DiS Missive: How to tell the difference between eccentricity and a hair cut
Nearly everything we know today about the ocean depths we owe to a particularly strange man called JBS Haldane and his father, John. The latter cracked the problem of why divers suffered from the bends and the former pushed the science of diving forwards by decades. He did so by a series of experiments he conducted in a decompression chamber, known as a pressure pot, which he had built in his house after returning from service in WWI. During one experiment, simulating a hasty surfacing in a submarine, all of Haldane’s fillings exploded in his mouth. He often suffered collapsed lungs, epileptic fits and perforated eardrums. He liked the latter, stating: “The drum generally heals up; and if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question.” He was quite a persuasive sort and had no difficulty in getting other people to help out with his experiments. He once nearly killed the Prime Minister of Spain and, on another occasion, his wife who had a 13-minute fit but was eventually revived and sent home to make his tea. One memorable experiment left him without feeling in his buttocks for six years.
Less helpful in the greater scheme of things was the member of the landed gentry John Mytton (pictured), a dissolute Regency rake, who had no ambition in life other than to spend his vast inheritance as quickly as possible. Among his many hobbies were naked fox hunting and rat hunting on ice skates. He once arrived at a dinner party at Halston Hall riding his pet bear. Despite the fact that guests dived out of windows screaming, he was angry that his entrance was not spectacular enough and applied his spurs to the animal causing it to throw him off and eat part of his leg. A prodigious drinker, Mytton could put away eight bottles of port a day and once killed his favourite horse by making it drink a litre – in fact when he arrived at university he did so with nothing but 2,000 bottles to “sustain him”. Of course the money didn’t last that long and he fled to France to escape his creditors. While there he suffered a severe case of the hiccups and set himself on fire in order to “scare” them away. The intervention of friends meant he didn’t roast himself but he never really recovered his health either, and died just months later.
These two men, in case you were wondering where I’m going with this, were eccentrics. Dev from Lightspeed Champion isn’t, he just has a good haircut and wears a scarf. Yannis from Foals even less so. Yannis, one could argue, is the exact opposite of an eccentric. Of course it’s not Lightspeed Champion’s fault and nor is it Foals’ that the Observer Music Monthly has decided to artificially create a scene: the so-called New Eccentrics (remember this news? Full feature here). Now we shouldn’t worry ourselves too much about what The Observer - a once-proud newspaper dumbed down into near oblivion, sagging under the weight of interminable features about pet psychology, astronomy, homeopathy and the latest fashions in espadrilles – has to say. The OMM will no more influence the future of indie music than DrownedinSound will be asked to choose the conductors for this year’s Proms.
Scenes, when they spring up at a grass roots level, especially outside of London, are a useful thing. They provide support for struggling bands just starting to get on their feet, a protective cocoon with the offer of joint gigs, shared equipment and local indie labels. Any scene that you care to mention that has been media concocted however has been damned to failure as it shows a level of witlessness about the way that music operates that is quite stunning. The Next Big Thing has always relied on its stars being in alignment. An abundance of a new drug is handy, as is a shift in popular culture and the arrival of new musical technology. If you look back you can see this happening in several key points over the last 50 years, especially with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, disco, acid house and, to a lesser degree, movements such as punk, Britpop and drum and bass.
(Punk really didn’t have much of an influence outside of London and Manchester in the two years while it was most creative. Drum and bass, although probably the most militant musical form in living memory was just a mutation of house music that occurred steadily over time and wasn’t the quantum leap forward that some would claim for it. Britpop was a completely retrospective movement whose ‘forward looking’ practitioners were stuck in the ‘70s and ‘80s - Pulp, Elastica - and whose ‘backward looking’ practitioners were stuck in the ‘60s - Oasis, Cast.)
You only have to check out the number of new/nu/neo genres we’ve had over the last ten years to see that this is essentially true. The irony of the word new when applied to music now means it is almost certainly old. But the reason why The New Eccentrics is of great offence is that it doesn’t even have any musical cohesion. The only thing that links The Ting Tings with Lightspeed Champion with These New Puritans with The Tigerpicks seems to be that the author of the piece considers them bright. Hardly the most promising start for a cohesive musical revolution. As we speak there is probably a string quartet practising in Trinity College. Are they part of The New Eccentric movement, I wonder? And if not, why not? They’re clever, they’re playing instruments. If you have any sense you will probably discard the other New Eccentric qualifiers of having a daft name and having an eclectic sense of fashion as being beneath contempt. So ironically we’re left with the sense that the guiding principles of the New Eccentric movement seem to be ones of stupidity and lack of forethought.
Exploding out in reaction against the piece was the thoroughly modern James MacMahon (nee Jam) of NME who sent a blistering text message from his mobile to his entire address book. Now I don’t know James but he seems like a nice guy and any friend of the potentially career-damaging drunken epistle is a friend of mine. (I recently had an avenue of work closed to me after drunkenly e-mailing the music editor of a big newspaper and telling him he wouldn’t recognize a good CD if it was fired out of a fucking bazooka into his face.) But the scribe has made one serious error and it’s something I’ve got to point out. The NME Features Editor slags off “swot rock” and states, rightly, that the OMM piece shows an “inherent fear” of the working classes. So far so good. Then he goes on to suggest that his Sunday has been ruined by the suggestion that rock and roll is intelligent. “What absolute tripe” he says, like a less hairy Boris Johnson.
Well hold on a second. By equating intelligence with class you’re saying some pretty appalling things yourself, Mr MacMahon. Only the lickspittle, the yes man, the shoe shine boy to the upper classes, would suggest that to be working class is to be all about ruddy faced vigour and not a thought in one’s head. Let’s hope it was just the booze talking, eh?
In case you were wondering where the opening story of JBS Haldane comes from it’s from an audio book of Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything that my dad listens to in his car. He left school when he was 15 with no qualifications and worked his entire life in a factory. The story about John Mytton comes from Wikipedia; again, hardly the preserve of the upper echelons of society. This feature also indulges in some rhetoric, an oratorical device I discovered when studying for my O level English at Sir Edmund Campion RC, a comprehensive boys school in a sink estate in St Helens that got knocked down the year I left. To conflate privilege and intelligence and lack of choice and stupidity is not only wrong, it is damaging in the extreme. At the end of the day I demand to be able to listen to Velvet Underground in the same way I demand to be able to listen to AC/DC.
Of course instead of championing ‘poshos’ with strange haircuts the OMM could have looked at the multitude of guitar bands at the moment who are almost acting as reaction against Britpop’s chippy nostalgia, which was pureed so as to be easily digestible by US audiences. Instead, now we have a definable group of young bands who are exploring what it means to be English or British in a much more intelligent and tangible way. Of course, personally I’ve got better things to do than to be creating shit genres and even if I didn’t I wouldn’t, but I’m happy for the OMM to build something from the bare bones that I’ll leave below.
SPURIOUS GENRE NAME HERE
1. British Sea Power
2. One More Grain
4. These New Puritans
5. The Twilight Sad
6. George Pringle
7. Patrick Wolf
8. Mystery Jets
9. Arctic Monkeys
10. Young Knives
LEST WE FORGET
3. The New Wave of New Wave
4. The Scene That Celebrates Itself
5. Skunk Rock
6. Arse Quake (no, we haven’t made this up)
7. New Grave
8. Shit Gaze
9. The New Acoustic Movement
DiS Missive is a column featuring a quite singular opinion in every irregular edition; expect subjects to be tackled which regular features and reviews can’t touch, and for that grain to be gone against in the name of just because. Previous pieces, on Adele and hype and the return of the Pumpkins, can be read by clicking the relevant link.
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