It was, no doubt, the phone call in to a long-dormant hotline that Olly Murs HQ had been dreading for a decade. Klaxons would have sounded, the command centre flooded with spinning crimson warning lights, the emergency shutters slammed down as teams of sweating underlings with clipboards swarmed to the crisis room.
“How bad is it?” a glowering Man In Black would have barked at his jumpy team of middle-managers, his fists white against the boardroom table. “Code Holyfuck, sir,” the reply probably came, “Mark Beaumont has been commissioned to review the O2 gig.” “The Tom Odell guy?” “That’s him.”
“Shit!” An almighty crash as the overseer flipped the entire table against the nearest wall, sending clipboards, water jugs and pork pie hats flying. “I’ve spent ten years making Olly Murs the most respected Stevie Wonder covers artist who came second in X Factor working in the UK today,” he would have yelled. “I got him a co-write with Gym Class Heroes. I got him on Loose Women, John Bishop’s In Conversation With… and All Round To Mrs Brown’s. I got his waxwork in Madam Tussauds…”
“Well, Madam Tussauds in Blackpool…”
“Shut the fuck up, Kevin, you’re fired! I got him a fucking Olly Jolly Christmurs special, for fuck’s sake, and if there’s another triple-A artist who’s done more guest announcing on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, I’ll eat my own arse with a toothpick. Olly’s on the verge of being declared the John Lennon of Stevie Wonder covers acts who came second in X Factor and I will NOT have his unprecedented, blanket critical acclaim tainted now.” A pause, snorting like a riled bull pawing dirt. “Shut. Beaumont. Down.”
And so, I imagine, it came to pass this week that Olly Murs joined the very short list of just four acts whose reps have, in the last 20-odd years, have refused to let me review them live. I mean, I can understand the logic of those acts that I’d previously criticised refusing me tickets (Pete Doherty and, regular readers might struggle to believe, Bastille), although the vast majority of acts that have felt the sharp end of my poisoned quill stabbing them rabidly in the eyeball have quite rightly had enough belief in their music not to give a rat’s perineum what I think. But when it comes to acts I’ve never written about before, you’ve got to assume that their keepers know they’re flogging shit and don’t want to let anyone in who might complain out loud about the stink.
Obviously this renders any critical assessment of gigs by certain acts meaningless – a review of an act that vets reviewers should be taken about as seriously as a Brexit poll commissioned by Aaron Banks. But such pre-emptive damage limitation always makes me feel out on a limb; one of a precious few critics willing to give anything a hearty kicking in an age when designers of tube station album posters can reliably whack a load of four-star ratings on the early drafts and fill the review quotes in later.
This tsunami of pointless praise is an internet invention. With so many online media outlets desperate not to lose the valuable clicks of any major band’s legion of fans, bad reviews are a risk not worth taking, and for the legions of new, spare-time online music journalists – now making up twelve per cent of the UK population – it’s just easier to review everything positively, no matter how bog-standard it is. Give everything five stars and you’re given the key to the corporate cocaine and tequila cupboard and all the gender-fluid panda sex you can handle, but give anything one star, ever, and you’re essentially calling your own tribunal in front of a council of shareholders who will each pass individual judgement your opinion of Flange Revolution’s latest album like emperors at some cultural colosseum. And you can’t go on Twitter for a month.
The result is a generation of artists so used to being felched senseless by reviewers that they feel they have the right to stem and direct the course of opinion across entire publications. This week, The Guardian posted a Tweet claiming that Morrissey, everyone’s favourite indie uncle you try to avoid discussing politics with at Christmas, has refused to send the entire newspaper his latest covers album ‘California Son’ to review because it dared to suggest he might be promoting political groups with an eentsy-weentsy fascist slant, and he’s presumably anticipating a hearty critical milkshaking. The attitude was comically summed up by a recent interviewee of mine joking, “Four is reasonable, five is reasonable, three is a little bit of an insult and anything below that is obviously personal.”
I blame Radiohead. They pioneered the concept of surprise-releasing records, a mechanism designed to make millions from substandard albums before anyone can tell you they’re rubbish, now employed by every rapper from A$AP Willthisdo up. But logically that means that, actually, I’m to blame.
In a recent magazine interview, Thom Yorke was reminded of my infamous one-and-a-half-star review of ‘Kid A’ and recalled how the band, reading it in a dressing room before a gig, were shocked and disheartened by the mauling. To his credit, Thom used the criticism to spur him on to a passionate performance; personally I’d hoped it might spur him on to make better records, but that spectacularly backfired. Now it’s de rigueur to bypass critics and deliver your most awful music direct to the sucke… sorry, fans. It’s the musical equivalent of a Hollywood movie going ‘exclusive to Netflix’.
Now reports like Radiohead’s are liable to spark what we in the trade call ‘critic’s remorse’. We’re not monsters. Some of us have looked un-murderously on orphaned animals, others have driven past hitch-hikers without swerving in for the two-point kill. Our duty is to save our reader time and money, not the artist their precarious record deal, but we’re not entirely blind to the pain our words can cause bands. Criticising music is like eating meat or soiling an Uber – if our priorities were with the victims, we’d exercise more restraint. And yes, I know I gave your record a trashing in 2003, but deep inside, secretly, you knew it wasn’t exactly ‘Hunky Dory’, was it? Don’t @ me.
But we persevere knowing that, in a world of four-star mediocrity, the critical music critic provides a more vital service than ever. Once, rock hacks trawled through the slurry of new music to find their readers diamonds; now, thanks to streaming services, the reader is floundering in the shitstream themselves, and most Tweetmob-fearing reviewers are just shovelling the best-financed turds to the top. When everyone’s lost and adrift in vast, free and uncharted musical waters, full of sirens luring you onto evermore disheartening rocks, the odd lighthouse here and there is invaluable.
So if you happen to chance across a proper, old-school shoeing, don’t get your Dad to phone in to complain. Consider it a gift, from us, of 45 minutes of your life you’ll never wish you had back. And if it’s a review of poor precious Olly, pity the poor Murs minion forced to fall on their sword.