With the penultimate year of the decade fast approaching, we are still awaiting a band/artist capable of defining the epoch. In the musical world at large, and certainly within the UK, no-one has been able to produce a consistent and durable body of work, nor effect genuine, lasting artistic influence on any social or cultural milieu you might care to specify.
Perhaps the last band of this kind was Radiohead. Indeed, it says much about the paucity of the present era that a band formed in the early nineties should continue to occupy this increasingly isolated position at the end of 2007.
Of course, there are considerable advantages to such fragmentation, and obvious problems with a ‘top-down’ music scene organised hierarchically around a handful of Great Bands. Moreover, in the history of popular music, the genre has at all times been sustained by one-off acts of brilliance just as much as it has been by long-term artistic achievements, by small collectives and individuals as well as by big-name heavyweights.
Nevertheless, it is an alarming fact that there do not seem to be any bands that appear likely to inspire the kind of widespread, longstanding devotion to a cause that accompanied the careers of the most notable bands of the last half-century. When we look back at the first decade of the century, will there be anyone at all to point to as an instance of what was both unquestionably important to us and representative of our time? You might be able to rattle off a string of apparently suitable candidates – The Strokes, Eminem, Destinys Child; Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys in the UK – but though these figures will undoubtedly evoke the era, they will surely not occupy (even allowing for the inevitable aggrandising force of nostalgia) the same relation as did the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, The Jam, The Clash, The Smiths, Michael Jackson, The Stone Roses, or even Oasis, to their respective epochs.
Taking British alternative music as a specific case in point, it might be reiterated that there has not appeared in the last decade anyone capable of challenging Radiohead’s position as the most artistically important band in the country, a band whose work is simultaneously reflective of its time and able to appeal meaningfully to a substantial fanbase both within the UK and abroad.
Why is this the case? As the above list of bands makes plain, since its inception in the late seventies British independent music has suffered no shortage of hugely influential, era-defining bands. Alongside The Clash, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Radiohead, you could place The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, Joy Division/New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Happy Mondays, Blur, Pulp – the sequence stops abruptly with Radiohead. Why do we not have a similar list for the first decade of the twenty-first century?
Part of the problem lies paradoxically with the rapid growth in popularity of independent music in the UK since Britpop. Put simply, and partly as a consequence of the political climate initiated by the New Labour landslide of 1997, we have witnessed the large scale disappearance of significant minorities in our country, at exactly the same time as an insignificant majority has come to dominate our cultural and political life. In the world of alternative music, the effects of this can be felt in that we now have a series of bands who mean a little to a great number of people, and very few who mean a lot to the kind of sparsely populated small-scale communities that provide the conditions necessary for a band to evolve successfully.
Clearly, great bands do not arise out of snobbish bohemian coteries, the members of which can be counted on the fingers of one hand. However, one of the factors underlying the extraordinary fertility of British independent music throughout the eighties and nineties was its ability to achieve exactly the right balance of populism and exclusivity. Bands like The Smiths and The Stone Roses could rely on sizable and devoted communities of admirers in such a way that they were able both to sustain themselves financially and to develop artistically without the damaging effects of media scrutiny and industry hype. If The Smiths came out with ‘Hand in Glove’ today, it would go straight to number one, they would be touted by everyone from Elijah Wood to David Cameron, and Johnny Marr would soon develop a drug problem that would threaten the possibility of their second album ever seeing the light of day (I'm not trying to be facetious: this would happen. In fact, hasn't David Cameron claimed to be a Smiths fan? What is happening here!?).
The present climate is not one in which a significant minority (which in my mind is a term synonymous with the concept of a ‘great band’) is likely to flourish. Bands in the last ten years have either been too small to register or have been swallowed by an insignificant majority that seems to prevent any possibility of them attaining either real cultural influence or sustained creative development. In such a way, good bands that might in another era be capable of great things seem to peter out after an initial, wildly disproportionate deluge of interest. The Futureheads, whose fantastic first record fed into a second even more remarkable offering, only for their label to drop them because of lack of sales, represent an especially tragic instance of a pattern repeated elsewhere to differing outcomes in the narratives of Franz Ferdinand, The Libertines, The Strokes, and The Arctic Monkeys. All of the above have been or seem unlikely to survive for long past the frantic bursts of media attention that remove them from smaller-scale contexts in which they might be able to produce music of real worth for audiences that are worthy of the effort.