According to the best medical minds on the planet (well, I Googled it), my chronic infection of ‘advanced critic’ might have reached stage four: terminal.
I knew my disease had spread when I started getting deeply irritated every time I noticed a song had ripped off the chorus from ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (and believe me, every single act has done it at least once), but recently the most worrying endgame symptom has started to emerge.
Just last week, when playing through ‘Match Bet’ by Squid for a singles review column, some bacterial virus spewing acidic bile all over the spontaneous-enjoyment nodes of my brain forced me to set aside any musical pleasure I might have otherwise derived from it and think, in swift succession, the following phrases. Ranty singer. Fontaines DC. Idles. And finally: crank wave.
In accordance with my brutal NME basic training – I endured five long years in the Bull & Gate in the mid-‘90s existing solely on stale crisps and Ultrasound – I had automatically, almost unconsciously invented a scene. Now I know this is an obsolete concept today. Subculture is dead, I’m constantly told, people just like ‘music’. “Do you like music?” one Tinder date asks the other. “I love music!” the other replies. And, just enough mutual cultural consensus is established that, with no further questions, the shagging can commence. The issue only arises again when, a few months later, one buys the other a surprise ticket to see ‘music’ act Hozier, forcing the other one to stand in the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for an hour wondering if this whole ‘liking music’ thing is really for them after all.
Of course, no Tinder relationship has ever lasted that long, so everyone just ‘liking music’ has worked out fine so far. In fact, we’ve reached the point where people who actually like music are expected to have the same undiscerning, catch-all attitude as the people who don’t really care about music have always had. And if you’re a national music critic you’re expected to be positively enthusiastic about music that people who don’t really care about music ‘like’. Vaguely.
But, frankly, I’m struggling. There’s something deep in my DNA that craves cults, movements, categorisations. Whenever I hear a musician say they refuse to pigeonholed, I generally think ‘that’s what all those bloody post-pidge bands say’. It’s just been beaten into me. My major musical induction occurred in the early ‘90s, when there was a new scene along more often than a slouching Rees-Mogg meme.
In the space of 1991-2 alone I went from baggy to shoegaze to fraggle, crusty, grunge, bogglecore, lion pop, stoat rock, grebo, Motown junk-punk and whatever the hell Kingmaker were, before Britpop came along and let me wear the same trousers for more than five minutes. And I only made a couple of those up. When I began writing for NME, we were rewarded for inventing that week’s new scene with a ‘bump’ of pocket fluff from a jacket that Noel Gallagher left at the Awards once, and a month’s reprieve from interviewing Mark E Smith.
As long as you never got too deeply embedded into any one scene (with apologies to anyone staring regretfully at their Family Cat tattoos, nursing a ‘shroomadelica-induced personality disorder or sat in an empty, dog-stinking caravan missing the accountant they conceived during The Levellers at Rochdale Rankfest in 1992), they were win-win for the music fan. With the barest of aesthetic modifications – plaid shirt, tartan trouser, Oxfam velvet blazer or, for Carter USM fans, simply washing your hair in a bonfire – you could instantly connect with like-minded outsiders and frot each other senseless with the lubrication of cultural superiority. And if you didn’t particularly like the music, there’d be another micro-zeitgeist along in a minute.
It was like being part of an online fan community, only you actually met each other and had a broader scope of things in common than just all having received restraining orders from Lana Del Rey. Yes, I could see the downside for the bands involved. Being part of a scene gave you an instant 36-month shelf-life, after which only the first couple of pioneering bands will stand a chance of escaping the tsunami of backlash and stigma the scene amass by year three. Basically, by the time you’d heard about it, it was way too late to get involved. But then, frankly, if you were that good in the first place you’d have your own idea, so take my one-off t-shirt money and be thankful for it.
It’s been around ten years since a new underground scene really broke through (chillwave, by my reckoning; grime’s been around for decades), so that’s a whole generation of music fans who have never known the voyage of shape-shifting self-discovery that comes with a thriving, ever-churning subculture, of picking up and discarding lifestyles and alternative personalities until you find one that fits. So, with the South London scene already dubbed gristle rock, let’s continue with crank wave – Fontaines, Squid, Idles, Do Nothing, Life, Famous, insert your own band here; smart, modern guitar bands with a singer who sounds like someone having a psychotic episode in a debating society. And see where not-just-‘music’ takes us from there.