Does the idea of a local ‘sound’ now seem obsolete? What we need at BlancoMusic is a tame 17 year-old to wheel out from under a crunchy duvet at times like this, to ask market research questions such as ‘do you recognize what these shiny iridescent discs are?’ or ‘do different towns or cities make music that is different to music from other towns and cities?’. I’m only asking myself this question because I’m still trying to figure out the furore over the Hot Chip album One Life Stand. My initial feeling about this album was that we had finally reached a tipping point in the music media where the reviewers and critics employed by the print media had caved int0 the pressure loaded upon them by major labels (in the form of advertising revenues and the witholding thereof) and lauded their unbowed praise on a product that wasn’t actually that good. It just seemed to be everywhere. Five star reviews, television appearances, massive tour; the cover art almost as ubiquitous online as the Google logo in the corner of your browser. Well, it was until Gorillaz released Plastic Beach anyway – another media frenzy based on an EMI product – but nevertheless, back to Hot Chip. What I’d heard of the Hot Chip album just did not light me up in any way, and I said so online. Then circumstances forced me to reconsider, and for various reasons I went and shelled out the cash to buy a copy of the album. Listened to it a couple of times, listened some more, still didn’t like it. My feeling about this album was that it sounded like a pastiche of Caberet Voltaire, Human League and Soft Cell.
However, whilst I still don’t like the album, (which is no more than a matter of personal taste after all) and whilst I don’t blame the band for having so much media attention thrust upon them by a situation that is being created by forces and issues bigger than any one band, there is a link there which excuses much. Robin, on hearing my precis of the the album, pointed out that the bands I mentioned were part of a music scene that was based around Sheffield in the mid-eighties. Perhaps Hot Chip were offering some species of homage? Ok, I will admit that claiming Soft Cell for Sheffield is untenable, even calling them a Yorkshire band is a tenuous claim. Dave Ball was born in Blackpool, and Almond is from Southport – both seaside resorts in Lancashire. However, it was at Leeds Poly where the two met and formed Soft Cell. Yes, I know Leeds and Sheffield are two different cities in Yorkshire, and claiming Soft Cell for Sheffield would be suicidal. However, Soft Cell’s obvious musical debt to Cabaret Voltaire is enough to serve my purposes as a demonstration of a ‘local’ sound. Does such a thing exist any more? When I lived in Portrush – a village on the north coast of Ireland, there was a brilliant musician’s collective that self-funded a suite of practise rooms and a small recording studio in the village. The same sort of thing exists in many towns and cities, I know that dance/mashup artist Mylo was a member of one such on the isle of Skye at the outset of his music career. What I can say about both mentioned collectives is that they were not typified by a single style of music or creative approach, other than the physical rooms they recorded and rehearsed in. So it doesn’t really fit the definition of what I am trying to describe.
Do we assign these things retroactively? Is Birmingham a hard rock/metal city just because of Sabbath? Is Sheffield an electro/synthpop town despite Def Leppard? Probably. In fact it’s most likely to be unconscious reaction to marketing spin along the lines of: ‘You loved that Detroit sound before, you’ll love it again with the new single from Martha and the Vandellas!’. When you have as idiosyncratic a label as Warp Records based in a city like Sheffield, it’s not surprising that a sound becomes associated with it. Probably the most obvious case of this happening is Nashville. For some funny reasons, country music (which is predominantly written, recorded and marketed in Nashville) is administered along lines that are very close to the Tin Pan Alley model of 1950s New York. Artists, who in other musical styles have been writing their own material and claiming their rightful share of royalites since the 1960s, don’t get that sort of deal in country music. Country, or at least the majority of it, is written by in-house, or house-retained songwriters, and offered to recording artists as part of the package they sign into when they make a recording deal. I’m not claiming that this doesn’t happen in other genres, just that it is the predominant model in country music. Therefore, you really can say that there is a ‘Nashville sound’, precisely because this is where the centre of the country music industry is based. Anything else is alt-Country.
There was another aspect of this in Ireland in the late 80s, early 90s. U2, having made a ton of cash with their music, decided at some stage in the 80s, to see if anything could be made of the Irish music scene. Figuring that there were plenty more acts who deserved coverage, they founded Mother Records. The deal was simple – the label would fund and market one single for each act, after that they were on their own. For a time the Irish enthusiasm for all things U2 was enough to drive tens of these young bands into the limelight, funding albums and tours. In retrospect, it was protectionist and self-defeating. The Irish charts were glutted for six or seven years with a procession of dross, all featuring four grumpy looking lads playing stadium rock. It was AWFUL. Those of us lucky enough to live within broadcast range of BBC transmitters from o’er the short sea listened in avarice to the burgeoning of dance music and culture coming to us through John Peel’s shows and wished there was some way we could get hold of the records or hear them on our own stations. Unfortunately the Irish music industry was sewn tighter than a flea’s arse and there were too many establishment types with too much finger in the Mother Records pie to let any Leicester-grown acid house onto the airwaves. In the end it was Louis Walshe’s Boyzone who saved us, replacing the worthy axe-heroes with sugary pop. Thank fuck for that!
So anyway, a local scene, it can be good or bad, but does it even exist any more? Do musicians still frequent the same pubs, hang about in guitar shops and play at each others’ gigs any more? Has the bedroomisation of music/globalisation of market made the idea of the ‘Northern/Western/Blackpool/Hawaiian sound’ obsolete? Don’t know. Perhaps One Life Stand is a homage not only to the Sheffield sound of the early eighties, but some attempt to resurrect the idea of a Sheffield sound. I don’t know.