published: 23 /
In the latest his Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll column Ben Howarth writes about downloading and the Gnarls Barkley phenonomen
I’m a bit confused. Did practically all the music ‘community’ really download Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’? It seems the answer is yes. So what did the rest think they were doing? Who let them escape behind the bike shed? Does an Ipod without ‘Crazy’ feel as empty inside as an unrequited lover?
I don’t often download songs off Itunes, as it happens, (and nor do I own an MP3 player), so during the two month residence of messrs Lo and Mouse at the summit of the top 40, I listened mostly to the Eels' rather exceptionally good live album, 'With Strings: Live at Town Hall'. But if challenged by someone with ill fitting jeans and too much hair gel, I would probably say the same thing as everyone else -“amazing production”, “word of mouth phenomenon”, “a brave combination of modern and old musical ideas” and “best album of the
year”. Do I really think these things? Does anyone? Does this mean Kanye West is uncool already?
The real story of ‘Crazy’ is not the song at all, but the remarkable concurrence of all the broad churches of pop music - who, like most churches, usually violently disapprove of one another - around one sacred creed, that Gnarls Barkley are very cool indeed. Since the beginning of this decade, many old and forgotten bands have become cool again (The Ramones, the Human League, Gang of Four, and even U2) and now even the defiantly uncool is everywhere. This bizarre unravelling of pop’s ancient codes must surely be the product of that newfangled playlist nonsense.
But this is the hip version of uncool, not the real thing. Gnarls Barkley’s true musical roots remain ignored; the holy trinity of Hall and Oates, ELO and Wings. I have been listening to all three of these bands today and the similarity they share with these reining media darlings is uncanny. All feature studio whizzes who favour the sheen of commercial pop over the raw grit of the critically acclaimed, all have massive hits, yet keep the versatility to work prolifically and diversely. Yet only Gnarls Barkley would get an approving review in 'Observer Music Monthly'. Is this fair? Ask me in a few years, and even then, I may not have an answer for you.
Do we pay too much attention to critical opinion? Of course, and though we all know this, no one seems to challenge it. Despite the fact that critics have caused me to waste hundreds of pounds on albums that I haven’t played more than twice, I flock back every time, and indeed, have become one myself. Critics end up with an awful lot of music that has been created to appeal to the whims of critics, and consequently, look for something - anything - different. So then Gnarls Barkley emerge with just that, and every critic loves it, but actually it is exactly the same as all the music they have built a career and a reputation studiously ignoring. How odd.
I long for the article headlined, 'Gnarls Barkley : The New Wings', but I know it will never happen. So, if you are in that remarkable minority, why not cut out the middle man, and go straight to the source material. On Paul McCartney’s greatest hits collection ‘Wingspan: Hits and History’ you get explorations of pretty much every genre of music, great singing, horns and swooping strings, lots of unexpected instrumental breaks and some totally bizarre lyrics. Pop heaven. You’ll be able to hear ‘St. Elsewhere’ at the houses of every other person you know anyway……