The end of October sees PJ Harvey celebrating her triumphant 2011 in front of a gushing, seated Albert Hall full of adults, all of whom nod respectfully through her “richly inventive” (thanks, The Guardian) album that was made in a church on an autoharp and inspired by Salvador Dalí, Francisco De Goya, the war in Afghanistan, and so on.
Across town less than 24 hours earlier, another musical act are celebrating an equally great year, but in a very different fashion. They take to the stage of an enormo-dome plastered in corporate logos, and watch a giant, shitfaced audience who looked like the cast of The Inbetweeners (except with girls) moving as one giant mass of soaked T-shirts, screaming back at them: “IFYOUWANNACOMEBACK IT’S ALRIGHT! ITSALRIGHTIFYOUWANNA COMEBACK TO ME!”
The Vaccines – for it is they, at The O2, supporting and nearly upstaging Arctic Monkeys – don’t sing songs about the war, or the riots, or the recession. They sing about fuck all. No judges from the Mercury Prize are going, ‘Shit, this is interesting, innovative music, and should’ve been nominated instead of ‘Build A Rocket, Boys!’ or… oh, what was the jazz guy called again?” Because it isn’t, and it shouldn’t have been. But for The Vaccines and their like, awards come in other ways.
On January 1, 2012, it will be 50 years exactly since The Beatles’ first recording session, a record company audition rejected on the grounds that “guitar groups are on the way out”. And so it remains. Endless reviews of The Vaccines’ brilliant debut, even the positive ones, were at pains to note that nothing new is on offer here. It’s like, writing 10 great songs on guitar is OK, but not enough. Being “interesting” is now deemed more important than being “exciting”. As 2011 dawned, everyone was saying that guitar music was dead, that it had “nowhere to go”. Except, of course, it wasn’t. Again.
Headlining The O2 that night were Arctic Monkeys who, having spent all that time out in the desert experimenting, have realised that grown-up critics are idiots, and that, really, the music they love is The Stone Roses, The Smiths. “The Classics”. Listen to ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’, ‘Love Is A Laserquest’ or the title track of ‘Suck It And See’, and you hear music that clearly, unashamedly belongs in the lineage of British indie. You also hear the best songs Arctic Monkeys have made.
There were others, too. Bombay Bicycle Club’s third album was full of direct, graceful guitar pop songs. ‘Take The Right One’ just was The Stone Roses (who of course would show up a couple of months later). Smith Westerns’ dreamy second, ‘Dye It Blonde’, nodded to Oasis, T Rex, George Harrison and John Lennon. Rough Trade unveiled their latest big signing Howler, a band with hairdos, Converse and stolen Smiths riffs. Single ‘I Told You Once’ just was ‘Rusholme Ruffians’, which in turn just was Elvis’ ‘(Marie’s The Name) His Latest Flame’.
And if that last sentence highlights the reason why guitar music is perpetually “all over” in the eyes of people who like sitting down and watching PJ Harvey gigs, it also shows why it will always be around, made for and by young people who aren’t thinking about “cultural relevance” or whatever.
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During his most recent NME interview, Noel Gallagher commented that “rock’n’roll is merely the re-telling of a story for a new generation”. In 1970, his hero John Lennon, having just finished up The Beatles, said that “the best stuff is primitive enough and has no bullshit. It gets through to you; it got through to me, the only thing to get through to me of all the things that were happening when I was 15.”
There are loads of others, but The Vaccines are the most prominent example of a band who’ve been doing this to increasingly large and devoted audiences all year. They preach a simple gospel to no-one who considers themselves highbrow, who don’t “consider” anything, because they’re far too busy doing. “Put a wetsuit on! Come on, come on!” It’s meaningless shit that, at the right moment, is full of meaning. Let’s just repeat the words of Justin Young, in his last NME interview, not one month ago, just prior to that O2 show.
“I feel that rock’n’roll is an artform in the way that electronic music just… isn’t. There’s nothing sexier than just getting up and beating the shit out of your guitar, is there? Saying what you fucking think, doing what you fucking feel…” Amen to that.
This article originally appeared in the December 10th issue of NME