Soft Targets

In which The Author loses the last of his street cred

You’re probably already laughing at the idea that I had any street cred left to lose, but I’m not the only person in this predicament. Let me explain…
Although I’m not a musician, I’ve spent a long time on the periphery of the music scene in Aberdare. I think it’s fair to say that I know most of the band members of around my own age, and quite a few of the younger ones as well. I also think I’ve got fairly eclectic tastes in music, from 1940s Swing, right through to the outer limits of Industrial noise, and pretty much all points in between.
Therefore, as I’ve outlined in several previous entries (most notably Pick’n'(Re)Mix, I’ve never really identified myself with any one of the many subcultures which have come and gone (or evolved into something else) over the past three decades or so. How the hell could I? I don’t imagine there were many other fans of The Ink Spots watching SPK in the Camden Palace, thirty years ago last week.
Naturally, when we were younger we tended to take this sort of thing pretty seriously, even though most of the dividing lines seemed to be fairly arbitrary and illogical. In school, we’d mercilessly take the piss out of anyone who admitted liking New Romantic bands like Culture Club, Duran Duran or ABC. However, for some unexplicable reason, New Romantic bands like The Human League and Ultravox were considered kinda cool, in spite of having massive chart success themselves. By way of contrast, the Rock/Metal crowd would never dream of listening to any band who dared to use a synthesiser – apart from Queen, Deep Purple, Van Halen…
Do you see what I mean?
For my part, I realised a long time ago that these matters were determined by a small number of self-appointed ‘experts.’ These arbiters would deliver their pronouncements through the pages of the NME and Melody Maker with something approaching papal infallibility.
Meanwhile, their eager supplicants would soak up these critical judgements and regurgitate them, parrot-fashion, to anyone who would listen. Thus, when I acquired Soft Machine’s final studio LP The Land of Cockayne, in about 1983, it was dismissed as ‘jazz-rock’ (or, worse still, ‘fusion’) by one of the boys who was in a band, and therefore qualified to pass sentence on such things. (At the time, I failed to comment on the irony of the same person’s ownership of an LP by Weather Report – the acceptable face of ‘fusion’.)
Three decades on, I’ve observed that the same mentality holds sway among a large percentage of my musician friends. Let’s be clear on one thing: when I say ‘musicians’ (with a few very notable exceptions) I’m not talking about world-class virtuoso performers by any stretch of the imagination. Of all the people I’ve seen playing in backstreet pubs and local ‘festivals’ during their formative years, only three of them subsequently carved out a career at the pinnacle of British rock music.

Tragic photo

The last time I saw Tragic Love Company was outside The Globe in Cwmaman, many years ago. I don’t think any of us (in the audience or in the band) imagined that one day, minus a guitarist and under a new name, they’d be opening for The Who. Yet fate took a hand and Stereophonics became huge.
Several other bands I’ve known have released their own material, of course, but none have come anywhere close to matching Kelly Jones and Co in terms of commercial success. It could be (and has been) argued that many of the second-division bands are far superior musicians – but if technical ability counted for anything, the charts would be topped by the likes of Allan Holdsworth, not Nicki Minaj and her ilk.
I’ve seen performers of staggering ability and talent passed over time and time again in favour of younger, trendier and more marketable (i.e. malleable) one-hit wonders. Even so, they’ll probably carry on gigging in backstreet pubs until they’re well into their sixties – just like their parents have. Most musicians are like that; they’ve just got to keep on playing, or they’ll go mad with boredom.
The rest of the also-rans ply their trade in the struggling venues of South Wales, mainly playing to their mates and a few curious locals, putting out the odd track as a download every now and again. They’re semi-pro at best – either holding down day jobs, or teaching music as a career – because if they had to live solely on their earnings from gigs, they’d very soon find themselves skint and starving.
Alternatively, they can choose to stay in the mind-numbing cover versions comfort zone of The Great Valleys Songbook, churning out the same predictable rock ‘classics’ to people of my age (and quite a bit older), many of whom have obviously never bought a record since leaving school. It’s the K-Tel Records School of Music, a handy second income for being little more than a walking jukebox.
And it’s usually these second division players, the ones who will never come within a country mile of hitting the Big Time, who direct their bile towards musical giants like Sting, Phil Collins, George Michael, Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel…
The list of people whom it’s fashionable to knock goes on and on. It seems to have been compiled by some divinity with Perfect Taste, channelled on tablets of stone by industry prophets like David Quantick and Mark Ellen, learned by rote by the has-beens and never-weres of the Valleys music scene who read the music press, and preached as gospel through social media.
The phenomenon I describe is as depressingly predictable as the Great Valleys Songbook itself. Someone will put a status on Facebook, condemning without reason the new release by (say) Morrissey, and a hundred other ‘music fans’ almost fight amongst themselves to be the first to ‘like’ it. However, should someone dare to utter a word against the sainted Kate Bush, or the latest NME-award-winning indie poster boys, all hell breaks loose. Now, just as thirty years ago, the media decide who’s ‘in’ and ‘out’ and the rest of the sheep follow blindly in their wake.
What I find alarming is the way that people of around my age, or even older, seem to be in the vanguard of this fashionable slating of top-flight artists. Surely, you might think, they’d have grown out of such petty tribalism after leaving school. Haven’t they realised yet that the subcultures they once held so precious were nothing more than constructs of the music industry’s marketing machine?
So, I’m putting my cards on the table. I enjoy listening to the music of many of the Aunt Sallies I’ve listed above. Not all of it, of course (‘The Frog Chorus’ was a step too far for even a musical genius), but I have to respect and admire what they’ve done over their long careers. After all, if someone is still making music which sells to a very large audience three, four, or even five decades after first breaking through, he or she must be doing something right.
Maybe the armchair critics should ask themselves why they have this knee-jerk reaction to the ‘uncool’ musicians who sell in millions every year. Why are they so desperately concerned with holding onto their street cred, when they’re pushing fifty and their kids are in bands of their own?
Could it be nothing more than ill-concealed sour grapes at the idea that Sting isn’t still plodding from backstreet pub to backstreet pub every weekend. Or that Morrissey isn’t condemned to forever revisit the music of his youth until he’s too old and infirm to carry on? Do they just resent that fact that some people have made it in the business, while (for whatever reason) they haven’t?
This simple jealousy would certainly explain a lot, wouldn’t it? I bet the thrill that Kelly got the first time he heard his song played on national radio never goes away. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to step out in front of a hundred thousand people and hear them all singing my songs back to me. It must be the biggest buzz in the world.
Then there are all the trappings that go with fame and fortune. I’m sure we’d all love to jet off to exotic locations to shoot a video, or hob-nob with movie stars and supermodels at exclusive parties. The fact that some people actually get to do these things shouldn’t draw down such vicious abuse on them. To me, it smacks of nothing more than envy, pure and simple.
If my musician friends think that billion-selling and successful stars will care one iota about a throwaway remark on Facebook, they’re very much mistaken. The only thing it demonstrates, sad to say, is that they haven’t yet grown out of the ‘yah boo sucks’ mentality of the average teenage pop fan.