published: 20 /
In his regular 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth, back after a month's break, reflects both on the last few years of the column and also his current favourite musicians
Secretly, I had been meaning to take an unannounced month off from the 'Condemned to Rock and Roll' column for a while now, mostly just to see if anyone notices, but also in order to double up my stock of column material, which has occasionally threatened to run dry.
But, unfortunately, my non-appearance last month wasn’t planned. With one evening between a series of weeks away with work and the deadline for Pennyblackmusic’s October update, I had quite a lot left to write . Unfortunately, I ran out of puff at midnight and physically had no choice but to go to bed - leaving the month’s column as merely a few handwritten notes. A lack of broadband access in my Manchester hotel sealed its fate.
Luckily, since starting this egotistical exercise a few years ago, I’ve been joined by several fellow-traveller columnists (all of whom take a more ambitious approach of actually picking a specific subject to write about every month, which seems rather daunting to me). So, I suspect I wasn’t missed too much.
Frankly, I’m glad that I never formally committed myself to writing about a specific theme for each edition - though such a task had been my intention at the start. The column simply wouldn’t have survived. I’m looking forward to seeing how my Pennyblackmusic friends manage it.
Each month, I find that I have little interest in the various comings and goings reported in the 'news' sections of music publications. People talk about the ‘music scene’, but it seems to bean illusory concept. Listening to music is essentially a private business, even more so now that so much of it is done through earphones. Even amongst a busy crowd at a gig, it remains a singular affair - you watch while they play, and if it was someone else watching instead of you, they’d still play the same thing.
True, there are a few collective events that come round every year: the Brits, the Mercury, festivals, magazine polls - I’ve had something to say about all of them in this space in the past, but all are themselves reacting to the behaviour of bands and audiences, rather than setting the agenda.
Recently, I’ve found myself comparing my interest in music to my interest in cricket, both of which have followed me around since primary school. Each year, cricket eases through a natural cycle, as early season nets lead into friendlies, new signings arrive for the opening day fixtures, my own team eventually wobbles out for games of our own, then the Test matches and Twenty20 games begin, before we’re winding up the season, washing our kit and getting ready for winter training, while waiting for the next edition of Wisden. Each season is always different, yet comfortingly similar. There are times when cricket is all I think about, and times when nothing is going on at all. The events on the global stage interact precisely with my own engagement in the game.
Music is different. I no longer read the music press in much detail, and often not at all, nor even am I at all diligent about finding out what new bands are being promoted. I don’t look out for new genres, and I don’t push myself to listen to things that seem like hard work.
You might think that I’ve lost interest in music itself, but the opposite is true. Music has played a larger role in my life this year than it has at any time since leaving university - I’ve seen more gigs and I have enjoyed more albums, though I have actually purchased fewer. All through the year, music has been constantly hovering away in the background.
Over and over again have I played Emmy The Great’s beguiling and beautiful tragic ballad ‘MIA’, where - while sitting in the wreckage of a crashed car next to the dieing driver, listening to a compilation tape that plays on despite the blow - the song’s narrator remembers that it was her dead companion that told her the singer’s name was either Mia or M.I.A. It’s a weird song, almost creepy and yet oddly poignant. Its appeal hasn’t dimmed.
Meanwhile, standout live performances by Andrew Bird, Dinosaur Jr, Anais Mitchell, the Lucksmiths and McCusker, Drever, Woomble have seen me play their music again and again at home, and at work. I first heard a brilliant new band, Kill It Kid, in the same week that I found out about an equally brilliant older artist, Slaid Cleaves, who I wish I’d heard years ago. Most astonishingly, Neil Hannon - already responsible for one of my desert island discs with the Divine Comedy’s Promenade - reduced an entire album of pop songs about cricket, 'The Duckworth Lewis Method', which was everything one hopes for and more.
I have come to terms with my musical taste, and its limitations. I have no ear for jazz, and see no great appeal in hip-hop. I like melodies more than beats and will almost always pick straightforward stories over allusions and wordplay, with a little leeway for Bob Dylan. The music I do love has never seemed more attractive to me - the music that hasn‘t clicked never so irrelevant.
By this time next month, I will have had to whittle this down to a list of the ten best albums of the year, and select a single live concert. It will be the tenth such list I have chosen for Pennyblackmusic, and it will be the hardest by quite some way.