A Sign Of The Times: Considering The State Of British Rock Music
Main Image: "The Family Tree Of British Rock" / Bruce Burton
It was 2 AM on a Monday morning on the Isle of Wight, and the lights of the Ferris wheel had just shut off in the distance. The only light came from smartphone flashlights as the cold worked its way into the dark. I was walking back to my campsite with two others, navigating the empty bottles littering the floor. The three of us were suitably drunk after a day of music and festivities, the annual Isle of Wight Festival in its dying hours, each of us clinging onto it with idle conversations as our final cans steadily emptied.
Person No.1: “It’s been alright this year, maybe not as good as last year. We ended that one singing karaoke with a couple from Tennessee.”
Person No.2: “They insisted on singing ‘Wonderwall.”
Person No.1: “Yeah. I just wish that there was more rock music on this year.”
Me: “Wasn’t there?”
Person No.1: “Not as many big names anyhow. It’s because of the scene over here, there just aren’t enough good rock bands around anymore..”
Me: “Hey, hold up, really?”
My ensuing argument in defense of the genre, fuelled by whiskey and hindered by exhaustion, was not an entirely convincing one. I walked back to my tent knowing I could have done more to defend the state of British rock music, and committed myself to pondering it properly when I woke up the next morning (depending on the state of my hangover). Taking the ferry back to the mainland, I scrolled through my beat up iPod, searching for a couple of artists with the potential to support a subsequent continuation of the conversation. I didn’t find as many as I’d hoped to.
There are bands confined within that beaten-up piece of technology flying the flag for British rock music, but there are also plenty who’ve softened the genre and found success all the same. In progressing from the early 00’s to the present day, I found that mainstream rock music often carries many pop sentimentalities, and indie-rock as a genre seems to have eclipsed a core ‘rock’ ethos. The emphasis is certainly on the ‘mainstream’ - British rock existing strong outside of it, and weak within.
Looking at the likes of Coldplay and You Me At Six it’s easy to see why this brand of modern, diluted guitar music sells so well, but the music often lacks the grit that some would associate with true rock. The likes of Catfish and the Bottlemen, Drenge, and Fat White Family are giving it a good go, but these bands aren’t natural successors to The Stone Roses or The Strokes, borrowing more so from the American stylings of the latter.
With Arctic Monkeys also Americanized in recent years with the help of Josh Holm, and the likes of The Libertines not quite their former selves, British rock seems to be enjoying an extended period of dilution.
As a twenty-two-year-old raised on the likes of The Who, Kasabian, Muse (pre-The Resistance) and Blur, there is very little about the current scene which appeals to me in the same way. If I want to listen to indie, then I’m spoilt for choice, but it seems increasingly difficult to find rock music which resonates with me in the same way that my childhood heroes did.
In recent years, I’ve watched Muse lose their edge and have noted Bring Me The Horizon’s increasingly electronic influence both diminishing their heaviness and upping their popularity. Rock music still exists in this dimension, but there’s an increasing temptation to classify these bands as alternative-rock, which is essentially rock music with bells on. Indie-rock and pop-rock become subgenres enjoying increased popularity with the youth of today, but in terms of big riffs and anthemic choruses, the spark isn’t quite there. For the most part, indie is enough, although it leaves rock as a stand-alone genre clawing at the edge of the abyss. If it keeps guitars on the radio, then things are far from dire, but in terms of something more, there is only the absence of it.
The survival of British rock music depends on the aesthetic of its creator or the market into which it enters. With this market currently dictated by audiences more favorable of pop music, rock music becomes less marketable and therefore more liable to a decline. It’s easier to sell a One Direction record than a Wolf Alice record, even though a Wolf Alice record is likely to be infinitely better.
Manchester lot The 1975 blend the two dynamics well, and subsequently find a comfortable balance between pop and rock, finding success both in the UK and stateside with their formula. The recent homegrown success of bands like Royal Blood, The 1975 and Wolf Alice is certainly a step towards a resurgence of sorts, but it becomes hard to capitalize on that interest when the chart itself is awash with pop and hip-hop.
For every Kasabian, there is a dozen Katy Perry’s, and for every half-decent riff, there are a hundred auto-tuned choruses and dubstep wobbles. For every genuine rock band arising from the underground, there are an unfortunate number of manufactured X-Factor hopefuls acquiring a free ticket. It has been that way for many a year now and seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
It’s a shame because there’s certainly an audience, should rock music find a way back into the mainstream. In terms of aggression, there is a whole nation currently angry, with the government in shambles and politics in disarray. In response to this turmoil, rock music offers an input and an outlet for that anger - long since embodied by punk bands along the lines of The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Maybe it’s time that the radio stopped trying to make us smile, and instead gave us something to collectively sink our teeth into.
Unfortunately, for the modern rock listener, there’s little hope of a mainstream comeback, and so rock must adapt, or continue to exist on the peripherals of the music masses. Such is the way it is. There is certainly hope, no mistake - at the Isle Of Wight Festival I see plenty of rock bands delivering - the likes of The Strypes, Sheafs and The Blinders, all youth on the come-up. It seems, though, that their rise can only go so far in terms of sales, audience, and success. Granted, these three things have always been secondary for rock musicians, but the incentive to enter into the genre is lessened, as is the exposure that these young artists have in terms of influence.
For half a decade or so, Scottish rockers Biffy Clyro have been this primary influence, a shining example for the youth, and continue to be so, encouraging kids nationwide to grab a guitar and play a few chords. Aside from Biffy, there aren’t too many artists spearheading the genre in the same way, or who have been privy to the same levels of success.
Consider that Biffy’s rise to mainstream popularity in the early 2010’s was due partly to X-Factor winner Matt Cardle’s cover of ‘Many Of Horror’ and the band’s legacy carries a slight black spot. Thankfully, these days you’re far more likely to hear the original when browsing supermarket aisles than the cash-grab cover. Amongst the masses of mainstream music, it becomes increasingly difficult to find something akin to organic rock music, the genre drowned out by those more privy to radio airplay.
The alternative labels provide homes for rock music, and the likes of Holy Roar Records, Roadrunner Records, and Big Scary Monsters are taking steps to maintain the presence of British rock music on the borders of the mainstream; the selected discography for each organization is absolutely a mark of intent. There are places for rock music, and they’re good places.
For those willing to search for quality in places such as these, it does exist in abundance, hidden elsewhere on radio station C-lists and in the categorical collection of Spotify. Through exploration, rock is alive, but its voice has been greatly diminished over the course of the past decade. Streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music become the most accessible ways to find new music in the current climate, the sites ‘Recommendations’ feature a frequent goldmine.
What Britain has in terms of rock music is of worthwhile consideration, no doubt, but in terms of exposure, it pales in comparison to generic pop or radio-friendly indie. The high profile days of David Bowie, The Kinks and The Beatles are long gone, and nothing of the same widespread appeal has filled the spaces left in their wake. It’s disheartening, but little more than that at present.
There is cause for concern, but there’s also plenty of evidence that rock music is not dead, even if it is dying. In 2017 alone, we can expect excellent records from the likes of Big Spring, Marmozets, Radiohead, Wolf Alice and Arcane Roots, and each is set to be stellar.
There will always be a space for rock, but the genre has been shape-shifting constantly since its introduction to the British public in the 1950s - from psychedelic rock to metal to indie to pop-punk to new wave, and so on. It shall persist and change again, but it will always remain. Maybe I could have tried to explain that to my new friends at 2 AM that morning, but I’m not entirely sure that they would have followed.