“Oh, its getting hot in here / must be something in the atmosphere / Oh, I could be laughing about it / and making the most of the true British climate”.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. A few years ago Athlete were a big name on a few lips. Debut album Vehicles and Animals had a pleasant, summery sound, that captured the feeling of what was a very pleasant summer (it was a pretty hot Glastonbury, as I remember). Idly telling us to fly to El Salvador for no reason, suggesting that we make the most of climate change, or warbling about how houses with no windows are hard to see into (impossible, surely?), they felt like cheerful, if simple, company.
It didn’t last; a dull, weighty follow up lead to a near disappearance from the scene. Their dirge like single Wires went to number one (for some reason) but irritated the living piss out of those who had to listen to it daily on the radio (or was that just me?). Al Gore popped up to tell us that all the heat was down to the carbon in the atmosphere, and we probably shouldn’t be laughing about it after all. I wouldn’t be surprised if tourism to El Salvador dropped off sharply as well.
But now they’re back, touring to promote a third offering. Athlete have survived probably because they’re still popular enough to draw a crowd – and KOKO was duly packed to its gold leaf rafters. I don’t know how many Athlete fans are left in London but most have them must have been here, making enough noise to make you think the Libertines had reformed, or something.
How many remain fans after this pedestrian performance remains a question. Having abandoned their taste for sharp, catchy riffs, Athlete now do the type of predictable, by the numbers indie rock that you can sing along without really knowing any of the words. Anthemic old favourite to get the crowd going here, bit of chat about how grateful they are to everyone for turning out, then stick in a couple of rubbish newer ones under the radar while everyone is still in a good mood (omens aren’t good for the third album – songs such as Airport Disco as hopelessly dull as their titles suggest).
It didn’t seem to phase many people there, admittedly, who were still happy to belt out every number at the drop of a hat. Blasting out the first few lines of New Project, as Joel Pott takes a break to talk to Tim Wanstall, you got the sense that there’s nothing Athlete could do that wouldn’t go down a storm. “Shall we just go?” Pott chirrups ironically, after being out-sung by his fans. “YEAH” scream the crowd, a little confused. That’s what you get for asking a bunch of slavish yes-men a question to which the answer should be no.
It’s hard to completely hate a band when they’re going down so well. And it’s not that Athlete are bad at what they do. It’s just that, in a way that reminded me uncannily of Matt Damon, they have a knack of reminding you that life is short (see Al Gore again for details), and watching them isn’t exactly swimming with dolphins, is it? Of course it isn’t.