‘Isn’t cultural imperialism amazing’ I joked with my fellow gig goers as we stood in awe of the amazing line up at last weekend’s Biggest Weekend in Belfast.
I mean as a spectacle and an experience it was amazing, but also I would file it in the column marked ‘Things that we definitely wouldn’t be getting in the event of Northern Ireland leaving the UK’. I would always say pre-Brexit, if I HAD to make a choice that probably the BBC was the clincher. Culturally Lauren Lavern, Doctor Who and Match of the Day ground me more than any flag. And here was that connection made flesh on my doorstep. Without at doubt the best line up I will ever pay £18 for.
Something has been bugging me though, and not just the beer prices. The Biggest Weekend wasn’t just about the gigs, all week BBC6 Music has been telling us how amazing Belfast is, promoting the Oh Yeah Centre, talking about local music and retelling the story of NI punk and how important it was. All fine… except something wasn’t sitting right with me.
I think it started when a trail for a documentary about Belfast had a clip of a young woman saying something like ‘It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, everyone’s welcome in Belfast’… Oh right… are you sure you’re talking about my Belfast? You know the one with the highest incidents of racial attacks in western Europe? The one that has homophobic legislators? The Belfast where we still haven’t managed to agree on what basic human rights are?
I guess from then I began to think about the sort of Belfast that was being promoted. Who was advising 6Music about the stuff they should talk about? It all seemed a bit safe. It all seemed a bit whitewashed.
I’m not sure what I expected. I’m not sure that bad news sounds great shouted through a microphone between songs in front of 18,000 people. But where was the edge? I’ll always tell journalists that you should come to Belfast and witness it in all it’s twisted energy, the dark with the light, the anger with the elation. It’s an angry town, it’s a fuck you town, and we didn’t hear much of that. We got loads of Van Morrison and 70s punk, no ASIWYFA, no Robocobra Quartet, not even any Joshua Burnside. The ‘fuck you’s were all 40 years old. (OK OK, Touts)
So while on Friday I was joking about how the BBC had come to Belfast in a cunning plan to remind us all that the UK wasn’t all about the DUP, by the Sunday I’d begun to think of it in a very different way. By Sunday I was beginning to think that the Biggest Weekend was the opiate of the middle aged. We forgot for the weekend about the utter mess that we’re in, and felt good about now.
What did I expect? I’m not sure, there’s still a lot to love about Belfast. I love it. And I’ve certainly found out through work that it’s a great city to visit. But for those of us who live here… don’t we need a new punk? Don’t we need a new fuck you? There was so much talk about how much better it was than 30 year ago but nobody was saying ‘Hold on lads, it’s worse than it was 10 years ago.’
So here I am again, finding something negative about one of the best weekends of my life. But I guess I’d say I’m not complaining, I’m just holding a radio station I love to a higher standard. I’ve heard the stories of Terri and Van and Holmer a thousand times and I LOVE those stories. But I don’t love those stories because of what they meant 30-40 years ago, I love them because of what they mean to me NOW. Belfast has a tradition of outsider art which SPANS the last 40 years, it didn’t stop with the gunfire. I hold onto that spirit because it makes sense of the mess we’re in NOW.
So listen, that was great, Orbital one night, Underworld the next, just a dream line up (for me anyway). But now it’s time to get back to work. Belfast is NOT a place were everyone is welcome. Belfast is NOT a place where everything is alright now. And 6Music sure as fuck aren’t going to fix that for us.