This new pandemic version of reality, with all its genuine horror house of fears and confusion, restrictions and uncertainty, can also afford us moments of feeling completely, charmingly ridiculous.
Everyone will have their personal joker card they’ve been forced to play during this weird year, their own moments of wonderment and disbelief at how their life has, temporarily, played out. Perhaps you decided to move countries five minutes before the first lockdown and ended up homeschooling in a language you don’t speak? Oh no, that’s just me. But we all have our stories.
Our varied predicaments made me think of one of the aspects of gigs that can very easily verge on the ridiculous: stage sets. Many bands begin their roughshod infancy playing tiny, beer-soaked venues, with sticky floors and a ceiling that showers them with drops of sweat. Basements where the stage is no higher than the rest of the floor, there’s nothing resembling a dressing room and hopes of getting paid for the evening often remain just that: hopes. By the time the 0.0000000001% of them (made up percentage, don’t quote me) make it to the really big time it’s a wholly different story. Their arena days usher in the need for a stage set that might cost an outrageous amount and take a team several hours to construct and dismantle each night. The people at the back of the audience will see the band as tiny stick figures the size of their thumb, so if there’s no stage set, no complicated light show and no balloons, glitter guns or tiny bits of paper falling inexplicably during the encore, it could get pretty boring visually.
But right around the middle of this musical journey, when an act is big enough to play a decent-sized venue but not yet darkening the doors of any stadium, they walk the thin line of more elaborate staging. Do-they or don’t-they bother with something visual to complement the performance and enhance the show experience? Is it a question of just separating themselves as headliner from the support acts or is it a genuine concern that the music isn’t enough any more? Perhaps, at a band meeting, they decide that a stage set of some kind is a good way of expressing more about their songs or highlighting a political stance? At what moment does pre-show conversation go from just asking ‘what time is the soundcheck*’ to ‘has the designer sent the revised matt-finish alien cut-outs’?
One of the classic and oft-cited jokes of gig stage sets is, of course, the scene in ‘rockumentary’ Spinal Tap featuring the brilliant Stonehenge disaster, a stage set that is completely and unexpectedly wrongly created (I won’t say any more in case you haven’t seen it). To be genuinely caught out with embarrassingly incorrect stage sets must be a nightmare for any real band. Alternatively, they can subvert expectations to claim the last laugh.
US punk act NOFX is a good example. The band’s backdrop – a plain rectangle with their band name written on it – is absolutely tiny. It would be roughly taped to the wall behind the band, just above the drummer’s head, and looks like an Alice In Wonderland trick of unnaturally small proportions. It works wonderfully, particularly for an act that emerged as a DIY punk band with an aggressive sense of humour. When I saw their 2018 European tour, they triumphantly revealed that they had finally invested in a bigger backdrop (they’ve been a touring band for over 30 years now). It was indeed much bigger, but actually the name of the band was exactly the same size, but now sat in the middle of a huge, otherwise, blank backdrop. Some stage set jokes don’t need new trainers, they can just keep on running for years.
With lots of time on their hands, will bands be dreaming up intricate new ways to decorate their stage presence? Or will post-pandemic shows go back to basics and want nothing more than union of band and crowd without the frills?
*Soundcheck: literally, where the sound gets checked. Not everyone bothers. A chance to run through a song or two before doors open, making sure everyone’s instrument can be heard. The sound engineer (tour manager, friend, person who runs the venue, someone sober) carefully sets all the levels. Then, when they play the show, it will be completely different. But hey, it’s a nice ritual and at least they tried!
Photo: One size doesn’t fit all. NOFX living up to its name with the world’s least out-to-impress backdrop. Images from Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2012, with the old backdrop (left) and Brixton Academy in 2018, with the new one (right). © Imelda Michalczyk