The O2 Forum, London
1st October 2022
It’s a gig he never thought he’d see. Following a near-decade hiatus and in the absence of any trains, Simon Reed navigates the worst London’s traffic has to offer for a nostalgia-fuelled appointment with Staines’ greatest (and possibly only) musical export, Hard-Fi.
In the mid-noughties, the excitement of Britpop was a blip in the rear-view mirror. 9/11 marked the beginning of a series of terrorist outrages and we were knee-deep in a very questionable conflict in the Middle East. The Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami had just killed north of 230,000 people. To be brutally honest, things were a bit shit.
Against this backdrop, four unassuming blokes from an extremely unremarkable town (Staines – it doesn’t even sound appealing) formed a band and made a record. The band was Hard-Fi and there was something about the music on that record – the Mercury-nominated Stars Of CCTV – that just resonated. It somehow managed to be angry about the past, confident in the now, and hopeful for the future.
I loved that record and as a result, Hard-Fi formed a significant part of the soundtrack to my youth. Well, I say my youth; I was in my thirties. But when your social life has been put on hold for years by offspring and they finally become old enough for babysitters, my God it puts a spring in your step. My wife and I saw Hard-Fi a number of times and those gigs rocked. The floor of Southsea’s South Parade pier flexed so much it remains a mystery how we and a few hundred others didn’t end up in the Channel.
Two more albums followed and Hard-Fi continued to play to sold-out venues – including a residency of five consecutive nights at Brixton Academy. And then in early 2014, silence. A natural break became a full-blown hiatus and, whilst the band never officially announced it was the end, I don’t think anybody thought we’d ever see them again.
So, when this Spring posters started appearing on the London Underground that featured the iconic camera logo from the Stars Of CCTV album cover allied to a solitary date, the antennae started to twitch. It seemed the parlous state of Britain in 2022 had reignited the fire in frontman Richard Archer that had burned so brightly 17 years ago. It was (finally) time to get the band back together.
— Amy ✨ Bidoof Enthusiast ✨ (@CapriCornetto) April 13, 2022
Archer need not worry about whether there is still a desire to see Hard-Fi perform. The London show sells out in ten minutes. A Manchester gig and a warm-up in Milton Keynes are soon announced and they do the same. I’m lucky enough to snag four of the tickets for London and this time it isn’t just the two of us. The children who were being babysat in 2005 and who have grown up on a diet of Hard-Fi plus other music of the age are along for the ride too. Of course, within seconds, they ditch their embarrassing parents and slide off into the melee nearer the front. A pair of ferrets up a particularly appealing drainpipe.
It’s a little after nine. The decks of the support, DJ and long-time Hard-Fi collaborator Wrongtom, have been moved aside. A lone harmonica from Ennio Morricone’s score of Once Upon A Time In The West echoes around The Forum, Kentish Town. A colossal CCTV camera motif above the stage flickers into life. It’s 3152 days since Hard-Fi last stepped onto a London stage. That ends now.
A few seconds later, the familiar strains of Middle Eastern Holiday break the comparative silence. It’s one of the angriest songs on Stars Of CCTV, a comment on the idiocy of war in Iraq. It was so politically prescient at the time that it received the endorsement of Billy Bragg.
Back in the day the band picked up criticism for having the songs but not necessarily being able to deliver them live – go to any YouTube comments section on a historic Hard-Fi live video and you’ll find it. Middle Eastern Holiday is, by design, loud and slightly chaotic. I can well remember hearing it live the first time around and needing to reach the middle eight to work out what it was. No such problem tonight. It’s clear, and it’s punchy, and it sounds fantastic – no mean feat in a venue with the acoustic qualities of a Tupperware lunch box.
Save for guitarist Ross Phillips’ shaved head, the band look much as they did eight years ago. Archer plays guitar when required, and when it’s not, he prowls the stage apron back and forth, mic cable wrapped around his spare hand. The rest of the band (Phillips, stage right, plus Kai Stephens on bass, stage left, and Steve Kemp on the podium at the back) do what they do with purpose and an absence of histrionics.
The set list covers a lot of bases. Not surprisingly, half of it features songs from Stars Of CCTV. There’s a quartet from follow-up Once Upon A Time In The West and a pair from third album Killer Sounds. We hear You And Me, an infrequently heard bonus track, a new song entitled Looking For Fun and a cover of The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.
This latter one is, like all good covers should be, not at all like the original and starts with Archer playing a melodica into the mic. I had to look that up by the way. It’s a ‘harmonica with a keyboard’ to most of us. I feel a frisson of excitement because that’s how the song Cash Machine starts and it’s one of the band’s best-known tunes. Of course, they do play that as well; and when they do, 2,300 people scream every word.
2,300 people screaming the words is a common thread tonight. It’s made easier because these classic songs are so anthemic. Tied Up Too Tight, Better Do Better and I Shall Overcome receive the same treatment. And if the audience are a little rusty on some of the words, the band help out with songs like Suburban Knights, whose “Whoa, whoa, whoa” chant in the chorus doesn’t require knowledge of any words at all.
The crowd this evening form an interesting mix. Like with us, there’s clearly a twin-generational thing going on. I’m queued up with a guy at the bar. We’re both tunelessly shouting the words to Good For Nothing and we catch eyes. “Have you seen the band before?” he asks. “Yeah, a few times” I reply, feeling quite pleased with myself. “How about you?” I ask back. He smiles. “I’m twenty-six. I’m here with my dad”. I’ve never been any good at assessing ages.
It takes a few songs for the audience to warm up, but soon enough half-full cups of beer are being flung around the auditorium and by the time set-closer Hard To Beat comes along we’re collectively practically febrile. It’s another stand out tune; another that gets the collective lungs treatment and it’s just like old times. The only omission of note in the main set for me is Feltham Is Singing Out; another angry tune from Stars Of CCTV. In a way, I’m glad they don’t play it. It’s another anthemic barnstormer. If it had been played, the already ravaged vocal chords of the Forum audience might as well have been gobbed out on the floor of the venue.
There’s a sweet three-song encore. First, Archer comes out alone to the piano to play Move On Now, the only real ballad from the debut album. It’s a really fine piece of song writing; dreams of escaping the mundanity of Staines, watching the ‘red lights blinking in the twilight’ as aircraft leave Heathrow for what are imagined to be more exotic locations. The tenderness of it is somewhat redacted as a venue full of pissheads bellow the words back, but if I were Rich, I’d take the adulation.
The title track of Stars Of CCTV follows – it’s another well observed piece of song writing speaking out at the beginnings of a surveillance culture, which has since become endemic.
“We’re the stars of CCTV, making movies out on the street. Flashing blue lights, camera, action, watching my life, main attraction. We’re the stars of CCTV, can’t you see the camera loves me?” sings Archer. “Yeah, that’s me shoplifting from Sainsbury’s!” screams a woman next to me. I can’t help but smile, though for the record, I don’t condone shoplifting.
There’s time for one more song, and it’s been conspicuous by its absence thus far. The band fire up Living For The Weekend, surely the best known song from back in the day. If anybody ever tells you they’ve never heard Hard-Fi, play them Living For The Weekend. You’ll find they’ve heard Hard-Fi. Of course, it gets the requisite treatment. More beer goes flying, voices get further shredded; but it is so, so worth it.
The band come together at the end to accept the applause and give us a wave. Richard thanks us for coming and tells us we’ll see them again soon. I really, really hope we do.
All words and photographs by Simon Reed. His website Musical Pictures is here and you can visit his author profile for Louder Than War here. He tweets as @musicalpix and is on Instagram at musicalpictures.co.uk