Wednesday, May 03, 2006

For Those About to Music Hall...

The thought of the Arctic Monkeys' world tour fills me with embarrassment. For me, for them, for all concerned. It’s not the ‘cute’ Sheffield accents, the possible miscommunication (the meaning of “mardy” is pretty clear from context), or the band members’ blotchy appearance. It certainly isn't, as the Guardian so eagerly reported, their showbiz standoffishness (translation: this band are for real, man). It’s just that, once again, Britain is confirmed as a place where people no longer believe in the power of music.

Critics have been kind to the Arctic Monkeys so far. They’re emissaries, after all, of the world of Internet Music; beyond reproach as the People’s Choice. If this image of them is right, their manipulation of MySpace more than a clever way to pitch at a confused and scared trad media, then their success is a sad vindication of Big Label marketing techniques. From The Killers to Franz Ferdinand to the Kaiser Chiefs, Britain's star makers were selling us the right thing all along: pithy guitar pop with wry anecdotal lyrics. George Formby with a little Fender Tele in his hand.

This stuff can be entertaining, no doubt about it, but it has little to do with the primal power of music, sound's ability to grab your emotions by the scruff of the neck and shake your soul. For the stars of the new Music Hall, electric guitars and drums are mere backdrop for the all-important lyrics; the icing under the cake. But here in Britain we haven't believed in the Rock And Roll Dream for a long time.

Looking back at the most popular instrument-based music, at Indie entryism's success stories, there has been a steady decline in emphasis on the actual music, the noises made by those band members who didn't have our immediate attention. Take Pulp, for instance. Try to imagine them without Jarvis Cocker at the front in a diamonded tank top, with a twinkle in his eye, husking about the grimness of poverty, childhood in the Seventies and the North. What's left? A few organ riffs Abba would have discarded for being too twee. But this passed critical inspection in the UK with nary a murmur. The present course was already set.

Another example might be Oasis, the powerhouse of British Rock (they'd like to think). We should have known that all was not well right back when 'Shakermaker' was released in '94. If you've lost track of their bombastic maunderings in the intervening decade or so, this was he one that repositioned The New Seekers' Coke Ad song "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing"' as the cheeky leading edge of Britpop, name checking in its title a plaster moulding toy from – well it had to be – the Seventies.

The problem is that a real precedent has been set, now, and the downward spiral into chirpy non-musicality seems set to continue, under the unchallenged supremacy of 'Britpop'. The Smiths were never like this. In fact, three or four decades ago British Rock used to lead the world, achieving a high degree of popular success without compromising its power (much). From Pink Floyd's sad reflections to the explosive power of the Sex Pistols, I grew up to expect to be moved by what I heard. Rattled.The acts being fêted now need to revisit their Beatles albums and notice what's been lost. Even before they dabbled in the avant-garde, Lennon & McCartney threw in enough songwriting curveballs to keep the listener agog, with askew melodies from Georges Martin and Harrison wrenching heartstrings in directions of their own, not mere adjuncts to the singing.

It is only by comparison with 'mainstream' 'serious' British Rock, led by such miserable second-raters as Coldplay and Keane, that this stuff stands any chance. Even the dance scene, which I have despised for most of my life, is healthier. Recently DJs have found a purpose beyond mere hedonistic escapism and, advertently or otherwise, given both Rock and R'n'B a new lease of collective life. I almost feel nostalgic for the Stone flippin' Roses, for heaven's sake. There are still many avenues to pursue: from live mashup (anyone doing this?) to the maverick rockscapes of true artists like PJ Harvey and Radiohead, with innumerable half-bred forms and electronic oddities in between. Post-Rock is more promising even in hibernation than a hundred Arctic Monkeys sipping Piña Coladas in Hawaii. I happened to catch Smokers Die Younger (also from Sheffield, as it happens) at a recent London show, and their punk rock is a match for thee rusted satellites', even on a grey midweek evening in the grim West End. They can't be a one-off.

Maybe I should treasure our complacent, degenerated circumstances; salute the cumulative erosion of the word "indie". For here – in the shadow of those mighty stone tablets on which are carved the words "I bet that you look good on the dancefloor/ Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984" – the seed of an actual rebellion, a return to music, may even now be starting to grow.