It’s the alt-rock chart battle if not of all time then at least of all second Fridays in June. This week, indie legends James, fielding their 16th album ‘All The Colours Of You’, face off against future rock titans Wolf Alice and their critical smash ‘Blue Weekend’ in the most nail-biting race for the top since The Snuts vs. Dry Cleaning a couple of weeks ago.
Both acts have repeatedly stalled at Number Two, denied their moments of chart-topping glory by goal hangers such as Adele and Shania Twain, so passions are high. By rights, their interviews should be alight with pre-bout disses and burns flying between the two camps like the inhabitants of Northern Ireland discussing the benefits of Brexit. “I’ve had ayahuasca comedowns more enjoyable than this shit!”, perhaps, or: “Sit down… at least five positions below us!”
Instead: reserved, respectful silence. You’d barely know there was anything exciting happening at all. Because, somewhere over the past 10 years or so, we’ve forgotten the fine art of the indie beef.
Last week, Eddie Argos of Art Brut reminded us of the golden age of the indie feud. In his Does Rock’n’Roll Kill Braincells?! interview he reminisced about the run-ins he and his band had had with Bloc Party, The Magic Numbers and Arctic Monkeys. “We were at a festival together with the Arctic Monkeys once and were really tired,” he said. “Our guitar player Ian was trying to get some kip and Arctic Monkeys were being lairy and threw a champagne bottle over the wall and it nearly hit someone in the head, so Ian got really angry, broke the bottle, kicked in their dressing room door and said: ‘WHO THREW THIS? YOU’RE NOT FUCKING WITH THE KAISER CHIEFS NOW!’”
These, of course, were the days when not only were the Kaiser Chiefs notoriously safe to fuck with, but when the currency of indie beefs was at its peak. The ‘00s guitar bands were well aware that Blur vs. Oasis had cemented Britpop’s two foremost bands into legend and left the rest to scrabble for a place in history, and that the world stopped turning whenever Noel Gallagher drew breath to cast judgement on the latest smack punk pretenders blasting out of Darlington.
There wasn’t quite the same level of risk to initiating an indie feud as there was in, say, a rap or Norwegian black metal one – the worst you might expect was Chelsea Dagger eyes across the Hawley Arms or having your guitar craftily detuned backstage at Later…. So there was something of a race for the prize of rock rival immortality: The Killers vs. The Bravery; The Horrors vs. The Enemy; Kasabian vs. um Keane. Johnny Borrell even chanced his arm trying to get a rise out of 1962 Bob Dylan, who was presumably too busy making chips to respond.
Strangely, none of these face-offs had quite the same cultural impact as Blur/Oasis, and as the real battle of the 2010s became rock vs. the internet, the very concept of the indie beef naturally faded. Downloading and streaming became a common enemy keeping all alternative acts out of the singles chart and robbing them of the mainstream breakthrough that hit singles entailed, so there was little spotlight worth fighting over. Forced back underground, into the internet’s endless rabbit warren, alternative music became the guerrilla resistance again, largely supporting and encouraging all plucky comrades with any chance of going over the top. Noel and Damon even made up; the only significant indie feud still on-going consisted of Liam Gallagher, in caps lock, shouting at high flying birds.
Today, chart rival acts pass each other in the kitchen of Tim’s Listening Party with a may-the-most-anthemically-produced-chorus-win nod. The most frenzied indie blow-up of the past year has been an exchange of polite open letters between Gene’s Martin Rossiter and Ian Brown over Covid and anti-vaxx misinformation. There was a story in Eddie’s interview, however, that bands struggling to the get attention they deserve should heed. “Kele from Bloc Party punched me in the head!” he said. “We were in the tabloids after that!”
Yes, one thing hasn’t changed: humanity’s love of a dogfight, which makes the artfully deployed, carefully orchestrated indie beef a potent promotional weapon that alternative music has prematurely decommissioned from its arsenal.
With rock music beginning to dominate the album chart once more, the time is right to roll out the big guns again. The trick, though, is to avoid the grubby car-park scrap of the average Twitter feud, where everybody comes out looking drunk, petty and pathetic, and let the riling of your chosen nemesis play out gradually: in interviews, lyrics and videos, more Netflix revenge drama than TOWIE Mai Tai in the face.
Rock wrestling might well be fixed, but if alternative music is to fight for survival, it might as well be with gloves off.