A Beautiful Thing: IDLES Live at Le Bataclan
First things first, I fucking love IDLES. As far as I’m concerned, they are the perfect rock band, part filth and fury, part lefty political, and part enlightenment. Frontman Joe Talbot has been uncompromising in interviews about his and his band’s politics. More than that, he has walked the walk and talked the talk. He has dealt with addiction, his mother’s death, and her incapacitation as she died. He was her caregiver. He has done the hard work. As a band, they are unabashedly feminist, pro-immigrant, and anti-Brexit. And, goddamn, their music is intense. A Beautiful Thing is a double-album, 84 minutes of glory.
Guitarists Lee Kieran and Mark Bowen create this vicious sonic landscape, angular, spiky guitars, laden with feedback, their guitars both soar over and under and grind with Adam Devonshire’s thunderous bass guitar. Drummer John Beavis, I don’t know how he holds this altogether, but he does. Live he doesn’t just play drums, he doesn’t pound them, he obliterates them. I always thought Dave Grohl in his Nirvana days was the most vicious drummer I had ever seen or heard. Beavis now owns that title.
A Beautiful Thing was recorded on 3 December 2018, at the iconic Parisian venue. This was the final night of the first leg of their tour following last year’s masterful Joy As an Act of Resistance tour. It was released 368 days later. Bataclan was also no doubt a conscious choice as a venue, too, given it was the site of a terrorist attack in 2015 as Eagles of Death Metal played. A few of the bands who have played there since it re-opened have made a statement about doing so.
The album arises out of a fascinating moment for the band, then. Their first full-lengther, Brutalism (2017), established them as an up and coming band, and then Joy saw them emerge as chart toppers, as the album hit #5 on the UK charts. It also earned them a well-deserved Mercury Prize nomination, which saw them shortlisted. So they were experiencing that in the late autumn/early winter of 2018, playing larger venues, seeing their words and actions and music had a greater impact than they had thus far.
Talbot has said that:
Our show at Bataclan was the end of a very long journey for us. On that tour we learnt so much about ourselves, each other and the audiences we have grown with over the past 10 years. That show was nothing short of catharsis and nothing more than love.
And that’s the thing. This is a fierce band, a heavy band. Five sweaty dudes on stage. And yet, this album, this tour, their comportment, is about love. The opening track, ‘Colossus,’ has a break in it, as the song shifts gear, and here Talbot took the opportunity to inform the crowd
We built this album and we built this tour on love and compassion. Whatever you do tonight, if you are in this crowd, you look after each other. You! You! Respect each other. Show each other love. Show each other how much you love live music. Not. Not aggression. But love and compassion! Comprends? Let’s fucking go!
And then the band explodes into the nasty punk rock end of ‘Colossus.’ The first two tracks are from Joy, before IDLES break out what I consider their greatest song, ‘Mother,’ from Brutalism. Talbot wrote the lyrics after his mother died, and here he dedicates it to his father, from whom he learned love and compassion. And then he takes a breath and screams: ‘I AM A FEMINIST!!’
It is worth repeating some of the lyrics from this song, as Talbot cribbed Margaret Atwood:
Sexual violence doesn’t start and end with rape
It starts in our books and behind our school gates
Men are scared women will laugh in their face
Whereas women are scared it’s their lives men will take.
I always think about the impact of Talbot singing this, both on record and live, because here you have the frontman of an aggro post-punk band, making it very fucking clear where he stands on the issue of sexual violence and aggression towards women.
A Beautiful Thing is 19 songs of this contained fury, basically containing all the songs from Brutalism and Joy, with a few exceptions. But there is nothing missing from this, as far as I’m concerned. Talbot dedicates ‘1049 Gotho,’ with its lyrics about his friends’ depressions to everyone in the crowd. To me, there is a political statement here, declaring that mental health issues are all of our issues, almost all of us will struggle with this. And it will be alright.
‘Divide and Conquer’ is dedicated to doctors and nurses and janitors and anyone who works for other people. And then the grinding guitars attack, and Beavis’ pounding drums. Then the lead guitar screams out and Devonshire joins the fun. The opening to this song, with grinding and metallic, angular guitars over a thumping beat and a thick, thick bassline is perhaps the musical highlight of the album.
Talbot talks to the crowd throughout the set, mostly in English, sometimes in French. It’s surprising how good his French accent is at times. At other times, not so much. But he introduces nearly every song en français.
One of my favourite bits is when, in introducing ‘Gram Rock,’ Talbot declares that ‘your country is run by psychopaths. Britain is run by psychopaths. This is about two of them doing cocaine at my grandmother’s funeral.’ And then I wonder if that’s true, but I doubt it, since he has said this is also a song about assholes in previous commentary.
The last two tracks of the album are two of my favourites. First, ‘Well Done,’ a vicious critique of the dictating to the working classes that goes on in the UK. On album, this is a nasty, sneering fuck you. Live, though, it’s devastating, especially as the crowd at Bataclan yells the chorus ‘Well done!’ Even when Talbot sounds weary in singing the lyrics, the music picks him up here. This is one of Bowen’s finest moments as a guitarist, both on album and live here, as his lead destroys the song, beautifully so.
The album ends with ‘Rottwelier,’ the final track from Joy. Talbot introduces it as an anti-fascist song, and issues his bon soirée to the crowd. And as the song ends, he says his mercis to the crowd, and begins to recite the motto of the République Française: ‘Liberté, Éqalité…’ and then the crowd finishes it for him, ‘Fraternité,’ and then the guitars swirl around some, then Beavis does a drum solo reminiscent of Bun E. Carlos on Live in Budoken. And then the song swirls out, between the pounding bass, the rolling and crashing drums, and the guitars swirling, in a wail of feedback as the speed picks up between the four musicians, the guitars in particular, in tandem and then not, playing with Devonshire’s bass and then not, and Beavis just pounding away. This goes on for a good five or six minutes before the song collapses in a squall of feedback.
I don’t like live albums usually, it is rare they turn out as one would hope. This is an exception, as IDLES just pound through their set-list in this furious mode. You can almost see the sweat flying off their heads, and you can almost smell the pungency of the crowd, not just up front in the pit, but in the back of the crowd. This is the kind of set that you could not have stood still throughout. For a loud, aggro band, IDLES are eminently danceable.
Now if only they would come to a convenient location in North America, dammit.