The rise of Biffy Clyro, as told through their most important gigs

Having been playing live now for over 20 years, Biffy Clyro are quite simply one of the best bands you’ll ever see hit the stage. From early Glasgow gigs to festival-headlining triumphs, the band take us inside the shows that made them…

The rise of Biffy Clyro, as told through their most important gigs
Ian Winwood
Paul Harries

It’s been a hell of a journey for Biffy, and their road here is made of classic shows. So, what better time for The Boys to talk us through the onstage highlights that made them the live force they are today?

2000Headlining Glasgow King Tut’s

James Johnston (bass): “I remember being in [an] office backstage as 57 got its first play on national radio, just as we were getting ready to take to the stage at King Tut’s for our first-ever headline appearance. And we almost didn’t want to go and play the show, because we were pissing our pants with excitement. To hear your band on the radio never really gets old, but certainly the first time it happens is the most exciting thing you can imagine. The funny thing was, we were there to promote a new EP, but we didn’t play any of the songs from it. We’d already moved on and written a bunch of angular, weird, shouty music. By the time the EP came out, we’d moved on. That’s one thing we’ve learned our lesson from, which is to occasionally play the music that people want to hear!”

2004Topping the bill at the Barrowland Ballroom

James: “The first time we headlined there, we had a CD that started with a beat as our intro tape. Ben [Johnston, drums] would walk on and start playing along to it, and then Simon [Neil, vocals/guitar] and I would walk on and the show would start – heroes’ welcome, everybody goes crazy! So, the song’s playing, Ben walks on, starts playing, but the crowd is jumping with such force on the famous Barrowlands floor that the CD starts skipping. Looking back, it’s like, ‘What the fuck were we thinking playing a CD?’ Also, we didn’t use in-ear monitors at that point, so I remember walking on and not really being able to hear anything I was playing. It was like The Beatles at Shea Stadium. It really was a feeling of being overawed, to be honest with you. It was like, ‘Did we do it right?’ At the Barrowland, it really was an out-of-body experience.”

2005London calling at The Astoria

James: “The Astoria was always the big London show. If you made it to the Astoria, it felt like things were going pretty well for your band – especially because we’d had so many trips in vans to London where it was disappointing and you were left driving back up the road thinking, ‘We didn’t break London. It didn’t happen.’ It felt like when you finally got to the Astoria, you finally had some wind in your sails. And with that venue being so far from our hometown, it felt like something really special. I guess looking back, it’s also a reminder of how much we need these great venues. I don’t know where the next generation of bands coming through are going to play because the Astoria [which closed in 2008] had that magic about it. Your feet would stick to the floor. You could still smell last night’s audience when you walked in. It just had a vibe about the place, and for us young upstarts it really felt like a cool place to cause some carnage.”

2010Grooving at the BBK festival in Bilbao

James: “This was one of those festivals where you’re playing at one or two in the morning, and you’re driving up the hill toward the festival site at 10pm and the punters are walking in with their cases of beer. They’re just getting started. And you’re just trying to wake up from your third nap of the day, trying to get your head out of your arse. So you’re getting your in-ear monitors in, you’re trying to turn them on, and you’re hearing this chant of ‘Mon the Biff!’ and you think, ‘Is this a fucking tape? Is somebody trolling us here? Where the fuck did all these people come from?’ We were maybe playing to a thousand people in the clubs in Spain at this point, and suddenly there’s 5,000 people at one o’clock in the morning going crazy. That was one of those shows where you felt a full heart and soul connection with the audience. It was like an out-of-body experience, which is how I would describe all the best shows.”

2010Making a live album at Wembley Arena

James: “I remember that when we got onstage, we were all running to get to the microphone so we were the first one to shout, ‘Hello, Wembley!’ We all wanted to do that. I think by that point in our career we’d started to become more comfortable playing bigger rooms. We were better at taking what we thought of as ‘our show’ and bringing our own personalities to rooms of that size. We were no longer quite so overawed by the space. We were taking control a little bit and putting a lot of effort into the production so that the shows were becoming quite a bit bigger in scale. We were just becoming more comfortable in bigger rooms. We were aiming for the people at the back rather than playing for the people in the front rows. We probably weren’t so great at talking to the audience – we’re still learning how to do that – but at least we were facing the front at that point. You might even have seen the occasional smile!”

2011Headlining Sonisphere

James: “That was our first big festival headline appearance, and once again it was called into question as to whether we were a great fit for that bill. That’s a recurring theme in this band’s history, which speaks to us being perennial outsiders. The way I like to put is, ‘We’re the outsiders you want to invite to the party.’ We’re always fun, and you never quite know what is going to happen. At Sonisphere, not only did we prove something, but we also proved something to ourselves. When you put on a good show, sometimes the style of music you’re playing somehow becomes less important. It’s all about human beings watching other human beings singing their heart and soul out. What I learned at that show is that it’s all about human interaction.”

2016Headlining London’s The O2

James: “I remember we had this stage set that we called the ‘cheese-grater’ set. It was these ramps where, if you fell on them, you would get cut to shreds, which I did many times. That was the most dangerous stage that we’ve ever played on. But it felt like we were embracing the size of the room, the size of the production, and not being overawed by it. It wasn’t a case of ‘band plays in spaceship, band gets lost’. I think we were flying the spaceship at that point, if that makes sense. That was actually the second time we’d headlined The O2. The first time, it kind of happened; the second time, we made it happen. It’s easy to be overawed by that occasion. I think it’s a question of being more composed, but not losing your edge… I think this was one of the best shows we’ve ever played.”

2016Headlining the SSE Hydro on the same tour

James: “If you’ve got that many Glasgow voices behind you, it really does show that you have grown. I think it’ll take a few years to really understand how we felt at seeing and hearing that. At the time when it’s happening, you put your head down and get on with it; you’re not really thinking about it because you’ve got a show the next day in Birmingham. But looking back, it’s that moment where you get to show your friends and family, and the kids you grew up with who supported the band, that we’re doing okay. It’s nice to be able to share that with the people who have supported us all the way. We opened the shows on that tour with Wolves Of Winter, which is funny because I said to Ben the other night – I was a bit emotional, but I wasn’t drunk or anything – ‘Ben, it’s such a joy to play to your beat every fucking night.’ I have never taken it for granted, but to turn around and see my boy doing that every night makes me want to say to the audience, ‘Are you fucking seeing this? This guy is unbelievable. He makes my job so easy.’”

2017Headlining Download for the first time

Simon Neil (vocals/guitar): “That was an unreal, amazing gig. I was a little worried, because you want to do a good job, you want to do Donington justice, and I feel like we did. There’s some festivals you feel you might never headline, and I guess because for me Donington has always been AC/DC, Metallica, Black Sabbath – real legends – it’s not something I ever considered us doing. And when we got asked to do it, we were like, ‘Fuck!’ It took us a minute to decide. My adrenaline was pumping like fuck all day. I woke up just ready to get onstage. It was such a relief to get on and do the gig because you’re so pumped. For the first few songs I was like, ‘I’m gonna keep my head down and make sure I’m playing guitar the right way.’ But after that I could look up and see all the people. The amount of people who wanted to come and celebrate with us was unbelievable!”

2020The show without an audience at Glasgow Barrowland

James: “What I can say about that show [which was live-streamed during the ban on public gatherings] was that it cost us an absolute fortune! To be honest, though, it reminded me how lucky we are to have someone like Simon at the helm of this ship, because he very calmly realised that the audience has always seen us facing in a certain direction: down the barrel of a lens. So there was no point just putting a camera where the audience usually stands, because everyone has seen that. Simon realised that we could use the whole venue. We could have different set-ups. We could really push the production, which was a real challenge. It’s difficult to overstate how much of a challenge that was, but also how rewarding it was, too, to have that on tape. It’s not just a memory, it’s also a document. Of all the things we’ve done, I think that’s one of the best.”

2021Returning to Reading & Leeds after COVID

Simon: “That was a lot of people’s first live show after COVID, and it really felt like something more than just going to watch a band and sing along to a few songs. It really did feel like we were all celebrating something together, and almost to make each other feel better. I want someone to leave feeling something, you know? And for us, coming back and just being reminded of the power of that many people together, it was really, really fantastic. I didn’t know if I was going to feel that jovial – there were so many nerves going into it, and I wasn’t sure whether things were just gonna snap into it like normal. But it was fucking amazing. After everything with the pandemic, it felt unbelievable to get that back again.”

2022Playing The Fillmore in San Francisco

James: “When I looked at the itinerary of this American tour I thought, ‘We’re playing the fucking Fillmore!’ It felt like being in the Barrowlands, or being at the Astoria. It was significant. This felt like a really big, proper show; and it felt like a proud moment, even though I know that pride is a sin. But we got to play for a thousand people in a venue that I’ve been reading about for as long as I’ve loved music. If you can’t find joy in that then you’re doing the wrong job. Playing for those people is just so special. And the show was amazing.”

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