Tag Archives: The Guardian Music Blog

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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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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The Song Bar

Song-BarThe situation with The Guardian’s Readers Recommend has got unpleasantly messy, and we’ve ended up with in a position where the vibrant music-loving community risks being split into two rival camps.

After weeks of prevarication, the Guardian have relaunched Readers Recommend in cut-down form, run by the community section rather than anyone from Guardian Music. The launch appears to have been handled very clumsily, so it’s got off to a rather poor start.

Meanwhile, an enigmatic figure known only as “The Landlord” has launched a new music blog The Song Bar as a Readers Recommend in exile, with “Songs about moving on” as the first topic.

I am sure I’m not the only person who doesn’t know which way to jump. Is it better to keep a foot in both camps and see how things pan out, or is best to throw our lot in with The Song Bar on the grounds that Guardian Communities have demonstrated that they can’t really be trusted? My gut instinct is to go for the latter, provided the site can draw in a critical mass of people.

Anyway, for Songs about moving on, I’ve nominated the superb title track of Karnataka’s “The Gathering Light“. It’s a song about moving on from a broken relationship, but it’s also by the band who appear to have been cheated out of appearing in The Guardian’s end-of-year reader’s poll for reasons that have never has a satisfactorily explanation.

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The Guardian, Coldplay and Cultural Appropriation

The Guardian posted an article accusing Coldplay of “Cultural Appropriation” over their new music video filmed in India. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the video itself, there was  an implied subtext that any western musicians who include elements of non-western cultures in their art are guilty of racism.

A band most of whom I know personally have recently released an album with lyrics strongly influenced by Indian spirituality. Does that mean that they too are guilty of racism? Does that mean I’m guilty by association through supporting them and giving their album a positive review?

Fortunately enough people whose opinions I trust have dismissed that piece as little more than sub-Buzzfeed button-pushing clickbait. It’s a largely fact-free thinkpiece that doesn’t cite sources or do any proper journalism. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to find on someone’s personal blog, but we ought to expect higher standards from a national newspaper with a long and illustrious history. It’s telling that under The Guardian’s new policy on articles that touch on race, the piece has no comment section, so they won’t get flooded with responses telling them how ridiculous it is. It’s also telling that the writer picked an obvious soft target, a hugely popular but deeply unfashionable band despised by much of The Guardian’s readership.

Cultural Appropriation is a bit of a minefield. It ought to be easy to understand why simplistic racist caricatures belong in the past, or why you should be careful when using sacred religious symbols outside the context of your own faith. Coldplay might even be guilty of those things. But Social Justice Warriors (I hate that term, but it seems to have stuck) take things much further; any attempt by white westerners to create art that references any aspect of non-western cultures is denounced as “problematic”, their term for “sinful”. The truth is there is an enormous grey area between those two extremes, but ideological absolutists don’t do grey areas. So much great music has arisen from cross-fertilisation between different cultures, something which would be squashed if those who would police art in this manner had their way.

There’s a whole cultural ecosystem of media pundits who earn a living playing on misplaced white liberal guilt. Nobody wants to be thought of as racist or sexist, so too much nonsense ends up going unchallenged. The whole subject of Cultural Appropriation is ideal territory for these people. It’s hardly surprising that it was meat and drink for the notorious predator Requires Hate who did so much harm within the world of science-fiction.

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Is Triple J’s Hottest 100 all about White Male Privilege?

The Guardian is (yet again) trying to stir up trouble. This time it’s over the results of an end-of-year list by an Australian indie-rock radio station of being too male. It’s one of those articles where excessive use of sweeping generalisations means that the valid points the author is trying to make end up getting lost in the noise. The comments thread is a predictable car crash.

On one level it looks like a trivial twitter spat being blown up out of all proportion, and that spat itself looks like a prime example of two people talking past one another because neither is willing to recognise that the other is using a different meaning of the dreaded word “privilege”. Or that the social justice activism’s definition of the word was meant to describe structural inequality rather than be used to attack individuals.

But the wider point of whether or not a poll from an indie-rock radio station is a symbol of endemic sexism in the music scene doesn’t get coherently expressed. As some comments have pointed out, mainstream commercial pop is dominated either by female singers or male singers such as Justin Bieber with overwhelmingly female audiences. You could make a strong case that genre snobbery has a more than a whiff of sexism, especially the implication that indie-rock is somehow superior and more “authentic” than pop. But the piece doesn’t go there.

Taste in music is both subjective and deeply personal. The sorts of music people enjoy listening to, or indeed make, is often strongly gendered, and that gets more so the more you move away from the commercial mainstream. Which means it can get ugly very quickly when you inject identity politics into music fandom in a clumsy and heavy-handed manner. If you imply to someone that their preference for rock over pop somehow makes them sexist and racist, they’re likely to take it personally, and many will react angrily. Especially if you give the impression you don’t actually connect with music at a deep emotional level yourself.

If you want to point out how an awards shortlist, a festival bill or a listeners poll is too male, and there are plenty of those that are guilty as charged, you do need a bit more evidence than merely failing to meet some arbitrary gender quota. Unless of course the bias is so blatant that it’s impossible to explain away.

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Is this the end of Readers Recommend?

Sad news that, barring a last-minute reprieve, The Guardian is calling time on the weekly Readers’ Recommend column.

For those not familiar with it, every Thursday evening the Guardian website puts up a post containing the week’s subject, for example “Songs about mountains“, and readers are asked to nominate songs in the comment section. It will always run to several hundred comments. The “Guru” of the week must read all the comments, listen to as many of the nominated songs as possible and assemble a playlist which will be published the following week.

It has been running for a decade now.

For the early years the Guru was one of The Guardian’s own writers, beginning with Dorian Lynskey who frustratingly never chose any of the songs I nominated. More recently there have been rotating volunteer Gurus selected from the community itself under the stewardship of Peter Kimpton, and that appears to have given the whole thing a new lease of life. It’s certainly drawn me back in and I’ve seen significantly more of my nominations make the playlist, including Panic Room and Mostly Autumn songs.

It’s spawned a remarkable and unique sub-community within The Guardian’s site. I cannot think of any other long-lasting music community that hasn’t been based around a shared love of particular band or genre; the tastes of the RR community is all over the map, and that is its greatest strength. It has one and only one cardinal rule, “thou shalt not rubbish anyone else’s taste“.

I have no idea why The Guardian have decided to pull the plug. It’s may be that The Guardian just don’t know quite what to do with something that’s a bit of an outlier compared to the rest of the site. Perhaps we don’t fit the 25-45 age group demographic that Guardian Music wants to target. Perhaps they just don’t like something they can’t gatekeep? Look at the disgraceful way they arbitrarily disqualified things from the Readers’ Album of the Year poll because it was the wrong sort of music nominated by the wrong sort of fans. RR just doesn’t back the mid-life-crisis consensus groupthink of too many of the paper’s own writers, so it has to go.

It’s being suggested that Readers Recommend doesn’t fit because Guardian Music is more interested in celebrity lifestyle reporting than in expressing deep passion for actual music. If you look at their writer’s picks for their best articles of the year, what appears to be the top two are both awful clickbait thinkpieces about Taylor Swift and Kanye West which are all about identity politics with little to say about the actual music. I’m sure there is a place for that sort of thing, but not at the expense of actual music writing.

It’s a shame. Readers Recommend is something unique and special, and I hope the extended community survives in some form. As I’ve always said, online forums and social media platforms come and go, but what endures and what really matters is the relationships you make through them.

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Music Journalism in an Age of Niches

The shenanigans over the Guardian end-of-year list are surely a sympton of far deeper problems. The internet-era music world is fragmented into myriad overlapping niche scenes, and it’s harder for one publication to cover it all. But to cover a small subset of niches and pretending it’s the “mainstream” doesn’t work. Because beyond the mass-market corporate pop of Adele and Coldplay there is no mainstream. It’s all niches.

The Guardian is full of former NME types who have grown accustomed to acting as gatekeepers and tastemakers. But it’s a different world now; what worked in 1995 isn’t going to fly in 2015. If a broadsheet wants to continue with in-depth music coverage and wants to continue to be relevant, it needs to reinvent itself.

To start with, they must engage with those niche scenes they had been pretending weren’t relevant, and ensure they have the writers, either staff or freelancers, who understand those scenes.  Only then can they genuinely have have the broad coverage of music they currently only claim to.

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