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Monday, July 21, 2008

Does the world need another indie band?

It's the height of the festival season, and across Britain Identikit groups of tight-trousered, floppy-haired boys with guitars are taking to the stage, to thrash out a homogenous jangle. Critics have dubbed their sound 'indie landfill'. Is it the death knell of a once-vibrant underground scene?

Friday night on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. This is the venue Radiohead played a career-defining show 11 years ago. In the past, it has hosted masterful live performances from The White Stripes, Muse and The Who. Tonight's headliners are the terrific Kings of Leon. Before they can take the stage, however, there's one more support act to soak up. In the half-dark just after sunset, a tousle-haired man in a promising Pink Floyd T-shirt steps up to the mic, carrying his comforting, classic Gibson Les Paul guitar. But then he opens his mouth. His name is Jon Lawler, and his band are known as The Fratellis.

Festival season is in full swing now. Across the land, stages are being raised in city parks, in country farms and on ancient estates for what promises to be Britain's biggest ever summer of music. But if they want to book enough acts to justify the inflated ticket prices in these harsh economic times, once-eager festival organisers have a struggle on their hands. How will they fill that gaping hole on Sunday afternoon? Who's going to warm up the crowd for The Ting Tings? Luckily the current UK music scene has just the thing. Someone has even compounded a helpful term to use when you call the record companies in a line-up emergency; this uninspiring, guitar-gelled Polyfilla – of which The Fratellis are a fine example – is now known by some as "landfill indie".

As in every musical era, one style dominates the hearts and minds of our nation's youth; it dictates their fashion sense, their relationship with their parents and, quite possibly, their personal-hygiene regimen. These days, it's indie that's the cholesterol in the veins of popular culture, and we need to start thinking about a crash diet.

You know who they are, these smooth-chinned strummers, with their smart-arsed, self-admiring band names almost invariably prefaced by the definite article: The Kooks, The Courteeners, The Holloways, The Rascals, The View, The Wombats, The Automatic, The Pigeon Detectives, The Hoosiers. Their turgid, tuneless banalities use all the oxygen between ad breaks on XFM; they mop up the soggy midday slot on the main stage. Indie is the 30-year-old genre that gave us The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Blur and Arctic Monkeys. But in that period it has also produced Ocean Colour Scene, Menswear and Joe Lean and The Jing Jang Jong.

John Niven was an indie fan in the 1980s, an A&R man in the Britpopping 1990s, and is now the author of Kill Your Friends, a sadistic satire of the record industry of which he was once an enthusiastic member. "I was in Gap a few weeks ago and there was some sort of generic indie music playing," he says. "I was with a friend who's a promoter and a bit younger than me. After about three or four tracks I asked him: 'Whose LP is this?' And he said, 'No, it's a compilation.' Every track sounded identical. The guitars, the production; all these bands sound like they're made in the same studio with the same producer. It's such a ball-less, soulless, generic whitewashed indie sound. You could probably take a member from each band and throw them together in a new group and no one would be able to tell the difference. They're completely interchangeable. Scouting for Girls are like the sound of Satan's scrotum emptying. They're abysmal."

Once, indie was a world away from the mainstream. "Originally we talked of 'independent' music, meaning music on independent labels, and at that time there was still a shared (if loose) framework of ideology and sonics that traced back to punk," explains Simon Reynolds, pop historian and author of Rip it Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984. "It was an oppositional term: independent music opposed itself to the mainstream rock and pop released on major labels. The idea was that on independent labels you would find more experimental or adventurous music, people exploring esoteric and non-commercial directions, making sounds too abrasive or weird to be on daytime radio. The lyrical content would be radical or challenging, either exploring the dark side of human condition, or being political in various ways, or just very sophisticated, ironic, and so on.

"By about 1984/1985, though, 'indie' meant a style of song-oriented, guitar-based music whose opposition to the mainstream took the form of no longer being contemporary – spurning synthesisers and drum machines and sequencers, avoiding the R&B and dance music influences that dominated the pop charts, and instead looking back to rock's archives, principally the 1960s. 'Indie' meant jangly guitar groups. By 1986 'indie' pretty much equated with a refusal of the pop present. Because it now meant a style of music, not a means of production and distribution, it could be uncoupled from the independent label system, and that is what gradually happened."

Between NME's seminal C86 compilation tape (which crystallised the 1980s indie sound) and the Britpop revolution a decade later, the genre still had a separate chart ' and "indie" really meant independent. It just so happened that most of the bands on indie labels played jangly guitars: baggy bands such as The Charlatans and Inspiral Carpets, T-shirt bands including Ned's Atomic Dustbin, shoe-gazers such as Ride. Whenever one of them managed to break into the mainstream weekly pop chart, it was a major event.

Britpop changed everything. Overnight, bands from the fringes of pop culture became the country's biggest acts, their independent sound suddenly the industry standard. Blur and Pulp demonstrated intellect and cultural awareness, Suede were pale, interesting and androgynous, Oasis brought the attitude. But already the indie waters were muddied. Oasis was on the Creation label, whose founder Alan McGee had sold 49 per cent of the company to Sony for £2.5m in 1992. Suede's label, Nude, was also part of Sony. Blur was signed to Food, which by 1994 was a subsidiary of EMI. Meanwhile, the majors realised the commercial clout of appearing to be indie and started up their own boutique labels in the apparent hope of fooling fans: BMG, for instance, spawned Indolent and Dedicated, and Virgin gave birth to Hut.

"[Britpop] was great fun," wrote the journalist Andrew Collins in a 2006 piece for Word. "But it wasn't indie, and it pushed a whole slew of workmanlike guitar bands centre-stage, where they were even expected to represent their rebranded country, giving the quite false impression that Cool Britannia was an Indie Nation. The essence of New Labour, indie was capitalism dressed up as revolutionary socialism."

These days the term 'indie' is little more than a generic sonic description for any band that plays guitars and probably wears skinny ties, skinny jeans, and skinny cardigans. Collins, a former NME writer and ex-editor of Q, says now: "'Indie' has become a meaningless term. It just covers guitar bands. But it was never meant to be about a type of music, it wasa spirit and an attitude. When I glance around the bands that are supposedly 'indie' today, I don't see any attitude. I don't see any content in their records, any political interest in the band members. They're a terrible generation, unfortunately, but they're becoming famous overnight and selling a lot of records. I've heard them called 'mortgage indie'. It's a career path – a way of making a lot of money very quickly. The Kooks did so well so quickly. Scouting For Girls, from a standing start, have become a really big band. The Fratellis have become massive in a remarkably short time."

There are still indie die-hards out there, the pre-eminent example being Arctic Monkeys, who rebuffed all major label interest in favour of signing to the small, principled Domino Records, then ended up shifting 363,735 copies of their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, in a week. Seattle's Sub Pop label just celebrated its 20th birthday by bringing the wonderful Fleet Foxes to these shores, while XL Recordings maintains an enviable and varied roster that now includes Vampire Weekend, MIA and Devendra Banhart. Tellingly, XL was also chosen by Radiohead to distribute the physical version of their last album, In Rainbows.

But the success of Arctic Monkeys, and the brief blaze of The Libertines, has brought its own Britpop effect. Before the Arctics' ascendance, guitars and pianos plodded along at a stately pace, Keane and Snow Patrol playing out a parodic imitation of The Verve. Since Whatever People Say I Am..., rubbish radio filler has become faster and more frantic, but also, arguably, worse. At least Keane have an ear for a tune.

At the same time, the Arctics' supposed recipe for success – the much-hyped MySpace profile that let them build a fanbase without a budget – has been co-opted by the rest of the industry. Like the establishment of those boutique brands, it's now just another major label marketing ploy.

Pity any guitar-playing teen from north of Watford. The well-deserved success of the Arctics means record companies are on the hunt for more teenage wunderkinds like their frontman Alex Turner; thus we have a glut of youngsters, such as One Night Only and The Enemy, with underdeveloped ideas that have never been given a chance to mature. By the time they're grown up enough to learn more than one trick (or three chords), the NME will already have started the backlash, and another young group of guitar plodders will have taken their place. Indie is merely apeing pop's abiding obsession with youth. Here's another term for the indie glossary: a "firework band". It means a widely touted young act whose label has a debut LP to sell. They begin their professional lives by exploding into the top of the charts, shine brightly, then drop out of sight. The turnover of new acts is terrifying. Parklife, lest we forget, was Blur's third album.

"Everything has accelerated," says Collins. "I can't believe Scouting For Girls. I remember hearing that song 'She's So Lovely' and thinking, 'What's this shit?' And the next thing you know, it's a hit, and they're a hit, and the next two singles are hits. New bands go massive on their first album, but there's almost no chance they can follow it up on their second. Record companies are there for the shareholders. If they can make some money quickly off the next big indie band, they will, but it doesn't mean the band will make any. The band will be left scratching their heads and wondering what happened. Whereas Arctic Monkeys will continue to be supported by Domino, and luckily they're massively talented – enough to continue making good records. A lot of other bands, I'm afraid, are not in it for the long haul. 'mortgage indie' is a nice idea, but I'm not sure it will end up actually paying their mortgages."

For many acolytes of the original indie scene, the saddest by-product of its decline is the state of the NME, formerly their paper of record. The organ's journalists were once so passionate about the integrity of the genre that they threatened a schism over the inclusion of too much hip-hop on their pages; now it, too, has become a corporate entity.

"I recently saw an interview with Conor McNicholas where he was talking about 'growing the brand'," Niven recalls. "The editor of the NME using the expression 'growing the brand'! It's hardly Nick Kent sneaking out of the office to run down Carnaby Street and score smack, is it?"

Nowadays, to be an "NME band" is all too often to be a "firework band". The annual NME Awards at which they're celebrated are sponsored by Shockwaves from Wella, the very hair gel with which indie kids style their Kook-ish coiffures from Glasgow to Guildford. With such bland uniformity so speedily infecting our nation's youth, is there any hope left for a flourishing, and truly 'indie', scene?

"I'm sure there's a real indie scene out there somewhere," says Niven, "with some great bands and kids running really happening club nights. I went to a venue in Glasgow last year called the National Pop League, and it was a room full of 18-year-old kids all dancing to The Weather Prophets, The Loft, Primal Scream, The Jasmine Minks – indie records from the 1980s. It was like when we were going to Splash One in Glasgow in the 1980s and dancing to Velvet Underground, Big Star and things that were from a generation before us. Maybe the market will right itself, but right now we're living through a generation of bands brought up on the tail end of Britpop. If it's a time when you're feeding off Sleeper, Gene and Shed Seven for inspiration, it's not going to yield nourishing results."

Forget the filler, it's this year's Glastonbury headliners that should point the way for the next generation. There was Jay-Z, of course, the world's greatest rapper. There was the Kings of Leon, who manage to make interesting noises with electric guitars (despite their preference for skinny jeans). And there was The Verve, who, almost 20 years after their formation, remind us what indie really meant to people in the days when there was no danger of troubling the pop charts, nor of paying the mortgage with music; when the words were about something, anything – politics, perhaps, or at least an original thought about love; when waifish white boys had more to say than simply, "Look Mum, I'm in a band!"; before Britpop and MySpace and landfill indie.

"Once these bands stop having hits every day it will dry up," argues Collins. "The kids will get bored. You can't grow up on a diet of The Pigeon Detectives and think you could topple the Government one day. If we end up with 20 years of Tory government, it'll be The Pigeon Detectives' fault."

How indie ate itself

1977: The Buzzcocks release their Spiral Scratch EP on their DIY label, New Hormones. Pop historians will refer to it as the first indie record

1986: NME and Rough Trade compile and release C86, the cassette (featuring, among others, Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons and Half Man Half Biscuit) that defines the indie genre

1987: The Smiths leave independent label Rough Trade after four albums and sign a more lucrative deal with EMI, then split acrimoniously before they record a note

1990: The Stone Roses, led by singer Ian Brown stage a Woodstock for the baggys generation – a huge gig at Spike Island in Widnes. Among the 27,000 fans is a young Noel Gallagher

1992: Alan McGee sells half of Creation Records to Sony for £2.5m. Later, Nude is sold to Sony, Factory to London Records, Go!Discs to Phonogram and Food to EMI

1993: Indie fans Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley take over Radio One's high-profile Evening Session slot and make it their own. Blur release their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish. According to John Harris, the author of The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of British Rock, this is the first true Britpop album. Alan McGee goes to Glasgow venue King Tut's Wah Wah Hut to see his label's act 18 Wheeler play, and discovers a little band called Oasis

1995: Blur and Oasis release singles in the same week ("Country House" and "Roll With It") in what NME bills as a "British heavyweight championship". Blur win the immediate battle to reach number one, but Oasis win the war: their album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, sells 18m copies worldwide

1997: Oasis's third album, Be Here Now, is bloated and ugly. Blur by Blur sounds American. Britpop dies a belated death

2001: New York hipsters The Strokes release Is This It. Everyone forgets about Britain

2002: The Libertines release their debut, Up The Bracket. Shambling guitars become chic again

2004: Snow Patrol's Final Straw and Keane's Hopes and Fears top the album charts. Indie reaches a low point

2006: Arctic Monkeys' Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not becomes the fastest-selling debut album in chart history. The major labels snap up every 17-year-old guikookstar player in the land

2008: Scouting For Girls' debut album reaches Number One. Indie eats itself

Original here