When it comes to the blues, I’m an outsider. I don’t enjoy it much, I don’t know a lot about it, and life being short I’m likely to stay that way. So if you are a blues fan, feel freer than ever to ignore me. My brushes with the blues – or to be fairer, with the way people talk about blues – leave me little wiser. On the one hand, the blues is a genre built around certain structures, certain components, certain ways of playing or singing. On the other, the blues is a feeling. And yet again, the blues is a music rooted in and inseparable from its social, racial and national origins.
All of these are surely ‘right’, and they all hint at an underlying question – who gets to play or sing the blues? Blues-as-a-genre allows for an entirely open door policy – if blues is just rubbing chord X against tuning Y, a robot can sing it. If you want blues to mean something more than that, then the threshold of performer legitimacy starts to rise.
Actually you can spot these different discourses, and that nasty question, in almost any strain of popular music, but the blues makes the issues particularly stark. What does it actually mean to say that a sharecropper in Alabama and a public schoolboy in Surrey are playing this same type of music? You can reach for the utopian answer, of course – music is music, the great unifier. But even then a sly hierarchy creeps in: the sharecropper is not after all being assessed on how much they remind one of the schoolboy.
And here is my ‘problem’ with suburban English boys singing the blues. It’s not that they can’t or shouldn’t sing them – of course they can. I have never heard a record by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, but I am sure that if I did I would have a completely authentic blues experience. But in choosing to sing the blues the risk is that these boys end up defining themselves perpetually as pupils – aiming to be just like something or someone else. The problem isn’t that their quest is doomed to fail, it’s that they’re all too likely to succeed.
So the question isn’t, “can posh suburban boys do the blues?”, it’s “what can posh suburban boys do for the blues?”. And the answer is The Rolling Stones, or more specifically Mick Jagger. Jagger is instantly, utterly distinctive on their first No.1, he immediately has more front than anyone else. If you thought the blues were all about profound emotion, here is a singer who sounds shockingly blasé. If you thought the blues were founded in heartbreak, here is a man who is almost joyfully dismissive of his jilted woman. If you thought the blues was tough and swaggering, here is a band who are light on their feet and know how to make their music bounce as well as strut. In fact, “It’s All Over Now” might not be blues at all. But like I say, I wouldn’t really know.