your mind’s eye. But Kate, this was 1971. We didn’t have home video. We didn’t live in a multi-media society. Elton, bless him and all that sail in her, did not put on a three-act musical and theatrical extravaganza whose key moments were tied to the amazing set design, acting, lighting and surround sound you used to visualise ‘The Ninth Wave’ and ‘A Sky of Honey’. Anyone can close their eyes and think of 1970s Elton, prancing around the stage, or sat at his piano, knocking out ‘Take Me To The Pilot’ or ‘Burn Down The Mission’. We’ve seen footage of his performances, even though ’17-11-70’ was actually recorded live in New York’s A&R Recording Studios. With all due respect, no amount of closing my eyes will ever bring back to me the wondrous visual feast you laid on for us over those 22 remarkable evenings.
I am a huge supporter of restricting the use of personal mobile recording devices at live performances and was amazed at how well your request was observed throughout the run. However, I am left wishing that many had broken their promise because it seems like that might have been the only way we could relive these moments. I fully appreciate the effort of ‘being there’, of enjoying an art work at that specific moment in time, and I suppose I am exhibiting nothing more than a sense of entitlement inherent in our generation that has become so used to the commercialisation of art that not a second goes by where an artist, or moreover their label/sponsor/management, sees an opportunity to maximise profits by releasing a wealth of content, over and over again. Director’s Cut here (no pun intended), Super Deluxe Edition there, stretching out the marketable life of a ‘product’ far beyond its natural lifespan. I get that, I really do. And I appreciate it when an artist maintains a degree of integrity when it comes to protecting their work and not fleecing the fans with yet another regurgitated, repackaged, remastered, reprinted commodity.
But releasing nothing but an audio document of your supreme efforts seems to do both yourself and us fans a huge disservice. Sure, I love being able to tell people who couldn’t make the shows that I was there, on the very first night. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t revel in that. Just like someone who was at the very same venue 41 years previously, who witnessed the death of Ziggy, would be proud to announce their first hand experience of that rock and roll suicide. But even the late, great man himself put that show out for all to see and enjoy. Of course it didn’t have the same degree of theatricality, nor did he vanish into thin air afterwards, but a visual record exists of this rock and roll milestone, there for generations to witness and be moved and inspired by. I watched that movie again just the other day and it still blows me away, despite Pennebaker’s footage being wobbly and grainy. It captured the moment perfectly and will continue to blow people’s minds for decades to come.
I’ve discussed the glaring absence of a video of ‘Before The Dawn’ with many people. Some have posited that the filming went wrong, others that there was not enough decent footage to cobble together a complete show from both recordings. Some say it is because you’re incredibly self-conscious and don’t want to be immortalised in this way. I don’t have a personal opinion on any of that. All I have is what you told us on the radio a few weeks ago. That you believe that the audio, on its own, is far more representative. And trust me, the audio is indeed amazing. It ranks up there with some of the best live albums ever made, but there was so much more to ‘Before The Dawn’. I’m not at all fussed that I’ve not seen an accompanying video for Peter Frampton’s ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’ or John Meyer Trio’s ‘Try’, some of my favourite live albums ever. I don’t need a video to help me visualise a bunch of people on a stage, organised in the traditional band set-up, in my head. You’re absolutely right that albums like these are wondrous and representative of the musical art form. Even Peter Gabriel’s ‘Back To Front’ shows were captured and released in both audio-only and Blu Ray, and yes, I can listen to that album on its own and recall being there, in the O2, as I was, and still feel how great that concert was, without the need to refer to the video, although I often do watch it because it was a wonderful gig. I can tell you right now that if I could see your show again, from my singular viewpoint, high in the Circle, I’d pay handsomely for it. I appreciate the desire to not have cameras around and on the stage, but a simple static camera set up would capture the very thing that caused the minds of 5000 people across 22 nights to be blown. Two thirds of your show was the most amazing fusion of sound and vision ever. Please let us see it again, and let others behold it that could not be there. I don’t want a multi-angle, cinematic experience. I just want to see you and your incredible show the way I saw it on that balmy, British summer’s eve.
‘Before The Dawn’ was so much more than a regular music concert. It was a truly audiovisual experience of the utmost quality and brilliance, one that transcended the norm of a musical concert, and to deny millions of people the opportunity to, in some way, experience the utter magic you and your team created is a tragedy, be it reduced in impact from the live shows or not. I also appreciate your desire to move on to something new, and there are none more keen than I to hear what you come up with next, but I implore you to reconsider and hope that you may, one day very soon, renege on your decision to shelve the video indefinitely.
If this letter has caused you to pause and consider, albeit briefly, what might be possible to do, in order to bring your art to the people who will truly appreciate it, then my work here is done. I am under no illusion that a no-name, aspiring music hack like myself is unlikely to shift the decision of an artist with such commitment, integrity and passion. But I am also a firm believer in the maxim that if you don’t try, you won’t ever get.