DOWN the five decades of rock ‘n’ roll, musical Brits have had the cheeky habit of periodically bestriding the world as if we owned it.
In 2005, it was Live 8 that commanded global attention (admittedly fronted by Irishmen Bob Geldof and Bono); a huge gig in Hyde Park, London, it formed the centerpiece of a multinational, all-day show seen on TV and online by a potential audience of untold millions. Down at ground level, the cause -- a demand to “make poverty history” -- was acclaimed. But in the context of current U.K. music, the grand scale of the event actually didn’t suit the spirit of the times. The signs are that, at the moment, our rock and pop passions are growing, but in a more personal, small-is-beautiful direction.
Stuart Williams, publishing director of the monthly music magazines Q and Mojo and rock weekly Kerrang!, sees the U.K. music scene in a maelstrom of change. Research he’s commissioned shows that the United Kingdom’s music fans are kicking over the barriers of “cool” and are “flitting promiscuously” between genres and generations, pop to heavy metal, the White Stripes to Led Zeppelin. It’s definitely been good for business -- Mojo’s readership rose 27% last year. Moreover, far more women are getting involved: They make up 54% of Kerrang! readers now, where it used to be a steady 20%.
Happily, this turmoil of complex consumerism looks to have its creative side. More people are making music, says Williams: “Five years ago every kid was a DJ. Now they carry guitars, they’re in bands, and they want somewhere to play. Discos are converting to gigs with three or four bands on every night. Live music is doing brilliantly everywhere.”
So the joint is jumping. Bands and more singer-songwriterly solo artists abound -- significantly, in a manner that recalls the ‘60s, when British music was great because it defied London-centric cultural tendencies and burst out of every corner of the country.
During 2005, the Kaiser Chiefs from Leeds, Yorkshire, probably came closest to emulating Glaswegian Franz Ferdinand’s success. The sharp, uneasy tone of their writing, highlighted by that characteristic hook line “Every day I love you less and less,” might have proved just an Anglo thing, but it didn’t. Their debut album, “Employment,” sold 200,000 in America.
So while the Kaiser Chiefs regroup, consider these tangy regional voices: the Futureheads, Field Music and Maximo Park from Tyne & Wear in the northeast; British Sea Power from Cumbria; Sons & Daughters and Arab Strap from Scotland; Arctic Monkeys and the Harrisons from Yorkshire; the Zutons, Little Barrie and the Longcut from Manchester and Liverpool in the northwest.
And: Kasabian, the Editors and the Young Knives from the Midlands; the Go! Team from Brighton on the south coast; and Bloc Party, Art Brut, the Subways, Hard-Fi and the Magic Numbers keeping London on the map -- the capital’s most recent champions, the Libertines, having split into the chaotic Babyshambles (Pete Doherty’s lamentable drug history offering little hope for a substantial future) and the as-yet-unheard Dirty Pretty Things (the much steadier Carl Barat’s new venture, which was recording in L.A. during December).
Refreshingly, almost all of these bands sing in their own local accents. If enough of them get a hearing, it could become a true test of cool in America to distinguish between Geordie (Newcastle/Maximo Park) and Scouse (Liverpool/the Zutons). But they are united in their witty, often acidic lyrics straight from the heart of young U.K. life today and their high-octane feeling for the still unfolding potential in a fiercely thrashed guitar.
The new romanticism
THE other current boom is in solo artists/singer-songwriters. The more established names are distinctly unhip, scoffed at by Brit critics as purveyors of “girlfriend music": Damien Rice, Dido, Katie Melua, Jem. James Blunt, the U.K.'s top-selling artist in 2005, now racing up the Billboard chart, has definitely joined that list, while craggy David Gray, much praised for his latest, “Life in Slow Motion,” is a rare escapee from uncoolth.
Still, like most stigmatization, it does bear challenging. For instance, Rice is a subtle tunesmith and arranger; Dido writes neat, miniaturized stories; Melua has a lovely delicacy to her singing; and Blunt certainly came up with at least one irresistible song.
The recommended newcomers are on the grittier side, though; people who took their inspiration from blues or ‘60s folk or even Morrissey, the former bard of Manchester (long L.A.-based and releasing his umpteenth album, “Ringleader of the Tormentors,” in April).
Debuts from romantic Richard Hawley, roughneck Malcolm Middleton, jazzy Corinne Bailey Rae and the more leathery KT Tunstall will reward repeated listenings, as will Beth Orton’s as-yet-untitled comeback (out in February, produced by Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke in New York). Tom Vek’s songs buzz with a raw garage rock energy, driven along by subtle electronic touches and a backbone of rigid, angular funk.
And maybe, after the Brit/Sri Lankan M.I.A.'s success with “Arular,” it might be worth mentioning the hip-hop home team.
Salty Cockney white rapper the Streets is a true wordsmith whose third album might just sneak through in America if the door’s ajar. And talented, highly entrepreneurial Sway’s own-label debut out in February is hoping for a U.S. break via his friendly connection with Akon, who shares his West African antecedents.
How does all this domestic upheaval connect with prospects for U.K. music in America? After all, there’s hardly a shortage of beat groups or singer-songwriters or hip-hop in the U.S.
Martin Mills, chair of the Beggars Banquet labels, whose roster in Britain includes the White Stripes, M.I.A. and the Prodigy, is undaunted: “Guitar bands are absolutely central to our musical culture, and I think hot competition in the States is good for us. We have far more access now than when hip-hop and R&B; dominated the American charts.”
Even so, selling music or selling magazines, Mills and Williams share one concern about current British music: artist longevity.
“Business models dictate building careers, but this consumer promiscuity works in terms of quick fixes,” says Williams. “Fans have a period of white-heat fanaticism for a band when they go online and consume them very quickly, from T-shirts to downloadable live shows.”
“Marketing is so powerful that the value of mystique or history is diminished,” Mills adds. “And the exportability of artists does depend on longevity because of the investment involved. But the album after a big success can be very difficult now.”
Coldplay is the band that proves we can do it in America. Its industrial importance in the U.K. was demonstrated last February when EMI announced that the release of the band’s third album, “X&Y;,” would be postponed, and company shares plummeted 16%. But then Coldplay delivered, and everything clicked, U.K. and America.
“Drop the Debt” campaigners save global corporation! Well, almost.
On the other hand, hard rockers the Darkness and dazzling popsters Franz Ferdinand also came through with strong follow-ups to their American breakthroughs and found the going tougher after the initial sales spurt.
Neither has any cause for despair. (By the end of the year, Franz Ferdinand was well on the way to a second gold album.) But they know they’ll have to get out on the road in the old way during 2006 if they’re to earn real loyalty and become U.S. chart fixtures like the legends of the Beatles-to-U2 eras.
Kris Gillespie, U.S. general manager of Franz Ferdinand’s indie label, Domino, doesn’t shy away from the difficulties he’s dealing with in sustaining its success or developing newer bands Sons and Daughters and Arctic Monkeys.
“The most challenging thing in regard to Franz right now is time management,” he says. “The second album, ‘You Could Have It So Much Better,’ debuted in the Top 10 in over 20 countries and they all want you to do press, kiss hands and shake babies.
“And then there are so many markets to cover within the U.S. that, especially if a band already has a modicum of success in the U.K., it can feel like a step back to harder, scrappier times.”
Hard times, indeed. Robbie Williams didn’t even release his latest album, “Intensive Care,” in America, a sorry admission of defeat for the U.K.'s most commercial star (everywhere else).
But that’s just him. Musical vanguardist Radiohead will be back as ever -- providing it gets a record deal sorted out after the expiration of its EMI contract. So will Damon Albarn (of Gorillaz and Blur, but solo this time), Snow Patrol and Keane.
The no-jive five
NOW, in the racetrack spirit with which this e-pistle conventionally closes, here are my Five to Follow for 2006 -- every one a winner in my heart, if not necessarily down the finishing straight.
Art Brut: Could give art rock a good name. Herky-jerky, brainy, coarse, self-conscious (“Yes, this is my singing voice, it’s not irony,” sings Eddie Argos). Album “Bang Bang Rock ‘n’ Roll” is out already. “Moving to L.A.” fantasizes about “drinking Hennessy with Morrissey.” Touring March and April.
KT Tunstall: A born live performer. Kind of mainstream blues-rocker but uses foot pedals to improvise live loops, plays off them, turns everything around. Album “Eye to the Telescope” hits U.S. in February. Its track “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree” is key to what makes her compelling.
Field Music: If smarty pants-brilliant Talking Heads had grown up in a worn-out shipbuilding town like Sunderland, they might have been Field Music. With a dash of Beach Boys. March album and tour, probably including L.A.'s Spaceland.
Richard Hawley: His album “Cole’s Corner” is a resonant meditation on the place in Sheffield where all the city’s lovers used to meet, including his parents. Quiet, engrossing, very romantic.
Arctic Monkeys: U.K. No. 1 single with “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” Earthy, funny street tales and taut beat-group guitars. February album on Domino. March tour, with two L.A. gigs.