FRANK TURNER Tunbridge Wells Forum. 10 Jan 2013.
“Things didn't kill me but I don't feel stronger. Life is short but it feels much longer. You've lost that drive, you've lost that hunger. To pull yourself through the day.”
How did this happen? The old fashioned way. Frank Turner – formerly voice of unfairly forgotten Million Dead – has been treading the solo singer/songwriter path for seven years, and become quietly huge. 300,000 albums and 1,322 gigs later, he is the worst kept secret in music : plying his trade on stage and anywhere that will have him, but not the kind of artist that gets singles, 'hits', or on the credits of Wogan / Jonathan Ross, and so forth. He gets wheeled out to the Olympics in the name of authenticity, but really, there's no pretence here : a man who wants his music to be heard, and a man who is not precious about cliques or hipsters – if you like the music, it's for you. “This music is for everyone”, he states.
For me, it was love at first sight. Reading 2010 on BBC TV, and I caught this singer, and within 10 minutes, that was my musical discovery of the year. It's been many years actually since I found a musician I love this much, and who I fell for so instantly, and it's not that I don't want to. Modern cultural discourse means little to me – and whilst films and books and art still grab and enthrall me, modern music generally doesn't. I'm aware of it, and who is and isn't big, but – like 2002 and 1992 – I have little care for what it is in the charts, what the hits are, who is and isn't in the papers. I care about music that touches me. The red tops can have their Dappys and their Kardishans and Cheryls, yet more troubled/useless fame seekers who mistake attention for talent.
I need someone who sings from his heart and fucking means it.
“Maturity's a wrapped up package deal or so it seems. and ditching teenage fantasy means ditching all your dreams. All your friends and peers and family are telling you will, have to grow up, be an adult, be bored and unfulfilled.”
It's not that there isn't loads of great new music being made. It is. But it doesn't touch with me. Lyrically, I have to connect. I have to gain a sense of meaning. A great song with awful words is a modern blockbuster : all sound and fury, signifying and communicating nothing. A great big speech with no message. All action, and no plot. It has to mean something. I've got a feeling that tonight's gonna be a good good SHUT UP.
And what are the words? Some are amazing. Others have nothing to do with me : Where I am in my life, some of the abstract concepts associated with new bands have little meaning to me : going out, getting drunk, finding and losing love, these are old stories to me I've heard a million times before. If you want to sing about these things, you have to be not just good, but unique.
I have to see something I have seen a million times before and see it as if for the first time.
I want and need answers to eternal questions : who am I, where am I, what am I? What are we? What is life? Why do we breathe? Why do we love? These are the questions that I never answer, that no one has ever truly answered, but with each song, I might occasionally get slightly nearer to. These are the things that Frank Turner has sung about for many years, the world, and who we are in it, with a honest – not exactly confessional, but a frank (ba-dum-tish!) - view. With this, words that connect, and a live show that is amongst the best in the world, channeling old-world Springsteen – Turner has become a sort of one-man religion : a spirit guide in the modern world. And a skinny arsed International Crime Fighting singer songwriter bloke. First a man and a guitar with a small and dedicated constituency, who became a man and a band and a much larger set of dedicated fans. You don't just “like” Frank Turner. You love him, or not at all.
“It doesn't matter where you come from, it matters where you go. No one gets remembered for the things they did not do.”
As part of its twentieth anniversary celebration, Tunbridge Wells Forum, voted Best Small Venue In The UK by the increasingly-worthless NME,is fast becoming my favourite venue in the world. A small, one room, 250 capacity converted Victorian Toilet in the middle of a park in a small British Countryside town, it is – as Frank wisely points out in “I Still Believe” - exactly the type of venue that gave the world the phrase “Toilet Circuit”. Given Frank's popularity (his last London headline show was Wembley Arena), tonight sold out in 7 minutes, including a website crash. And, as his wont, Turner is always playing live somewhere in the world : as I type he's in Finland just two days after finishing Album#5. But here and now, with the Forum celebrating it's 20 anniversary in the vile trench that is the music business (“It's A Shit Business”,as an old Million Dead bside had it), these types of punters, these venues, these singers, this world, may not be profitable, may not make money, but are so much more valuable than just another fucking pizza restaurant.
So, one man and a guitar, after 900 gigs and 23 years, make a new entry into my unofficial list of Top Ten Gigs. For two hours, he sings his heart out in 23 songs, tells stories some old, some new, many of them well known to the people who have seen him hundreds of times. The last time I felt a communal audience of such intensity was in 1991, during the height of Morrissey's insane and ramshackle first solo tour : an audience, together, but alone in their own world, many of whom have every word deep inside themselves, ready to uncurl the songs at a moments notice. Either side of me, girls around half my age are able to, and consistently, sing out every word for each song word-perfect. Behind me, a greying pensioner 25 years older than me (by a guess) bellows out the words and gets them EXACTLY right. Apart from possibly, the as yet unreleased ones – though even only-on-live-DVD “Four Simple Words” gets an audience singalong and impromptu audience participation.
As a showman, Turner has the audience in the palm of his hand. Though the 'Air Harmonica' section happens at every gig, it is still a somewhat unique experience. But the songs are what we came for. Few people write words as insightful or accurate as he does. Whilst many other bands lather themselves in bombast and subterfuge, mistaking meaninglessness for depth and ambiguity, Turner is direct. “I'm not as awesome as this song makes out … I'm building bonfires of my vanities and doubts to keep myself warm”, and don't these all sound familiar? To someone who is both confident and doubts? Someone who lives in the world, sees the glass for half-full and half-empty at the same time?
“We all have secrets we have to hide, the worst one I'll never confide, is that I'm never as confident as I seem.”
And an acoustic interlude where he takes requests, and mishears a heckle as a request for “Slayer!”. An acoustic version of “Angel Of Death” is followed by (at encore time) an acoustic take on “Raining Blood”. And then one of the best songs ever written : “Photosynthesis.”
At the end, this is in my top ten gigs of all time. And the best I have seen for years. And years. (And you know how many gigs I go to). Turner has a glorious future in front of him, of steady selling, long-lasting, endless road, or legendary shows, the closest thing Britain has to Bruce Springsteen without all that Working-Man-In-A-Garage Saxophone solo bullshit. A man, songs, and a tale of telling a life that so many of us can see in ourselves : seeing life for what it is and seeing through the world and the wind for the person we really are. Living through this crazy life and bringing back songs to keep us sane. I still believed that something as simple as rock and roll could save us all.
“I won't sit down. I won''t shut up. Most of all, I will not grow up.”
If ever I stray
Don't Try this At Home
Peggy Sang The Blues
I Knew Prufrock Before He Was Famous
Reasons Not To Be An Idiot
Rock n Roll Romance
4 Simple Words
Angel of Death
I Am Disappeared
Long Live The Queen
The Outdoor Type
I Still Believe