A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Lies

Music Photography – two words that, logically speaking, have no right to such a close and easy association.

The “band photo” is a subject I find very interesting. Debt Records gets sent a lot of press packs (and I go through them all with great interest) but, despite the technological revolution that makes it child’s play for any band to spam whoever they like, one thing hasn’t changed: The Press Shot. It’s the first thing you see when you click the band’s web link – before the myspace player groans into motion, before the trumped up list of fictional reviews appears – the band photo is the porch doormat that should hopefully read “Welcome” but generally just says “Please Wipe Your Feet”.

You know the kind of picture I mean, it typically features four or five white guys in their early twenties looking inexplicably miserable.

This is The Derelicts, a rock band I played in years ago (I’m on the right, wearing the cap and squinting into the middle distance). We had so much going for us but this photo fails to capture any of it. The group contained four song-writers, a wealth of musical talent with manifold influences, the live shows were awesome and along the way we attracted the attention of all manner of record industry dream-mongers. Nevertheless, the magic eventually petered out due to a mixture of strained friendships, artistic differences and ennui (though the man standing centre forward remains one of my best friends to this day). I have decided to use this picture as an example for discussion (since I don’t want to incur the wrath of any current hopefuls).

The problem with press shots is that they are meant to conjure up everything and yet they invariably communicate nothing. As a formula they are unique. If you were sipping Château de Beaupré on a pebble beach in the Cote D’Azur and the wind suddenly wafted that snap-shot into your picnic basket you would instantly know that those five men were in a band (regardless of the fact that the picture contains neither instruments nor logos). The arrangement of bodies is peculiar to the band pose: close proximity yet complete indifference to one another; faces a strange mixture of hostility, nonchalance and confusion; all gazing fascinated or threateningly towards a variety of invisible objects floating behind the photographer; no discernible wider context – be it social, historical, political or geographical…

I remember when we posed for that picture. It was one of about two hundred shots taken in the drummer’s garden and we weren’t happy with any of them. Incredibly there wasn’t a single image that made all five of us look both cool and in focus at the same time (which was basically what we were after).

But forget the composition… What was it for? After all, we were an accomplished and energetic live band – why all the stoic posturing? Truly, I have absolutely no idea where the rule of sulky promotional material comes from. Maybe it harks back to the dawn of photography when the subject was forced to stand motionless in a neck brace while the exposure took forever. Or perhaps to the Victorians that contorted the limbs of dead relatives into a lifelike pose in order to have one final family portrait taken before the internment. Or maybe it is because the words “Fuck You” have always been far cooler than the words “Howdy Partner” (after all, cool has always been the currency of Rock & Roll practitioners – albeit somewhat laughably).

One of my all-time favourite band configurations is the ever-popular “dispossessed youths against a backdrop of urban decay” (particularly if they’re wearing suits a la Commitments). Why so many groups spend all those hours scrabbling about in the rubble next to disused mills I’ll never know. It might make more sense if they had any songs about the industrial revolution or the casualties of a divided society but the material generally owes more to Gallagher than it does to Gaskell.

I always wonder what it is I’m supposed to interpret from these scowling waifs as they peer up from the crevices of crumbling basements or perch upon the summits of old ruins – like Pop’s would-be Valkyries looming over the Top 40’s charred battlefields.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe they all look so miserable simply because they have their sleeves rolled up on a wet day in Ancoats. But (and it’s a big BUT) if the picture – the portal into the universe of their unique musical brand – isn’t something I’m supposed to relate to in some way then when exactly am I supposed to start caring?

It is easy to laugh at the naive but I freely admit I have far less to say about what works than what doesn’t. Unfortunately (or thankfully) there are no clear rules. Big labels and management companies employ armies of marketing experts to make sure their artists send out the right message. The problem is that most bands I know don’t have a message. I don’t think I have a message – not just one anyway. As far as I’m concerned the promo shot should just keep you interested or entertained until you get to the music, possibly provide an underlying or complimentary narrative to the material (but never to its detriment). When a band appears as though they’re trying too hard (trying as opposed to working) then it is best to just leave them alone until they decide who they are – not who they think they ought to be.

Having said that, it is a lot of fun watching the trends and patterns unfold. It seems the current fashion for new band shots is mock-Polaroid. Or should I say “Polaroid-App”? That’s what trusted blogs like Pigeon Post and A New Band A Day tell me (but that could simply be the authors’ preference). I’d like to make it known now that I am being very careful not to sneer too much about all this. I am well aware that one “vintage” is just as questionable as another. My own tastes draw me towards Victoriana while theirs goes towards, I suppose, Thatcheriana. There is no point saying that one year is better than another when weighed upon the scales of nostalgia: 1880 and 1980 can both be equally celebrated as breeding grounds for striking originality and invention. I just happen to prefer the palette and props of the former. I also think mock-Polaroid is silly.

The one thing I do take issue with is that snarl. The billboard snarl. The shop window snarl. The smug superiority: “I am music… I am youth… I am sex… and I don’t like you!

The branch of the music industry that routinely deifies surly guitar-brandishing young men has a lot in common with the fashion world in this respect. Both aim to provide the consumer with a glamorous version of itself whilst simultaneously adding further stones to the ramparts of a visual exclusivity that we may all see and sigh over yet, ultimately, never scale. I feel no need to go into the psychology of all this as it’ll take me off topic but I do believe that we are all equipped with the wits to out-maneuver the slick torpedoes of sexy advertising (if we want to). What I really don’t like is the smugness, aggression and contempt that so many of these images trade in.

The fashion world is by its very nature paranoid. Music should know better though, it is an inclusive art that need not deal in insecurities. Arrogance – proper arrogance, not the pantomime theatrics of Rock & Roll – is particularly disheartening in popular music. Indeed, in an industry that relies so heavily on the indulgence and humour of its audience it is downright stupid. Personally I am prepared to play my part in a role-play whereby the microphone wielder is king but there must always be a mutual respect. The relationship between entertainer and audience is a symbiotic one and I believe it is the right of every man and woman (regardless of age) to prance about like a rock star. One must never forget, however, that no matter how bright a star shines it only has meaning if someone is watching it. The more you snarl at me the more I will ignore you.

Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t mind band photos that depict formidable, no-nonsense or even downright bad-ass individuals. After all, I want rock music to be in safe hands, wielded by those who know what they’re doing – or at least those who look the part.

With that sentiment I’ll leave you with a picture of me and the Bedlam Six looking Bad-Ass.

Well, as Bad-Ass as you can be with a pineapple on your head…

[Top and bottom photos copyright Ben Robins 2010. Derelicts photo by Gav’s cousin. Black Velvet Band photo copyright Annie Golden 2007]

FIRST PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2010

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