I have seen Frank Turner play over five times now. I’ve seen him with a hundred other people, I’ve seen him with about twenty thousand people. Every time I’ve ever reviewed him, I’ve never had a bad thing to say. I still don’t. It’s impossible to give this show a proper review without repeating myself, so I’m just going to tell it straight. I’m going to tell you about The Frank Experience.
We got there way later than I had planned. Two of my friends forgot their tickets, so we dealt with that, stood in the doorway of the Bullring and pissing everyone off. As it turns out, you CAN just waltz in with a barcode number, but I didn’t care about that. I was a bit tense. Not only was Frank playing, but Against Me! were in town. If you’ve never seen Against Me! play live, you’re missing out. But we’ll get to that later. I had been planning on getting right to the front for that set, so we hurried on to the venue, did the obligatory Snapbooth pic and got into the crowd.
First of all, this was the weirdest crowd I had encountered in a long time. Weirder than the last Gaslight Anthem show I went to. I was surrounded by forty year old middle class women with their husbands and kids, chavs, indie girls and hipster guys. The last time I saw Frank headline, I was surrounded by sweaty punks with checked shirts and lumberjack beards. The last time I saw Against Me!, it was pretty much the same. “Excuse me, are you going to be stood there for the whole thing?” a well-to-do woman asked me as I tried to push forward to the front, sipping on her rose wine. “Nah, I just want to see this set. One of my favourite bands. Do you like punk?” She looked rather unamused by the whole endeavour. I turned around, ignored her, fended off some people who were trying to get past me, and waited for the band to come on.
Tonight was not a good night for Against Me!. Although Tom battled bravely with his throat (some tea made an appearance in the background halfway through the set), you could tell he was wrecked. The band also battled bravely with the crowd, who didn’t seem to care at all. From where I was stood, I could see about two people who were into it. I’m presuming a couple more over the other side of the stage. Usually, when I see Against Me! play, I’m surrounded by people who adore them, much like myself, and we sing as loud as we can, dance as hard as we can. There’s nothing quite like being linked arm in arm with guys who have more tattoo than skin and belting out Baby, I’m An Anarchist. But regardless, it was the first time I’d seen them with Jay behind the drums and they’re better than ever. One of the best setlists I’ve ever seen them play – Turn Those Clapping Hands Into Angry Balled Fists was a personal highlight – and an absolutely insane performance. They tried really hard with the audience they had. But one thing was clear – they were all here to see Frank and nobody else.
So when Frank came on and broke into Eulogy, the entire place erupted. I had relinquished my place on the barrier in order to find my friends. Admittedly I could barely see a thing, but I didn’t care as long as I was with my friends. Who would I be able to tell my story with when I end up in hell if not them? Even though I’d gone to find them, I barely realised they were there. It was clear to me then that Frank no longer needed my admiration – he had the admiration of the nation right there. The band burst into Try This At Home, and I realised that half of these people here tonight probably knew nothing about punk rock and how it makes such a difference in your outlook, in your life. But right then, it didn’t matter. Because they cared about something, they cared about it enough to stamp their feet and shake their bodies in time to the music. I thought back to the train station – a few guys from my uni were there on their way to the show. Too hip to talk to the likes of me, I wondered if they too had lost their nicotine cool and were going as mental as everyone else.
The Road is such a powerful song. It’s not something we can all relate to, though. Frank yells out at the start, that if you know the words to anything, you have to sing along. So, I look around me and almost the entire room is belting it back to him. My friend Mike can’t sing, and he has the loudest voice of all. It makes me grin, because he’s having a good time and doesn’t care about anyone else. I sing too, but I have classical training and am at least in tune. I always feel self conscious at gigs – are people going to look at me when I sing, try and decipher where the racket’s coming from? But nobody ever cares – they’re too busy doing it themselves. If Ever I Stray gets the band going in full force and an even louder singalong; there’s a lot of the ‘new’ crowd here tonight. But as soon as Frank breaks into Reasons Not To Be An Idiot, the whole room explodes. It’s the ultimate feelgood song, and so quintessentially British. Every time I’m moping around in the house, I put that on and I go outside. I think of home – it’s been a while since I’ve been back. I still can’t see a lot of the stage.
I Am Disappeared, although similar to The Road to its content, is something more relatable. I take a peek to the side. My friend Kari is singing with all his heart, fists raised. That middle section, that one line – “And come morning, I am disappeared” – runs shivers down my spine. It feels liberating, which is essentially how the entire evening feels. I give up my impartial journalistic tendencies, which only happens for the rarest of performers, and I am liberated. Love, Ire And Song, the title track to the first Frank album I ever bought, becomes even more rousing in the O2 Academy than I’ve ever heard it before. Polaroid Picture, a new song, is a total rock anthem. This is the first tour where The Sleeping Souls have been put on the main event title and their importance in Frank’s sound is now completely apparent. It’s a great song, but the minute it’s over and Wessex Boy starts, it’s almost completely forgotten. Wessex Boy appeals to the ‘new’ crowd, I guess. Although Frank’s lyrics have always been fairly focused on Britain, England Keep My Bones is as patriotic as you can get. Wessex Boy, in particular, is all about your hometown. I hate my hometown at this point in time and I don’t remember the place I was born all too well, but Wessex Boy makes me miss them both.
Nights Become Days is accompanied by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo. The raucous singing lessens a bit, even though everyone still knows the words. In particular, the couple in front of me are holding hands and singing, occasionally glancing at each other and smiling. I remember the first time I saw Frank, and a few more. I was with an ex. We never shared a moment like that, but even so, I think back to those shows. But the emotions don’t come flooding back. I know that the real test will be the Brand New show in February, but right now, I know that I am not in love with anything but the string section and that’s perfectly fine with me.
Frank confesses that he doesn’t really remember the words to the next song and had to Google them earlier. Must Try Harder was always a song I skipped on Sleep Is For The Week. Not that it was bad, but it was almost at The Ballad Of Me And My Friends so inevitably, off it went. Frank doesn’t do too bad a job for not remembering the words though. And then, we’re back in our element as I Knew Prufrock Before He Was Famous gets played. All I could think throughout this song was that my sister should be there. I’ve been to about 75% of the Frank Turner sets I’ve been to with my sister. She’s probably one of those indie girls I mentioned earlier (my housemate declares her as “Topshop”), but she’s got the most incredible wit. Nobody makes me laugh more than my sister. She wants lyrics from Prufrock tattooed on her. She hasn’t done it yet, but no doubt when she does, I’ll be there and I’ll be taking her to Modern Body Art. My mum will probably love it because it’ll be feminine and beautiful, whereas my AFI nephilim is just “cute, but were you sure you wanted that for life?” What Mum doesn’t get is that AFI are my INXS, my Bon Jovi. AFI, and punk in general, led me to make the life decisions that got me into a top class university, to start writing, to be who I am and not give a damn what everyone else thinks I should be. I don’t know if that’s how my sister feels about Frank Turner, but if she can remind herself that life is about love, last minutes and lost evenings, then I think she’ll be doing just fine.
Sons Of Liberty seems so relevant now, so much more than ever before. The Occupy movement is one of the biggest political statements we’ve seen in such a long time. It’s not quite coherent enough for my taste, not yet, but Sons Of Liberty seems so appropriate. For the first time in ages, it’s accompanied by the proper violin, courtesy of the Red Clay Halo. I sort of missed Frank’s guitar substitute, but I stood together with my brothers and sisters. I felt like I should be doing more. I always feel like I should be doing more. Punk rock shouldn’t be sitting around waiting for the lights to go green. It should be barrelling through red and asking why the fuck not. (As it stands, I’m writing this on the day of the civil strikes. My mum’s striking today, visiting my sister while I type in my sickbed.) This is the year of discontent, let alone the summer, and it is marked well here tonight. One Foot Before The Other gets fists equally raised. Will Frank be our legacy? Will we be playing his records to our children, telling them that this is what inspired us to keep going? I probably will be, alongside reading them Black Coffee Blues before bed.
Peggy Sang The Blues always makes me smile. This is one that me and my sister belt out in the car. “No one gets remembered, for the things they didn’t do” is a line that resonates so much with me. I’m young and optimistic still, for the most part, so I sing every word as loud as I can, but as I’ve got a bit of a sore throat, it actually comes out with that much desired folk punk drawl. The couple in front of me are still singing to each other. Frank introduces Glory Hallelujah as a hymn, and truthfully, as I look around, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone were to call this “The Church of Frank Turner”. The faithful congregation dance and sing in a fashion the Church of England probably wouldn’t approve of. When the album first came out, Kari picked up on the atheistic content of it on our radio show, but it doesn’t seem to stop anyone here having a great time, regardless of belief. There’s a great feeling of community, and I don’t regret leaving my barrier position one iota.
Long Live The Queen is one of my favourite Frank songs, so I’m always really pleased to hear it played live. This was a fully rocked up version, and despite the fact that it’s so sad, it’s also so uplifting. It reminds me that I should be living while I can. So we dance, and we dance for all those who have left. We still believe. Frank reminds us, before he breaks into I Still Believe, that music brought us all together tonight and that it’s a powerful tool, and we should never forget that. I Still Believe is another of my favourite Frank songs, summing up everything I feel about punk, about rock, about music in general. It’s got some bloody great potential for gang vocals as well. And finally, he puts down the guitar and picks up the microphone and does a cover of Somebody To Love. Much like at Reading Festival, in the Lock Up stage, I realise that Frank is every inch the rockstar now, albeit a highly unconventional one. He’s fast becoming a well loved British institution, like Freddie was. And he’s got a brilliant voice as well!
The band and Frank disappear off the stage. The crowd whip up a frenzy, chanting “we want more, we want more!” I don’t join in. There’s two songs I know he hasn’t played yet and two songs I know he won’t leave us without. Frank comes back alone, guitar in hand. He plays us a new song, Cowboy Chords, and then The Ballad Of Me And My Friends. The entire room bellows it back at him, especially the last line. Tonight will be one of those stories we’ll have to tell. Two of my friends have disappeared and I don’t know why. But I remain with the friends who are there. We look at each other knowingly and scream it out – “We’re definitely going to hell, but we’ll have all the best stories to tell!”
The band come back on, and I know exactly what’s coming next. Photosynthesis. My friend Chris comes bounding over and grabs me by the waist on one side, Kari on the other side, and it’s one of those moments that only comes around a few times in a lifetime. Frank pauses in the middle of the song and we think we know what’s coming. We get prepared to sit down and jump up again, but capacity won’t allow it. Instead, two enormous confetti cannons let loose a stream of pink glory. It drops into my handbag and to places I didn’t think it could go. Indeed, when I get home and get undressed, about five or six strips fall from my bra alone. The gig ends and we walk back to the train station, sweaty and buzzing. We run through the streets like nobody else is there, trying to put into words what we just saw. And these ones are mine.
It is very clear that Frank no longer needs my admiration. But he will have it, always and forever.