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Miscellaneous - The Musician's Forte

  by Jon Rogers

published: 20 / 10 / 2009

Miscellaneous - The Musician's Forte


In the latest in his new 'Hitting the Right Note' column, Jon Rogers looks at some of the musicians who have used their song writing as a forum for complaining about and bemoaning their lifestyle and situation

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. That’s the rock musician’s lifestyle. And what a life it is. Any cursory read of the set texts on the subject like Stephen Davis’ hallowed ‘Hammer of the Gods: Led Zeppelin Unauthorised’ or Motley Crue’s biography ‘The Dirt’ are one tale of debauchery and bad behaviour after the other. There’s drug consumption on a scale that would keep Columbia solvent for decades... there’s the obligatory trashing of hotel rooms and chucking TVs out of windows... there’s rampant egomania and even more rampant testosterone (Well, it’s usually men, let’s face it) and there’s a never-ending supply of groupies only too willing to provide certain services. What a lifestyle, eh? Sex any time you feel like it, a never ending supply of nose candy and being a rock star is the only profession where it seems acceptable to turn up to ‘work’ totally wasted – and no one really minds! Brilliant. You can’t really do “elegantly wasted” in a 9 to 5 office job. Trying turning up to work tomorrow off your face on a cocktail of Columbian marching powder and a bottle of Jack Daniels. And I’m sure your boss won’t mind you bringing in that new scantily-clad lady friend you just met the night before and who for some reason doesn’t mind being on her knees under your desk whilst you try to work. See how long you last before HR wants a word. But our rock star heroes, what a life they lead. Or do they? There are plenty of songs, like Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Rocker’ extolling the virtues of the rock musician’s life but there’s an even larger body of work bemoaning their lot. AC/DC summed it up all nicely in ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll): “Gettin' robbed Gettin' stoned Gettin' beat up Broken boned Gettin' had Gettin' took I tell you folks It's harder than it looks.” A similar sentiment was echoed in the band’s ‘Ain’t No Fun (Waiting ‘Round to be a Millionaire)’. This was, though, some time before the Aussie band became global heavy metal superstars. Life when you’re starting out though is never easy - well unless you just happen to win 'The X Factor', that is. You’re the latest in line on the conveyor belt so why should anyone pay you any attention? Give it a couple of minutes and the next lot of eager young hopefuls will be along soon. And it’s that very system the music industry operates in that riles so many musicians. Cultural icon to the disaffected, Kurt Cobain didn’t have a high opinion of the then common practice of “pay to play” where, oddly, the band would have to fork out some cash for the mere privilege of playing at the venue. And Mr Cobain didn’t like it one bit: “Walk an inch, take a mile -- I don't know why I Never faded, never smiled -- I don't know why I Never mind, eat and run -- I don't know why I Monkey ass motherfuck -- I don't know why I I don't know why I Pay Pay to play.” The ‘pay to play’ policy is a clear example of rip-off practices within the music industry, but a lot of musicians have decided to have a pop at the very structure that made them household names. One name you just might have heard of is Pink Floyd. They recorded an album called ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ which apparently sold one or two copies in 1973. So what did the band go and do? Thank their label EMI for help selling the album by the truckload? Nah, two years later when they were putting together their next alabum, ‘Wish You Were Here’, they decided to have a go at the record industry in ‘Have a Cigar’: “Come in here, dear boy, have a cigar. You’re gonna go far, fly high, You’re never gonna die, you’re gonna make it if you try; they’re gonna love you. Well I’ve always had a deep respect, and I mean that most sincerely. The band is just fantastic, that is really what I think. Oh by the way, Which ones Pink? And did we tell you the name of the game, boy, we call it riding the Gravy train.” A fair enough response from the band seeing as ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ languished in virtual obscurity as it only went on to sell around 45 million copies worldwide. [Although I am being a little too hard on the band, there is that widely reported anecdote that when the band did sign to EMI the record label was so familiar with who they were someone did actually ask which one of them was called Pink.] Another big seller Pearl Jam weren’t happy either in ‘Bugs’ where the metaphorical bugs were “taking over” and deciding their fate. Aimee Mann also had a dig at the record company in the rather self-explanatory ‘Nothing is Good Enough’: “Critics at their worst could never criticize The way that you do No, there’s no one else, I find, To undermine or dash a hope Quite like you And you do it so casually, too.” Ouch, that’s got to hurt, being worse than a critic. Kudos to Ms Mann. The Smiths weren’t unfamiliar with having the odd hit or two either, although nothing on the scale of Pink Floyd, but singer Morrissey still felt the need to have a go at biting the hand that fed him in ‘Paint a Vulgar Picture’: “Best of... Most of... Satiate the need Slip them into different sleeves Buy both, and feel deceived.” He had a point though with the industry indulging in some pretty exploitative – if perfectly legal – practices, in an attempt to shift ‘units’. Morrissey made things personal later on in ‘Frankly, Mr Shankly’ which is widely considered to be about his then label boss Geoff Travis. Even the mild mannered folk singer Nick Drake had a few things to say about the industry too. It would seem the focus of his anger was his manager and label boss Joe Boyd. Despite Boyd’s assurances to Drake that he was highly talented this hadn’t been translated into record sales, helping Drake pen ‘Hanging on a Star’: “Why leave me hanging on a star When you deem me so high.” The long-lost ‘Tow the Line’ (sic) is also widely thought to be about Drake perceived to be Boyd’s failings: “And now that you're here you can show me the way Now that you're here we can try make it pay For while you were gone it was hard it was cold While you were gone we were time we were old If you call we will follow If you show us we can tow the line.” If the actual record label isn’t at fault then radio gets a kicking. The ever articulate Elvis Costello took a swipe at the radio system of playlists and ever-growing commercialisation in 1978 with ‘Radio Radio’: “You either shut up or get cut up, they don't wanna hear about it It's only inches on the reel-to-reel And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools Tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel.” And this was even before the inane “happy sound of national Radio 1” with the likes of Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates. Most musicians usually only write the odd song about just how annoyed they are with the industry in one form or another before the latest royalty check plops through their letter box, but one person has taken up the subject of the whole music industry as well as the musicians themselves as one of his main lyrical concerns. Step forward one Mark E Smith of The Fall. Smith could probably fill up an entire album with songs of his having a dig at the whole music scene, and probably give away a free EP into the bargain. His vitriol for the industry he effectively was part of was there from the start. One early song, ‘Music Scene’ was one long sarcastic rant: “And be part of the music scene Envy of the choosy scene Part of the music scene.” And taking inspiration from Norman Mailer’s novel ‘The Deer Park’, Smith took aim at the industry again in a song of the same name: “Spare a thought for the sleeping promo dept. They haven't had an idea in two years Dollars and deutchmarks keep the company on its feet Say have you ever have a chance to meet Fat Captain Beefheart imitators with zits? Who is the King Shag Corpse?” Smith went on to conclude: “It's still a subculture art-dealer jerk-off.” And he wasn’t wrong. And it doesn’t end there. ‘Mess of My’, ‘It’s the New Thing’ and ‘Solicitor in Studio’ all attack the music industry with the usual Fall-esque rant. Oddly, for some reason I just can’t seem to work out, the composer of the song while feeling free to lambast the industry never actually takes a swipe at the musicians themselves. Mark E Smith is that exception though. He doesn’t have a high regard for the session musician, penning a song with that title: “The band are all wino sperm And live well while they can One day they'll turn around And say they've been screwed by publishing.” While the session musician ends up not playing his own songs but Velvet Underground covers. Even whole music styles have met with the wrath of Mark E Smith. At the height of ‘Madchester’ Smith composed ‘Idiot Joy Showland’ berating bands like the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. “Idiot groups with no shape or form Out of their heads on a quid of blow The shapeless kecks flapping up a storm Look at what they are: a pack of worms.” But, as far as I’m aware, Mark E Smith hasn’t criticised himself, unlike Elliott Smith did in ‘Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud’: “If I crawl to keep it together like you say you know I can do To transmit the moment from me to you Wouldn't mama be proud?” Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Who’d have it? No thanks.

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