Refused open their first London gig in over 10 years the exact moment an embarrassing ceremony was closing the Olympics in the stadium.
The likes of Beady Eyes, the Spice Girls, Take That, Kaiser Chiefs, Emilie Sande, Jessie J and god knows who else took the stage to celebrate UK.
All the world countries paraded in the stadium under their flags soundtracked by John Lennon hymn that, let’s remember, it goes: “Imagine there’s no countries…”. Coherence. Or British humour. After all is the same hymn the Papa boys love to sing all together after the Sunday mass: “Imagine there’s no Heaven… and no religions too”.
During that display of kitsch, glam and glitter that made even Chinese propaganda ashamed of their previous attempt, someone in Kentish town was about to getting back to basics: screams, rants and jumps. Relief.
If that ceremony ended the Olympics or ended the British pride carefully built on the two amazing weeks of sport is up to debate and outside this contest.
Sure Refused gigs reopened the concerts season. From now throughout the autumn there’s a whole lot of bands gearing up to tour after music fans have been bankrupted by Canoe Slalom, Archery and Synchronized diving.
Fingers pointing at the band resurrection for the classical crime of “lack of coherence”.
one think is true, in the past they had made it clear in ‘rather’ explicit lyrics.
“‘I’d rather be dead than alive by your design” [Rather Be Dead]
“Rather be forgotten than remembered for giving in” [Summer Holidays vs. Punk Routine]
Yet reunions happen.
If the BBC bans the F-word on TV, hardcore fans cannot tolerate the R-word. Reunions are seen as a way to make money. The sale of a supposed pure soul to the devil of capitalism. Unacceptable. Why? What’s the problem of musicians playing for money?
What if, this is an alibi of the hardcore fan?
Alibis is what we tell ourselves (and others) to not see a deeper, uncomfortable reason why we don’t accept something.
If you read “Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music” (and if you didn’t you should, it’s this) you know that early day fans feel jealous when their favourite bands become successful and share their music to larger audiences. The mechanism is driven by a possessive feeling not that dissimilar from that experienced when someone is betrayed by a lover. “I loved you when no one else cared now that you shine under the spotlights you forget me”.
I am not a punk hardcore fans. I am like the other 90% of people here tonight that have heard probably only one song by Refused until the reunion was announced. I even bought the remaster of the most famous album on 2012. Which would make the fan point even more true. And Frank Zappa very honest. “We’re Only in It for the Money” was out in 1968.
The music world hasn’t changed, it’s me.
My romantic teenager perspective has moved on. Today I see rockstars as human beings. I’m not a fan(atic), not disillusioned, not as convinced music will save the world. I leave the stars in the sky and enjoy the entertainment of live music on a night out. I like the company of recorded music during the day.
Refused want to be paid to let people enjoy their show. Agree? Pay. Disagree? Stay home and wait. You’ll eventually grow up.
Refused started in the early nineties. They tried to survive playing hardcore for about 7 years during grunge and Nu-Metal heydays. They didn’t make it. There was little space for hardcore outside their Swedish shores. Because Refused aren’t even from USA or UK. They are from a coastal Swedish town. Fifty people a gig make the early fanbase feel privileged but did not pay the bills.
Too radical and too political to be paired with the garage rock’n'roll scene of Hellacopters and the Hives that was springing in Sweden at the same time with more fortune.
In 1998, the last year of Refused first life, they released The Shape of Punk to Come on Epitaph. It is their ground-breaking moment. So pivotal to be unbearable. The band broke on the USA tour at the peak of their career.
They split up still pretty much unnoticed outside the same 50 hardcore aficionados per gig.
As it happens, in the following years, championed by some rock DJ, the guitar riff of New Noise, signature song of the album, became a popular hit and Refused became cult, seminal musicians.
The ‘seminal’ privilege usually applies to bands who split up for dramatic reasons, as Joy Division to name the most famous. When everyone is still alive is more complicate. There’s no myth to build on and less appeal on a comeback.
Refused are punk guys: they didn’t care. But they are clever punks, too. The band business plan (I wrote it) must have been handled by a good marketing office (they exist, get over it). Someone transformed the seminal into the mainstream exploiting the decade of absence from the public eyes recognising the ever-growing presence in the public ears. Smart.
Artistically Refused statement is direct and simple as punk originally was. But it is also free, as punk unfortunately isn’t anymore. This second bit is what make them interesting.
Dennis Lyxzén said in an interview: “We made this album wanting to challenge people’s preconceptions of what a Punk band could be and what it could play, because Punk is the most conservative musical form there is. Even in Hardcore, there are so many rules about what is and what is not acceptable, and that completely negates the whole spirit of the original idea.”
‘Free Punk’ could be the name of one of their albums.
I’m not sure how many people are aware that Refused named their album, designed its cover and issued the inner statement in a similar style to what Ornette Coleman did in the 60s. Maybe some of you don’t even know who Ornette Coleman is. Surely I haven’t came across many articles referring to the obvious citation.
Ornette Coleman is a Jazz saxophonist and one of the fathers of Free Jazz. His landmark albums, Something Else!!! (1958), The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz (1961) changed Jazz forever. Says something?
on that first layer there’s not a direct correlation with Free Jazz in the music Refused play, but there is a strong conceptual analogy. Which is what Lyxzén synthesized in that sentence. Very similar to what Ornette Coleman did forty years before them.
Punk is a conservative music. It may irritate fans but it’s true. To be part of a close scene, impermeable to external influences and not prone to curiosity, is a conservative attitude. Rigidity is the opposite of the open-mindedness needed to progress.
Punk fans are often judgmental. They are not up to experimentalism and often concentrate more on the fashion and the nihilistic message than the music. This worked very well in the 70s, when the movement was able to shake a sleepy society in a dull era.
Nowadays the same message is a bit blurred. If it was the day of Strummer’s death or John Lydon advertising country butter, I don’t know. Surely something changed with times. There aren’t punks in Camden Town apart from some pierced Italians and tattooed Japaneses.
Refused play a version of hardcore that is as different from traditional hardcore as Ornette Coleman twin quartets freely improvising on two channels are different from Duke Ellington orchestra playing the blues.
Refused showed at the forum that they have ideas to rewrite the canonical hardcore structures. They had in 1998 too, but the world didn’t follow. Their artistic trajectory took the exponential steep in 2012.
Ornette Coleman was relegated for many years to few avant-garde circles in New York and only 50 years since The Shape of Jazz to Come he has been invited to curate the Meltdown festival in London.
Still with me? The concert? Awesome and entertaining.
An impressive show which gained in its grandiosity from the larger production compared to what they could only dream of in the 90s.
Dennis Lyxzén is the living demonstration that 40s are the new 20s.
If he spent the previous year training on an athletic field instead of rehearsing in a studio he would compete for a position in the high jump finals.
The show can only open with Worms of the Senses. The first song of The Shape of Punk to Come. The opening verse is a statement in itself: “They say the classics never go out of style, but they do… they do. Somehow baby, I never thought we’d do, too.”
While watching Refused live all the contradictions arising around the band and the reunion vanish.
The songs challenge and defy all punk’s cliché. They last more than 3 minutes. The rhythm sessions is one of the strongest I’ve seen in years and is not afraid of exploring beats unknown to classical hardcore. The two guitarists are on fire. They know riffs and directness. Do not overindulge in solos but don’t disregard some show-off. They know they can play and want to have fun with it.
They are on stage, have the lights and the dresses and are not afraid to pose to inflame the audience too. People paid and have a show. Does this means incoherence? Not sure.
Lyxzén said they played London last time far from the headliners in punk festival with those 50 people. Tonight the standing ovation that salutes the guitar riff of New Noise opening the encore (yes they even do encores) is the demonstration that visionary ideas can take off and breakthrough.
This is what art has been struggling throughout history. This is what artists are struggling during their lives.
To get to the point of filling the Forum twice in a row you got to believe in yourself, no one will believe in you if you don’t come first.
If you believe in what you do, you’re honest, you deserve to survive. To not care about the jealousy of those fans that would prefer “Refused fucking dead” so that they can tell to be the only ones to know before everyone else. They would prefer to not see them anymore rather than let the world discover.
“I don’t believe you, you’re a liar. Play it fucking loud!”
Remember this? Google it.
It’s not the 60s and it’s not New York vs London. World is one. Punk can still make the headlines. All newspapers reported Pussy Riot sentence by a Russian tribunal for their “punk” performance in a Moscow church. The evidence of the power of art and the power of dissent.
The evidence that as long as you’re free from fear, ready to stand for your position and face the consequences things can change.
Refused support and acknowledge the battle for Pussy Riot freedom, and they support the even more important battle Pussy Riot do to speak freely.
Refused are in amuch more comfortable position than a Moscow jail. They can scream anti-capitalist lyrics and earn a living out of it. I don’t think this is contradictory or a lack of purity. This is being aware of the world we inhabit and using it in the best way.
First or second show?
Which date to shoot when a band plays a sequence of nights in the same town?
There are few factors to take into account, some are out of the photographer control some are not.
If the promoter tells you that can allocate the photopass only on a specific date there’s not much else to do than check your diary.
If you are prompted with a choice, the first night is the one that has more probability to get reviewed by the press. Shoot the first show to be published, assuming the post-editing and the ftp is quick enough to land the images on the agency desk on the same night of the show.
If there is no pressure to have media coverage opt for the second (last or last announced) show. It may have some advantages.
Easier to get in. The press photographers aim to the opening night for the reason above so there may be chances for a second day if you are not with Getty or the BBC.
Added dates are usually announced in a second time and they are often less crowded. What happened to me for this show.
I passed the first night. It was the Olympics closing ceremony + Hyde Park Olympics closing concert. I didn’t want to travel Cambridge-London-Cambridge on a train packed with thousands of fans of the Spice Girls.
The second night was on a quiet first non-Olympic Monday.
I arrived at the Forum armed with a camera body and a 24-70 lens. I was told the night before the concert was a sold-out, sweaty, no-pit situation. Concert photographer nightmare.
Instead I was lucky. The Forum was far from being sold-out and, perhaps because of this, there was a large pit!
I photographed the band without disturbance with only two other photographers.
Helped by awesome lighting and a spectacular stage presence I brought back home probably my favourite set of the year.
It would have been even better if I could shoot beyond the third song. There’s some images in my mind that would be great, as Dennis Lyxzén standing over the crowd, those images will never be available to anyone.
But I don’t think I have to stress the stupidity of the three songs rule for the millionth time.