Broken Circuit (part three)

I began my last article with an anecdote taken from a recent European tour. I stand by my point that UK and German promoters have very different attitudes to (for want of a better term) nostalgia-induced cultural value but I am not so naïve as to suggest that event organizers here should simply adopt the continental rule book. The problem is that there is an immense gulf between the two countries’ perception of what it is to be a musician and how we measure the value of music.Every nation has a vast artistic heritage that informs both their creative and consumer tendencies. In the twentieth century, when the recording industry was enjoying its renaissance, there was a curious exchange between the traditional forms and the youth movement(s), the two flitting about one another like bees discussing pollen – blues to rock, swing to funk, classical to prog, even folk to punk.

Eight hundred years of English trad, classical and religious composition is largely eclipsed by fifty years of being an international exporter of popular music. When we took charge of the world’s playlist in the 1960s admittedly all we really did was take what the Americans were doing and stick it in German haircuts and Italian suits (but by that point we’d already been pillaging other peoples’ stuff for centuries and selling it back to them under the guise of Imperialism so this comes as no particular surprise… ahem… I digress).

At a recent meeting of the Association of Independent Musicians, former Pink Floyd manager Andrew King described the Music Industry as being “a business for gifted amateurs, not professionals”. Well that’s just it, the industry in the UK took off after the enormous and unprecedented success of untrained chancers that broke down the barriers between the professionals and the poets (and indeed the pretenders). This suits me (I am not classically trained and I’m not even a particularly good singer or guitarist), indeed it is a wondrous development when a people – irrespective all social position or ability – can imagine themselves as a creative force. The big mistake, however, was letting the audience become a congregation, creating idols out of its entertainers – I’d argue that artistic revolutions are the only kind that don’t benefit from leaders, and certainly don’t benefit from martyrs and messiahs.

The problem now is that so many emerging artists seem to view the period between 1962 and 1996 as the sacred text of rock and roll: Gospels according to Lennon, Jagger, Bowie, Strummer, Curtis, Ryder and Gallagher (to name a few) – rich, reckless and iconic.

So, in theory, UK promoters have a tough job. They aren’t just organizing shows but auditioning prospective demi-gods, parading wannabe icons before potential acolytes that are long-jaded with this endless carnival of ever-renewing and increasingly irrelevant effigies.

This is why every internationally touring performer I know loves playing in Germany. It is a country that produced some of (indeed most of) the greatest classical composers the world has ever seen: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Handel, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Strauss (and so on and so on) and yet, when rock and roll looked like it was losing steam, showed the post-punk audiences what could really be done with electronica, the next step in the evolution of independent music.

What these two strange cultural bookends have in common is that they rely more on innovation and technique than fashion and charisma. If your musical roots are fixed in an appreciation of ability and forward-thinking rather than in holding up a dubious mirror to the nearest approximation of youth culture then you can build your live entertainment apparatus accordingly. It will be a sturdier and more sustainable framework than any other the world can come up with – just not as glamorous. This is why bands like mine have a better time on the continent, people aren’t trying to put us in boxes or identify our angle, they just accept the music on its own terms and judge it accordingly.

It will take generations of work to implement this alternative model in the UK and I’m not sure that we, as a nation, have either the patience or the humility to re-evaluate ourselves as a people on the pop-cultural sidelines.

FIRST PUBLISHED MAY 2011

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