Are we betraying David Bowie’s Legacy?

First published on

Like many artists working in the record industry I’m on an independent label having had the obligatory major label experience. I’ve seen both sides of the industry at work and am aware of the failings and strengths of each. With this in mind I would like to suggest that if the music world is to celebrate David Bowie’s life then we must address our collective responsibility to the betrayal of his cultural legacy.

Although Bowie was assuredly embraced and cultivated by the very mainstream culture he set out to subvert, he never allowed it to misdirect him (Never Let Me Down notwithstanding.) Like all innovators from the underground, commercial success gave him the opportunity to bring transgressive ideas into the mainstream. In part, thanks to him, bisexuality, ambient music, gender fluidity, dyed hair and much of the avant-garde now decorates the walls of our daily lives.

It’s very easy for a small time indie artist like myself, with nothing much to lose, preaching to the mainstream. I’m hardly the greatest musical innovator. And if you’ve busted your ass to get to the point where you can make a fantastic living through music, you’re probably not going to want to disrupt that.

But how many globally successful artists are out there pursuing truly subversive ideas? I’m talking about the kind of ideas that make parents nervous. Kanye perhaps comes close in terms of musical experimentation but for all his creativity he is still mired in the misogynistic wordplay and materialistic concerns of much hip hop. Lady Gaga dabbles in the same areas as Bowie once did, but she offers nothing new.

On the other side of the tracks, the work of an artist as confrontational and radical as Canadian musician Peaches could, if you connect with it, make profound changes in the way you see the world. But she’s hardly likely to be on drivetime Radio 1 or Saturday Night Takeaway.

The truth is modern commercial artists would struggle to act equivalently. Today rock’n’roll is a sleeker business. There’s a formula even for ‘indie’ bands. If you’re on a major label, hell if you’re on a large independent the situation is the same. Your stylist offers you new clothes, which, being a skint artist, you happily accept. Marketing takes off the rough edges on your press release and singles are re-edited according to radio station ‘feedback’. You can of course say no to all these things. Just don’t expect the label to give you further support should the song fail to chart. The clincher is that you are asked to do these things by pleasant, genuine people who love and believe in your music. These are people to whom Bowie probably means the world. They are doing their best to set you up in the marketplace as they understand it, while at the same time re-enforcing the strictures and conservative nature of that very same market. Any fitting tribute from Bowie’s heirs must recognise this issue and begin to find ways to address it.

Make no mistake, David Bowie was interested in and genuinely cultivated mainstream success – but on his own terms, pursuing his own culturally diversifying agenda. He was lucky enough to figure his career out at a time when the corporations were still unsure how to handle rock’n’roll, before the formulas and the marketing men got a grasp on its appeal and ‘alternative’ fashions became corporatised product. To be David Bowie now would require an artist to stand outside and beyond what the man himself brought to the table. One look at X Factor or American Idol will show you that elements of performance art and gender fluidity are now very much part of the mainstream.

Conversely, for smaller, less overtly commercial acts, the door to the mainstream media is now closed. It is enough these days to play the underground circuit and hope for the occasional television or advert synch to help pay the bills.

Where do we go from here? How does rock’n’roll disengage with the establishment to the extent that it retains the ability to reach millions, yet pursue a subversive agenda? Can commercially successful music be any more than sonic wallpaper for a lifestyle choice?

Bowie’s death is a wake-up call to both mainstream artists, independents and those straddling both worlds. The greatest tribute we can pay him is to keep searching for new, dangerous ideas that inspire young people. Great pop music should corrupt the kids and encourage them to reject the ideals of their parent’s generation in search of a better world. As artists, we need to look at our work and our priorities because right now we are failing his legacy by letting the ‘way things are’ in the music industry absorb the life blood out of the great threat rock’n’roll and David Bowie once offered to established culture.


Eight billion tribes of one

First published on

The great European author and semiotician Umberto Eco once posited the idea that the Erasmus project, so beloved of students wishing to spend a free year at another university in the EU, should be extended to all professions. Far from being confined to the elitism of higher education, it should be offered to all society – from shop assistants to refuse collectors. Concepts of cultural and ethnic differences would be eroded as young men and women from different backgrounds met, fell in love and had children beyond their own countries and ethnic groups, thus creating a sense of Europeanism that might eventually supersede state-based nationalism.

There are roughly 196 identifiable nations across our globe and tens of thousands of different ethnic groups within these nations. By 2025 the UN estimates the global population will surpass eight billion. We sit on the cusp of a new world where nations, reacting against economic downturn and aggressive nationalism, decide either to accept open borders and the influx of other cultures or close themselves off.

What if Eco’s prospective Erasmus idea could instead become a global rather than just a European project? If people from around the world were free to go anywhere, the old argument goes that they would gravitate towards the moneyed western hemisphere.

A recent study by the American Economic Association suggests that a world without national borders preventing immigration would be a world that would see a doubling of global GDP. It would also, according to the Centre for Global Development be the greatest possible tool for fighting poverty.

These liberal compassions that dream up a ‘perfect world’ where everyone has enough money are tempered by our innate sense of cultural identity and perceived threats to it. Without borders protecting ‘our’ economic security, without the proliferation of our own ethnic group as the dominant force in our land, what will become of ‘us’? Compassion gives way to self-preservation.

It is time, as Eco implied, to let go of these old affiliations and search for a way of seeing ourselves and the wider world that is not mired in the tribal structures of the past. We have strong evidence that open borders are healthy for the world economy. Let’s not forget that war between nations becomes harder when there is less of a sense of nationalism for soldiers to feel passionate about.

Our civilisation is founded on rational, evidential scientific thought. It is about time that we applied that to our sense of identity. All that you hold to be dear and true in this world is nothing but the flotsam and jetsam of history washed up on the shore of the present. Cultures and tribes have come and gone throughout recorded history. Yours, the one you identify with, the one that in some circumstances you might fight and die for, is no different. It is chance and circumstance that you were born in a certain country, to a certain family, in a certain political or religious ideology.

If we can begin to dismantle our rigid ideas of ‘self’ and ‘us’ then we might begin to see a world where barriers collapse and a relativist multiculturalism spreads into the heart of the precious institutions we hold so dear and the economic fortunes of the majority of people on this planet improve.

The naysayers would claim that in such a world we would lose our individuality and all become the same – a reactionary argument that is a wilful failure of analysis. Evolution works by mixing and matching different gene pools to create endless new variants. Culture is no different. We are all mongrels in this regard. There is no purity. A world of free movement and the inevitable inter-marriage it brings would not be a world where we morph into a nameless mass but rather a world where we are all even more unique, where we become the sum of a million different influences, none more important and more truthful than the other. That’s the world I want to see. Let’s have an end to a thousand nominal tribes closing their borders and pointing guns at one another. As the human population of this planet soars to almost incomprehensible numbers, we can become instead eight billion tribes of one, marching only to the celebration of our shared and accepted differences.

Frank Sinatra, Future Islands and Status Quo: a musical history of the SNP and Scottish Labour

Originally printed in New Statesman 01/05/15

Just noise?

These days you’d be hard-pressed to find any credible indie rock kids willing to admit they’re Status Quo fans. There are no breakbeats, hip hop samples or underground indie kudos here. It’s just the old guard cranking out the same old hits of yesteryear, pushing nostalgia tours on their ever-diminishing audience.

A once mighty commercial force, Scottish Labour, according to all the polls, are now passé. As far as the electorate is concerned, they have become the Status Quo, minus the ponytails and denim shirts (although perhaps Jim Murphy and Co are missing a trick there.)

How did these formerly psychedelic rebel rockers turn into yesterday’s news? They took their ear from the underground, hooked up with commercial producers to smooth out their sound, and now all they can do is tell the kids that the new music sucks.

Scottish Labour has failed to realise that in the current climate, trying to rubbish SNP policy on austerity or threatening the electorate with another Tory government is the equivalent of Frank Sinatra describing that new-fangled rock’n’roll music as “the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has ever been my displeasure to hear”. Frank, the kids just don’t care.

A vote for the SNP has become nothing less than a rejection of the current political establishment – a repudiation of the two-party system that only offers voters a choice between Status Quo and… well, Status Quo. That’s not a particularly enticing DJ set, unless you like all your songs sounding the same.

Sturgeon and her nationalists are smart enough to side with the anti-austerity vibe and sing that song in the hope it brings them closer to their dream of independence. Surprising no one but establishment politicians, they have become the first viable mainstream voice of protest to have risen in the United Kingdom since the beginning of the Occupy movement.

While their stance on austerity is far removed from that of Occupy, the political reaction to their slight economic deviance loudly echoes the times we live in. To even question the prevailing austerity wisdom amounts to an act of rebellion so severe it generates horror from both Labour and the Tories.

This time, however, the rebels may have a political mandate that has completely blindsided the prevailing powers. As far as Cameron, Miliband et al are concerned, the anti-austerity tide has found a way to successfully infiltrate the system at the highest level.

You can see why the entire political class and media are doing their best to undermine the democratic validity of an SNP surge in the House of Commons. “Call that music?” they shout at the kids in the street. “That’s just noise! You can’t even play your instruments properly.”

Right now, anyone with a care in their hearts and a stake in shaking up the mainstream about the future of these islands should enjoy clicking on that metaphorical YouTube link to the latest viral music sensation. It’s Future Islands on the Letterman Show, the singer beating his chest, belting out something primal and entrancing. It’s the sound of a pissed off populace. It’s rage at having the democratic voice of the people limited to a binary choice of Tory and Labour.

You could have heard this new song in all the villages and cities of the UK anytime over the last seven years if you were willing to listen. But when you go for that middle ground vote like the big boys of politics always do, you tend to lose touch with real life and your instinct for what really matters.

The SNP’s day at number one will come and go. All great political love affairs eventually sour. That’s understood. But right now, Status Quo is wondering why it’s not cool anymore. It’s because it is incapable of even countenancing the kind of songs the Scottish electorate wants to hear. Right now the freaks and outsiders have stolen their fanbase and there’s not much Labour can do except crank out the old hits and remember a time when its songs used to mean something.

Kev Sherry is lead singer of Scottish indie band Attic Lights. He tweets @KevSherry1

Why I changed from a ‘No’ to a ‘Yes.’

I despise nationalism. I despise patriotism. I hate bagpipes, I hate kilts and tartan and I hate the cringe inducing shouts of “wha’s like us” in bars across the nation at closing time on drunken Saturday nights. I love the other countries we share this little island with. I am not what you could ever call a patriot or a nationalist and I would call myself European long before I’d ever call myself Scottish. I believe in cultural and ethnic integration. I believe in a world where nationalities blur into one another rather than divide on tribal lines. I have been, until fairly recently, a staunch ‘No’ voter. However, all things considered, I now feel I am left with no choice but to vote Yes in the forthcoming referendum.

There are economists on both sides of the argument saying wildly different things. I’m not an economist, and neither are the majority of people who seem to have decided to believe one side of the economic argument because it suits their inherent prejudices (as I did until recently.) This is not a decision the lay person can make based on just economics. It has to be about more than that.

We have the unique opportunity to build something better than the status quo – a status quo that is destroying the fabric of our society, that more than ever in living memory, supports the rich and powerful at the expense of the weak and the poor (regardless, I think it is fair to say, of whatever Westminster party is in power.) To ignore the possibility of changing this, to not at least consider taking that risk of independence, is at best shameful and at worst a disgrace to future generations.

How does anything happen in human history? How do we make the great leaps forward? We take risks. We place our hope in new, heretical ideas. If Albert Einstein had accepted the status quo of physics we could be living in a vastly different world. The same goes for Jesus Christ and Mohammed and Socrates and Galileo. New ideas that are heretical to the established order are fundamental to human progress.

I am not interested in Alex Salmond as a man or the SNP as a party. I don’t care about keeping the pound and I accept that, should the country vote Yes, Scotland might initially struggle economically – as any country would while trying to find its feet. That is not the point. This is bigger than you and me. This is about the future.

This is about more than you and your own wallet and your own ideas of culture and history. This is about more than whether you will have enough money to take the family to Mallorca next summer or to buy a new flatscreen TV. It’s about more than the “shared traditions” you were brought up to believe in.

It is about refusing to accept the pernicious lie that, “we are all in this together.” It’s about making the decision to redefine that phrase. In an independent Scotland, the wealthy and the powerful who comprise the British establishment will no longer get to define what “we” “this” and “together” mean anymore.

I have no idea if an independent Scotland can do all that I want it to, but I have to take that risk. The only other option is the status quo with its interchangeable political parties and neoliberal selfishness – an oligarchy in all but name. As a nation that consistently votes to the left, we can be sure that the policies of the main UK parties will not hold as much sway in Scotland as they do now.

Independence offers us a chance to make a change, to take a leap of faith, to show our brothers and sisters in England and the world beyond that there is a better way of living and treating people.

I urge you not to play it safe and I urge you to think about more than your own pockets. I urge you to see something better in the people around you. I urge you to vote Yes.