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In 2005, Alex Turner told us, “We’re Arctic Monkeys. … Don’t believe the hype”. How times have changed.
We all know the in-between. The fastest selling debut album in UK chart history, seven Brit awards, two headline sets at Glastonbury, six (out of six) number one albums… Now it seems to be all about the hype, with a new album which is impossible to not think of as at least slightly pretentious.
It’s unsurprising that their latest effort, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, has split opinion so comprehensively; a complete change of sound and mood was born from a fresh songwriting approach, which Alex Turner explains at the start of their recent TV special Live at the BBC:
“Every time I started with a guitar I was suspicious of where it was gonna go. I think I had a pretty good idea of what the outcome might be, which was completely contrary to how I felt when I sat at this piano and suddenly, you know, my imagination was ignited once more”.
Despite there still being a guitar-wielding monkey, this is probably about as experimental as noughties indie rockers are gonna get. Call it Kid AM.
It’s not the sound that bothers me though. What bothers me is that it feels more like an Alex Turner solo record. This isn’t the Alex Turner who wrote the Submarine soundtrack in 2011, this is the man who has been living in LA and now sings like he does. He has been plonking out 4/4 triads on his piano and taken them to a likely fairly bemused band. Although they contribute competently, it’s not music that plays to the strengths of, or makes the most of drummer Matt Helders, guitarist Jamie Cook or bassist Nick O’Malley. The new sound is hardly even to Turner’s strengths, with two session musicians regularly playing his new favourite “imagination-igniting” instrument around him throughout the new tracks featured on Live at the BBC, while Turner stands about posing.
We saw the warning signs two years ago when Turner was swaying his hips on the Pyramid Stage alongside Miles Kane in the Last Shadow Puppets. But that was a different act. Nobody saw Tranquility Base as the obvious next album. Seeing Alex Turner act the organ grinder to his Arctic Monkeys leaves something of a bitter taste.
Live at the BBC only serves to add to this perception. Most people dress for an occasion but, shot by vintage cameras and featuring television sets from bygone eras, it seems Maida Vale has been dressed to match Turner’s latest look. In fact, Alex Turner is the filmmaker’s focus constantly. Choreographed looks to camera are painfully coupled by a slightly disingenuous voice that evokes ironic memories of his noughties lyric, “You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham, so get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook”.
For what it’s worth, the new songs come across well live. Their new music has such a focus on Turner’s ever-developing vocal that lyrical content feels accentuated, giving something of a perceptual shift for the continuing AM listener. There’s nothing wrong with the album either, but aside from Turner’s show-stealing bravado, there’s another reason he’s the constant focus of the camera; you only have to look at the other band members to see how bored they are. Particularly Helders feels woefully underused on these tracks, and the evidence of that is provided by some of their back catalogue throughout the show…
If you want a 90-second taste of the best and worst Live at the BBC has to offer – skip straight to 8.38 here for some key, archetypal moments…
8.38: Hand through his hair, brow furrowed, Alex Turner delivers his latest proclamations remembered from his GCSE poetry book, before he “[loses his] train o’ thought” and gives us ten seconds of utterly inspired acting to push his point home…
9.08: Turner goes for a strut while three keys parts are played by two touring musicians around him.
9.21: One of these two musicians, a sweaty (no surprise, he’s working harder than the others) Tyler Parkford prompts Alex Turner to bizarrely declare, “That sound means it’s the end of the round. Time for the bonus question.”
9:28: When the bonus question turns out to be ‘R U Mine?’, you remember everything that’s good about Arctic Monkeys when they work as a unit. Turner loses the garish glasses along with (most of) the pretense. Helders starts to pull drummer faces and the energy goes up about twelve thousand percent. With tight vocal harmonies and instrumental parts, Alex Turner feels like a Monkey again.
Unfortunately, it’s not a trend that continues, with I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor proving a surprisingly uncomfortable watch. The band who wrote that song feel far removed from today’s Arctic Monkeys. The original music video saw the fresh-faced Sheffield teens bash the song out live at around 110bpm. On Live at the BBC (17:27), they constantly fluctuate from around 91 to 99bpm, sluggishly dragging through verses delivered with the now customary Alex Turner sneer. It’s a song they’ll never escape, for better or worse. To put a fresh spin on it would be both admirable and understandable, but this is a weak impression of the same old schtick.
The closing credits, filmed scrolling on an old TV screen next to Alex Turner providing a rare keys soundtrack, are a really nice touch. It’s an aesthetically pleasing spectacle, but it’s a concept which seems so far removed from the DIY origins of the band.
It feels like they’re separate personalities struggling to locate their collective identity. Right now, Matt Helders and his plain shirt don’t quite match up to the ‘Made in Chelsea’ long hair and pinstripe suit efforts of Jamie Cook. Nobody seems to crack a smile throughout Live at the BBC, but then again, this isn’t fun anymore. It’s serious business, this LA rock ‘n’ roll bullshit.
Development is vital for the life of any artist. Plus, when Arctic Monkeys have inspired so many soundalikes, this new sound is no bad thing for their commercial longevity. As long as individual ego doesn’t stand in the way of collective development, I expect their next album to continue this aural progression but be stronger for each member also stamping their musical authority.
Your ears may prefer the new Arctic Monkeys – the question is, can you stomach the Alex Turner show? Don’t believe the hype, judge it for yourself.
The other day, somebody told me how a friend of his who works for a record company has noticed a new trend: Rock bands sending out promo material are using every word under the sun to suggest that they are a rock band, without ever using the word ‘rock’. Of course, there are dictionaries full of descriptive splendour, and sub-genres old and new which neatly fit under the umbrella of ‘rock’ that may better encapsulate the sound of a band, but it’s got me pondering – what’s the problem with ‘rock’?
The first thing to say is thank god we do have those musical umbrellas, or record stores would be a nightmare to navigate. All umbrellas have sub-genres; while always being important in terms of definition, they’re not necessarily also an attempt to escape a tag…
Only yesterday on the BBC’s not so rock ‘n’ roll The One Show did I hear a reporter proclaim, “Lets rock!”, as he prepared to study the effect of greenhouse gases over a ten-day period… I’m sure Ozzy Osbourne was chewing bat heads to try and fill the void in his life while he waited for part two.
The problem is… Rock is middle-aged wedding dancers playing air guitar to Status Quo. Rock is what will “knock your socks off” at the ‘(Insert Name of Primary School Here)’s Got Talent’ concert. Christ, Rock is a fucking cake… It makes rock ‘n’ roll seem more like a heavy lunch than an evening of sex and drugs.
Most other genre names don’t have this sort of wide colloquial appropriation: “That’s so ska, man.” / “Yeah, boi! Dat is griiiiime ting.” / “You’re totally hip-hopping that outfit, babes.”
(I apologise, I really do.)
As its wider usage has risen, its usage within music has fallen. From Rolling Stones pastiche to a Gary Glitter Christmas (anybody?) to, well, the entire AC/DC back catalogue; the word ‘rock’ has been in many a song title, but even a cursory look at a list of the most popular shows us that the era that championed the term has long gone. In any case, any kudos that was left for the word after the turn of the millennium probably died when this happened…
The other thing is that those old ideologies of rock (which I’ve discussed before) are now outdated, meaning the word ‘rock’ has these inextricable connotations for record label staff and A&R vampires who won’t want to get an old taste from the new blood presenting their necks.
The fact that Nina Simone, Tupac Shakur and Donna Summer have all been inducted in to the ‘Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’ in the last five years alone shows that the term has probably become too all-encompassing over the years, describing attitudes, personalities and ideologies rather than simply music. That is not to say that those three artists don’t deserve that recognition – they undoubtedly deserve accolades more than some of the other inducted artists who would self-define as rock; I’m just not sure a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame place is something they’d have even understood.
Dave Grohl has just ended a speech on stage at the Brits, “long live rock ‘n’ roll”, dedicating the Foo Fighters’ ‘International Group’ award to those who “plug in and play”. In reality, it’s something he wouldn’t even think of saying if rock was alive and well. Judging by the majority of the acts nominated this evening, it may be understandable if indeed he feels it isn’t. Still, new rock bands clearly exist, they just don’t want to be labelled as rock. So, at least to some, ‘rock’ is dead, but if it is, it’s had a lot of offspring. A rose by any other name would smell just as much like teen spirit.
I’ve recently been exposed to the terms ‘poptimism’ and ‘rockism’. ‘Rockists’ are exemplified by those white, male, curmudgeonly, dinosaur critics. They champion those who play their own instruments, write their own songs, and preferably have been slugging it out for years before getting noticed by anyone in the mainstream; you know – they fucking mean it, man… ‘Poptimists’ argue that people who don’t meet any of those criteria should be viewed on equal merit – why shouldn’t Nicki Minaj be taken as seriously as Nick Drake?
Through reading many opinion pieces, I’ve been a little surprised at how old, white and male some would consider my views to be – although I probably shouldn’t be shocked by at least 66.6% of those things. I recognise where my primarily ‘rockist’ opinions come from; as a teenager I fell for Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, countless British indie-rock bands and their various influences – The Doors, The Beatles, The Stones, and so on…
However, my teenage tastes are not an excuse for the arguably outdated views I, to at least some extent, hold as an adult today… But then I don’t know if I need to be excused. The fact is: most music listeners don’t feel the need to understand, nor to justify their musical tastes. We just feel it. Maybe we should feel proud to hold musical biases, whether we understand them or not. Maybe critics could appreciate The X-Factor a little more and The XX a little less, but If nobody hated what we loved, how would we ever hold pride in our fandoms?
One particular point that drew my attention in the whole poptimism debate, was when Claire Lobenfeld asked, “Have we forgotten that the Beatles were once playing to screaming girls at Shea Stadium before evolving into what’s widely considered the most important band in the history of music?”. When those rockist critics remember The Beatles in their ‘greatest albums of all time’ lists, it’s not Please Please Me or Meet the Beatles in the top ten, it’s Abbey Road, it’s Sgt. Pepper’s, it’s everything they did in that second phase of their career.
Today, when I see Beyoncé go from Crazy in Love to Drunk in Love, my first thought is it seems a bit phony, a little commercially-focused. People ponder, “I don’t know why she doesn’t sing like she used to”.
When I see Justin Timberlake go from pop superstar to the pensive Man of the Woods, my first thought is that it seems inauthentic. But who am I to think that? Who’s to say his N-Sync days weren’t the inauthentic ones? This could be an artist finally making an album he is truly comfortable with, having slowly released the shackles of his pop past. But I look and think, “alright, Bon Iver”? After all, Bon Iver play guitars, write all their own songs and had that whole image first, so… you know – they fucking mean it, man…
Yet, I don’t judge The Beatles’ change from pop to Pepper in the same way – I guess I don’t have to because they are a critically-accepted, concluded entity from before my time. I take what I want, and I want what I’ve taken. The Beatles were. Yoncé and JT are. It seems almost every act which lasts more than two or three albums (or is that ‘six or seven singles’ now?) goes under some kind of reinvention, either naturally or otherwise, but the rockist canon only celebrates their vision of greatness. We’re told what greatness is, and if we believe it, much that is new can seem either inferior or like something of an imitation.
We should celebrate artists that develop and challenge themselves and their fan base throughout their career, rather than adopting an “if it ain’t broke…” mentality which almost always sees them slide in to mediocrity over time. Most critics offer opinion and sitting on the fence doesn’t tend to keep them in employment. Shock factor even extends to the millions of tweets composed by fans. When it comes to an artist changing their sound, or even their haircut, they must feel they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
Recent research I carried out with Nirvana fans seemed to suggest that by our late twenties, those (probably) with rockist ideologies tend to look backwards in music history to affirm, contextualise and celebrate their teenage tastes, rather than finding value in either new artists or any old favourites’ reinventions. I’m certainly guilty (again, should I feel guilty?) of doing the same thing, save a handful of exceptions. This is not necessarily a negative thing in my opinion – it’s just what, for whatever reason, I naturally do. But I’m sure I could be just a little more open-minded about the newest releases in an ever-changing musical landscape.
While I’m not about to become an all-out poptimist (I’m not sure I could even if I tried), I’m beginning to realise that sticking with my current rockist mindset will probably see me spend the rest of my life only looking backwards. There are reasons to be poptimistic, even if I do end up hating 99% of what I hear moving forwards… At least I would give myself the chance to understand why I hate 99%. At least I would find value in 1%. At least I would allow myself to judge an album’s music, rather than quickly dismiss its artwork or title… Hopefully, while those eyes in the back of my head continue to seek out the pick of the past, I’ll also look to the future and to music outside of my rockist tendencies with an open mind. (Seriously though, Man of the Woods?!)
On Tuesday, I went to Brixton Academy to watch Placebo. 11 years earlier, at Reading Festival, I witnessed a shortened set dogged with technical issues, so I was keen to see the alt rockers ‘properly’ on this, their 20th anniversary tour.
Due to illness, a number of their gigs in the last week had been postponed and one even cancelled, so, walking in, I felt lucky that our gig would be going ahead as planned.
Opening with Pure Morning, the band (backed by four extra touring members!) sounded huge, however, it was quite clear that enigmatic frontman Brian Molko’s vocal lines were not quite as normal, with no attempts to hit higher notes at all. As he greeted the Academy with the usual niceties, it was an issue which could not be ignored. “Well, my voice is slightly back, but it’s not entirely better … you’ll hear all of the songs you love, they just might sound a little weird … so tonight, you can all be the singer in Placebo”.
Anthems like ‘The Bitter End’ were gargantuan, but when the vocals came in, none of the impassioned intensity was there, in fact, nor was the song’s melody. The crowd would do the work, filling the room with calls of “as I followed you home”, but this was a mob of fans helping out the helpless. The famous ‘Nancy Boy’ really couldn’t stand up to its own legend either; Molko attempted to sing the song an uninspiring octave lower than the original, but not being able to then hit the lower notes in the sequence, it turned in to a monotonous dirge atop a minimally changing chordal backing. Certain lyrics were still delivered with a sense of gusto that roused the crowd, particularly as the crowd finished the line of “Just another…? NANCY BOY!”, but it was easy to see and hear that despite managing to jam-pack twenty years in to an hour and a half, this wasn’t how Molko had wanted it to be.
I left the concert with the opposite feeling I’d had when walking in – I actually sort of wish they’d postponed the gig. Having paid a fair amount of money for tickets, for travel to London, for travel in London, dinner, drinks, and everything else that comes with it in terms of time and effort; it’s fair to say I felt a little short changed.
Possibly, other Placebo fans who have seen the band countless times would have seen this as a night where they gave back to the band, a one-off occasion where they heard different versions of the songs. The trouble is, these versions weren’t designed, they were suddenly and unavoidably thrust upon the band. Various vocal lines did not work, and where key changes for certain songs may have been appropriate, there was presumably no time for the band (including the additional musicians) to work on this.
It reminded me of when I saw the band I Am Kloot at London’s 93 Feet East venue many years ago. As the band walked on, with the crowd still cheering, frontman John Bramwell told the audience that “tonight’s show is actually cancelled … this is not a joke”; cue sudden bemused silence. The band played around five songs before a croaky-voiced Bramwell apologised and told the crowd they could either have a full refund or a ticket for one of the upcoming gigs in their tour. He then went and spoke to fans, apologising and spending considerable time with every individual who had waited around for the opportunity to do so.
The other personal concert disappointment I have was after Dave Grohl famously broke his leg falling off stage during a concert in Gothenburg. Foo Fighters were forced to cancel a whole host of European dates, including their headline slot at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival. As a huge fan, who had never had the opportunity to see the band live before, I was devastated.
They more than made it up to the Eavis family at the 2017 festival, giving one of the most energetic and hit-filled sets the Pyramid Stage has seen in some years. However, this was of little comfort for those who didn’t have tickets for that year’s event.
So, the question I have in my head today is – at what point should a concert appearance be cancelled or postponed, for what reasons, and at what cost?
After the I Am Kloot mini-gig, I travelled home with a signed poster and a full refund, struggling to feel hard done by. I left the Placebo show feeling underwhelmed, but at least the show happened. At Glastonbury 2015, I felt little but disappointment on the night I should’ve been watching Foo Fighters, but didn’t even know that they would be on the bill at the time I bought the ticket.
To be fair, I reluctantly understood the Foo Fighters cancellation. Despite finishing the Gothenburg show in the most rock n’ roll way possible (with a doctor holding his leg in place while he played!), Grohl had a serious injury which had to be treated in order to heal properly. If the broken leg had belonged to drummer Taylor Hawkins then the tour could not have happened, at least without a sticks-for-hire learning their entire set, but with Grohl’s voice and arms intact, there was no reason the music itself would not sound as good as ever. So, determined to continue, the tour would resume weeks later with Grohl in a purpose-designed guitar-laden throne!
It’s arguable that physical injury to a band member would actually hinder the live performance of a pop act such as Little Mix more than a lost voice would. For an audience, vocal parts being borrowed by other members or being taken by a backing track or singer would probably appear less awkward than three quarters of the group doing a synchronized dance in-front of a wheelchair-bound other.
However, Placebo aren’t renowned for their pirouettes. When 50% of your band is only operating at 50% of their sonic abilities, surely the quality of the show (and indeed health) should be prioritised?
There are always people who will complain at a show not taking place: pre-booked travel and accommodation is not always refundable, those who can’t make re-scheduled dates (see personal Foo Fighters hell) will miss out, and I’m sure Placebo fans with tickets for the cancelled Plymouth date would rather have had tickets for the Brixton show I witnessed than the refund they will currently be in the process of receiving.
It’s fair to say that Placebo are a bigger band than I Am Kloot. That, and the size of the venue, means that giving refunds would be a lot more costly and problematic for them, and herein lies the problem: every case is different.
With an artist, an audience, a venue (and its staff), and a whole host of management, PR strategists, and other record company employees all not wanting to be disappointed – either by the quality of the show, or by the cancellation and its effects; it is hard to come up with a definite conclusion to what will always be an issue in music performance.
Dave Grohl’s ‘throne’ seems a great example of how, with time for consideration, a negative can even be turned in to a unique sort of positive. In this same way, in the case of a longer-term illness, I’m sure with time Placebo would have been able to create unique versions of their back catalogue which would have delighted any audience, but artists don’t always have that time, nor control over all decisions.
When acts and management are forced in to late decisions, there’s rarely a ‘right’ one that can be made. However, having been on the receiving end of a variety of decisions; I believe that the performance quality of a professional act should never be compromised (after all, it’s harmful for all parties), and if postponement is a viable option then it should always be taken when this is the case.
Although, as fans, we ideologically keep art and commerce entirely separate, by purchasing concert tickets we enter in to an agreement with acts and we expect the best. Thus, where money can be even partially refunded, it must clearly go some way to making up for fan disappointment, and sometimes it may be appropriate even where a gig can still take place.
Either way, with ticket prices inflating year on year, it’s more important than ever to keep the emotions and needs of fans at the heart of the music events industry, and for any fan nothing should tick those boxes more than a quality performance.