David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs opens with ‘Future Legend’ a dystopian view of a future Manhattan which segues into the title track bridged by the line, This ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide.
Don’t let us down, you have one job.
Trawl the Internet and you’ll find all sorts of wisefolk and kooks who want to tell you what Bowie meant when he recorded those words. The real answer is, ‘Who the fuck knows?’, but close on 50 years after the release of Diamond Dogs lines like that gives us cause to reflect on the progress of rock and roll.
I’ve always liked to imagine that Bowie was encapsulating a vision of rock and roll as some sort of nihilistic, drug-fuelled wild abandon that tears through populaces leaving in its wake devastation and death, but a good death. This view of rock and roll sees it as dangerous, sexy, counter cultural even revolutionary, and consuming of the lives of all those who choose it, or are chosen. It’s not just music, it’s a way of life.
Generations later, at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century, we’re living slap bang in the middle of Bowie’s dystopian future. The world is being run by despotic ignoramuses and humanity’s very existence is being threatened by a novel corona virus that has crossed over from animals to teach us a lesson about the sustainability of life on planet Earth.
Speaking of despotic ignoramuses, Donald Trump’s 2016 installation as US president and leader of the free world was meant to bring about a new dawn for protest songs. Commentators envisaged a fresh generation of Dylans, Donovans and Mitchells waxing lyrical about the times and how they gotta change. Instead all we got was the oldies coming out of retirement and the puerile flailing of the likes of Tim Minchin and Briggs, which far from being clever and persuasive, just provides grist for the far right’s satanic mills.
If ever there was a moment in time when rock and roll was the answer to just about any question you could ask, it’s right now. The problem is, rock and roll, the sort that has genocide on its mind, took a permanent vacation sometime around 1985 and isn’t showing any signs of coming back. Sure we’ve had the corporate ramblings of bands like Rage Against The Machine, daring to stick it to the man while trotting out cookie cutter anti-establishment lines and making millions in the process. But for every RATM, there are at least 10 Justin Beibers, so even the fake plastic voice of rebellion gets drowned out by the dross.
The result of all this is that we now have a generation of contemporary musicians that is so carefully curated, so highly trained that no one knows if they mean it any more. Taking the local scene as an example, many of the people in the current crop of Perth bands are products of the WA Academy of Performing Arts, our local version of the sickeningly saccharine Fame school portrayed in the TV series of the same name. You don’t need a university degree to be in a band. Time was, the only essential qualification was to be an art school dropout, or a junkie, singularly good looking, or just a big mouth with gorgeous hair. Whoever decided it would be a good idea for kids to go to university to learn how to be rock stars was a killjoy of the highest order. The consistency of product that the Academy produces is destroying this generation’s creativity.
When I was a kid, Paul Weller sang, in his take on Britain’s dystopia, ‘Town Called Malice’, …stop apologising for the things you’ve never done. If ever there was a kid who was brash and arrogant, it was Weller in his amphetamine spiked youth. Musos, even if you’re not going to take direction from his lifestyle choices, you’d be wise to heed his words. If I see one more local muso perform an act of mild egregiousness and then the very next minute apologise for their poor behaviour, I may just go postal. A little while ago I was taking photos at a local venue, preparing to get in the gutter with my review the next day, when the front man stepped off the stage and went toe to toe with my camera lens, giving me the best shot of the night. Next morning — not even afternoon — he was on social media sending me a message apologising for his bad behaviour. A bit before that some upstart from a never-was-never-will-be local band slagged off Around The Sound on social media for daring to say their music was just a little bit shit. I thanked them publicly for their feedback, which led to the commenter and his band mates sending in waves apologetic messages. It made my flesh creep.
More recently I flagged to a local band that the EP they had submitted for review was about to receive the sort of write up that could make them want to take up jobs in accounting which, judging by the quality of their music, is a profession for which they would be far better suited. Their response was to ask that we didn’t publish rather than take the opportunity of riding the inevitable wave of mild controversy that would have created far more interest in their music than any eight out of 10 review could ever stimulate. They chickened out.
Their lack of self belief was stunning, but not uncommon. Bands’ aversion to creating controversy and their compulsion to apologise for every act that may draw fire also is not uncommon. It’s this sort of mild-mannered approach that is killing the spirit of rock and roll. There’s no more Jekyll and Hyde in music these days. It’s all well and good to be kindhearted, but if you don’t have any snark or sass in you, it’s very unlikely that anyone will really give a fuck about your music. Even Justin Bieber knows how to misbehave.
Which brings me to the audience. The other day I wrote an opinion piece about Tame Impala and all the reasons why I thought they made beautifully ambient background music. I expected a little avalanche of spite, and there was a bit, but most of the responses were sickeningly polite. Right now you may be thinking, ‘But that’s good, isn’t it?’ Well, yes, to a degree, but rock and roll thrives on disagreement and controversy and it all being played out in public. That’s what really gets the juices of the industry flowing, a good public spat.
Probably the most telling and funniest comment about that article was something along the lines of, ‘This is your opinion, you should stick to the facts.’ Well, duh! This comment epitomises everything that is wrong with the discourse about rock and roll right now. Social media is the great leveller, probably the most democratic instrument on the planet; it gives everyone a voice. It also enables the content of discussion to reach bottom more quickly than a skyscraper elevator in a disaster movie. There should be a means of weighting comments so that such insight can be labelled for the arrant idiocy that it is.
Another purler was the person who, on learning that an article we published some time ago was a stunt, fired right back saying that we should have been up front about it being a ruse in the first place. I don’t even have the words to describe how pious and ignorant such commentary is — oh, wait, seems I do — but, fuck that was funny.
I’m not saying that we should be stirring the pot all the time, that would interrupt our local musos from their uni assignments, their day jobs, tending to their mortgages and saving for their overseas holidays, but we’re living right in the middle of a dystopia the result of which may be that there literally is no tomorrow. If ever there was a time to be kicking against the pricks and living like you really mean it, that time is now. If you bark some shins along the way, don’t apologise, kick harder. It’s time to get in people’s faces and stay there until you change the world. Right now, we need rock and roll like we’ve never needed it before.
Don’t let us down, you have one job.