Tonight I saw Biffy Clyro, who I’ve long considered one of my favourite bands, play the Motorpoint Arena in Sheffield. It was the sixth time I’ve seen them and as much as I enjoyed it, I decided during tonight’s gig that it would probably be the last. This is me trying to explain why…
I guess I knew things were different when my I went home for a weekend around 18 months ago and my mum, who listens exclusively to BBC Radio 2, turned to me and said, “I like Biffy Clyro now Rob”.
Before I go on, I’ll say this: this isn’t one of thoseI was there at the start, but oh my God, they’re so mainstream now maaaaanrants about how a band who barely anyone liked a few years ago became the biggest rock act in Britian, capable of selling out arenas, headlining Reading and Leeds, and getting their album to number one. This is about the surreal experience of seeing a band who made some of your favourite records of all time graduate, in a way no one predicted, from the Leadmill in Sheffield to the city’s Motorpoint Arena.
The truth is, I wasn’t there at the start. I enjoyed seeing the video for Biffy Clyro’s seventh single, ‘Questions And Answers’, when it got played on MTV2, but it was their third album, Infinity Land, that made me fall in love with them. I saw them live for the first time shortly before they released their fourth album, Puzzle, by which point two singles from it, ’Saturday Superhouse’ and ‘Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies’, had become minor commercial hits.
It’s around this time that for many of the early fans, Biffy’s decline began. Plenty of the old guard bought Puzzle, and liked it, but crucially so did a lot of people who didn’t own the 7” of ‘Toys. Toys. Toys. Choke. Toys. Toys. Toys.’. Their fourth album brought Biffy to a bigger audience - and how could it not, as it produced no fewer than six singles? - but something about the band changed. By the time they released ‘Mountains’, the first glimpse we were given of their fifth album Only Revolutions they seemed like a different band altogether. Even the early fans who liked Puzzle did not like this - radio-friendly, with none of the old fuzzy, jagged edges.
While I’ve not liked any of their albums as much as I loved the first three, I’ve defended Biffy throughout all this (and I’ll continue to). For one thing, did anything actually change after Puzzle? We all sort of knew Biffy had accessible stadium anthems in them - other than the recording budget, what really separates early tracks like ’Justboy’ and ‘All The Way Down: Prologue / Chapter One’ from Only Revolutions’ ‘Mountains’ and ‘Many Of Horror’? And they can still be as brilliantly bizarre as they ever were - ‘That Golden Rule’ from Only Revolutions is easily one of the heaviest, most complicated tracks they’ve ever written.
And of course, there’s the money. Because do you think it was easy or in any way financially sustainable to be in the Biffy Clyro that slummed it round students’ unions for a decade? Ultimately, if the band was to survive, they had to find a way to make a living from it and they did that, I believe unintentionally, with the surprise breakthrough of Puzzle. All they’ve done since then is build on the foundations of that album to become a band that can make a decent living from music. If they hadn’t done that, there simply might not be a Biffy Clyro anymore. (I should stress, this is a point about making the band sustainable, not lucrative. I’m not saying they’ve written the songs they have to make money. Frankly, no one writes a song like their recent single ‘Stingin’ Belle’, with it’s death metal chugs and crazy bagpipe section, with an eye on the pop charts and the Radio 1 playlist.)
Because I’ve been on this journey with Biffy Clyro - from them being a band barely any of my friends had heard of to being one I keep hearing on daytime Radio 1 - I was an emotional wreck during the first few minutes of their show at the Motorpoint Arena. I found myself welling up to a song that I’d never heard before (presumably from their new album, Opposites) simply because I couldn’t believe that so many thousands of other people had not only heard it, but knew the words. I was a mess by the time I turned around and saw two teenagers who must have been in nappies when Biffy Clyro formed, who looked young enough to be the band’s daughters, losing their shit to ‘That Golden Rule’.
But as the show progressed over two hours, I came to a conclusion: there are two Biffy Clyros. There’s the one that plays students’ unions, is signed to Beggar’s Banquet and who you get into if you like Reuben and Hundred Reasons, and there’s this one, that sells out arenas, headlines Reading and Leeds and has number one albums. And they can’t be both at the same time.
As I expected, Biffy’s first three albums are poorly represented in tonight’s setlist, and from what they do play from those records, it’s obvious why. I know which song I prefer out of ‘Justboy’ (from their debut album Blackened Sky) and their last single ‘Black Chandelier’, but it’s the latter that dominates the room, leaving the former seeming a little quaint in comparison. Likewise, ‘There’s No Such Thing As A Jaggy Snake’ from Infinity Land remains one of my favourite rock songs of all time, but it’s spindly, twisted riff is crushed under the weight of ‘That Golden Rule’s skyscraper-sized power chords. The difference, I suppose, is that the newer material was written with venues of this size in mind.
And let’s not overlook the obvious here - as much as I love Infinity Land, it wasn’t a number one album. Opposites was, so it’s only right that Biffy reward the fans who’ve paid to be here tonight with songs that they actually know and like. The old material they do play only reiterates how different Biffy are from the band that wrote it all those years ago: the insane ‘A Day Of…’ from their second album The Vertigo Of Bliss, for example, whilst welcomed by such as myself, doesn’t fit in tonight’s set at all and is greeted with thousands of blank expressions; ‘Glitter And Trauma’ from Infinity Land is equally underappreciated as the band hold up giant flashing white lights (“human strobes”, you see) through the track’s techno intro, then build to the night’s most incredible eruption of a chorus.
Watching the newer fans fiddle with their phones, I think back to the first time I saw Biffy Clyro. At that gig, when they played Blackened Sky’s opening track ‘Joy.Discovery.Invention’, frontman Simon Neil didn’t even sing the first verse, because everyone in the room knew every word. That wouldn’t have happened if they’d played ‘Joy.Discovery.Invention’ tonight, but it did happen when they played ‘Many Of Horror’ (a song which will have last been sung in this room by Matt Cardle on the X Factor live tour, which is an odd thought). If there’s one thing that sums up the difference between Biffy Clyro then and now, it’s that.
It’s telling too that I hear a guy behind me talking about how he’s seen Kasabian and Kings Of Leon at the Motorpoint Arena in the past. People who like those bands were not going to see Biffy Clyro a few years ago, though the strangest thing about the folks surrounding me in the seating block I was put in was the amount of people who were actually sat down! I’ve had seating tickets at arena shows plenty of times before, but I’ve never actually sat down! It prompted Simon Neil to stroll down the ramp that stretched from the stage towards our block and remind everyone that they were at a rock show, and that it was customary to stand.
Indeed, it must be weird for Biffy Clyro themselves to play these arena shows, where they have to actually tell people to stand up and enjoy themselves, and see people nipping to the bar during songs that were once considered “fan favourites”. Take ’…Jaggy Snake’, which would have decimated a room a few years ago - when Biffy play it tonight Neil keeps his gaze firmly on the first few rows, since they’re the only people who seem to be enjoying it.
I imagine those guys at the front were there, like I was the day after my 19th birthday, when Biffy Clyro played the Leadmill in Sheffield. If they were, they’re probably feeling a lot like me right now - like they enjoyed tonight’s gig, but that ultimately they were watching a different band to the one they feel in love with. Because although I was a little bit of a latecomer, I feel like I’ve known Biffy since they were boys, and now they’ve flown the nest. I’ve watched them grow up and now they’re surrounded by all these new people (Kasabian fans, my mum…). Biffy don’t need me anymore. They’ve moved on and it’s time for me to do the same. I’ll miss you, Biffy, but you’ve done me proud.