After Richard Ashcroft runs amok on BBC Breakfast and Bobby Gillespie sits aghast on This Week, Mark Beaumont hopes musicians might regain some self-respect.
Not since the Mona Lisa – or maybe the aghast woman in that distracted boyfriend meme – has a single expression said so much. It spoke of the descent of British political discourse into the realm of unabashed idiocy. Of the hopelessness of sense and reason in a world hell-bent on insane self-annihilation. Of the facile distraction techniques of the internet age, blasting innocuousness in our faces in an ever more frenzied gush of social media sewage, racing to keep burying the increasingly blatant lies, power-grabs and profiteering of our leaders beneath a dense sludge of moronic dance crazes, sponsored posts, bad reviews of pointless superhero movies, and Azealia Banks.
It was full of shame, embarrassment, apology and despair. But most of all Bobby Gillespie’s blank, deadpan stare down the camera as the This Week credits rolled and Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo skibidi’d like malfunctioning Maybots around him seemed to say “what the squitting Christ am I, actual Bobby Gillespie from actual Primal Scream, doing here?”
What indeed? And what was Johnny Borrell doing on the same programme last week, pretending to have something to say about rising aggression in society until they let him plug his album? And what was Richard Ashcroft doing on BBC Breakfast, trying to fly out of a video window, lounging across the couch as if to prevent anything falling out of his socks and insinuating (not without reason) that this middling-to-negative reviewer of his new album ‘Natural Rebel’ is a munter?
Why are our rock gods lowering themselves to such televisual humiliations? I mean, take a seat on the Question Time panel by all means, but This Week is basically a political One Show if it was directed by Christopher Biggins. Didn’t we used to be above this sort of bollocks? Wasn’t the BBC Breakfast sofa where us minging journalists went to crow and contextualise their new albums for the culturally braindead school-runners? Didn’t the musicians themselves just swan onto Top Of The Pops and mime the guitar solo on a fire extinguisher to show how far above the shallow promotional machine they were? Wasn’t there a healthy disdain in the alternative community at the idea of paddling in vapid mainstream slush? Wasn’t it all a bit demeaning to do anything where you might end up sharing a green room with Michael Ball or the unfamiliar kind of Loose Women? All a bit, well, Olly Murs?
Maybe once, yes, when major stars sold enough records that they didn’t need to lower themselves to the status of a book-plugging Mock The Week part-timer in order to get exposure. When there were enough respectable youth culture outlets for music on television to accommodate alternative acts without them risking sharing a sofa with Katie Hopkins and whichever institutionalised dullard won The Circle. And when cheap mainstream magazine programmes assumed that serious musicians had more self-respect than to come on and get metaphorically gunged.
We’re reaching the bottom of a slippery slope, the peak of which can be traced back to the launch of The Osbournes in 2002 and Bez winning Celebrity Big Brother in 2005. Before then you might have spotted the odd Jarvis cameo on Da Ali G Show or Feeder playing CD:UK, but here were a couple of supposedly counter-culture heroes, both consisting of at least 87 per cent drugs, enthusiastically embracing vacuous light entertainment. And making a success of it, in an age when selling records was starting to look like as viable a future career prospect as repairing fax machines or managing Michael Barrymore.
A vital cultural barrier broke: come 2006 the death throes of Top Of The Pops and the shunting of most music programming to non-terrestrial channels coincided with Preston from The Ordinary Boys got embroiled in a tabloid romance on CBB, as Maggot from Goldie Lookin Chain looked on, and before we knew it Johnny frigging Rotten was fighting ostriches in the jungle and the Mondays were reality regulars, hunting down UFOs, raiding bankrupts’ storage lockers for profit and swearing themselves shitless in haunted castles.
And here we are. Richard Ashcroft is making the BBC Breakfast producers wish they’d booked Tommy Robinson for an easier life, and Jarvis’s nonconformist integrity extends to refusing to wear the uniform on Bargain Hunt (also featuring Bez, obviously). There’s a positive side to the reduction of the rock star cachet to a level one step short of Celebrity Pointless – the media trainers who’ve spent twenty years or so telling their acts not to say anything about politics for fear of alienating their many Britain First fans are now probably pumping them full of perceptive Brexit bullet points and opinions on policing cuts, just so they’ll get past Simon Neil’s researchers and bag one of the few remaining chances to get their mugs on telly. But where are we headed? Will new garage bands have to finish rehearsals earlier so they can practice baking a show-stopping Victoria sponge? I picture A&R men turning acts down saying “your songs are ground-breaking and your image is fantastic, but you foxtrot like a rhino on stilts”. Or will, perhaps, musicians regain some self-respect and start acting their stature once more? Although hopefully not before we get to see Fleetwood Mac on Jeremy Kyle.