Build ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down – How Bands Can Survive The Backlash

You know that advert where the bloke is constantly followed around by the twisted corpse of the child he ran over, its cold, accusing stare haunting his every waking moment? Being a music journalist can be a bit like that. Only instead of what looks like a young, dead Charles Kennedy, we’re haunted by the frozen ghosts of The Dead 60s fixing exhaust mufflers in Wirral Kwik Fit or Andrew WK squeegeeing windscreens in his underpants. We’re tormented by the victims of The Backlash.

Kelly Jones spotted a kindred backlash sufferer this week: “He reminds me of where we were with our third album,” he said, noting the disintegrating fortunes of Johnny Borrell, “[Razorlight are] in fucking trouble.” And fair enough, the releasing of the frothing press hounds upon a disappointing third album – a bit like lobbing the eviscerated carcass of James Corden into a tank full of starving piranhas (sorry, wishful thinking) – leaves most bands broken, bitter and dispirited men, weeping into their lathe polish about the “bastard journalists, they just build them up to knock them down…”

What they don’t realise is that BTUTKTD, or being ‘BUTTOCKED’ as it’s known in the trade, is actually a very organic and healthy by-product of music fandom. It’s rock’s natural selection, a process that keeps the scene thriving. Here’s how it works.

Initially people become enthusiastic about a new band: journalists, bloggers, DJs all able to say ‘I saw them first’. They talk positively about that band and the band prospers, perhaps even reaching the charts or marrying Peaches Geldof. They have been Built Up. Hurrah!

But wait! Those people can’t tell everyone about this band forever, and now the media needs to cover them because they’re famous! And their new album’s a right ‘Donkey’! So a swathe of less enthusiastic folk come to pass judgement. Reviews are mixed, airplay unforthcoming, page impressions dip, the band flounders, their label does some dropping and Peaches files for a quickie divorce claiming she was “wankered”.

They have been Knocked Down. Completely buttocked. Boo! Bastard public! Let’s see you write a song as good as ‘Girls Who Play Guitars’, etc!

So how can you survive the backlash? If you’re done with stardom and just want everyone in Shoreditch to stop calling you a cunt, then Kelly Jones’ advice to Johnny is astute. “Change your haircut, they’ll forget all about you then,” he advised Razorlight ahead of the bands sharing the bill at the Isle Of Wight Festival.
Remarkably, this is utterly true.

It’s tall poppy syndrome: the most outspoken and interestingly haired rock stars come in for the most vindictive hammerings once the hype runs dry. FACT. If you’ve got a haircut that could be easily fashioned into a wig and worn by Justin Lee Collins in five years’ time in order to satirise 2009, you’d better make era-defining, trans-genre music for the rest of your life or you’re heading for a critical kicking.

If you want to remain successful after your backlash, your options are limited:

1) Make an album of indisputable genius. Right now. Not in a couple of years, right now. Radiohead, for example, were entirely written off in the NME office after ‘Pablo Honey’, and it took every ounce of rampant hyperbole on the part of the reviewer of ‘The Bends’ to convince the rest of the office that they weren’t just another major label turd being flung at America’s wall in the hope of sticking.

2) Cash in your indie cred for a crossover hit. A movie tie-in. An iPod ad. Sell your best song to The Saturdays. Christ, even get Mark Ronson to produce your album if you must, but become huge with the Jo Whiley crowd sharpish and rest easy in the knowledge that no intelligent criticism of your work will ever reach your fish-like fanbase.

3) Break Europe. You could try America but that’s way harder. Case in point: this week Placebo announced their comeback album. Placebo? You thought they were unemployed paupers, if not actually dead and buried beneath an avalanche of snidey press cuttings, right? Well get this: Placebo sell over a million copies of every album they release, tour by private jet and play arenas across the globe. Why? Three words. Massive. In. France.

When their perfect storm of a backlash hit in the UK, they polished up their Gallic and pissed off to Europe for five years solid. Turns out there’s no word in French for ‘backlash’. Brian Molko even got a haircut. He knew the rules.

There is hope, mind. Maybe the internet will help new bands withstand the critics’ slings and arrows in future; maybe the accelerated cycle of the blogosphere will train them in backlash survival techniques from birth. They’re built up and knocked down so quickly in one messageboard thread that they’ll become immune to a fatal buttocking before we’ve even heard of them. We can but dream… well, it would certainly make me feel less scared of finding a deathly apparition of Iglu & Hartly begging for change under my desk.

What I’ve Been Listening To…

The Von Bondies – Pale Bride
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Young Adult Friction
The Soft Pack – Extinction EP