I knew Kim Gavin’s Closing Ceremony would be the antithesis of the crazy-beautiful joy that Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce brought to the opening night: I knew it would be predictable and mainstream. But that was fine, we’d have a laugh, enjoy the music acts we like and I honestly thought it would still be funny after three hours. Witnessing the pop stars and lickspittles trying to equal Boyle’s heady brew. Art is subjective, after all.
I was mistaken: it was a numbing, disheartening disaster. The biggest floating turd we ever did whiff; reducing, demeaning and re-squishing Britain, at the very moment we’d felt shifted long-term for the better by these liberating Olympic Games. In one fattened pig of a gong-show, Gavin forced us back into clunky shackles that Boyle and Boyce briefly, tantalisingly freed us from, only a month ago. Far worse than just being bad, what unfolded was – I think – proper fucking dangerous. You know that phrase: the banality of evil. So.
There’d been rumblings that Danny Boyle didn’t put enough Churchill in. Our war leader, fast deposed in peacetime, wasn’t given enough of a strident voice for organisers’ tastes. Because obviously we need thoughts of conflict and top-down triumphalism, not co-operation and shared effort, to show us off to the world on the eve of a big sports pageant. Dur. Anyway, Kim Gavin kicked off by correcting that error, with admirable actor Tim Spall bellowing something from The Tempest, stretched over a noisy background canvas in awful parroting rasp, reprised in broader strokes from his performance in The King’s Speech. Not a fresh moment then; instead lifted from someone else’s casting and someone else’s process.
This flags up clearly what was about to happen for fucking hours: piles of stuff presented as unique, weighty or historical that was actually just re-staged ubiquity; hackney carriaged bits and bobs, flung up-and-out on stadium scale, nothing new added. Constantly disappointing, the show repeatedly heralded musical legends who weren’t there; Bowie, Bush, they didn’t appear, just backing tracks over a tannoy. Desperately a commentator tells us Kate Bush re-recorded her vocal part for the ceremony. Why even bother, though?
Another outing for Emeli Sandé. In the Opening Ceremony she performed too but it wasn’t so much about her, then, as what she was singing: The Meaning had little to do with her domestic fame or career path. This time it was the opposite: entirely about Sandé as a PR machined product – and she went on for ages. I have to believe both Adele and Leona turned down Gavin, for Emeli to have got this length of slot; I’ve forgotten anything about the song except the totally Adele-ish solo piano accompaniment. Foghorn Florence was too edgy to appear, or too smart.
Gavin couldn’t get Oasis to reform; instead relying on Liam’s Beady Eye to karaoke ancient song Wonderwall. And what the fuck has happened to Liam’s voice? Once perhaps the greatest sneering, louche roar this country has produced – a rich, northern counterpoint to Johnny Rotten – yet now I guess ravaged by cocaine, inactivity, far too much soft cheese, it’s a horrible whining dither. Like when The Fast Show one week swapped Jazz Club for Indie Club (ha, there’s a boring, outdated 90s reference for you) it was a disinterested parody of ‘alternative’.
I reckon George Michael’s live auto-tune was still on as he spoke between his two songs, so his voice glitched out as if he’d breathed helium.
And the most audaciously lazy bit of all: the entire audio track of the opening section then replayed as backing soundtrack to the athletes arriving and partying. Gavin couldn’t even be bothered to pick some different tunes to play out over the PA. Even the shittest amateur wedding DJ wouldn’t pull that stunt. So cheapskate, one almost expected the Spotify adverts to interrupt halfway through.
Such relentless, vacuous prioritising of burger van iconography over real-life performance (or talent) is summed up by Russell Brand’s song’n’dance number. I like Brand but he is a stand-up comedian, television presenter and sometimes a useful cultural commentator. None of these are here, instead we rely on his hyperdriven celebrity itself to carry something that is patently (and self-knowingly, since he played it for laughs) drivel. Now I’m getting carried away slagging it off but there is a more important thing needs highlighting about this show, with a direct comparison:
From the Opening Ceremony, take Atkinson-as-Bean’s comic bit around Sir Simon Rattle conducting Chariots Of Fire. Whether or not you enjoy Bean, this was an undercutting and re-humanising of an epic ‘classic’ piece of music that – without fundamentally lessening its power (it was subsequently used throughout the Olympics) – took it to a previously unseen, interesting, funny place. THAT is how to treat an icon. It was Gerard Hoffnung-esque, de-mythologised the orchestra and took itself lightly without deadening itself. Meanwhile, there was Akram Khan’s powerful Indian dance in near silence, linked to Emile Sande singing Abide With Me in tribute to fallen comrades. Here, crucially, the ethnicity, or ‘exoticism’ of the dance is not the point of the dance, rather it is presented as part of a bigger ‘us’, while the emotion in the dance is its strength and focus.
Compare those two sections to their near parallel in the Closing Ceremony; where Eric Idle flounces through Python smash Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life before being interrupted by, again, some Indian dancers, who befuddle and confuse him, throw dust on him, leave him distracted. On a quality level; again nothing new or rare. Performances of this song take place every night somewhere across the UK as part of Spamalot. On a political level, it no way captured any of the subversive silliness of the original from Life Of Brian. All reference to the film’s edgy content exorcised, of course.
But far worse, this routine was entirely about the otherness and exoticism of the Indian dance juxtaposed against Idle’s familiarity; this was the dancers’ sole point; to be alien where previously there was comfort. This is deeply malignant. Idle’s uncomfortable adversity was cultural diversity, because that is how this ruinous establishment needs us to feel about multi-culturalism, even as we pay lip service to difference. We already saw clearly – for example in far-right Tory arsewipe Aiden Burley’s “multi-cultural crap” tweet and a Daily Mail piece so bursting with racism even they re-edited it – how Boyle’s opening work was drastically radical by comparison: ethnicity and background properly enmeshed and un-highlighted.
Kim gave a similar bashing to gender, sensitivity perhaps heightened by how the past three weeks has been an extraordinary Olympic Games for women; with significant, real steps taken. The ‘fashion biz’ segment in the Closing Ceremony was an unfathomably regressive bit of choreographed objectification. It felt deliberate, as if designed to rein in any aspiration or hopes that briefly glimpsed light this past month. Huge photos of girls in posh frocks. Superstar models appear, celebrified, apeing their runway work on flatbeds. It wasn’t a fashion show in itself, or a true celebration of design (which would’ve told us something about design). It was more like the revenge of the owner of the commodified clothes-horse: as if womankind needed to be ritually re-objectified, after a short respite month of being valued in a better way. Ramming back home the wider truths of rape culture and wealth-based costumery idealism.
Appalling on both fronts: politically (not party-politically but in its representation of us as a people, a nation, to the world) and culturally, through its sheer, gobsmacking lack of material. Kim Gavin’s ceremony contained not a single new or unexpected idea. Not one! Just relentless looping of overly-seen bits from other big recent shows, produced by the same hegemony. The Who perform. Tick. Brian May does a big guitar solo. Tick. Ed Sheeran. Tick. There is no content and no meaning here whatsoever.
They were perfectly within their rights to produce a poor show – or rather, a show I personally didn’t enjoy: one person’s piece of crap is another person’s fun party. But what they weren’t within their rights to do was claw back the goodness. They stole our rapture and they put John Lennon’s dead face onto commodified conventionalism. Kim Gavin is the perfect example of an endemic disease in the modern British arts industry: a hugely powerful establishment creative director who is not actually a creative person, or if he was, long ago outsourced it for status and pies. His show was not cookery but mere assemblage – a Lego house built from bricks we all saw already, outdated values and the co-opting and commodifying of grace. And not even an interestingly shaped whole.
What Boyle’s Opening Ceremony had done was open up the doors; a box of delights; the best of what we are and what we can be in Great Britain, how we built this motherfucker. Showing us our truthful crazy-beautiful spirit and heralding in two weeks of sport in such a way that we felt something could be reclaimed and changed. We repaid him by being the best athletes, volunteers and audience in history.
What Gavin’s Closing Ceremony has done is to throw Britain back in the box and slam it shut; fiercely and unquestioningly placing current hegemonies back in charge; re-infantilising and re-exoticising all that Boyle had tried to unlock for us; a revenge for the otherness and the hierachy and the celebrity-for-its-own-sake, just as these bullshit Cowellian things had seemed to be proven unneeded. It was a boot on our face. I wonder how we’ll repay him.
I think I played my longest ever show last night, at Hebden Bridge Arts Festival.
Hebden Bridge (stunning little Yorkshire valley town in the Pennines, fierce non-conformist spirit, steep hills) is recovering from horrendous floods last week. It’s amazing the Arts Festival went ahead really; many businesses and cafés are still shut to clean themselves up. So for emergency venue logistics reasons, my gig in the brand new (not quite finished) Town Hall needed to run concurrently with an improvised dance performance downstairs (since my audience had to walk across their stage to get to me, or more importantly to the bar!).
So I was asked to do two sets, with the first one lasting at least 40 minutes, so both audiences would go for their interval drinks at the same time. Inevitably then my second set just stretched out – it ran well over an hour in the end, so total performance time works out at 1 hour 55 minutes.
I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. Right now it feels great as an ‘achievement’ but obviously that has nothing to do with ‘ace’ or ‘shite’ gigs, really. The audience was proper lovely and (I’m sure) was honestly up for an encore, so that’s a good sign after 90 minutes I guess.
Mostly I’m pleased I can do that with songs to spare (for example as soon as I walked off I was annoyed for missing out ‘The Shape We’re In’) and I’m proud to say that although there was a bit of thinking beforehand about song running order, I didn’t use an actual setlist, instead mentally connected ‘chunks’ of different sets that work well together. 🙂
By the way, if you were there and have an opinion on the lengthy set – criticism is fine – do let me know.
Here’s the set, it’s 26 songs:
Love Is Not Rescue
A Box To Hide In
A Plague On Both Your Houses
Preaching To The Converted
What If My Heart Never Heals?
Open & Shut
Shit From All Angles
The Huntsman Comes A-Marchin’
The Tin Man
Words Fail Me
Elephant In The Room
The English Earth
Lines & Squares (A.A. Milne)
Market Square (A.A. Milne)
Then I drove home to Brighton. Get me, with the stamina.
*EDIT* By the way, I forgot to say: on my last tour I opened and closed with two Milne poems; ‘Halfway Down’ and ‘Come Out With Me’ (which then reprises a verse of ‘Halfway Down’ at the very end). If you’re (by any chance) wondering why I didn’t do that – and why there are only two Milne poems in the set, just thrown in the encore – it’s because I also performed the full Disobedience A.A. Milne show at HBAF the previous day – and there were some people who came to both shows. So I wanted to minimise crossover. That’s also why I didn’t play ‘Hedgehog Song’ – it’s in the Milne show too.