Fame, Fame, Fatal Fame

Uncategorized

You may have heard, if you have been looking hard enough, some news this week that a member of a boyband is no longer a member of a boyband. Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction has enveloped the collective conscious of, seemingly, the entire world, making front page news wherever you look, destroying the hearts and minds of people across the globe, apparently having more of an emotional impact than any news in history.

The hysterical reaction of “Directioners” is evidently excessive and, frankly, insane, and the dissolution of One Direction should be of no concern to anyone over the age of 12, but there is a deeper issue that is being overlooked in the frenzy. Zayn’s departure acts as a direct parallel to the genuinely heart-breaking news that Chris Hardman, better known as Lil’ Chris, has died aged 24. Hardman had been suffering with depression, and the trappings of premature fame took hold.  Earlier this month, he posted on Twitter: “Thinking about quitting music forever… There has to come a time eventually when I have to face reality. I’m just not good enough”.

Personal opinion of Hardman’s music is irrelevant; here was a boy that, aged 15, was thrust into the main star role of the reality show ‘Rock School’. One with a few more years may have suspected that a position in Gene Simmons’ high school Channel 4 band might not lead to a fruitful music career, but Hardman had the rock singer ideal thrust upon him. He was, before his 16th birthday, being held up as the future of pop-punk, told by Simmons that he was the real deal, used as a focal point in the show’s desperate attempt to manufacture talent. I wrote on this blog a while ago, aptly in the wake of the One Direction “weed-gate”, that the British press love to build youngsters up to knock them down; well here was Channel 4 building a naïve boy up to gain ratings.

Hardman and Malik act almost as polar opposites of the same problem. Malik got everything that must have initially been hoped for; incredible fame and fortune, success, devoted fans, while Hardman was quickly left on the scrapheap, biting the dust as so many have before. One Direction are an extremely rare case of relatively sustained, and huge, success from reality beginnings, but Malik’s situation shows that it is not necessarily all it seems. Possibly others can take it in their stride, but having that level of fame at such a young age, an unrelenting spotlight on your every move from childhood, would affect the best of us. Malik has gone solo as opposed to shunning the limelight completely, but he has left the ubiquitous behemoth of One Direction.

A glance at the reaction to his departure provides an insight into his reasoning. Some “fans”, a day earlier besotted with Malik, changed their Twitter names to “I hate Zayn Malik”, condemning him for his decision, even going as far as death and suicide threats. Malik is not much older than these fans; if they are so mentally unstable, how is he expected to cope with their incessant attention?

On the flipside, Hardman is a horrendous example of what can happen when, as in 99% of cases, the early promise fails to materialise. After years of hope and minor fame, stretching back to early-teens, it becomes impossible to envisage life without it, life as an unknown. Those that propelled one to celebrity have hastily deserted when the well has run dry, and one is left to face reality alone. Tragically, for Hardman, it proved impossible.

In the mania surrounding One Direction, it can be forgotten that these “stars” are just as human as the rest of us. Hardman’s death will be used to sell papers, maybe held up as an example of the dangers of fame, but like his fame, it will soon be put to one side. If One Direction dissolve, another band will be along to take their place. They are manufactured, then discarded by the creators and consumers like last Christmas’s toys. We have a duty to care for the weak and vulnerable in our society. Sadly, that duty does not appear to extend to the famous.

Go West

Uncategorized

It is no real surprise when there is a backlash against an artist playing a festival. There has always been a trend of people deeming anyone that doesn’t fit their rigid parameters of quality as “garbage” – I have been guilty of this myself, but it now appears that not only are people disappointed by festival selections, they are actively campaigning against them.

There appear to be two lines of thought for the risible recent petitions to prevent Kanye West’s Glastonbury headline slot. The first is that his music is mainstream hip hop, perhaps akin to 50 Cent or Lil Wayne, emblematic of a once countercultural festival now appealing to the lowest common denominator. This idea seems to me to be one of people that have never listened to Kanye West’s music. On a purely artistic level, Kanye is one of the most significant, innovative artists of the 21st Century in any genre. Before his solo work, he produced one of the defining hip hop albums, Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint’, stamping his mark all over the album’s sound and on the collective cultural conscience.

He started his own output with ‘The College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’, garnering huge acclaim for his amalgamation of socially, racially and politically conscious lyrics with infectious hooks and accessible pop beats. As gangsta rap dominated, Kanye eschewed the genre for a more playful, engaging feel, in a similar way to De La Soul 15 years prior.

He did not rest within his comfort zone, and his subsequent albums, ‘Graduation’ and ‘808s & Heartbreak’, fluttered between genres while maintaining their own identity. Electronic music became a stronger part of Kanye’s repertoire, before he adopted a minimalist style, radically ditching the form that gained popularity for a stripped back, more classic ‘singing’ approach.

Then, in 2010, Kanye West delivered, simply, one of the greatest albums of the last 20 years. ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is a masterpiece, pushing the boundaries of both hip hop and pop music, redefining a genre and striking its audience in a way that ‘OK Computer’ did for rock. Five years on, it stands up as a masterpiece. If that was his ‘OK Computer’, then his most recent album, ‘Yeezus’, is his ‘Kid A’, combining hip hop and pop with genuinely hard, challenging music, dirty bass lines, and almost avant-garde, incongruous samples.

There is an idea that music that relies on production and samples is somehow not “real music”. This real music term seems to exclusively mean “white men with guitars”. Kanye West’s music is more challenging, innovative and, dare I say, significant than almost anyone working in “mainstream” music today. Looking at some of Glastonbury’s recent headliners – Mumford & Sons, Muse, Coldplay, U2 – where were the objections for that bland list? Kanye has made a succession of albums that ignore what is to be expected, that challenge him as an artist and us as listeners. The aforementioned bands have done anything but. Yes, Kanye is arrogant, but he backs it up. Kendrick Lamar released an astonishing, creative album this week – one wonders if in 5 years there will be a petition against him playing Glastonbury as he does not make “real music”. The glorious thing about music is that it’s ever changing, not stagnant. It evolves. One can imagine that were Glastonbury around in the 1950s, people would be objecting to Little Richard as this “other” genre is not jazz, or in the 1920s they would be protesting that Duke Ellington was not “real music”.

The other common reason for the petition appears to be that Kanye West’s personality does not fit the “ethos and spirit” of Glastonbury. It is impossible to deny that he is, frankly, a bell end, but let’s look at some recent performers that were welcomed with open arms. On the bell end scale, it would be hard to usurp Bono and the Gallaghers. Of course, Kanye cannot play, but come in tax-evading, narcissistic Bono, come in Noel Gallagher, who said of Blur “I hope they catch AIDS and die”, and your brother Liam (does that even need to be explained?) Yes come in Nate Mendel, Foo Fighters bassist who organised a benefit concert in support of the idea that HIV and AIDS are not linked, and come in Keith Richards, who was arrested for possession of heroin with the intention of trafficking. Wait, who’s that at the back? And what did he do? What?! He was rude to Taylor Swift?! GET OUT!!!

Doesn’t really hold up, does it? Do we really think many people would have objected even if The Rolling Stones line-up had included Bill Wyman, who dated a 13 year old girl at the age of 47? But that’s different, isn’t it? Because The Rolling Stones are “proper music”, and Kanye pissed off Beck fans a bit. Glastonbury goers want “real rock n roll stars”, but you mustn’t mildly offend anyone else at an awards ceremony.

If you really don’t like his music, then don’t go to see him. There are over 2000 acts at Glastonbury; if you are going solely for one headliner, you are kind of missing the point. And if you don’t like him, you can always get some “real music” from the other confirmed headliners, Foo Fighters. Where’s the Nate Mendel petition again? Remember, the HIV/AIDS denier? Oh yes, of course, Foo Fighters are white men with guitars. Nevermind.

On Second Thoughts…

Uncategorized

Earlier today, I posted a blog to commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Bends. While I believe all of what I wrote, I have reflected and, really, the post is largely just a review of a classic album. It is an album that, if you like music, you will have heard. A review is not a bad thing in and of itself, but there are hundreds of them, and I didn’t really need to add another. I addressed the things that make The Bends great; the phenomenal guitars, beautiful vocals, astonishing ambience, but those are the objective qualities. They are what make The Bends great neutrally, but they do not tell the whole story of why I love it. For my blog, I must use what only I can express, and that is what the album means to me personally.

The objective, apparent brilliance of The Bends is, of course, the reason I loved it initially, and without true quality it would not bear repeating today; it would be consigned to the file of “novelty nostalgia”, like Taking Back Sunday, or the haircut that I had in 2008. It is, as I said previously, a remarkable album, but it is one that has had an impact on me that transcends music.

There are cultural touchstones that I can point to in my life that have affected my personality and views in a way that goes beyond their medium. The Office shaped my taste in comedy and continues to define my humour and, in turn, my friendships. Mulholland Drive altered my perception of art as a whole, broadened my mind to possibilities within the medium and transformed my outlook on narrative storytelling. The Bends had an impact every bit as profound as any great work of art or literature. Through my family, I listened to great music practically from birth, but no memory is as vivid as that first day I listened to The Bends. It opened me up to the infinite possibilities of music, to the emotional impact that a 4 minute song can have. I had felt this previously through The Beach Boys, but here was something different.

Other music had been more distant, an art form to be appreciated and admired – the voice of Brian Wilson, the lyrics of Bob Dylan – but this was engulfing me. I still remember the first time I listened to Fake Plastic Trees; when Thom Yorke’s voice changed from a whisper to a cry, and the whole band kicked in, something stirred inside me. It was one of a handful of truly life changing moments that I can point to, my whole preconception around what music could achieve came crashing down. Radiohead were affecting my being at its core, the music was wrapping around my heart, it was destroying the barriers that I had in place.

If you’re reading this, it is likely that you know me, and therefore certain that you will know about my obsession with Radiohead. I distinctly remember it being a topic of much amusement and, frankly, confusion among my friends in secondary school. As 15/16 year olds, we were each discovering new music, and if I was ever asked for a recommendation, I would bring in my copy of The Bends. I vividly recall a couple of my friends, aware of my burgeoning Radiohead mania, stealing and hiding my CD of The Bends. Fear coursed through my veins, panic that I had lost it. I could replace it, but that copy had developed sentimental value, and I couldn’t last a day or two without listening to the album.

The Bends was something of a gateway album for me. It led me onto other great albums, but most importantly it was my first encounter with Radiohead, by far and away still my favourite band of all time. The last decade has been, and probably always will be, the most important, formative one of my life, and if one album has been the soundtrack, it has been The Bends. Every song has a dear place in my heart, each one has been there for all of my highs and low thus far. They all transport me back to times and places, they all evoke feelings in me that no other music does.

The Bends still holds that profound power. I listened to it today on the tube home from work. On first listen, I was a 14 year old celebrating Christmas Day in Liverpool, not yet even studying for my GCSEs, completely unaware of what the world had to offer, yet it resonated with me. Now, I am a 23 year old man living in London with my girlfriend, working in a corporate job in the City, and it resonates as much as ever. My life has been through multiple changes, and The Bends has been there through them all. Sitting on the tube today, travelling back from St Paul’s, I reflected on the blog that I posted. As Thom Yorke’s voice broke, sighing “If I could be who you wanted” at the end of Fake Plastic Trees, I knew that an objective review was insufficient. It will seem alien to most; people may see The Bends as a fine album, or may not be fans at all, but for me, it is more than just an album. It is an ineradicable part of my life.

At 20, The Bends is undoubtedly a classic album, but it is more than that. It is my classic album.

The Bends: A Masterpiece Turns 20

Uncategorized

It was only a matter of time before this day arrived. Finally, 9 months after I started this blog, it is here – a post about Radiohead. As Friday 13th March 2015 marked 20 years since the release of their first masterpiece, The Bends, now is the perfect time.

Radiohead’s first album, 1993’s Pablo Honey, is by no means a bad record. It has some good pop songs, but it is largely indistinguishable from other releases of the time. Radiohead were seen as Nirvana-lite, and after the success of Creep, were already being written off as a one hit wonder. Then, in 1995, came the unanticipated, unheralded release of their follow-up.

I cannot recount the reaction of the time first hand. When The Bends was released, I was still 2 months shy of my 4th birthday. When you listen to the record now, it is astonishing that such time has passed. Despite all its fans, all its imitators, nothing since has been able to replicate its sound. If it was released today, it would be a ground-breaking guitar album. I first heard it 10 years ago, at the age of 14. It was one of many unorthodox Christmas presents; the 25th December 2005 a date indelibly marked on my brain as The Bends came alongside, amongst other things, Doolittle by Pixies. It was arguably the single most important day in shaping my current tastes.

Listening to The Bends now, with 10 years’ distance from the initial impact (20 years for others), what stands out is the relentless quality of songs. Unlike some of Radiohead’s other work, which is reliant on atmosphere and innovation as much as anything, The Bends works so well because of the unyielding brilliance of the individual tracks. Radiohead are a visionary, pioneering group, and The Bends, despite being a guitar album, is really unlike anything that came before (or indeed since). However, it is as close as Radiohead have come to writing an album of great accessible songs. High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, Bones, Just, My Iron Lung, Street Spirit. Song writing of the absolute highest order.

While it is seen as Radiohead’s most accessible, and possibly least genre-bending, album since their debut, The Bends is not easy to pin down. The album opens with a swirling, disorientating sound, before guitars, drums, organs, pianos and synthesizers coalesce to create the hypnotic, entrancing Planet Telex. Thom Yorke’s muffled vocals glaze the layers, straining “You can crush it but it’s always near, chasing you home saying everything is broken, everyone is broken”. The track sets the tone – intangible, ominous, foreboding – for the album and, arguably, for the next 20 years of Radiohead. It is the starting point for Radiohead MK II; the near/post-millennial anguish and uncertainty that litters their work.

From that point, the album flows perfectly, no let-up in genius, no time to lose focus, no opportunity to ease off. The guitars crash in for the title track, Radiohead’s more reflective sound engrosses the listener for High and Dry and the sprawling, majestic Fake Plastic Trees, before the bass driven, criminally underrated Bones, with Yorke’s soaring “I used to fly like Peter Pan” one of the album’s many spine-tingling moments. Everybody knows that Radiohead do reflective, beautiful tracks (or as some tritely say – “depressing”), and they are in abundance here with High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, Bullet Proof et al, but it is often overlooked that Radiohead can truly “rock”. The Bends, Bones, Just, My Iron Lung – there are guitar heavy songs here that align themselves closer to Nirvana, Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins.

The album closes with one of the greatest tracks ever recorded; the extraordinary Street Spirit (Fade Out). It acts as a signal towards what was to come for the band, a track like no other not just by Radiohead, but by anyone. Largely through the guitar sound, it concocts an ambience of anxiety, of imperceptible unease in the best way imaginable. Harking back to my previous blog, it almost has the atmosphere of a David Lynch film; an indescribable, disquieting surrealism, a dreamy quality, the song floating along, unnoticeably submerging you as it flows. As the final note sounds, you know that you have just heard something truly unique, and staggeringly wonderful.

The biggest compliment I can pay to Radiohead as a band is that The Bends is probably in my top 10-15 albums ever, and yet is in a fight to make Radiohead’s top 3. With The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A and In Rainbows, they have made 4 genuine stone-cold classics, able to go toe to toe with all of the Revolvers, Blonde on Blondes, Pet Sounds’s and Neverminds that you could care to mention. Add that to their other fantastic works (Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief and The King of Limbs), and it is truly staggering.

I will just go out and say it, at the risk of complete chastisement. 20 years after it started, that 7 album run – The Bends, OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief, In Rainbows and The King of Limbs – means that, in my humble opinion of course, Radiohead have a body of work that matches and indeed exceeds that of any band ever. Yes, even coming from Liverpool, that includes EVERY other band ever. *Ducks*

Enjoy the masterpiece in full: