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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....

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Darling! Your band were marvellous

In a recent article Michael Hann talks about a rather specialised variety of loyalty to a musician. The kind he's got in mind is when the artist makes a personal gesture (dedicates a song to someone for example). Hann says that after Billy Bragg played a tune at a 1987 gig specifically because Hann had requested he do so ahead of the gig, he was so grateful that he carried on turning out at Bragg gigs and buying his records long after he'd actually lost interest in the music. Hann reckons it's because these precious moments forge an “unbreakable bond” between fan and star, one that will endure for decades to come.

Blimey. What bizarrely disproportionate behaviour. Are we the audience really expected to be so humble, so cringingly grateful?

After all, we pay (usually) to go and see them, we clap and hoot (annoyingly, in the case of the latter), and we provide what many of the musicians want in the first place: an audience. That's plenty, isn't it? If a performer does something halfway decent, then great. No need to start tugging at our forelocks though. The way Hann tells it, the priest-musician will occasionally lean down and bless the pop supplicant, bestowing rock and roll grace with a name-check dedication or an old song played at a gig.

Oh Lord! Call me a music biz atheist, but my own thinking runs completely counter to this. At gigs my habit is to keep the theatrical fourth wall well and truly in place. On the rare occasions when I've become acquainted with a band it's been the beginning of the end. From that point on you're condemned to having to keep up a desultory "friendship". ("Hi, how's it going?" ... "Er, no, I wasn't at that one, I couldn't make it" etc). Before you know where you are you're having to explain why you weren't at their other gigs. Or you're having to fend off questions about their new songs ("Yeah, sounds pretty good", you lie).

You've lost your all-important anonymity. Now you can't just go, watch and leave. The end-result, in my experience, is that you begin to think twice about going to see them at all. Oh dear, why did you ever succumb to the fatal vanity of forming a personal connection with the "talent"?

So, you might have reached that elevated point where you were getting a friendly nod from the bassist when the band took to the stage, but you'd have been better off pretending you didn't know them or (better idea) going to see some other bands before the rot of familiarity set in. Either that or condemn yourself to many gigs' worth of coming out with the R'n'R equivalent of "Mwagh, mwagh. Darling! You were wonderful."

Monday, 7 March 2011

You always gotta wait

Keep 'em waiting, keep 'em keen. Bands that hold back going on stage seeking to build up some anticipatory "atmosphere" are ... wait for it .... no wait for. Wait.

OK, bands that hold back going on stage to build up some anticipatory "atmosphere" are ... well, I guess they're destined to be the occupants of large properties in Wiltshire where delivery people are made to wait a long time at the gates before they're allowed in. To the kitchen area only. In other words, we’re talking about rock aristos in the making.

Back at the gig, we ordinary mortals, the gig groundlings, we look up (the stage is generally high at these concerts) and marvel. Is this really where we'll see our heroes in the flesh? In only, oh about one hour’s time (by which time the expectant masses are delirious with expectation). Then, when we’ve achieved the necessary state of obeisance-through-tiredness as our legs begin to give way, they arrive. Oh, glory hallelujah. Deus ex machina, they appear on their altar-like stage, and ... they begin to play. It’s er, an almost religious experience. Some bands even go so far as to set up special lights (the votive candles) and smother the stage in dry ice (shake that censer). I’m sorry reader, it’s all too much, I can’t go on ….

So, it's corny stadium rock stuff. Utterly risible, whether as a mid-70s Whitesnake effort or a 2010 U2 mega-tour date at an American sports arena. And, of course it's true that these tacky antics barely affect the small-scale gig circuit. (Try the dry ice trick at a 40-person venue like Ryan's Bar in Stoke Newington and you might look a tad ridiculous).

But, I have to say, these showbiz affectations do sometimes creep into the small gigs world as well. (Prompting people to clap along to songs is another technique I'd happily see done away with). Recently I was at a gig where the long wait/dry ice/powerful stage lights were all deployed to concoct a sense of "grandeur" that the band's music most certainly did not have. Along with one of the group's bandito lace-up trousers, it was a disconcerting flash-back to the 1970s high watermark of rock's self-importance.

So, shock revelation: some bands still take themselves very seriously. Pomposity in music didn’t die when Queen left the rock throne, it just spread into every other form of music. It’s alive and well backstage at a gig near you. You’ll notice it by the length of time you’re kept waiting for showtime.