Offbeat 09 September 2016
This column was delayed by a couple of hours of listening to rock music on Youtube. It’s one of the deeper pleasures in life, probably second only to reading. Unlike reading I could live without music but my head and soul would be a poorer place.
There are two types of rock. There’s the one that is given to us by radio stations, the well behaved sort, that has a stadium drone to it, that follows the established forms, be it the supergroup anthem or the type of metal that sits so well with a cup of tea nowadays. Then there’s the rock that sits comfortably in the junkyard.
Well-behaved rock treads the same paths of others. The rebellious moments are muted, and it is a low-risk phenomenon. Groups like Toto or Bon Jovi or the Eagles feel like they have little to offer. Bryan Adams may pump his fist in the air and shout something about being 18 till he dies, but it has the feel of being an obedient teenager, or at least a wistful middle-aged person.
The metal that I hear rarely has much more to it than repetition of the forms that were established in the Seventies. Even a group like Pantera now sounds like a ritual that is repeated timelessly by a hundred other bands without much in the way of reinvention. The passion is ersatz. They do it because Pantera did it, and Pantera was supposed to be cool. There is very little in the way of individualism. Rinse and repeat for a hundred other big-name rock bands.
If music is prepackaged emotion the emotion of a rock anthem is not strong enough for me.
I formed my attachment to rock in my early teens. If I think of it, the teens are the most important time of life. That’s when you take the first steps to defining who you are as an individual. There is a constant process of testing yourself against the people around you, and broader society.
I was lucky, in a demented way. Society was sick. People who had short coconut hairstyles wanted to control everything: beliefs, religion, thoughts, social and leisure activities and separation of skin colour. The control fest felt like sandpaper on my soul.
Rock became a form of escape. Big brothers and older friends handed down their songs of anger on plastic cassettes or allowed copies made from vinyl. Listening was a furtive thing. Some songs were never mentioned in front of adults. The Cure was banned. So was that Pink Floyd song, the one about education. The Sex Pistols were entirely out. There was Tannie at the radio music library who coloured in certain tracks on records with a crayon, making them unplayable, just in case some or other radio DJ was overcome with a moment of rebellion. No, I kid you not. There really was.
Those illicit songs, the ones that came to us on the tape mixes, were furtive things, listened to individually or in small, tight groups. They were songs that fitted into the conception of the junkyard, the dirty place where a rebellious few could gather, away from the eyes of broader society. What sort of decent person would want to spend time looking for rebellion in a junkyard?
The theme of the junkyard is not bizarre or unusual. Quite a few music videos are filmed in that setting. Some of them evoke the feeling in a fitting way, echoing the hidden anger and the sense of being an outsider. Others get it wrong, using only the setting, but not echoing the feeling or emotional state in the music.
It’s not just the junkyard though. There are visible urban wastelands, and dirty alleys. Kurt Cobain is associated with the underside of a bridge.
Decades down the line, my need to rebel is spent. I recognise my differences and don’t need to fight the world, because I have found ways to sidestep and ignore the impositions of expectations. I still visit the junkyard though. I recognise the spiky edginess of the songs that don’t make radio play, that can’t be found on dull compilation CDs. They are old friends.
If you are interested, the songs I played while I wrote this are Dan Auerbach’s The Prowl, and Catch Hell Blues by the White Stripes.