When Two Tribes Go To War (or How The Music Press Spoiled Rock…)
One of the most interesting reactions to the deeply shocking news that Classic Rock put 19 year-old rock band Muse on its front cover last month* was the speed with which the word ‘punk’ was invoked by the Rock Taliban (you know, those hard-line purists that put the ‘mental’ into fundamentalism and take it upon themselves to constantly patrol the borders of rock, shooting or deporting any wetbacks that try to sneak into this ‘pure rock nation’ of ours).
Punk. Never mind that Muse have far more in common with a multitude of prog acts (have, in fact, been on the cover of our sister mag, Prog), that they sound like Queen with Tom Morello on guitar and Thom Yorke on vocals, that they create futuristic concept albums (with sleeves by Storm “Pink Floyd/Zeppelin/Genesis” Thorgerson), or that – unlike back-to-basics punk rock – they’re famous for bending genre rules, fusing a furious rock attack with orchestral arrangements, funk grooves, electronica. Not prog, punk.
“The writers at Classic Rock seem completely confused as to what Classic Rock actually is,” went the fourth comment on that issue. “They include punk bands… a short-lived genre that was explicitly opposed to ‘rawk music’ at the time…” Yeah, we’re still at that old chestnut. But it’s a red herring. It’s ‘Reds-in-the-bed’ all over again, something used to stir up McCarthyite rock hysteria. Punk is the stick used to beat anyone who strays from ‘the one true path’: “Once we had a pure rock eden and then the punk rock snake spoiled it all. If only we could return to those purer most innocent times…”
It’s a debate worn out and meaningless to a generation who can see punk in NWOBHM, thrash, glam-metal and beyond, who can listen to The Clash, Clutch AND Chicago, Santana AND the Sex Pistols, Black Sabbath AND The Boys, Captain Beefheart, Captain Beyond AND Captain Sensible – and beyond, to Poison AND Pearl Jam, Nirvana AND Nazareth, The Jam, Jimi Hendrix, JJ Cale AND Jane’s Addiction**.
If they have a point at all, it’s this: rock music really hasn’t been the same since punk. But the truth is that rock never was the same, ever. From the day it crawled out of the rock’n'roll and blues swamps, rock music has evolved, stumbling and soaring and mutating consistently. Hendrix was not the same as Floyd was not the same as Cream was not the same as Fleetwood Mac was not the same as the Pretty Things was not the same as Yes.
The mujahadeen of rock, those scared little fundamentalists, would have you believe that rock is something that can and should be preserved in aspic – that it’s a perfectly realised formula of riffs and solos and blues hollering; a template that must be adhered to if a band’s music is to be considered truly rock – but since its earliest phase, its ‘purest’ years, its genuinely seminal moments, rock music has proudly resisted categorisation. Deep Purple MKII’s first album was a collaboration with an orchestra. Later they made hard funk and heavy soul. Bruce and Baker considered Cream to be “a jazz band – we just didn’t tell Eric”. The Beatles drew on music hall, soul music, rock’n'roll and at their height still kept morphing, determined to take the listener on a journey, not just give them what *they think they want*. The Stones? Blues, country, eastern music, and (I know we’d rather all pretend it didn’t happened but) reggae and disco.
Look up ‘rock’ on Wikipedia or Allmusic.com and you find not one classic and well-defined genre but a multitude of mutant genres: country rock, prog rock, blues rock, jazz rock, goth rock, southern rock, heavy rock, soft rock, pop rock, alt. rock, and, yes, ancient old punk rock. You’ll find heavy metal, thrash metal, nu metal, power metal, psychedelia, psychobilly, grunge, AOR, shoegaze, stoner, and on and on and on, a million different flavours of rock.
Because rock never stayed still. Rock has been promiscuous (kinky, even), contrary, gregarious, thrill-seeking, experimental, open-minded, hungry, fearless, ruthless, ambitious, futuristic and retro, revolutionary AND reactionary – but usually progressive, marching on into the brave new world, exploiting technology, reflecting the time, soundtracking its era.
Progressive. ‘Prog rock’ now means a reasonably well-defined thing to most people – concepts, musicality, experimentalism, trippy structure-defying music – although artists continue to push envelopes and boundaries are constantly redefined by our own Prog magazine. But way before its meaning was narrowed, progressive rock was the name bestowed on bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple: bands determined to push the envelope, to take rock from a simple blues structure and aesthetic to something new and different.
At Classic Rock we try and cover a wide spectrum of rock music. We have our cornerstones – Zep, AC/DC, Floyd, Jimi, Purple, GN’R etc – but we look to cover far more than that every single month, to keep a ‘progressive’ attitude.
So why this continual suspicion and bitterness?
I don’t blame the Rock Taliban. They’re just old fashioned school bullies, people who revel in mocking the tastes of others. It’s surprising that it’s tolerated in the world of rock – most rock fans have experienced ridicule because of their taste in music or they way they dress and pride themselves on being more open-minded and tolerant than the neds, chavs and townies that shout and sneer in the street – but it’s par for the course in the online world. Trolls are everywhere.
I don’t blame them: I blame the music press, Classic Rock included.
Pre-punk – and in the confused turf war that followed – it was possible for one band to appear in any and all of the holy trinity of British music papers: Sounds, NME and Melody Maker. But the success of Kerrang! (an off-shoot of Sounds, launched by our own Geoff Barton***) put British music on a course that it’s still reeling from now. Just like British politics at the time, the arrival of a new party split the vote and altered the position of the centre ground. The big parties became more extreme, driven by ideology, militant factions jostling for control****. Lines were drawn: are you blue or red, rock or indie, alternative or mainstream?
The press chose sides and bands featured in one mag would not be featured in another. Bands were tainted. Crossover between tribes was small. The Manic Street Preachers – featured on the cover of the first-ever issue of Classic Rock (left) alongside GN’R, lest you forget – were one band hyper-conscious of music press politics. They tried to play both sides of the fence. “We did have a plan,” Nicky Wire told me: “We wanted to be in Kerrang! //and// the NME.”
But the lines had been re-drawn so much that it wasn’t an easy sell: “Even though we weren’t fully-formed rock by then, compared to fucking everything the NME liked, be it Ride or Slowdive, we were like fucking Led Zeppelin!” says Wire. “NME and Melody Maker had gone so far the previous five years in to what you’d call indie ruts, that they just didn’t understand rock music. They thought we were Guns N’ Roses, even though it was gonna take a while for us to get there. Whereas the rock and metal press were more suspicious cos they could tell we weren’t. They thought we were a fucking dodgy punk band, but they still liked us.”
The wrong inkie survived. Sounds and Melody Maker were both in love, in different ways, with the rock’n'roll woah. Sounds with its piss-taking, street-wise fascination with rock’s comic book foolishness, MM in its always-progressive-and-frequently-pretentious search for the next big thing. The NME, meanwhile, looked down its nose at anything it deemed ‘uncool’. What constituted ‘uncool’ could change from one week to the next but two of the main principles seemed to be that: 1) It was uncool to like rock (spelled ‘RaWk’), and 2) It was uncool to live outside London – in what Londoners like to call ‘the provinces’ (aka the rest of the country).
NME plastered a Billy Idol sneer on its face and gobbed at anything that was old and hairy and had its foot on the monitor. They fostered a culture in which bands weren’t just scared to rock, they were *ashamed* to rock (cf. Radiohead’s career post-The Bends, Robert Plant’s search for the cred that comes with alt.country and world music). That influence pervaded music journalism to the extent that when mags would do their lists of “The Greatest Albums Ever” you’d be lucky if Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix managed to fight their way past Orange Juice, never mind critical darlings/cult classics like Marquee Moon. All the music we ever loved dismissed by some fops in cardigans, desperately trying to seem hip? No wonder it got the rock community’s back up.
We circled the wagons around Classic Rock and Planet Rock; around Donington, High Voltage and Hard Rock Hell. But our bands deserve more. These days rock is no longer a dirty word while prog is almost *trendy*. We’ve still got a way to go with radio (Planet Rock feel that if they play new music you’ll switch off, that as listeners you lot are so conservative that the slightest unrecognised power chord will have you scuttling off to… Where? Radio 2?) but it’s time to uncircle the wagons. To go from defense to offense. If we let the purists be the dominant voice in our community we’ll paint ourselves into a corner that we’ll never get back out of. Rock used to rule the mainstream, used to capture hearts and minds, used to show the pop kids how it was done.
Maybe the tide is changing. There seems to be a renewed confidence in the world of rock, with a strong clutch of new bands and older artists creating work to stand alongside some of their best. Radio 1 controller George Ergatoudis said recently that rock was due a comeback, that rock bands were ‘testing positively with his audience’.
It’s not time to get mad. It’s time to get even.
*Formed in 1994, Muse’s 19 year career is currently two years longer, for example, than the length of time between the Beatles’ split and Appetite For Destruction’s release. That is: a long time in the world of rock.
**I haven’t just chosen those names randomly. I like *all* of those bands. The only example that doesn’t quite ring true (the Poison/PJ one – Poison are shite-on-a-stick, if you ask me), is included because I know that Sian Llewellyn, Brad Merrett and Dave Everley do like both.
***Yup. It’s Barton’s fault.
**** It got worse. As Mr Barton points out, even K! was forced to launch off-shoot titles as the tribes splintered further: Mega Metal K! – a thrash mag, and Ultrakill, an extreme metal title.