Music Opinion Blog

Opinions and occasional rants about the state of the music scene. The views expressed are entirely my own, and do not represent those of any artists or publications with whom I may be connected.

BBC News asks “Where are all the climate change songs?” They have presumably never heard of Marillion’s “Season’s End”.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 4 Comments

If your awards ceremony has a “Best Re-Issue” award, it does rather suggest that you are living in the past. Especially if you give the “Inspiration” award to someone who’s been dead for 45 years.

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Noel Gallagher, The Gift That Keeps On Giving

So Noel Gallagher has a new interview out. His interviews are always far more entertaining than his records nowadays, and this one sees him try and pick a fight with One Direction fandom, amongst others.

But this quote takes the biscuit (I’ve left the swears in)

I was being asked about a reunion five weeks after I left the band. It’s a modern phenomenon. It’s a modern disease. All the bands that get back together, all those ones you’ve mentioned [Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin] they didn’t have anybody in the line-up as fucking brilliant as me. What’s the guitarist out of Fleetwood Mac called? Lindsay Buckingham. I can’t remember him setting the world on fire. Jimmy Page? That’s debatable. He’s a good guitarist but I’m not sure how many solo albums he’s fucking made.

Oh dear, oh dear.

The software development industry, or rather the software development recruitment industry, often talks about “Rock star developers”. I have always found the concept utterly ridiculous, and the above quote goes a long way towards demonstratng why. In today’s world, the concept of “Rock Star” is far more about swaggering ego than it is about actual skill.

As a guitar player, Noel Gallagher is at best a mediocre talent who is not fit to tie the shoelaces of Jimmy Page or Lindsay Buckingham. If you read some listicle of supposedly great guitarists and see his name there, it’s as much proof that the list is a load of cobblers as the absence of Tony Iommi or Nile Rogers. And as a songwriter his work is so derivative and backward-looking that if he was a programmer he’s be writing in COBOL.

There was a day when “Rock Stars” represented the top talent of their profession. The larger-than-life personality was part of the package, but the talent had to be there. But the days of Freddy Mercury and Jimi Hendrix had long gone by the time Oasis arrived on the scene, and the worlds of creative artists and media celebrities have gone their seperate ways.

Anyone who talks about “Rock star programmers” is living in the 1970s.

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Neo-Prog Three Decades On

Joe Banks writing in The Quietus has a grear piece in Neo-Prog Three Decades On, covering the likes of IQ, Pendragon and Pallas.

He’s spot on when it comes to Twelfth Night. His description of “Fact and Fiction” as the Unnown Pleasures of prog reminds me of how some aspects of their sound reminded me of Joy Division at the time. Perhaps what JD might have sounded with Dave Gilmour style guitar solos?  As for their eventual disolution when they “couldn’t make up their mind whether they wanted to be Pink Floyd or Duran Duran“, is Joe Banks certain he didn’t steal that line from me?

He’s good on Mairllion too, pointing out how they started out wearing the influence of Gabriel-era Genesis on their sleeves, but soon evolved towards evoking Pink Floyd at their most song-orientated. Not quite so sure about present-day Mairllion as “credible-if-a-bit-bland nu-prog, somewhere between Talk Talk and Muse“, though. At least he didn’t compare them to Coldplay….

It’s also good to see the late Tommy Vance mentioned. John Peel’s hagiographers tend to dismiss him for playing the music too uncool for The Peel Show, but the two were actually highly complementary. Certainly Tommy Vance was as much loved by his listeners as Peel was to his.

The whole piece is well worth a read.

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Support Bands: What exactly are they for?

Fahran, Supporting Morpheus Rising at Bilston Robin 2Fahran, suppotying Morpheus Rising at Bilston Robin 2

This is another of those blog posts inspired by some discussion on Twitter, in this case about support bands.

We’ve all been to gigs where the support band has been thoroughly forgettable; sometimes tuneless acoustic singer-songwriters, sometimes third rate generic metal or alternative rock bands. You do sometimes wonder what the point of these support slots are, especially if there’s not one but two supports which either means a disappointingly short headline set or a very late finish.

On the other hand, I’m sure most of us have seen a few occasions where an unknown support act has blown us away. I can think of The Computers supporting The Damned and giving them a serious run for their money, and Labyrinth kicking Sonata Arctica’s arse, both at my local venue in Reading. The very first time I saw the mighty Touchstone was when they supported The Reasoning at the now-closed Limelight Club in Crewe. And I’ll never forget Anne-Marie Helder supporting Mostly Autumn at the late lamented Astoria.

My rule when reviewing is to judge the support act on how you feel at the exact moment the frontperson says “And this is our last song”. That emotion never lies.

So what, exactly, is the purpose of the support band?

If, as was suggested, the sole purpose of the support is to make the headliner look good, I would respond by questioning whether the headliner is good enough to be topping the bill. The days of support bands being thrown off tours for being too good are long gone.

I see the role of the support act as enhancing the overall experience and giving the paying audience better value for money. If they’re a bit rubbish it rather undermines that. The 70s and 80s practice of the headliner actively sabotaging the support for reasons of ego by making sure they had terrible sound only shortchanges the punters.

Nowadays quite a few bands book a strong and complimentary support act and give them prominent billing in the gig’s promotion to boost ticket sales. Just how often have you gone to a gig purely to see the support, or at least had the support influence your decision to attend a gig? I could list a great many of those over the years; sometimes I’ve experience a wonderful headline set I would not otherwise have seen, and once or twice I’ve seen the band I’d actually come to see blow the headliners off stage.

So, what’s your experience of support acts? Who was memorably good, or memorably bad? What great bands did you first see as an opening act?

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Support Live Music

Close up of a guitar

This is a bit of a rant.

I’m not going to name the band because it won’t do them any favours having this come up in Google searches for their name. You can probably work out who they were if you really want to know. But it’s not really about them, it’s about you.

I travelled to a gig a couple of hours away from home and booked an overnight stay in a hotel since it would finish well after the last train back. It was in one of the largest cities in England other than London. The gig was in an established rock venue within easy walking distance of the city centre, in the smaller of two rooms, but still with a capacity of a couple of hundred at least. The band have released several albums, won annual “best of” awards, and gone down a storm at festivals, and they’re on fire live on this tour. It was a Friday night rather than a midweek graveyard shift.

There were thirty-five people there.

Thirty-five people.

The band themselves gave what could easily have been their best live performance of the year, pulling out all the stops. And only a tiny handful of people were there to see it, most of them familiar faces you see at gigs all across the country. Many of them were not local but, like me, had travelled a significant distance to be there.

People constantly complain on the interwebs than nobody plays gigs in their towns. The trouble is, when bands do book gigs, these people then can’t be arsed to turn up. It’s not for me to tell the band where they should or shouldn’t play, but if I was in their shoes I wouldn’t be playing either that venue or that city again in the foreseeable future. There’s no way such a poorly-attended gig could have covered its costs.

I know that time and money are finite, and some people have a lot of other commitments in their lives. But a lot of you have no such excuses. If superb bands like this are to survive, and are to be able to continue making music, you’ve got to get off your collective arses and support them. I’ve seen too many bands fold due to lack of success, only to see “fans” complain that they “never got to see them live”. Perhaps if you’d bothered to see them when you had the chance, they might not have split?

If a band you like or have heard positive things about are playing a small club near you, and it’s physically possible to get there, support them. Otherwise the live scene outside the corporate mainstream will be nothing but tribute bands.

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Yesterday I compared the announcement of the nominations for the Mercury Music Award with the England vs Pakistan Test Match. It may have been a day premature; had the Mercury nominations turned out the same way, the 12th nomination following eleven soundtracks for middle-class dinner parties would have Napalm Death’s Apex Predator: Easy Meat. But it wasn’t.

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I Marked Your Essay on Prog and Give it an E-Minus

Sometimes you read something that makes you nostalgic for the really bad writing from student newspapers. The arch, bombastic style that can only come from a writer too young to have developed any sense of self-awareness. The way they don’t let little things like serious lack of knowledge of the subject get in the way of their enthusiasm.

To be over-critical of such things can feel like kicking a puppy.

But this article on Progressive Rock is still one of the worst pieces of music writing I’ve seen since Ian Gittins’ review of King Crimson.

Some examples.

Of course, The Beatles were and are unlikely to ever be labelled a “progressive rock band,” Portnoy was simply arguing that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was perhaps one of the first albums in western musical society to take rock music away from a fugacious bop-along catharsis and to begin an ascent towards higher musical artistry.

I’m not sure that “fugacious” is a word. But it gets worse:

Quickly, however, the First Wave of Prog faltered upon the rocks of punk and disco. Rebellious youth themes such as nihilism, violence, anarchy, and the macabre (not to mention pop music’s tendency towards love and dance), forced the philosophical themes of human transformation and utopian society back into niches within the rock. Excuse the puns.

Forget the puns. What about the hoary old clichés?

… a small list of rising acts who drove the Second Wave of Prog, more commonly known as neo-progressive rock. What separated these two waves was the greater influence that keyboards and synthesizers began to have on the music. Organs and Mellotrons became clunky and clichéd.

Reading lines like this I do begin to wonder exactly how much 70s or 80s progressive rock this lad has actually listened to.

But Goodwin had less success with these bands, managing to acquire only small iconoclastic audiences rather than a large countercultural movement such as the hippie, psychedelic phase that had inspired original prog. The Second Wave’s greatest creation was perhaps Marillion, who famously began the ‘pre-order’ initiative, through which they would fund an album’s writing, recording and production via the loyalty of their intense fanbase.

You use the word “iconoclastic”. I do not think you know what it means.

Through the rise of heavy metal bands Metallica and Iron Maiden, and the continued peripheral success of progressive rock bands such as Yes, Rush and Gentle Giant, the late 1980s and early ‘90s led to the Third Wave, a movement which exists today.

This is the point at which it completely loses contact with reality, and looks as though he’s throwing out names at random without doing the most rudimentary research on those bands’ histories. Gentle Giant split up in 1980. Rush have been filling arena-sized venues throughout the 80s and 90s, so could hardly be described as having “peripheral success” unless daytime radio is your only source of information.

It goes on like that. At one point he describes The Flower Kings as “vigilantly fantastical“, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I personally find The Flower Kings to be utterly dull, their formless music devoid of energy or tunes. It’s easy to imagine The Flower Kings as what those who cannot stand progressive rock believe all prog bands must sound like.

I can’t fault his enthusiasm, and progressive rock does need its younger ambassadors. He clearly enjoyed Spock’s Beard’s recent tour. But the quality of both the writing and the research here is just embarrassing. Reading it is like sitting through a Flower Kings set at the festival.

If this student submitted an essay as poorly-researched and written as this, he would not expect a good mark from the professor…

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Mainstream vs Popular?

Over on Twitter, Serdar Yegulalp made the observation that “Mainstream” and “Popular” art, while they often overlap, are not the same thing. The former is that which gets widespread attention in the media, while the latter is what actually sells. This is a split that’s been apparent in rock music for years to anyone’s who’s paying attention. “Mainstream” nowadays tends to equate to “Indie”, despite that being one aesthetic of many, largely because that’s what has the greatest appeal to those who write about music in the media. So a mid-level indie act who sell modest numbers of albums and concert tickets get to play on “Later with Jools Holland” and are considered mainstream in a way the far bigger-selling Iron Maiden are not. It’s something most rock and metal fans have learned to live with, though it’s still galling to see the media gatekeepers give so much space to things like Metallica’s appallingly dreadful collaboration with Lou Reed just because Reed is fashionable with the elite tastemakers in a way no metal band can ever be. Metallica themselves never got a look in when they were in their prime.

Even more true in the book publishing world, of course, where “Literary Fiction”, that etiolated genre that pretends it’s not a genre punches way above it’s weight when it comes to critical attention. It’s also why I suspect the fight over the Hugo Awards within science fiction isn’t just a turf war between political tribes. Is there something of a Mainstream/Popular split going on too, with a disconnect between the books and stories that get media attention (and win all the awards), and the books that sell in large numbers? Do the major SF awards disproportionately reward the literary equivalent of “indie music” at the expense of other aesthetics?

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In The Court of the Crimson King

No photos, because you know what Robert Fripp is like Today is the 46th anniversary of the release of King Crimson’s first album, “In The Court of the Crimson King”.

This is an album that’s been a cornerstone of the progressive rock canon ever since its release in 1969. The intense and jagged “21st Century Schizoid Man” set the template for prog-metal before metal itself had emerged as a genre, since it would be another year before Black Sabbath released their eponymous début. The stately Mellotron-drenched magnificence of “Epitaph” and the title track showcased the evocative poetry of Pete Sinfield’s lyrics, which still divide opinion two generations later. It was an tremendous and unexpected privilege to hear all three performed live a month ago. And that instantly-recognisable cover artwork remains one of rock’s iconic images.

I only heard it a decade after its release when it was already an established classic, so it’s difficult to imagine how something so revolutionary must have sounded to first-time listeners at the end of the 1960s. That period must have been an exciting time to have been a rock fan, with music evolving at an unprecedented rate. King Crimson themselves, having defined a genre out of nowhere, went on to leave it behind just as rapidly as they explored stranger and more experemental directions. Later King Crimsons had an influence on post-punk; when PiL recently played live you could hear a lot of Robert Fripp in Lu Edmond’s guitar work.

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