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Sunday, 20 March 2011

Rock hard! The old ultra-violence

The mini-storm over Ben Weasel punching two audience members at a SXSW gig on Friday calls it all to mind. Violence! Danger! Mayhem! Hey, rock and roll!

Rock ‘n’ roll’s unholy alliance with violence is part of its supposed appeal, isn’t it? It makes it “edgy”.

Gawd. I'm agin it. Totally agin it. Call me uncool (many have), but I find the “glamorisation” of music through violence - real or stylised - utterly repellent.

On the one hand there’s no doubt about it, lots of musicians are – or can be – nasty types. @HunxandhisPunx reckons that Weasel is a “piece of shit”, and I'm not going to disagree (the only thing I'd add is that when people in the crowd at gigs throw things at the band they're also acting violently, essentially commiting an assault).

But back to the tough guys of rock. Notoriously there was Sid Vicious living down to his (future) name when he attacked the journalist Nick Kent with a bicycle chain (not the only item relating to violence on his rap sheet). When I saw the Filthy Lucre-era Sex Pistols in 1996 John Lyden goaded the audience to “burn down” the Guardian’s media office. Nice. (Two instances of anti-journalism there from a band whose success came partly through clever spin and media manipulation).

Meanwhile, Ike Turner was a wife-beater. Ditto James Brown. The gun-crazed Phil Spector is a full-on convicted murderer. Leadbelly was in and out of state penitentiaries for a range of offences, including murder. I could go on.

But what you gonna do about it? I'm not expecting musicians to be nice people and, as a matter of fact, I'm not actually going to stop listening to (say) hip hop that apparently condones - even promotes - violence. (Well I might in some cases, but if I'm uneasy with certain sexist or violence-heavy stuff, I'm also not keen to completely drop it either: you'd have to ditch about a quarter of the blues repetoire if you approached music on "pure" political grounds).

Then again if you've got this sort of stuff happening at close quarters - ie at a gig - I think it's somehow worse. Bands that use derogatory language from the stage are very easy to dislike, hard to forgive and harder still to stay and watch. I've heard singers talk mockingly about "chavs" and, in the form of an ignorant, impatient aside, I recall one solo artist slagging off all Italians (no Italian tour for him then).

But violence is the non plus ultra, and it's especially galling when bands turn a blind eye to moshpit-type violence or even incite a bit of it themselves.

On the other hand it's great when the group go the other way (breaking with rock cool for a moment). For example I was always pleased to see that (the excellent) Billy Childish would halt proceedings at his gigs to demand that the usual three or four (male) meatheads stop crashing into unwilling audience members.

At around the time I was going to see a lot of Buff Medways gigs I was also checking out the psych-goth group Neil's Children. In their early incarnation they would sometimes appear on stage wearing the droog make-up from Clockwork Orange. Behind the fierce music they were a gentle bunch though. Absolutely none of Ben Weasel's ultra-violence....

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