Björk, Underworld, 808 State: Irvine Beach ’96, Irvine Beach Park, Scotland

BEACHED WAILS

NAKED ARSE cheeks hump away on the sodden hillside. At least two punters here are, quite literally, having it large. After ten bleeding festivals in as many weeks, this reporter thought he’d seen everything. But an open-air shag in full public view? Marvellous. Can I come home now please?

Mind you, under the circumstances it’s no surprise people have resorted to making their own, erm, entertainment. Here we are at — no pun intended — the arse end of the festival season and, apparently, of the universe too; a grim concentration camp of a park huddled alongside what looks like Europe’s biggest industrial estate. Icy gales howl off the Irish Sea and whip mercilessly through this tidal gathering. Cheers.

Last year Oasis rocked Irvine Beach to massive acclaim, but this is a sadder affair, with ticket sales drastically depleted by miserable weather and heavyweight Scotfest competition. The 8,000-capacity site looks half-full. The day before. Supergrass and their indie mates pulled half that again. Not even the — no pun intended — erection of a huge circus tent to shelter bands and public alike can disguise the serious atmosphere deficiency. Fortunately, those hardy souls who have made the effort seem seriously mad-for-it; there’s a smashed, upbeat, slightly desperate party vibe here straight out of Trainspotting. As indeed are the toilets.

The bands do their best to amp it up. “We are not Oasis!” proclaim 808 STATE helpfully as they take their sonic sledgehammer to the mid-evening lull. Subtlety is not in their vocabulary, mercifully, because burly beats and thunderous electro-sambas are required to yank this event out of its comatose slump.

In 1996, these Manc techno veterans should sound as outmoded as Jerry Lee Lewis did when The Beatles released Revolver. And yeah, sometimes you feel more grateful for their pioneering groundwork — introducing Björk to beats, for example — than for their beefy, chugging tunes. But the heart-pumping dementia of ‘In Yer Face’, the eerie warbling of guest vocalist Alison Goldfrapp and the twin-necked rockpig geetar which Graham Massey straps on for the twangtastic ‘Bond’, are three reasons why 808 State still plough their own bruisingly impressive path through ’90s pop. All power to them.

There’s more axe-wankery from UNDERWORLD too, with Karl lobbing naff rocker poses into the modish trio’s limitless techno tapestries. What is it with these dance boys? Isn’t a turntable phallic enough, or something? Of course, the ‘World personify this event’s Trainspotting ethos perfectly, cloaking their precision drum workouts in shouty love-thug laddishness. But their true forte is timing, triggering wave upon wave of mass adulation by simply twisting a knob here or barking out a meaningless rap there.

There’s precious little content here, musical or emotional, but the carefully orchestrated hysteria is hard to resist. Indeed, Underworld are so skilled at making endless, flat, featureless vistas thrilling, they should work for the East Anglian tourist board. Finally, of course, the majestic Mount Fuji that is ‘Born Slippy’ soars out of the tundra and Irvine Beach drowns in orgasmic rapture. A tune so magnificent you can almost forgive its authors for having virtually nothing else.

And so, inevitably, it falls to headliner BJÖRK to pull Irvine Beach out of its trough of slick averageness and forced jollity. Entertaining 2,000 ravers at such close quarters is the most intimate gig she has done in years, so excitement is naturally running high. She also chooses tonight to unveil her new winter look, knotted brown pigtails replacing that golden Grace Kelly bob, as if heralding something more natural and spontaneous after a summer of polished festival preening. This, your racing pulse suggests, could be the Björk show you always dreamed of, but never quite got.

Then again, as wonky opener ‘Headphones’ crashes into ‘Army Of Me’, you realise maybe a crude iron stage in a half-empty tent isn’t the ideal doorway into Björk’s magic kingdom. The breathless wonder of ‘The Modern Things’ and swirling melancholy of ‘Isobel’ seem just too brittle, too sinewy, too ambivalent for these mad-for-it hordes and their restless old-skool trainers.

But Björk, of course, is made of sterner stuff than that. So having lulled, cajoled, baffled and caressed us with such gems, she rewards us with a booming dancefloor marathon featuring a jungle-tastic ‘Big Time Sensuality’, a ferociously funky ‘Human Behaviour’, a belting ‘I Miss You’ and a roaringly anthemic ‘Violently Happy’. A true star performance, oblivious to her shabby surroundings, vital and alive and impassioned without compromising on emotional power. And not a guitar in sight.

So, finally, the Björk gig you always dreamed of has happened, rescuing Irvine Beach from the teeth of tragedy. As outdoor knee-tremblers go, we left not so much heroically spent as nicely tickled in the trouser department, thanks very much. No pun intended, obviously.

© Stephen DaltonNew Musical Express, 14 September 1996

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