Cheerio Goodbye: Wild Beasts’ Final Gig

At their last ever show, Wild Beasts are bawdy and triumphant. Ben Hewitt is there for the bittersweet celebration

All photos by Aino Väänänen

When Wild Beasts released Boy King in 2016, it was with a declaration that they were killing off their old selves and becoming a new band, “the band we’ve always objected to being”. It was lewder and more lairy than their previous albums, with cock-rocking guitars and priapic posturing. “If the old Wild Beasts are truly dead, then I’m at peace with it,” I declared, like a halfwit. You have to slough off your old skin to try something new, I reasoned, you have to stop things from getting stale. But a year or so later, Hayden Thorpe, Tom Fleming, Ben Little and Chris Talbot had had enough of trying something new, and they just wanted to stop, altogether. “We’re caretakers to something precious and don’t want to have to diminish it as we move forward in our lives,” they said. And so it was over, Wild Beasts were over.

At least this final farewell at the Hammersmith Apollo feels more like a bittersweet celebration than a po-faced commiseration. The opening three songs are a formidable demonstration of Wild Beasts’ weapons arsenal, a triptych designed to show everything that made them so dangerous. First is a suitably keening ‘The Funpowder Plot’, its guitars shimmering more softly than usual, with Thorpe’s falsetto gently crooning: “My boot, my boot, my boot up your arsehole.” He cedes the spotlight to Fleming on ‘The Devil’s Crayon’, watching his bandmate bounce around like a wicked schoolboy while telling boisterous, mischievous tales in his deep, syruppy rumble. Then they come together for the tender ‘Reach A Bit Further’, the two of them ping-ponging regrets and recriminations back and forth. In Laura Snapes’ excellent post-split feature for Q, Talbot admitted how hard they’d found it to talk about The End, which renders Thorpe’s earnest “Will you by any chance / Remember the olive branch?”, and Fleming’s “Yes I will” response, particularly rueful. But why waste time wishing they’d unglued their tongues when there’s so much joy? The sugar rush of ‘A Simple Beautiful Truth’ and its gorgeous, glassy synths is even sweeter for the way Thorpe wriggles and bops while he sings, like a child practising moves in front of the bedroom mirror.

“As ever, this is a song about sex,” grins Fleming before introducing ‘Ponytail’, but tonight’s show is a reminder that, really, these songs are about more; people’s tendency to fixate on their fondness for shagging often turned into a slightly witless rub-your-thighs cliche that missed the point. Wild Beasts hankered for desire more than physical gratification – always hungry for a feeling, a moment, a sensation – and that’s truer than ever this evening. ‘We Still Got The Taste Dancin’ On Our Tongues’ finds sparks of romantic flair in the ribald urgency of lust and the way “trousers and blouses make excellent sheets / Down dimly lit streets”. Soon after comes ‘Mecca’, a swirling whirlpool of velvety electronics that finds Thorpe throwing his arms into the sky like a preacher as he turns a clinch into both a divine act of worship (“I’m a pilgrim and you’re the shrine”) and a seance with his amorous ancestors (“All the lovers before us who breathed in this ether”).

Above all else, Wild Beasts always tried to make everything around them seem more special, looking for spots of time they could imbue with magic. Little once told me their early ethos was rooted in a punkish attitude: a fuck-you to everyone they didn’t understand and who didn’t understand them, a way of kicking against the pricks with flamboyance and dismantling masculine tropes with shrieking falsettos and arcane language. Rebelling with anger and aggression, to fashion something surly and ugly, is one thing – to spin it into something beautiful is far trickier. And that’s exactly what ‘This Is Our Lot’ does tonight, with its elegant swell of guitars and bygone eloquence (“we’re all quiffed and cropped, this is our lot / We hold each other all heavy with hops”); it shrinks the Apollo down into some intimate long-lost space, until it feels like we’re inside an old baroque ballroom built for slow dances and stolen embraces.

Wide-eyed wonder, of course, was always going to be a given: the great unknown tonight was how Boy King – commercially successful, but less critically adored than its four predecessors – would fit in to a greatest-hits swansong. Its songs, in hindsight, seem more and more like a last-gasp experiment, the musical equivalent of spicing up a relationship by rummaging in the fancy-dress box and trying out some kinky roleplay. And there are times this evening when the four men who perform them could be a different band. They strut through the aforementioned ‘Ponytail’, sashaying around the stage to a clash of sleazy funk and the repeated, insect-like whine of a manipulated vocal. They immediately drop the swagger, though, for the crushing swoon of ‘Bed Of Nails’, a song still so powerfully charged with highfalutin electricity: “Our love, Frankenstein in nature and design / Like the Shelleys on the very first time.” Likewise, when they return after the interval with ‘Get My Bang’, it’s with all the showy gimmicks they can muster: confetti cannons, garish strobe lights, squalling solos. It’s brilliantly histrionic, but is somewhat overshadowed by the more subtle spell of ‘Hooting And Howling’, which reimagines the sight of bodies bumping into each other on a raucous night out as an elegant street ballet, turning ugly fights and clumsy flirting into a giddy waltz.

Tonight more than any other night, that tonal disconnect could make Boy King a strange, potentially unsuitable full-stop. Conversely, it’s also a show that makes you believe it’s the only album they could have bowed out with; that even if was some hail-Mary prayer that went unanswered, everything worked out for the best anyway. That’s partly because the lurid overhaul can’t obscure all the connective tissue between then and now. On the very first song from their debut Limbo, Panto, ‘Vigil For A Fuddy Daddy’, they sent up male stoicism by singing: “Men to be men, must love and pity / So deeply and secretly.” Tonight they play the opener from Boy King, the prowling, menacing ‘Big Cat’, on which a purring Thorpe lets slip how much of a draining pantomime toxic masculinity really is : “It takes all of me, baby, being the big cat / But I’m okay with that.” It’s like a 10-year, five-album loop being closed.

And it’s as if they found a new way of fulfilling that original brief, the refusal to be a cosy part of the furniture, only with new outre tendencies. “This is a story of girl meets boy, boy meets … alpha female,” declares Thorpe dramatically by way of introducing ‘Alpha Female’. It’s so magnificently hammy – and even more so when he drawls, “Give it to them, Tommy” as his bandmate wades into the crowd and indulges in the most rockstar-ish of tropes, the ridiculous guitar-hero solo – that it fits together. It’s far removed from the oddness of, say, ‘His Grinning Skull’, with its unsettling clash of whistle-friendly melody and gruesome imagery, but both are essentially cut from the same provocative cloth.

There are three songs in the encore, and each is practically perfect. First is a flashback to younger, ruder days, courtesy of a whooping, hollering, raucous version of ‘Brave, Bulging, Buoyant, Clairvoyants’, which still sounds like the bawdiest, most loquacious attempt to talk someone into bed imaginable; a piercing ‘All The King’s Men’, on which Fleming slows down so as to revel in every breathless gasp, a song about all-consuming gluttony turned into an unlikely sing-along; and then (of course) an ultra-extended ‘End Come To Soon’, which starts soft and gentle but eventually becomes poignantly triumphant, with all four Beasts pausing halfway through for a soppy group hug. When they resume, they’re backed by an all-female choir, and it’s those singers – not the band themselves – who are tasked with belting out the final notes at a Wild Beasts gig, with a wonderful a cappella version of ‘Cheerio Chaps, Cheerio Goodbye’. It’s a fitting last subversion, a way of not waving farewell but thumbing their noses instead: a band allowing someone else the last word at their own wake, and a group who were so often extolled as the voice of broken masculinity looking past their gender. “I don’t know if there are words for this,” declared Fleming shortly before the end, but the truth is that for the past 10 or so years, Wild Beasts almost always found the right ones. Cheerio, chaps. Cheerio and goodbye.

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