Thursday, 17 December 2009

Fuck You I Won't Buy What You Tell Me

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

Right. It's clearly the biggest music story right now, so let's all come together to answer that burning question: "Ought we buy Killing in the Name (again) in order to keep some baby-faced chap with a nice voice off the Christmas number one spot?" It's not easy to answer, there are convincing arguments both ways, which I'm going to try and tackle sensibly and then let you draw your own conclusions because, after all, fuck me you won't do what I tell ya. The main argument from the doubters seems to take one of two forms: either that Cowell owns shares in Sony BMG, which in turn owns Rage's back catalogue or that Killing in the Name is a song written in protest at the Los Angeles Police Department's treatment of black citizens in Los Angeles. The problem with this argument is this, as I see it: the choice of the song is pretty much immaterial (or at least arbitrary) in this equation. It could just as easily be Fly Me to the Moon, the point is more about what it's not. It's not X Factor. And for people who are concerned about Cowell making money out of the counter-campaign I have some news; you may need to sit down. Nasty people own shares in every large record company you can name. Someone with no discernable talent always makes money out of the music industry. Look at Pete Doherty...
I'm sorry, I digress. Rage are a band that have a long history of flying in the face of the established order, and this is presumably why the campaigners chose this song. Then there's the false nostalgia idea: Christmas number ones were rubbish, even before X Factor came along. Highlights of recent years might include Mr Blobby, Bob the Builder, any number of Stock-Aitkin-Waterman schmultz ballads… Going a little further back, there's Rolf Harris's 'Two Little Boys', the last number one of the sixties (that'll come up in a pub quiz some day, and when it does you owe me a pint). Again though, the date is largely arbitrary. It could be mid-June and there would still be a campaign. It just so happens that this could be a double whammy: beating X Factor and getting a decent song to number one at Christmas. Incidentally, I've never heard this year's X Factor single. I've also never been to the Arctic, but I know it's cold. See where I'm going with this?

Then there's the history angle: this is of course not by any means the first time a band or movement has sought to subvert the pop charts to prove a point. God Save the Queen should by all rights have made the top spot in 1977, to clash with the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. In a step unprecedented either before or since the chart compilers took the decision to discount sales from independent record stores. Even with the majority of its audience so brutally ostracised, the record still made number two on the official charts: "pipped" by Rod Stewart. Oh the irony. More recently there's the Manics, who went in with an audacious punt to be the first band in chart history to go straight in at number one and then go straight back out of the top forty the next week. The record (Masses Against the Classes) went straight in at number one but sadly only managed to "un-peak" at number 39. And this is all before we get to last year's Clash of the Cohen Covers. But when it comes right down to it, the charts are about democracy. Josef Heller is quoted as saying that in a democracy we get the government we deserve. The charts are a good illustration of democracy amongst music buyers. The difference here is that you have to put your hand in your pocket to vote. But there is the opportunity here to make some kind of statement, to score a victory for music over manufactured pap. Substance over style. Product over promotion. And now that all of Rage's cut from the sales is being donated to charity, there's very little reason not to stump up your hard-earned reddies in the name of all that is proper about music. If you really feel strongly about the X Factor and Cowell's supposed strangle-hold on music, buy the song whether you like it, whether you own it already, because we get the music we deserve as well. I'm off to spend 79p on a song I already own. Viva la revolution!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Album of the Decade - Neon Bible

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

It took a predictably long time to come to a decision about the best album of the decade, but in the end it turned out to be easy. Having (even more predictably) made a list of all the albums in my collection released these ten years past and then ruthlessly whittled them down to 25, I began an almost-obsessive programme of listening and re-listening. It soon became clear that the idea of Neon Bible as album of the decade would brook no argument in my brain, and I am as powerless to resist its bombast now as I was when I first heard it.

Neon Bible is an album made in the last years of Bush Jr's ill-fated second term. Shortly after political commentators had dusted down the phrase "lame duck president" and as the race for the democratic and republican candidates moved into full swing, Arcade Fire quietly released their second masterpiece with some creative viral marketing, which all served to add little-needed mystique to an album that had already begun to raise eyebrows.

After the phenomenal success of Funeral, and the hellish touring schedule that followed, Arcade Fire did what any band in their position would do: took a few weeks off, wrote some new material and bought a church. In a move that sounded dangerously concept-albumy, the band purchsed the building with the idea that it would be converted into a studio in which they would record their second record. But time, tide and musical genius wait for no man and the songs for the new record were becoming more real every day, and so the refurbishment work became a part of the recording process, with instruments and equipment fitting in around the scaffolding. By the end of the recording sessions, the work on the building was completed in a fantastic symbiosis that had led to a sound you simply couldn't get any other way. Never knowingly overworked, the band members also allegedly made a deal to learn a new instrument each and to play it on the record. If all musicians were this committed there would be no cracks for Simon Cowell to exploit.

As an ardent atheist, it is no exageration to say that my first encounter with Arcade Fire (their headline set at Latitude 2007) was the closest I will ever come to a religious experience. The thing about a band with 17 members on stage, all of whom play about twenty instruments each, is that at any one time you can have a band, a choir, a circus, an orchestra or any and all of the above. The enormity of the sound is something that there is no way of describing to those who've not experienced it. Percussion instrumets are treated with the scant respect that makes them sound best, string sections appear from nowehere and voices scream in a seemingly never-ending spiral of music. The crowd stand with arms aloft in the manner of the world's muddiest baptist congregation. It really is the most all-
encompassing musical experience I have ever had.

Returning to the album itself, the theme of religion is something that typifies many of the songs crammed into this long-player. Win Butler studied "scriptual interpretation" as a young man and his theories about the place of the church in modern sociey and attitude are strong throughout. Consider as an example the track Intervention, surely the most acerbic commentry on religion's potential to cause conflict since Bob Dylan's With God on Our Side. Elsewhere, the unease of a nation in moral conflict comes across on tracks like Windowsill and Black Mirror, the former in particular describing the disaffection of the younger generation with the policies of their government. Antichrist Television Blues, which is of course most definitely not about Joe Simpson, is a song that simultaneously damns and pities the pushy father figure driven by desperately wanting to make his daughter into a star-cum-cash-cow to escape a menial existence in a dead end job. The abrupt ending of the song leaves the final words hanging in the air. It comes as little surprise that Butler's favourite film is Terry Gilliam's Brazil, this abrupt halt mirroring the dark and disturbing final shot of this movie.

All this of course is set to some of the most incredible music . The drive of tracks like Keep the Car Running and and the final segments of The Well and the Lighthouse are unparalleled anywhere, and the calmer songs like Ocean of Noise and the title track punctuate and pace the album superbly, giving one just enough time to recover from one onslaught before the next begins. The opening to No Cars Go, with it's soaring violins and shouts will forever conjure images in my brain of Cristiano Ronaldo's lightening feet, so often was it used for Match of the Day montages. The church organ is a massively underused instrument in popular music. As with all great pieces of music, be it classical or popular, the ending ties up and defines the album:
My Body is a Cage bringing the sweeping political and theological scope of the record into a starkly introspective and insecure track, with a crescendo that could shake the foundations of any civilisation. And as the Bush administration passed into history, this album serves as a lasting testament that bad times breed the best music, and that great albums really do describe the times in which they appear.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Band of the Decade - Arctic Monkeys

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste...

I remember it as though it was yesterday. Sat on the sofa in a student flat in Cardiff, working hard on my Masters dissertation by turning half an ounce of nature's finest into thin grey smoke and splitting headaches. In the background, one of the two awful free music channels offered on Freeview to poverty-laden students plays terrible pop music. It barely impacts. Then a voice says: "We're Arctic Monkeys, don't believe the 'ype". It's impossible to convey it in writing, but it was more than sufficient to drag my attention from the laptop screen.

As statements of intent go, "Don't believe the hype" is up there with The Manics "You Love Us", or Morrissey's debut attestation that "we may be hidden by rags / but we've something they'll never have". What happened over the next four minutes was nothing less than revolutionary. Alex Turner, looking like a mixture of a young Paul Weller and a startled rabbit, tore through the bands debut mainstream release with an energy and force that had been, in my mind, almost entirely absent from British music for a few years. Instantly I was hooked. This band seemed so fresh, so completely new and Alex Turner seemed like an instant successor to the lyricist-of-the-people crown held previously by Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker. This was a week before the single release and I don’t really like the idea of illegal downloading, especially not for impoverished new bands, and so I remember queuing outside a record shop the following Monday. For “queuing”, you probably should read “waiting alone like a devoted sap in the Welsh cold”, but “queuing” sounds so much more romantic.

Fortunately, it was all worth it. Even the B-side (the truly immense Bigger Boys and Stolen Sweethearts) was an indication of how important this band were going to be. This of course turned out to be very prophetic as the band’s debut went on to become the fastest selling debut long-player in British history (recently replaced of course by Susan Boyle. Thanks, Britain). The record is easily the best document of what it’s like to be young in modern urban Britain: it made me feel old at age 22. But it was one of the greatest things I’d ever heard, up there with the classic albums I remember hearing for the first time (Definitely Maybe, Different Class et al).

If you’re reading this website, you already know what happens next. Arctic Monkeys went on to sell out large venues (with Turner occasionally less than sober), produce a string of brilliant A-sides, backed up with B-sides that Oasis would be proud of. The second album proved to be an evolution of their sound, but still with much the same structure. A bigger emphasis on ballads (The Only Ones Who Know and 505) gave the band more depth and proved to anyone still doubting that Alex Turner was the lyricist of his generation. A headline slot at Glastonbury, becoming one of the youngest headliners the festival had seen, seemed to be more than enough reward. Alex Turner seemed nervous in front of the biggest audience of their career by a long draw, but the music was nevertheless assured and accomplished.

Then for a while it all went quiet. But quiet was just what it was not. Recording in the middle of the Mojave desert with rock’s hard man Josh Homme, Arctic Monkeys returned with an album (and a look) completely at odds with what had gone before. A harder edge to the same lyrical staples, louder, much more psychedelic, all capped with a new look more befitting early Sabbath. It alienated some of the more fickle parts of their fanbase, but their decision to do this is one of the many things that marks the band apart.

So are they the greatest band of the decade? I think that’s entirely subjective, and if you don’t think so then this article isn’t likely to do anything to persuade you otherwise. But I will say this: as far as capturing a snapshot of British youth in the noughties goes, you’d have to walk a long way to do better. I submit this thought for your consideration.

Nowism and Thenism

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste... 

This might sound like something you might not expect to hear coming from me, a man so cynical that Jack Dee occasionally calls to put some perspective on his generally sunny outlook on life, but I think it’s been a pretty good decade. As the inevitable lists of best this and best that mount up, I think it’s probably time to remember one or two things.

This article is inspired (as all the best ones are) by a conversation in a pub. It was, of course, the conversation that we’ve all had recently about the top ten albums of the decade. After an hour or so of busy categorising, we said that he felt that, even though we’d got a good list, he still felt that perhaps the top ten albums of this decade didn’t match up to, say, the top ten of the sixties. Or seventies. I was not too happy about this. So this article explains why.

If you took every serious list of the top ten albums and put them all together and aggregated them (stay with me) I think you’d have a pretty clear-cut top ten. This sort of meta-analysis would show off the great and good of music across the past ten years. It’d probably be a good list. Some people would disagree with it but, hey, that’s what these lists are for. Then you could compare it with similar lists from previous decades. You could. But the point is you shouldn’t. Allow me to introduce you to the twin concepts of “nowism” and “thenism”. Nowism is the sort of thing that leads people to rave about Animal Collective as though they were the saviours of American music just because they happen to be a little different (a word which is not synonymous with “good”). Thenism is the sort of thing that leads people to believe that past eras were in fact better than they actually were.

So, this is my point. Think about the seventies, and all the great music. Now think about the rubbish music. That second one’s harder, yes? And the reason for this is that history is a great filter. The bad stuff doesn’t stay in the collective consciousness of the nation. And this (in a rather roundabout way) is why no one will remember the names of any winners of The X Factor in forty years time. Or any songs by The Kaiser Chiefs for that matter. This is also a reason why the best albums of the [insert decade here] lists are always better judged with the benefit of at least twenty years hindsight.

Moving on. There are of course differences between this decade and previous ones in terms of what makes it into the best albums lists. For example, in the sixties, you had The Beatles who- pretty much- invented pop music. That was never a caveat likely to be ascribed to MGMT, or even to a decent band this decade, now was it? But if you use that yardstick to judge everything, you’re never going to get anywhere. The point is that something through which you didn’t live is always going to have a kind of mystical allure, something that makes you think it was intrinsically better. The point is that you didn’t live through all the less good stuff that history has filtered out (Need proof? Click this link). But this time you did. You had to suffer White Lies' debut. You had to endure countless lukewarm Simon Cowell rehashes of previous excellent records. You had to scream silently and clutch at your gut at the sound of The Klaxons keyboard-laden bucket o’ shite excuse for a record.

So there you have it. History is a great filter, and judging this decade against those that went before is an exercise in futility that will drive you mad and mean that you get things wrong more often than not. Be careful. It’s a jungle out there. But as far as lists go, I think it’s best to get stuck in. Nostalgia is great for morale, and they fill up a million awkward silences in the pub.