Bad Schmindie And Some Good Stuff…

(This is a reply I did to a post on an online webforum.)

I half-agree with what you say but the problem is that what constitutes “lifeless” is such a subjective matter.

For example, you cite JJ72’s ‘Oxygen’ as being genuine and emotional whereas for me they, along with Coldplay, Toploader, Travis, Sterophonics, Manics etc epitomise corporate schmindie rock. All these bands are as pampered, manufactured and heavily promoted as, say Steps or S Club 7. It’s an insult they’re even called ‘indie’ when they’re all major-label student fodder. The labels are simply aiming at a different demographic: angst-ridden teenagers as opposed to little kids who like dancing.

None of the above schmindie bands are doing anything as political or innovative as McCarthy, Big Black, Fugazi, Minor Threat, the Pixies or even Nirvana (who at least were a real band on a real indie label, before being swallowed by Geffen).

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of major label music and have even made some myself. I don’t think being on a major automatically makes you rubbish. But it helps. What it comes down to is art by committee. The kind of machined, planned, soul-less music you hate is the end result of putting profits before art. Endless profiling and plotting by A&R gibbons, ludicrous hyping and records that chart for one week and then drop like stones. And no, all labels don’t have to run that way.

Before the majors killed/bought them off in the indie assimilation of the early 90s, this country had quite a few internationally famous independent labels. Think of Creation (pre-Sony), Sarah, El, Cherry Red, Factory, Mute and others.

Now there’s only Mute left in its original form. How can you compete when the majors are *giving* their records away to retailers? As in other industries, the last ten years has seen a vicious oligopoly develop. The corporations have made the profits, record sales have been spiralling downwards and pop music has been increasingly barren. Repackage, reissue, re-sell, to paraphrase an old indie star.

Bizarrely, in the dance and hip-hop sectors, it’s not such a gloomy story. This is mainly cos these are based on subcultures that the pea-brained corporations have no understanding of. So there’s a lot of small labels, pumping stuff out on vinyl when everyone said it’d be dead by now. Okay, they’re not making huge profits (probably losing money and doing it for love) but they’re releasing great new music.

Of course, if there’s an artist/song that breaks big, then the majors swoop in, do a crap radio edit and clean up nicely, thank you, with little or no investment. They use small labels as nurseries. If a label has enough hits, like Skint, then they’ll just buy it.

But the good news? Well, there are still passionate, moving songwriters and musicians out there, plugging away. You won’t find them in the increasingly irrelevant mass media (goodbye Melody Maker – you won’t be missed) and may have to trawl through, similar sites or specialist Usenet groups.

As I say elsewhere, I gave up buying the music press cos I got better recommendations off Usenet. Stuff like Boards of Canada, Wesley Willis, Fila Brazillia, Komeda, Spearmint…. I could go on.

Uplifting music of last year? Well, I’d say the best hip-hop album would be Dead Prez‘ ‘Let’s Get Free!’ which is about as political and uplifting as you can get, this side of simply reciting Trotsky. And it’s on a major label, just to show I’m not prejudiced :-).

As for rock, well, I loved Steve Earle’s ‘Transcendental Blues.’ The production is brilliant, he’s got that great Dylan-esque growl and the songs are just pure pop, with meaning.

Electronic stuff – I’m still grooving to Yoshinori Sunahara‘s ‘Pan Am.’ Again, excellent production, just gets your head nodding immediately. And flowing, melodic instrumental music, a bit Towa Tei in places but that’s no bad thing.

As for real indie – the prize would have to go to Magnetic Fields ’69 Love Songs.’ Now, there’s a modern songwriter I can admire and aspire to. If they were on a major label, would they even be allowed to release a concept triple-album? Not these days…

So yeah, I agree things are pretty bad in the big leagues. But sales can only fall so far before it becomes openly ridiculous. Meanwhile, there’s a growing Net subculture which can help to support and promote new music as much as Napster might harm sales.

I’m optimistic. You can’t kill good music,
love and kisses,

Gig Review: Capdown, Lightyear, Potshot

Derby Spot Club 8/4/2002

Date: Tue, 09 Apr 2002 12:53:41 +0100

My god – what a cool bastard gig! Ska! Sadly, me and Rob got there too late to see The Chinkees but we caught most of Potshot’s set and they had a tight, mad brass section and some pretty catchy songs. Good yelping from the singer, too. I’m not a huge fan but they were good live so I think I’ll check out their records.


Lightyear came on and rocked like the long lost sons of Black Flag and The Selecter. They far outshone their album, throwing off a live energy that was madly contagious. It was the kind of assured, flowing performance you’d expect of old hands, not young punks. The vibe they created was very peaceful and friendly which is possibly why one female fan got completely starkers, stage-dived and then ran round like a nutter. Either that or she did it for a bet. Not to be outdone, one lad threw his caution and y-fronts to the winds and crowdsurfed. Ouch…watch where you’re putting those hands…

Lightyear were tremendously, astonishingly good. This isn’t just my usual hyperbole – Rob agrees and hopefully he’ll post his own views. Quote of the night was from Lightyear’s singer, "What about Potshot, eh? You lot have come from Chaddesen, they’ve come from fucking JAPAN!" Then came Capdown. In a way, they had more to live up to for me cos I like ‘Pound For The Sound’ so much. Well, they more than matched it. Again, their live set had a ferocity, a kind of evangelical fervour that isn’t captured on the record. The record is heavier than their live show but the show rocks more. Just from the opening sax break, kids went mad and I lost Rob as he ran off to pogo at the front. I refrained, not wanting to crush teenage bones.

They also had a difficult task cos Lightyear are local lads and had a loyal following present but from where I was standing, Capdown rocked the crowd. They inspired some of the stupidest, insanely energetic ska-dancing I’ve seen in years. And that was only Rob. The circular mosh pit they organised at the end of their last song quickly went to hell but, hey, anyone can trip over.

When we were driving back, me and Rob were raving about the gig. The main thing was that the bands *connected* with the audience. There was no performer – audience gap, there was only a unified singing, dancing mob. Fucking brilliant!

If any of these bands are playing near you, please go and check them out. Hopefully, you’ll come away like me and Rob: slightly deaf but grinning madly,
love and kisses,

Swollen Members – Bad Dreams

(Battleaxe Records BAX1009)
Date: Tue, 09 Apr 2002 15:54:16 +010

Swollen Member’s debut, ‘Balance’, remains one of my favourite hip hop albums ever. Stuffed full of regal rhymes and instant head-nodders, ‘Bad Dreams’ extends that lineage and proves that SM are true stars.

The album opens with a short intro and then we’re into ‘Killing Spree.’ It’s a lolloping, offbeat beat with extra menace added by Mad Child and Prevail’s rapping. A good appetiser for, frankly, a big, heavy platter.

Overall, there’s not as many guest rappers as the first album and this makes it more consistent than a lot of contemporary hip hop. There’s too many hip hop albums with chronic guesteritis, robbing them of their own identity. Where there are guests on this album, like Evidence, Iriscience, Buc Fifty and Son Doobie, they gel organically with SM’s own house style.

And that’s a varied style. You’ve got laid back, funky bobbers like ‘Take It Back’ alongside altogether darker and more scary polemics like ‘Bad Dreams.’ That track comes close to old Gravediggaz-style nightmare imagery but without the Hammer schlock. It’s more precise, less like a spade to your head and more like a needle being pushed into your cornea.

‘Deep End’ kicks off with a muted guitar lick and when the lyrics drop in, you know they’re going to be future classics. Again, it’s the rappers’ rhythmic prowess that makes this track, the way they swerve and tack against the beat, keeping the track moving so you think it’s quite short when it’s over three minutes.

‘Snake Bite’ reminds me most of Dead Prez’ ‘Be Healthy.’ Like that track, it shares a very hooky Spanish/Arabian guitar riff but it’s far less laid back. Rattlesnake Jones guests on this and his rapping is far closer to the mic, more like a nasty whisper which again broadens the palette. Again, SM have reached and won.

‘The Reflection’ is an instrumental track produced by Rob The Viking and it’s a nice little spacer at just the right point. By this time, there’s been a lot of mad lyrics to take in.

‘Ventilate’ is yet another track which demonstrates SM’s pedigree. The whole track is basically Mad Child and Prevail bitching at each other, venting all the shit that must happen and usually isn’t talked about. If someone else had done this, it might sound tricksy but, as they say themselves, [they’re] ‘magnificent together, it’s a perfect combination.’ The final icing on the cake is DP’s DJ Babu providing the cuts. Mmmm…

The final track, ‘High Road’, creates a chilly, worried atmosphere with its piano hook and lyrics that drip with imagery others would kill for. Here’s the depth that’s often missing from backpack turntablism: a narrative structure, a *story* for fuck’s sake! Wasn’t hip hop meant to be *about something*, not just coffee-table ready mute beats, shorn of any potentially difficult content? Grrrr…. (wait for the hidden track at the end of 18, a binky-plinky remix of ‘Take It Back.’)

Over the course of the 18 tracks here, Swollen Members prove to be versatile and inventive, dropping metaphors, similes and references beyond the norm (certainly the first time I’ve heard Penn & Teller namechecked). Couple this with relentlessly inventive loops and hooks and you’ve got one killer of a hip hop album. It’s bloody bassy, it makes your head nod and the lyrics amount to more than rapping how good their rapping is. What more can you ask for?

Buy this album if you like Dilated Peoples, Gang Starr or Deltron. Don’t buy this album if you think lyrics are the least important bit of hip hop,
love and kisses,