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.

The Sound of Corporate Beige

This video, which appears in Alexis Petridis’ splendidly snarky two star review of their album, seems to epitomise everything that’s wrong with the mainstream music industry.

It’s what passes for “rock” nowadays; but to anyone who’s old enough to remember bands like Thin Lizzy, it’s just laughable. It’s the sound of nothing, corporate beige music which apes the shape and form without any of the substance.

The “Music Industry” whines that there’s no talent out there. Yet they give their hype to dross like this when acts like Panic Room or Halo Blind or Mostly Autumn or Chantel McGregor or Karnataka exist, all completely off their radar. The only rational response is hollow laughter.

This is why the major labels need to be burned to the ground. Kill it! Kill it with fire!

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Disco and Cultural Envelopes

In an interesting post by Serdar Yegulalp on how the cultural impact of music scenes is often only apparent decades later, he talks about the impact of Disco in the late 1970s.

In the 1970s, disco culture was pooh-poohed because it was seen by rock fans as straight America’s attempt to be hip. The way it legitimized gay culture went almost totally unseen at the time, in big part because gay culture itself was unseen — and, in my opinion, somewhat deliberately, by a lot of rock fans. I remember how Queen and David Bowie were, for a big part of my youth, seen by my compatriots as campy weirdos (read: “fags”), but then folks like Prince came along and pretty much knocked everyone’s sensibilities on that score into a cocked hat.

Nowadays the reaction against Disco is generally painted as a racist and homophobic backlash by straight white male rock fans. But that’s a revisionist narrative as well, playing today’s identity politics with the music of a generation ago, over-simplifying a much more nuanced reality.

As Serdar says, the urban gay subculture was hardly on anyone’s radar screens at the time, and Disco frequently came over as a corporate commodification of black soul and funk, which were seen as legitimate genres in the way disco wasn’t. And many of the disco era’s worst crimes against music came from white rock musicians who should have known better; Rod Stewart, I’m looking at you.

Today the tides of time have washed away the dross and we only remember the good stuff, like the funk of Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, now deservedly recognised as every bit as talented musicians as any of their classic rock contemporaries. Or the things so exuberantly cheesy they get filed under the ridiculous label of “Guilty Pleasures”, like Boney M’s gloriously silly “Rasputin” which get covered by Finnish folk-metal acts.

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Is Pop’s Sausage Meat escaping?

The major labels think there’s a British pop talent crash:

One response, if you are a major, is to send your entire A&R department around the country to find out what people want to listen to (and, more importantly, buy). The label doing this, which can’t be named, has instructed its team to speak to promoters, club owners and others connected to local music scenes, until they have an idea of why new acts aren’t connecting. It has been spurred by the fact that this is the time of year when the frontrunners for 2017’s next-big-thing polls should be gathering at the starting gate. However, according to another insider, there is an unprecedented lack of viable hopefuls, let alone those with the potential to be the next Sam Smith, Adele or even James Bay.

“There’s nothing on the horizon, no music scene at the moment. It seems to be that the talent isn’t out there, [or if it is] they don’t know what to do with it,” says the label source.

Now, I know the major label industry prefers artists who are both under 25 and conventionally pretty, and much of the best music is made by people who don’t meet either of those criteria. But is there really a shortage of talent out there, or just a shortage of talent willing to work for the major label sausage machine under the major label’s terms?

Are these gatekeepers even still relevant? Yes, there are still people out there who don’t listen to anything that hasn’t been endorsed by those gatekeepers, but the relative failure of the ridiculously-hyped Jack Garratt suggests that even these people aren’t willing to swallow any old rubbish.

As readers of this blog will know, there are many acts out there who blow most of the overhyped major-label hopefuls completely out of the water. The commercial mainstream has never heard of these people. Perhaps the reason they’re not ubiquitous stars is because they don’t actually want to be?

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Why do Fandoms go Toxic?

The fandoms of the internet keep throwing its toys out of the pram. I have no idea if it’s getting worse, or whether it’s always been this bad but we just hadn’t noticed.

Maybe it’s the constant background noise of arch sneering between supporters of different eras of bands that have gone through many changes of lineup and musical direction; Facebook groups like “2/5ths of Yes is not Yes”, I’m looking at you. Or maybe it’s the ugly wars over the trailer for a much-hyped reboot of a thirty-two year old film; why on earth have so many of the worst culture warriors on both sides chosen that particular hill to die on? Or the ongoing Sad Puppies Hugo Awards mess, where I’m sure I’m not the only person who has lost all patience with both sides; the world of science fiction ought to be bigger than one clique of authors and fans who are still living in the 1950s fighting another clique of authors and fans who are still living in the 1970s.

A lot the appeal of being part of a fandom rather than merely enjoying the music, films or books is the feeling of belonging to a tribe. And some tribes love to define themselves by those who aren’t part of that tribe. Do fandoms become toxic when in-group signalling becomes more important than the actual art? And is this just an inevitable part of human nature, or are there practical things we can do to stop fandoms going bad?

It’s nonsense. Liking or not liking a piece of mass-market entertainment should not be a litmus test for whether or not you are a good person. And “Those people over there I don’t like will love or hate it” is the worst possible form of criticism.

So don’t do that. Better to celebrate the things you love.

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The Stone Roses and Comebacks

The Guardian is not impressed with the new Stone Roses single, with Michael Hann suggesting that it is typical of disappointing comebacks. I did laugh at the comment that it sounded like Rainbow with Bryan Adams singing lead; whoever said that clearly doesn’t like Rainbow. Or Bryan Adams. On a first listen it reminded me of Beady Eye, only nowhere near as bad. That is probably damning it with faint praise, but you can listen to it yourself.

What I do take issue with is the idea that disappointing comebacks are the default. Michael Hann’s cherry-picked examples do not make it so. What about the thrilling re-emergence of King Crimson last year? Or if you want an indie band, how about Suede, whose career appeared to peter out a decade or so ago, only to return, older and wiser, to make their best music in years?

I suggest, much like the canard of the difficult second album, the disappointing comeback reflects the sorts of bands music journalists like to write about; the artists who sometimes capture the Zeitgeist but don’t necessarily have the staying power needed for a lengthy career. Whether The Stone Roses fall into that category is a matter for debate.

What comebacks have and haven’t impressed you? And what do you think of the Stone Roses single?

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How many of those who pay eye-watering prices to see stadium tours by long past their prime heritage rock acts also think there’s been no good music since 1974?

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Zappa Versus Zappa

Zappa Plays ZappaPhoto by Zack Sheppard

The feuds and legal shenanigans in the Zappa family is profoundly depressing. For a decade, Frank Zappa’s eldest son Dweezil has been touring as Zappa Plays Zappa, playing the late Frank Zappa’s music with a crack ensemble of younger musicians. Now it’s revealed that not only has he been forced to pay his own family exorbitant licence fees to do this, but he’s now been forced to drop the name “Zappa Plays Zappa” over copyright reasons by the Zappa Family Trust, the trustees of whom are his younger siblings Ahmet and Diva.

As this Techdirt article points out, there’s a dispute about so-called “grand rights”, and one suspects the reason Dweezil Zappa paid up was that he didn’t want to sue his own mother in court.

….anyone can cover another artist’s song. If you’re doing a recording, you just need to pay compulsory mechanical licenses, but if you’re just performing it live, it’s covered via the venue’s blanket performance licenses with ASCAP or BMI (with Frank Zappa, it’s ASCAP). Except… the Zappa family wants the world to believe that the law there does not apply to them. Rather, they’re playing fast and loose with some tricky definitions. Section 115 of the Copyright Act is about how the compulsory licensing works, and it has an adjective that the Zappas are trying to turn into a loophole:

In the case of nondramatic musical works, the exclusive rights provided by clauses (1) and (3) of section 106, to make and to distribute phonorecords of such works, are subject to compulsory licensing under the conditions specified by this section.

“Nondramatic.” Historically, this has been interpreted by many in the copyright space (perhaps reasonably) to say that compulsory licensing a la ASCAP or BMI can’t be used for putting on a musical. Instead, for a musical, you do need to negotiate directly with the composers/publishing rights holders. A somewhat murky area of copyright law has grown up around this which is sometimes referred to as “grand rights,” despite no such phrase appearing anywhere in the actual law, and that has resulted in some amount of confusion.

The only sort of rock tribute acts I can conceivable imagine needing such “grand rights” would be someone wanting to reproduce something like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or Genesis’ “The Lamb” with a stage production approaching that of  the original performances.  Zappa Plays Zappa do not do this; all they do is perform the music, and they do so more in the spirit of the original than a reverential pastiche.

This is the sort of thing that leaves you thinking that the “Estates” of dead creators are little more than grubby rent-seeking parasites, and brings into question the validity of copyright terms lasting for decades after the deaths of the creators. The purpose of copyright is to reward the act of creation. A revenue stream serving as a pension for a living artist is one thing, but what exactly is the moral argument for giving the adult children and grandchildren a near-perpetual unearned income for something they had no part in creating? We all know that copyright terms are continually being extended because the Disney corporation keeps buying lawmakers in order to protect a handful of cash cows regardless of the collateral damage to wider culture. But that doesn’t make it right.

The irony is that it’s Dweezil Zappa who’s the one actively adding value to his father’s music by performing it live and keeping interest in it alive. And he’s the one being harassed by lawyers over it. But it’s the nature of rent-seekers to demand a piece of someone else’s labour.

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When does a band become a tribute act?

Quite a few veteran acts touring with just one or two original members get accused, rightly or wrongly, of being glorified tribute acts. Yes are a case in point; since the untimely death of Chris Squire the band have been touring without a single founder member, and just guitarist Steve Howe remaining from the early 70s band that made their reputation. There is a noisy faction of their ‘fans’ who refuse to accept the existence of the band without Jon Anderson, going to the extent of creating a Facebook group called “2/5ths of Yes is not Yes”. Given that Yes have gone though many personnel changes in their long history, that attitude is rather silly.

But what about AC/DC? With Phil Rudd in trouble with the law, and first Malcolm Young and then Brian Johnson forced to step down due to ill health they’re down to Angus Young and a bunch of hired hands. The Guardian’s Michael Hann has made a good argument for the band to call it a day after finishing their tour, and I find it hard to disagree with that.

There are plenty of bands on the nostalgia circuit for whom the label “glorified tribute band” is entirely appropriate. Bands who have been playing the same greatest hits sets for the past twenty years with diminishing levels of passion, and have either stopped recording new material altogether or release forgettable albums that add little to their legacy. But that has little to do with how many original members remain. One might even put The Rolling Stones in that category.

But there are others for whom the opposite is true. Look at Hawkwind, for example. Dave Brock spends much of the set sitting down, plays a bit of rhythm guitar, and lets the guys who weren’t even born when he started the band do all the work. But it’s his presence on stage that makes it Hawkwind in a way the rival bands featuring assorted ex-members are not. And what about The Enid, set to continue without mainman Robert John Godfrey with Robert’s blessing?

And how do you classify Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Dweezil Zappa and playing the music of his late father? Early incarnations of the band included Zappa alumni Napoleon Murphy Brock and Stevie Vai, though more recent lineups are made up entirely of younger musicians who weren’t part of any of Frank Zappa’s bands. But the spiritual connection is obvious.

As death or ill-health claims more and more of the classic rock generation it would be sad if their music stopped being performed live. The dividing line between tribute acts and original bands with no original members is likely to become increasingly blurred; a lot of it depends on whether they revolved around larger-then-life personalities, or whether, as in the case of Yes, the music itself is bigger than the performers.

In the end does it really matter? Is “authenticity” more important than the quality of the actual performances?

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What was your first ever gig?

The Guardian’s Michael Hann writes about first gigs. His was pre-hairspray Whitesnake, in the days where every member of the band played extended solos including the bassist. Though somehow I doubt that each solo was realy ren minutes long, even if they might have seemed that long to the 13-year old Michael Hann.

What my first gig actually was depends on what you count as a gig. Was it new-wave one-hit-wonders The Jags, who played a student gig at Bridges Hall?

I can’t remember now if it was a student-only thing or whether tickets were available to the general public. What I do remember is they were truly awful, a drunken shambles who stumbled their way through a barely-recognisable version of their one hit and a dozen other numbers that sounded exactly the same. The guitarist was so blotto he didn’t even notice he’d broken two strings. It’s not surprising they faded away soon after.

Or was it the 1980 Reading Festival, then as now a teenage right-of-passage?

The headliners that year were Rory Gallagher, UFO and Whitesnake, and the bill also included Gillan, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Slade, and many, many New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands (You name them, they were probably on the bill). I remember the huge cheer when Ian Gillan came on stage for his special guest spot on Friday night, and the whole field full of people singing along to Smoke on the Water. Then there was Iron Maiden on Saturday, again in the special guest spot. It was right at the beginning of their career, still with original singer Paul DiAnno. They’d just released their début album, and the energy on stage made it clear they were hungry and going places. Then there was Slade, late substitutes for Ozzy Osborne who’d pulled out at short notice. Nobody expected much from them at the start, and a low-key beginning with a couple of new songs gathered polite applause, but little more. Then they started playing the hits, one after another, and everything changed. By the end they’d completely stolen the show. When they came back for an encore, the crowd wanted that Christmas song. “Ye daft buggers”, said Noddy, “You’ll have to sing that yourselves”. So we did. Then they left us with “Born to be Wild”. Def Leppard found that very hard to follow.

Or the first “regular gig” in an indoor venue? That would have been Hawkwind at the now-demolished Top Rank Club in Reading.

The support was power-trio Vardis who sounded like a 30 second excerpt of Love Sculpture’s “Sabre Dance” repeated in a loop for 40 minutes with occasional vocals. As for Hawkwind themselves, this was one of the more metal incarnations of the band, with the late Huw Lloyd Langton on lead guitar and Dave Brock sticking to rhythm. They also had, of all people, Ginger Baker on drums, a legendary musician but quite the wrong sort of drummer for a band like Hawkwind. In retrospect it was probably not the greatest gig ever, soon eclipsed by far better gigs by Gillan, Budgie, Iron Maiden, UFO and Thin Lizzy. If anything, Hawkwind were actually better when I saw them thirty years later at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, but the superior acoustics of a symphony hall probably helped.

So, what was your first gig? Was it somebody legendary, or someone as awful as The Jags?

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Batman vs. Superman is being panned by the critics, who make it sound like it’s the tipping point where big-budget superhero films fall out of critical and public favour. What’s its rock equivalent? Yes’ “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (Self-indulgent creative overreach), ELP’s “Love Beach” (Dying gasp of a spent creative force) or Metallica and Lou Reed’s “Lulu” (Ill-conceived collaboration done for largely cynical reasons)?  Over to you…

Posted on by Tim Hall | 4 Comments