It’s half-past nine on a weekday night in central London and I’m watching a band in a bar. The sign on the door might say “Blues Bar” but apart from the odd introductory lick there’s little here Son House or even Eric Clapton would recognise. What this enthusiastic bunch of unfashionably grungey looking twentysomethings are playing is plainly Rock: a smattering of originals amidst mostly canonical cover versions – a lengthy Prince, an endless Doobie Brothers. It’s loud (far too loud to be background music), every now and then there’s a solo, people ignore it but seem to like it being there. This is Live Music in its purest commodity form: people choose ‘here” to drink – in an area where every next building is a bar – because they like the idea of Liveness, not because they like music. The actual music is almost irrelevant: the band don’t seem to have a name, their original songs don’t get names either (and barely need them). The only reason the music isn’t completely irrelevant is because it’s trying so curiously hard not to be noticed: the band know very well that by playing “Long Train Coming” or “Purple Rain” or “Hey Joe” they will get no reaction other than a polite clap, so that is what they do.

This is Rock as something like, but not quite Muzak. The difference is that Muzak is rarely chosen, whereas Live Music tends to imply a conscious consumer decision. The people coming to this ‘Blues Bar’ want to be seen to choose Liveness, to choose Rock, but without any of its messy specifics or snarlier historical turns, with no angles or personalities. More vapid than any pop single you could name, this is music at its most middlebrow and competent, Rock as little more than a successful brand, a set of core values to be bought into.

It’s ridiculous really to expect a bar band to do anything more than churn out music by the yard, but what I always notice about them – and this one was certainly no exception – is how much they hate economy. Every inch of slack in a given song must be taken up, filled with exclamations, riffs, little licky flourishes and fills, the very stuff of Rock. Presumably the people behind the instruments either think this is how rock music should be played, or they’re desperately scared of appearing less than slickly professional. Despite this, the results sound wearyingly tasteful – for all their finickitiness, these bands never seem in danger of exploding into the monstrous rococo note-frenzies of the guitar virtuoso. (It’s a measure of how stifling I find middlebrow rock that I’d rather hear Yngwie Malmsteen, for a few minutes anyway, than a worthy cover of some old Lennon tune)

Pointless to waste so many words on a bar band? Of course, save for two things: everything I’ve written could apply to 90% of the rock and indie bands clogging up UK major label rosters (Step forward, Stereophonics!), and judging by the reactions of the people at the bar, there are as many people eager to be entertained by these spayed displays of homogeny as there are half-cocked musicians keen to take part in them. A good time was had by all.

‘(About a week after writing this I’m in a record shop, looking through the country section, and I overhear a couple of well-heeled student boys next to me talking. “Oh, “Blues?'” exclaims one, “I don’t like blues.” “I don’t like this stuff,” says his friend, “But I love hearing it in a bar.” “You’re right, that’s so cool“. ‘The problem is, of course, that I’m a monstrous snob – obviously the manifest destiny of any music is to be reduced to as basic a set of stylistic signifiers as possible and then settle into a comfortable twilight as sonic perfume.)

The reason – one of the thousands – I like pop is that it’s much tougher to use it like this. Pop’s great advantage is that it starts life absolutely ‘commodified’, utterly debased in any kind of Romantic artistic sense, and from that point the only way is up, baby. Pop carries no expectations, no social weight, no false dignity, and so it can have none of them stripped away. No flaccid tuppeny-ha’penny bar band is going to cover 187 Lockdown’s “The Don” or B*Witched’s “C’Est La Vie”, because those tracks could never attain the sort of sustained profile enjoyed by a “Purple Rain” (plus they don’t offer opportunities to show off instrumental chops!). The repertoire of the covers band is driven by their need to choose songs which elicit in their audience the pleasant tingle of recognition, followed by the warm
glow of having one’s tastes confirmed. The selection must provide the snobbish thrills of the connoisseur, but for an audience who likely as not don’t actual know much about music: the same principle guides 99% of exercises in musical polling. Pop, though, is ubiquitous (its flagrant availability defying even the most stunted, ‘petit bourgeois” snobberies) but also evanescent (so cocking a snook at the very notion of the rock ‘tradition’.). Paradoxically this makes it easier for me to take a pop song and find something personal and cherishable in it than it is for me to get anything out of, say, “Layla”. Of course, pop also is subject to revival and the indignities of the covers band, but only under the sign of retro. The rock covers band in general flails away under the misapprehension that there is a rock heritage whose flame they must keep and nurture; the pop tribute act suffers no such illusion. Soporific originals are almost compulsory in a rock bar band’s act, but unheard of from Abba tribute groups or Glam revival turns.

(This in turn fails to take into account the Rock tribute act, cf. Think Floyd, the Australian Doors, et al., so I’ll stop now. It’s not as if twentysomething aesthetes with more than a working knowledge of weirdo art-rock can approach pop in anything other than a dilettantish way anyhow, though in many ways that’s part of the seductive pleasure of
it all.)