22 December 2016, Cardiff
The sky above Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena is thin, clear blue. Seagulls wheel, squall, then drop to the pavement and shoulder aside the pigeons stumping towards the McDonald’s bags and empty cellophane sandwich wrappers abandoned by a loose cluster of teenagers.
Natasha’s mum made her a veggie curry, which is tucked in the 16-year-old’s black rucksack along with a copy of Anna Karenina. She wraps herself in her grey faux-sheepskin. This will be her first The 1975 show; she hopes they play ‘Undo’.
“I love them all,” she says. “Matty’s lyrics and persona are incredibly honest but… as a drummer myself, George is so understated and talented.”
The 1975 were little known outside of teenage girl world until their second album, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, topped the US and UK charts on its February 2016 release. They are in the midst of an endless tour. In the past year they’ve been to Singapore, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Philippines and South Korea; they played Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show; they crisscrossed Europe and the UK; they performed with the BBC Philharmonic in Blackpool (reducing half the band to tears); they’ve gigged in Edmonton and Ypsilanti; London and LA; weathered mid-summer snow at Red Rocks and apocalyptic lightning in Nuremberg.
My first brush with The 1975 was Christmas, 2015. Teenage girls stood three, four, five deep on the wet pavement outside Portland’s Roseland Theater, the December chill biting through hooded sweatshirts and flimsy jackets. Some huddled beneath blankets, trading warm thighs for damp backsides. They hovered over their phones as if the glowing screens were a heat source. With the exception of one couple canoodling at the distant end of the queue (which stretched around a city block) they were just girls. Girls doing what girls have done since Elvis swiveled his hips and the Beatles shook their mop tops: waiting for a band.
I had no idea then that waiting for a band would become my life, too, albeit vicariously. When your boyfriend is on the road with The 1975 it trickles down. Their schedule is his schedule, which became mine. This gave me a glimpse behind the steel doors and black felt curtains that separate band and fans.
“Matty’s my inspiration,” says Thomas, 17, in a Welsh lilt. “I sing too. I want to be like him when I grow up.” His lips are as blue as the rubber bands on his braces, his thin body quivering with cold. I have an urge to find him a blanket.
What does Thomas imagine being Matty Healy is like? Is the dream worth hypothermia? From what I see, Matty’s life looks exhausting, boring and more than a little lonely. Tonight’s show will be the 192nd gig of the year. That’s 300-plus days of interchangeable hotel rooms and cramped tour buses, interminable hours in airports, bland meals, living out of suitcases.
It is a hard way to live, especially for the sensitive and talented. Maybe that’s why Matty seems smaller by the day, clothes too big, mop of hair bigger. He is Peter Pan by way of Edward Scissorhands, a corkscrew-curled Pied Piper who wears his heart on the outside of his chest and his philosophy tattooed on his forearm: Weak messages create bad situations.
A lot of times, Healy looks as if he’d like to disappear. Yet he walks on stage every night, an ostentatious, heartfelt, overblown, egotistical, tremulous star on the brink of “super”-dom burning like one of Keroac’s Roman candles. A rock idol changing his socks in the corridor, a fashion plate scoffing roast beef slathered in horseradish, an impish heartthrob with a taste for boys and girls.
There is a complicity between The 1975 and its fans. They may not understand each others lives but they share a longing, a desire to be loved.
Anisha sits cross-legged on the pavement, waiting for her friends to return. ‘Robbers’ was probably was the first song the 18-year-old heard. “They’re different from anyone else,” she says shyly. “Matty—he’s different from all the other male artists. He’s not afraid to stand out from the crowd.” Her other favourite singer is Zayn Malik.
Beside her Jon eats a panini. Nineteen, with a goatee and a black Ivy Park baseball cap, he was a late convert. “I didn’t like them at first. I thought they were boring.” His friends liked them, though and gradually Jon saw what the fuss was about. Now he’s prepared to wait seven hours for doors, perched on the ground beside a bang of Christmas shopping. He got stuck babysitting last time the band was in town so this will be his first gig, but he knows the set from YouTube. “I like the ‘Loving Someone’ visuals because they represent LGBT [rights],” he says. “That’s really important. They know what’s going on.”
Matty’s politics are as heartfelt and outspoken as his hits. He’s in the habit of giving a mid-show speech that touches on Brexit and Trump and ends in a plea for compassion. He is sincere rather than polished, which is fitting. It was a bad year for experts, a terrible year for anyone who put their faith in votes or protests. Loving someone might not change the world, but it could change a life and that’s enough.
Fans reflect the band’s intensity. The front row of any show looks like an old-fashioned revival meeting for the under-age, complete with upraised arms and transfigured faces. The morning’s blue sky gave way to monotonous rain by lunchtime. Most of the kids crowding the barriers spent hours huddled under umbrellas but none look worse, or disgruntled, for wear.
I spent the day was writing and drinking tea in a coffee shop across the street from the Arena. Mid-afternoon my boyfriend and some of his colleagues came in, black coats rain-drenched. It was only then I realised there was a solid line of young bodies extending back from the arena doors, around the corner and into the distance. It occurred to me the neon green “Audio Guest” sticker in my pocket would fetch a good price in that crowd.
Behind the scenes is unromantic, though. It is gritty concrete floors, chilly corridors, folding chairs circled around sagging tables, and shabby fluorescent-lit boxes called “dressing rooms”. An access all areas pass offers a glimpse at the boredom and exhaustion of tour life. Because Cardiff is the last show of 2016 the band wants a crew photo. Everyone duly assembles in front of the stage. Matty, George, Ross and Adam walk in single file and bodies rearrange like iron filings around a magnet. Someone snaps a few frames and the group dissolves. Matty shuffles past in fluffy slippers, narrow shoulders slumped beneath a red duffel coat. Later, he’ll be a rock star, right now it’s dinnertime.
Most of The 1975 singles are balls-out pop songs: ‘Sex‘, ‘Chocolate’, ‘The Sound’ and ‘UGH!’. Matty struts through them, tossing his dark curls, pouting, knocking back red wine. The songs he highlights, though, have a different emotional tenor: “This is one of my favourites,” he says, introducing heartbreak lullaby ‘Change of Heart’. Downbeat, woozy ‘Paris’ is also a “favourite” and Matty seems most in his element with the God-baiting confessional ‘If I Believe You’.
The contradiction is part of the appeal. The 1975 doesn’t quite have a niche any more, and that suits its fans just fine. They’re growing up together, with all the confusion and complexity that entails. They want to get wasted and have fun. They want to change the world. They want sex. They want transcendence. They want to be loved. Ultimately, they just want to believe.