Background Music

After dutifully following Pete Doherty around the country in all his various incarnations, be it The Libertines, Babyshambles or just solo, you begin to realise there is no such thing as an ‘average’ Doherty gig. Will he bring along the cream of the British cultural crop, Brian Cox, Kate Moss or selected Clash members, and produce an electric show? Will he even turn up? So in many ways it came as no surprise and yet surprising, when a couple of years ago at the Blues Kitchen in Camden, Doherty shuffled on stage with an unnecessary troupe of wasted girls, a starry vacant expression in his eyes, and performed the old Libertines winner Can’t Stand Me Now three times in a row. It struck the small but loyal crowd as rather amusing and not exactly unlike Doherty. But as he vacated the stage and stumbled through the crowds out onto the street, two discontented punters shouted after him, demanding a refund and telling him to get his act together (literally). Doherty looked confused and rather tragic, yet defiantly shouted back that they should ‘come and get their twenty quid’ before disappearing, with loveable nonchalance and effortless rock ‘n’ roll anti-glamour, into the nearest Subway.

Having parted with my own money many times to see the media’s infamous anti-hero, it seemed odd that his performance should have generated such annoyance from some fans. It seemed simple; this is who Doherty is, and it’s this lifestyle that inspires the music. Trying to separate the two is futile. Doherty’s music will always be about abandonment, a lack of restraint and no fear of self-destruction and if his lifestyle didn’t match the description in the music, it wouldn’t produce an authentic sound. As frustrating as it may be for fans to watch their heroes descend into pits of drug-abuse, despondency and utter incompetence, there has to be the recognition that good music will only ever be good if it is genuine, and in Doherty’s case, genuine means writing about a life in which he does as he pleases, a ‘libertine’ in the truest sense of the word.

Whilst many gave up on Doherty as being nothing more than what the media portrayed him as; ‘pot-head Pete’, ‘druggy Doherty’, and a clueless and untalented waster to boot, it was Amy Winehouse who ignited a harsher storm of indignation and anger over her lifestyle. Why? Winehouse, unlike Doherty, produced a sound that was more mainstream. It was sophisticated soul music, with a tinge of smoky blues, something you might play at a dinner party, or have in your collection next to your Leona Lewis or Adele. She was therefore expected to produce the same squeaky-clean performances as these mainstream artists, and when she didn’t, there was outcry from her fans, booing her lacklustre gigs as she swore at them and abandoned the stage mid-song. But for Winehouse’s music to work it depended on her being completely genuine, and had she been the squeaky-clean artist that the customers demanded, her music simply would never have come into existence.

Back to Black, the phenomenal second album from Winehouse, earned her five Grammy Awards, propelling her to the apex of musical recognition, and deservedly so. The album is a rich offering of heartbreak and betrayal, encompassing the ecstasies and disappointments of any tempestuous relationship. Except it wasn’t just any relationship. The album is an exact product of Winehouse’s life, a direct outpouring of her tumultuous time spent with Blake Fielder-Civil, who she cited as her source of inspiration. But is the music so good due to our knowledge of the lifestyle and relationship that produced the music in the first place? Via the media, we came to know Winehouse’s life and the characters in it; her and her husband emerging from hotels, bleeding, battered, bruised and totally bewildered, her defiance to her dad, Mitch the taxi driver, the sad and haunting performances where the words came out agitated and barely audible. But we had constant access to her source of inspiration and we knew her emotion and her writing was completely genuine. That knowledge and trust created between her and her fans cemented the album as a masterpiece, a status that her other two albums, her debut Frank and the posthumous Lioness: Hidden Treasures never quite achieved.

It’s also the case with the Arctic Monkeys’ fourth album, Suck It and See. Like their preceding two albums, Favourite Worst Nightmare and Humbug, Suck it, whilst good, is certainly not great. Their legendary first album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not became the fastest-selling debut album in British music history, and rightfully secured its place as being recognised as one of the greatest indie-rock albums of the 2000s; the Monkeys comfortably nestling amongst, if not outshining, their contemporaries – Maximo Park, The Cribs, The Libertines, The Futureheads, Kasabian,The Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party and The Rakes, all jointly accredited with reigniting the British music scene after the dirge of the nineties. The album’s success is, however, overwhelmingly attributed to the slick lyrics of front man Alex Turner, as he perceptively narrates the rowdy nightlife of his hometown, Sheffield. From girls wearing too much fake tan, to lary nightclub bouncers, the album’s greatness is firmly cemented in its roots. Lyrics such as ‘And yeah, I’d love to tell you all my problem/You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham/So get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook’ from the clever and totally accurate Fake Tales of San Francisco, captured the essence of the band’s brilliance in its ode to unpretentiousness and homage to their hometown. The album is fast-paced, salacious, witty and sarcastic, but also containing the warmth and skill of such songs as Mardy Bum, proving the band as a well-rounded, distinctly northern talent.

Yet, five years later, we arrived at Suck It And See, and something had gone astray. The promise was there, chiefly delivered by the album’s artwork: a plain background with just the large, abrasive title staring defiantly back at you, and not a million miles away from the artwork of their first album, which saw them get in trouble with the NHS for portraying Chris McClure smoking a cigarette. It suggested they were back with the old cheek and charisma that enshrined their earlier days. Yet it wasn’t to be. It’s not a bad album, and tracks such as Brick by Brick and Don’t Sit Down ‘Cos I’ve Moved Your Chair pack plenty of heavyweight, menacing punch and swagger, while Turner’s mournful lyrics, ‘hanging on by the rings around my eyes’ from Love is a Laserquest show he is still capable of introspective, thoughtful song-writing. But the album is mundane and a touch forgettable, a product of a problem already identifiable in their second album, when the agitated, hectic single Brianstorm produced a telling comment from Alexis Petredis:

‘Brianstorm’s lyrics are cut from the same sarky cloth as their debut single, Fake Tales of San Francisco, but listening to it you’re haunted by the thought that hearing a multimillion-selling rock star sneering at an unwanted interloper in his dressing room might not be quite as edifying as hearing a whip-smart teenager chuckling at his peers in the indie disco. It doesn’t exactly bode well for Favourite Worst Nightmare.’

And this is exactly the point. Once the boys were propelled out of Sheffield and off to the States, with (presumably) pots of money, celebrity girlfriends and apartments in New York, they lost something integral to their brilliance. By the time Suck It appeared, the band were suffering from a ‘poverty of influence’, as one commenter adroitly observed, another commenting that everything from the artwork to the average length of song on the album (3 minutes) suggested a ‘lack of caring’ as if they had written the album ‘while on holiday in the sun’ (which effectively they had). The lyrics overwhelmingly take a backseat, Don’t Sit Down is peppered with ‘ooh yeah yeah yeahs’, which although not displeasing, certainly strike as odd for a band famed and recognised for their signature witty northern rhymes. But what can you expect when you hear from Turner himself that the entire song was inspired by a chair in the recording studio? It’s not exactly the brain-whirring, heart-stopping melange that gritty Sheffield squeezed out of them…

Which brings me to The King Blues. Whilst not as talented as Doherty, Winehouse, and the Monkeys, they command credibility and they demand your attention. Political, pissed off, punky pop genius for the most part, The King Blues are another band whose success relies in their roots, their belief, their experience. In another life, front man Jonny ‘Itch’ Fox was homeless and sold the Big Issue, and never fails to give his two cents on the political scene, which has often landed him in hot water, for example, his approval of the London riots. Yet he knows what he is talking about, his source of inspiration based on his experiences of poverty, homelessness, social injustice and villainous landlords. Songs such as We Are Fucking Angry and The Future’s Not What It Used To Be contain spot-on perceptions of the world they see around them, from the readily identifiable ‘schoolgirls dressed like hookers, the hookers dressed like schoolgirls’ , to the witty response to BNP supporters; ‘your grandad didn’t vote for fascists, he shot ‘em’.

It all centres on the source of inspiration behind the music. Doherty, Winehouse and The King Blues by and large haven’t lost this. Doherty continues to write about his ‘Albion’, ‘Arcadia’ and gin in teacups, Winehouse, despite dying painfully young, never lost her source of inspiration in her ability to relate her torrid relationship, and The King Blues stick to their anti-establishment furore. Thanks to the brilliance of their former days, which have fuelled legions of loyal fans and the sycophantic NME, the Monkeys will probably always secure a place in rock-indie music history. Yet the latest album ultimately fails to live up to expectations and proves that they lost the inspiration that made them so uniquely talented. Bands that remain true to themselves and do what they do best, keeping the source of their inspiration firmly in sight, gain legendary status, such as The Clash, Joy Division and The Libertines. It’s when a band loses whatever it was that ultimately inspired them to write in the first place that they enter the musical wasteland.