Bands; Those Funny Little Plans (That Never Turn Out Right)

indulge me for a minute, this might just go somewhere.

There’s a passage in Sartre’s Nausea where the protagonist (a loose interpretation of the author) sits a moment in a café and listens to a song on a record player. It goes like this:
I am moved, I feel my body as a precision tool at rest. I for my part have had some real adventures. I can’t remember a single detail, but I can see the rigorous succession of circumstances. I have crossed seas, I have left cities behind me, and I have plunged the course of rivers towards their source or else plunged into forests, always making for other cities. I have had women, I have fought with men; and I could never turn back, any more than a record could spin in reverse. And all that was leading me where? To this very moment, to this bench, in this bubble of light humming with music.
It is, like all most things by Sartre, about the struggle between fate and will. A few pages later he adds:
And we have the impression that the hero lived all the details of that night like annunciations, promises, or even that he lived only those that were promises, blind and deaf to everything that did not herald adventure. We forget that the future was not yet there; the fellow was walking in a darkness devoid of portents, a night which offered him its monotonous riches pell-mell, and he made no choice. I wanted the moments of my life to follow one another in an orderly fashion like those of a life remembered. You might as well try to catch time by the tail.
Culture as Stories
All of human culture—art, literature, film, music and everything in-between and beyond—exists as a means of telling stories. We recognise their patterns from an early age, learn the contours of linear plots and, if we’re sharp enough and know enough about the blocks that stories are constructed of, learn how to predict them; this is the good guy, that is a moment of foreshadowing, this is the twist which inverts our expectations, this is the denouement. Understanding (or not) the nature of stories is key to our relationship with culture.

Problems arise when we start imagining stories where there are none. External to culture, in the realm of real life if you like, Sartre goes on to tell us that a story is only a story in retrospect, once it is told to an audience as a complete tale and the shape of its narrative becomes apparent from beginning to end. Until that point, during the time in which the various plot devices and twists and characters and events actually occur, it is just stuff, mere happenings, simple things that take place; a procession of events seemingly random and unrelated. No matter how much you may plan and plot and hope and conspire, the proceedings, coincidences, setbacks and outcomes of your actions are ultimately unwritten. Understanding this is key to understanding the control one has over one’s own narrative, and therefore identity.

Music is a part of culture. Culture is stories. Music is a story. But are the people who make music part of a story?

A Galaxy of Musical Stories
There are numerous plots to follow if they are. Clearly the story of The Beatles is a complete narrative in and of itself—perhaps the Platonic myth of a rock band, the blueprint for everyone else to follow and adjust. There is the Talk Talk variation of moving from record-company-guided trend-followers to avant-garde auteurs, a route run in analogue by Ministry and recreated later by Radiohead. There is Nirvana’s success-as-tragedy tale, Big Star’s failure-as-artistic-statement and Fugazi’s existentialist wresting of control. Of course it isn’t just bands who act out narratives either; numerous solo artists have had plots devised for them, thrust upon them, or have made their own; the accidental-figurehead tale of Bob Dylan, the continued Nietzschean reinvention of Bowie, Madonna’s perpetual zeitgeist-chasing, 50 Cent’s bullet-proof backstory, the doomed romance of Jeff Buckley, the tragic street-thuggery of Tupac, and Britney’s played-out-entirely-in-public “Poor Girl Goes Good Goes Rich Goes Bad Goes To Vegas Gets Married Gets Annulled Gets Married Again Gets Up-The-Duff” saga. Never mind Bruce Springsteen or Eminem…

In recent years British bands have often attempted to posit themselves in a narrative framework by making bold (some would say foolhardy or vainglorious) attempts at creating self-fulfilling prophesies at the outset of their careers. It’s long been a common tactic in hip-hop of course: Biggie stated in his debut single that he was drinking champagne when in all probability he couldn’t yet afford Asti. It wasn’t really any different when Manic Street Preachers emerged at the dawn of the nineties claiming they would make one magnificent double album that would sell 20 million copies, and then they would split. Of course Generation Terrorists for all its glam-rock swagger, punk-rock sneer, situationist sloganeering and occasional pop genius (“Motorcycle Emptiness”!) failed to achieve the band’s stated destiny, but it did set them en route to an entirely different, romance-and-tragedy-touched tale, one of depression, excess, missing persons and, eventually, something near the massive commercial success they had claimed they desired.

The Stone Roses, upon signing an eight-album deal with Silvertone, announced that they wanted to be the first band to play a gig on the moon. They didn’t manage it. (The) Verve claimed that it would take three albums for their particular brand of stargazing neo-prog to be understood by the masses. Urban Hymns out-sold their previous two records by several million. Noel Gallagher claimed in 1994 that the first three Oasis albums were already written, that he knew which songs would be singles, and that the singles would consistently chart higher than the previous release until they reached number one. They did. (Apparently the songs he had set aside for the third album were used up as b-sides, which perhaps explains why The Masterplan is so much better than Be Here Now.) Gallagher also said (I’m paraphrasing here) “We'll release a debut album far better than the Beatles! And when we get to the fifth, they'll be pissing all over us.” Perhaps he’s smarter than we give him credit for.

Some of these myths are so entrenched in our collective psyches that bands feel a need to follow their contours even if the results can be entirely negative; cf. Pete Doherty and the destructive self. Encouraged by fans and media alike, Doherty seems to see himself as living out the role of a modern-day romantic poet, sees his actions, relations, indulgences, and artistic creations as being as inevitable as the passage of time itself such is the strength and allure of the myth he has first posited himself within and then allowed to take over his very identity. The backwards-streaming procession of other followers of the same path add a weight of historical inevitability to Doherty’s chosen narrative, not just doomed rock poseurs like Jim Morrison and Sid Vicious but also (in Doherty’s head at least) the likes of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. The danger is that Doherty may be too deeply entrenched within his chosen narrative to be able to escape its ultimate tragedy.

Who Writes These Tales?
Obviously these perceived narratives, like all stories, don’t exist except in hindsight; the protagonists of these myths that we observe are wandering just as blindly in darkness as Sartre’s semi-autobiographical self in Nausea. But just because these myths don’t exist doesn’t mean that people don’t invest a huge amount of belief in them: bands wish to position themselves in a linear history and shape their futures through force of will; record companies want myths that galvanise fan loyalty by allowing devotees to buy into complete lifestyle packages; the media invest in narratives to give themselves purpose as documenters of history as it happens (as well as to sell copy, of course); and the fans… well, on one hand they want to be a part of something larger than themselves, to invest in an unfolding story in which they can play a minor role, and on the other hand the mythology which surrounds bands offers reassurance of and direction for teenage and early post-adolescent identity, a major factor in the consumption of popular music since Bill Haley first rocked around the clock. A myth may not have a definite ending or form, but if it offers shortcuts and signifiers to constructing an identity, however ephemeral and affected, then it has huge allure to those not yet certain of their own self.

(There is a whole other essay waiting to be written about the accelerated nature of bands’ narratives over the last decade, concerning at its heart the radical remodelling of music PR and business plans. No longer are bands signed by major labels and nurtured with the hope that they would strike metaphorical and literal gold [and multi-platinum] on their fifth, sixth, seventh or more album—the U2 or REM model, essentially. These days those types of collegiate and immediately post-collegiate, pseudo-literate/artistic, NME/Pitchfork-friendly bands are having their career spans hammered into 3-to-5 year half-lives [how long do we spend in higher-education?]. If traditional record-company PR has been replaced with standard PR theory and technique then quality of product is no longer a concern, merely quality of the idea of the product and how easily that idea can be reinforced and sold. Clearly the strength of myth surrounding these tightly delineated marketing schemes helps massively in their promotion and propagation. Cynical, moi?)

Belief in myth, in the narratives of rock bands and pop stars, is essentially a rockist trope, a conservative and conservationist impulse that seeks to secure historical positions for the things, events, and people it documents. Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler book is an exercise in trying to create a mythology by emphasising insignificant details to the point where it seems as though the careers of bands like Tangerine Dream and Faust were guided by fate rather than by the vicissitudes of chance, talent, and context. Likewise Paul Morley’s Words & Music is an attempt to make the very personal history of his own relationship with music into an overarching pop narrative, some kind of Platonic course through and approach to music that others can follow. Music writing itself, whether Lester Bangs, the musings of I Love Music or the capsule reviews in broadsheet papers, is nothing but a series of attempts at codifying narratives, at inventing narratives where they don’t even exist (think of all those examples at contrived scene-making that beset Melody Maker in the mid-90s before it finally exhaled its death-rattle), possibly because music writers, rather than being failed musicians, are really failed novelists without the necessary creativity to come up with their own story.

The thing that fascinates me most about these myths, these narratives we buy into and construct, are the tensions inherent in them. There are tensions between bands, fans, record companies and the press regarding the described narratives, tensions over who controls them, over whose is the correct storyline to follow. Record companies may become un-enamoured with a band’s narrative if they suspect the band of becoming commercially non-viable, if a trademark sound and ethos suddenly becomes unfashionable in the marketplace. Bands themselves are generally fragile, ego-driven units desperate not to feel manipulated in order that they may maintain their credibility and authenticity. But if we follow Heidegger’s idea that authenticity is a state one arrives at after being awoken into existential awareness by the power of angst, then we can see that the nature of bands paradoxically necessitates the arresting of their development at the angst stage in order to maintain the illusion of that credibility. The very existence of a band is a struggle to maintain control in the face of record company and other outside influences, and beneath that an internal struggle between the members of the band who are competing to guide the group’s path.

But the most interesting tension over narratives, for me, is that tension which exists between a band and their own fans.

Narrative as Identity
Being a serious fan of a band involves more than merely buying a record or attending a concert. It is a process of buying into an idea of a lifestyle, of believing in something, of allowing that something to shape your identity. If a band deviates from a narrative as perceived by its own fans then it risks upsetting those fans by slighting their very identity, and in doing so losing their loyalty, passion and, on the bottom line, financial support. By making bold statements bands simply build themselves up for a higher fall if things go wrong; when they succeed the narrative strengthens them, makes them appear like prophets, but the first chink in the narrative armour makes people question the very basis of what they believed in, and with that their commitment to it.

In the past it used to be that the best way to become directly involved in a band’s narrative was through fanzine culture. Friends of mine ran The Boo Radleys’ fanclub in the 90s; they are credited in the liner notes for the recent Find The Way Out Compilation, proof that they became involved in the story even if they did not direct it themselves. My elder brother, through committed gig attendance across Europe and copious pre-and-post gig drinking sessions, is thanked in the acknowledgements for a record by his favourite band, evidence that he was involved in their story if only tangentially.

These days though the internet has, as it does with most things, changed this immeasurably. Now all a fan needs to do to feel a part of a community, of a narrative, is sign up to their favourite band’s messageboard, and a whole other world of rumours, unadvertised gigs, opportunities to email a jpeg of yourself so that your face might appear on a record sleeve and chances to converse directly yet virtually with the very people whose myth you wish to be involved in open up. You only need to look at the Arctic Monkeys’ story again, building a community and rabid live following via Myspace and rigorous touring until momentum was such that it secured them a number one with their first widely available single release. It’s not just the narrative of four young lads from Sheffield—it’s the story of everyone who exchanged MP3s of their tunes, who went to their gigs, who requested their songs on Radio 1, everyone who spread the word, however they spread it.

Of course allowing your fanbase into your narrative via the internet has its downside too. Idlewild reportedly shut down their official messageboard after so many long-time posters complained that their current album was poor, passionless, and a treachery to what the band stood for. More common though are the kind of trolls who periodically drop in on messageboards to tell fans how much their favourite band has let them down and betrayed what they stood for. How much, if you will, that they have diverged from their true narrative, at least as the troll sees it. Often these trolls will damn the band in far more cutting terms than any disenchanted music journalist could manage in an NME hack-job of a review, possibly because they bought into what they thought was the band’s narrative in a big way at an early stage, their ire sourced from a supposedly spurned passion. It has been said that you can’t really hate someone unless you’ve loved them first.

Frayed and contentious narratives arrive in as many forms as there are stories. There are the otherworld constructionists; bands like Sigur Ros and Boards Of Canada who create such detailed and self-contained sonic environments that their fans are encouraged to inhabit them like alternate dimensions, fleshing out the soundscapes with analogous personal interpretations. As soon as the artist produces a record which sits uncomfortably with a single fan’s highly individualised world, maybe only in the tiniest aesthetic detail or stylistic appropriation, then belief in the myth, in the world the artist had constructed for the listener to inhabit (the listener not understanding her own contribution to this world), is smashed, and even the previous building blocks of the universe, the records which opened it up, become uninhabitable.

There are other outrageous narratives that arise from a single fan’s skewed and psychotic reading of a band’s intent and history. If you go to Google and enter the phrase “stone roses” and the word “burnweed” you will eventually stumble across what’s known as OneLoveStory, the fevered, lengthy and frighteningly-detailed account of one particular fan (the aforementioned “Burnweed”) who believed The Stone Roses to be angelic Gnostics with mystical powers who were intent on facilitating the Second Coming (meaning Jesus rather than an album of Led Zep-indebted guitar-wank). Narratives like this, and I’m sure there are others (Charles Manson’s interpretation of “Helter Skelter”, Dylan & Klebold’s fascination with Marilyn Manson [according to the press, at least], and the countless obsessive-compulsive stalkers who turn up on singers’ doorsteps around the world claiming to be carrying their unborn-children) are perhaps more suited to psychological rather than pop cultural analysis though.

Unwriting the Stories
The danger with myths is that people can see them as rules rather than suggestions or patterns, that people can lose control of the myths they try and use, that their momentum can overtake your own. As ever, the most interesting approaches to myth, the most compelling stories, are the ones that either deconstruct old forms or else invent entirely new ones. The KLF deconstructed every myth going (after Bill Drummond had made-up a thousand lies to mythologise Echo & The Bunnymen), even attempting to detail, step-by-step, the biggest myth of all when they wrote The Manual: How To Have A Number One Single The Easy Way. Kate Bush has spent a career forging paths that no one could have even known existed prior to her arrival. Embrace have spent half a decade trying to extricate themselves from the paths they were unwittingly pushed down.

Myths are what we use to make the cultural appear natural; they only exist if people retell them, and if, when retold, others believe in them. Once we as listeners get past myths, get past the idea of using music as a prop for helping to define and structure our identity, have the realisation that this thing we love is only music and that, to air a cliché, at the end of the day all we have is songs and tunes and how they make us feel… I think it happens to us all, as we get older. I’ve felt it drift away from me. If the myths are all we get from music then our love for the music itself dims. Perhaps this is why so many people seem to lose interest once their identity is composed of babies and partners and 9-5s and no longer needs music to supply them with a story, with a self. My passion for the actual stuff, the tunes, for listening to it (but not quite writing about it) and sharing it with a select few others, hasn’t faded. Because the narratives, the stories, are just what I’ve said they are continually throughout this article: myths. They need belief, belief, and more belief. Reality is that which when we stop believing doesn’t go away. Music doesn’t go away.

By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2005-11-08
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