Monday, February 19, 2007

Maximumrocknroll #282 November 2006

Where are the ideas?
I was indulging in my latest hobby, browsing the YouTube website, when I came across a trailer for Made In Sheffield - The Birth Of Electronic Pop. This film deals with the influential music scene that blossomed in the northern English steel town immediately following the explosion of punk rock. For the most part, the punks of Sheffield took the influences of punk and applied them in unorthodox ways, forming synth-pop bands like The Human League and Heaven 17 or avant-garde groups like Cabaret Voltaire and DAF. It's a side of post-punk that I'd never paid too much attention to – I hated those new wave bands when they appeared on Top Of The Pops. If you'd told me they had come out of the punk scene I'd never have believed it. Later on I was vaguely aware that those bands had put out their earliest records on punk labels etc but it was only when I read Simon Reynolds' book Rip It Up And Start Again - Postpunk 1978-1984 that I became fully aware of those bands and their members' connection to punk. Of course, like a lot of punks, post-punks, and new-wavers, they saw the opening of the floodgates of independently released music as simply a new way to get on the first rung of the ladder of success. The Sheffield contingent also believed, with their synths, drum machines, and lack of guitars, that they were destroying rock'n'roll. For those who actually liked rock'n'roll, this didn't go over very well.
At any rate, the trailer excited me enough to send off for the documentary. It came out last year and was produced and directed by Eve Wood, a Dutch immigrant to Sheffield. She uses archive footage along with current interviews with scene participants and band members as well as journalists and notably, with veteran BBC broadcaster John Peel (RIP), who gave most of the bands their first exposure.
As in provincial towns the length and breadth of the UK, Sheffield saw its share of bands starting up after the infamous Sex Pistols vs. Bill Grundy incident on television. It seems that because of some unexplained experimental, artsy strain that was running through the outsider kids of the town, though, they expressed themselves in different ways, rather than just aping what the Pistols, Damned, Clash etc were doing. One could argue that the musical fruits of this labor might leave something to be desired when compared with, say, what was happening in Manchester or Leeds at the same time, but questions of musical taste aside, watching this film I was struck by the way the bands all seemed to be striving to do something new. They were competing with each other to be the first to come up with a certain sound, to play something that no one had ever heard before. Now, I should add the caveat that I don't necessarily enjoy all the sounds they did come up with, but I can't help being impressed by the commitment to innovation and creativity.
It makes me wonder what happened to that creativity within the punk scene. I'm not saying that everyone should be trying to come up with sounds that nobody's ever heard. I like songs, and rhythm, and hooks, and structure. I've listened to noise music and frankly I can do without it. But it seems like these days, people are happy to just pick an already-popular or overdone style, ape it, and sit back and watch the records fly off the shelves. I'm not talking about mainstream pop music here. I mean in just about every genre of punk, from pop punk to power violence, the focus seems to be on how authentically a band can recreate a style from yesteryear, rather than add something new to that style. Again, I'm not saying that people should give up on punk or hardcore or whatever and devote themselves to inventing some kind of space music from the future. I'd just like to see bands express themselves through their music a little more, lend their own voices and creativity to the massive collective output of the punk scene month after month, rather than trying to make their records look and sound as if they came out in 1982.
I can't tell you how many times I've had a conversation with someone who was getting a new band going. "What kind of stuff are you playing?" - "Just generic early 80s thrash." Fair enough, but why? Why would you sell yourself short? It's the generic part that particularly bothers me. I mean, you can only play the music you want to play - if it's early 80s thrash that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then go for it. But don't be generic about it. It seems like a lot of people are starting bands not out of a compulsion to create something, but because it's so easy to put together a set, shit out a poorly recorded 7" with a xerox sleeve, and go on tour all summer with your friends. It might be fun, but it contributes to the glut of crappy punk records coming out every month, and makes for some packed and boring bills at gigs.
One band that I think is an example of someone doing it right is Fucked Up. They take the basic ingredients that go into making a good hardcore or punk song, and somehow manage to come up with something that sounds totally classic yet amazingly current at the same time. You know how when people try and 'challenge the boundaries of punk rock' they end up watering it down, or becoming too (nu-)metal? Fucked Up have managed to expand upon punk and hardcore without losing any of the bite, anger, or power. Listening to them, you get the feeling that they have really thought about their songs, actually sat down together and talked about ideas. Why is that refreshing? Why isn't that the norm?
In case you haven't figured it out yet I can't say enough good things about this band. I just wish I could make it to Toronto for their three-day record release extravaganza. If anyone who goes wants to pick up the limited records for me, it would certainly be appreciated!
For more information on the Made In Sheffield DVD you can go to

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