Live music without mind-altering chemicals? Crazy notion
The rock music industry has long doubled as an efficient alcohol distribution mechanism
‘We had one bandmate who would climb the walls and leap into the crowd when boozed up’
It has been suggested by some of our political betters that promoters might be allowed to run gigs without alcohol for sale in our attempts to stem the spread of Covid 19. Music without mind-altering chemicals? Now there’s a crazy notion.
It seems far crazier than booze-free classrooms (currently being trialled) or booze-free business conferences (“One more power-point presentation!” chant the business folk, ties around their heads; Yeah, hopefully business conferences are banned forever).
Different genres of music always seem designed around different drugs. Would New York’s folk music scene have sprouted Marxism and goatees without coffee and cannabis? Would Dance music’s repetitive ebbs and flows have landed without people being gonged off their heads on MDMA? Would punk be punk without amphetamines? Would psychedelia be psychedelia without psychedelics (“Lucy in the sky with a functional aeroplane,” Jonathan Lennon of the correctly spelled Beetles might have sung)? Could country n’Irish music exist without pesticides in the air? Could the Eagles exist without cocaine? Could the eighties exist without cocaine?
Rock has traditionally been all about booze. For the most part, rock and roll is seen as an emergent property of fermented hops. In the same way that Google have a search engine but really they’re a big advertising company. The rock music industry might be known largely for music but it’s often been an alcohol distribution mechanism. This is a shame.
For years I was in a rock band and yes, this band and its “fans” were fuelled by alcohol. We were also, in a much more literal sense, fuelled by the actual fuel that took us to and from venues. So whenever I was a designated driver this meant I had to forgo drinking and sit and observe.
It was at these times I considered that maybe music was pleasurable without booze, although, in fairness, it really depends on the music. To listen to some bands you do need a strong narcotic to stem the pain (I think even doctors would agree with me here).
Most bands have some sort of relationship with alcohol and different musicians have different relationships with what booze does to their muscle memory. I’ve seen musicians who could barely stand but who could play a perfectly precise musical phrase when an instrument was placed in their apparently insensible hands or, if it was a wind instrument, up to their drooling, goggling faces.
Not everyone is in this category which is why my band had a two-drink rule before every gig. To clarify: that was “Don’t drink more than two drinks” rule. And not a “You must drink at least two drinks” rule, which I’m pretty sure was the rule for some other bands I knew (I’m looking at you, The Jimmy Cake).
Our rule was technically for the whole band, but everyone knew it was really for /[name redacted/] who would face the wrong way and forget to pluck his instrument if he had a few drinks in him.
We had another bandmate /[name also redacted/] who would literally climb the walls and leap into the crowd when boozed up, but he never lost his place in the song and so this was perfectly fine. He once fell into the drum-kit but everyone thought this was on purpose and regarded it as pretty cool. Yes, young people were idiots back when I was a young person.
Drink had other dubious purposes. We were an energetic band and I was an unfit young man and exactly two drinks helped to mask my muscle pain. I would scream and yell and roll about and jump, squeezed into a custom-made white suit before collapsing offstage to rehydrate myself with more alcohol, presumably some sort of isotonic fitness wine.
It never occurred to me to try doing this with water. Or, you know, going for a run occasionally.
Booze also had a certain effect on the crowds we played to. If you’ve ever played gigs you know that each audience has a different personality. There’s an exactly perfect level of endrunkened, which the comedy duo/researchers Mitchell and Webb estimate to be slightly less than two pints. It’s tricky to get that balance right.
I suspect management of the Late Late Show audience, for example, involves a perfect calibration of the collective blood-alcohol level, but most rock bands don’t have their resources.
The alcohol can lead an audience into a spirit of well-intentioned bonhomie where they fling arms around each other and sing together in unison (not always to the song being played). Or it can turn them into sullen resentful cranks, storing up resentments and hurt feelings and cruel things to say to the large sweaty man in the white suit as he drinks his isotonic fitness wine after the gig.
“Your band is shit,” I have been told by grinning drunks and, also, “Have you considered writing some good songs?” (The last one was from a well-lubricated man who was genuinely trying to be helpful).
All of these lamentable shenanigans mean that I like the idea of booze-free gigs. We used to run them ourselves back in the very olden days. We’d organise them for our teenaged fans in long extinct venues like the Ierne Ballroom and the Funnel, when we were barely out of our teens ourselves. They were, quite frankly, just as much fun as any other gigs I played.
The crazy notion being circulated now, that we should run booze-free concerts for grown adults who might even sit listening attentively, feels like a good idea to me, with or without a pandemic spurring it on.
Speaking as someone who once tried professional music-making, if people saved money on booze they might even consider buying records or T-shirts.
I’ve also developed a crazy theory in recent years that music is pretty good all on its own without any pharmacological assistance. I listen to a lot of music these days while on a drug I’ve started doing called, “going for a walk.” It’s really good; you should try it.