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Dead as a Dodo?

Tuesday, 8th May, 2001

It's amazing just how much an innocent and totally unimportant misunderstanding can send my mind wandering.

Mind you, most people have their minds closely chained supposedly to keep them under control. I leave mine to wander where it will, free as a bird. And birds really are free - they don't have to pay the taxes I do and they can speak their mind as well.

It came about this way: someone thought I was American. Not in person, of course, as I don't sound anything like an American. Yet. My stunningly non-textbook English accent would have suggested I was Australian instead. I'd like to know why too.

No, not in person, but by e-mail. We were talking about a song and the lyrics to it, for relevant reasons that aren't relevant here, and the response came back to me: 'I doubt whether it would be available here in England anyway.'

In this instance I think the lady is wrong, but as a general rule she's absolutely right. I've grown up on music here in England and, while it has shown certain signs of slight recovery lately, the music scene here is almost as dead as the dodo, and that's a great shame.

Take a random look at the charts in England and look how varied they aren't.

When I were a lad... all those twenty years ago, I mostly stopped listening to whatever my parents listened to and discovered the charts instead. This was possibly the last time I ever succumbed to peer pressure. The charts in my day were relatively varied: I became a huge Adam and the Ants fan, the band who mixed pop with punk and African rhythms; my sister got into Toyah and later into a-ha. Should I be nostalgic already for the days of Madness, Bad Manners and Duran Duran?

What I didn't realise at the time was that these were trends just like we have trends today. Madness and Bad Manners came out of the ska revival; Duran Duran from the New Romantics, who mostly sounded terrible but had some great moments nonetheless; Adam and the Ants and Toyah were more commercial products of the punk genre. Nowadays though, the trends are noticeable only to the dancefloor elite, whose music covers the charts almost exclusively, with only the boy bands breaking through the monopoly.

To me, the charts died when house music came out. It's not that I hate the stuff (though admittedly my taste in electronica is much more Tangerine Dream than Bomb the Bass), it's that I don't understand how it, and its many descendants, has become such a major chart presence. After all, it's not music to listen to - it's designed to dance to. What works wonders in a club full of pulsing speakers and strobe lights doesn't work in the slightest in any random bedroom.

But it took over the charts in this country and from there, expanded out to take over radio and to almost kill off live music.

On the road four or five hours a day in the States, I soon discovered the joy of American radio broadcasting. The plethora of stations and - more importantly - the variety of stations was astounding to me. I loved the classic rock stations especially, but appreciated the country stations, the talk stations and the classical stations too.

From the charts, my tastes took me into rock music, getting harder and faster as time went by. Strangely enough I discovered heavy metal by accident, idly fiddling with the tuner dial on my radio to find Tommy Vance's 'The Friday Rock Show', then the one rock show on the biggest national radio station, BBC Radio 1. It broadcast two hours a week, up to midnight on a Friday night.

Two hours a week is not a lot for someone trying to deluge themselves in the music. I ended up buying two hour blank tapes in bulk, taping the show every week for future listening. Looking back, the diversity of Tommy's show was pretty astounding. One week he'd be doing a special about space rockers Hawkwind, the next it would be mostly thrash metal. He'd get Venom into the studio for a live session, and follow it with classic Yes. I remember all sorts of odd music hitting me from that magic two hour slot.

Now, of course, it's gone and almost totally forgotten. Tommy Vance is still around, but his show is restricted to cable tv. Radio 1, home in my day of the rock show, the reggae show, the soul show... now runs almost entirely chart music and poor comedy. It's listening figures have decreased hugely, to be replaced as the nation's number one by BBC Radio 2, traditionally the home of listeners who have hearing aids. Radio 2 does play a much wider range of music than before, and it's the only place you'll find shows dealing with country, folk, blues, musicals, jazz or world music.

The one jewel in the crown left at Radio 1 is so much of an institution that I don't think the powers that be could remove him even if they tried. John Peel has been a DJ on Radio 1 since it started, and that's over thirty years. He has a freedom unheard of on British radio, one that lets him play literally whatever he wants. I haven't heard his show in a long while, but I have fond memories of his eclectic taste.

'That was Sore Throat, from the upcoming Peaceville sampler, 'Vile Vibes' which also includes Decadence Within, Deviated Instinct, Doom, Axegrinder... this next is from Roy Orbison...'

Only John Peel could make that seem nonchalant. Only John Peel could have a wide enough taste to make it possible. But he's one man and one man does not rule a radio station.

Back when I listened to John Peel and especially to Tommy Vance, live music was everywhere. I saw a number of bands live in pubs here in Halifax, frequented the Wharf in Huddersfield where many an obscure punk or rock band tried to fit themselves into the six square inches of stage, almost lived in Bradford which had become the nation's home of rock music outside of London.

Nottingham had Rock City, but Bradford had it all: the St George's Hall for the major metal bands (Metallica, Dio, Anthrax), the Queens Hall for the underground heroes (Autopsy, Destruction, Celtic Frost) and Rio's for the local talent. Now that St George's sticks to bad cover bands and the Queens Hall has become a trendy wine bar, Rio's is sadly all that's left to cover the lot, and even Rio's is not the same.

Live music has mostly died over here now, though I do note that all the signs I see are happily pointing to a revival. Admittedly, I'm out of the loop nowadays, but I remember one month when I found myself at about twenty gigs in thirty days. Once I got two in on the same day, travelling directly from one to the other so as not to miss it. People trying to get in touch with me didn't have much chance, as come most evenings I was probably hurtling off one stage or another. That sort of frequency of live music doesn't exist any more.

Halifax has its exceptions to the rule. We have the Victoria Theatre which puts on some semi-major classical attractions, including the Russian National Ballet which I enjoyed very much. Square Chapel hosts an incredibly wide mix of live music, live theatre and other unclassifiable oddments. I've had many a happy evening there, listening to string quartets or watching avant garde plays or experiencing (no other word is applicable) the thunder of native taiko drum group Mugenkyo.

York seems to be thriving with many a pub cutting down on the karaoke nights to add a local live act. I'm starting to see the odd example reappearing in Halifax too. And it's about time! Any town of reasonable size I passed through in the States or Canada seemed to have live music available regularly; Toronto had such an amount of varied flyers plastered on every available lamppost and wall that brought back happy memories of when Huddersfield was the same.

So, live music is recovering. I hope and pray that trend continues. But what about radio? What about the charts? I think it's going to be very doubtful for those to follow suit, as radio (together with club culture) mostly creates the charts and the charts feed radio (and also club culture to a certain degree). Breaking that monopoly would take something very special.

So, for now, if I want to listen to Leonard Cohen, or Hexenhaus, or Tuvan throat singing, I head online. I'm not going to throw away fifteen English pounds at a record store for an album I've never heard. Ten American bucks maybe, but not fifteen English pounds. In England we often don't even get the album as it was intended by the artist. Our inflated prices are justified by the release of an 'English version' or 'European version' with a couple of extra tracks to supposedly warrant doubling the price.

So I head online. Napster may be a shadow of its former self, but there other places where music is available free, or at a realistic cost. I think emusic.com is a site given to us by God himself. Where else can I download Queen Ida, Cannibal Corpse and the Reverend Gary Davis all from the same place?

Of course that brings the cost issue right back again, knowing that local phone calls in this country are not free, resulting in hefty bills for intenet use. It will be an underlying theme of these rants and discussions that I need to get out of this country. Keep listening and you'll start to realise why.

A toast to diversity in music in all its forms! A toast to the few landlords and club owners who dare to hire live acts. A toast to the DJs who run radio programmes that don't touch the charts. And a toast to every single musician in this country who follows his heart with almost no hope of it leading him anywhere but poverty.


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