Tuesday, July 04, 2006

And I don’t care about morals / ‘cos the world’s insane and we’re all to blame anyway

On Saturday night last I spent about four hours standing side of stage in a park in central Denpasar, here in Bali. The event in question was a fundraiser for the quickly forgotten (by the world at large, unlike say, Katrina, which still seems to get a mention most nights on the telly in one place or another) Jogja quake of a month or so ago.

There were, I’m told, between four and seven thousand kids there, and, although to be honest, I didn’t venture much from the backstage area, to the best of my knowledge there were only three non-Indonesians in the place. Maybe that’s why, in the southern triangle of this island of this isle, I enjoy Denpasar far more than the tourist haunts centred on the often less than pleasant strip from Kuta through to Kerebokan. If you are going to be here, at least be here. I like being out of my comfort zone and if I want to be in Ponsonby or Darlinghurst I’ll get on an aeroplane. Although nothing beats Double Six Beach on a Sunday….

But, that’s all beside the point, init.

I stood on Saturday night and watched four bands. There was a reggae act, and yeah, they were ok, not my personal thing but ok. But these guys have a residency at a local Legian reggae club so thus deserve massive respect for putting up with the ugliest crowd on the planet…drunken Australians. There was band whose lead singer stood like a late seventies Joe Strummer and sang a post punky set in Balinese which I thought was well cool. I had no idea what he was saying, but I did…if you get the gist. The language of rock’n’roll rebellion is universal and no great mystery.

They were followed by (and I wish I had names for these bands) a crew from Jakarta who were both slick and entertaining in an almost nu-metal meets hardcore style. Seriously slick actually, with a massive presence and they worked the crowd like the local stars they clearly were and deserved to be. I enjoyed them, even though, musically they’re not my thing. And as I watched I found myself wondering, yet again why most New Zealand bands simply can’t do this, playing to the crowd that is, putting on a show…it’s such a rare national art and still, maybe as part of the legacy of Flying Nun, is frowned on by the uber-cool. What a shame that is….

The last band were the one I’d come to see. I’d seen Superman is Dead (S.I.D. to their fans…the name is, I believe a reference to the demise of Suharto…young Indonesians are keenly aware of the rather unfortunate legacy of the man and proud of their baru democracy… this is a nation on the rise, you can feel it and its power is in its vast youth) on TV a couple of times. Just acoustic takes on the local Bali TV channel and I’d had a quick listen to their new album, which I’d been given. But, and I’ve always flattered myself I have something of an ear (god that sounds too egotistical), something intrigued me, something made perfect sense. Even with the sound off on the TV, the second time the performance came on, I couldn’t take my eyes off them and found the songs going around in my head later

Live I wasn’t disappointed. I stood transfixed throughout the set. I was absolutely blown away by the drummer’s solo spot out front. And by the other’s cheeky knowing grins and by the way they bounced musically off each other in a way I’ve always assumed Lennon and McCartney did at the Star Club. Made, who was giving me a lift on his motorbike back to my car, came up to me half way through and asked if I wanted to leave. No, no I explained, I want to watch this through to the very end. I love watching a band, a musician, or a DJ with such an obvious empathy with their audience, feeding off each other, as SID and these thousands, who knew every word of their anthemic songs and travelled through the set as participants rather than simply an audience, did.

It was a mind fuck, it really was, and it’s the sort of thing which can only come from those making the music, from the creators. Not from any A&R guy, from any MD in a gilded office, from any marketing plan. And that is why, music is more than just a business, why the machinations of the corporates matter to the shareholders but really don’t matter at all.

And I thought about the tyranny of location, something I’d mentioned in some long forgotten review of a forgotten album (an album by Spizz for A&M if you must know) twenty five years ago when I was a regular reviewer in Murray Cammick’s Rip It Up. About how location is everything, how any average band in the UK or the US has the odds stacked so strongly in its favour; that the recording industry has ensured that it has a vastly greater chance of playing to a global audience that the best band or artist from a less favoured nation, say, Indonesia or New Zealand; nations that are deemed by the system to simply not matter as sources of marketable music.

And yet Superman Is Dead leave many of the acts with large contracts, and the big chance, in the proverbial gravel. Anyway you look at it they’re better than the swathe of mediocre middle American rock acts foisted upon the kids by a the entrenched system, the MTV shite that you find prioritised by global multi-nationals.

And I thought about the revolution at hand. Popular music is driven by revolutions, and always has been. From Bill Haley to Hip hop to The Beatles to House, we’ve had half a century of youth driven revolutions, all of which have crept up those in a position of power in the entertainment industry and slammed them without warning as they struggle to make some sense of it all. The last decade or so has been a little staid, although considering what we’ve had released, performed and recorded in the last few years that term is a little unfair. However that music has worked within the parameters established over the past decade or two, and to my mind can’t be considered revolutionary as such, fine as much of it is.

There has of course been the digital revolution but that has a been a revolution in delivery mechanisms, a revolution that, whilst it has confused and bemused the major record companies (to the extent that they have made such major missteps as the glaring stupidity of DRM, the Sony BMG spyware mess, and the RIAA’s insane lawsuits against downloaders…rule number one has to be, and always has been, that you don’t assault and attack your customers, especially when they already think you are vaguely, no make that totally, evil) they have, as they did with the LP and the CD, after much flustering, tried to run with.

No, the delivery mechanism is not the revolution but it certainly made possible the revolution. The revolution which has crept up on the Industry as such is the new democracy, the growing realisation that the untamed aspects of the internet are slowly pulling the power, the control, away from the established power structure and handing it over the end user or those close to the end user. It’s a passing of the baton from the record companies to the people. Its best seen in New Zealand with the Fat Freddie’s phenomena, who one year on are still dominating an industry that really had nothing to do with their rise. And I’m not talking Rupert Murdoch’s MySpace which, despite the fact I have a presence on (who doesn’t, but it’s more of a giggle than much else), still feels like walking into the foyer of Sky TV to me; but I am talking, amongst other things, about the countless MP3 blogs which disseminate tracks virally around the planet (and yes, I'm well aware of the way these are used as marketing tools too but their power goes far beyond that), and from which I’ve personally discovered (and subsequently purchased) many digital audio files, some long forgotten (how many killer Billy Preston tracks were doing the rounds after he snuffed it…I’d forgotten how great the title track from his Encouraging Words album on Apple was…I have the vinyl but splashed out for the CD last week) and so many new acts that would never have gotten any exposure under the “system” as it was, even with iTunes or its equivalent. The power instead is beginning to sit with some blogger somewhere in nowhere land who has taken it upon themselves to espouse the greatness of some marginal act that would otherwise have slipped through the system. In its own way, the piracy of the music via the p2ps adds to the tentacles of this revolution in a way the major companies, obsessed with maximising the sales of their priority acts, to the despair of the overwhelming majority of their (non-priority) acts who wonder why their songs simply don’t get any real exposure, still don’t seem to grasp.

The MP3 blogging world has recently been abuzz with the likes of the wonderful Simian Mobile Disco, and Toronto’s noisy technoids, MSTRKRFT, neither of which would get a look in via the old system but are worth tracking down. Right now, whether EMI buys Warners or Warners buys EMI seems to be increasingly irrelevant to this business that has always refused to conform to accepted norms, a business that the kids have only just, in ways we can’t imagine yet, begun to claw back.

Oh and check out SID…they really are fantastic….