I have nothing against Frank Turner’s background. The folk-punk troubadour isn’t hung up about the Eton thing either. “It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Prince William’s former classmate roared at the O2 Arena, “it matters where you go.”
The sentiment, from the song “Peggy Sang the Blues”, was bolstered by ranks of fans pointing index fingers in the air and bellowing Turner’s words back at him. The diehards among them had followed the singer-songwriter from the fleapits of the punk circuit to tonight’s show at the 20,000-capacity O2 – a rise that along the way has taken in five increasingly successful albums, a slot at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and a growing reputation as a straight-talking, guitar-slinging man of the people. Not bad for someone who once knew the words to the “Eton Boating Song”.
Transformations such as Turner’s have a long and venerable tradition in pop. But the O2 was a stretch too far. Black curtains shrouding the arena’s upper tiers hid the sight of unsold seats. A weedy light show failed to penetrate the gloomy depths of the venue. Turner’s bawl rang out in the sound mix but his backing band, the Sleeping Souls, fared less well. There were times when the guitarists throwing cartoon punk shapes – legs splayed, windmilling arms etc – seemed to be making no noise whatsoever, like muted avatars in a Guitar Hero video game. Tracks from Turner’s latest album, Tape Deck Heart, were liberally interspersed with old favourites. “I don’t want to be one of those acts who only plays the new songs,” he said as though embarking on a thrilling act of unorthodoxy. Good-natured stomps predominated, trafficking in beery, sweary, all-in-this-together fellowship. There was a lot of energy but a dearth of stagecraft. Between-song comments acquired an anxious undertow (“Everyone still having a good time?”), culminating in Turner giving a mini-speech justifying playing the O2 as a way to make him as accessible to fans as possible.
But then he struck up the pell-mell ode to rock’n’roll, “I Still Believe”, with its swipe at the O2 as a “soulless corporate circus top”. The sight of a performer criticising a venue while trying to conquer it, and proving himself utterly ill-equipped to do so, was the height of perversity. Where you come from and where you go aren’t so conveniently separated after all.