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Guitar Music Is Dead. Long Live Guitar Music
Luke Turner , January 11th, 2011 10:06

Yesterday, guitar music was pronounced dead for the umpteenth time. Luke Turner argues that it's a tired old argument - and one that, when we're looking outside the mainstream - is patently untrue

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Yesterday, the Guardian ran a report saying that sales figures proved that rock music is kaput as a commercial and creative force. Knowledgeable rock heads Paul Gambaccini, Absolute Radio boss Clive Dickens and George Ergatoudis were wheeled out by the Guardian and music week to take turns at hammering the nails home, saying that the live market was only buoyant thanks to heritage acts.

These "rock is dead" (and, indeed "dance is dead") kerfuffles are a hardy perennial of the media. But, in recent years, there's a different slant to the debate. While in the 1990s the arrival of Britpop heralded the end of artificial pop before dying itself with newspapers enthusiastically reporting that guitar sales had plummeted in favour of decks as DJ culture took over (a trend reversed in the past ten years), there was then a genuine chance that a youth movement that had a singular methodology or aesthetic could top the charts. And, more significantly, it could do so without the need for a major record label or telly talent show to get it in front of the public. NME's Paul Stokes says that music is cyclical, and guitar music could well make a comeback – but is this still the case? Has the wheel not fallen off the genre bike?

With illegal filesharing making the music industry resemble a tableau involving a sticky mound of toothpaste next to its empty tube, Dark Lord Cowell omnipresent and the consumption of music so diverse, the supposed 'death' of the kind of guitar music that the harbingers of doom mourn is actually to be celebrated. They mean the post-Britpop, landfill indie that topped the charts in the middle years of the last decade. Back in 2010 (obviously prematurely declaring on the corpse that Gambaccini has now despatched) on Front Row, Jo Whiley pointed out that bands like The Enemy, Razorlight, The Fratellis and Kaiser chiefs had all foundered because they'd been under "too much pressure" to continue selling records. Indeed, Jo, if you step on a turd, it will squirt and squiggle between your shoeless toes. And it could be argued that with the likes of the Vaccines and Brother being tipped across the board, the soil atop the coffin lid is trembling. We'd certainly be first to offer to tramp the dirt down.

A more pertinent question to ask would be whether the charts these days actually have any relevance, or indeed work as a barometer of the relative health of musical genres. For those who worry about popularity, vitality can be measured in YouTube plays, stats, Hype Machine fuss, or that funny little bar in Spotify. More than this, music is now fragmented into glorious splinters of many hues, something we're always keen to reflect on the Quietus. Sadly, in today's chart climate, the days of a maverick number one are probably long gone. I personally haven't listened to, or cared about, what's in the charts for over a decade. You only have to look at the commercialisation of Radio One and the extinction of nearly any leftfield music on the station to see that the main public sphere for being guided to non-mainstream song is over. Alright, so there's the internet, but that's a case of too much information, and too few knowledgeable guides.

Instead, we live in a time when we shouldn't give two hoots whether rock, pop, dance, hip hop or global YesWave is top of the hit parade, or whether it is played on guitar, synth, jews harp or digibanjo. Let us revel in the glorious cacophony of the post genre-led world. And if you must listen to your guitars, the Quietus would like to point you in the direction of Skull Defekts, Wire's deeply pop Red Barked Tree, Parts & Labor, Arboretum, Dead Skeletons, Swans, The Cave Singers, Josh T Pearson, Anna Calvi, Nadja, Shellac, Grandfather, British Sea Power, TIME, Shrinebuilder, UFOmammut, Mogwai, PJ Harvey, Gemma Ray, War House, Rhys Chatham, Wild Beasts, The Ex, White Hills, Electric Wizard, The Body, Esben & The Witch, Tweakbird, Eagle Twin, Grinderman, The Membranes, Pale Horses, 33, Arabrot, Gnod, Kellermensch, Rammstein (who, under everyone's noses, sell out arenas), and of course that band from Prestwich.

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Jan 11, 2011 3:23pm

Fuck The Grauniad. Newspapers are dead.

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Jan 11, 2011 3:47pm

Er... what band from Prestwich?

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Jan 11, 2011 3:52pm

The Fall.

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Jan 11, 2011 4:09pm

You're right to acknowledge that the 'guitar music is dead' statement only ever refers to landfill'die. These kind of arguments are only ever superficial. They are the equivalent of saying purple is out and green is in for interior decoration. They are not referring to a seismic change in consciousness,or in substance, just whether pop is at the moment dressed in guitars or not. And the difference is so arbitrary and irrelevant that I for one would rather know if more music was being sold by artists over or under 5'8" in height.

The irony rests in the fact that, as we move into a post genre-led world, some people continue to grasp at these distinctions and blindly apply them to the sort of music which only utilises a paper-thin vestige of genre. Ie: The Fratellis' or The Vaccines' 'guitar-band' veneer. And yes, I did choose those two bands on purpose.

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Jan 11, 2011 4:54pm

what about status quo?

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Jan 11, 2011 5:23pm

"Rock" is dead. Fine. I like 'post-genre' mostly because it's pretty much true. I mean, there a new 'micro-genre's' sprouting up on the blogosphere every couple of months to the point where there is no point.

And if by "Rock" they mean to say blues derived macho bologna (which is probably the case) - well Fucking-A: DIE ALREADY! There is nothing left to be done with it - it's been perfected, deconstructed, reconstructed, sanitized, commercialized, and pantomimed. It is entirely dead from a progressive, artistic standpoint (has been for some time) and the kids of today would be well served to try something else.

Using loud guitars doesn't necessarily make a band "rock" anymore than using a drum machine makes a group "hip hop". We need to ween ourselves off that reflex.

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Jan 11, 2011 6:00pm

Quote from the Guardian article: 'the best performing rock song of 2010 was Don't Stop Believin', a 30-year-old track from the veteran rock act Journey made popular by US television show Glee.' [...]
'The other two rock songs to make it into the top 100 of the year were Hey, Soul Sister by Train and Dog Days are Over by Florence + the Machine.'

Since when does a song being performed by the cast of Glee, and songs by Train and Florence and the Machine count as 'rock music?'. Seriously confused?

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James Holloway
Jan 11, 2011 6:19pm

Basically the only thing this news means is that the global population of Jeremy Clarkson-ite, motorway-service-station-CD-compilation-album-buying middle aged men are beside themselves with anguish that Top Gear albums will cease to feature new artists and thus completely destroy their futile attempts to look credible.

Thank fuck.

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Tim Russell
Jan 12, 2011 2:11am

Why in 2010 is the way music is made still an issue? I remember the synth v guitar wars of the early 80s (when I was firmly on the synth side), then New Order released "The Perfect Kiss" and blew the whole debate out of the water.

My favourite album of last year was probably Radio Dept's "Clinging to a Scheme". Are they a guitar band? Are they an electronic band? They could be either or both, who cares? The fact is they sound wonderful. And if rock music is dead, tell that to the people who will sell out this summer's Metallica/Slayer shows, or the millions of kids who buy MCR records for example.

I regret the day broadsheets started writing about popular music. 20+ years on and they still don't have a fucking clue. Take your Bruce Springsteen box set and shove it...up your...arse.

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Jan 12, 2011 7:06am

Nice article.

As someone for whom guitar-based rock is the staple of my musical diet, my problem with the rock is dead stuff isn't necessarily the argument itself, but that it can whitewash the crapness of crap rock bands - when we blame the crapness of groups like The Kooks or Nickelback on their instruments or their genre, it seems to me we're letting them off the hook for being crap, when (if we're to pay attention to them at all) really we should be blaming them personally for how innately crap they are. If someone is going to entrust the survival of their favourite genre to crap merchants, then they deserve for it to die.

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Jan 12, 2011 3:36pm

In reply to S D:

I think the problem is that it's become culturally irrelevant and moribund as a tool for youth movements - there are no fresh ideas, just recontexualisation IF that. At this point 'Rock Music' has become a form of folk music.
By this I mean there are well defined traditions and you either perform 'poorly' within those confines (Nickelback) or you perform 'well' (Jack White, I guess? Whatever singer/songwriter their wetting trou over on NPR this weekend?). The problem is the same regardless of which way it goes: There is nothing 'new' left to say in "Rock Music".

That's not to say it sucks, it just is what it is. I'm not sure any rock band could create a song powerful enough to laser it's way to the top of the charts in a world that has been dominated by R&B/Pop/Hip Hop since the day after Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. There's a whole generation that has no clue that rock music is anything other than 'old white guy music'. And if anything is uncool to the majority of kids today - it's an old white guy.

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Jan 12, 2011 4:35pm

like duke ellington said. there is only two types of music. good and bad. by record collection certainly reflects that.

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Jan 12, 2011 5:12pm

The Guardian piece seems to focus on record sales, which, while useful to the "suits", is really no way to measure the artistic merit of "rock" music.

Hip-hop still borrows traditionally "rock" tropes. Most famously this year is Kanye West's universally lauded "Power" single featuring a significant chunk of the hook to a vintage King Crimson (!) track. Ok, you say it hasn't performed like the Ke$shas and the Katy Perrys and Gagas. True, but it made #10 on the UK RnB chart and #36 on the Singles chart.

Rock and Roll may be dormant, but it'll re-awaken once the kids think of a fresh take on it.

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Jan 12, 2011 7:09pm

Get the fuck outta here. What seems to be dead is music journalism.

Guitar music is dead you say. Have you been to a music festival lately? Tell Michael Eavis that rock music is dead, then see what his response is.

Are rock bands not playing massive gigs all over the world? Or is that just my imagination.

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Jan 14, 2011 11:50pm

..not forgetting pete pathides. yes, it's a none story. but still you latch on to it. should be ashamed of yourself. rave on. BB

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Jan 15, 2011 11:55pm

In reply to BB:

Nice one Luke
Guitar music is dead, maybe, in terms of Radio One and mainstream media. But that's why you're here and we're here, n'est-ce pas?
Meanwhile I shall continue to listen to everything from Magazine to Swans to Pixies to Suede to the Horrors to Wire's latest greatest offering... while being a committed fan of electronic music, I love guitars, and there's plenty of good stuff to keep us listening :)

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The 50 Something Indie Kid
Feb 4, 2011 11:23pm

When the likes of the omnipresent cultural "commentator" Zane Lowe and the NME are telling the world that The Vaccines are the "future of rock n roll" then maybe the oxbridge educated Guardian art critic ain't wrong?

Whilst there are Fender guitars and electricity a plentiful then there'll be plenty of guitar bands for us to wet our pants about. No matter what some lazy arsed oxbridge educated Guardian art critic reckons.

And when there isn't I'll probably be long gone from this mortal coil!

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Feb 17, 2011 8:54pm

Pff...just wait a year or so and the status will go from "dead" to "retro."

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Feb 18, 2011 3:42pm

These dumbasses are looking in the wrong place for music obviously, go underground. Its not dead, its just being reborn.... constantly

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Genia ...Corrupt?
Feb 19, 2011 12:02pm

Apart from the stupidity of the journalist in question tramping out the same tired old cyclical stories without any real understanding of the topic, I'd like to put on my commercial and artist-centered hats at the same time to respond...
'Guitar-music', as defined in this context, is 'dead' in many ways. As the primary money-maker for major labels and in the minds of the mainstream particularly. Bearing in mind this is a genre that rose up partly as a statement AGAINST the mainstream, I would tend to say the battle's lost. The mainstream, as it always does, took the most palatable and least intellectually or artistically challenging aspects of the genre and co-opted it for themselves. As a result, many mainstream artists now contain more than a mere nod towards the genre in their work. The rest - arguably the most interesting artists, then sank back below the mainstream's horizon and just got on with doing what it had been doing in the first place... creating challenging and beautiful music.
As far as your average Guardian reader is concerned, 'guitar-music' is indeed dead, or at least dying out from their world view, as it is now completely encompassed in the mainstream, and therefore has become invisible to them as a separate genre.
What worries me more is the slow death of the live music venues and labels that help non-mainstream artists to 'break through' and enable them to support themselves and their career in making music.

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blueberry chips
Feb 21, 2011 3:52pm

What is this 'rock'n'roll' business? I only ever listen to my FREEBOP jazz records on the old phonograph... Does this make me dead?

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Feb 24, 2011 4:11pm

If you want proof that guitar music is alive and flourishing you need look no further than Hot White.

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Dad Rock
Mar 8, 2011 7:05am

Top article - it's nice to be reminded that the doom purveyed by scumbag market surfers doesn't actually apply to the world of artistic endeavor. Gig attendances are down locally, but the people that do show up are the real deal - after all it's periods of relative aridity like this that sort the wheat from the chaff and allow for kneejerk reactions in/against art, which can sometimes be the most exciting. Heavy guitar is my bag, and it's a drag that if I wanna go see a band playing this music it's likely to be a 30 year old 'heritage' act doing a money-spinner, but at least when my band plays out we're not on a bill with some sliced-bread 'rock' band that doesn't actually 'rock' (something that I deem a pre-requisite to such a genre claim)...when all the poseurs have moved on it's the real bands like High On Fire and Melvins that will keep on kickin' out the jams...

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Chris Wilkie
Mar 13, 2011 7:33pm

Well if guitar music isn't dead, it certainly isn't creating anything new or original. Listening to Liam Gallagher with Beady Eye is just laughable. Lazy Eye more like it. He is just regurgitating Oasis, that famous Beatles cover band. And aren't Mancs supposed to hate Scousers anyway? What a tosser...

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beth sheebar
Mar 22, 2011 12:02pm

In reply to Chris Wilkie:

Guitar music ain't dead. Music journalists are on their way out though.

Thats why we get music journos regurgitating tired old tales about the death of guitar music. Boring

Check out this years festival line ups. How many of the acts didn't write songs on guitar?

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Dec 13, 2012 10:47pm

The 'band from Prestwich' is 10cc, right?

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Matt D
Jan 13, 2013 5:46pm

I just bought tickets to see ZZ Top... that's all I have to say on the subject.

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