Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Quark, Strangeness and Charm"

There are more than a few bands who have been fated to occupy the margins for their entire careers. The ones that persevere on the pub and club circuit for years on end, that perhaps accumulate what the music press are pleased to call "a devoted following", but which never quite translate their particular charm and quality into a record contract, widespread acclaim or fame.

Then there are bands who, either by chance, by design or by sheer bloody-mindedness, manage to carve out a successful career without ever troubling the sharp end of the music charts. Maybe they're not mainstream but in fact are very well-regarded in their particular niche, whatever that be. They make records without the aid of a major label, they work their socks off to distribute and promote their work, and they sell enough to make the whole business worthwhile.

i can't work out whether it's easier or more difficult to exist on the fringes of the "mainstream" music business these days. Back in the 1960s and 70s music was a simpler and dare I say it, cheaper business to be in. Bands formed, practiced, recorded a demo and booked themselves gigs in gradually larger and larger venues, until the "business" couldn't ignore them any more.

Nowadays all the work goes on even before a band's sung a note or made an appearance. (Notice I didn't say "played a gig" - nobody in the mainstream seems to "play gigs" any more, just as so few artists seem to be able to play instruments any more. But then I'm old, and I've earned the right to be grumpy.) The stylists are brought in, the publicists and songwriters are hired, the website's set up (or at the very least the URL is reserved), and all before anything like "music" has happened.

And when we *do* get to the music, it's clear 99% of the time that the song and the performer have only the tiniest relationship. It's hard to shake the impression that performers these days (those that don't write their own material, but occasionally even those that do) are merely viewing songs as a means to an end. There's nothing in the song that really needs to be *communicated*: no great idea, no intelligent information, no message.

Look at the top 40 this week. At least 30 songs are about relationships, physical attraction or just overweening egotism. Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, even Billy Bragg might as well have never been born. Even so-called alternative artists are merely oddly-dressed - once they open their mouths you can't tell the difference.

So, in the spirit of grumpiness and with a healthy disregard for music-as-commodity, I offer today a song that comes from a band that for a heroic 42 years, has followed its very own individual path, has had moments of both notoriety and popularity, and has survived because it has always had the resources and the will to do things its way. And continues to this day to have a devoted following.

"Einstein was not a handsome fellow/Nobody ever called him Al/He had a long moustache to pull on, it was yellow/I don't believe he ever had a girl."

As soon as you hear this, you already know we've left the main road and we're out among the tumbleweed.

"Copernicus had those Renaissance ladies/Crazy about his telescope/And Galileo had a name that made his/Reputation higher than his hope/Did none of those astronomers discover/While they were staring out into the dark/That what a lady looks for in her lover/Is charm, strangeness and quark."

It's upbeat, clean-sounding, irrepressible. There's a lack of bass in the sound that suggests that these guys were making a conscious effort to tone it down. Maybe they left the bassist at home. There's no feedback, the drums are positively restrained, it's pop! Who'd have thought it?

And because the subject matter is treated with humour, with intelligence and with .... charm, the whole makes for a very satisfying listen. It's hard to say that about everyone you hear these days.

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