Prisoners of Rock 'n' Roll
What happens when the world stops listening?
N.B. This article was originally published by The Bookends Review in January 2019.
To me, this is the single greatest fear that every musician, singer and songwriter must confront over the course of their creative lives. How should one respond when one’s audience no longer cares, or worse, when it disappears entirely?
It’s a question I’ve been asking for more than 20 years. During that time countless artistic empires have risen and fallen, the music industry has transformed beyond belief and I’ve experienced my own zenith and nadir as one of the architects of obscure indie-pop outfit Silent Alliance.
Many claim that the creative process, the pursuit and fulfilment of artistic vision is the higher calling – a pure, uncompromising objective for any that wants to lay claim to true authenticity as a musical creator.
But is this really more authentic than the incredible symbiosis some artists are able to realise with their audiences?
I’ve always felt that audiences matter a great deal, making the disappearance of an audience a deeply disturbing event within the music time continuum. For, at the end of the day, if an artist falls in a forest, and no one is around to hear them, do they make a sound?
Here I am, swimming with the mainstream.
I tell myself I subverted from within.
Here I am, swimming with the mainstream.
I tell myself I’m happy as I am.
These are the words of Martin Carr, primary songwriter and guitarist in 90s indie band the Boo Radleys, singing about his momentary brush with fame on ‘Mainstream’, the centrepiece track from his 2014 ‘comeback’ solo album The Breaks.
You probably haven’t heard of The Breaks, or Carr, or maybe not even the Boo Radleys for that matter, but back in the mid-90s they were momentarily a big deal. Their breakthrough album Giant Steps was Melody Maker’s Album of the Year. Their record company Creation was becoming the coolest label in the country and, following the release of 1995’s Wake Up!, they scored a hit single with ‘Wake Up Boo!’, which peaked in the UK charts at #9 and became part of the soundtrack to the first summer of Britpop.
But no sooner had the Boo Radleys had broken through than things started to unravel. The follow up album, C’mon Kids, was so deeply weird, unconventional and at times bordering on unlistenable, that it divided the critics and created a chasm between the band and their newly acquired teenybopper fans. Their audience moved onto pastures new, deeming them too bloody-minded for being unwilling to repeat the formula that had provided their chart success. One further album, Kingsize, followed. It charted at #62 and the band broke up weeks later. Today, their singer has retrained as a psychologist, the bassist is a teacher and the drummer is whereabouts unknown, a term that may as well as describe the band’s legacy as a whole.
But then there’s Martin Carr, continuing to plough his lonely furrow, telling himself that he’s happy as he is. Carr was a contender. Now, to some British music aficionados, he’s a forgotten gem of a songwriter. To others, he’s simply forgotten.
By his own admission, Carr was never comfortable being part of the mainstream, later admitting that, “We probably started breaking up the day ‘Wake Up Boo!’ charted.”Post-Boo Radleys, he spent several years occupying experimental, commercially catastrophic musical territory under the moniker Brave Captain, released a solo album under his own name that never received a physical release, and then appeared to call it all a day entirely. The Brave Captain website is no longer maintained. The link to his official solo website currently redirects visitors to a Copenhagen-based estate agency.
So why on earth did Martin Carr attempt to stage a comeback?
Well, as the lyrics to ‘Mainstream’ hint at, perhaps Carr was no happier outside of the mainstream than he was inside it. The Breaks didn’t receive widespread acclaim, but it was well-liked among those who found it. One critic rightly referred to him as “underrated”; another highlighted his “timeless songwriting”. If not quite the mainstream, these were nevertheless important first steps in the direction of reputational restoration.
The only problem with this analysis is that Carr seemed to be no happier for its release, irrespective of its warm reception.
“The music was simple, guitars, organs, and drums, but somehow it left me feeling even more dissatisfied than when I started writing it.”
This quote, referencing The Breaks, is from the press release announcing his next album, 2017’s New Shapes of Life. An act of subversive marketing designed to heighten the intrigue surrounding the new record? There is admittedly a history of artists obliging their label by hyping the hell out of their latest release, before admitting further down the line that the recording process was torturous and they hated the results. But this is nothing in comparison to Carr’s press release, which reads like a genuine cry for help, the product of a middle-aged musician suffering a profound existential crisis while finding himself forced to promote an album in the midst of it.
“I wrote until I was empty. I worked on ten songs but in the end, only finished eight before the spell was broken. I had been deconstructing the way I’d worked for the better part of two decades but found I’d somehow disassembled myself. I began finding it hard to put the pieces back together. I had pushed and I pushed until my mental wellbeing had begun to suffer. I became paranoid and anxious. I was talking to myself and waving my arms around until I finally broke down and told my family and called the doctor.”
The press release tempered my excitement about the prospect of a new Martin Carr album with a lingering concern that it might be far better for his health were there to be no prospect of a new Martin Carr album ever again. He appears today as an artist permanently held hostage by their creativity, unable to escape its clutches and thus forever coerced into carrying on creating.
After the fall
In the grand scheme of things, the Boo Radleys never sold many records nor made any money. Their brief rise and fall may have precipitated all manner of struggles for their primary songwriter, but the fall itself was not vast.
In contrast, the 2002 British documentary, Status Quo: Rock On… and On expertly captures the self-doubt plaguing a band that, despite having already sold 112 million records, were at that moment all too cognisant of their fall from grace. The filmmaker Jane Treays explains in the first minute that, beyond their core, devoted fanbase, “To everyone else, Quo’s appeal is a source of bemused incomprehension.” To add insult to injury, she then forces singer Francis Rossi to admit that, “We’ve become a kind of joke, I suppose…”
I remember watching the documentary when it aired in a state of morbid curiosity. It was Spinal Tap-esque, except with the emphasis placed firmly on the tragi- rather than the comic. Fortunately, Quo would subsequently enjoy somewhat of a critical reappraisal and live rebirth with their original line-up prior to Rick Parfitt’s untimely death. They never made it back to true headliner status, but in the end their ridiculous longevity and dedication to the cause served to rescue and redeem them.
However, the documentary served to heighten a pre-existing paranoia occupying my mind both as a die-hard music fan and as a budding teenage musician in my own right. Since the Boo Radleys’ demise, I had spent much time worrying that, should any of my favourite artists be unable to achieve or sustain commercial success, then they’d be dropped by their labels, abandoned by the industry and ultimately forced to return home, tail between legs.
Now here I was watching Quo bear out another of my biggest fears: while being in an unpopular band sucks, being in an unpopular band that was once popular sucks even more. If my favourite artists saw their popularity nosediving before their eyes, how long would it be before they called it quits in a desperate bid to save face and preserve their legacy?
Another story I recall reading during those years was the disastrous chart performance of Kevin Rowland’s solo album, My Beauty. The album had caused a stir given the former Dexy’s Midnight Runners frontman’s decision to appear on the cover half-naked wearing lingerie and make-up. According to the article, it had barely shifted 100 copies in its first week, despite the raft of pre-launch publicity. I had seen many of Rowland’s interviews. It was hard to overlook them; the accompanying imagery certainly stood out, there being a distinct lack of other male singers exploring their feminine side in public during that period. I certainly don’t recall seeing anything quite so striking from the likes of Fran Healy from Travis or Danny McNamara from Embrace.
Still, Healy and McNamara were selling records; Rowland wasn’t, and the enterprise was decreed a commercial disaster for Alan McGee, head of Creation Records, now far from the coolest label in the country. This news astonished me. It was my first realisation that publicity is an artificial construct rather than a response to latent market demand. Kevin Rowland had been everywhere, he’d spoken to everyone, he’d courted attention and given them gold. Here was an album for which the stops had been pulled out, and yet was destined to be heard by next to no one.
Retrospect is generally a useful device, and while reports continued to insinuate that My Beauty was one of Creation’s lowest performing records ever, it appears that worldwide the album ended up shifting 20,000 units. Not a success; not a total catastrophe. But definitely not a good thing for my insecure teenage mind to process. I was not a Kevin Rowland fan – nor was the rest of the UK it seemed – but his chart disappointment had laid bare the shortcomings of the publicity machine and left me with the same existential question that the Status Quo documentary also posed.
Back then, I simply couldn’t fathom how the likes of Rossi, Parfitt or Rowland could muster the inner strength and resolve required to keep on creating music so long after their collective star had diminished, after large swathes of their audience or the media had turned their back on their art. I was desperate for every artist I adored to maximise and sustain their popularity at all costs.
Despite paranoia looming large in my consciousness, I moved into my early 20s and began plotting my own rise to stardom. I was now fixated upon the imperative need for an audience, not at the expense of creativity, but as a means of enabling and sustaining creativity – a necessary motivational force.
As my musical partner in crime Philp and I were plotting our newly-formed indie outfit Silent Alliance’s first moves, R.E.M. were releasing Around the Sun, of which Pitchfork wrote:
“Whereas R.E.M. were once Southern eccentrics trying to figure things out, and making lasting music in the process, lately they sound neither Southern nor eccentric and, more to the point, their music is far from memorable.”
I was in mourning. This music was not the R.E.M. I knew and loved – it was the sound of a band that had stopped caring, further evidence of my audience theory playing out with musically tragic consequences. I became a fan around the time of their gigantic £50m Warner record deal in the mid-90s. This has gone down as one of the most significant “What were they thinking??”moments in music industry history – for the label, not the band. I began following R.E.M. at the time the masses stopped following them. I remember reading that every R.E.M. album since commercial high point Automatic For The People sold one million less than the previous one. Around The Sun hasn’t improved with age, and back in 2004 I was convinced the poor quality output was the direct consequence of the lack of loyalty shown by R.E.M.’s audience over the previous decade.
Of course, it is entirely possible to bounce back from bankruptcy – whether creative or commercial – and R.E.M., like Status Quo, managed to carve out a resurgence in their final years together. They did so by going back to basics, and musically it was a success, though they never managed to restore their audience. When they announced their split shortly after the release of Collapse Into Now, it sounded very, very final indeed, with vocalist Michael Stipe remarking that:
“The skill in attending a party is knowing when it’s time to leave.”
To this day, I miss R.E.M., but I believe the band got their decision right. It was an appropriate time to leave, and so the band duly, dutifully packed up their belongings and left the party. At the time of Around the Sun, they seemed locked into an increasingly lacklustre musical career for the simple absence of other options; by 2011, they’d manage to liberate themselves once more.
Silent Alliance played our final show at the start of 2016. We achieved a debut album that was passably successful in Japan and rather less successful in the Philippines; an opening slot on the second stage of a hip but rather obscure weekend festival in Oxfordshire; an opportunity to support then-rising Canadian pop star LIGHTS, the one time we ever saw people queuing round the block for a show we were involved in.
My paranoid musical upbringing had left me with the fervent belief that we had to be popular to survive and flourish. And as these minor moments of my personal pop history played out, there was a brief moment when I genuinely thought we might make it. Yet what followed was five years of being trapped in a self-constructed musical prison as we tried to perfect the formula that would carry us over the line. This wasn’t just about a more ‘commercial’ sound; it involved hours spent pontificating over who our audience was or ought to be, and how we could mutate music and image to best meet their needs.
Perhaps inevitably, difficult second album syndrome turned into ridiculously problematic second album syndrome. Worse still, my audience obsession meant that, rather than laughing off each ridiculous misstep – most notably our attempts to fuse Beyoncé and Mott the Hoople on a thankfully unreleased track called ‘Girls’ – every ill-judged decision added further to our collective baggage. Eventually, a bit like Quo, I felt like we’d become a parody of ourselves. The moment had passed, and while few people had even noticed our presence at the party, like R.E.M., we knew it was time to leave.
There’s a lesson here for any budding young creative: do your utmost not to think about what you’re doing. I wanted mainstream music success, yet before we’d even recorded our first song or reeled in our first fan, I was contemplating the band’s future commercial demise. At times, I felt as though I was carrying the entire commercial history of recorded music on my shoulders, and it’s hard to think of anything more creatively inhibiting than constantly analysing what you’re currently doing against the backdrop of everything that has gone before.
So does audience matter or not?
Back in 2007, we made a devastatingly morale-sapping appearance at London’s 93 Feet East during which we played our hearts to just three sorry onlookers, all of whom were plainly desperate to flee the building, but were too embarrassed to leave the venue entirely empty.
Musicians may claim otherwise, but generally they want their music to be heard. And maybe herein lies an unresolvable tension. Because as we’ve seen, having an audience – or not having an audience – can lead to all manner of creative problems. Furthermore, once you have an audience, it’s only a matter of time before you lose it. Of the artists who make it to the top and don’t see themselves destroyed creatively as a result, precious few manage to stay the full course at peak popularity.
Audiences are fickle, their tastes change, their attention shifts, they get older, go out less, they catch their reflection in the window of their commuter trains and realise to their horror that those giant noise-cancelling headphones now look utterly ridiculous on them.
Can this decline in audience ever be averted? Well, dying is a useful career move. Breaking up early can be similarly effective. The KLF stand out in the memory for deleting their entire back catalogue and literally burning the million pounds they’d earned from it, so that’s a third option to consider, though admittedly, if I’d invented stadium house then I too would have attempted to destroy all traces of my career.
We need audiences, we thrive upon their energy and adoration. We might pursue them or pander to them, court them or control them. Yet we also feel constrained by them, compelled to subvert them; at times we feel badly let down by them, unable to rely upon or trust them. The audience is both the problem and the solution, and that’s before we even acknowledge the reality that our popularity – be it commercial, critical, cult or completely unjustifiable – is almost certain to wane eventually.
So while one may applaud R.E.M.’s decision to leave an ever-shrinking yet still rather glorious party on their own terms, there’s something strangely admirable about someone like Martin Carr, who not only seems unable to work out when to leave the party but clearly has no idea where the exit even is.
My admiration shows no bounds for every hapless creative who decides to carry on regardless, defying expectation, age, common sense, physical and mental impairment. Some artists must go on at all costs, irrespective of the consequences or whether there’s anyone left listening. It is simply what they do.