The Last Refuge of the Muso
Rock and roll used to be about rebellion. Despite the fact that rock still retains the ability to shock, like the generation of rockers before them, today’s generation of young people tend to find it unsanitary to engage in their parents’ cultural pursuits. After all, it’s always been a full-time profession of kids to shun the fads of their parents’ generation and to forge their own grounds for rebellion: this is a general rule of thumb that has stayed consistent throughout rock’s transmogrification from blues, country, rockabilly, hard rock, through to punk… I myself, I like rock and roll, through all its various guises and ill-advised choices in knitwear. I’d almost go as far to say that I love it, if the statement wasn’t liable to automatically trigger that cheesy Joan Jett and The Blackhearts song in your mind, like a volatile, internal Ipod of the mind reacting to certain key phrases. Perhaps the Britney Spears version of ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ is closer to your heart – it all depends which musical generation you belong to. Given that I’m a 20-something year-old ‘young adult’ in 2014, there’s nothing rebellious about liking or even loving rock and roll at all; in fact, my tastes are downright conservative: after all, this is now the music of my parents’ generation.
Consequently, I spend an inordinate amount of time alongside men twice my age, typified in 2011 when I saw Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band perform their former maestro’s brilliant and idiosyncratic music at the Falmouth Pavilion in Cornwall. I was one of many weird people in the room, although one of only a few below 40 years of age, packed in a room full of blokes and geezers who themselves were both in the moment and reliving musical moments from an earlier passage of time. Coming from a younger person, these sentiments most likely sound patronising and cloying, and if I sound even remotely ageist here, I certainly don’t intend to come across that way. Truth is, I’ve never found it too easy to gel with people among my own age group, and I often chose to go to gigs alone, leaving my friends at home, most of whom consider music pre-2010 to be archaic and outmoded. As I get older, my hair line is developing through its own ‘maturation’ process, and I find myself blending inextricably into my surrounding background wallpaper of bald heads and surplus beards, like a gothic enlivenment of a Charlotte Perkins Gilman short story. In turn, it’s something I’m becoming used to, more familiar with. Premature ‘maturity’, as I’ll pompously call it, leads to a curmudgeonly outlook on life, and curmudgeonhood, in turn, is something you grow in to, like an overlong sweater. Old age: you could say that I’m growing into it.
As a music obsessive, my life is divided into an uncomplicated binary relationship between the musical and non-musical moments. Besides music gigs themselves, music shops are where real music fans congregate. Specifically, music shops are where people go to talk shop about various facets of the music world – about techniques, about favourite albums, about kit and music production. Tones in Harlow is my favourite – not because it’s particularly unique in any way, mostly because, as I’ve always assumed, it’s like almost every other music store across the country. It didn’t matter that the shop itself was set amongst the backdrop of a dreary concrete jungle in Essex, for me it was somewhere to escape.
With a friend – who also suffers with the side effects of premature maturity – I would visit Tones in between college lessons, where he would play with blushing aptitude his post-punk repertoire, live in this dingy store where we’d come to spend our lunch time break. He would often play a mean version of the Joy Division b-side ‘Dead Souls’, played on his weapon of choice, a borrowed Fender Stratocaster that spent most of its inanimate life hanging on a wall in store. My friend would also sing as he played, channelling Ian Curtis’s flat-lined baritone as the owner of the store engaged himself in some other business, unperturbed as my friend disappeared, purely immersed in the tunnel vision of his playing, playing at a volume that would have shocked onlookers had we been anywhere else. Hipster fads were alien to us then; we liked what we liked and we liked it with a deadly sincerity, much like the older guys around us: a generation who grew up around genuine musical innovations, not, like me and my friend, a generation who grew up around kitsch rehashes and amalgamations of older styles, re-jigged and re-packaged as something ‘new’. My friend would engage with other guys in the store after his impromptu gigs, discussing various specifications and models of guitar, discussions that would leave me behind. Although my bedroom is littered with instruments and all sorts of kit – some of which I’ve purchased at Tones – I’d rather put the technicalities aside and enjoy the music.
There’s a political angle to all of this. If our music shops and independent records represent socialist digs separated away from those dreary non-musical aspects of life, the major-chain high street retailers such as HMV are the capitalist, corporate zones of the music world. There are a few noticeable things about HMV that have cropped up in recent years. The fact that HMV stores across the country insist on playing automated musical playlists programmed – programmed! – in advance is a clear sign that something’s been lost over the years. If HMV and the likes were formerly places where you could have heated, passionate discussions about music, it seems clear to me that not much of that spirit remains today. An increasing and insipid standardisation has swept over the UK in the last decade, seemingly spurred on by the recent recession, in a culture which threatens to swallow itself whole and bankrupt music stores both mainstream and independent in the process. For luddites such as myself who still collect CDs and vinyl, this is rather daunting and sad. Whereas there’s a pleasing familiarity within music stores such as Tones across the country, this is not so with the likes of HMV and other big market high street traders, who represent a bland sense of uniformity within the UK high streets.
In my opinion, these main-chain retailers would do well to attempt to mimic the attitudes of music shops and independent music stores. Perhaps they should focus more on creating a communal environment for musos and music obsessives instead, as insufferable as we are. On a wider note, UK high streets are practically identical and look almost exactly the same, with ubiquitous company logos that make you feel as if you could be anywhere in the country. Accordingly, we ought to value our independent music stores and music shops and the wider sense of communion that they foster, and in the process, perhaps major-chains could learn a thing or two from the struggling retailers below them.