The 1975 – at First Direct Arena

Leeds Arena roars with excitement as the room is plunged into darkness, signalling that The 1975 are about to enter the stage. 

Teenagers of all genders are screaming, hopping up and down and squeezing each other with glee, and I can feel my own heart thumping faster as I am swept up in their giddiness.  As a millennial, I am one of the oldest people in the crowd tonight, but by the encore, I am whooping and pogoing with the best of them. From start to finish, the feel-good energy of this two-hour show is relentless.  It is no exaggeration to say that ninety per cent of the people here know every word to every song, and they are soon hollering along passionately. Twenty per cent of them are even in tune (but, sadly, not the lad sitting beside me).  

Baby-faced lead singer Matty Healy emerges wearing a t-shirt, hoodie and cargo pants that all look too big for him and, in some of the more introspective numbers, add to his sense of fragility and vulnerability, making him seem like a lost little boy.  His hair is styled in a long, scruffy mohawk, shaved at the sides and hanging down at the back. All eyes are on the charismatic Healy; the rest of the band don’t interact with the audience except through their exceptional musicianship. Some songs are enhanced by the presence of the identical Jaiy twins, Taitlyn and Kaylee: beautiful, perfectly synchronised dancers, dressed in matching All Saints-style vests and combat trousers, whose streetwise moves Healy occasionally mirrors.  

The opening handful of songs illustrates the eclectic, eccentric sound of The 1975: a pick ’n’ mix approach to musical genres that has led to them being described by The Guardian as “the ultimate pop magpies”.  Their set is an audio collage of disparate influences and styles from across multiple decades. They kick off with People, a recent single from their forthcoming album, Notes on a Conditional Form.  It’s an explosively rage-filled, guitar-heavy, punk rock tirade in which Healy chastises baby-boomers for not listening to young people (“stop f***ing with the kids!”) whilst imploring the young to help themselves and be the change they wish to see in the world (“we are appalling and we need to stop just watching sh*t in bed”).  His voice is raw, snarling, strained in anger. 

Secondly comes Sex, the jangly, electro-pop hit single from their debut album.  If Healy sounded reminiscent of Marilyn Manson on the first song, he’s more like Tom from McBusted now, all perky, honey-toned and youthful.    

Next up is TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME, a slice of autotuned, Drake-ish, tropical pop perfection from the most recent album, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships.  It wouldn’t be out of place on a Justin Bieber set list, and I’m wondering how we got from hardcore rock to Afro-pop in the space of seven minutes?  Then, suddenly, we’re back in the Nineties with new single Me & You Together Song, which has all the dreamy, soft-rock longing of a teen movie soundtrack and reminds me of Britpop bands like The La’s….. and now here’s another musical curveball: the soulful, nu-jazz swagger of Sincerity is Scary, complete with sultry saxophone and gospel-tinged choruses.  Healy dons a hat with long rabbit ears and a backpack, and struts back and forth on a conveyor belt that runs along the front of the stage, whilst images of Brooklyn brownstone buildings scroll across the giant screen behind, making it seem as though he’s out for a stroll in the streets of New York.  

This genre-hopping continues throughout the night, but never feels tiresome or incongruous or jarring.  The 1975 claim this is because it’s indicative of how we consume music these days: most people have tracks on their phones or Spotify playlists that span multiple decades and styles, and in the age of streaming, we mercurially skip from one song to the next, without loyalty to a particular musical tribe or artist.  I can’t help but note, however, that in an age where we keep being told that the album is a dying concept, the young people here seem to know every song from every record this band has produced. And those albums each have between 15 and 17 songs on them. Perhaps young people do have an attention span after all – when the music is this worthy of their attention.   

Since 2018, Healy has spoken openly in interviews about the heroin addiction that gripped him in the first years of the band’s rise to fame, and his subsequent stint in rehab.  The darkness of the lyrical references to his drug-taking are often at odds with the dazzling, upbeat music that accompanies them, and tonight, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You) – an addict’s paean to opioids – is one of the biggest bangers and gets the whole audience jumping as one.  Frail State of Mind has flavours of UK garage and, despite it being about anxiety and agoraphobia, the crowd sings along buoyantly as if it were a Craig David club classic.  

The experience of getting clean seems to have heightened Healy’s sense of social responsibility, and tonight I get the impression that he takes seriously his position as a role model to these thousands of young people.  A third of the way through the gig, he engages in some much-needed crowd control, directing everyone in the stalls to take a step back and sideways to give themselves more breathing space and telling them to “stop dicking about” in a paternal tone. 

In the middle of the set, the band performs Guys, a new song from the forthcoming album, which Healy describes as being a love song to his mates.  “Look after your friends,” he tells the crowd. On the screen behind him, the lyrics appear over old video footage of the band in their early days: “The moment that we started a band was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he croons.  It’s sentimental, sincere and tender, and I can see groups of friends in the crowd with their arms around each other.  

The 1975 are among pop’s most woke and politically-vocal artists, and since the release of their third album have been speaking out on issues such as gender equality and the representation of women in the music industry; protesting the UAE’s anti-gay laws on stage in Dubai; helping to fund a new LGBTQ+ centre in London; and standing up for women’s reproductive rights in the US state of Alabama.  Only last week – prompted by Leeds Festival’s announcement of their shamefully male-dominated 2020 line-up – Healy declared that from now on the band will only take bookings at festivals where there is equal representation for women performers, a stance that I fully expect all decent men in the music industry to support and replicate.  

Clearly, the 1975 are conscious of their privilege and want to do something useful and constructive with their platform.  Tonight, the main topic they are taking on is the global climate crisis. Upon entering the arena, we are invited to enter into a competition to submit a logo design for the campaign group Music Declares Emergency, with the chance to win a guitar signed by the band.  Later, in the encore, Healy tells the crowd, “don’t heckle for the next five minutes; it’ll be a bit inappropriate,” and then suddenly we hear Greta Thunberg’s voice speaking to us over images of landscape on the screen. “Yes, we are failing,” she tells us, “but there is still time to turn everything around… It is time to rebel.”  It’s a powerful speech and most of the crowd listens respectfully. The band segues into Love It If We Made It, a song that is lyrically one of the most significant and brilliantly astute that Healy has ever written, and seems to capture the experience of living through the past four years better than anything else I’ve heard.  The audience tunelessly shouts every single word, fingers in the air, bouncing along with the relentless, stomping pulse of the song: “The war has been incited / and guess what, you’re all invited / and you’re famous / modernity has failed us.”  

The set design tonight is visually outstanding and one of my favourite aspects of the entire show.  The floor of the stage is covered in a pale-coloured shiny plastic, that reflects the lights around it and makes the performers seem as though they are standing on water.  Instruments that aren’t being played are removed from the stage and then carried or wheeled back on quickly when needed, keeping everything aesthetically clean and uncluttered.  Overhead, hangs the outline of a rectangle made of pink neon light, and at the opening of the best song of the night, Somebody Else, Healy stares up at it, mesmerised, like a cavity has opened up in the sky.  The rectangle swings down until it hangs, like a frame, at the back of the stage, as Healy starts singing.  Suddenly, the Jaiy Twins appear in a cavity in the back wall, framed by the rectangular lights; it’s a clever illusion, something that seemed two-dimensional suddenly revealing itself to have hidden depths.  Meanwhile, the videography on the multiple screens enclosing the stage ensures that we are never short for something to be fascinated by. Shimmering graphics accompany the echoey, atmospheric Lostmyhead, with its screeching, soaring guitar solos, and make it feel like we’re inside a cathedral.  The distinctly Eighties beats, guitars and sax of If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know) are matched with old-school TV sets showing MTV-style footage of the band and song lyrics.  I Couldn’t Be More in Love – a power-ballad Healy wrote for his fans about the precariousness of fame – shows off his strong, soulful falsetto and accomplished guitar playing, as the stage is drenched in pink and gold light.  

I can think of at least another twenty songs by The 1975 which didn’t make the set-list tonight that I would have been happy to hear, and yet this still feels like a greatest hits gig: every song is a winner.  The joy of dancing to the bombastic, fizzy, Bowie-meets-INXS funkiness of Love Me, and the final song of the night, the glittering earworm of an anthem that is The Sound, will stay with me for weeks and months to come. 

The 1975 are the perfect band for our post-modern, internet-addicted, sex-obsessed, anxiety-ridden era, and long may they continue to hold a mirror up to us.

All photographs by Jordan Hughes.

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