Somewhere deep in the heart of the NME office, there is an entire room plastered from top to bottom with pictures of Alex Turner. One day the Editorial Team will lure him inside, take their shirts off and try to lovingly strangle him to death like Jed the mentalist does to Alan Partridge, but until that day comes they will continue to pluck an image from the walls at random and butcher it publicly at least ten times per year. And that, boys and girls, is how a cover star is born.
If you are one of the lucky few who has not cast eyes upon the current cover of NME (or you have and are desperately trying to erase it from your memory), it’s basically a shockingly edited monochrome photograph of Alex Turner’s head accompanied by a pencil sketch of a pointing hand and the caption “ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NEEDS YOU”. I’m not going to dwell on the design but the only company that should be allowed to get away with shit like that without judgement is The Big Issue. I’m not even going to unpack the fact that the list of NME cover bands in the last twenty years features less diversity than a Hitler Youth poster campaign. There are far more pressing questions at hand. For example, why are we still talking about rock ‘n’ roll in 2014 like it’s still a thing? And even if it were, why is Alex Turner apparently the one spearheading its recruitment process? Why does a speech that badly paraphrased things Neil Young said decades ago deserve to be front-page material?
For the record, I quite like Arctic Monkeys. I think they’re a decent bunch of songwriters and Alex Turner has an unusually attractive way of transforming the mundane into something poignant – something he had clearly forgotten how to do when making his “controversial” “speech of the century” at the Brit Awards last week, in which he managed to do the exact opposite. “Rock ‘n’ roll will never die?” I’ve read more righteous statements smeared in unidentifiable liquids on toilet cubicle walls.
Not that he was being serious, of course. I for one am still convinced that he was auditioning for a play that nobody else will ever see or even know about. I’m not sure Arctic Monkeys have anything to do with rock ‘n’ roll whatsoever, but if we’re going to indulge ourselves and have this dialogue we might at least get the fundamentals straight. A lot of people seem to be forgetting the key fact that rock ‘n’ roll, if anything, is a mentality, a lifestyle, not an umbrella term for a particular style of music. I’m going to go ahead and quote the late great Lester Bangs here, because nobody seems to do that enough these days:
“Rock ‘n’ Roll is an attitude, it’s not a musical form of a strict sort. It’s a way of doing things, of approaching things. Writing can be rock ‘n’ roll, or a movie can be rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a way of living your life.”
Sadly I don’t think Bangs predicted that in 2014, that attitude and way of living your life would climax with intentionally dropping a microphone live on stage after accepting your second industry-voted award while your band mates work through all the facial expressions of a person watching a film with their mum that suddenly features a very long, graphic sex scene.
Call me a stoke extinguisher, but I am of the belief that awards speeches are the place for either creative humour (see: that time Gollum won an MTV award) or real-talk (see: anything Ad-Rock has said at an awards ceremony ever). Don’t pussy out and blur the lines between the two in what can most accurately be described as a gross publicity stunt when you’ve been given a sincere platform to do or say something cool.
Though seemingly inseparable, “rock ‘n’ roll” and “cool” are by no means synonymous. Rock ‘n’ roll is a huge party, uncompromising in its outrageousness. It’s an obsession with excess to the point of self-destruction. It’s Robert Plant standing on the balcony of the Riot House with outstretched arms shouting, “I am a golden God!” And, for a myriad of reasons, it’s a nature of existence that is no longer viable, at least not in the same way. Rock ‘n’ roll will continue to die with each of its pioneers and reinvent itself with arrival of the next. It is inherently tied to commercial success and for that reason is destined to rely on some form of artifice, which is all fine and obvious, but maybe it’s time we actually knocked it off the front pages of our few remaining music magazines and replace it with something that more accurately represents where we are at culturally, economically and politically. There’s so much new, exciting music evolving in the world right now and it physically hurts me to see us clinging so desperately to an anachronistic definition that requires a leather jacket and a bucket of styling wax.
Maybe it’s time we let go of the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is something desirable. Maybe we should accept the fact that the most rock ‘n’ roll person currently in the public eye is probably Rob Ford. Maybe rock ‘n’ roll was and is nothing more than a haircut and an attitude problem, and society certainly doesn’t need any more of those.
Originally published on The 405 here.