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Practising 'safe' music

The rock era has come and gone, says Simon Napier-Bell

In 1963 Reyner Banham wrote: 'Pop music is now so basic to the way we live, and the world we live in, that to be with it, to dig the pop scene, does not commit anyone to left or right, nor to protest or acceptance of the society we live in.'

On that analysis, Tony Blair has built a truly 'pop' government. To approve of it does not commit anybody to left or right, nor to protest or acceptance of the society we live in. This is not so much due to Blair's insight as to the worldwide trend away from confrontation. No more Cold War; no more apartheid; peace in Ireland; agreement in the Middle East - we are living in a consensual age. But for some time now it's been spreading to record companies. And what's good for world peace is lousy for the rock business.

When it started in the 1950s, rock was instantly political. You pushed your arse into tight leather jeans and shoved your credentials into the audience's face. Jumping around with a guitar was enough to show dissatisfaction with the political status quo. For people under 25, that meant the generation gap. It was a greater political divide than the differences between left and right.

By the 1960s rock'n'roll singers had given way to four and five-piece guitar groups. Mostly they wrote their own songs, which gave them scope for political comment, but their principal political statement was made through their lifestyle - opting out of mainstream society and openly smoking dope. By giving 18-year olds the right to vote, the Labour government hoped to kill off the generation gap. But the lifestyle of pop musicians helped to maintain it by promoting the use of drugs among young people.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the continued use of drugs, pop and rock artists retained their image of being on the fringe of society. And as long as Thatcher was in power, they kept themselves latently political, able at a whim to lend support to any suitable charity event - the homeless, the miners, legalisation of marijuana, AIDS, etc. But Blair has finished that off. Youth culture is no longer feared by the establishment; it receives grants. Aspiring pop stars can sign on the dole while they learn their trade and wait to be discovered.

This is not good for rock music. Before they can spit them angrily in our faces, young people are having their grievances removed. And if they manage to find something to rile about, they are listened to sympathetically and sent for counselling.

Nowadays, there's no generation gap, no meaningful protest, no adolescent anger. Flair, instinct and individuality have disappeared. Record companies have turned to plastic boy-groups and Titanic lovesongs, and if by chance they manage to find a real artist, they eschew the art of artist development and insist on recouping their expenditure from the very first album.

Until quite recently, new artists were still signed on the basis of having a small fan-base which could be enlarged during the promotion of their first album. The second album would develop them further and, if necessary, the record company could wait until the third album to recoup. By then the artist would be self-assured, with an individual sound, and a worldwide audience. Japan, for instance, whom I managed in the 1970s, reached their third album, Quiet Life, before they had a hit single. And it was only after their fourth album, Tin Drum, that they achieved real international success. A group like Japan would never get signed today.

Recently, the head of A&R at a major company saw a new group and described the lead singer as 'the biggest potential star I've seen in 10 years'. Just five years ago somebody in that position would have signed the act immediately. But with instant recoupment required, he was afraid to do so. Instead the decision was taken by consensus between the A&R staff, the marketing director, the promotion people and the MD. Naturally, the lowest common denominator prevailed. It was decided the group's music was not 'safe' enough. They could only be signed if they agreed to refine their individuality into mainstream commercial pop.

That is the attitude of all the major record companies. The result is a chart full of trivia, pop with no rough edges and no long-term artists emerging. If a group's first record is a hit, they have their moment of fame. If not, they are dropped.

Some music-business analysts think 1998 was just a bad year - meaning that next year things will improve. I disagree. This is not temporary. The rock era has come and gone, along with political polarisation and the generation gap. It has been replaced by kitsch pop, as stimulating as sucking a Murray mint. Even underground dance records have become formularised, and when you look at the music on offer it's not surprising that young people are taking more drugs than ever to go with it - like tarting up bland food with spicy sauce. Drugs have always been a junior partner to pop music. Now they're getting the upper hand.

I'm not surprised. At the moment they offer better value.

Simon Napier-Bell is the former manager of The Yardbirds, T-Rex, Japan and WHAM!

Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999

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