Albums about murderous monkeys, neon underwear, odes to prawns – our columnist Mark Beaumont approves of the revival of alt-rock wit.
At first glance, it’s a Gus Van Sant script. An adopted student with uncaring parents, after years of bullying, hooks up with the most popular girl in class. Then, when she dumps him, he sets fire to the entire school, killing hundreds. Unimaginable tragedy, teenage mental health issues, flashbacks to Carrie. A shocker, a heartbreaker; the sort of story you could imagine Stacey Dooley narrating, in that affecting way she has of sounding like she’s ordering the world’s most serious Bacardi Breezer.
It’s about as funny, though, as being stuck in a car with a caterwauling James Corden. But imagine if that student wasn’t a teenager at all, but a monkey. And the story was relayed with a kind of retro, Rocky Horror Broadway schmaltz. Hilarious! A Trump-baiting satire of modern American youth! Well, that’s The Lemon Twigs’ new musical album ‘Go To School’, and it’s a sign that rock music has finally thrown off the shackles of commerce and can have a damn good laugh at itself again.
After two decades of scowling into camera lenses as though there was an as-yet-unproven link between playing guitar and rampant haemorrhoids, we’re seeing glimmers of humour returning to the alternative sphere. Confidence Man’s Janet Planet is currently bounding around stages in a dot-matrix neon dazzle-bra, presumably part of Deadmau5’s new Victoria Secrets range. Wolf Alice are all about the cross-dressing videos, like a Monty Python sketch called ‘The Corbynistas’. And if the lunar Liberace of ‘Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino’ wasn’t enough of a satirical smirk at the 21st Century’s retro obsessions, Alex Turner has taken to pausing ‘One Point Perspective’ at the line “I’ve lost my train of thought” and pretending, at length, to lose his train of thought. Pure Phoenix Nights.
Now, Arctic Monkeys have always maintained a comedic thread through their career, attending award ceremonies dressed as The Wizard Of Oz characters and country gents, and making bingo-related penis gags over a video of a gangland battle between gangster clowns. But it’s refreshing and endearing to see the laughs creeping back elsewhere in rock and alt-pop. Such flights of comical fancy were once a mainstay of alternative culture, a wink to the wise that The Man was being played. From the moment it got so stoned it let Ringo sing, formative rock music refused to take itself too seriously. ‘Boris The Spider’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Bike’, The Magical Mystery Tour, everything by Frank Zappa, all of glam rock (but particularly Dave Hill), The Damned in tutus, ‘Vicar In A Tutu’, Robert Smith dressed as a teddy bear, REM’s ‘Stand’, ‘World In Motion’, ‘Size Of A Cow’, the drummer from Pavement and the very existence of something called a ‘Bez’, a ’90s word that loosely translates today as ‘living GIF’.
“Wit, tomfoolery and the awareness that making hefty chunks of money playing in a rock band was an inherently ridiculous thing to do were intrinsic threads of the ’90s alt-rock personality”
Wit, tomfoolery and the awareness that making hefty chunks of money playing in a rock band was an inherently ridiculous thing to do were intrinsic threads of the alt-rock personality. Hell, such were the lucrative larks everyone was having by the early ‘90s, someone signed The Frank & Walters, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and The Sultans Of Ping FC, a band made semi-famous by a screechy indie pop song about losing their jumper at a nightclub. Honestly, you wouldn’t have wanted to be Rage Against The Machine trying to muster a discussion group on socio-political oppression with the locals backstage at Reading ‘93.
So where did all the LOLs go? As with most ills of the modern rock world, I blame Radiohead. Taking cues from The Beatles and The Kinks, Britpop was instinctively wry and surreal, driving beds around Oxfordshire, taking bath-time tea with glamour models and wholeheartedly getting its yeti on. But the surliness of Oasis and The Verve took hold of the post-Britpop era, and then ‘OK Computer’ arrived like someone stepping up to Jarvis Cocker in the middle of one of his hilarious between-song anecdotes, putting a finger to his lips and holding up pictures of bankers stamping on the faces of infants.
Everyone (apart from The Supernaturals) dutifully sat down to play acoustic songs, and by the time they stood up again there wasn’t much to laugh about in the world. 9/11, the Iraq war, Blair’s treachery, Bo Selecta – the ‘00s were dark times and no matter how vibrant their music or aesthetic, the bands of the age were weighed down by them. Even a scene as flamboyant as new rave was conducted with a fundamental seriousness, as though we needed to respect the territorial claims of Atlantis in the face of Interzonian expansionism.
As we entered a decade of Tory austerity and right-wing resurgence in the ‘10s, things worsened to the point that it felt simply improper to suggest that any of the new crop of indie rockers turn their Foals frowns upside down. Things might have been bad back in ’93, but at least nobody expected a laboured metaphor for Brexit out of The Sultans Of Ping FC. At the same time, shrinking sales and tighter budgets meant that labels were less willing to lob a bundle on a light-hearted throwaway band, and bands themselves didn’t want to risk their tenuous sales stream on a tongue-in-cheek single. Plus side, no more Goldie Lookin’ Chains. Down side, no more ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’s.
But dourness eventually sours. The continued success of The Wombats is down, at least in part, to the fact that young indie fans want a carefree jump about every now and then, even if it’s just for a break from worrying about gender politics, inevitable debt, online bullies and competitive flossing. And now that underground bands have conceded that they’ll never make any money, a more fuck-it-let’s-have-a-ball attitude is beginning to prevail. With nothing to lose, why the hell shouldn’t Superorganism sing of the delights of prawndom, or The Moonlandingz regularly clingfilm random objects to themselves?
So bring on music’s comedy comeback, but let’s be vigilant – we want wit, not pastiche. One whiff of a new Darkness and I’m calling the Martini police.