Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Like Punk never 'appened

Yes, I know. I've begged forgiveness for the obiturist nature of past What Would David Bowie Do? posts and sought to rectify this a couple of weeks ago by offering thoughts on rock stars retiring ('What will David Bowie do now?'). However, I must return to the funereal theme with the question: "Is rock music really dead?"

Earlier this year the UK's perennially with-it newspaper The Guardian lobbed this particular editorial hand grenade into the fray when it ran a whole stream of leaden pieces under the banner 'RIP, Rock'n'Roll. The paper surmised that with the number of "rock" songs reaching an all-time low for appearances on the UK singles chart (less than 3%) of all entries, rock'n'roll had gone the way of just about every individual who has sat on a Spinal Tap drum stool.

My view is that rock's supposed demise - much like Mark Twain and Paul McCartney's - has been greatly exaggerated. While there's a 13-year-old somewhere in the world badgering a parent to buy an electric guitar, there will be rock in some form.

That, however, didn't stop Paul Gambaccini, the self-styled sage of pop, to perform the last rites on the genre by declaring: "It is the end of the rock era. It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over." "Amazing", I thought when I read that. News travels fast from the 1920s.

Gambo's point, to be fair, was to say that rock, having defined popular music culture for the last 50 years, had given way to other genres. Record companies - or what's left of them - have been moving away from bands and focusing their investment on short-term opportunities plundered from the effluence of TV talent shows. I'm not so sure. There is still plenty of gas in that particular tank. Just look at the storming performances given by Muse, Elbow and others at last weekend's Reading Festival.

I recognise that my perspective is shaped (or mishapen) by my personal preference for acts who play instruments, often with them actually plugged in, and who have some understanding that a quaver isn't a cheesy snack that melts in your mouth, but a musical note. So I like it loud? Nowt wrong with that.

Album and single sales may have dwindled to an all-time low, but live music remains in the rudest of health - for those happy to pack a club or, worse, fork out ridiculous amounts of money to crane their necks at a stadium. Television, for many, is the preferred medium. The problem is, the medium is bereft of decent programmes to showcase live music.

With the exception of Jools Holland's eclectic and ever-dependable Later..., options have been limited, on British TV at least, to live specials or the rare (and I mean hen's teeth-rare) occasions a band performs live on a chat show.

Elton John - who, despite a somewhat grandmotherly image these days, is one of the world's greatest music enthusiasts (he still has HMV package up four copies of every major CD release each week and send them to each of his four homes around the world) - complained some months back that there was a dearth of TV outlets for live music.

Reg was speaking at the revival - of sorts - of a British music institution - the Old Grey Whistle Test. Hoary old heads will recall the early days of Whistle Test, fronted by Richard Williams and 'Whispering' Bob Harris - both ex-music hacks (replicated in later seasons by the likes of Mark Ellen and David Hepworth). Between it's inception in 1971 until its 1987 finale, Whistle Test captured the mood as psychedelia gave way to blues-rock, prog rock gave way to corporate rock, punk gave way to new wave, all until the late 80s brought the show to a jangling, jacket sleeves rolled up end.

The BBC is celebrating Whistle Test's 40th anniversary by having Bob Harris present a sixteen-part radio series featuring performances from the TV show's archive.

And it's a bountiful archive:  I recently dived into the Whistle Test DVD box set and was richly rewarded by gems such as Bowie's Oh! You Pretty Things, Talking Heads, Curtis Mayfield, The Ramones, Ottway & Barrett, The Jam, early Springsteen, Randy Newman, Bill Withers and Blondie, as well as the downright nuts, such as yodelling Dutch loonballs Focus, and the overblown, over-the-top nonsense that was Edgar Winter's Frankenstein.

While the Old Grey Whistle Test may have lent itself best to an era when music fans were A) male B) single and C) wore army surplus greatcoats buttoned up to their beards, there is nothing any longer on TV to match its musical spirit, if not its musical earnestness.

But let's not get too maudlin. Pop music may now be little more than a ringtone (evidence suggests that teenage music consumption is today restricted to mobile phone downloads and video game soundtracks), but that's not to say that the good times won't roll again.

"Music is a cyclical business," the NME's Paul Stokes told The Guardian in their 'rock is dead' piece. "We've been told rock was dead before, in the late 80s, late 90s, but it came back."

And if rock comes back, rock TV might too. Nice....


  1. Even if rock n' roll will never die, didn't it recently become boring or predictable? When was the last time you stopped whatever you were doing when hearing an unknown song, asking yourself "WTF is this music, I need to go and buy the CD right now"? I bought many great albums the past years, but I think my last musical shock comes from the '90s and all the Sub Pop/grunge/alt rock/alt metal/industrial/brit pop movements. Anything after these years didn't produce the same impact IMHO, or was just an echo.

    But maybe it's just that even if it's still not too loud, I'm already too old!

  2. Welcome to WWDBD?! You've got a point: when was the last time you heard an album that flpped you on your head? A Nevermind, Exile On Main Street or London Calling? Predictability is now the norm - the prospect of a new Coldplay album gives me the shivers....