Friday, August 07, 2009

Are singers an endangered species?


By Andrew Culture

When I was a teenager I was a fan of the most insular type of music known to the times; ‘indie’ music. Being a fan of this genre at the time dictated that you and your friends were only allowed to like a very narrow group of bands – everything that fell outside of this field was to be shunned and ignored. In my case I and my friends were only permitted to enjoy bands that had passed the approval of our friend Matt and Tom’s elder sisters. Only once a band had their ‘cool status’ approved were we allowed to purchase their 12” singles and paw through the music papers looking for news and interviews. Among the few that passed scrutiny were The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, Flowered Up and oddly enough Ocean Colour Scene (although only their first single ‘Sway’.) It was a strange state of affairs and one that I’ve heard echoed by people of a similar age to me, I was not alone in my musical fascism.

As we grew up and the ever decreasing amount of material used to make jeans mirrored the failing popularity of the Manchester scene that had spawned this ridiculous leg ware and we started to cast our musical nets a little further afield, in a similar fashion to how you might eye up the plate of a fellow diner while eating your own poorly chosen fayre. The demise of parallel jeans also made walking in high winds a far safer prospect for all humanity. Not wishing to indulge my descent into total indie boy realms my mother refused to buy me proper parallels so I made do with the widest blue jeans Primark had on offer. I may not have looked quite the part (in retrospect a good thing) but my trousers were still wide enough to get trapped in my bike chain several times a day, causing my poor long suffering mother to despair at the damage done to both my trousers and her furniture. I was a strong believer in keeping a very well oiled chain on my bike, and I’m sure you can work the grubby end to this scenario for yourselves.

As the dreamily vague vocals of the Madchester bands became a distant memory, and as the records punted out by these bands got closer to the back of our collections we started to get into some bands that we considered quite radical at the time. We started to dig The Doors, lap up Led Zep and tinker with Television. For some reason we mutually agreed that it was okay to like these unapproved bands as long as we ignored the vocals. I decided that I was becoming mildly obsessed with The Doors based purely on musical merit, when in reality it was probably the morose morbidity of Jim Morrison that really struck a chord with me, after all, I was a teenager. Well that and the fact we’d just managed to score a copy of Oliver Stone’s film about the band, a film that gave screen time to our other teen obsession; boobs. Led Zeppelin were the ultimate expression of this anti-vocal fervour - we were all astonished by the instrumentation of messers Page, Bonham and Jones but hearing the high pitch (and sped up) vocals of Robert Plant on ‘The Song Remains the Same’ never failed to reduce us to giggles. The highest notes made us laugh so much our eyes watered, a watering that turned from gentle precipitation to a monsoon when we saw the tightness of Mr. Plant’s trousers in the film of the same name.

Eventually I came to love the singers of all these bands as integral ingredients of great music that is loved by millions, but I can’t help but think that perhaps that phase of my life contributed to making me the huge fan of instrumental bands that I am today, as a result of a kind of anti-vocalist conditioning.

I had long given the likes of Mogwai an affectionate place in my record collection and hadn’t considered exploring bands without singers any further when a friend of mine (Lee from the fantastic Dam This Town) suggested I accompany him to The Garage in London to see a band called Cave In. Before the pendants leap from their seats I should make it clear that Cave In do indeed have a vocals, it was their support band that opened my eyes to instrumental rock that night: the gloriously heavy Pelican. For years I had (with the notable exception of Mogwai) cast instrumentals into the realm of b-sides and oddities in my mind, something that offered the occasional bit of light distraction, but not something ‘proper’ that I could get my teeth into. What defines a tune as ‘proper’ is something that I will never figure out, in fact I think it’s this quest to define music that makes it such an impossibly addictive enigma to all music fans.

I had heard Pelican (written P E L I C A N) before, in fact I already owned their twenty minute work of epic genius ‘March into the Sea’ but held out scant hope that the prospect of seeing the band live would be anything other than an utter bore. How wrong I was. Pelican rocks their socks off, they rocked so hard my own socks were in serious danger and I was stood at the back of the room. Something clicked in my head (although that may have been caused by the expensive but shite lager on sale) and I went home resolute in my new desire to hunt out more instrumental bands.

The next few months were spent learning about and absorbing bands like Isis, Sons of Alpha Centuri and Red Sparrowes. My affection for singerless rock was cemented by the live experience of seeing bands like Bossk and Yndi Halda. My own band (ZEEB?) supported Yndi Halda in Ipswich as a part of their first UK tour; they claimed to build epic soulful soundscapes, and we bragged that we demolished small mossy patios. Since that night when Pelican blew the scales from my eyes I’ve become a fan of so many instrumental bands that I couldn’t attempt to list them all here, there are now so many doing the rounds it’s only a matter of time before the music press coins some witty phrase as a name for them all, and bands without singers will cease to be a musical oddity and become a fully fledged genre.

So should we morn the reduced demand for vocalists? Only if we feel we should morn the band member who is always late, has the most pretentions and makes the most demands. I want to know your thoughts on this, what do you think. Would the world of music be a better place without an egotistical plum up front, or should we continue to celebrate these posturing Adonises?