LCD Balloons

LCD Soundsystem – The Long Goodbye

UPDATE TO UPDATE: The recording of the concert mentioned below wove its way into the film Shut Up And Play The Hits, which I wrote about here.

UPDATE: According to this Facebook exchange, LCD Soundsystem have confirmed that a DVD release of the concert recording is on its way, once they have “mix[ed] the music” and “edit[ed] between all the cameras”. Great news!

So, as I was saying earlier, like a sleep-deprived fanboy, I spent the night of 2nd April sitting on the edge of my bed, watching Pitchfork’s live-stream of the final act in the LCD Soundsystem saga: a near-four-hour long concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Were it not for my comparatively sane flatmates, fast asleep, I probably would have been singing along at the top of my lungs—as it was, I was mouthing the lyrics under my breath most of the way through. I was giddy with excitement, and James Murphy did his best to assuage my distress at the realisation that, after tonight, his band would be no more. Finis.

LCD Soundsystem existed as both the archetype and the antidote to hipster culture. Murphy made no attempt to disguise his influences, many of whom are quoted liberally throughout the band’s œuvre—from the Iggy Pop cut-and-paste of “Somebody’s Calling Me”, to the deranged Fall-like madness of “Movement” and “Tired”. But throughout, it was a loving homage, not a pastiche. Murphy’s honesty set his music apart from the emptiness and façade-building of so much of the music which followed him.

The music of LCD Soundsystem was, in a word, generous. It welcomed you into its arms, even as it pointed out the tragic flaws at the heart of us all. On “I Can Change”, Murphy is unrepentantly a flawed romantic, putting himself down, putting others down, putting down the whole concept of a relationship. Through the simple channelling of his synth-pop heroes, the song is a triumph: you want to shed a tear alongside him, as well as for him. On “Yr City’s A Sucker”, a rambling 2004 B-side, he’s at once hyping up and deflating his adopted hometown, while a creepy/cheery synth line winds through a jumble of percussion and rock-solid bass. The effect is mesmerising; we await some kind of payoff which, when it arrives, not just embraces you, but practically swallows you up like an expanding star.

LCD Soundsystem
James Murphy – Flickr user Loren Wohl

The Long Goodbye, which was a wholly appropriate title, by the way, was a final act of generosity; the musical equivalent of a farewell hug before you depart for unknown shores. For one thing, there was the breadth and calibre of guests who showed up to help Murphy through this mammoth undertaking. Arcade Fire singing backup vocals on “North American Scum“. Reggie Watts scatting through the second part of “45:33″. Marcus Lambkin (a.k.a. Shit Robot) doing vocoderised battle with John MacLean (of The Juan MacLean and Six Finger Satellite) from opposing cardboard space-ships. A male choir which included the punk-rock-cum-music-critic band Mr. Dream. Quickly, I lost count of how many people were on stage.

My introduction to Talking Heads was, because I am a young person, listening to the 1984 live album Stop Making Sense. A year later or so, I unearthed the concert film of the same name, directed by Jonathan Demme. The concert in question, which took place at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater, is the best point of comparison to The Long Goodbye (lots of guest musicians, stylised overarching narrative), but even it pales in comparison to LCD Soundsystem’s ordeal. The Madison Square Garden concert was the culmination of a week’s worth of “warm-up” gigs at Terminal 5, each of which had themselves lasted three hours. This climactic event was split into multiple themed movements, each with their own costume changes. By dint of being a conclusion, as well as an apotheosis, there was a palpable countdown going on, as the band neared the final song (inevitably, “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down”).

In one of the episodes of the video diary which charted the progress of recording LCD Soundsystem’s final album, Murphy himself waxed philosophical on the closing phase of the band. “This has to happen,” he said, “this has to happen now.” And this was before the album had even been christened. Evidently, throughout the recording of This Is Happening, Murphy and his acolytes were cognisant of the external pressures acting on them, building up the sense of event surrounding the album’s release. This was not the overbearing hype that precedes the début of a twenty-one-year old, nor was it the calculating PR mumbo-jumbo that swathes the rebirth of a fallen popstar. This was the love of a band’s adoring fans and critics, by some process of osmosis, bleeding into everyday life at the Manshun.

And then Murphy would pull the rug from under his own feet, punch himself in the nose, and insist that it was “just a record”.

This tension between preparing for some kind of messianic happening, and just trying to have a good time, manifested itself in glorious fashion on the album in question. And come 2nd April, the same beast reared its head: the timer was counting down to the inevitable, while the band just wanted everyone to have fun. Fortunately, the execution was every bit as good as the conception, because this performance was flawless.

Judging by the reactions of those who were there in person, this concert may go down in history as one of the most culturally significant events of the twenty-first century. Back at home, some of this drama failed to seep through the computer screen—LCD pixels cannot convey emotion in the same way, it would seem. But even this simulacrum of being there was thrilling and moving, and I’d like to think at least some of the on-stage ecstasy found its way into my room.

The balance between chart-pleasing hits (though, as Murphy has intimated, “Maybe we don’t do hits”) and fan-pleasing cuts was struck perfectly in the first and third sets, and so we had “All My Friends” followed by “Tired”, and “North American Scum” trailed by the first and last performance of “Bye Bye Bayou“, an Alan Vega cover. Everywhere, you could see the band’s mastery of interstitial transitions between songs, a carryover from DJ-ing, no doubt, as in the way “You Wanted A Hit” morphed into “Tribulations” via Pat Mahoney’s indefatigable drumming, or in the way Gavin Russom artfully transformed the white-noise blowout at the end of “Yeah” into the elegant squiggles of “Someone Great”.

LCD Soundsystem - Shit Robot
Marcus Lambkin a.k.a. Shit Robot – Flickr user veropie

The second set was a treat for LCD die-hards, no mistake. I had longed to see “45:33″ being given an airing, and here it was! With a brass band in tin-foil spacesuits! While the other players got on with the job, you could see Murphy lurking around the back of the stage, tinkering with keyboards and amps and generally preparing himself for life post-LCD. It doesn’t suit him right now, but I’m sure in time it will.

It has been noted from both within and without the band that LCD Soundsystem were bulletproof from the start—that the mythos of the band proscribed criticism. I think that’s true, but I don’t say that in a curmudgeonly spirit. I read somewhere else that LCD was the band people had dared to dream about for a lifetime: with that kind of anticipation, who would begrudge them an iota of acclaim?

But even if you were the kind of person who winced at the plaudits they have attracted, The Long Goodbye was their night; their chance to go out with a bang at everyone’s expense. And, credit to them, they didn’t. Worthier champions than that, the gig felt inclusive and all-encompassing. More than that, it looked like an effort beyond the call of duty. As we approached the finale–three songs left… two songs left…–Murphy was visibly shattered; destroyed, even. A week of exertions had taken their toll on the man; nine years of a purported ‘side-project’ had almost claimed a victim. But he was determined to the end, which made for a wonderful night.

LCD Soundsystem - Madison Square Garden -  4.2.11
Balloons at the end – Flickr user skinnyboybalki

And so they departed, “like a sales-force into the night”, Murphy pausing only to tentatively stab a stray balloon which had worked its way onto the stage, before making a characteristically low-key exit.

How I will miss this band.♦

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