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What going to a Metallica concert with my daughter taught me about modern infrastructure

Utopia and dystopia all in one evening

A concert is never just a concert. An evening out is never just an evening out. It’s also booking the tickets, getting to the venue, waiting for the act, where you stand and sit, and of course getting home afterwards. And the band on stage is not just the band on stage: it’s the logistics of touring, the musical history of the artists, the technologies employed, the specificities of the sound in the hall.

Most of the time, when I go and see a band, the ‘other stuff’ is just stuff; something that might add or detract to the performance, but will ultimately be forgotten in the long-term. Yet when I took my daughter to see Metallica at the The O2 in London, the other stuff seemed to impose itself much more strongly, in good ways and bad. Somehow, all the vast infrastructure that surrounded the show became an integral part of the evening. This wasn’t just an uncomplicated trip to hear ‘Creeping Death’ played live for the nth time.

So what happened? Here is the full story in all its mundane detail. I fully acknowledge that recounting it makes me seem a tad obsessive. But that’s the point. This is an experiment in attention, in deliberately noticing and recording the frameworks that hold the world together. What this experiment taught me at any rate, is that going to this particular show seemed to be a process that highlighted the most and least positive aspects of the infrastructural scaffolding of the world we are emerging into. In going to the gig, my daughter and I encountered old technologies, some of which are still sturdily relevant, others of which are creaking with strain; and we encountered new technologies, ones that create wonder and joy, ones that offer a glimpse of a dystopia, and others that simply offer nothing better than the old ones.

This is also a story about what happens when you are a parent. Free-wheeling, unplanned spontaneity gives way to careful planning and an obsession with logistics (not that I was ever particularly free-wheeling and spontaneous in the first place). The hidden wires that hold up the world become visible.

Preamble: Deciding to go

While I would consider myself a Metallica fan, I have only seen them live once, at a metal festival in the Netherlands in 1999. When shows were announced for their latest leg of the tour to support the Hardwired… album, I barely noticed. The truth is, I’ve been feeling sorry for the band since the mid-1990s. They have strained mightily to push themselves artistically but it’s been pretty clear that, live at least, fans are so fixated on the albums up to the Black Album that shows seemed to consist of the audience enduring the ‘new stuff’ politely while only getting into it when the band played something they’d played hundreds of times before. I didn’t want to be part of that.

What changed my mind wasn’t just that the latest album is actually pretty great (in places anyway), it was that my 11 year-old daughter has become a Metallica fan over the last few months. And here is where the infrastructure starts to impinge: Her major source of music is Spotify. She doesn’t read music magazines and doesn’t search out band info online. She discovers what she discovers, regardless of canon. For her, Hardwired… is as fresh and new as Ride The Lightning. Her favourite Metallica song is ‘Atlas Rise’ — and why shouldn’t it be?

As a metalhead Dad, I want to support her burgeoning tastes. I’ve taken her to see Kiss earlier this year and her older brother to an Iron Maiden concert; both were at the O2 Arena. So I couldn’t resist taking her to Metallica too.

Stage one: Booking

Tickets sold out in a matter of minutes earlier this year. By the time I decided we should go, availability was just a memory. I complained about this on Facebook and, to my surprise, an old friend offered to sell me a couple of tickets.

He’d also booked to take his daughter to the show. Being a more organised and determined person that I am, he’d been prepared to do the work necessary these days to buy a ticket for a concert by a band in a venue several times smaller than the size of their potential audience. He woke up early on the day they went on sale, opened multiple tabs on his browser with the various ticket agencies and started the booking process simultaneously with all of them. That brought him two sets of two tickets on both nights Metallica were performing at the O2.

The tickets were the cheapest available and cost £50 each, plus booking fees. Is this excessive? It’s certainly on a par with other arena shows of this kind. How does one assess the value of concert tickets?

It was a trivial matter to buy the tickers off my friend. I used Pingit to send him the money and he then emailed me the booking confirmation. A few weeks later, he forwarded me the pdfs of the tickets when they were sent to him.

What could be simpler?

Stage two: Anxiety

My first inkling that our trip to see Metallica might be less than straightforward, came when I went to see Kraftwerk at the Albert Hall last June. When I tried to enter the venue, an unsmiling security guard asked me for photo ID and the credit card with which I booked the tickets. These were then checked against my name and details that appeared on the ticket. This was a little inconvenient but not an actual problem. What made me nervous was the number of people angrily confronting the security guards and claiming not to have the ID and card details. When I got home, I looked again at the Metallica tickets and found that my friend’s details were prominently printed on them.

[Obviously I blacked my friend’s name out. The credit card details don’t seem to appear on it so I’m not sure how they check them. Perhaps the barcode allows them to scan for those details?]

So would I get in? My friend said he’d done this loads of times and not to worry. I forgot about it until a few days before the Metallica gig. I did some online searching to assuage my growing anxiety and found that The O2 website prominently warns people attending Metallica and other shows that ID and credit card are required and will be checked. Further searching revealed that hundreds of angry fans were denied entry to a Foo Fighters gig at The O2 last September and that there is no way to transfer tickets to anyone else.

Of course this is all designed to track down on touts buying up blocks of tickets and reselling them at inflated prices. Who could object to that? Well the problem is that this simple action radically changes the nature of what you buy when you buy a ticket. You are not buying a ticket, you are buying a ticket and a licence for a named individual (plus up to 3 companions) to use that ticket. This is akin to DRM, where the purchase of a ebook or sound file is made similarly provisional by tying it to one individual using a particular device in an authorised manner.

Viewed in purely consumerist terms, this is all a net loss to the consumer. In fairness, whereas DRM benefits the vendor and only the vendor, ‘DRM for tickets’ does potentially have some benefits in making secondary ticketing unviable. But the da facto loss of ownership also makes friendly transactions — or even simple gifts — impossible. [Resales were possible via Stubhub, but this doesn’t allow you to sell tickets to the individual you choose.]

A further source of anxiety was provoked by browsing the Twitter hashtag #metinlondon during Metallica’s first show at the O2, two nights before the one we were attending. It appeared that fans were stuck in huge queues of up to 2 hours long, just to get into the venue. This assuaged my fears to a degree as, with such a long line, the security guards were unlikely to interrogate ever ticket holder. Still, who knew what would happen? And the prospect of standing in line for hours was not an attractive one.

Stage three: Preparation

A couple of days before the show I sat my daughter down and explained clearly that we might not be let in to Metallica. She took the news like a trooper and seemed less anxious than I was. Good for her.

I also conspired with my friend to maximise our chances of getting in. On the afternoon before the show he whatsapped me the following message to be shown as necessary to the security guard (note, he didn’t text it as that would mean our conspiracy would have been uncovered if checked):

Hi Keith. Hope all is well. I have 2 tickets for Metallica at the O2 tonight but am really sick. Any chance you and [MY DAUGHTER’S NAME] can use them? I’ll be home all day if you want to pick them up. Let me know, it would be a shame for them to go to waste. Cheers, [NAME]

He also sent me a photo of his credit card and driving licence. The conspiracy was on!

The final preparatory phase was figuring out how to get to the venue. I’d driven and parked in a pre-booked space on previous visits but this time the parking lot was booked out. While, as a Londoner I pride myself on my knowledge of the city, I still used Citymapper to work out the best route. I found a four-stage route that would get me to the O2 in about an hour — car to station, train, tube, tube. I calculated that, if we left at 5, we’d get to the venue in good time to get through any queues, eat dinner, buy merch and see the support band before Metallica came onstage at 8:30.

That was the theory, aside from the anxiety about the tickets and the queues, eating arrangements also worried me. We could have eaten before going but who wants to eat dinner before 5? And the alternative of bringing a packed dinner had to be the most Dad-like, pathetic prospect imaginable. The trouble is though that my daughter is vegetarian and on the fussy side, as well as being a person who cannot skip a meal without ‘consequences’ (on the latter point, I am the same).

The O2 has multiple-mostly corporate but pretty varied and decent- eating outlets. However, the good ones are before the ticket check; inside the venue itself the variety is more limited and of the burgers and fries variety, which would not please my daughter. If we were in a long queue, would there be time to eat?

Stage four: The journey out

Parking at the train station was no problem. It’s in a controlled parking zone, but only between 11 and 1, and outside those hours there are few cars and it’s free.

The 3 rail and underground stages encapsulated all that is good and bad about public transport in London. The first stage, by rail, highlighted one of the hidden gems of the system — the overground running to from Moorgate via Finsbury Park. It’s quick, the trains are frequent and there’s an interesting view of North London before it goes underground at Highbury in Islington. The train itself was covered in graffiti, ageing, and a few minutes late but it was comfortable and, as we were going into town during rush hour, we had seats.

We got out at Old Street to change onto the Northern Line. The platform is advert-less, dingy and dark, as are the interchange tunnels. It felt unloved and unlovely, but it was also fast.

The transport infrastructure markedly improved as we took the tube to London Bridge and then changed onto the Jubilee Line to North Greenwich. The Jubilee is pretty swish, with cavernous, airy halls and gleaming floors. The rolling stock is newish, and the platforms were even disabled accessible. Yet the trains were packed and stopped frequently between stations. On a warm October evening they were suffocatingly hot.

Eventually, at just after 6pm, we exited North Greenwich station, whose broad concourses and lengthy escalators give one a sense of arrival.

Here we saw that we were not alone. While there are other reasons to get out at North Greenwich other than to go to a show at the O2 Arena(there are cinemas, restaurants, a smaller concert venue, as well as homes, offices, restaurants and bars in the vicinity), Metallica fans were the majority.

There was a busker in the ticket hall, playing ‘Fade to Black’ and a cute Metallica-themed signboard:

It’s a couple of minutes from the tube entrance to the O2. We walked amidst the gathering crowds through a concourse of chain shops and restaurants till we came to the dome.

Stage five: Inside the dome

[At this point I should say that I didn’t take photos on the night so I’m forced to rely on free-to-use sources]

The O2, built in the late 1990s for the underwhelming millenium celebrations, is enormous.

The dome houses the central arena, as well as the cinema, small concert hall, restaurants, bars and other venues; and there is still a lot of empty space. It’s all very very corporate.

My daughter and I entered and began to walk round the concourse to entrance H. We soon hit the tail end of a massive queue, but this turned out to be for those with tickets to the central standing area. So that was a relief and I decided that there was time to eat.

We chose the Japanese outlet Wasabi. It’s a fine example of the virtues of soulless chains. Here we could eat food that was healthy(ish), cheap(ish), quickly and without fuss. I chose a selection of nigri and roll; my daughter chose a vegetarian noodle soup. There were seats available We were out within 15 minutes.

We continued to entrance H, funnelled briefly back outside past an area under construction. On arrival, security guards herded us into a number of lines, barking orders to present bags and phones for inspection. Our line took about 6 minutes to get to the front. The checkpoint wasn’t in the same league as airline security but shared its empty, theatrical quality. I don’t know whether or how this theatre could have prevented the kind of attack that took place at the Manchester Arena in May 2017. I put my bag in one tray and my phone in another. I was not required to empty my pockets. I was not frisked.

Having passed through easily enough, we finally reached the ticket check. My heart leapt as I saw they were being scanned by a barcode reader without further interrogation. And then, we were through…

Stage six: Inside the arena

Our seating level was two escalators up from the ground. Our first destination was the merch stall. Without really thinking about it, I had promised my daughter something. The stall appears to be staffed by arena employees and is one of many ‘branches’ scattered throughout and outside the venue. The queue was short and the selection of items fairly limited (there was a much bigger selection at the main outlet near the entrance, with a massive line to match).

Some of the prices were surprisingly almost reasonable, with T-shirts at £25. Aside from the generic Metallica designs, presumably on sale throughout the tour, there were — as seems common nowadays- special items for the UK and London dates, including one styled as a vintage England football shirt. There was apparently a pop-up Metallica shop in hipster epicentre Shoreditch.

We noticed a Metallica t-shirt for kids, which was cute but for smaller children than my daughter:

Ella has multiple Metallica t-shirts and hoodies already (all bought at chain shops and much cheaper than on sale at the venue), so she decided on a beanie:

There was still some minutes to go before the support act came onstage, so we took our time walking along the concourse. One of the things that struck me was the spaciousness of it, helped by the height of the dome above us and the multi-storey view below. Even just before Metallica came on, and even after the end of the show, the crowd never felt unpleasantly crushed. Toilet queues got longer near to showtime, but not to the point of aggravation (and they were clean too).

Crowd behaviour was also noticeably sedate on the concourse. There was no excited shouting (at Iron Maiden in the same venue a few months before, there were multiple chants of ‘Up the Irons!’) or any obvious inebriation. Plenty of people were drinking, but no one seemed drunk, and you’d have to be a lunatic to openly smoke a joint or sniff a line in such a tightly-surveilled environment. Interestingly, while there were multiple announcement warning of the dire penalties for smoking, vaping seemed to be permitted — there was even a promotional stand for an e-cigarette company who appeared to be giving away samples.

Perhaps the lack of inebriation was due to the prices of the food and drink outlets — a pint cost around £6. As price gouging goes, I’ve seen worse and seen better. I think most of us are so inured to being gouged at corporate venues that we just shrug our shoulders and accept it.

You could argue that the occasion lacked ‘atmosphere’, whatever that may mean. Still, when you’re responsible for a child (albeit a fairly tall and responsible one like mine), an atmosphere of decorum is preferable to something more edgy. In any case, there was plenty of screams and cheers during the show, plus a sizeable mosh-pit in the standing area, which at times almost achieved circle-pit status.

The crowd was also interesting in how diverse it was in some respects and how homogeneous in others. I saw no kids of my daughter’s age, whereas there were plenty at Iron Maiden and Kiss earlier in the year. At a guess, the demography skewed towards people in their 30s to 50s. Women were in a minority, but not a tiny minority as at some metal gigs I’ve been too. There were also signs of ethnic diversity, with plenty of south Asians (although very few Afro-Caribbeans).

Stage seven: Getting seated, the support act and waiting for Metallica

Our seats were at the far end of the venue from where the stage is normally and we were near the back row. The O2’s seat banks are very steep, which is actually a great thing as it gives pretty much everyone a good view while maintaining some residual sense of intimacy. The seats are padded with reasonable leg room — and cup holders. Attending a show here is not a physical trial. Corporate or not — there is a whole level of private, sponsored, boxes — this is one aspect of the O2 that I love.

The O2 Arena when empty

Metallica were playing on a stage in the centre of the arena, which also helped to ensure everyone had a good view. The stage was surrounded by a sizeable standing area that looked pretty packed come showtime.

By the time the support act, Norwegian act Kvelertak, came on at 7, the venue was about half full (or half empty depending on your point of view). They’re an impressively edgy choice for a support band, known for frenzied life performances and a sound that veers wildly between quasi-black metal and garage punk. Of course, support slots are usually ‘bought’ by their record companies; so insofar as Metallica actually had a choice in this, kudos to them.

Also kudos to Metallica or their management for giving Kvelertak a decent crack of the whip staging-wise. Support acts at arena shows are often lost on the big stage, with poor sound and minimal lighting. Kvelertak not only sounded great, they also had access to Metallica’s state-of-the-art lighting rig and were given time to programme it. One effect that I loved and had never seen before was when they somehow managed to bath the stage in darkness between songs while leaving everything else lit up. Very cool (if hard to describe — apologies). The band also owned the stage, making full use of being ‘in the round’ to prowl all four sides.

If the aim of the support band is to expose their work to a wider audience then it worked in at least one case: my daughter listened to them on Spotify when she got home.

Kvelertak were off stage a few minutes before 8. Metallica were due onstage at 8:30. After a swift toilet break we settled down to wait. In the end, showtime was nearer to 8:50, approaching the point where we and much of the crowd were starting to get restive.

Metallica’s intro routine is now so well known that most of the crowd were ready for it: ACDC’s ‘It’s A Long Way to the Top...’ followed by Ennio Morricone’s ‘Ecstasy of Gold’. To this was added a bespoke intro to ‘Hardwired…’ and then, the band were suddenly onstage.

Stage eight: The show

This isn’t a review so I won’t delve in to the set too deeply. Here is what Metallica played. Setlist construction is something of an art. What intrigued and impressed me is how cannily the band mixed new and old. No more than 2 tracks from Hardwired… were played in a row. After the openers of ‘Hardwired…’ and ‘Atlas, Rise!’, they moved swiftly into ‘Seek and Destroy’. A smart move, but my sense was that stuff from the latest album was pretty warmly received. I doubt that it will be ignored on future tours, as everything from Load to Death Magnetic was on this.

Metallica are clearly not phoning it in. The setlist for the previous show at The O2 contained a lot of different material. At the night I attended the debuted ‘Spit Out The Bone’ from the latest album and they threw in ‘Leper Messiah’, which is not a song I thought I’d hear.

As a metalhead and as a Metallica fan, I found the set thrilling and even moving in places. My daughter also loved it. As a sociologist with an obsession with infrastructure and logistics, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer complexity of the organisation of the show.

One example: playing in the round, the band were constantly switching places on the four-sided stage (even Lars’s drumkit in the centre was turned on occasion). There were microphones on each corner and in the middle of each side — 8 of them in all. On songs where Kirk and Robert sang backing vocals, that made for 3 different mics in use at any one time, set (presumably) at 3 different levels, and those 3 levels had to be transferred repeatedly during the songs as the musicians switched positions. Now either the sequence in which they moved was fixed in advance — in which case, it’s impressive that Metallica remembered the sequence — or the sound engineers were switching the levels on the fly — which is equally impressive.

I’ve recently become obsessed with youtube videos in which bands show off their live ‘rigs.’ One video from 2013 features an interview with Kirk Hammett’s guitar tech:

What struck me is the degree of redundancy and meticulousness in the set-up. For example, Hammett has multiple wah pedals at different points on the stage so he can solo wherever he likes. All of them need maintaining and spares. He uses different guitars, set up in slightly different ways, for different songs, and these all need spares as well.

From watching a number of these videos, it’s clear that, playing live, musicians are becoming ever more dependant on their techs. Many bands, Metallica included, do not use pedals onstage other than, perhaps, a wah. Effects changes within songs are triggered by guitar techs offstage, or even automatically using software.

So the technical setup at the O2 was fascinating to view. The in-the-round format meant that the technical underpinnings were far more evident than is usually the case. On each side of the stage, below but not hidden from view, was one of four technicians’ ‘lairs’. From where I sat I couldn’t see that much, but I could see the lights from banks and banks of amplifiers and effects racks. Black-clad techs would occasionally emerge and swap a guitar with one of the musicians. Sometimes, one of the band members would pop below while other members soloed or James chatted with the crowd. I joked to my daughter that they were going to their offices for a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

What brought this already complicated set of arrangements to mind-boggling levels of complexity was the lighting and staging. It’s common now for bands to integrate back projections, animations and videos into their shows. Metallica has taken things to another level on this tour. Above the stage were multiple cubes suspended from the roof. All sides of the cubes could display images in pin-sharp detail and the cubes themselves could be moved around in multiple configurations. This opened up a dizzying range of possibilities, from abstract lighting to video of the band onstage assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from multiple cubes, to pictures of Cliff Burton on one of the songs (forgot which) and Amy Winehouse on ‘Moth Into A Flame’.

Needless to say, programming these cubes must have taken weeks. Presumably, they are synced in some way to the music, but what I don’t know is how far the band have to perform strictly to a predefined click-track. Certainly, they seem to be able to change their setlist around at will, which suggests an army of technicians who can control the cubes on the fly.

And there was more: Flame throwers towards the end, which presupposes a pyrotechnician working somewhere behind the scenes. Somewhat literally but to gorgeous effect , ‘Moth Into A Flame’ featured dozens of lit-up ‘moths’ emerging from a trapdoor in the stage, then assembling above the bands’ heads in a coordinated display. I presume these were drones and that means that at least one person is controlling and maintaining them.

The nearly 2 and a half hours that Metallica spent on stage is the nexus of a vast logistical effort, involving hundreds of specialist technicians. Their stage show does not need to be this complex and presumably Metallica could be making more money with a simpler show. This is a statement of commitment as well as a performance: we will do everything we can to make this a special event.

Metallica do build in some space for spontaneity. Not only do they tinker with the setlist between shows, James Hetfield clearly enjoys the between-song banter. At one point, he gets into a conversation from the stage with a pregnant woman, asking her what the baby will be called. He notices an Albanian flag. He apologises when he fluffs the intro to one song. Robert Trujillo and Kirk Hammett do a between-song jam through Iron Maiden’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (which Robert announces Kirk had only learned 15 minutes before the show) and Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’.

At the end of the show, the band linger on stage. Long after the audience is streaming for the exits, suddenly aware of the lateness of the hour, Metallica remain behind, posing for photos and tossing plectrums and drumsticks into the crowd. They look like they are having fun.

I don’t know whether this was a typical night on tour but what impressed me was that Metallica seemed to have a burning desire to make the show special, not just for the audience but for themselves too. Notably, they only play every other night on this tour. This is absolutely crazy financially, but it appears to be a way to retain a love for performing and to have some balance with their personal lives. We are a very long way here from the crazed bacchanal of the endless metal touring cycle. But as someone who is as middle-aged as Metallica, I can see the attraction for them and the benefits for us.

Stage nine: The long march home

We leave at about 11:20. I’m suddenly aware that we could have a problem. I don’t know whether trains will still be running once we get back to Old Street. My daughter and I walk briskly, amid the slow moving Metallica-satiated crowd. The energy and the noisiness of the crowd appears to have dissipated completely once outside.

We reach the end of a massive line to get down into the tube station. It is over 100 metres back from the station entrance, it is several persons in width and it is moving at a snail’s pace. It is 11:30 and this isn’t going to work.

There appears to be no cab rank and calling a cab will take forever. The only other option is an Uber. I find one that is apparently 12 minutes away and grimace through the inevitable surge pricing announcement. This will hurt financially.

There is a taxi and Uber pick-up point but it’s immediately clear that the area is totally gridlocked. Nothing is moving in or out. It’s astounding, as though the O2 Arena has only just opened. Someone is screaming out ‘fuck O2!’, tempers are flaring.

Mahmoud, our assigned driver, rings me (weirdly from a number that my phone recognises as originating in Eastbourne). His English is poor and so is the signal. He tells me to come and find him and gives a vague set of directions. The next 20 minutes consist of Mahmoud and I barking down the phone at each other, in ever-increasing frustration, as we try and find each other. Eventually, I jump up and down waving my arms while near-screaming ‘can you see me now!!’ My daughter spots him waving from his Ford Galaxy and we clamber over a fence to run into the jammed road and into the car.

My daughter is now speechless with tiredness and I’m on my last legs too. I eschew Mahmoud’s attempts at conversation, as well as the bottle of water he proffers. I feel white liberal guilt at my anger at his broken English and at using Uber in the first place.

The journey takes 35 minutes to where I’d parked the car. It costs £45. Ouch. We finally get in close to 1am and my daughter gets into bed fully clothed. I drink cup after cup of water (it was a warm night and the arena was sweaty) before slipping gratefully into bed besides my sleeping wife.

Conclusion: What new world is this?

I’m not going to romanticise the past. I’ve been going to gigs since the mid-1980s. Venues were usually (and sometimes still are) poorly-designed, probably unsafe, with terrible seats, terrible acoustic, terrible views and awful food. Getting home afterwards has always been a trial. You wouldn’t want to take your kids. Bands often put minimal effort into their shows, playing the same set night after night. Certainly, metal bands can be terribly complacent — a few flash bangs and some bright lights do not automatically make for a great night.

Yet going to gigs was cheaper, there were less security hoops to jump-through, less surveillance and less corporate price-gouging. It was a more human-scale experience all round.

The same is true with public transport and many other aspects of the infrastructure on which we rely. Life is sometimes safer, sometimes easier, sometimes more convenient. Life is also more expensive, more controlled, more corporate.

Paying attention to infrastructure doesn’t give you a simple view of a better or worse world, at least in this case. It does show what a knife edge the engine of ‘progress’ runs along. Taking my daughter to see Metallica was a journey along this knife edge.