Posts from February 2016
I am delighted to share the news that Popular (or rather me) is GOING WEST, with a speaking slot at this year’s EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. You can find full details here. Come along if you happen to be in Seattle and otherwise stay tuned for publication of my paper right here.
What is it about? I’M GLAD YOU ASKED. Here is the, if you will, poposal that got the nod.
VOX POPULAR: The Charts As Soapbox In A Digital Era
Five were a band out of time. In the late 90s they’d made sense as a boyband who could appeal to the post-Spice audience, their Duplo version of hip-hop fitting nicely alongside Billie and B*Witched as pop aimed for youth. I had plenty of time for them – they were pushing a bright, colourful, hooky product that never pretended to be anything else, and in the early days they had a run of entertaining singles. It’s a redeeming feature of Simon Cowell projects – good or crap, and they’re largely crap, they rarely try to dupe you.
Eight people rap or sing on “21 Seconds”. One more – producer G-Man – provides the music. But So Solid Crew as a concept contained multitudes, and became famous for it. A few other producers and MCs, for sure, but also backing singers, friends and family, local kids. They presented themselves as a clan, a Battersea estate moving en masse into the business of garage, into the charts. The size of So Solid, 20 or 30 strong, was a talking point, and an easy angle for mockery: it’s rare to find an old piece or profile that doesn’t boggle at it.
A group so large would be prone to split, you’d think. But the trouble with So Solid wasn’t division. The idea of the group, as formed by public leader Megaman and a couple of the other, older men in the Crew, proved entirely workable – if members fought over the spotlight, it didn’t show on record: there’s no animosity between the MCs on “21 Seconds”. If anything, the problem was loyalty. The wider any group gets, the more likely it is that one or two will be liabilities – whether in terms of talent, or looks, or behaviour. Successful acts played the industry game, cutting out problems. So Solid closed ranks, presented themselves as an all or nothing proposition even as the press smacked its lips over a growing reputation for trouble.
“21 Seconds” is an excellent record. But it’s more than that – it may be the last real shock of a Number One. It does two things, unusual in themselves, outstanding together. It’s the sound of a subculture in full cry – getting to Number One with one of its crucial tracks, not with some dribbled-out consolation record or opportunist rip-off. And it’s a Number One that, to use a rubbed-smooth phrase, ‘sounds like the future’. It seems to open doors, demonstrate new routes British pop could take. If British pop wanted to take them. But that was the question: did it?
The odd thing about Tin Machine, having finally listened to Tin Machine, is that Bowie’s instincts were dead on. It’s not a mistake at all. He’s listening to the Pixies so he’s in tune with what’s happening in American indie rock; he’s thinking it’s time to strip back the production and make rock music, he wants to make something a bit more confrontational and instinctive… these are all exactly the right ideas for the moment. And yet when he comes to act on those instincts and form his band he ends up with a record of skronky blues rock and some of his worst ever lyrics. Of course you can say he picked the wrong collaborators, but it’s not just that. It really underlines the horrible gulf between knowing what the right move is and actually pulling off that move.