Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Suede : A Musical Obsession.

If you have ever found yourself under the mesmerising spell of an artist or band; caught in a limbo world where no other music but that of said musicians is of any interest to you, where you can think of no better way to spend your time than pouring through as many interviews and trivia bites as you can feast your eyes on, flicking through youtube videos and absorbing all such information with as much ease as a newly purchased sponge, then I look to you for understanding and empathy; as this is exactly how I feel about Suede right now.

It hits you almost like a fever; unexpected and unexplainable in its approach, you just wake up one day and find that it has wrapped its merciless fingers around your whole body, and there is little you can do but ride the wave to its natural conclusion. As an obsessive with an obsession for music, this is a pattern that I have dealt with on several occasions before, however there is no telling for how long I will be inflicted with a disease which has seen my requirements for oxygen usurped by the need to hear Dog Man Star on indefinite repeat.

Anyone who has ridden the musical fixation rollercoaster can tell you that, despite its ability to overrule all rational thought, and overspill into various aspects of your life – it is not an unpleasant experience; in fact it is an absolutely fantastic feeling, of which every second is rich with appreciation. Music never sounds as good as when you are in the throes of irrational obsession, and you can wave goodbye to any difficult decisions regarding what to listen to on your ipod, or indeed; what to write about on your blog.

Perhaps at this point I should address the band over which I am so shamelessly gushing, and in doing so, acknowledge how unlikely and random a candidate they really are, however I struggle to know where to begin with Suede. Victims of a bizarre and unjust turn of events, whereby they were seemingly ousted from the Britpop movement for not complying to the laddish, boozing, fake-working-class checklist, despite the fact that they themselves kick-started the subgenre, but in turn expressed no desire to be associated with what it went on to embody. The hype surrounding Suede’s emergence in 1992 was truly extensive, with Melody Maker proudly adorning their front cover with the words “Suede: the best new band in Britain” and the following year, the Brit Awards shuffled around their schedule in order to afford them a last-minute slot at the ceremony as a direct response to pressures from the music press – all before an album had even been released. With so much hype surrounding them, it would have been easy to disappoint or fall victim to overzealous critics, however their first self-titled album was an enormous critical and commercial success subsequently earning them a Mercury Music Prize in 1993, and then leading on to record – what I believe to be their true masterpiece – Dog Man Star in 1994. Despite a string of increasingly commercially successful albums throughout the 1990s before disbanding in 2003, Suede are rarely remembered and seldom played in 2011. This is a great shame, as they are truly brilliant and arguably the best and most interesting band of the 1990s – an achievement for which I hold their astoundingly fascinating frontman mainly accountable.

One look at Brett Anderson’s erotically charged, androgynous stage persona will quickly answer questions regarding why they didn’t fit in well with the overtly laddish overtones of peers such as Liam Gallagher and Damon Alburn. Incredibly charismatic and instantly fascinating, Anderson can be seen strutting the stage with a stereotypical feminine haircut, big silver hoops through his ears and a black lace top tied loosely around his slim and hairless torso, singing lines such as 'I want the style of a woman, the kiss of a man'; he certainly cuts a striking and controversial image. However, this is most effective due to the way in which Anderson conducts his androgyny; with such self-assurance and masculine gusto, proudly stalking the stage in the knowledge that he is twice the man that any jean-wearing guy swigging beer at a football match could ever be. It is no wonder that he managed to ruffle a few feathers in a time where shell-suits reigned supreme, and American grunge was topping the charts. While Suede’s absence from the common consciousness of today is a shame in part, I am not sorry that their songs haven’t received The Universal or Wonderwall treatment, and that their music can be enjoyed without being tarnished by advertising campaigns or being strummed by incompetent guitar players in parks and festivals across the country.

I would recommend the album Dog Man Star to anyone, as it really is a five-star album that can be enjoyed perfectly from start to finish. While Suede may not have been flying the flag for British optimism, Anderson’s observations of suburbia are accurate and representative of a generation who came of age during the perilous 1980s, delivered via his impressive and instantly recognisable vocals. Introducing The Band, New Generation and Black or Blue are particularly good at summing up the feelings of British disillusionment that Britpop was soon to gloss over with the resounding opening chords of Blur’s Parklife.

So I will continue to ride out my obsession with all things Suede and Brett Anderson, even to the extent of finding myself shaving the hair on the right side of my head in an attempt to adopt some of the latter into some visual aspects of my life, as well as having him provide the audio soundtrack to my every move. Their performance of Animal Nitrate at the Brit Awards in 1993 is one that I keep going back to, and something that I suggest you check out if you are at all interested in what it is that has sparked such infatuation with the band and their music. I have included it below, but be warned; musical obsession is contagious. 

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Style & Substance : Do Our Rock Stars Need Both?

Having been together - in one version or another - for over twenty eight years, and in that time selling over 70 million albums, it would be unfair and wrong to argue that an artist or band is unable to fully ascend into the realm of mega-stardom without having a strong, stylish and easily recognisable image to accompany their musical talent; as the Red Hot Chili Peppers demonstrate perfectly. Sure, you can’t hear the thundering rhythm of Flea’s bass, Anthony Kiedis’s punching vocals or the screams of [now ex-guitarist] John Frusciante’s emotionally charged guitar through a poster, but this hasn’t stopped millions of fans across the world from hanging their stylistically challenged funk-rock heroes proudly on their bedroom wall.

Such facts and figures go a long way to proving that appearance really isn’t everything in this image obsessed world of ours - which is obviously a wonderful thing - however as a harmless observation, it is amusing to note that the Red Hot Chili’s uncomplimentary mish-mash of style has seemingly passed under the radar (but just as tellingly; nor has it spawned an army of clones among their vast fan base).

I was reminded of their aesthetic downfall recently when watching the music video for the song Dani California, the concept of which is actually very entertaining – or would be – were it not for the fact it serves only to highlight their own shortfalls. The video itself is a nod to the evolution of rock music; the band is performing the single on a stage while embodying a variety of iconic images which represent important figures or eras in the history of rock music. Recognisable characters include David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Rotten, The Misfits and The Beatles; each being easily recognisable due to their association with a powerful image which instantly triggers recollection of the person or band without need for a musical accompaniment. In creating a video of this nature, the Red Hot Chili Peppers chose to draw all the focus onto the one thing that they themselves do not possess; a strong and recognisable image, or indeed any style at all. This becomes most apparent at the conclusion of the video, when the bold and striking adopted facades of previous icons are stripped away, leaving the band looking as lost and unidentifiable in their own clothes as attendees of a year 7 non-uniform day.

While they are clearly all fascinating and hugely talented people with extraordinary life experiences behind them – as a read of Anthony Kiedis’s autobiography Scar Tissue will confirm – I find it is hard to fully give oneself over to a band whose forty-nine year old singer scales the stage in black fingerless gloves adorned with safety pins, while his huge muscular, tattooed bulk of a torso fights its way out of red cut-off combat trousers. To his left can be found the man-boy that is Flea, often seen in a full-body skeleton outfit, as if to throw their collective appearance off kilter and confuse even further. On drums, we have Mr America, aka Chad Smith – looking like the spitting image of Will Ferrell and usually dressed in a sleeveless blue denim boiler suit, complete with baseball cap and a motorcycle loving, basketball supporting, can-we-just-finish-the-show-so-I-can-grab-a-beer-and-some-nuts demeanour. Then to come round in full circle, on stage left [no longer] stands John Frusciante – easily the coolest member of the group in terms of effortless style, he embodied a casual grunge fan’s aesthetic, often with long unkept hair and chequered shirts. His look could have worked well, were it not for the bizarre contrast it created between him and his bandmates.

Taking such deficits into account, it is really not surprising that in their youth the Red Hot Chili Peppers often used to take to the stage naked (or wearing a singular gym sock to hide their dignity), as at least this would provide a more collective image and remove any confusion regarding their abomination of styles.

The relationship between style and substance has been a recurring theme throughout the history of rock music. While some bands or artists effortlessly strut the tightrope, maintaining just the right level of each and in such a way that it comes across as the most natural thing in the world, others seem to struggle with their balance – occasionally over compensating in style and subsequently placing their musical output in second place. I wish to raise American rock band KISS as exhibit 'a' in this argument. Perhaps the only band whose likeness could be recognised world over, but in 99% of cases, not a single song from their twenty studio album back catalogue can be recounted. A serious case of style over substance certainly, and I’m using style in the loosest possible sense of the word. The New York Dolls are perhaps another band which falls firmly into this category. While their musical style may have paved the way for the punk invasion, (a movement born from the very notion that having something to say against the establishment was far more important than any musical ability) their main achievement was successfully setting the visual trend for new wave and glam metal which would take the music world by storm ten years later in the 1980s, when everyone would be attempting to imitate their flamboyant clothes and pretty-boy, androgynous appearance.


Throughout the history of music, we have seen many different struggles and various outcomes in the battle for style and substance. There are even bands that have held both in the palm of their hand for a time, for example; Kings of Leon. Having emerged in 1999 with a rugged, mysterious and intriguing appearance and an easily recognisable, individual sound to boot, within ten years they had sold out on both; their closely-shaven generic faces producing even more generic music to be played on repeat within every generic bar and club the world over. A sad thing to witness from a band that initially had such a buzz of promise and excitement surrounding them. Another potential outcome to be aware of; and one that should be avoided at all costs, is that one’s look could go a little too far into the realm of individual style and join the ranks of Cher, Freddie Mercury, Elvis and Slash in becoming a gimmick; the subject of countless poor fancy-dress attempts and tribute acts in a bizarre and surreal turn of events which must be akin to watching what was once your own style, growing it’s own legs and running off to join the circus. It is arguable as to whether this is better or worse than having no style at all – Travis, Stereophonics, Elbow; I’m looking at you.

In making such observations, I am not pushing for a music industry that is more centred around style and vanity than it already is – as indeed, these things cannot be forced anyway. I also wish to highlight that in talking about style, I am by no means referring to physical appearance, as this is a different kettle of fish all together and particularly irrelevant in the musical sphere where talent and charisma can transform anyone into the most sexually enthralling person in the world. I’m talking about a general aura of style and cool that some people are bestowed with, and others unexplainably lack. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a fine example of a band which hasn’t needed four incredibly cool members in order to propel them forth, as their music has done that for them. But it is worth questioning whether artists that possess both style and substance have more power at their finger tips, and will have more to say in the bigger picture of musical history. For example, at the mention of The Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker and Annie Lennox, one’s head is not only filled with a compilation of incredible songs and the sound of their respective voices, but a visual representation is also conjured, and when done properly – like in the cases of those mentioned above – the line between their visual and musical legacies become blurred due to their impact on so many aspects of our culture.

While a band or artist will always have music as its legacy - and rightly so - there is definitely the potential to excel further and add another dimension to the music and output as a whole. In an era where manufactured music is everywhere, one can take solace in the fact that what I talk about is something you are either born with or you are not, so there will always be a place for those with both talent and style in the music industry. In the present day we can thank the likes of Kasabian, Pete Doherty, Florence Welch and The Kills for continuing this trend.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Shortcomings of the High-Budget Music Video.

  • Guns N’ Roses – November Rain
  • Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger
  • Meat Loaf – I Would Do Anything For Love
  • 30 Seconds To Mars – From Yesterday

Being sung from the mouth of their owner’s gigantic ego is not the only thing that these four songs have in common, however that is not to say that these singers’ beliefs of high self-worth are unrelated to the similarity that I wish to draw: they have each fallen victim to the high-budget-music-video trap. A trend which is easily recognisable, most frequently rearing its ugly head once said performer has managed to make a few million for their record label and has thus come to the ‘realisation’ that what their fans really want now – regardless of the direction that has previously proved popular – is to see their idols dressed in outrageous costumes, acting out an absurd and nonsensical chain of events and generally letting their musical success lead them to believe that they now deserve a place in a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster. Well, they don’t, and nor do I wish to see them conducting this embarrassing, self-indulgent dance across my visual senses.

Perhaps just more evidence in the argument that all one achieves when giving genuinely talented musicians copious amounts of money as soon as they achieve mainstream success is to extinguish their ambition and talent like piss on a bonfire. No longer able to relate to those people who championed their success; it must be hard to write about people of the streets from a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons. All one needs do is observe the incomprehensible transition that occurred to Axl Rose between the making of the music video for Paradise City and Don’t Cry, the former being one of the greatest live action music videos ever made, and the latter perfectly illustrating the singer’s descent into self-obsessed ‘Guns N’ Roses fans would love to watch me argue with my supermodel girlfriend in my Malibu mansion whilst battling serious emotional issues’ territory.

Without delving further into the extent to which success is the enemy of genius and ambition, I would like to swing back to what I wish to talk about today: the simplistic beauty of the music video. I think that perhaps the most important thing to remember if you’re in a band that has just achieved a high level of success, is that your appeal is (probably) due to the music and is not dependant on its visual accompaniment. I began to consider this point the other day when pondering which music videos I would deem to be favourites, or the most effective and enjoyable to watch. In doing so, I discovered that not a single one of the multi-million dollar productions even got a look in, and in fact, it was all about low-budget live action music videos; footage of musicians doing what they do best – playing music and looking fucking cool.

Should you need to see an example of what I mean by this, I would suggest you check out either Oasis – Rock n’ Roll Star, She Bangs The Drums by The Stone Roses, Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 or The Libertines – Can’t Stand Me Now. Each of which offers a fine illustration of a music video not detracting from the song itself, but instead managing to capture the energy and original sentiments of the song and presenting it in a very direct and powerful way; working as an aid to the audio instead of a distraction. This all draws back to the basic fact that if something is genuinely good; it does not need to cower behind layers of fakery, smoke and mirrors. 

When the concept of the ‘song film’ was initially founded, its intentions were to provide viewers of music television programmes such as Top of the Pops with footage to watch in the event of the band or musicians being unable to appear live in the studio due to touring commitments. Very simplistic, low-budget and often rushed at the last minute, the charm of these early promotional videos is perhaps why the more unpretentious efforts still hold more appeal today, but also because they reveal more of the artists than any multi-million dollar production ever could. A prime example of the absolute genius of a simple, iconic and original music video is that of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues – one of the first videos ever made, and in spite of all the technological advancements that are apparently now used ‘to our advantage’ to further viewing pleasure, still by far one of the best.

Another great aspect to the live action music video is that it offers people who haven't had the chance to witness a particular band or performer play live, the opportunity to witness how great a performance they can really put on. Not only that, but it allows for every exciting and exhilarating moment of a two hour set, or even a twelve month long tour, to be bottled and contained down into a four minute clip – thus making the whole thing look more awesome than it even did for those who were there in person (aside from the live experience itself of course). And for this reason, I was arguing the point just yesterday that what I would love to see from Patrick Wolf’s next music video release is a live action creation. As one of the best, most charismatic and talented live performers I have ever had the pleasure of watching, people who would never make the effort to actually go and see him live are missing out on the wonder that is Patrick Wolf as a live spectacle. Perhaps a live action video is what he really needs in order for people to finally open their eyes to his unbelievable talents.

Now, I am not saying it wouldn’t be incredibly dull if every music video merely documented live performance, however I am definitely fighting the corner for more low-budget ventures; portrayals of these musicians as human beings, going about their business and subsequently coming across in a much more accessible and endearing light, as opposed to the far removed concepts of the Lady Gaga music video realm. Then again, it could be that pretentious, costly music videos are actually so popular due to their ability to substitute for and disguise a lack of talent that would otherwise be exposed if their subjects were laid bare on a simple film with nothing but their charisma (or lack of) to sell them to the public. In which case, we’ll leave the Hollywood-esque productions to those who need it (or are passed the point of caring), and in the meantime enjoy the simplistic beauty and connection we can achieve with those musicians who do not need to hide behind million dollar budgets in order to convince us that they are talented.

Here is a brilliant example of stripped-down music video genius put into action, before money and success overrode their simple yet winning formula. The aforementioned Paradise City by Guns N’ Roses:

Monday, 7 November 2011

A Cover Speaks A Thousand Words.

Well, we're big rock singers
We've got golden fingers
And we're loved everywhere we go.
We sing about beauty and we sing about truth
For ten-thousand dollars a show.
We take all kinds of pills that give us all kind of thrills
But the thrill we've never known,
Is the thrill that'll get ya when you get your picture
On the cover of the Rolling Stone.

From the humble beginnings of Rolling Stone magazine back in November 1967, right until the present day, making the cover has been considered one of the biggest honours one could be bestowed with in the music industry. Widely respected as ‘the most influential magazine in pop culture’, having your face emblazoned across its prestigious shell is a sign of widespread success, and often occurs at a time when a band or artist is riding the crest of an extremely powerful tidal wave which is about to impact mainstream culture like a tsunami upon the shore.

For several years now, it has been a bit of a habit of mine to check out the latest cover, or indeed spend much time absorbing all the wonderful photographs and articles that can be found on the Rolling Stone website, discussing a range of areas from music to politics, films and reviews. However, I was somewhat disheartened and disgusted when in March this year, from the very same platform that we have seen the likes of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and David Bowie redefining the music industry itself with their unfathomable cool and all-encompassing charisma which refuses to be restrained even by a two-dimensional image, there was to be found an undeserved, young and sickly sweet image of Justin Bieber.

A leather jacket slung around his shoulders, the tag line being “Justin Bieber talks sex, politics, abortion and of course, music”, it must be said that this whole affair did make me feel rather nauseous. How could the wonderful people at Rolling Stone possibly undermine the prestigious honour that has, for so long, been the benchmark of success and the epitome of ‘cool’? The sad fact being that Rolling Stone pride themselves on being there to acknowledge and present what is happening at a particular moment in time, and therefore, in March 2011, they adorned their glossy skin with the concept that is ‘Justin Bieber’ and subsequently disrespected everyone with an ounce of talent who has ever appeared before him.

At times like this, all one can do is take quiet satisfaction from the fact that previous Rolling Stone employee and crusader for a no-bullshit music press; Lester Bangs, was never alive to see this happen. Oh, and that Hunter S. Thompson put that gun to his head at just the right time.

Here are some of my favourite covers from the past forty (or so) years :

My Zimbio