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Royal Blood’s on-stage rant reminds us why festivals have left tribalism behind

The duo's on-stage strop is incompatible with a forward-thinking, diverse festival culture in the UK

By Joe Goggins

Royal Blood at BBC Radio 1's Big Weekend 2023 (Picture: BBC)

Perhaps Royal Blood were just having a bad day. Studying the footage of them berating the crowd at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Dundee on Sunday, it is difficult to tell exactly what set them off. On one hand, it appears that Mike Kerr’s command for the audience to make some noise was greeted with a very Scottish chorus of ‘here we f*****g go’.

But the singer evidently felt differently, chastising the crowd in scenes that have now gone viral on social media; by the time they finished their afternoon set, he and bandmate Ben Thatcher appeared to be in direct competition for who could behave more pathetically.

In the annals of great moments of rock and roll rebellion, we should not expect to see Keith Moon’s appetite for blowing up toilets or Jimi Hendrix’s love of igniting his guitars dislodged by the embarrassing sight of Kerr raising both middle fingers at a largely teenage audience, or of Thatcher patronisingly telling a specific crowd member they should smile. Still, Royal Blood’s tantrum was a peculiar one.

As one of Britain’s biggest mainstream rock bands, with three number one albums and a litany of arena tours under their collective belt, they have spent their entire career to date as a part of a festival circuit that has left the tribalism of old behind. They’ve played massive main stage slots at Reading and Leeds, the lineups of which are unrecognisable compared to 15 years ago – far more diverse in their outlook.

The band play Glastonbury again next month, which remains the gold standard for a mainstream festival with a broad genre remit. They’ve appeared at Coachella before, a similarly open-minded celebration of modern popular music. The list goes on, extensively, and quite why they chose this past weekend to throw a strop when they’ve played at any number of similarly mainstream events in the past is anyone’s guess.

It does give us pause for thought, though, on how pleasingly UK festival culture has evolved in casting a wider net over the past decade or so. Whilst there is till plenty of work to do, the stylistic narrow-mindedness of old has been increasingly phased out, with major bills becoming more diverse and eclectic in the process. Inflexible, pre-conceived ideas of what constitutes ‘real music’ have increasingly been left in the past, alongside such other infantile behaviour as the bottling of acts considered out of step with the rest of the lineup; the infamous Daphne and Celeste incident at Reading 2000 would be roundly condemned today, rather than held up as some sort of victory for rock music, as it was at the time.

Nobody would accuse Royal Blood of being musically progressive, much of their output being fairly beige, but it is actively regressive to shirk the challenge of winning over a festival crowd in favour of pontificating about imagined hierarchies of authenticity. That kind of mindset, in the modern climate, makes you yesterday’s men every bit as much as railing against old-fashioned notions of selling out or dismissing any and all electronic music as being somehow not genuine. The end result of that sort of attitude is usually an influx of mind-numbingly dull “proper bands with proper haircuts.”

You would think by now that the limitations of such self-imposed parameters would be dawning on a band who have made three remarkably similar albums and who, for a long time, seemed to wear their exclusive use of a bass guitar over a normal six-string as a badge of honour. Given that they appear to be largely eschewing festivals this summer in favour of opening for Muse, though, maybe not.

As there’s likely considerable crossover between the two groups’ fanbases, you imagine they’ll be relatively safe from the dangers of impassive audiences. What this debacle has shown, though, particularly through the savage kicking that they’ve taken on social media, not just from fans but from a host of other musicians, is that sneering petulance is no longer very rock and roll and that entitlement is deeply uncool in an age where just scraping by as a musician is more difficult than ever.

Increasingly, there is room for everybody on the posters of major festivals, but having Royal Blood as rock’s representatives paints a misleading picture of the current state of the genre – wrongly suggesting that it remains wedded to a small-mindedness that has, in fact, largely been dispensed with.