Who’s the biggest artist you saw before they were famous, asked Drowned in Sound on Twitter the other day.
My answer would have to be Muse in 1999, I think. I saw them playing what was then called the New Tent on, if memory serves, the Friday morning of my first (and so far only) Glastonbury.
I try not to be negative in my blogs, only criticising elements in a thing that overall I do like. But, I suppose, some circumstances demand honesty. I didn’t like Muse then, and I don’t like them now. A cross between Nirvana, Radiohead and Queen sounds like a good idea on paper, but something about Muse repelled me and continues to do so. Matt Bellamy’s vibrato-laden voice sounds to me the way that I imagine Thom Yorke sounds to other people. Nails on a blackboard. And being a rather humourless young man (and I was young. Somehow I convinced my parents to let me go to Glastonbury aged 17), I found his wannabe-rock-star stage presence contemptible. The ambition just poured out of him. Urgh. So uncool.
My friends liked them, which just made it worse.
At the same festival, I also saw a similarly not-famous-yet Doves and, because no one else was on so early in the day, Toploader. For my American readers, who I assume escaped them, Toploader went on to release a ubiquitous and absolutely disgraceful cover of King Harvest’s Dancing in the Moonlight. Radio stations then took this ghastly, badly sung recording of what was already an annoyingly repetitive song and absolutely pounded it into the ground by playing it eleventy billion times in the next two years. Toploader remain, by some distance, the worst professional band I’ve ever seen live.
Here’s a crazy thing, though. Muse didn’t end up the biggest act who played the New Tent that year. At least if the poster is accurate,* there were bigger stars in the making at Glastonbury 1999 who I didn’t see. Briefly, the crown looked like it might go to David Gray, who sold five million copies of White Ladder in the UK and seven million worldwide over the first few years of the millennium. But longer term, the winner was Coldplay. I don’t need to tell you what they’ve gone to do. I’m not sure who I was watching while they were playing. If my memory is correct, 1999 was pre-Yellow, pre-Parachutes, so it’s probable I’d never heard any of their music.
I’ve hardly seen any band at a club or theatre gig who went on to great success. I’ve seen some good support bands who went nowhere, and some great ones who were already as big as they were ever going to be. But almost none who became famous. The closest might be Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro, who already seemed a band out of time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Garage at Highbury Corner, and unless I’m conflating two gigs (definitely a possibility!) they were supporting Echobelly. My college friend Ru had recently been drafted in on bass to replace Debbie Smith. I actually thought they were OK; certainly preferable to Matt Bellamy.
I’m unsure what this says about how frequently bands progress from support slots to mega stardom. It may simply be that the sorts of bands I go to see don’t get paired with young up-and-comers who have a genuine shot at a sustained career. Perhaps that’s because most of the musicians I go to see are at least my age if not older. People who go to gigs at the Barbican are not the sort of market that record companies and managers are trying to court for their hot new artists.
*The three artists I most wanted to see R.E.M., Elliott Smith and Sebadoh. The latter two both pulled out. Sigh. I did get to see Smith a couple of times before he died. Sebadoh I didn’t get to see until 2014.