I want to say that the Manic Street Preachers were sexy in a Twilight sort of way, but then I realise how much of an insult that is to such sweet young men. What I mean is that they represented a sort of wholesome, non-threatening rebellion that went down a treat with sensitive, misunderstood teenage girls. James was the only one I fancied, and that was only after meeting him, but Love’s Sweet Exile had such a deliciously sexy video that for those three minutes or so, my heart was pounding as much as anyone else’s. It was the same sort of pseudo-homoerotica that pretty girls use to tease admirers: I kissed a boy and I liked it. Don’t believe a word of it – they’re just being saucy little minxes. And it worked!
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I know this is going to come as a shock to you, but albums aren’t made by little pixies waving magic wands. Whatever dreams are spun of, Phase 1: plan to be famous; Phase 3: profit, the reality is more mundane. It’s something we accept about the film industry, because it lets us in on its processes. We understand it’s a giant corporate behemoth mired in politics and dodgy dealings, but can appreciate that this can still result in magical works of art.
This is old, but it still makes me giggle.
If you are in a band, you are going to be lusted after by fans in the audience. Being a “sex symbol” is on page one of the job description – and fitting any narrow definition of conventional beauty is immaterial: even Thom Yorke is sexy when he’s dancing like a loon.
I do recall a friend, when I was in my early teens, vowing to “never wash again” when she was splashed with the sweat of the lead singer of the band we were watching. The same girl accidentally sent Richie flying when she burst into the Manic Street Preachers’ dressing room, gasping that she “really respects their music”, while really meaning that she wanted to do things to him that monkeys wouldn’t do to each other. Bless her! She was just 14. That lust, even underaged and unrequited, is part of the job – as was the obligation to scribble an autograph and politely send her away.
Even so, there are boundaries to the expression of said adoration. I don’t think anyone would advocate groping band-members of any age or gender, because really it’s just not on. What’s a guy to do, go on stage with a Do Not Touch notice pinned on to his hairy chest? Sometimes you can get away with stuff at a gig that you couldn’t outside the venue, but sheesh. Nick’s hilarious, spot-on reaction earns my eternal respect.
I’m being nagged for my top 10 favourite gigs. This is, of course, just shows that I’ve been to. I caught footage of mid-70s Led Zep on TV the other day, so I’m pretty sure better shows have been played.
1. SMASHING PUMPKINS/FILTER
Wembley Arena, May 1996
The highlight of all highlights begins as the Pumpkins play another untitled track with incredible tribal percussion that threatens to cause the roof to cave in. The deep rumbling basslines resonate around the room, booming up through the floorboards. The sound is clear and pristine tonight, perfect conditions for a little experimentalism. Jimmy Chamberlain shows his true ingenuity as a drummer by holding the steady, complicated rhythms together as Billy and James churn out guitar lines in a vaguely Eastern-sounding fashion. The sound swells and holds for a full eight minutes before dying down to the percussion-based theme, and then something extraordinary happens.
Reading Festival, 1994
Saturday’s headliners Primal Scream were oddly disappointing – even if they had Dave Gahan as a guest star – because there was just no possible way they could have beaten the back-to-back double act that was Radiohead and the Manics. Two bands I personally rooted for, as much for their good-natured personalities as their music, and they never sounded better. I always felt afterwards that Richie had used this as a test run: see if they could survive without him before doing his disappearing act. I remember the surprisingly gorgeous James Dean Bradfield – a regular at the PR agency where I was doing an internship that summer – saying, “I gotta go play in front of 50,000 people” with a mixture of pride and terror to which I could only smile and wish him luck. They pulled off the challenge admirably. Radiohead were their consistent, excellent best.
So, yesterday’s post on genre got me thinking: why do we bother trying to define music anyway? You might as well ask why we bother to review music.
Here’s the thing: I forget exactly how many albums are released each year, but I think the number is something like 20,000. That’s an impossible number of albums to listen to – even paid music reviewers only hear up to about five albums a week (that’s 260 albums per year), because that’s realistically all you can hear and form any sort of judgement over. Assuming the reviewer listens to the album twice before writing down their thoughts, that’s 10-15 hours’ active listening per week, which is actually quite a lot, since those thoughts then have to be written down and communicated – and almost everyone writing about music is fitting it around a full time job.
Few reviewers are professional critics. Most of the music reviews you will read will be in the form of “omg dis da shiiiii”-type scrawlings on Facebook et al. The last music review you probably heard was your best friend raving about some cool album over lunch. Do they count as reviews? In a definite sense, yeah – because they’re fulfilling the role of gatekeeper, drawing your attention to the dozen or so albums out of that 20,000 that you’re actually going to like. (I’m actually pretty glad I don’t hear 260 albums a year any more, because hearing 240 bloody awful albums per year is soul-destroying.)
When we get that little nugget of joy, though, well, then we can’t help ourselves. When you’re experiencing real passion for something, it’s almost impossible to shut up about it. I was thinking yesterday how much I need to get certain people on instant messenger because I don’t have anyone to wibble away about Foetus with and I’m undoubtedly boring the pants off my other friends about it. The only way past that is to try to reel them in too, and the only way to persuade them even to listen to it is to describe it in terms they’ll understand. Even these days, when you can embed a YouTube link so people don’t even have to bother to click off the page, most people won’t bother to watch it because that’s taking up their precious time and they don’t want to be bored senseless for three minutes by music they hate. Tell me in 10 words or less why I should click on this link.
Most music is pretty easy to describe. Oasis? Three-chord pub rock Beatles-lite without a fraction of the skill or innovation. The White Stripes? Simplistic country-influenced garage-punk blues rock with no bass. Blur? To The Kinks as Oasis are to The Beatles, only with actual talent. What about genre, then? Well, that’s a shorthand way of saying sounds-like, though it doesn’t have to be exact. Someone tells you that The Sex Pistols are punk, and then tells you that The Buzzcocks are also punk, you can have a fair idea of what the latter sound like, even if you haven’t heard them: it’s like speeded up rock’n’roll with off-key, shouty vocals over simplistic song structures with little in the way of demonstrated musicianship. Much as the Manic Street Preachers played the punk card, like The Clash, they were just too darned good to really fit the bill.