THE 1975 

Live at the SSE Arena - 30.1.23
by Ben Magee

Photos by  Jordan Curtis Hughes

Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Bo Burnham is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I AM Matty Healy.”

It’s been many years since The 1975 played their inaugural Belfast show in the Oh Yeah Centre on Gordon Street. Your intrepid writer was there, with a fresh ‘The 1975’ debut album CD in his pocket, watching Matty Healy self-aggrandise his own misery and chastise the crowd.

Not much has changed then.

Perhaps the most polarising mainstream act in the world right now, the Manchester chart- toppers brought their highly meme-able world tour to a close in Belfast’s SSE Arena (“Bring back The Odyssey” we cry. “NO” whispers Sammy Wilson through a mouth of Tayto Smokey Bacon). Now as famed for their interactive live set pieces as their number-1 selling albums, The 1975 are as much a spectacle live as they are an act. I’m sure Healy, in the brief moments he’s able to pull himself from the mirror, is delighted. Because love or hate; we’re still talking about them and that’s been the whole point.

We take our seats as opening act Bonnie Kemply begins her set. On her first-ever tour, an international one (that is a mental and very 1975 thing to do), she holds down the fort tremendously ahead of the stadium-sized shoes to fill. To a nearly full house, the talented singer harmonises her way through a series of alternative singer-songwriter bops and some spacey Wolf Alice-esque foot stompers. The crowd responds in kind with a sea of camera phone lights and shrieks of approval. Thirty minutes fly by, and she’s off the stage almost as quickly as she’s on.

A lull then, as the curtains close and the stage is set. A quiet murmur of bets breaks out - will they play ‘Menswear’ tonight as they have a few others? Do you think he’ll like my ‘I Hate The 1975’ T-shirt? Can you autotune “Hate The Westlink?” or “Control It Travis” better? My money was on the former.

The quiet pressure builds to a boil, and you’re suddenly aware of the grip this band has on their fans. It’s stronger than perhaps any one act has over their stand barring Harry Styles and bisexuals or Westlife and Country Cork. Lonely This Christmas by Mud, an homage to Elvis and singing in his style, comes on over the tannoy builds and builds in the background over the speakers, its crescendo bursting the stadium's tension bubble as the curtain falls. The Ratman himself sits centre stage, smoking a menthol as his band set up a kitchen sink stage diorama around him. At Their Best indeed.

At 8:30 pm sharp the music begins, with each player of the night announced on the jumbo screens as if they are characters in a nepo-baby sitcom. The signature janky riffs that have become part of the furniture in contemporary pop music are loud and true tonight as the band blast through a medley of recent singles and carefully composed melodramatic antics, with self-admitted influences in tropical house and African-American music culture bleeding through in the rhythms and melodies of tracks like “I’m In Love With You” and “About You”.

And then a curious pattern begins to emerge. Frontman Healy continues his normal gyrations around the stage but starts obliquely referencing the physical movements of one E. Presley, whose tribute track by Mud was used to end the stage prep and begin the show. We know from experience that nothing is as seems for the quartet, and they are almost Bo Burnham-ian in their performance curation. This has hardly been an uncontroversial tour (see any TikTok or Twitter post for reference), but one can’t help but wonder when experiencing this in person how much of that has been deliberate.

A sheltered child whose talent got the better of him before falling into destructive habits in pursuit of a creative career? I’m sure it didn’t take too much personal convincing to draw the comparisons between himself and Elvis for this performance, and soon he began seeking controversy like a moth to a flame. And what’s most annoying, is that it works brilliantly.

As you watch him stagger from one song to another across the stage, like the broken protagonist of a Squeeze 45”, in the grips of an emotional climax that’s less kitchen sink drama and more living-room man-flu, you actually begin to appreciate the choreography of it all. “It’s all a show of some kind” he mutters bitterly during one of his many monologues. No one cares. They scream for his approval anyway. A plan well made, and expertly executed.

After the new songs are finished, the band launch into the hits. “Chocolate”, “It’s Not Living”, “Menswear” (knew it), “Robbers”, “The Sound” and “Sex” are fired out like bullets, and you suddenly come face to face with the fact that the band you equally love and can’t stand have a discography that can go ten rounds with any pop act in history. The night closes with “Give Yourself A Try”, Healy’s love and hate letter to himself. Fitting. Five Stars. No notes. I hate them. I love them.