Wednesday, 20 July 2011

ENDGAME FOR A COUNTER CULTURE, FINAL FRAGMENT

Trees die and the dream remains

“… and then the tears brast out of his eyen …”, Malory, La Morte D’Arthur, Book XX.

 
“Amazing. Amazing. Really great stuff lads. But I’m not sure I quite understand the verse”.
The rehearsal is going terribly. The new tune we’re working on – our prospective next single – started life as a brilliant computer demo, but it’s now been reworked and mangled beyond all recognition, cramped with far too many indulgent ideas. Warring factions in the band tugged the tune in conflicting directions before we’d even got a performable version up and running (Me: “It sounds like a Michael Jackson pastiche for an American Apparel marketing campaign”; bassist Geoffrey: “That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”). After several tinnitus-inducing days of practice, we manage to jam something moderately fluid and cohesive into shape. But now the major label A&R who’s funding the single and the producer who's lined up to oversee the sessions have arrived to tell us what they think.
“Don’t get me wrong. I think I know what you mean in the verse. I’m just not sure other people will”, says Producer.
             “What do you mean you don’t know what we mean? And which other people anyway?”
            “Look,” pipes up our Manager, also in attendance. “We want something that’s going to create a real impact. The Zane Lowe people said the last single was ‘too frenetic’. They didn’t get it. So right now we really need something big-sounding. Something punchy. The chorus in this tune is fucking great, the best thing you’ve ever done. But perhaps the verse is a bit high-pitched and … wayward, if that’s the word?”
            It’s supposed to be wayward, I think to myself. That’s where we come from: beside the way.
            “Hmm,” says A&R guy, who is very young and frankly a bit slow and dim-witted. Someone told us that in the industry he’s known as Quietly Confident Joe, but to be honest, I think the industry has mistaken naivety and cluelessness for quiet confidence in this case. “It is a bit wayward,” says Joe, dimly. “The chorus is great, but can you rewrite the verse?”
            Lead-singer Danny looks crestfallen. For all that I think he’s brought this on himself by tirelessly chasing after the music biz seal of approval from day one, I can’t help but feel sorry for him. He’s being pulled so many different ways, with the result that there’s increasingly very little of him left. Because the whole venture has always been predicated on getting signed and pleasing the industry Big Other, he’s steadily lost his means of self-identification, and at the same time, most of his self-esteem.
            “You can rewrite the verse, can’t you Danny?”
            “Yeah okay. I’ll see what I can do over the next couple of days.”

***
In the summer that follows everything accelerates to the point that some sort of implosion becomes inevitable. The Zane Lowe people belatedly “get it”, and Zane himself begins to ladle on us the sort of manic, superbowl-announcer hype that is his stock in trade. From this point on a major deal is basically a formality. Even in a period of downturn for the industry, if you’re a half-interesting British band and you have a manager with a track record and the backing of the nation’s foremost radio DJ, sooner or later one of the big guns is going to have a punt. And when this happens, because A&Rs are precisely as lazy and sheep-like as the schoolbooks say, it’s just a case of sitting back and waiting for the bids to come in. Once someone gets it – it seems – so does everybody else, with miraculous simultaneity.
            So, as Manager keeps reminding us, after breaking through to radio and MTV2 territory, we hold all the cards. All we have to do is play the game wisely, put our feet right through festival season and we’ll have finally made it to “base camp” (OED: Base Camp, colloq. mus. ind. b/s, the record deal; the light at the end of the tunnel; a pot of gold used to lure gullible young musicians; the point at which all artistic and ethical compromises made in the run up to being signed magically vanish and a band is allowed to do what it wants with impunity).
            But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that this is not a game I have any interest in playing. For a long time I tried to justify being a part of what was obviously a thoroughly moribund indie scene by regarding it all as a sort of heroic challenge. We could, I thought, with a minimum of effort, be the most daring, articulate, politically engaged, vociferous band of the last 20 years, and upend the whole rotten musical landscape at the same time as we won people’s hearts with subversion, modernistic flair and dizzyingly eclectic pop skills. This might sound like blind idealism, but my theory was that not only would this have been the right thing to do, it would also have been successful. People are crying out for something radical and uncompromising. All we had to do, I thought, was have the courage to resist certain temptations, resist going down the obvious mainstream paths, try to create a way of existing outside a doomed music industry that seemed like it was in its death throes. We could have been the first band of a brave new epoch instead of the last one of an era of gentrified Glastonburys and wearisome corporate awards ceremonies, a band that survived in the long-term on the margins instead of in the short-term at the centre of an ephemeral middle-class leisure industry. But over time I’ve realised that no one else really feels this way. To put it baldly: Danny, the lead singer, in the grand tradition of lead singers across the ages, sees the band as his big chance to put his ego into the stratosphere; Geoffrey, the bassist, wants to be an indie pop star; and Jimmy, the drummer, just wants a steady, respectable job.
            Faced with this disconnect with the other band members, for a while I took refuge in a sort of romantic formalism. I posted an article on our myspace blog called “Why We Write Pop Songs”, in which I tried to pretend that the music was all that mattered, man, and that the outside world couldn’t harm us so long as we focused on the magic of sound alone:

When you strip away from pop music all the politics, the celebrity, the money, and the hyperbole, you are left with a series of magical moments of pure form, moments that ultimately resist analysis, and that have the potential to completely transform your life and make you feel like the world has been created all over again when you hear them.
            …
Pop music is not about fashion, or commercial compromise, the egotism of individuals or the surface world of urbane media types – it is about trying to salvage tiny transcendent spaces of beauty and meaning in a world that tries with all its might to impose upon us the fallacy that life is just so much shallow, meaningless, pleasure-seeking selfishness. We write pop songs because we think that creating those life-transforming musical moments when the sun appears to shine in the bedroom is one of the most hopeful, radical things a human being can do.

For all the truth in this, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cut out the peripheral stuff: the money and the hyperbole, the cultural context, the “surface world of urbane media types”. Of course I went into the whole adventure knowing that compromises along the way were inevitable, that not everyone is as left-wing or idealistic as I am, that being professional and pragmatic has its own kind of nobility, that funny little plans never work quite right. I knew the music scene in the UK was in the middle of some sort of epochal nadir and that we would face an uphill struggle trying to do something worthwhile. I knew alternative music wasn’t quite what it was when we first came to know it as teenagers, when there was still something faintly meaningful in the notion of a counter culture, when John Peel was still alive, and hip-hop and dance music thrived in underground national networks, and the NME was still worth reading in parts.
I knew things had become pretty bad. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer extremity of the situation. Gradually a vast, tragic realisation has dawned, and it has hit me like a death. Over the last couple of years, I’ve come to see that the remains of the counter culture – “indie music” in this case – now stand in complete antithesis to any original counter-cultural ethos. Not only that, but the simulacrum that now passes for alternative music is actually obviating the possibility of any new aberrant or oppositional culture developing. In short, being in a guitar band in the early-twenty-first century, I am not just a hamstrung, compromised part of the solution: I'm an integral part of the problem. I can see the way things are going. We’re becoming just another mildly prog-ish guitar band sustained by media hype and PR bullshit, the kind of Serious Artistic Proposition that gratifies the music industy’s vanity and enables it to pretend that something new is happening, while the really new development, the real democratic upsurge, is left to fall by the wayside. This is the exact opposite of what I wanted.
And yet even having finally reached this conclusion, despite all this I think I could still carry on battling if it was part of a team that at least vaguely agreed in the necessity of some sort of fight. I’ve known Danny and Jimmy since we were kids in the same remote part of Northumberland. We’ve shaped each other’s lives: shared musical tastes, first-time drugs experiences, got beaten up at school because of having long hair. My parents died when I was in my early twenties, and Danny and Jimmy were at both funerals. Surely that’s got to count for something? Surely some kind of family-feeling, some unshakeable spirit of fellowship can be the common purpose that binds us together, even if we have slightly different views about some things? Wouldn’t a sense of shared history and separateness be enough to see us through?
It would’ve been enough for me, but in the end the forces of self-interest and the machinations of capitalist realism manage to take even this away from us. Toward the end of the summer, we’re playing one of my tunes in rehearsal when drummer Jimmy, who rarely offers his opinion on anything, says that he doesn’t think it’s worth bothering with the tune.
            “It’s not that I don’t think it’s good. It’s great. I just don’t think it fits into the set.”
            “What ‘set’?" I say. "We decide the set. And anyway, our gigs are absurdly eclectic as it is. What the hell is all this for if we’re not able to do what we like?”
            “We can’t really do what we like though, can we?” chips in bassist Geoffrey. “We should be doing whatever is expected of us.”
            “Are you joking? What the fuck? What who expects of us?”
“I just don’t think we can take any risks with the set bearing in mind that we’re not signed yet”, says Jimmy, and I can feel tears welling in my eyes. People talk about negative solidarity, but this is something else: outside of people dying, the worst single moment of my life. How has our whole identity, our grounding in friendship, our shared past come to count for so little against impressing some imaginary industry figure? How has one of my best friends, someone from the same part of the country, the same school, the same lonely fucking village as me, come to put short-term professional gain before loyalty and a basic belief in ourselves as a unit? How have they managed this?

***
We always should have been a Newcastle band, so it’s appropriate that it should all end there. The morning after a surprisingly good gig at the Ouseburn, with lots of our friends from the north-east in attendance, the three of us – Danny, Jimmy, me – are sitting in the Centurion Bar at Newcastle Central Station. Geoffrey isn’t here because I didn’t invite him. He was from a different world, never really a part of the band I started and named with my best friends in the worst period of my life.
            It's the first day of September. The three of us are sitting sipping on cokes underneath the vaulted Victorian ceiling, a grand multi-coloured mosaic that reflects in winks and glimmers the rays of late-morning light coming in from the vast open station.
            “So why did you invite us here Al?”
            I start to read out loud from a single piece of A4 paper. I didn’t think I could do this without some kind of script, idiot that I am. I’d like to leave the band, and I’d like you to respect this as my absolute and final decision …

When I’m finished reading there’s really not much more to say. Jimmy pats me on the leg and says something feeble that makes me think how perfunctory and business-like he’s become about everything over the last few months. Danny isn’t saying anything. I need to catch my train back down to Oxford and my girlfriend, so I say my final goodbyes and head out to the platform.
            Before I’ve gotten too far Danny comes running after me. He’s weeping and he buries his head in my shoulder.
“I’m so sorry Al”.
“It’s okay. You’ve got nothing to be sorry about”.
“I love you”.
“I love you too”.
I shouldn’t have been so forgiving. Actually, there's a world of things for him to be sorry about. But then it’s probably right that, as the whole thing concludes in any meaningful sense, there should be one last, inviolate statement of loyalty, something of the original dream to hang on to in the months and years to come.


Endgame fragment 1.
Endgame fragment 2.

9 comments:

W. Kasper said...

I really hope these fragments are working towards a much longer piece. It's a 'world' I've only ever viewed from the outside looking in, but its reading as very vivid, familiar and true from what these posts so far. Great stuff.

BTW that NME cover says it all. I don't know how that mag continues anymore. Who the hell reads it?

Will said...

Agreed -- this is a great, harrowing piece of writing. I've had some mild experience with this type of situation (the equally mind-numbing U.S. version anyway) in the past year, and your take on the circumstances really resonates with me, thanks!

Alex Niven said...

Cheers Will glad it resonated, I'm aware a lot of this stuff is all too familiar to the point of cliche for many people, I just wasn't at one time aware that the cliches were so dead on.

Wayne - not sure about a longer piece. The decline of the NME is a story in itself isn't it? I've heard lots of otherwise sensible people try to apologise for it recently, saying stuff like "oh it had Ariel Pink in it last week" etc, but one of the things I think most profoundly is that it needs to be gotten rid of before anything good can start happening again. It still governs the musical landscape in all kinds of pernicious ways, lame as it is. It's probably gonna go out of business anyway very soon so I guess it's just a case of waiting.

W. Kasper said...

Well I keep hearing Ariel Pink in trendier bars now he's 'official', when four years ago similar people were telling me it was just disgusting ketamine dirge. Bloody hipsters -always waiting for the corporate green light!

Alex Niven said...

I just don't get it, though I haven't really explored the early stuff. And hypnagogic pop/hauntology in general for that matter (though I can see that hauntology is useful as a term of critical diagnosis, it's hardly a cause to get excited about is it?).

I did like Destroyer's "Kaputt" from earlier this year, which seemed to actually fulfill all the claims people were making for "Round and Round" (and managed to smuggle in an NME lament to boot!).

W. Kasper said...

Pink's 'early funny ones' are defo better than the last album (great on Ketamine too). He now has the effect of hearing Robert Johnson digitally cleaned up - some 'mystique' is lost.

Alex Niven said...

Ah right. I'm definitely willing to be swayed. Where's the best place to start?

W. Kasper said...

'Worn Copy' I'd say, but it's certainly an aquired taste, and a lot of his stuff can grate (his singing mainly). But that album does a have a striking foreboding/retro balance to it.

Tom May said...

"The Doldrums" is a fine album, I'd maybe even agree with Simon Reynolds that it is one of the best of the decade. 'For Kate I Wait' seems to channel Bronte's Heathcliff.