I remember the first time I heard The Polyphonic Spree. I was bored and channel hopping, we had Sky TV at the time, so there were a lot of channels to hop. I’d cycled round to the BBC channels again and there on BBC 2 was “Later with Jools Holland”. I normally avoid this programme as I find Holland insufferably smug, but I paused for a second as he introduced this odd looking band with an odd sounding name. Dressed in robes and wait . . . was that a theramin?
“Hanging Around the Day”
More later, said Jools, so I stopped channel hopping. Ella Fitzgerald turned up which is never a bad thing, and sweetened the waiting, but back they came with “Soldier Girl”. At the time, I remember trying to describe them to a friend and the best I could manage was “Imagine the soundtrack to ‘Hair’ if it had been recorded by The Partridge Family”.
Being Mr Ex-Music Industry-Cynical About Everything, it’s rare that a band blows me away quite so completely in such a short space of time. I felt like a teenager again. I was ‘a fan’ of something again instead of merely stroking my chin, appreciative of something and wondering how many units it would shift. It’s fair to say they hit me like a truck.
I bought the album and annoyed the crap out of my partner by playing it non-stop for more and longer than is seemly.
Shortly after, in the real world, life went a bit weird. It gets very personal from here, so if you are upset by the discussion of mental illness, I’d bow out now if I were you.
It’s no great shock to friends and readers of my blog, that I suffer from bipolar disorder. I’d been trying to convince doctors of that for 20 years or so, but all I got was anti-depressants that didn’t work. So when I went on a down swing, I really went on a down swing. Sometimes, this did lead to thoughts of taking my life. It’s not uncommon among bipolar sufferers. Adding to that, I was being mercilessly bullied at work and, bizarrely, bullied by colleagues from a previous job, too (that’s a whole other story!). I’d been in hospital with a potentially life threatening illness and worse yet, I was about to turn 40. The crushing weight of being forced to acknowledge that I was no longer a ‘young man’ was playing heavily on me. It’s not actually that big a deal, really, but in my bipolar down state, it was the most devastating thing in the world.
Anyway, things came to head and I made the decision. I didn’t know when or where or how, but suicide seemed the only option.
Looking back, the phrase ‘Drama Queen’ seems appropriate. However, the benefits of hindsight after (finally) getting your bipolar diagnosis, puts past decisions and behaviours into perspective. However much you may feel embarrassed, ashamed or just stupid about suicidal thoughts, you learn and understand that they are a symptom of an illness and out of your control in the way that a snotty nose is a symptom of a cold. Nothing to be ashamed of there.
So what’s this got to do with the Polyphonic Spree?
Well, in the depths of my down, they released “Together We’re Heavy”.
I’d taken a few days off work just to get a bit of breathing space and the CD plopped through my front door. A moment of sunshine on an otherwise grey day. By this time, though, I was actually planning my death.
Except . . .
“Hold Me Now” came on.
It hit me like a sledgehammer and on that transcendent trumpet solo, I broke down and wept. And carried on weeping. And weeping. And weeping. Deep, wrenching, physically exhausting sobs.
That song, that moment, forced the issue. Something in that song, something triumphant, made me make the decision not to choose death, but to choose life. I got help. I forced my doctor into giving me the help I needed. 25 years of being treated for ‘depression’ was long enough to wait. However, teen-angsty it might sound, that song quite literally saved my life. As a result of hearing that song, things changed. I found the courage to take control, I started to get myself a ‘proper’ education. That took me to University to get an Fine Art Degree, something I’d intended doing back before the music industry sang its siren song. I still can’t listen to “Hold Me Now” without crying.
I’d never managed to see them play live. I don’t know why. It’s just for some reason, I’d never really heard about tours or dates until it was far too late. Anyway, I finally got to see them this weekend.
A couple of months ago they announced a “15th Anniversary of ‘The Beginning Stages’ . . .” tour.
I wasn’t going to miss that!
Now the big problem is that although I remain positive and have a good life and make an extremely meagre living from writing (it’s okay, I’m not motivated by money, as long as I can eat and create, anything else is a bonus), I’m in the throes of a fairly major bout of agoraphobia. My third instance. It’s related to the bipolar thing, but causes me no real distress, despite the inconvenience. I work from home anyway . . . So how the bloody hell do I get to see the band I love without leaving the house?
Bloody mindedness, that’s how!
It’s okay, I’m not saying “The Spree cured me of everything!” or anything so crass, I’m still bipolar and still agoraphobic, but it was personally *necessary* for me to go and, in a very small way, say thank you.
We made it to Oxford 02 Academy with little in the way of drama, got inside and waited.
The DJ played – he was actually very good and played some truly immense stuff. The support played – I’ll be kind and say they werent to my taste (poor facial hair and man buns didn’t help). The DJ came back and god damn it, he played stuff from both the Partridge Family and the soundtrack to Hair! This was a good omen.
The simple fact is that The Polyphonic Spree could have been shit and I would have still enjoyed it. Being at that gig was not simply about seeing a band I love live, it was about saying thank you for them making it possible for me to be there.
As it turned out, they were fucking amazing!
They started by playing the whole of “The Beginning Stages . . .”
Anyone who knows me knows that I loathe the heat, so an album about saying how fantastic the sun is seems an unlikely favourite. For me, though, the album is more about love, spirituality and community; three things I hold dear. And the Polyphonic Spree offer all of that in a pleasingly non-religious way, despite the obvious ‘cult’ tropes.
Live, “The Beginning Stages . . ” is a very different proposition to the CD; it’s more visceral, more alive and perhaps the spiritual elements are ramped up simply because I’m not listening to it in isolation. Being in a group of people with the same love and intention is and always has been a profoundly moving experience. And dear Tim, I was moved!
“Hanging Around the Day” brought whoops of joy, not just from me, but most of the audience (which sadly was a little thin, shame on you Oxford). It’s clearly *the* song for most people. Post-Middle of the Day, and with a way the album doesn’t quite manage, the intensity and fervour built and built until the ecstatic release of ‘Light and Day/Reach for the Sun’. Undoubtedly the transcendent moment of the evening. The album seems simply like a group of vaguely themed songs; live it becomes A WORK; a nine song operetta. It is so much more than the sum of it’s parts.
I say nine song… of course the album has 10 tracks. “Section 10 – A Long Day” is a 36 minute dub wigout and I have to be honest, I usually switch that off. I wasn’t keen on standing through 36 minutes of drone, but the band left, the drone started and the cheering started for an encore. Of course, it wasn’t really an encore as such. More ‘part two’.
Luckily, the drone only continued for as long as it took for the band to change out of their robes into the more flowery smocks. Section 10 drifted into Section 11 and . . . remember I said I couldn’t listen to “Hold Me Now” without crying?
Can you guess what happened when the launched into “Hold Me Now”?
Yeah, quivering heap on the floor…. But it was from a place of joy this time, not a place of despair. I’ve changed so much.
The rest of the gig was a blur of joy and dancing and singing and laughing.
Another ‘it was meant to be’ moment was deciding that I was going to get as near to the front as I could. I’m terrible with crowds and have always found gigs difficult if I’ve wanted to get up close. All that jostling. Not for me. However, a young family, Mum and two kids, positioned themselves right at the barrier and, as if by magic, a semi circle of space appeared around them. No one want to crush the kids. I found myself at the edge of this semicircle which meant I could be at the front, still have space to dance and not get freaked out by the jostle of people. Brilliant. Perfect positioning!
This was my view at the Oxford gig.
If I was disappointed in anything (and disappointed is so utterly the wrong word) it was that the cover of Nirvana’s”Lithium” didn’t make a showing. Post “Hold Me Now” and post bipolar diagnosis, it seemed so fantastically appropriate for them to cover this. However, it didn’t matter as they covered the Monkee’s “Porpoise Song” instead; probably my favourite Monkees song, as it happens and . . . I actually liked it more than the Monkees version, possibly because of its liveness and immediacy, but it was magnificent. (They actually performed The Porpoise Song with the Monkees the day after the Oxford gig, at the Moseley Folk Festival, btw. I Would have killed to see that live)
But most mind blowing of all was the absolutely EPIC rendition of “Everything Starts at the Seam/ When the Fool Becomes the King”. Almost 15 mins of . . . No. Actually, words fail me. Open mouthed and gobsmacked from the the transition between the two songs…. it was a Mary Poppins moment. Practically Perfect in Every Way.
In all seriousness, this is probably the best gig I’ve been to. I was extremely nervous about seeing them live. After fifteen years of adoration, the weight of expectation threatened to scupper it and lead to colossal disappointment. But it didn’t disappoint and – to use that word again – it transcended every expectation I had.
It’s very easy to fall back on lazy religious analogies when talking about The Polyphonic Spree, but you really can’t avoid them. But I totally get it. I totally get it. There is something deeply spiritual about the songs, the situation and the devotion of the fans. More so than, say 1D fans at the mercy of hormones and marketing. This is real. The Spree (clearly we’re on familiar terms here) for me offers a glimpse into humanity and all of its strengths and frailties. They embrace and celebrate the intenseness and immenseness of simply being; of living with all of your flaws and foibles and saying ‘fuck you’ I’m beautiful; we’re all beautiful. If I believed in God, I’d want my church to be like this.
So thank you Tim, Jennie, Jessica, Jenny, Kristin, Elizabeth, Natalie, Mark, Cory, Jason, Bach, Matt, Mike, Heather, Sean, Buffi, Kelly, Victoria, Nick, Julie, Jay, Tamara, Elizabeth, Apotsala, Rick, Audrey, Nick, Keith, Evan, Dylan, Regina, Annie, Daniel, John, Marcus, Taylor, Joe, Evan, Todd, Joseph, Anthony, Louis, Andrew, Nick, Paul, Brian, Corn, James, Ryan, Davey, Toby, JAson, Frank, Stephanie, Jennifer, Kelly, Jason, Jeneffa, Michael, Michael, Melissa, Sandra, Daniel, Bryan, Josh, Roy, Jamey, Christine, Nick, Logan and anyone else who at any point has ever been involved with the band who may have fallen off the radar (and there are more, I’m sure). Thank you for 15 amazing, life affirming years.
I love you all.