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6 February 2019

Like most singers, I used to get heckled at gigs – but if I’m honest, did I secretly enjoy it?

“Concert in San Francisco in the 1990s. Audience complained about sound levels, you replied, ‘You don’t think I’m mixing the sound up here while I’m singing, do you?’ We cheered.”

By Tracey Thorn

It all started with a tweet from someone complaining about audiences who demand that bands play their favourite song. “At a show in Chicago in 1994,” they wrote, “Tracey Thorn told the song-request-shouters, ‘It’s our band and we’ll play what we like.’ The other 99.9 per cent of us cheered. And the annoying shouters clammed up.”

Reading that made me laugh, and I replied saying how it had reminded me that even though I’d suffered from stage fright, I didn’t put up with any shit. That opened the floodgates, and I was treated to a stream of memories about how little shit I put up with.

“Brussels Jazz Festival 1996. Disrespectful audience. Got them silent with your emphasis on ‘I want you to shut your mouth, that would be enough.’”

“I remember an EBTG gig at Cambridge Corn Exchange when someone shouted ‘Smile, Tracey!’… you replied, ‘Say something funny then!’”

“Similar happened at Manchester Academy in about 1994 – you definitely didn’t take any shit that night!”

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“Concert in San Francisco in the 1990s. Audience complained about sound levels, you replied, ‘You don’t think I’m mixing the sound up here while I’m singing, do you?’ We cheered.”

“In Orlando, to the rude drunks that shouted ‘Louder!!’ You said, ‘This is as loud as we get!’”

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By now I was also remembering why I had stopped doing gigs. It’s easy to forget that there can be a combative element to being on stage. Some in the audience take it as a challenge, seeing you standing up there – “Go on then, prove it! Go on then, entertain me!” Paying the ticket price brings a degree of power. The audience outnumbers the band on stage (at least, you hope they do). The stage, and your pop-star status, lifts you above the fans – but there is energy in a crowd, and safety in numbers. Sometimes you have to snarl a bit to take charge.

I’ve talked about having stage fright a lot, which makes it sound like I was timid and meek on stage. You might picture me quivering, my voice shaking. But I don’t think I was like that at all. It took guts to get up there, and there was pride involved. If my hands shook, I went to great lengths to hide it. I was on guard, a little defensive, primed for an attack. People who are tense and braced can be quite dangerous. They can lash out unexpectedly.

I’d been taught by masters. Bloodied early, and literally, when a rival punk band threw pigs’ ears at my first group, I learnt lessons about what might happen to performers. The Marine Girls sounded like wimps, but a live review said we were the kind of girls who’d break your arm before we’d let you break our hearts.

And let’s be honest – did I quite enjoy it? Did I slightly thrive on that atmosphere of abandon in the air, things a bit out of control? Knowing I could give as good as I got? They might dish it out, but I threw it straight back. More deadening to me were sedate, seated gigs. Reverential silence often unnerved me.

Heckling has a long history. The most famous example is probably from 1966, at Manchester Free Trade Hall, when an audience member shouted “Judas!” at the amplified Bob Dylan. He replied, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar,” before roaring into an electrified, electrifying take on “Like a Rolling Stone”.

Although maybe even that retort was beaten by Donita Sparks, from the band L7, at Reading Festival in 1992. After technical problems interrupted their set, some idiots chucked mud at them. Her response? She pulled out her tampon and threw it at the crowd, shouting “Eat my used tampon, fuckers!”

Compared to that I’ve always been restrained. I’m about to go back on tour, albeit only with reading events for my new book. The audiences here don’t tend to get all that rowdy. I haven’t heard of a lit fest crowd shouting, “Read one of your earlier, funnier passages!” or demanding, “Do Chapter Three! Chapter Three!”

Although having written this I’m now fully prepared for some wag in a tent to shout “PLAY ‘MISSING’” at me. Well, at your own risk. I may seem friendly, but beware. I sometimes bite. 

This article appears in the 06 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe