Wednesday, 28 February 2007

An Audience with John Robb

I love them Channel 4 list programmes. Greatest gay icon, most talked about stars, best selling stadium rock acts, top ten best top ten lists. They’re great for catching up on celebrity trivia or learning what the key events in post-war British pop are. Moreover if you’re a poseur like me, they’re essential.

One of the regular talking heads from these shows, John Robb, came and gave a talk at Keele towers today. In case you don’t know he’s juggled a career as jobbing music journalist and punk performer for nigh-on 30 years. He describes these years as a perpetual childhood, with no responsibilities and (sadly), no cash. Still, being lead singer of Goldblade and having a few well respected rock histories under his belt isn’t bad for someone who never grew up.

Around 50 turned up to hear him speak, mostly bright young students and a few academic types whose youth is far behind them (this writer being the notable exception of course!) Interesting, given the event was hosted by Keele’s Media, Communications and Culture dept. that one of the first things he launched into was a broadside directed at academic studies of pop and rock. He argued that research in the field talks about the emergence of particular groups as the products of a confluence of social forces, when in fact the reason why people start bands and go to gigs is something more primal - such as having a laugh, getting pissed and trying to get a shag. Having had a passing acquaintance with some of the sociology of pop, I’d have to agree. As an example, Tim Wall’s book, Studying Popular Music Culture is one of the driest and most deadly dull books you could ever read. Give me the ‘Job begat little Jimmy’ bit of the bible any day. It’s not just that though, the big problem here is sociologists mistaking the model they have of reality with reality itself: people only behave *as if* according to sociological models, not because these models are governing behaviour. I believe Marx said something along the lines of “we must not mistake the things of logic with the logic of things”, but I digress.

In all we had quite a jolly time. We were treated to a few potted highlights from his career, such as fortuitously being friendly with the Stone Roses well before they erupted into popular consciousness, and giving Nirvana their first ever interview back when they were a 4-piece. There were a couple of rants in there as well, such as whether the behaviour of Pete Doherty can be considered shocking when our government has participated in an illegal war resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Robb also had time for a few questions from aspiring music journos and wannabes. Most concentrated on how he managed to establish himself as a authoritative rock writer and what advice he could give to kids just starting out. To get noticed as a correspondent he suggested bombarding the NME office with gig reviews, which are more likely to be taken up now as it no longer employs writers out in the provinces and especially if they’re framed in such a way that it appears something new is just bubbling under and threatening to spill overground. And if they won’t then there’s always the internet. There are tons of music websites crying out for writers, and if none are suitable it's a simple job to set up an outlet for one's own views. The same theme was present in his advice to bands: gig, tour, sort out band media, gig some more, get a mate to stay up all night making friends on Myspace, and do more gigging. The accent was very much on the DIY ethos that made punk what it is.

This gave Robb the chance to dabble in a spot of social forecasting. In the years preceding punk, music was untouchable. That is it was something to be listened to and passively consumed. This is what punk kicked against. Since the criminalisation and repression of rave culture in the early 90s the relationship between pop and its audience has been one of distance and passivity, but now it’s beginning to look like the wheel’s turned full circle. The internet and the proliferation of media technologies give bands opportunities to build fan bases and construct their own image independently of corporate branding and the filters of the music press.

It seems at the moment the big corporates have a handle on what's going on, as the meteoric rise of the Arctic Monkeys to mainstream success testifies. Nevertheless, if a new generation of young people are wanting to make things happen for themselves, you don’t need me to spell out the implications beyond making music.


Leftwing Criminologist said...

I have to sayI completely agree with what you said about why bands form. It can be those things John Robb described but often it's also a love of music too and shear wantto be creative with it. Although I'd argue that the majority of things a band sings about are usually from first hand experience, and affected by social forces. The band described in my letter in the socialist this week is one (I'll publish the letter on my blog too if people don't read the socialist - although I reckon you should!)

Phil said...

You could always link it comrade.

But yeah, I forgot to add that Robb did say it was the love of music that gets people picking up instruments and forming bands. One of my mates manages a band (see Big Cash Prizes in the links) and he does it for a variety of reasons - reliving his youth being one, the chance to hang around with groupies being the other ;)

jon said...

There was a top gay icons countdown programme on C4? Who was number 1?

Phil said...

I think I'm mixing it up with the top ten Electro acts, most of whom were gay (Bronski Beat/Communards, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys. Farnkie(!), Soft Cell, etc etc)

Dave said...


Just out of curiousity, how old were you in 1977?


neprimerimye said...

Good post Phil, Such a shame that most lefties have fucking dreadful taste in music.

Back in 77 I recall suggesting to a disparate group of comrades gathered around Drunken Phallus that all prog rock fans should be summarily expelled from the SWP. The aforementioned sociology students did not agree with me.

Anyhow I must go now as i find myself with a desire to listen to Saint Agnes Fountain by Masayo Asahara. I hasten to add that in 2007 prog is punk just as punk is prog. Leastways if it is not it will be irrelevant and boring.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

Oh yeah, my blog is the post about the album, Permanent Revolution by Catch Twenty Two was the last thing i posted

Phil said...

Hi Dave, all will be revealed in a post this weekend ...