EDITORIAL COMMENT: Ed Sheeran Is Not To Blame

Social media is a wonderful tool. It can connect us with people across the globe; amuse us, inspire us and introduce us to music and films that might have otherwise escaped our notice. There’s a joy in interacting with people we wouldn’t otherwise meet – through being victims of geography, rather than any desire to do so – and discussing cult bands at length. As anyone moving in such circles will attest, conversations about Pink Floyd, Marillion and the Grateful Dead can effectively seem endless.

The negative side of social media is that to find the gold, we have to sift through the mundane, the verbal attacks, the political tensions and the endless moaning. Only last week, an insightful soul on Twitter suggested that if television was once considered “the idiots lantern”, then the internet could well be “the shitbag’s mirror”, effectively reflecting the bad side of all of us. It’s easy to pour scorn and derision on everything from a keyboard when you don’t have to hold your own in a face to face argument.

There have been tendencies of late to bemoan the idea that music has become too safe and too bland. If you’re not a fan, poking fun at Ed Sheeran seems too easy, but he’s not directly responsible for mainstream music’s perceived dullness. Nor James Blunt, or Sam Smith.  The problem lies with the radio stations and the mainstream media: light singer-songwriter material pleases a wide demographic and is easy to promote.

The most commercial music has always filled the radio – from the Motown hits in the 60s, to Madonna in the 80s and beyond, it’s always been about the easy sell.  So it was and likely always will be.  Ed, Sam and Blunty are just a chunk of the current remit and never the direct problem.

And remember: just because something is popular, it doesn’t make it worthless art. You’ll all own lots of catchy stuff that is anything but bland, and yet there was a recent article that claimed that the lack of quality within the recent music scene was solely down to its lack of complexity.  It suggested that a lack of music literacy was actually to blame.  Seriously?  Those people who actually believe such things can do one, quite frankly.  Do they really think that when Holland/Dozier/Holland wrote dozens of great songs for the Motown stable they thought they were inferior to John Coltrane and that what they did lacked “quality”?  Surely not.  If you think that just because music has a simple melody and catchy hook instead of instrumental breaks in 9/8 that it’s somehow throwaway, cheap or inferior, then frankly, you’re an idiot.  Music does not deserve you…just as much as you don’t deserve great music.  Simple music doesn’t have to be bland…and Motown’s classic output is probably the strongest argument to support that theory.

So, you don’t like Ed Sheeran appearing in magazines daily or enjoy hearing him on the radio three times an hour, every hour?  Remember, Ed Sheeran is not to blame.  Blame a media that’s afraid to branch out.  If you don’t like it, don’t listen. Obviously, we realise some of you have it forced upon you at work, but it’s time to accept that it isn’t aimed at you and it’s just not worth getting upset about.

Unfortunately, daytime radio still perceives most rock music as marginal. Things have moved on a bit, if you think a little more broadly – the idea that you could sit in a restaurant and Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple or Soundgarden could pop up on the in-house stereo seemed like an alien concept back in the 90s, but now it happens at places like Gourmet Burger Kitchen on a semi-regular basis, but the major radio channels would still rather play pop or the latest singer-songwriter fare. Stuff  that’s so often perceived as bland will always fill the radio, simply because it gets them listeners; it pays the bills.

Only recently, a friend of Real Gone’s suggested that Britain needs a “new punk”, a music to shake things up and challenge the mainstream. Much as that sounds like an interesting idea, we aren’t as easily shocked as a nation as we were back in 1976. So much music has filled our ears in the past forty years and the idea that a musical movement could actually seem counter-cultural to a modern day audience is unlikely. There hasn’t really been anything with the ability to do that since the late 80s/early 90s – and now we have a whole world of stuff in our living rooms at the push of a button, it seems even more unlikely that any cultural upset will happen again. At least not anywhere outside of the Daily Mail. They’re outraged by everything. They’d even be outraged by Ed Sheeran if someone told them he was a petty thief who owned a foreign cat. Which of course he isn’t and doesn’t, but still…

Looking at punk as a musical microcosm of the 70s, it’s now looked upon with some hefty rose-tints. Take a look at any singles chart – or album chart – at punk’s peak in 1977. Punk is hardly the dominant force. Revisionist thinking always seems to suggest that punk came and saved us, that like a bolt of lightning, punk killed the prog rock dinosaurs and its new broom swept aside the boring old farts. Not so – the 1977 charts are still dominated by artists we could consider “safe”: some of the biggest singles of the year belonged to David Soul, ABBA and Hot Chocolate. ‘Mull of Kintyre’ was at number one for a hundred years. While Paul McCartney has had many moments of greatness, he wasn’t averse to pumping out some fairly easy listening. It might seem churlish to call him the Ed Sheeran of 1977, but it’s all relative. Yes, the Sex Pistols debut LP reached number one in the album chart, but so did albums byJohnny Mathis and Slim Whitman…and for longer.

Just as the mainstream media aren’t thinking outside the box in terms of programming, those who feel that more “interesting” music isn’t being made any more are equally to blame for staying within their comfort zones.

Among the perceived wall to wall beigeness of these times, there’s just as much great alternative music as you’d have found in 1977, 1987 and pretty much most other times. You just have to know where to look. The newspapers and radio will never expose you to the world of cult greatness that’s out there waiting for you. While it’s hardly likely that we’ll look upon the present as a golden age in twenty, thirty, even forty years’ time, there are so many acts making underground scenes exciting. In the last few years, Mask of Bees and Boss Keloid have truly pushed the limits of arty metal; The Fierce And The Dead have continued to plough an almost genre-defying furrow; Leeds based distortion champions Cattle have completely destroyed ears and re-injected some excitement into noise-rock and Natterers have delivered pure hardcore punk – Dead Kennedys style – for a new generation…and it’s a job they’re doing much better than countless others. Garage rock is very much alive and sweaty – Man-Eaters show how a Motorhead aesthetic works well within the confines of relatively lo-fi punk; Narcos Family Band have added some truly bewildering angry psychedlic elements and Brockley Forest have perfected a fuzzy, blues edged noise that’s always more interesting than Royal Blood.

…And that’s just the tip of a massive musical iceberg big enough to sink two hundred Titanics. All the while music fans crave new music, there’ll be a slew of new and great bands to meet that demand. Just don’t expect to find any of them without putting in the hard yards seeking them out. Radio 2 will not make it easy for you; The Brit Awards have no place in your sign-posting and the TV will only give you things that Jools thinks a bit of boogie woogie piano will improve.

Dig deeper.

If you want to stay ahead of the curve, read websites like Real Gone, Echoes and Dust, Slicing Up Eyeballs, Louder Than War…listen to radio stations that have a totally free reign on what they play, like Primordial Radio.

It’s all out there. Go and find it. Stop complaining about stuff that fills the singles chart. That’s not for you any more.  It likely never was.

…And whatever new music inspires you, as always, we wish you happy listening.

Lee Realgone – 21.03.19

March 2019