By Sebastian Lloyd
In anticipation of their new album ULTRA-MONO, IDLES covered The Strokes, Ramones and The Beatles in 3 live-streamed sets at Abbey Road Studios. On the weekend where IDLES should have been gracing Reading + Leeds with their liveliness it was a pleasure to have a show with such high production values as a nice change from Instagram lives.
Singer Joe Talbot admits before the final song of Set 1 that he is ‘inconsolably nervous.’ Mistakes on unreleased track ‘Kill ‘Em With Kindness’ and ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ only served to endear the band further to the fans in the comments section. There was nowhere to hide in the rehearsal-room-like gig and the tension it created made for a very absorbing performance. The cover of Ramones song ‘I wanna be sedated’ lacked the punk energy of the original in a ballad version that didn’t work but as the band began to settle in the shackles loosened. In Set 2 guitarist Mark Bowen put down his guitar during ‘Love Song’ to sing ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘Up Where We Belong’. Other guitarist Lee Kiernan snuck off to sit on the bannisters like a child left alone in a mansion.
Few bands have such a crystalline message as IDLES. When I saw them live at OnBlackheath in 2017 there were only about 100 people in the tent but the vehement lyrics and frenetic energy connected with me. They giggled at the middle class contingent of one-day festival goers who had stumbled across their rage. It’s remarkable to see how their music has connected with the nation since then and the best moments of the live streams were when they relished the opportunity for statement. In a rare moment of seriousness in set 3, Joe says ‘Long live the open minded down with the Tory scum,’ before ripping into a version of ‘Divide & Conquer’ which had the band in furious raptures. Even the usually calm drummer Jon Beavis was bouncing with frustrated zeal. ‘Danny Nedelko’ still gleams from their pack of irreverent post-punk cards as an anthem that doesn’t attempt to politicise punk through derision but through empathy.
The cover in Set 2 was a scrappy version of The Strokes song ‘Reptilia’ with lyric ‘You’re in a strange part of our town,’ given a new sinister screech by Joe’s vocals. ‘Model Village’ gives a interesting taste of a refined IDLES sound coming on ULTRA-MONO, but may be one of the few songs that does start to lean towards cliche a little. I noticed the slow songs they played including new song ‘A Hymn’ didn’t work for me apart from ‘Slow Savage’ which drones on a little. It’s saved by the self-deprecating lyrics and mournful melody. They’re a better band when they’re loud, proud and growling.
As guitarist Mark Bowen puts it ‘if the drums are really crashing then you’re going in with that, if the vocalist is really giving it stink you go with that. It’s all kind of about the feeling at the time.’ This isn’t an original approach but there is an authenticity about IDLES post-punk revivalism with a vulnerability at the core of their music. Before playing ‘Benzocaine’ near the end of the final set, Joe dedicates a moment to Guitarist Lee. ‘How many years sober?’ Lee replies ‘8’ before Joe says ‘Thanks very much for looking after us my man.’
The band wear their hearts on their sleeves and it comes across very endearingly throughout the sets. The fury is intense, the emotion is raw and I’m sure any impostor syndrome they had from being in Abbey Road was something that only made them more likeable to old and new fans alike.
IDLES exist as an example that a semi-professional band who have been around for years without getting recognition can break through into the mainstream. The bands closer is at long last a Beatles cover. They miss the first cue to come in and Joe yells ‘keep going!’ while the guitars one staccato note loops alone. Bowen evokes Paul McCartney’s opening scream into a disappointingly quiet mic before the band crash through with searing commotion. ‘Helter Skelter’ is an excellent choice and one of the highlights of the livestream. Joe curls up in the centre of the carpet and screams ‘you might be a lover but you ain’t no dancer,’ in the second chorus and it’s a gleeful crescendo.
The jittery nervousness that circulated initially broke into playful joy. Fans will have relished this pulled back curtain on IDLES. With almost their whole discography on show, it was a daring set-up for the huge sold out tour they’ll play when the curtain comes up on these restrictions. I have got a ticket myself for their final night at Brixton academy next June and I will be shouting for that ‘Helter Skelter’ cover again.