Cards on the table: I am a (very) former Labour Party member, a former unaligned-far-left hack, a former student politician, and a current jaded burn-out who’s more or less lost the faith. What I’ve regained since the last election is not the faith but the fear. Seeing this government use the excuse of debt reduction to conduct a sustained assault on the welfare state’s structures and foundation is not something I can stand by and watch. The question, as ever, is how to express this opposition. Saturday saw a TUC-organised official march, fringed with unofficial peaceful protests and unofficial direct action. The discourse after demonstrations is always varying degrees of unhelpful and unrepresentative, as reportage and analysis splinter into shards of individual experience, each of which reflect only a portion of the whole. This is in no way a contribution to ongoing debate, it is merely my own record and reflection.
The black bloc on Saturday was by some accounts the biggest since J18, which made me think that, as I’ve said before, what’s happening now seems like not a revolution but a return to the protests to which I was introduced over a decade ago – the days of carnivalesque anticapitalism and reclaiming the streets. That said, I think our critique of capitalism in the early 2000s was certainly more vague, still post-Cold War, appealing more to globalising and internationalist issues of social justice and civil liberties because less immediately rooted in financial crisis – and perhaps, for the same reasons, less last-ditch and desperate than it currently seems. I don’t know, and to have a clearer idea, I’d have to get out there and see for myself.
I didn’t do a great deal of Getting Out There on Saturday. I remained with a small group of disparately aligned friends and family, massing outside Embankment tube and then crawling through Waterloo and Westminster. There were an awful lot of us. There were gorgeous trade union banners which had seen action throughout the past century. There were Banksy-esque stencils of Clement Atlee’s image. There were official placards manually-adjusted to call Nick Clegg a variety of entirely-deserved things. The Bloody Hell, That Must Have Taken Ages prize goes jointly to those carrying the huge black cube representing the income of the highest percentile of earners, to which was attached far smaller red cubes showing the relative size of the average income (I think), and those driving the miniature tank playing the theme from The Great Escape. Both of these were the best things I’d seen on a protest since the enormous papier-maché bomb labelled ‘structural readjustment’.
The only demo of comparable size I can remember – where the front of the march had walked the length of the route and reached its destination while more people were still at the back of the march, waiting to move off – was the big Iraq protest in 2003. Then as now, those marching were not homogenous, came from all over the country, and held no obvious signs of slavish adherence to the Labour leadership. Nor did I feel alone in lacking both faith in parliamentary process and any burning desire to stand for hours in Hyde Park listening to hackneyed whistling-up from the stage. Hence, by the time of our stop-off in Trafalgar Square, I opted for the pub. When the revolution comes, shoot me.
The Chandos crouches just off Trafalgar Square, and used to be the post-rally destination of most of my comrades whenever we ended up in the vicinity, largely because, unlike many pubs on or near the route of demonstrations, it had no sign on the door banning work-boots, banners and/or placards. Once inside, an illustration of how far I’ve fallen since the early 2000s was provided by there being no one I knew there apart from my old politics lecturer, who failed to recognise me, as indeed he had during most of my time at Goldsmiths. At the bar I got talking to a bloke who, like me, was a veteran of 2003’s enormous anti-war march, to which he had taken his 12 year old daughter. According to him, she’d said, impressed by the turnout, ‘they’ll have to listen to us now, won’t they?’
He told me this and rolled his eyes, as though aware of how mawkish and implausibly convenient an ending this might make to a subsequent spiel on the pointlessness of peaceful protest. But honestly, fuck irony. Politics in the last few years has got so blatantly contemptuous, so transparently indifferent, that I doubt any kid on the march on Saturday would have had that degree of faith in people power.
The Monday after the march, back at work in Soho, I went out to see the damage done. Little trace remained beyond some indistinct scrawlings on the boarded-up HSBC on Cambridge Circus and, further up the sidestreets, a circled-A in pink spraypaint on a couple of flaking black litter-bins. The slogans written on the scaffolding outside Central St Martins – ‘Make the banks pay’, ‘ACAB’, were at least making more of a stab at focused oppositional discourse. Yesterday lunchtime, more than a week on, the slogans on HSBC were invisible under daubs of white paint, the bank was open for business as usual and pretty soon the West End will look, and feel, as though nothing ever happened.
Am I glad I marched? Yes, of course. And I’m still unaligned, and I reject the notion that my lack of a membership card matters. March 26th wasn’t an attempt at revolution, and was more than a bid for space on the front page, and more than an exercise in branding. It was an act of solidarity, an attempt to demonstrate to all who watched and all who took part that no one is alone in opposing the actions of this government. And it did that, even if that’s all it did.
Right Here is New Zealand star Boh ‘sister of Bic’ Runga’s US debut, and boy, does it depress. Scrupulously inoffensive, nod-along nonsequiteurs waft from every groove. Miss Runga is possessed of a decent set of pipes, and ably backed by collaborators including Whiskeytown’s Mike Daly and System of a Down’s Greg Laswell, but, technical aptitude aside, track after track here soars blandly, balladically by with no apparent desire to distinguish itself.
Okay, there’s the barely interesting ‘Evelyn’ (bemoaning a manipulative best friend) and the moderately affecting ‘Home’ (intervening in a friend’s emotional trainwreck), but the rest of Runga’s material proves that the only thing worse than a broken-hearted break-up is an album full of half-hearted break-up songs. It’s perfectly possible to do justice to this sort of subject matter, but Runga handles it with no hint of Jenny Lewis’ acerbic edge or Amanda Palmer’s scalpelsharp powers of dissection. The production ranges from plodding to watery to dreary to overblown, quite often in the space of a single song as a subsitute for genuine emotional expression. This is a soundtrack for slow-motion sighing by women who might like to fling themselves full-length on the carpet and howl out their shattered soul but fear messing their hair up and putting the boys off. And nowhere on this album, possibly pace ‘The Earth and the Sky’ – a watered-down ‘Origin of Love’ sans the subversion or originality (and Christ, wasn’t a heteronormative version of Hedwig just exactly what the world’s been crying out for?) – does Runga come close to capturing the heart-clenching, fist-pumping joy of the kind of love that would justify all this Vaseline-lensed moping in the first place. On the evidence of Right Here, our heroine’s better off without him, but nowhere near as better off as you’ll be without this.
I wrote a version of the above review about six weeks ago, and its memory has haunted me every day since then. The star and a half I felt moved to award the album at the time – the participants had, at least, turned up – have come to seem like a calculated insult to all other music ever made. The more I think about this album’s existence, the further down I slip towards baffled despair. I deplore the time I wasted on it, and the time which I am powerless to prevent being wasted by any other misguided listeners. I weep for the innocent instruments used to perpetrate this horror. I can only shrug in sympathy towards the good people of New Zealand, doomed forever by association with this, as if Crowded House weren’t already misfortune enough. I mourn the talent, work and opportunity so casually sucked into the creative void that this album represents.
There is, after all, no obligation for an album to be good. And there were so many ways in which this album could have been bad. It could have been an opus of obscurity, boasting a lyric sheet produced by flicking ink over twelve pages of Thus Spake Zarathrustra and giving what remained visible a couple of runs through Babelfish. It could have been a splendidly solipsistic splurge of grimecore performed by a credit-crunched Cambridge graduate convinced that the necessity to downsize to only one car imbued him with ghetto authenticity. It could have featured CIA-sponsored basslines designed to cause spontaneous involuntary defecation in the listener. These types of badness would at least have given me something to bite on. But no, Right Here doesn’t care enough about its audience or its critics to be anything other than boring, barren, and bland, bland, bland.
Round about the seventh spin of this album, I began to imagine Boh Runga off-record as some cackling demonette, hellbent on damning by association every woman thinking of picking up a microphone. But then I read the album credits and realised that the blame has to be more widely, and predictably, spread. Those involved with Right Here include the hack responsible for Meredith Brooks, one in a long grey line of string-pullers and script-hoisters in the mechanically effective marketing of artists – more often than not, female artists. Now, again, the creative method which sees songs written for singers needn’t invalidate the end product, as evidenced by gems as disparate as Joan Baez and Girls Aloud. Or even ‘…Baby One More Time’, the toxic genius of which loses nothing by its having been composed by a sparsely-bearded Swede. But this, the meagre going-through-the-motions of a boring, bland puppet whose strings are blandly and boringly pulled by the boring and bland? It may seem harmless, but make no mistake: this sort of music is a minor irritant, a piece of grit barely worth brushing away, but around which can coalesce a pearl of purest counterproductivity. The job of arguing for the agency, credibility, and even the necessary presence of women in music is still a depressingly difficult one. It’s hardly helped by this sort of pseudo-empowered postpostpost-feminist slop that ‘The Jeep Song’ should have seen crushed under Amanda Palmer’s chariot wheels.
Why do these people bother? What earthly use or ornament do they imagine they’re providing? I can think of no explanation less base than the simple profit motive. This is an album geared towards that market in slick, shallow and superficial music-like substance which is designed to slip down devoid of flavour, texture and nutritional value rather than sparkling on the tongue or, god forbid, sticking in the throat. This album is raw tofu sprinkled with saccharine. It’s a substitute for music. It’s not here to be listened to with anything approaching interest or enjoyment; it’s here to sell because it’s here. These people are in the business of music and they want your money. For god’s sake, don’t give them it. Fuck technical aptitude, fuck ‘soulfulness’ without soul. Fuck everyone’s fifteen minutes if they’re going to be spent in other people’s blameless, beauty-starved earshot. Show me magic, you bastards.
A few months previous, a friend and I were drinking in a former strip-club in Shoreditch, the interior of which is a fairly accurate rendering of what you’d get if Vivienne Westwood vomited up the Court of Versailles. And it might have been a response to the nightmarish surroundings, and it might just have been the peculiarly provincial guilt that results from drinking away your Sunday afternoon when you know full well your ancestors would have been back from chapel and bringing in the sheaves by now, but my god, everything, both visible and abstract, didn’t half look like shit. We stared into our glasses (half-empty, of course), and one of the conclusions to which we came, while aimlessly sticking the scalpel into the corpse of popular culture, was that the music industry is becoming entirely parasitical. I found that particular observation nudging its way back to the front of my brain last week upon reading this article.
The good news is that, as the article confirms, online piracy hasn’t in fact been killing music, merely forcing both it and the industry to adapt and evolve. Most revenue for bands now comes from live performances and merchandise. This is as it should be: if a record piques your interest, if a sound sucks you in sufficiently for you to go and see how it looks onstage, and if after that, you’re hooked enough to have it emblazoned on a badge and bedroom wall, all to the good. But underneath the sighs of relief can be heard the clank and whir of industry cogwheels. In the eye-wateringly ugly vernacular, bands and their managers are looking “for new ways of making money from a shrinking pie”. Not just the music industry, either: global capitalism, ever-expanding, is now extending its sweaty embrace through the medium of sponsoring bands – circumventing record labels altogether and striking deals directly with artists and managers.
And again, sure, this is as it should be for a given definition of music – one that ignores all that’s great about music and accentuates all that’s regrettable. What is the point of music, after all? Is it to make money, which admittedly is the point of most industries, including those which batten on individual creativity and imagination? Or is it to express, to entertain, to forge some connection between alienated individuals? If the latter, is that really best accomplished by hawking your talent and your ambition to a boardroom’s worth of number-crunchers whose ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders, and whose job depends on a product that isn’t actually music? To say nothing of the fact that bands may be choosing to associate with multinational companies whose records on ethics and human rights are decidedly grubby. Witness Groove Armada, cited in the Guardian article as having hitched their wagon to the immensely distasteful Bacardi.
Having your musical output facilitated, promoted or managed is one thing. But once you start looking to some monolithic entity outside the music industry for permission to exist as an artist you’re on very dangerous ground. Let’s be clear: it’s brands that have the power here. It’s laughable to suppose that corporate sponsorship won’t involve some process of approval and right of veto over the end product. The logic of brand-association dictates that advertisers are going to want to keep their pet artists, at the least, tabloid-friendly, and, at the most, hermetically sealed from associating with anything that isn’t bland, whitebread and squeaky-clean.
In 1993, Pepsi, who were in large part the originators of this brand/band marriage of convenience, had to hurriedly wash their hands of sponsoring the late Michael Jackson following unsubstantiated allegations of child abuse. Pepsi’s action was, in the circumstances, a fairly understandable piece of arse-covering, but, at the other end of the scale, consider the schmuck from S Club 7 who sailed close to scuppering his band’s deal with British Telecom for the singularly heinous and, for both a teenager and a musician, totally atypical and unpredictable act of smoking a joint. Without entering into the tedious can-and-should-music-exist-without-drugs debate, let alone that of can-and-should-SClub7-fans-exist-without-involuntary-euthanasia, consider the serried ranks of formerly smack-soaked musical sorcerors – Billie Holiday, John Cale, Janis Joplin, Nick Cave, Charlie Parker for starters. In a pearl-clutching world of increasingly invasive attention to the private lives of public figures, and increasingly powerful manufactured outrage, would brands be willing to sponsor any artist of that calibre if they were subject to the same family-unfriendly tabloid mercies as Winehouse and Doherty? And never mind actions, how about words: the overseers of brand-association are notoriously jumpy. Are artists going to be able to express an opinion on politics, religion or sexuality that might reflect badly on their chosen brand? Will we end up with companies only willing to wield their dark arts in the service of bands so established as to be untouchable or so new as to obediently, mutely, boringly walk the line? In which case I have seen the future, brother: it is Bono.
Questions of potential corporate control are of course less pressing than the central one: what sort of craven, tapwater-blooded and tapioca-brained cynic forms a band with a view to letting themselves be sponsored by Red Bull? Nobody wants to see a singer fearfully glancing over her shoulder for her paymaster’s approval before she puts her mouth to the microphone, and no band worth a second of anyone’s time signs up for it. Who are you, Coq Roq? Haven’t we seen enough of the unedifying collapse of culture into product placement, and of the mainstream’s more insidious cultural cherry-picking? Never forget the capacity of major labels, from consumables to clothing chains, to burst a subcultural bubble; they swoop in, magpie-like, and sell off our shiniest, sexiest symbols in a way that sucks them dry of any significance they might once have held. Sod the hippie wigs in Woolworths, man; they’re selling Libertines tunics in Topshop. Your scene turns to ruined, co-opted, demographic-targeted dust the instant the admen lay hands on.
Maybe this response is just a reactionary jerk of the knee, but it all makes me deeply suspicious, and deeply despondent. You shouldn’t be able to trust your musicians – Christ no, without exception they’ve always been a collection of the desperate, dumb, deranged, damaged and deluded – but you should be able to trust the music. You should be able to take it as read that music is more than a money-making proposition. If approval by global corporate brands is to be the hoop through which aspiring artists jump in order to gain readies and recognition, then the free publicity and critique provided by blogs and forums is going to be more necessary than ever.
Back in the speed-addled, black-eyelinered days of my early adolescence, the NME had bite, balls, and brio. And it still had nothing on Melody Maker. Every Wednesday lunchtime saw me, lower lip bitten with anticipation, heading into town to snag the latest issue of each; our newsagent stocked all of three copies, and I never found out who, if anyone, bought the others. For me and others like me – small-town, provincial or suburban kids beyond the pale of London’s bright lights, with mass internet access as yet untapped, gazing wide-eyed on stories of the gig-circuit – the weekly music press served as a channel of cultural discovery and as the cool older brother we didn’t have.
So scalpel-sharp was music journalism at that time that I can still recall features, reviews and even some lines from them, both the building up and the demolition jobs. Taylor Parkes skewering the Cult of Richey with a cutting You don’t deal with depression by making it the focal point of your personality – you have to rage against it, perpetually. Neil Kulkarni’s still-astonishing wrecking-ball swing at Kula Shaker and the post-Oasis consensus (Crucially, retro-accusations are less important than pointing out how deadly dull the bulk of this LP is, in a way that only true scumcunt hippies can be: “K” … shits itself in fear of the future (1973) and stinks of living death) which at the time made for what felt like genuinely revolutionary reading.
And yes, it was fucking political. NME’s former editor Neil Spencer claims the pre-Britpop music press treated music as part of a wider oppositional culture in which the angry and intelligent political consciousness of bands like S*M*A*S*H and Asian Dub Foundation was considered an asset rather than an embarrassment. Encompassing the world beyond music, as well as music beyond the mainstream, the NME and MM took on fascism, racism, sexism, Morrissey, Thatcher and Blair. More sophisticated than the sledgehammer sludge of many more overtly political publications, a certain left-wing sensibility shone through the best of their writing like sunlight through stained glass.
But, as every Libertines fan knows, the best things never last. Whereas Spencer blames IPC for the NME’s political castration, the decline and fall of Melody Maker has been generally attributed to its enforcing of what Parkes and Kulkarni identified as a ‘kid’s taste’ PR-led consensus and its aimless chasing of a demographic which already had Smash Hits. The latter half of the Nineties, with its rapid turnover of scenes and genres, saw the paper hitch its wagon to a succession of shortlived stars, including Nu-Metal and, notoriously and prematurely, RoMo, before its last-gasp glossification and eventual merger with NME.
The gulf between then and now is perhaps most apparent in the NME’s current attitude to the industry and its failure to adequately define itself against a cultural mainstream. Whereas Kulkarni trained his sights on mainstream radio and MTV as peddlers of the creativity-crushing Kids Consensus, the NME now revels in unholy commercial alliances, sponsorships and tie-in deals. The dangers inherent in this trend were exemplified in 2005 by the controversy over its Top 50 albums list. The ensuing furore both dealt a blow to what little of NME’s credibility remained, and proved that the paper had fallen prey to a system largely built on mutual backscratching where, yes, there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones.
The NME’s present incarnation – a dishwater-dull industry cum-rag with an editor who resembles a spoon in a suit – is of course merely reflective of a more widespread erosion of choice and illusion of independence which currently infects most aspects of culture and politics. The music industry in particular will always aspire to Johnny Rotten’s vision of ‘a bloated old vampire’, and nothing has filed down its fangs so much as the relocation of sharing, discussion and critical analysis of music to online publications, networks and forums. As for the NME, appearing in its pages these days is akin to standing on a moonlit Transylvanian balcony in a billowing nightdress bellowing ‘Come and get me, Vlad!’; you’ll be drained dry and thrown aside for something juicier within weeks. Hope lies in the blogs.
I never had especially high hopes for Dirty Pretty Things, and not just because they chose to operate with a bassist called Didz. Carl Barat’s self-destructive and self-fulfilling pessimism seemed to make their dragged-out demise inevitable. The man is essentially a throwback to a half-confected, distinctly pre-Sixties matinee-idol world of crypto-chauvinist chivalry and genuine honour, dignity and class, any product of which could never find mass acceptance or acclaim in a triple-distilled popular culture where pantomime, melodrama and public humiliation are painted as gritty reality, angst and authenticity are faked or appropriated wholesale, and the self-assurance of slick and cynical ironic posturing carries more weight and gets you further than this band’s faltering steps towards emotional sincerity. When did you last hear a song as guilelessly earnest and heartfelt as ‘This Is Where the Truth Begins’? If you don’t cringe, you’ll cry.
For a man out of time, engaged in a culture war where your side can only hope to go down fighting and where snarling gets you nothing but praise for how pretty your mouth is, the best you can hope for is a shrug and a smile. Much of Carl’s work post-Libertines has been you know how I feel out of place until I’m levered off my face writ large. ‘Bloodthirsty Bastards’ and the frankly astonishing ‘Buzzards and Crows’ transcend what begins as myopic scenester-baiting to make a stab at expressing universal and eternal human tragedy. Their protagonists are cornered, boxed-in, trapped, disgusted and despairing, Up The Bracket’s swaggering urban sprawl reduced to spying on cities through cracks in the floor. (Carl dedicated ‘Gin and Milk’ to longstanding fans last night. You have to wonder.)
Their second album gave up the fight in its opening song, its narrator abandoned face-up to the vultures, and then slumped into halfhearted crowd-pleasing fluff (‘Come Closer’, ‘Plastic Hearts’) or half-articulate railing (‘Kicks or Consumption’, ‘Best Face’), picking itself up only for the quietly embittered, finally accusative closure of ‘Blood on my Shoes’. By this point my feelings on the band had come almost full circle. Their first UK gig left me with an aftertaste of baffled disappointment at a frustratingly lacklustre affair, Carl’s head-hanging and the band’s general insubstantialness overshadowing their tightness and competency. They lacked entirely any hoped-for spark, that moment of connection which makes you glad you’ve made the effort. Their second tour saw them switch stasis for spontaneity, with unpredictable setlists and endearing interband dynamics, and subsequent gigs in Oxford, London, Sheffield, Cambridge, Paris and Edinburgh led me through unqualified adoration to a comfortable, affectionate familiarity, with a side-order of horror at the encroaching tides of industry imperatives that made the band at times little more than a soggy, sorry exercise in marketing and money-making. Study and work aside, it’s been a year or so since I felt compelled to go chasing round the country in search of some definitive, catalytic bangbangrocknroll glory-story that seems to have proved as illusory for them as for us.
And so we arrived at The Last Hurrah, a diminished hardcore of provincial girl veterans, reminded of better times and absent friends. A half-full thousand-capacity club in the bowels of the metropolis, plastered with aftershow posters that dripped with desperation. A solitary tout outside in the cold. The stage ungarnished except for a Union flag. The sound periodically fucking up. An ending fitting for the start?
Their songs are full of endings, of course, each delivered in an angry and bittersweet manner that rendered them equally apposite, from the bleakly resigned (they all followed me down here / to the story’s sorry end) to the grimly dignified (I know when I should leave in disgrace) to what passes for optimistic (here’s to tomorrow and the lonely streets we’ll roam / but if we don’t leave now we’ll find ourselves with no way home). With them providing the closing credits to their own biopic, there was little else fitting to do but join in.
The last ‘So…’. The last obnoxious oi-oi intro to ‘Playboys’. The last what would it take for me to be your man? The last digging out the deadwood, the last post on the trumpet and the last words: yeah yeah yeah. Carl is still breathtakingly beautiful. No Pete, god rest his musical soul, no Libertines songs and no special guests to speak of, just all the boys together. A final defeated bow, arms linked. No hope of hope and glory, but one of their better gigs, and one I’m glad I made the effort for. I know the essentials of what this band gave me: a friendship group imbued with the same spirit of adventure, defiance and recklessness, the same last-gang-in-town camaraderie as the songs we paid and travelled and shared all we had to sing along to. They gave me catharsis and connection. I can only give them the credit that appears to elude them even now.