I was standing looking at our late summer garden the other day (yeah, I know the title suggests this is about music, but work with me, okay? It’s a kind of multi-layering effect I’m going for here) and I was thinking that it pretty much reflected the way The Redoubtable Mrs F and I are.
There’s a herbaceous border (non-gardeners, read: the opposite of low-maintenance) full of spiky, interesting things with strange leaf shapes and unusual flowers, almost all of which we deliberately planted, though rarely in the same place; at the back, an oriental style gravel area above the rockery, both stuffed with non-standard, quirky stuff; whilst nearer to hand, artichokes we can never eat because they’re choked with ants rear above a patio that, due to the same organic policy, harbours in its cracks every perennial weed known to botanical science; and in the near bed on the right hand side, mint, geranium and Alchemilla Mollis enact a slow, desperate hand to hand combat for supremacy – a kind of Fight Club with added chlorophyll. We also have courgettes, if we can get to them before the slugs do.
In other words, a garden created by bleeding heart liberals, always seeking that elusive thing: the alternative.
Now, I’m not going to claim we’re anything special in that regard. If you’re reading this, you’re just as likely to be a fellow traveller along the spectrum of difference. I mean, is there anyone out there really looking for the blandest thing on the menu? Well, very possibly, but they’ll have given up reading this piece long ago, and gone off to, I dunno, find more pictures of dogs looking mildly surprised. Vive la difference, right?
Right. So. I was thinking about all of this recently when reading NME’s 100 most influential artists (Daughter and Heiress’s copy: I’ve never really liked NME, and even she, who has the excuse of youth, looks a bit sheepish when trying to slip it under the radar and into the trolley at Morrison’s). Leaving aside the pieces about bands I’d never heard of influencing other bands I’d never heard of, the omissions were the most striking: no Beatles, Stones, or Dylan. Or Hendrix, for that matter.
I mean, really? Arctic Monkeys never listened to any Jagger/Richard compositions? And young Jake Bugg never hunkered down in his tough Nottingham Council estate and listened to the street punk stylings of Subterranean Homesick Blues-era Dylan? And the Beatles – errr… Oasis, anyone?
I guess, being generous, what they’re saying is these guys are the bedrock of modern rock and roll, and they then influenced other people, who in turn are some of the bands I’d never heard of influencing other bands I’d never heard of. Whew! Glad that’s clear – but then, what are these other old-timers like Bruce Springsteen, and Fleetwood Mac, doing in there?
The truth is, the NME piece is a snapshot in time of something: who it is, as a muso, you’re currently allowed to like (or if you’re a young band trying to get a music journalist’s attention, who you’re allowed to say you like). In other words, who it’s cool to be into (which is kind of like, but not the same as, the alternative).
I’ll tell you what else it’s like – it’s like the Cool Wall in Top Gear (which we used to watch until D & H decided it was too immature for her, when she was around about 8 years old). For those of you unaware of this slice of British televisual history, the tall, bubble-permed one, Chummily Jerkson, would debate with the floral-patterned, floppy-haired one (I can’t even remember his real name) which new cars looked ‘cool.’ He very possibly still does.
Once we’d got through the seemingly endless parade of Ferraris, Maseratis and Aston Martins, Floppy Hair would flourish a photo of something that looked like a fridge-freezer on wheels and head for the Uncool Wall, only for Jerkson to snatch it from his hand and stick it high up on the furthest portion of the Cool Wall, on the basis that it was so ugly it was cool. And then the one called The Hamster (for reasons probably best left unexplained) would try and fail to reach up to get it, and all us tall folks would laugh and laugh.
Not that Springsteen, fine singer-songwriter that he is, should be seen as the musical equivalent of a Skoda Octavia. All the same, his stock amongst the muso community would seem to have fallen steadily ever since his tub-thumping Born in the USA days; it’s interesting that he’s now being rehabilitated, as also Fleetwood Mac, who at one time were seen as part of the bloated, West Coast singer-songwritery establishment that the East Coast punks had to take down with the single thrash of a slightly distorted guitar.
Anyway, that’s only NME’s opinion, and the recent news that they’d suffered a 14.3% drop in sales might have been down to Stones, Beatles and Dylan fans voting with their feet, or just because the young ‘uns read about their rock and roll online mostly these days. Whatever, Fleetwood Mac and Springsteen are two pretty good examples of what happens when those of us who consider ourselves possessors of the legendary golden ears of impeccable musical taste find that actually, someone we really like is, well, dammit, they’ve become popular! Worse than that, they’ve started producing that ultimate evil for the golden-eared amongst us: music for people that don’t really like music.
Before I go on, I really must commend to you the most excellent hatchet job on U2 I’ve ever read, at riot radio. More prosaically, googling “music for people that don’t really like music” also turned up the following exchange on, of all places, Arsenal Football Club’s forum:
Music for people that don’t like music. So dull its untrue.
I like music and I like Cold Play. I hate people who diss what others like just because they done like it. Small minded.
I don’t get this either. Music comes down to personal taste; you can’t say definitively “They are good/bad.”
Not sure I quite agree with that. Jedward for example are undeniably shite. Tbh Coldplay aren’t so much bad as just unbelievably dull
And there we have it: the Coldplay effect. A good, well-respected artist or band toils away, appreciated by the Chosen Few for a few years, then is unbelievably unlucky enough to hit a rising wave of popularity that persuades their record company to promote the hell out of it; and the band, the one only you and the few discerning others truly appreciated, suddenly becomes possessed by those other people.
Oh, don’t pretend you don’t know who I mean. The other tribe, the ones that use music as a kind of background noise; the ones that walk along with some form of semi-melodic tinnitus playing from their smartphones with a sound quality ten times poorer than the worst sixties transistor radio; the ones in the middle of the music festival crowd talking loudly to their mates about their sexual conquests instead of ACTUALLY LISTENING TO THE MUSIC.
My mate Harky was down in London recently to see Neil Young. Being a creative, talented type, Harky gets paid far less than he’s worth, so he’d had to scrimp and save a bit to make it the 500 miles or so to see him, but being a real fan, he reckoned it was worth the sacrifice. Now, to be fair, this was part of a BST Festival in Hyde Park, so there were other acts on, but all the same, His Harkiness was less than impressed by your man who, wandering in fully suited and booted, having clearly just finished work and bought a ticket out of his small change, wanders up to Harky and says, ‘Who’s that up there, mate?’ indicating the man who put the Y in CSNY, on stage giving it plenty at that very moment.
Dire Straits, I’ve always thought, are a prime example of what I’m talking about here. I would still take the witness stand before a jury of my muso peers and argue that, actually, their first album is a truly great, John Cale influenced piece of work, full of tight observational songwriting drawn from Mark Knopfler’s pre-megastar life living in Deptford. I mean, John Peel played them, for goodness’ sake; they must’ve been cool at that stage.
That difficult (and, to me, underrated) second album, Communique, didn’t quite make it, but then we had Making Movies, with Romeo and Juliet, and Love over Gold, with an unlikely hit in Private Investigations. By then, They had started listening to them, those others that don’t really like music, and Knopfler’s worst riff ever became his biggest hit in the MTV birthing pain that is Money for Nothing. Fairly soon after began Knopfler’s long, and it seems deliberate, slide into semi-obscurity, allowing him to be a musician’s musician again. I predict he’s next year’s rediscovered genius. I genuinely do hope he doesn’t have to disappear in a plane near the Bermuda Triangle for that to happen.
I appreciate I’m not telling you much you don’t know here. All artistic reputations can go down as well as up: in another field entirely, I’m waiting for Ernest Hemingway to be rediscovered some time soon as the great writer he truly is. Back with music, Abba have evolved from guilty pop pleasures to respected Scandi noir harbingers (or something), and NME’s poll even included the long-derided Simple Minds as a key influence to The Horrors, The Killers, etc., etc. In a separate development, Uncut has recently run a couple of articles trying to rehabilitate Dylan’s Eighties albums, although I’d take a lot of convincing on that one. I really, really, tried to see Shot of Love as a comeback album. I mean, I was motivated.
Similarly, I’m not exactly breaking new ground suggesting that we all want to be the inner initiates of something: holders of a special skill, possessors of sacred knowledge; owners of the golden ears. That’s why books about how to write bestsellers for screen or page will tell you that your hero can be as flawed, conflicted, addicted and anti-social as you like, but s/he has to be the best damn something at something. Think Lisbeth Salander. Because that’s what we all identify with: that need to be the best damn something at something, even if it’s only cutting the grass in the most perfectly diagonal stripes in the whole estate.
So what am I saying that’s new, that’s the alternative? Just this, I think: if you’ve had a week of everything’s that spicy, maybe you should give in to that craving for the blandest thing on the menu. It’s okay to like vanilla from time to time as well as pistachio and salted caramel.
I’ll leave you with this last example. When I was in Edinburgh recenty, I bought two CDs: a Greatest Hits of Jackson Browne, and Heart Attack and Vine, by Tom Waits. Now, not even the most hard core muso can touch me for the Waits CD: your man is destined to be forever dangling louchely well out of Richard Hammond’s reach, high (in every sense) on that Cool Wall of Music. And, frankly, who cannot love a man who comes up with a lyric like ‘there ain’t no Devil, it’s just God when he’s drunk?’
Jackson Browne, though. Another West Coast singer-songwriter swept into the Pacific by the tidal wave of back-to-basics punk, he’s generally remembered for undemanding, AOR tracks like ‘Running on Empty.’ Too melodic and easy to listen to by far. Truth is though, he’s a damn fine songwriter, and hipsters looking for an alternative Christmas Number One to put up against whatever mush Simon Cowell’s pushing at us this year could do worse than lend their golden ears to The Rebel Jesus.
And if that doesn’t convince you, the fact that he sued John McCain’s Republican ass for using ‘Running on Empty’ without his consent. Plus he went out with Daryl Hannah. Okay, so that’s probably more a bloke thing. But as an environmental activist and regular critic of the US’s policies in Central America, he is your quintessential bleeding heart liberal.
Which reminds me. Must go and harvest some courgettes before the slugs get to them.
If you see an advert below this, I didn’t put it there, and I can’t see it, so I can’t endorse it. Just so you know.