Why Rock Is Dead

Rock Music Today
Above: the stinking, bloated carcass of rock music today.

Picture this…

2006, a front room, somewhere. Four young hip hop musicians have got together. They’ve decided to do some shows. So they go out and buy clothes to look as much like 1989 as possible, source all the same equipment as their heroes used back then, paying over the odds for “vintage” samplers. Then comes the music: this is a note-by-note slavish imitation of Native Tongues ’89 style hip hop. Same sounds, same beats, same rapping, same subject matter. There is absolutely nothing new in the music they’re creating, it’s merely a highly accurate re-creation of a dead era.

Sounds pretty unlikely in the hip hop world, doesn’t it? About the closest you get to this kind of retro obsession is when someone will occasionally lob the PSK beat in, just to show they know the old stuff. But they wouldn’t re-record the entire track. What’s the point of that?

So why is it that all rock music does nowadays is fuck the graves of its forebears?

There are two bands currently getting heavy MTV airplay who are both invoking the gods of heavy rock, shamelessly robbing Sabbath and Zeppelin. I don’t need to name them as you’ll know who they are. One of them even has ridiculous 1970s lyrics. And people LOVE these bands! They’re tribute bands, for fuck’s sake. Perhaps okay for a night out in a pub but nothing that should be getting glowing reviews and airspace.

But the problem is, what rock nowadays isn’t tribute rock?

I’m currently watching MTV2. In the past half hour, I’ve seen two Joy Divisions, one Huggy Bear, two Gang Of Fours and a Talking Heads. I’ve seen nothing remotely original. I’ve not even seen a new re-contextualisation of old styles, old material. I’ve seen accuracy, verisimilitude, impeccably faithful versions of the past. Karaoke pop. Tribute bands. Metarock.

Why is it that the most important thing in contemporary rock culture is authenticity? Not passion, not politics, but authenticity? The whole genre is a gaggle of trainspotters, carefully researching what head Andy Gill used in 1979, what kind of strings John Otway preferred, which mic Ari Up used. Completely missing the whole bastard point. There’s one band on telly at the moment who look like some kind of 1981 New Sounds, New Styles cover feature: there’s the Ian Curtis, there’s the Bob Smith, there’s the Hazel O’Connor.

At the minute, the fashion is for the ’80s so that’s what’s getting reamed. It makes no difference, retro culture flits around, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, it’s all the same. Always the essence of the times, especially political, is jettisoned in favour of haircuts and clothes. The ephemera of life become the main focus for rock music.

And now, it’s time for an anecdote…

When I first went to Wilmorton sixth-form college, in ’82, I was already a music fanatic. I loved Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Blancmange, Soft Cell, Heaven 17, Human League, all the usual suspects for my generation. I quite liked Joy Division but they weren’t my faves as I listened to mostly completely electronic music. So, I wasn’t one of the cool kids walking round in long overcoats, looking moody and Curtis-like. I wasn’t in a cool band either. But there was a cool band at Wilmorton. And the lead singer was Curtis to the atom: he reeked Manchester across the common room. His band was, naturally, a carbon-copy of JD. I had one conversation with him that went something like this:

Me: “So, why do you love Joy Division?”
Him: “Cos they’re totally original. They’ve made something unique, not like that plinky-plonky shite you like…” (cue cool sneer)
Me: “So, that’s why your band sounds like them, cos they were so unique?”
Him: “Yeah, they’re the best fucking band ever!”

Even at 16, this did my nut in. He couldn’t see the absurdity of it because, basically, rock musicans often aren’t that clever. He loved JD because they didn’t sound like anyone else. So he decided to copy them exactly. Thus, by his own path of appreciation, making his own band instantly pointless.

Over the last twenty-four years, I’ve had the same conversation countless times. Each time, the object of worship may change but the result is the same.

How many bands spend their entire lives trying to perfect the sound of the Beatles? If the Beatles had been as retro and unimaginative, they would never have made the records these bands worship in the first place.

And so we pitch up today, on the dawn shores of the 21st century, with rock music more thoroughly, irredeemably retro than at any other time I can remember. We have indie bands apeing the jagged riffs of punk and post-punk but with such cack, meaningless lyrics that if they’d played those songs in ’79, they would have been booed off stage. Think of bands like Gang Of Four or Crass or the Sex Pistols – they sang about their life and times, they sang about their everyday experiences. You would think, being three years into an illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq and numerous other global concerns that there would be plenty of contemporary subject matter for young rock writers to sink their teeth into. And yet…

And yet, we get rock songs that are metarock. They are rock songs about rock songs. Everything is caked in irony like a festival toilet caked in shit. If anyone dares to point out that the emperor is, indeed, stark, bollock naked, they are accused of being killjoys or not “getting it.”

But there is nothing to get. There is nothing at the heart of modern rock music but a mirror and some fraying, tea-coloured copies of Sounds. There is no heart, no fire. The music that was once the most dangerous, the most unsettling, the most iconoclastic has become the musical equivalent of a plate painted with a picture of a crying puppy. Soma, pap, sickly, watery shite whose only purpose is to shift units. Or be the background music for some “edgy” fucking car advert.

So here’s my advice to all rock musicians: get your head out of your arse and take a look at the world around you now. Not ’79, ’72, ’68, ’64 or ’59. Now.

I don’t give a fuck what guitar you’ve got, a guitar is simply a lump of wood with which to make music. It’s a tool, nothing more. And the same goes for guitar pedals. Stop fetishsizing the peripherals and start writing and singing about who you are. Be a musician, not a historical preservation society.

After all, hip hop, electronic music and other genres are always re-inventing themselves and creating music that’s genuinely new. Innit?

But as for rock, I think what we have at the moment is a dead shark.