Embodying “God Damn – It’s Great To Be Alive”

It was November 26th, 2015. A Thursday. Thanksgiving, if you were in America. But I wasn’t. I had taken a red-eye flight the night before to London and found myself in a sleep-deprived haze standing inside the cavernous, and famous, Alexandra Palace. I was there hours before doors opened for the night to work a concert headlined by my favorite band, Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls. I spent the afternoon busy futzing around with my phone and following various band members around the venue. Then just as suddenly found myself hours later in the middle of the assembled crowd, a face in a sea of fans, watching a set similar to the ones I had seen about fifty times before. This night was slightly different, though. This is an account of my favorite performance of a piece of music; performed by Frank Turner and a crowd of ten thousand.

First, this performance needs more context. Thirteen days before I was in London, terrorists attacked the city of Paris, France. One point of attack was a mass shooting at an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theatre, which robbed the music community of 90 people and injured many more. One of those killed was Nick Alexander, the merchandise manager for Eagles of Death Metal and a long-time friend of Frank Turner’s. Thirteen days later Frank Turner stood alone on stage at Alexandra Palace, the largest general admission concert hall in the capital. Almost every night, Turner will take a two-to-three song acoustic break where his band members will leave the stage and he plays requests or b-sides. On November 26th, Turner stood on that stage and talked about his friend Nick Alexander. He dedicated his song “Demons” to him, and said from then on it was Nick’s song.

“Demons” is a song from Turner’s August 2015 release Positive Songs for Negative People. It is a fast-paced and punchy track, with contributions from every member of the band on guitar, bass, drums, keys, and vocals. However, on the deluxe version of Positive Songs…, Turner released a slowed-down acoustic version of the song, featuring just his vocals and his guitar. It was this version Turner chose to perform on November 26th at Alexandra Palace. With the house lights down leaving the audience in the dark, we watched as Turner stood illuminated above us at the center of the stage with just his guitar. The stage lights shined in white and red, crisscrossing diagonally behind him and across the first few rows of the crowd. There wasn’t a sense of kinkiness in the darkness and isolation of Turner on stage in the light like Suzanne Cusick would have us consider. There was a solemn weight in the air. The distance between performer and audience, in terms of elevation differences, lighting, barriers and security all contributed to the weight we felt as witnesses. With his band members and crew standing in the shadows of stage-right, Turner was alone.

After introducing the song and talking about Nick Alexander, Turner began to perform “Demons”. He played and sang in a dawdling sort of way. Sonically he meandered about as if he was not in any rush to get on with the song. The focus of the performance laid on Turner’s voice, his lyrics and the audience shouting them back at him. Because we audience members were performing, too. “To perform in general means to carry out, to complete, or to accomplish… in its new usage (in American and cultural studies), the connotation of the verb shifts from the achievement of an action to the embodiment of an identity” (Manning, 2014, 190). While Turner performed in a traditional sense, the audience performed in a cultural studies sense. We embodied the identity of dutiful fans, of mourners, of revelers in that space at that time. I was not just Valerie, I was a Frank Turner fan who was engaging with a moment in time that would never exist again.

Despite being separated from Turner during our joint performance, audience members sang and shouted, desperate to be heard. I had a feeling that deep down we were acting in defiance of the darkness that had been imposed on us and the threat of terror that targeted spaces like the one we inhabited that night. As I sang along, performing in my own way along with Turner’s performance, I felt compelled to reach out and hold on to my friends who were standing next to me, and they held on to the strangers next to them. It was not planned and it was not something we did at any other point in the night. Perhaps our emotions during this song were so raw, so we had to grab onto whatever, or whoever, we could. In hindsight, I think we were also holding on to the thought of music lovers like Nick Alexander, especially when it came to the poignant lyrical refrain: “at this truth we have arrived – god damn, it’s great to be alive.” Many fans, myself included, punctuated that line by punching their fists in the air. I still can’t tell you why we did it but I felt like I needed to, like I may burst if I didn’t. Perhaps it was the embodiment of that lyrics sentiment.

As the song progressed, slowly throughout the room without any prompting or formal planning, fans started turning on their cell phones’ flashlights and holding them up in the air – similar to how fans used to hold lighters up at concerts. The lights shining back at Turner grew and grew, and for me at least, it was a small way to physically show that I was there. I was there, and alive, and a light in the dark. It was a small way to further rebel against the isolation of being in the dark crowd, but to also show Turner he was not as isolated as it may appear, either. Both performer and audience occupied Ally Pally, this was just one of many ways that we could physically show we were there.[1] Towards the middle of the song, Turner’s guitar strumming picked up speed. The sense of urgency could be felt deep inside your chest as he sang the bridge: “you’re not delivering a perfect body to the grave, time is not there to be saved. Life is a holiday, a moment stolen from the black before the demons drag you back. You won’t get everything you wanted…” Finally, as we neared the end of our song, he encouraged those who hadn’t noticed the light show around them to join in, saying: “Come on, let’s see everybody’s phone lights out for this.”

Thousands of lights quickly rose up in the air as fans fumbled with their devices. Turner carried on singing, yet his guitar playing returned to an idle pace. “Dry mouth… the taste of blood… the iron on the tongue brings out something ancient, something before the flood,” and then he screamed, “Dust down, staaaaaaand tall! Life gave me demons but I made friends with the devil” – (Turner pointed out above the crowd on the word “devil”) – “so I’m invincible!” Then louder than anything we had sung previously, he defiantly ended the song: “At this truth we have arrived – god damn, it’s great to be alive! You’re not delivering a perfect body to the grave, your time is not there to be saved. Life is a holiday, a moment stolen from the black before the demons drag you back. You won’t get everything you wanted, but you will never be defeated.” Turner changed the next lyrics, from “you” to “we” and gave more emphasis to the words as he sang louder than he had with the lines before, echoing the energy the crowd was bringing. “We won’t get everything we wanted, but we will never be defeated. No, we will be NEVER be defeaaaaaaated,” – holding the note on defeated for ten seconds and punching the air at the end. With that, “Demons” was done. The audience hardly caught our breath as we cheered.

I cried my way through this performance of “Demons” – a performance that, in the end, was not solely done by Frank Turner but by ten-thousand fans. We were not just standing in the dark letting the music and lights do whatever they wanted to us, we took part. We touched one another, we danced, we moved together. We made noise that, at times from my point of view in the crowd, drowned out Turner’s vocals. We illuminated the space, something that is often beyond the control of the audience. We performed as much, if not more, than Turner did for that song.

Emotions were high in that room for many during those four-odd minutes. We mourned the loss of life in Paris thirteen days prior, we celebrated one life in particular, we celebrated our lives, we celebrated our community, and we stood in defiance. It was the greatest performance I have ever experienced because of all those reasons. Additionally, I personally had the lens of Thanksgiving on that night which was fitting as I had so much to be thankful for. I’m not sure I would have reflected on how fortunate I was if Turner had not performed “Demons”. I’m not sure I would have felt as moved to perform along with him as passionately as I did.

Before November 2015, Turner would always perform “Demons” with his band; loud and fast, in a way that sounded near identical to how it did on their album. On November 26th, and in every instance since, he has performed the deluxe album version; slowly, acoustic, deliberate. But there will never be another performance of “Demons” like the one that took place at Ally Pally.

Notes:

  1. A common nickname for Alexandra Palace is “Ally Pally”.
  2. This paper was written as my third assignment for my Intro to Musicology course in November 2018.

Works Cited:

  • “About Us – What We Do.” Nick Alexander Memorial Trust, 11 Nov. 2018 <thenickalexandermemorialtrust.com/what-we-do/>
  • Alexander, Zoe. “I Lost My Brother in the Bataclan Terror Attack But Will Ensure His Legacy Lives On Through Music.” HuffingtonPost.co.uk, 03 Nov. 2017, Web, 11 Nov. 2018 <huffingtonpost.co.uk/zoe-alexander1/brother-bataclan-terror-attack_b_18455776.html>
  • Cusick, Suzanne. “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort Not to Thin Straight,” in Queering the Pitch, ed. Brett, Wood, and Thomas, 67-84. PDF.
  • “Frank Turner Alexandra Palace Demons Acoustic.” YouTube, uploaded by Alex Mollison, 27 Nov. 2015, Web. 10 Nov. 2018. <youtu.be/SJ7g_k8vV5s>
  • “Frank Turner – Demons.” Genius Music Group Inc. 10 Nov. 2018 <genius.com/Frank-turner-demons-lyrics>
  • “Frank Turner Setlist.” Setlist.FM, n.d., Web. 10 Nov. 2018. <setlist.fm/setlist/frank-turner/2015/alexandra-palace-london-england-23f2b88f.html>
  • Manning, Susan. “Performance.” Keywords for American Cultural Studies, ed. by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, New York University Press, 2014, 190-192.
  • Morse, Ben. “…But you will never be defeated.” Instagram. 30 Nov. 2015 <instagram.com/p/-t-baknV-_>
  • “November 2015 Paris Attacks.” Wikipedia, n.d., Web. 12 Nov. 2018 <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/November_2015_Paris_attacks>
  • Turner, Frank. Positive Songs For Negative People (Deluxe). Xtra Mile Recordings, 2015, Spotify. <open.spotify.com/album/3IHIWX5ubWQpKGgIrQXyfU?si=mjezES8GQ3atrUREt5YVpQ>
  •  “Venue Hire – Concerts.” AlexandraPalace.com, 11 Nov. 2018 <alexandrapalace.com/venue-hire/concerts>

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“…But you will never be defeated.”
Photo of Frank Turner performing “Demons” at Alexandra Palace, November 26th, 2015 by Ben Morse.


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