LIVE: IDLES @ Abbey Road, London

By Andy Joice

Look, we’re still in a weird place. Although we’re starting to see live shows back, they’re rightly keeping fans distant from each other. For most of us, the idea of socially distanced gigs, whilst being the correct course of action, would be difficult to tolerate. Without being able to jump all over each other, feel other people’s sweat and sing into the ears of anyone around us, there’s a key part of the experience missing. The tactile nature of music might be on hold, but it doesn’t stop the bands we love from trying to create a ‘live event’ for their fans. One example of this is the recent IDLES streams.

Set at the historic Abbey Road Studios, IDLES put on three live-streamed performances over the space of 24 hours. A band that thrives off a rampant crowd, it was always going to be in interesting watch; Frontman Joe Talbot feeds of the atmosphere, whilst guitarists Mark Bowen and Lee Kiernan spend as much time amongst the fans as they do onstage. With it being an empty studio apart from a couple of techs, would they be able to bring the same level of chaos as they would a packed venue? The answer is, of course, yes.

Set one started with debut album ‘Brutalism’ opener, ‘Heel/Heal’, which explodes in layers of distortion and growls from Talbot. It would be easy to assume the stream would be a standard sort of Zoom setup, front facing cameras and sketchy displays. But, given the gravitas of the event, there are numerous cameras, one pointing downwards capturing the entire band, and numerous roving ones that capture each member in all their glory. The usually Y-front attire of Bowen is replaced by a delightful peach velour suit that later gets address further down the set.

It’s clear from the first couple songs that the tension is palpable. Although ‘Heel/Heal’ and ‘Never Fight A Man With A Perm’ go off without a hitch, Talbot flubs the opening lines of ‘Stendhal Syndrome’, forcing the band to stop before restarting with no issues. Despite there being no fans, it’s clear the passion is there in equal amounts as the nerves: “Semi-professional for life”, Talbot says to the band, before kicking into new track ‘Kill Them With Kindness’. Chunky, witty and poundingly melodic, it’s certain to become an instant classic. For many, the stream is the first chance to hear songs from upcoming album ‘Ultra Mono’ and, judging from the singles and the tracks played over the next 24 hours, it’ll be as raucous, thought provoking and noisy as ever.

‘Gram Rock’ and ‘Love Song’ lead into the set’s first cover, a haunting rendition of The Ramones ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’. Slowed to the point of standstill, it’s atmospheric and truly mesmerising, with bends and echoes sitting slightly underneath Talbot’s vocals. Despite him thinking he had “fucking fucked it at the end”, it wasn’t noticeable at all. Talbot is always his own worst critic, but fans of IDLES will appreciate that mistakes aren’t only tolerated, they’re embraced – they’re what makes us human. To quote fan favourite ‘Mr Motivator’ – you can do it, you’re Joe Cal-fucking-zaghe.

Stunning renditions of ‘1049 Gotho’, and ‘Television’, as well as the aforementioned ‘Mr Motivator’ reset the vibe and Talbot looks infinitely more comfortable. IDLES have no right to sound this good, despite the maniacal nature of the band, they’re almost studio quality, unbelievably tight and hitting every note with absolute precision. As the set closes with ‘Rottweiler’, it seems they’re hitting their stride; chaos breaks out, with Talbot grabbing a second set of drumsticks and drumming beside Jon Beavis who’s now crashing into the cymbals with his forearms as Bowen smashes his guitar to pieces as the final notes ring out. As the minutes tick by towards the second set, it feels like set one is something of a cultural phenomenon, and one that should be seen by fans of music, regardless of their tastes.

Set two opens up with ‘Colossus’, the first track from second album ‘Joy As An Act Of Resistance’ (can you see the theme here?). A slow builder that descends into carnage, it’s the perfect opener, with thick rhythms and a tempo that slowly increases as the song progresses. A quick wardrobe change (Bowen is still fully clothed but adorned in a rather fetching Hawaiian shirt while Beavis is representing #SaveOurVenues).

It’s during ‘Love Song’ that we see some classic IDLES shenanigans. Between Kiernan getting stuck on a stair banister and Bowen singing “Lee in the sky with diamonds” at him, any other band would fall apart. For IDLES, this is all part and parcel of the performance. As Bowen helps him down, Talbot starts a rousing, if slightly out of tune, rendition of The Cranberries ‘Linger’ before Bowen joins in. Within all the madness of the last two minutes, neither Beavis nor bassist Adam Devonshire miss a beat.

‘Rachel Khoo’ is dedicated to the AF Gang (As Fuck Gang, their own IDLES community) and is quickly followed by a cover of The Strokes ‘Reptilia’. Infinitely different, the distinct Strokes riff is gone, replaced by whining distortion and droning. Talbot’s voice might not be as strong and it may not boast as much range as Julien Casablancas’ but it’s equally distinctive. It’s gravelly nature lends itself to the thick, chewy rework. ‘Queens’ and ‘Danny Nedelko’ quickly follow and are performed with such a degree of precision, it’s difficult to believe they’re live.

Given ‘Queens’ is the oldest song on any of the sets, dating back to their 2015 ‘Meat’ EP, there’s a real range of tracks selected for Set Two, confirmed by the inclusion of latest single ‘Model Village’. Effortlessly quick and lyrically complex, it’s utterly flawless. Talbot closes the song with a clarification ‘for anyone who doesn’t get metaphors – it’s about England’, playing up to their distain towards right leaning politics.

To close out what’s been a varied set, ‘Well Done’ is one of the punchiest songs on the setlist. Thicker than mince, it’s weight closes what’s been a faultless performance, with Talbot able to squeeze in a few lines of Zed Bias’ ‘Neighbourhood’ into the mix.

After a quick sleep, we’re back for Set three, and it opens with ‘War’, the first track from ‘Ultra Mono’. Where ‘Colossus’ opened Set Two with a slow build, the impact from ‘War’ is immediate, with it’s crashing powerhouse of a melody blowing 90% of speakers by the second bar. We definitely should’ve turned it down.

‘I’m Scum’ is an anthem that even the most passive of IDLES fans will get up and chant along to. Missing the lyrics slightly, Talbot recovers with the line “I don’t care I got the lyrics wrong, everybody knows this fucking song”. If the first set was besieged with nerves, there are none there now – the rust has fallen away and everything is as tight as it was at Alexandra Palace late last year. ‘Mercedes Marxist’ and ‘Faith In The City’ follow suit, barely a note missed. As the closing notes of ‘Samaritans’, ring out, Talbot professes ‘I’ve missed this so fucking much’, and the relief is visible on his face. We’ve all missed it, Joe. We’ve missed you too.

Throughout all three sets, they’ve avoided playing any slower songs (aside from The Ramones cover) but things change when the heartwrenching ‘A Hymn’ starts. Another song off ‘Ultra Mono’, it’s an ambient powerhouse that feels comfortably at home at Abbey Road, and while it might not have the sonic depth that some of the others boast, its lyrical depth is immeasurable. Throughout large parts, Talbot is on his knees with his eyes closed, feeling every single word, and it’s easy to imagine that when on stage in front of adoring fans, he’ll be in the same state.

To go from the lethargic ‘A Hymn’ to ‘Divide And Conquer’ is jarring in a way only IDLES can pull off. Its almost claustrophobic nature rips you back from a moment of solemnness to remind you that the NHS is dying. ‘Divide And Conquer’ is Talbot at his angriest, and this performance is indicative of it, stamping angrily and throwing fists at invisible politicians.

As the final song of the night – and indeed, all three sets – is a cover, we’re almost certainly guaranteed to get a Beatles cover. And a Beatles cover we get. It arrives in the form of one of the most discordant, thrashy versions of ‘Helter Skelter’ ever heard, and if this was the version Charles Manson had heard, he would’ve almost certainly been a good boy. Throwing in a couple of lines of Placebo’s ‘Pure Morning’ (a friend in need is a friend indeed, we can’t comment on one with weed, though), it’s the sort of cover that you wish would be released as a single later down the line.

In the lead up to a new album, and having just announced a UK  and European tour, it’s fair to say IDLES aren’t taking lockdown lying down. They’re constantly working to get content to their fans, even running a series of videos on their YouTube channel – and the Lock-In Sessions prove that despite the many strings to their bow, performing is still one of their strongest assets. If this is the most we get to see of IDLES before non-socially distanced gigs, it’s been one hell of a show.