A Letter from London – Number 1

What is it they say about weddings?  Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

What is it they say about weddings?  Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.


What is it they say about weddings?  Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.


Looking back, nothing sums this summer’s music scene up better.   On the one hand, it has been a time when the establishment strikes back.  Comeback seems to have been the word on everyone’s lips. Turn any corner in London and there’s another artist well past the first flush of youth stealing all of the headlines.  It started earlier in the year with Kraftwerk, surfed on through Brian Wilson and kept going via The Cure, Morrissey, Beastie Boys and The Pixies.


Not to be out done Paul McCartney and Oasis took centre stage at Glastonbury.  Established acts are also set to dominate this autumn’s schedule with returns planned from U2, REM, The Prodigy, Ian Brown, Bjork and Nick Cave amongst others.


But like schoolboys starting at the big school or players waiting to break into the first team, there’s also been a crop of newcomers waiting to eat at the grown-up’s table.  Franz Ferdinand are probably already earmarked to be Head Boys but elsewhere indie’s something news have been kicking against the old guard with acclaimed contributions from Razorlight, The Delays, Keane, Hope of the States, Kasabian, Futureheads, Scissor Sisters – the list goes on.   


A friend of mine told me that some people might consider this a golden age for new music.


I’m not so sure.  Keane seem like the type of band who Coldplay would bully into changing their soiled sheets. The Razorlight album was okay – could do with a bit more razor and a little less light for me.  But on the plus side we have FF, Scissor Sisters, TV on the Radio and Pink Grease looking promising.  The Futureheads’ album is definitely worth a go, if a post-punk homage is your thing.


It’s not their fault, but like Wayne Rooney, any band showing more than a modicum of talent and promise is instantly elevated to the top of the class with epitaphs such as the "the saviours of indie" and "a Joy Division for the 21st Century etc" ringing in their ears.   Pressure is heaped onto the new boys which can be handled for the first album – usually because a new band will have enough material for one record before they get to that stage.


But then it gets difficult.  Bands dubbed most likely to succeed start to wilt with the hype.  Part of me thinks this is because music is now everywhere.  Albums that were all but impossible to find a few years ago are now available in Fopp for a fiver or easy to track down on EBay or other sites.


Indie is covered freely in magazines, tabloids and broadsheets alike.  The Daily Mail even actually gave the new Prodigy album a rave review. Kasabian just had a top ten hit – charting is something now common for an alternative band.  There used to be two distinct charts – a Pop Chart and an Indie Chart, and they didn’t cross over very often, if at all.


Not so many years ago, being into independentmusic meant shopping in one likeminded record shop, buying records by mail order and swapping with friends. Take the Beastie Boys, I hunted high and low for Licensed to Ill when it first came out – now I can buy their albums in Tesco, along with Razorlight, The Streets and Modest Mouse.   Tunes which would have been difficult to hear anywhere outside of the John Peel show now turn up on car or mobile phone advertisements.   Whole channels on Sky, XFM on the radio, alternative bands on Radio 1 playlists, file swapping and burning CDs at home – access has never been greater.


One the one hand, this is of course a positive thing but like everything I wonder if there is a flipside.  Bands come and go, that’s the nature of pop but now cynical consumers are willing to drop new bands like a stone because they can, really.  The sheer volume of albums to buy or gigs to attend is over whelming.


Are we becoming a cosseted MTV generation switching CDs or IPod tracks as we would channel surf our wide screen TV?  We stand with arms folded saying "impress me" and if it doesn’t immediately we’re onto the next thing.    New bands are signed and dropped with little room for error or experimentation.


I wonder if this will be to the longer term detriment of a new band’s development. Most bands produce better albums with experience (Radiohead, White Stripes and Super Furry Animals included).  In the 1960s, bands could grow over the course of a series of albums, (admittedly only as long as they continued to churn out hit singles.) Few 60s albums now regarded as classics were debuts – Hendrix and the Velvet Underground are the only ones that spring to mind.


Now if an album isn’t an instant success, the band gets a hard time.  Maybe the decline in indie labels is playing a part – majors and their subsidiaries won’t invest in product which doesn’t look like paying back in the short term, especially in a climate of falling sales and the threat of PC piracy.  The pressure to sell is well and truly on.


As with most things, it’s the people in the middle I feel sorry for.  Not comforted by back catalogue sales and stadium attending fans like established artists nor yet by the enthusiasm of having newly cashed advance cheques and the world at your feet like the newcomers, it’s the bands looking down the barrel of their second album who feel the squeeze.  Difficult second albums are looming for the class of 2003: The Thrills, Kings of Leon, Interpol and The Music included. Poor sales could spell the beginning of the end or just raise the stakes for the next CD.


Let’s just hope they have been studying hard to avoid the mistakes made earlier this year by The Strokes, The Vines and BRMC.  Will any of them manage to pull of that rare thing a second album which can be commercially successful and yet critically acclaimed for trying something new, not just repeating the format of the first one?


Who will win the battle of the ages when we get the shake-out of the best albums of 2004?  The senior pros, the young pretenders or the second timers?  Will the class of 2004 be facing difficult second album choices next year?  Music, it’s a funny old game.



Something borrowed leads nicely onto The Libertines – they’re never going to win any prizes for originality but should that be held against them?  One thing I didn’t manage to do this summer was go and check out the much hyped Libertines photographic exhibition which ran at Camden’s Proud Gallery.  Featuring 150 unseen photos of the band, the show was given acres of column inches and a casual observer could have been fooled into thinking it was one of this summer’s musical must-sees.


But read to the bottom and check the small print – it only actually ran for two days. If your floppy fringe had been blown over your eyes, you would have missed it.  It must have taken them longer to frame and hang the pictures.  I could say something sarcastic here about fur coat and no knickers and that being a metaphor for the entire band, but actually I’m rooting for them to deliver on everything they have been promising.


Keepers of a fine English musical tradition started by The Kinks et al or an East End covers band who should be headlining at the Winchester Club?  For me the Libertines jury is still out, but I can’t deny that their hearts are in the right place – they seem passionate about what they do, they play gigs to benefit anti-Nazi causes, they are Smiths fans signed to Rough Trade.  They have teamed up with Mick Jones and display a great sense of England and all things English (which will probably hinder them if they ever try to break the States).  There are so many boxes to tick, but at the back of mind I keep coming back to:  in the long run will they justify all of the hype?


A media volcano has erupted with the second album imminent- something barely unbelievable for a band whose first album apparently managed a modest 150,000 copies (Franz Ferdinand’s has sold 1.5 million). It wasn’t a bad album but nothing earth shattering really.  I saw them live and felt a little underwhelmed.  Even the Independent, a publication which trades on its reputation for fairness, concluded they were "at best a commercially marginal outfit". 


I would expect NME to hype them to death – they do it more often that they should, let alone to a band on their own doorstop who gives them a chance to drink and snort in work time, get a taxi back to the office and claim it all on expenses.  Like The Strokes but without the jetlag.  But what about everyone else?  I’ll give you a quote from Metro as a for instance:  "…if they manage to survive, (The Libertines) may change the face of modern rock’n’roll."   But will they?  Skinny indie boys with a couple of good tunes under their belt – yes.  Changing the face of rock’n’roll – now that is a tall order.  Arguably, Radiohead are the only British band to do this in recent times.


Libertine by name and Libertine by nature and all that, but I kind of like Pete Doherty.  Adult shambles doesn’t seem to him justice but I hope he pulls it together.  Apart from anything else, he is from my home town of Nuneaton making him a home boy with such luminaries as Ken Loach, Mary Whitehouse and Larry Grayson.  Disgracefully the council won’t erect a statue of Larry, saying they don’t want the town to become a gay Mecca – but that’s another story.  Perhaps they’ll sanction a memorial to our Pete instead, but don’t hold your breath.


I can’t help thinking that the plain truth is that the real reason there is some much fuss is that in a vacuum of interesting rock stars, the Libertines stand out as the most eye-catching band of the moment. Now that the Gallaghers have settled down, the papers need some proper rock stars getting up to some proper rock and roll antics. Who would you rather write about, a band who look like they are constantly facing a spectacular Class A fuelled meltdown or Keane? 



Anyway, something blue – I’m going to be honest I couldn’t think of a blue angle.   Except for the new album from the Blue Nile, but I’ve a feeling you would feel short-changed if I offered you that.


How about something brown instead, with a contender for the funniest rock story of the summer.     Never mind that they are massive in the US, but practically unknown anywhere else.  A boat party of more than 100 people enjoying an architecture trip in Chicago were more than a little surprised to find themselves covered in more than 800lbs of human waste which was alleged discharged from the Dave Matthews Band tour bus on a bridge above.


Unsurprisingly the band is said to be facing a $70,000 lawsuit from the state of Illinois for violating state environmental laws.  Ironically they also have a song called Don’t Drink the Water. Of course we would love Dave Matthews to say it is a faecal matter and is in the hands of his lawyers. Or to read that the boat captain told his passengers over a loud speaker to stay away from the brown acid.


It also begs the question when can we start suing bands for dumping shit on us?  Boy, are the Darkness’ lawyers going to be busy…