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Idle Threat: Who Are The True Champions Of DIY Rock In 2020?
John Doran , November 26th, 2019 12:25

You can call it “Crank Wave”, you can call it “Wonk”, or you can even refer to “It Might Give You A Headache But Boy Is It Exciting-core”, says John Doran, as long as you recognise the importance of the Speedy Wunderground label and drop the embarrassing references to IDLES and Shame

There have been some half-hearted attempts to kickstart a new genre of alternative rock music this year. Initially it looked like the first stirrings of one of those old NME microgenres, where IPC would ask us in all seriousness to take fraggle, shroomadelica, new grave or urchin rock and try them on for size before abandoning them quietly three months later. But in this case the lack of substance, conviction or planning caused the idea to come apart like an Eccles cake in a power shower in the first instance. The crushing reality is that the days of NME blunts dreaming up a new genre over three pints of cooking lager at lunch time and then having it fly for half a year are over. No one knows this more than the NME themselves, which is probably what prevented anyone from that title taking an energetic, well thought out or even convincing run up at it.

Earlier this year Will Richards visited Visions Festival and was so moved by the experience he lumped Squid, Scalping, Orville Peck and Black Country, New Road together into a “new pack”, claiming they were following in the footsteps of ‘press the red button on your handset to see the rest of their Glastonbury set’ punks IDLES and chang-dazzled battle of the bands baggy revivalists, Shame. And, to be fair, Squid, Scalping and Black Country, New Road are all stunning bands, who have arrived like a breath of fresh air and do actually share a lot of similarities, hence my interest. So now that Will has got everyone’s attention, what’s his grand theory? He dispenses with it in one concluding paragraph:

“With the breakout of Shame and IDLES having set a precedent of straight-up barrelling punk music that’s brilliant in its directness, the following British pack on show today are taking things in weirder, more outlandish directions. It might give you a headache, but boy is it exciting.”

Woah there Roland Barthes, stop trying to confound me with your impenetrable theorising. (I’m not having a go at Will by the way. I’ve been to the Blue Fin Building. NME writers are actually forced to write in this manner by overbearing section editors who hold a taser in one hand and the Argos catalogue in the other. It takes all the fun out of taking the piss out of them to be honest.)

It’s actually no wonder that the impetus to try and define any microshift in culture is pusillanimous. Literally: what is the point? The hypertrophied desire for hyped music remains but is now running senselessly on muscle memory alone. Divorced from the technical means of revolution; the fuel of a new pharmaceutical that people actually want to take for reasons of creativity; in the absence of a mainstream music industry capable of recognising and nurturing such a scene-wide development should it happen; and subject to the imagination mangling ubiquitous scream of all cultural history “instantly available at the touch of a single button” ™, any mention of a ‘new thing’ merely seems like a frog’s leg attached to a low voltage battery, twitching spasmodically even though it has long since parted company with its former body.

So when I saw NME reaching for the chance to define a new sound - not like Prometheus straining every cord to snatch fire from Hephaistos and Athena on Mount Olympus to gift to mortal man, but like a seasonally affective dad reaching for a packet of Fig Rolls - my initial inclination was to just ignore it. But then I had nine cups of coffee and thought, ‘Fuck it.’

I should by rights be more sympathetic. I am sensitive to the fact that, after a lifetime of abstinence, I managed to invent the completely spurious genre of New Weird Britain myself just two and a half years ago. So I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to manufacture a scene along odd (or perhaps even completely fabricated) lines, as long as you’re relatively sure it’ll do the musicians themselves some good. But my firm feeling is that if you’re going to do it... at least give it some fucking piss and vinegar.

Also licking a finger and sticking it up into the breeze over at the NME this year was Mark Beaumont - a nice guy, who is dedicated to the music he loves, even if it’s not really my cup of tea. (A Venn Diagram of our tastes in music would essentially look like two entirely different circles some leagues distant from one another separated by a mile-deep trench full of children’s tears, anthrax, landmines packed full of camel spiders and barbed wire. I really need to be clear that I’m not saying my taste in music is better than his by the way but I also feel I should point out it wasn’t me who wore the Twang T-shirt to work on Friday.) So Mark had the good sense, when he floated the idea of a new movement in contemporary indie rock, to present it as a joke.

Speaking in his Mark My Words column he invented “crank wave” talking about Fontaines DC, Squid, Idles, Do Nothing, Life and Famous as “smart, modern guitar bands with a singer who sounds like someone having a psychotic episode in a debating society”. He did it primarily for comic effect, but behind the quips you could tell he was also testing the water because he pines for the days when rock music could fulfil its revolutionary potential as much as I do.

Of course you can recognise a seachange in music without calling it a new genre, which is exactly what well-dressed man of punk rock John Robb did when he talked about Wonk in the very Promethean Louder Than War. But despite name-checking two of the best live acts in the world - complete outliers, Fat White Family and Sleaford Mods - I just couldn’t get down with the idea of his list as evidence of an exciting new movement (rather than just a random selection of good or enjoyable rock bands), especially as he also went on to namecheck Shame, Fontaines DC and Slaves. These bands aren’t offering something new in any meaningful sense, rather they’re just the latest iteration of something quite old. This makes total sense as John Robb is a believer in the dazzling continuum of punk rock; a glorious rock & roll tradition that can be traced back generations, the baton passed from one adrenalised evangelist sprinter to the next. Whereas I guess what I like is rupture, deterritorialisation, jouissance, all of that unsettling, ear-boggling, do-I-even-like-this? brand new stuff that takes a while to settle in.

Writing in an editorial named ‘The Rise Of The Unlikely Hype Band’ in Loud And Quiet in May, Luke Cartledge, didn’t call a new genre or give the latest crop of bands a name but he did recognise that musical change was afoot, and this was, he claimed smartly, due to a structural change. He cited Mark Fisher, Francis Fukuyama and the “slow cancellation of the future” when talking about the cultural quicksand we were mired in for a decade after the financial crash of 2008. He also chose to highlight the “dire”, “revivalist”, “small-c conservative” hype bands of his youth (The Parma Violets, The Vaccines, Mumford And Sons and, he says, “to a certain extent”, Fat White Family) in order to contrast with the green shoots that he can see right now in the guise of Black Midi, The Comet Is Coming, Black Country, New Road, slowthai and GAIKA. And he manages to get through the whole thing without mentioning IDLES once. Go Luke.

At this point I have to point out, because it’s the internet, that I’m being slightly tongue in cheek here. I don’t hate IDLES. They’re OK. I would bet any amount of money they’re good guys and they certainly seem to have sound politics and all the rest of it. They’re just not for me. However, if you’re going to go to bat hard for IDLES and you don’t have any time for, say, Trash Kit, Couch Slut, Geld, Good Throb, Cocaine Piss, Rainbow Grave, deafkids or Rakta, then there’s a slim chance you might be a bit of a walloper. But I don’t even like punk, so what do I know? Any value judgement I make about IDLES is therefore very subjective and the fact that they sound like music that’s already been made elsewhere counts for less and less these days. But you don’t have to look far to find a string of groups who are working, roughly speaking in the field of post punk, post hardcore and post rock, who are doing much more interesting work and it really, really boils my goat when people want to drag IDLES or any other bunch of Mmmm Danone emotional indie uncles into it.

Black Country, New Road, Crack Cloud, Melt Yourself Down, Housewives, NOV3L, Audiobooks, Squid, Hyperstition Duo, Black Midi, Scalping, Snapped Ankles, Gentle Stranger, Special Interest, Dry Cleaning, PVA, Scottibrains, The Comet Is Coming, Sinead O’Brien, Talk Show and no doubt a whole bunch of others may potentially end up sharing a bill at a festival with IDLES (or DC Fontaines, or Protomartyr or The Murder Capital or some other bunch of pretty good ‘four pints and all the feels’ punks for that matter) or maybe even fill a support slot, but they’re quite clearly not the same thing.

Firstly I think it’s generational. This next bit comes with the caveat that I’m assuming everyone reading understands how the concept of generational shift works. There has been a dizzying rise in outbursts of faux-naivety when it comes to the discourse around this subject recently. People who wouldn’t be seen dead saying, ‘Not all men’ or ‘Well, I’m white and I don’t do that’, aren’t always thinking critically on the subject, saying things along the lines of, “Well, I was born just after the second world war and I’m not a billionaire who owns original Apple stock so the whole thing’s rubbish.” To this I would firstly say: the demographic grouping known as Baby Boomer, is admittedly a generalisation but a generalisation built on massive amounts of research created through the surveying of literally millions of people. Their findings speak to tendencies rather than certainties but these shifts in behaviour are far from imaginary. There was a baby boom after the war and that generation did have advantages, generally speaking, that today’s young people generally don’t. Sucks for you if you’re approaching retirement age and you missed out, I guess. And secondly I’d say: feigning ignorance about your own privilege and the incredible damage you’ve done to the generations below you is, statistically speaking, pretty typical for someone in your group. OK boomer?

As far as I’m aware IDLES are all thirty-somethings pretending to be twenty-somethings acting like they’re representing teenagers while selling 180g tip on sleeve vinyl to forty-somethings. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this per se but I’d see them as the last iteration of a much older, more mainstream continuum that has previously contained Glasvegas, Editors, Interpol, The National, My Chemical Romance and more Reading Festival punk and emo bands than I have the space or the inclination to name. IDLES are essentially the last big group of their generation, Millennials in other words. Most of the others I’ve just mentioned (but not all) are whatever comes next, Generation Z, Digital Native or Metamodern - and the things that separate them can be seen as much in attitude as in music. I know some of the bands I’ve mentioned contain Millennial or even Gen X members but generally speaking my point stands. Most of them are either fully made up of, or feature, members who were born towards the end of the 90s. Some, god damn them, were still teenagers at the start of this year. The old guard are more sincere, and value relatable feeling over cold intellect, they wear their hearts on their sleeves and are not artful; they’re not lacking in humour necessarily but there is a tendency towards pompousness. This younger crowd are more sardonic, more tricksy and more guarded about what they’re doing especially when it comes to lyrics and lyrical delivery, which is instantaneously more intriguing - you can’t have a didactic mystery. Michael Hann writing in the Guardian recently was spot on about the phenomena of sprechesgang or spoken singing, which is one of the hallmarks of Black Country, New Road (again), Dry Cleaning, Sinead O’Brien and Talk Show. This (possibly) Fall or Slint-inspired delivery suggests strongly that we’re looking at narrative songwriting which invokes both literary technique and suggests the singer is acting, rather than affecting the dramatic pouring out of content from their own tear-sodden diary. The difference between performative and performance is stark when you sit down and analyse it.

The lyrics of Dry Cleaning, Black Country, New Road and Talk Show, seem to dip into the technique of auto-fiction, where the singer adopts a persona that is simultaneously both not them and very much like them. The technique, as re-popularised recently by Karl Ove Knausgård in his My Struggle books, could be seen as merely an attempt to create a get out of jail free card regarding plausible deniability so the writer can tackle contentious, autobiographical topics without facing too much opprobrium, or on the other hand, simply to generate a frisson of heat, but as with Stewart Lee (who differentiates between his stand up comedian character and his political column writing character and his Actual Self) there are a variety of creative reasons to employ this technique.

Where IDLES and co. hark back to a time when the mainstream could comfortably accommodate commodified punks pretending to be underground, with one eye on the main prize, they fail to recognise this middle ground is slowly melting. Where they’re aiming for won’t even exist by the time they get there - which will ensure they will have to become something else in the process… at least if they wish to maintain the level of fame and exposure they’re trying to generate. If this vision of a mainstream band pretending to be underground so they can become even more mainstream is obviously anachronistic then this is thrown into sharp relief by these younger bands who, comparatively speaking, dgaf and make much more formally exciting, intellectually thrilling music while often embracing pop culture in an un-ironic manner. They do this simply because those kinds of barriers themselves only exist to people of my age or people of IDLES’ age and older. Black Country, New Road only have two commercially available songs yet their sets are replete with references to Kanye West, Ariana Grade, Kendall Jenner and Spotify playlists. Black Midi’s signature track BmBmBm is essentially an avant garde funk jam played over audio sampled from the Big Brother diary room and one of Dry Cleaning’s best songs is about Meghan Markle. Should we be surprised? This is the first wave of rock music made by people who were born after pretty much everyone had the internet and, more importantly, the first generation to grow up with the reality of having a smartphone on them at all times. (Lots of these groups sing about smartphones, Black Midi use them for their set lists and to play MP3s into their guitar and bass pickups as an extra sound source.)

If IDLES and Fontaines DC just sound pretty much exactly like (decent enough) bands who were doing the rounds when I was a teenager, I can’t hand on heart say that about BC,NR, Housewives, Hyperstition Duo, Scalping or even Black Midi do - and I have now been around for a long time. I recognise (most of) the component parts but they’re weird in combination and are sometimes used specifically to create strange new affects, in a way that simply choosing to sound like a cross between early U2 and imperial period Husker Du doesn’t. The combination of influences they bring to the table is just too wild for them to end up appearing on Later… With Jools Holland to join in with the boogie woogie jam. Some people, for example, are quick to label BC,NR a Shellac knock off or whatever but really their combination of Slint, traditional klezmer, the Pop Group, The Contortions, Fairport and Godspeed is really exciting. (Maybe it comes in part from playlist culture, everything mixed up, nothing weighted, not tree-branched but rhizomatic.) Black Midi also display magpie tendencies, yet no one comments how wildly uncool some of these reference points are - they're too young to care what some 48 year old with status anxiety thinks, so it's never going to be an issue for them to mix up early 80s fretless bass-mode King Crimson, Bill Laswell and Massacre with the slightly less unfashionable Shellac, Talking Heads and Don Caballero.

There is a lot more to dig into as regards this supposed new wave and I hope someone else looks at it. Let us compare the absolute rock solid self-assurance of IDLES to the soul-searching, nerve jangling anxiety suggested by the lyrics of Black Country, New Road and Dry Cleaning and the music of Black Midi, Housewives and Hyperstition Duo. (This isn’t in the same league as Lil Xan and Lil Peep being iconoclasts of Xanax, the anxiety drug of a generation but it’s not entirely unconnected in generational terms either.) Diversity issues are gradually becoming the deal breaker that shamefully they always should have been for my generation; what’s the real main comparison point between IDLES, The Murder Capital, Fontaines DC, Protomartyr etc.? Is it that they’re all white guys who talk a good game? Out of the list of bands I mentioned, the groups who are solely comprised of white blokes are in the minority. Another Gen-Z distinction is they’re less inclined towards drink and drugs - most of the bands I mentioned seem relatively calm on that front, Crack Cloud are actually formed by rehabilitated users or service providers who work in the rehabilitation field. Yet another is their natural disinclination towards rebellion and their respect for authority: Black Midi are products of the Brit School, while Black Country, New Road are all either Guildhall or Goldsmiths. None of this stuff is absolutist… but we should be able to spot tendencies.

But I still don’t really think there’s anything here solid enough to hang a name on... just yet at least. What I do think is worth commenting on now is the clear necessity of a support network that allows young musicians the luxury of experimentation, that turns the screaming noise of commercial viability down in the mix for a bit. The Brit School, The Guildhall, the communal living aspect of Crack Cloud, these are all important in their own way as The Queen’s Head pub in Brixton was for Fat White Family - a free space in which to play, with time and space to grow and make mistakes in private. Spaces are important in other ways. I can only really speak for London as it was (up until very recently) my home for 25 years and I know that gig venues as switched on as the Windmill in Brixton are the exception rather than the rule. (Black Midi rate the Windmill, and open-eared booker Tim Perry, as being more important than the Brit School in helping launch their career, in fact they were all set to split up when the backstreet pub venue gave them a gig… and then another… and then another...) Linked to the pub is South London DIY label Speedy Wunderground, which I would say is currently one of the most important rock labels in the world and of paramount importance to what I’m talking about.

Dan Carey is a studio owner and producer who has worked with Toy, Bat For Lashes, Kylie Minogue, Franz Ferdinand and Tame Impala. (In fact no doubt someone reading this is itching at the leash to point out that he produced the recent album by Fontaines DC - sorry for ruining your ‘Well, actually...’ tweet.) He started up the Speedy Wunderground label, which is more to do with his DIY interests, six years ago (and runs it with Alexis Smith and Pierre Hall). The label has a very specific remit: to put out short run 7” singles, recorded entirely in one day and then mixed entirely on the following. This pressure-on but agile way of working has, oddly enough, created space for bands to experiment, whereas usually this is seen as a luxury only afforded to those who have unlimited studio time. In an interview with this site six years ago, Carey said: “If we decided on the day to do something really weird, as long as that's a mutual decision and everyone is involved in making it, then you don't have to justify it to anyone.” This isn’t a nurturing attitude that has evolved slowly: it was part of his game plan from day one.

While Speedy Wunderground haven’t put out singles by everyone I’ve mentioned, they were responsible for the debut releases of Black Midi, Scottibrains (of which Carey himself is a member) and Black Country, New Road as well as other records by Squid, Sinead O’Brien and Melt Yourself Down. (Carey also produced Schlagenheim by Black Midi for Rough Trade).

You can hear all of the strengths of what I’m talking about (and some of the weaknesses in my argument as well admittedly) in the excellent new album Speedy Wunderground: Year 4 Compilation, which comes out next week. I think the key to the SW sound is to be heard in its agility and can be summed up by number four of his ten commandments: “Recording of all records will be done in one day and finish before midnight. The recordings will be a snapshot of the day. Mixing will be done the day following the recording, also in one day only. This will prevent over-cooking and ‘faff’.” There is literally no faff whatsoever to Scottibrains’ liquid Kraut belter ‘Sustained Threat’; even the merest threat of faff has been eradicated by the track being mixed by Carey’s 13-year-old daughter, Orla. ‘BmBmBm’, a berserk volley of dynamics in future funk, that somehow doesn’t lose sight of the dancefloor despite ending up a corruscating ray of noise and grindcore ferrocity, a Speedy Wunderground anthem for the ages, if ever there was one.

Squid, are brilliant, but are perhaps a bit of an unknown quantity, their Television referencing, vocal cord shredding Kraut punk, is as much continuum alternative rock band headed for future Q magazine and Glastonbury canonisation as anything else. Either way I don’t think you can knock how great singles like ‘The Dial’ are - a ‘Daft Punk Are Playing At My House’ for people who aren’t yet crushed by encroaching middle age. The worst thing you can say about Black Country, New Road’s ‘Athen’s France’ (bar a vague main riff resemblance to Shellac’s ‘The Admiral’) is that it’s not quite as good as this year’s best rock single: ‘Sunglasses’ (by Black Country, New Road, mixed by Dan Carey). Age-wise I don’t really know where All We Are (bar the fact they’re disco not disco and met at LIPA) teaming up with Alex Kapranos fits in with what I’m saying but they mine a terrific Konk-like groove and he holds court superbly over the top. Tiña’s smashingly daft shaggy psych pop is enjoyable but admittedly quite far off piste, but things are brought swiftly back into focus by Treeboy & Arc’s dopamine and adrenaline flooded rager, ‘Concept’. Sinead O’Brien rounds things off supremely with a poetic post punk meditation on temporality. There is nothing about any of these songs that screams: dashed off or afterthought. This is the real deal and far superior to any rock music I can think of right now that was slaved over in a $$$$ studio over the course of weeks.

The last two of Carey’s ten commandments read thus:

9. Speedy Wunderground will release each year’s recordings as a compilation at the end of the year.
10. Speedy Wunderground Records will not be slow.

This is their fourth compilation in five full years and even though they started at a fair old pace, it feels like they’re now running comfortably at full tilt. Praise their speed and agility (and DIY ethos and commitment to the margins and vision thing and drive) for from them shall come great things.

Speedy Wunderground: Year 4 Compilation is released on 6 December

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