The Bastilleification of guitar music must stop, for all our sakes, says NME columnist Mark Beaumont. Opinions all his own!
As the baby Trump blimp rises over Westminster as if Clinton Cards have branched out into political satire or, by some disastrous clerical error, Roger Waters was made head of Trump’s welcoming committee, I salute it through gritted teeth. Not out of any form of support for America’s premier ball of furry orange poison but because it’s in serious danger of upstaging my own blimp-based protest. I’m planning to fly an inflatable Dan Smith from Bastille over the Electric Ballroom, wiping his arse with ‘The Queen Is Dead’.
Why? Because Bastille are the endgame of a 30-year plot to tame, contain, castrate and commodify alternative guitar music. We used to call it ‘indie’ back when ‘indie’ translated as ‘meaningful often drug-dazed antithesis of whoever your generation’s Nick Grimshaw attended the wedding of’. Before someone ruined it all by adding the word ‘landfill’, several generations of us defined ourselves as ‘indie’. We got ‘indie’ haircuts, wore ‘indie’ trousers and had ‘indie’ sex – depending on your era, it was either morose, on fire or desperately trying to keep pace with The Wedding Present’s ‘Shatner’. Being ‘indie’ was a badge of cultural honour; we were wild-eyed, dangerous-to-know rebels from the wrong side of the Our Price racks, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One but with Reni hats and eczema.
‘Indie’’s biggest mistake was to become financially viable. Back when The Buzzcocks got the DIY ball rolling by having minor hits with self-produced 7-inches, much to the bewilderment of the major labels tossing The Sex Pistols around like an unpinned hand grenade, being ‘independent’ was an underground oddity. But as homegrown labels gained traction and success through new wave, goth, C86, baggy, grunge, Britpop and whatever the ‘00s scene should have been called, those same majors had decades to hone their take-over bids. They bought up most of the independent labels, poached the prime alternative movers and shakers and gave big pushes to ever-more saleable, radio-friendly guitar bands – Mumford & Sons, Catfish & The Bottlemen, Blossoms. It gradually became more difficult to decipher exactly what these alternative guitar bands were an alternative to. The ‘pop’ of Britpop meant The Kinks, The Beatles, Wire and The Stranglers; the ‘pop’ of this current batch of indie-pop means whoever’s wedding Nick Grimshaw has RSVP’d to this week. ‘Indie’ was reduced from a way of life to a denim jacket, £48.99 in Top Man.
Final destination? The corporate ‘indie’ of Bastille, a boyband in alt-rock clothing. They’re the ultimate indication that pop now ‘owns’ indie rock, has entirely devoured and monetised its aesthetic. When they appear in the upper reaches of rock festival bills covering Corona’s ‘Rhythm Of The Night’ with both eyes set firmly on Florence’s ‘You’ve Got The Love’ dollar, they might as well be strong-arming rock’n’roll out to the centre of the stage, gagging and blindfolding it, and putting a cattle bolt between its eyes. When Smith sings “but we’re losers on our back seats/Singing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’” in latest single ‘Quarter Past Midnight’ – a record that could only be considered ‘edgy’ by someone who considers The Script the Fugazi of their age – it’s a cynical and transparent attempt to exploit a rich cultural tradition, like the Love Island narrator quoting Byron while a couple of gormless bimbos go at it like steroidal gibbons. If, as some are whispering, Bastille might be headed for the headline sets of festivals like Reading & Leeds, that really would be game over for alternative rock culture. If not Reading & Leeds.
Because it’s not as though Bastille act as an entry drug to more challenging music. With alternative media now splayed piecemeal across the internet like an upturned lorry of Perfume Genius vinyl, there’s no unifying conduit to gather up young, impressionable Bastille fans and nudge them in the direction of a Wolf Alice gig or a Maccabees album. Streaming services are a fat lot of use, designed as they are to go ‘I see you like anodyne chart pap, might I humbly recommend this identikit shit?’ Even on radio, the truly alternative music is shunted off of Radio One to 6Music, where only already dedicated leftfield Friends Of Furman will ever hear it. Mainstream media has remoulded itself to massage algorithms, maximise numbers and churn out the familiar; advancing the culture risks displeasing the mighty gods Spotify and Shazam, who grow powerful on the passing interest of bored teenagers and grind all self-released ‘weird shit’ to powder in their digitised jaws, growling ‘chorus within thirty seconds or you DON’T GET PAID!’.
Perhaps the new paradigms of music consumption are forcing us back to those halcyon days of The Buzzcocks bagging up ‘Spiral Scratch’ EPs by the thousand in their front room – we have to create our own counter-culture all over again. God knows there’s plenty of furious fodder out there. Just this week I saw Lara Smiles on her knees on the stage of the Camden Monarch pulling squalls of ferocious sound out of her guitar like some industro-pop alchemist, got pointed at the glorious geek rock of Asylums and fell face-first into the boiling psychedelic stew of the new Menace Beach album, all without straying past the first panel of my Gmail inbox. But without any accepted focus of consensus, we’re reliant on bands like Idles to make themselves un-ignorable by bawling their way through all the background noise, or the many offshoots of Fat White Family and HMLTD to helm broad, sprawling new underground movements, mostly in their pants and smeared in questionable fluids. Wet Knicker Rock? It’s got to be better than guitar music being choked to death by the ash of ‘Pompeii’.