Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Something's Gone Wrong

The New Rock Revolution and the death of rock, revolution, news...

There were five of them, skinny suburban nerds from the seventies, looking like the Modern Lovers, but playing like a dumb-dumb-dumbed down Television: Every song hinged on a boom-clang, two-note beat juggling between the boy-next-door-pretty one with the Beatle guitar round his knees and the gypsy-afro one with the white Strat over his nipples.

The dopey pudding-bowled singer hollered with the most amusical rasp since Poly Styrene hung up her X-Ray Spex. I thought they were gloriously uncool, two scrawny, baccy-stained fingers waved at the joyless moan/thrash dynamic of 'the hit bands of the day.'But I was there to see Rocket From the Crypt.

Soon, the ferocious roar of Speedo's massed ranks of rock'n'soul ninjas was pushing thoughts of this quirky new band from my brain. It was not however, to be the last I would hear of them.What happened in 2001 hardly bears recounting ("I Love Last Week", anyone?): Garage. Punk. Distortion. Lo-Fi. Fashion. Art. Slogans. Graffiti. Denim. Leather. Grease. Fringe. Torn. Pinned. Faded. Primal. Raw. New. Rock. Revolution.Revolution: A sudden or momentous change in a situation.I could hardly wait.
This crop of gawky fashion victims had stripped away the sheeny safety net clinging to commercial guitar pop (or indie as is it's sometimes known) and the scene was set for a horde of wide eyed kids to pick up the baton and build vast cathedrals on the on these tentative, shaky foundations.

Following the embarrassed resignations of Thom Yorke and Chris Martin, an alternative future would blossom where Morrissey took Tony Wilson's advice to become a novelist instead and the history-be-damned musical, unleashed after the rude awakening of punk, never retreated into pop classicism and self-conscious everyman casuality. Where primitive sounds heralded the future, limited only by their imagination, Dionysian boy-gods and golden-eyed nymphets would build rocket ships to the stars out of sticks and mud: The fastest, wildest, rawest, funkiest, loudest, craziest, euphoric, newest, best music ever heard and not a reverb tank or Pro Tool in sight.Instead we got Jet.

Punk could never happen today, because the pre-punk trickle – Eddie and the Hot Rods, Dr Feelgood and Johnathan Richman and the Modern Lovers et al would all get signed for massive advances, get hyped as the greatest thing since sliced bread, be lumped together into some sort of non-existent scene and then release mediocre second albums, while pale imitations were signed in their wake to cash in and the whole scene would be written off by the very people who invented it before the Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Slits, Televsion, Fall or Joy Division could even pick up their instruments.

That's basically what happened with the Strokes, Hives et al...if the tastemakers of the day had scratched the surface just a little they would have found a lot of better bands. They took the quick fix and blew our last chance of ousting the whinge brigade. I've no doubt there are legions of kids who've picked up on the punky thrills that did slip through the corporate safety net and right now are forming bands which are miles better, pushing the raw garage sound into twisted reaches fat ol' Julian Casablancas could never dream of. But I'm just as sure they'll be completely ignored by the media/music industry at large. Because they will have 'moved on' to something else superficially new: Reviewing The Strokes, the NME singled out a moment as an example of Julian's snotty brilliance: a roadie picks up a wayward microphone stand, so he sweeps it to the floor again. That's their idea of rock'n'roll: A fat kid in a leather jacket knocking a mic stand over.

Hopefully our lost boys and golden girls will be smarter than that and embrace the genuinely exciting bands in their local scene. Maybe we'll see a new Dischord or Factory emerge to sweep up the tasty morsels trampled underfoot by the majors in their rush to feast at the McTrough Of Infinite Dreariness – where putting two and two together and getting one is hailed as some sort of giant leap forward!I think the problem for the most part is the increased importance the media/industry has in dictating the changing trends in music/fashion. Music journos have always got over-excited about bands who didn't really deserve it. It's their job to write something eye-catching and 'well, they were alright' doesn't shift units. What seems to have changed is the increasing influence the music press (and by proxy, record label PR) has over individual tastes.

For example, when the NME tried to force Campag Velocet on an unwilling nation a few years back, Pete Voss was promptly spat back onto the dole queue by unconvinced music fans, but you don't see the same happening with The Vines or The Libertines, who are admittedly alright; if you went past a pub and they were playing, you'd probably go in if you had nothing better to do. But eight bloody pages on a glorified sixth form band like The Vines, while there are, well, good bands out there is frankly taking the piss of your readers.

Contrast the Garage Renaissance to the last real revolution in pop music: Rave/Acid House. Raves and house music and ecstasy took people out of themselves and showed them a different way of life. It changed culture and not just pop culture - graph the rise of E versus the decline of footy violence and you'll find a neat little intersection - it spilled over into both the gimmicky world of the hit parade and the tight-arsed heterowhite world of rock, spewing up brilliant bands like the Roses and the Mondays, teaching previously clubfooted indie kids to dance, it put a club in every town, it brought naive young kids up against an anarchic hippie element, it attracted the wrath of the government; ignorant and terrified, John Major's syphilitic Tory party spat out the Criminal Justice Bill, effectively bringing the party to an end. It was a revolution in the truest sense, a defiant refusal to succumb to the turgid torpor of the eighties. I was a child at the time and some 15 miles outside Manchester in the decidedly anti-revolutionary Wilmslow, but you could still feel that something was happening. Manchester went from being the place daddy works, to the place scallies come from.

The New Rock Revolution by contrast was nothing of the sort; a business/media driven packaging of a few disparate bands playing music of varying quality and pedigree, linked only by their reluctance to employ acoustical guitars, and frankly that was all it took at the time, someone to distract us from Elbow, Coldplay, David Gray et al.("I'm a sad witless fucker and I'm gonna cry about it with my acoustical guitar”) and Limp Bizkit and their knuckle-headed ilk ("I'm a sad witless fucker and I'm gonna shout or even, god help us, rap about it with my beatbox and sheeny-shiny billion dollar guitar riffs”). It was good for a while to hear guitars that went clang and drums that went thump and trousers that went tight. But that's as far as the so-called Revolution went before spiralling in ever decreasing circles: BRMC's dourness, Jet's risible Shed Seven-isms, The Darkness' studied campery.I really don't know if there will ever be another 'paradigm shift' in music like rock'n'roll, The British Invasion, punk, electro, house or even, goddammit, Britpop.

There is no one pop scene these days, music has become fragmented into a million different sub-genres, the tendency seems to be for a few mavericks taking a particular type of music and pushing it subtly in a new direction, rather than a collective rebellion against the mores of the day. The process of making and promoting music is also more self-aware and referential than ever before. Example: Even though many punk bands played and dressed in what was, even then, a 'retro' fashion, there was, those in and around the scene had a genuine conviction that something so new and radical was being created that it would destroy the status quo and indeed Status Quo.

The vast majority of bands today, by contrast, either choose visual and musical motifs which refer directly to previous trends, or simply lack the iconicity to catalyse a change in fashion, displaying an anti-fashion 'it's all about the music' attitude, which is at once noble and futile.So, if we can't have a revolution, then, to paraphrase Alan Partridge, let's have evolution. There's a lesson to be learned here: Go back to the source for inspiration by all means, but don't bloody stay there, hanging around pretending it's 1979 again. I don't just mean with music either. Strip away all the bullshit and seize the raw, the visceral, the essence of what you do that makes it great. But don't be afraid to fuck around with it. Bend it, twist it, fuck it up completely and get in a big hissy tantrum, smash it up and start all over again if you have too. Do whatever you can think of and do it all. Just don't be too precious about it. Being a purist's one step from being a Nazi.At the start of the last century people were rushing dizzily towards the next one. I think they'd be very disappointed if they met us going the other way.
Tommy Mack

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