How British Guitar Music Caught Up With The World
It took a long time to get over itself, but now British guitar music feels like it’s standing on its own feet.
That rock’n’roll, eh. As someone who listens to music day in, day out, pretty much all the time, even when trying to fall asleep (have you tried 432Hz stuff? It’s great), my listening habits consistently change. I can go from Brigitte Bardot to Yaeji, to loose 1990s trap music, then back around to depressive ambiance, with some DJ Koze in between, a Robyn throwback on the top and still not feel tired.
That’s not a boast. These days, this is how most of us listen to music, skipping between genres with ease. Still, that doesn’t mean trends don’t come and go, just as they always have done. Take a look at Soundcloud rap, the most popular new genre of last year. Or the rise and fall of EDM. Or guitar music, which has returned with a renewed sense of vigour and a brand new face this year.
These things are cyclical, of course. But it does feel like guitar music – that is the specifically British iteration, with the classic band set-up – has had a new lease of life in these last 12 months, spurred on by young bands like Shame, Girl Ray, and Sorry, the demeanor of Idles and a completely off-the-wall record from Arctic Monkeys, which: a) sounded like Alex Turner had legitimately gone so far off the deep end that his mind were in the outer-reaches of space, and; b) was all the better for it.
Bands have of course been steadily releasing records year after year after year. But lots of them have felt retrograde, gouging a well-worn path into the same old hollow cliches – the gobby indie rebels in the leather jackets. Bands like Peace, and Swim Deep, and Palma Violets and that whole mid-2010 wave of groups seemed to exist to fill a gap in the market – not to necessarily progress their genre. So what’s changed? How has British guitar music caught up with the rest of the world?
To me, the idea of a rock band being deemed cool fell to the wayside around the time Alex Turner gave his infamous Brit Award speech. It was pretentious and centered around the idea that rock’n’roll was this immortal genre, just as it was becoming far less interesting than other new and innovative musicians who had started releasing music – rappers like Young Thug and Tyler, the Creator, internet-savvy pop producers like AG Cook and SOPHIE; and really, a lot of the acts we can now call today’s megastars: Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Dev Hynes and Frank Ocean.
“It was kind of the signing off point,” says Apple Music's Beats 1 DJ Matt Wilkinson, also an ex- NME staffer, when I mention Turner’s 2013 speech and how it seemed like the end of an era. “And I think the reason for that is because the new bands that were coming to NME at that time didn’t really grasp social media in the same way that other musicians did. I remember bands at NME saying ‘well we’re not going to be on social media.’ And that’s mental: what are you doing? And all of those bands failed within one or two albums.”
While an engaged audience on social media doesn’t make a good band, that bands eschewed having a presence on these sites is part of what made them feel like relics. There’s nothing cool about being a purist if all it means is you’re not going to use a mobile phone, especially if that’s one of your only selling points. The way bands like Sports Team and Idles use their social media accounts sheds the elitism that previously came from being in a rock band. They’re entertaining and funny: Idles review milk, Sports Team take photos of their multi-instrumentalist Ben Mac. It’s a world away from the clandestine, boring presence of the early 2010s lot.
Rather than making whimsical rock’n’roll for middle class students, these newer groups also often create music that feels of the moment, taking to the issues of the day in a way that comes across as genuine and impassioned. “If you look at the bands that were doing quite well maybe four, five years ago – the Palma Violets and the Peaces – it wasn’t particularly that angry,” says BBC Radio 1 DJ Phil Taggart (and there’s a lot to have been furious about in the last decade). “But now you’ve got bands who are politically engaged and speaking to their audience in a very direct way.”
They’re less likely to be dickheads, too. “The new wave of guitar bands have dropped the 'lad' aspect,” says gig ticketing platform DICE editor, and former NME staffer, Leonie Cooper. “They’re more inclusive, more open – friendlier. You just need to look at the Reading and Leeds line-up this year, the classic home of indie landfill and rock dinosaurs, to see how things have changed. Headliners Kings of Leon aside, the guitar bands are lower down the bill, sure, but they mean more: Pale Waves, Dream Wife, Shame, Wolf Alice, Sunflower Bean…”
Phil and Leonie both cite Idles as one of the new bands who are engaging with music fans in a meaningful way, instead of just attempting to be cool. Describing them over email, Leonie says “they might be shouty, but they're certainly not laddy; they sing about immigration, toxic masculinity and The Great British Bake Off. One of them is literally an NHS dentist. They've got more in common with the art-school likes of Pulp or the political Fugazi than they have Kasabian or Miles Kane and the post-Weller mod crew.”
Part of the shift in British guitar music is arguably down to Fat White Family, who brought politics back into British music, or at least a sense of anger – ”They didn’t sell many records, but they’re an important band,” says Matt. “I don’t think you’d have Shame or Idles doing what they do now without them.”
The new bands have had to get better, too. While the last properly good wave of British groups broke through music forums and MySpace (The Cribs, Arctic Monkeys, etc), thus leading to an influx of not-so-great copycat bands breaking in their wake, the traditional band format never really achieved anything through newer services such as Soundcloud – it just doesn’t cater for them.
“If you're just bashing out three chords on a tatty old guitar, getting yourself all over Bandcamp and YouTube and SoundCloud and Instagram isn't gonna work. You're still going to need to prove yourself on the live circuit and hone your skills,” explains Leonie. “Hence Idles only releasing their debut album last year and breaking through this year: they've been around since 2011, but have been grafting since then. Same with Wolf Alice (who won the Mercury); there were a lot of toilet circuit shows before people started taking notice.”
All of this isn’t to say there’s a full-on resurgence in British guitar music and it will soon take over the world like the Beatles did way back whenever. Rather, it’s no longer stuck in the past: the successful new acts create music that feels up-to-date with the rest of the world in terms of how it’s presented, how much they’ve had to work to get there. There’s an intent to these releases, too – as though bands have finally worked out how to market themself in the world of Spotify and Instagram.
Take the 1975, a prime example of a group that's come around to, and embraced the logic of, streaming – something bands have historically struggled with, as they’re traditionally aligned with the album format rather than loosie singles. As Lauren O'Neill recently wrote about here, the 1975's three most recent tracks move from tropical pop to bombastic rock to thought-provoking confessionals in a way that directly relates to the modern music fans listening habits, appealing to playlist culture. US groups like MGMT and Parquet Courts and Unknown Mortal Orchestra have also released remix albums this year, and UK act Alt-J has followed suit – one other signifier of how bands have cottoned on to how streaming works, how to play the game.
We still haven’t seen that one big band break in the modern music era. The 1975 are close, and everything else feels as if we’re leading toward a new moment somewhere in the future. The genre just feels like a different being, really; as if it’s finally serving a meaningful purpose. Whereas most of the bands of the past belonged in the bin, these newer acts feel as if they have a place among that rotating list of genres and sounds we find ourselves streaming our way between.
At least that’s how I feel, anyway. And so when I’m jumping from Swamp Dogg, to Lana Del Rey, to Travis Scott, I’ll often find myself adding in something by Dreamwife or Sports Team or that new one from Arctic Monkeys, because it’s good purposeful music. Genuine too. Compared to the wave of the last decade or so previous of British guitar music, that’s a refreshing thing to see. Cycle the trends on.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.