In 2002, two astonishing debut albums were released on opposite sides of the Atlantic which, in similar ways, exquisitely captured the existential angst of a young male growing up in the suburban hinterland. One was N¤E¤R¤D’s In Search Of…, whose protagonist dreams of a better existence against the backdrop of Virginia Beach, VA. The other was The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, the location switched to Sutton Coldfield. What made both records so refreshing was that we’d heard the gangster narrative countless times. What we’d barely heard was the voice of the millions of other guys, quietly keeping their heads down and staying out of trouble. The comparison isn’t a perfect one, but the similarities in spirit – the tug of war between here-and-now hedonism and yearning for a different life – are striking. And so, in many ways, is what happened next. Both acts fulfilled their own prophecies. Pharrell Williams did become the “Rock Star” he sang about; Mike Skinner did hear his “bangers” blasting out of car windows and council blocks. And in many ways, they’ve both been defined by their reaction to fame.
Pharrell became the bling-bling playboy who needed to step into a brand new pair of box-fresh Ice Creams even to walk to the fridge. Skinner lost himself in a celebrity-and-cocaine whirlpool. And they both pitch up on Brighton Beach at the same T4-broadcast event to pimp their latest albums. Skinner’s in the mood to return to the spirit of Original Pirate Material, and its opening track, “Turn The Page“, is the first he plays on a blustery day beside the sea, and it’s one of many OPM cuts, including “Don’t Mug Yourself“, “Has It Come To This” and the sublime “Weak Become Heroes“. “Have you ever seen a band before midday?” Skinner asks, taking the party-unfriendly hour (it’s 11.50am) as a challenge. He’s an effortless crowd manipulator, armed with ready wit, interactive stunts and the odd dreadful visual pun: in “Dry Your Eyes“, he points at the English Channel for the words “plenty more fish in the sea”, looks apologetic for a second, points gun-fingers to his temple, and pulls the trigger to the sound of a snare. “This is a new song,” he announces midway through, “so just ignore it.” The truth is that “Heaven for the Weather”, one of the standout tracks from the imminent Everything Is Borrowed, is so infectious that ignoring it won’t be an option.
For “Fit But You Know It“, he parts the crowd Red Sea-like, runs down to the back, and is carried aloft back to the stage just in time to segue into Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock’n’Roll“. Follow that, Pharrell. Camouflaged in a red cap, Ray-Bans, a cricket cardie and a thick scarf, he looks like someone who isn’t used to the British weather. Pharrell fusses about the wind ruining the sound, does a strange dance when things are going well, and sits on the drum riser in a sulk when they aren’t. To be fair, he’s clearly unwell. “My voice is messed up”, he explains (hence the scarf), and his angelic falsetto stays locked away throughout. Eventually, N¤E¤R¤D do drop the hits, including “Everyone Nose” and a neck-snapping “Lapdance“, which is accompanied by a stage invasion which is open only to attractive young women. And Pharrell, like Skinner, tries the “go low” stunt. But we’ve already seen it once today, and it falls flat. If he’d turned up a couple of hours earlier and watched the little English guy with the Brummie accent, he might have learned quite a bit.