Berlin, Thursday. Sitting indoors all day as the city floods in a gigantic summer rain storm. I wonder what’s happening in this wonderful city of the arts, ideas and new music when we’re stuck in the kitchen, unable to reach the legendary Mr Dead & Mrs Free record store near Nollendorfplatz as we don’t have a boat.
So what’s new? Or what’s old? What could I have found there? Well, Radiohead have re-released the groundbreaking OK Computer with three unreleased tracks – see the video below for one of those tracks, I Promise. It seems that over the years Thom Yorke has seduced that part of the soul in his public that lives somewhere between dystopia and hope, that contradiction that in delivering the terrible truth about an empty future is saved with that beautiful falsetto and a sympathetic band. He’s at it again here, and although this may qualify as a B side it didn’t come out at the time, I like it.
I like B sides because they don’t suffer from the same pressure as the actual album on release. The press may be ready to hate you or support you because you are already massive and there’s nothing they can do about it, but the B sides are outside expectation or review, because by their placement, the band is saying they mean less so, consequently they are judged less harshly. Sometimes they may not fit the flow of the album, the concept or the length, it doesn’t always mean they are inferior to the songs that made it. Strawberry Fields was a B side.
The problem with writing anything about Radiohead is that they have become so huge that they even talk about them on the BBC news – but then shouldn’t we be glad that a band like this can have their name uttered in warm tones by such unlikely folk? After all weren’t The Beatles the biggest band in the world – and still good? Ah, but that doesn’t count because it was the sixties. Quality is timeless but times have changed and who knows in the morass of different genres what’s good and what’s bad in a world of polarizing opinions about everything there is. AC/DC, Iron Maiden, massive stadium bands in the metal genre, Coldplay, U2 and there’s Muse – are they all terrible because they are so big? Why are they bigger than better bands? These bands certainly have patchy records and one wonders if they wouldn’t be better if they weren’t as big as they are. Do we need to mention these groups when there’s so much already written, so many fans and so many haters – why bring it up?
What I want to talk about here is what band’s owe their audience. Who is deciding? In recent years I’ve seen The Stones and McCartney in mega venues playing old song after old song, great versions, but ultimately, apparently they just can’t write ’em like they used to and let’s face it – olds songs are what most of the people want anyway. I saw The Who the songs were brilliant, one new song and decades since Townshend’s muse deserted him.
Black Sabbath and Motorhead (both now gone due to the tragic loss of Lemmy and the uncertainty about Tony Iommi’s health) were dire when I saw them live last year, the occasional magic moment but after seeing Sabbath on the Volume 4 tour it was hard to endure. The show suffered from terrible out of tune singing at times, Iron Man, a different pitch. At the same venue on another date, Lemmy was too ill to be up there with Motorhead, he died two weeks later. Couldn’t Sabbath at least remember how to write an amazing new riff?
I was playing a festival in Norway last week with Anekdoten and watched Rob Zombie tear his way across the main stage, with a theatrical band that seemed to have tons of pizazz but no really decent songs, in their case it wouldn’t really matter if the songs were old or new – they’d be equally bad but the audience didn’t seem to care about this minor detail. Taste is subjective.
The real problem with established bands (especially the massive ones) are threefold (or more). Firstly the audience doesn’t particularly want the new stuff. The only reason that there’s so many people there is because of the old stuff. How can a song you loved at seventeen compete with a song you hadn’t heard till you were thirty five or older and maybe not till the night of the show? The other problem is that it’s become about the brand not the band, that’s disturbing isn’t it? Some fans fall off as the albums get worse but most stay not for the potential of the new songs but for the guarantee of the old ones. Thirdly, the bigger the band, the more they are at the mercy of discontent, so better appease the audience with something you’d rather not have to play.
Here’s some suggestions for mega groups, big groups and medium size groups, groups with a following. Stop playing the boring old songs from the past because you are not playing them because you want to, you are playing them because the audience was once seventeen. Play your new songs, lose your audience to build it up again. Imagine The Stones, small club, brand new songs, no weary old hits, their hearts committed to the future, they really can’t have forgotten how to write songs can they? They don’t need the money, how exciting would it be to scale down to smaller venues and play new material to anyone that cared to listen? Weren’t the old songs once the new songs? How did it work then? Why can’t it work again? So make an album, release it in advance of a tour, give the fans a chance to hear it and then play it live – no problem.
Radiohead’s OK Computer re-release, U2 touring the Joshua Tree, it’s a guarantee of bliss through nostalgia to an audience that perhaps doesn’t want another challenge. REM knew this and bravely broke up.