Tag Archives: The Guardian Music Blog

A Depressing Quote

This quote from Radio One’s Clara Anfo, taken from a Guardian feature in which various pundits and tastemakers were asked their predictions for 2017, is profoundly depressing.

In pop music, you can have guys and girls who all look amazing and they might have brilliant songs, but if they can’t bring it to life, if they haven’t got the spunk to bring what they’re supposedly trying to sell to interviews, or on the radio or online, I’m not going to be interested.

In her world, there is apparently no room for anyone for whom the most interesting thing about them is the music they make, even if those are the very people who ultimately make the best music. No, it’s all about being the right sort of media celebrity. It doesn’t matter how good your songs are if you don’t have the right back story.

I could say “I must be getting old” at this point, except that this nonsense is nothing new. In 2017, just like every other year, the best music will fly completely under the radar of the media tastemakers and gatekeepers. The “mainstream” has always been clogged up with ephemeral celebrity fluff.

The job of the rest of us is to signal-boost the good stuff so that it can find an audience.

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When album of the year lists go bad

I have wondered out loud whether I should delete this blog because it’s irrelevant and reactionary. Because I write about obscure struggling prog-rock bands rather than about millionaire rappers I’m an old man yelling at clouds who should stop taking up a younger generation’s space.

No, nobody has explicitly said that to me, but it’s the dog-whistle subtext coming from The Guardian’s album-of-the-year rundown this year. Several of the write-ups wear identity politics on their sleeves, and at least one crosses over into unsubtle race-baiting. It’s hardly a surprise that the comments have turned into an ugly mess of racism and ageism.

I have nothing against any of the individual entries, except that they’re not my thing, and nothing in the write-ups makes me want to investigate further. And it goes without saying that none of the music I love gets a look in, but that’s been true every year for as long as I can remember.

It’s all because The Guardian insists on doing an aggregated ranked list.

Ranked lists work for single-genre specialist publications, like prog or metal, because all the records are evaluated and ranked by the standards of one consistent aesthetic. It works for your individual list because it’s a personal thing, and the list is as much about you than it is about the contents.

But when a publication that aspires to cover a broad range of genres with radically different aesthetics takes that approach, it all degenerates into a zero-sum game pitting genre against genre, and the results are never pretty. Especially when The Guardian seems to have a winner-takes-all voting system that ensures that whenever a critical mass of voters like the same things, their choices crowd out everything else. Every year their top ten ends up looking very samey, notable as much by what is excluded than by what’s actually in it.

The critics’ individual top tens, published after the ranked rundown almost as an afterthought are always far more interesting and illuminating. Perhaps next year they should give the individual critics’ lists a lot more prominence, and emphasise the aggregated list rather little less?

There is so much music out there nowadays that it’s impossible for any one person to keep up with it all. In a musical context like this, exactly what is the value of a ranked list of lowest-common-denominator mainstream records?

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Judas Priest – 10 of the best

judas-priest

The Guardian Music Blog has another one of mine in their Ten of the Best series, this time for The Black Country’s finest, Judas Priest.

I’ve covered much of their career, going from Sad Wings of Destiny to Nostradamus. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to include anything with Tim “Ripper” Owens; though “Cathedral Spires” was in my shortlist, “Jugulator” isn’t on Spotify, so I couldn’t include the song,

One or two people have said they can’t take Judas Priest seriously. Whatever gives them that idea?

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Cult heroes: Mostly Autumn

gu-mostly-autumnMy “Cult Heroes” piece on Mostly Autumn is now published in The Guardian Music Blog.

It’s both a great honour and more than a bit scary to be asked to write about a favourite band for the online section of a national newspaper, especially when I’m on first name terms with many past and present members of the band. They have always had a few noisy detractors, mostly jealous fans of less successful acts. They also had some very defensive obsessives who used to take the mildest criticism as an personal attack on the band. There was always an outside chance of the comments turning ugly.

I wanted it to read authentically rather than something fanboyish, so I covered the downs as well as the ups; mentioning the mis-marketing during the Classic Rock Productions years as well as the wobbly period when Iain Jennings (briefly) left in 2006. But I hope those are balanced by more than enough strong positives.

With a word count of a thousand words give or take a hundred, there wasn’t room for everything I wanted to include. One thing I’d like to have said more about was the extended family of related bands in their orbit. That includes side-projects like Odin Dragonfly and Josh & Co, as well as separate creative projects by past and present members, such as The Heather Findlay Band, Halo Blind and Cloud Atlas. Or Breathing Space, the side project that took on a life of its own before being reabsorbed back into the mothership. They’re all part of the Mostly Autumn story, and they’re a part of what the fandom is about.

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Marillion – 10 of the best

marillion

I’ve got another Ten of the Best features in The Guardian, this time for Marillion.

Attempting to condense thirty-five years and sixteen album’s worth of music into just ten songs is next to impossible, and the the list went through a lot of permutations before settling on the final ten.

As people ought to have realised by now, I always avoid the Big Hit that everbody knows, because what’s the point? There are so many other riches in the back catalogue. There’s nothing from their biggest-selling album, “Misplaced Childhood”, which is an obvious omission, but so much of it only works in the context of the whole album. “Bitter Suite”, a candidate on the initial longlist didn’t make the cut because it doesn’t work as a standalone song, ending abruptly when it seques into “Heart of Lothian”.

It was also a decision right from the beginning for the split between Fish -era and H-era songs to reflect the number of albums, which was always going to mean Fish-era songs would be in the minority. Some people will not like that.

And, just as predicted, the very first comment mentions Grendel…

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NWOBHM – 10 of the best

The Guardian have just published my latest in the “Ten of the Best”, on the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

When it comes to scenes rather than individual bands it’s harder to decide what to include and what doesn’t quite fit. So though I mentioned them in passing I excluded bands like Motörhead on the grounds that represented the previous generation.. Likewise Magnum, who were again slightly older and never quite seemed part of the scene.

I compiled the list largely by identifying the significant bands and then choosing their defining songs. A few of the tracks chose themselves; Diamond Head’s monumental “Am I Evil” is the most obvious one, followed closely by Angelwitch’s eponymous song. In one or two cases I went for personal favourites, for example Demon’s “Father of Time”. For The Tygers of Pan Tang I chose “Don’t Stop By” for John Sykes magnificent solo.

When it came to the better-known bands I tried to avoid being too obvious. Def Leppard’s early single is there for it’s historical importance. With Saxon I decided to go for an album cut rather than one of their hit singles.

Aside from the bigger names there’s a whole slew of lesser bands, some of whom managed the occasional great song, and the comment section is highlighting a few of these that I missed. I’d forgotten “Dance to the Music” by Last Flight, though Quartz did make my longlist.

And no, there was no room for Sledgehammer.

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Should have gone to Cambridge?


Meryl Hamilton of Voodoo Vegas at the Cambridge Rock Festival

It’s Reading Festival weekend again. The streets are filled with extremely young people in wellies, and every supermarket has a Canary Wharf of cheap booze.

I used to go to the festival back in the early 1980s, when the bill included such headliners as Rory Gallagher, UFO, Girlschool, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and Thin Lizzy. But even though some recent bills have included bands I wouldn’t mind seeing, it’s not for me. Now as back then, it’s a teenage rite of passage.

While The Guardian ackowleges this in its headline, most of their article is an extended moan about the bill being too male. Perhaps they should have gone to the Cambridge Rock Festival instead?

There is discussion to be had on gender and music festivals, but as is predictable with their gender or race-baiting articles, The Guardian has disabled comments.  In previous years Guardian has repeatedly demanded festivals include more women by reducing the amount of rock on the bills, usually written by people who didn’t actually like rock.

But surely there are other ways? What about one or two European symphonic metal bands like Nightwish, Within Temptation or Delain?  Or perhaps Babymetal? Or maybe even put acts like Panic Room or Mostly Autumn early on the bill?

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The Reality of Music Outside the Commercial Mainstream

Anne-Marie Helder guesting with Halo Blind at Bilston Robin 2

The last couple of days have seen two good articles on the reality of making music outside the commercial mainstream. First, Rhodri Marsden in The New Statesman writes about the joy of being in a part-time band, which describes the reality for most bands I know. I can think of at least one musician who’s on record as saying the stability of a day job to pay the bills gives him more creative freedom as an artist.

Second, this piece in The Guardian, Teleman’s 10-step guide to succeeding as a modern indie band. The headline is misleading, since it has nothing to do with “indie” as a genre of music; most independent prog bands do all or most of the things in that list.

The comments against the latter do betray the sheer levels of ignorance out there when it comes to the realities of music at grassroots level. There’s the numpty who implies they’re an industry insider who claims it’s impossible to write a great song without agents and talent scouts beating at the door. If you’re under 25, conventionally pretty and willing to work within the narrowest of commercial formulas, maybe. In all other cases this person is speaking unadulterated cobblers.

Then there’s the twit who claims that anyone who doesn’t aspire to headlining stadiums shouldn’t be making music, mocking those who play “300 seat clubs”. Perhaps if you attended a few club gigs you might discover what live music is all about? And maybe the reason some artists don’t aspire to be the next Coldplay or Adele is because they don’t want to water down their music until it sounds like Adele of Coldplay? Or just maybe not everyone who wants to make music wants to be chewed up and spat out by the celebrity fame machine?

Too many people have bought into a rock’n'roll mythology that was never an accurate reflection of reality even in past decades when the music business had money to throw around, let alone now.

What is “success” for a musician nowadays? From my perspective it’s the artist being able to make the music they want to make on the scale they want to make it, and to attract enough of an audience to be able to continue doing so. That doesn’t have to mean headlining stadiums. It doesn’t even have to mean being able to quit the day job. It means being able to play with a full band rather than a acoustic guitar and a laptop, if that’s what you want to do. It means not having to water down your sound to fit someone else’s formula. It even means being able to play your own songs rather than covers.

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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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Award shortlists or end-of-year polls are valuable if they end up highlighting something interesting or quirky that might otherwise have slipped beneath the radar. If all they do is validate a predictable consensus, what exactly is the point?

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