I’ve had coalmining on my mind recently. Contra last week’s Metro, I don’t think it’s accurate to say ‘the world looked on in despair’ at events at Gleision Colliery – in fact the story was predictably underreported and largely unremarked upon by my usual social media circle, until the story became a self-evidently human tragedy, whereupon it was hardly engaged with at any deeper level than that. Anyway:
As the admittedly lame title of this blog suggests, the coalmine for me is bound up with a certain sense of national identification, but also, if not more so, with class and regional associations. I feel that I have more in common with someone of my age from a post-industrial area in (say) south Yorkshire, than I might with someone from rural west or north Wales or indeed the great bright-lit sprawl that is Cardiff and the Vale. Weighted against this potentially mawkish shoulder-to-shouldering with other unemployment blackspots is the knowledge that this landscape as a functioning entity, as something that defined one as part of and in relation to a certain workforce, as the sum of one’s labour, has (been) altered out of all recognition and what it tends to be seen as generating now is dysfunction. But the mine as a symbol of shared frames of reference carries an inescapable emotional weight. Continue reading
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.
In terms of ambition, inventiveness and reinvention, Patrick Wolf stands comparison with popstars of far greater status and longevity. His shapeshifting has taken him from Boweryite Peter Pan to windswept Sleepy Hollow extra to glitterball-eyed scene queen in the space of three albums. His fourth is not only the first instalment of a putative concept double-album, but also, after his parting with Universal Records, financed mostly by selling £10 shares in the album to his ever-loyal fans. However shaky its foundations, though, The Bachelor radiates his usual unassailable assurance and self-belief.
Wolf’s chameleonic drive is facilitated by an astonishingly secure and switched-on sense of self. Many of his lyrics are concerned with triumph over adversity, taking threat, hardship and hostility head-on, and his relishing of a challenge is a thread on which much of this album hangs. Forthcoming single ‘Hard Times’ is a choppy, spirited call to arms and a uniquely ballsy response to current conditions – ‘give me hard times and I’ll work harder’ – stepping up to the Cult of Recession and looking it in the eye rather than revelling in schadenfreude or sagging in defeat. The song’s heart-racing final lines (‘If they only see you with their fear and they only hear you with their pride, then work harder’) could, handled less skilfully, smack of a reactionary shifting of blame from the oppressive society to the misfit individual. It escapes this through a sense of impending triumph for the protagonist and a quiet determination to prove detractors wrong, and raises an elegant two fingers to contemporary culture’s immersion in fatalism and victim-chic.
Exhortations to empowerment and self-actualisation have marked Wolf’s lyrics as far back as his first album’s ‘it’s all in the palm of your hand’. The Bachelor is studded with similar thoughts. ‘Oblivion’ explores the age-old concept of overcoming your fears by facing them. ‘Blackdown’s explosion into joyous cyber-madrigal* at the line ‘Desire: you are not the maker of me’ does more than any self-help mantra to push the idea of self-control over self-indulgence. The title track displays a similar gleeful defiance in resisting external definition, its narrator forsaking domestic necessity to blithely romance ‘all the boys in the valley’, turning the declaration ‘I will never marry’ into a positive and proactive choice rather than a fate to which one is condemned. (*Yes, ‘cyber-madrigal’ is an awful term. I’m trying to avoid the term ‘electro-folk’.)
Wolf’s frustration with the barren popular culture he previously nailed as ‘a drought of truth and invention’ is still apparent, while he also raises his sights to higher problems of state. ‘Hard Times’ laments ‘mediocrity applauded’, wilful ignorance and the drive to war, while ‘Count of Casualty’ dares you to ‘log off, sign out, delete your friends’ and take the fight to the streets. ‘Battle’, the album’s most explicitly political song, weighs in with more certainty of long-awaited victory for Patrick’s lamé army, and finds its mark in targets – ‘conservatives’, ‘homophobes’ and, curiously, anti-Europeans – which might be soft but still need taking down.
On the string-soaked ‘The Sun is Often Out’, Wolf remains a superb chronicler of London as a site of mourning and morbidity – the dark side of Peter Doherty’s moon-faced adulation of urban squalor. On most of the album, however, the twilit city skylines and decaying coastal towns which dotted his earlier work give way to ‘green pastures’, echoing hills and valleys and desolate moorland, with the Sussex downs both directly referenced and indirectly evoked. It’s a setting appropriate to the mythic tropes, fairytale narratives, quests and manifest destinies which crowd this album, stories told in soaring, strident vocals, backed by mass choruses and cleanly slicing strings.
And then there’s ‘Vulture’. Oh, Patrick. Let’s leave aside the way that the line ‘LA big wheels turn’ perfectly encapsulates Hollywood as both industry and entertainment, and focus on this song as exemplary of the way that being a Wolf fan involves something akin to a leap of faith, suspending your disbelief in the pursuit of enjoyment in absurdity. This tale of a smalltown boy’s big-city debauching is a triumph of outrageous cliché, Wolf’s supreme self-confidence displayed as much in his ability to pull off a line like ‘Down in Santa Monica suicide motel / One date with the Devil and seven days in Hell’ as anything else in his past career. If you’re going to dress as a vulture-themed dominatrix and sing about being put in the magic position, you’d better have the courage of your convictions and front like ridicule is nothing to be scared of. ‘Vulture’ does just that, vocals yelped and heavy-breathed over a backdrop evocative of clattering typewriter keys, blades being sharpened, and, if you listen very carefully underneath the throbbing synth, the sound of Erotica-era Madonna and You Are The Quarry-era Moz, as well as every amateur ever to play with the concept of Hollywood or BDSM, quietly expiring of sizzling envy.
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.