THE DEATH OF THE UNDERGROUND
Thinking about poor old Tony Wilson made me muse a bit on whether the 'underground' exists any more. In the punk era, there was an active and thriving national music scene that barely found its way into the mainstream media. Newspapers wrote about punk bands only to excoriate them for being anti-social, rude about the Queen etc; on the radio, you heard them only on John Peel and television, with the improbable exception of Wilson's Granada Reports, ignored them entirely.
Even the records were hard to come by. Some, like the Buzzcocks' epochal Spiral Scratch, were released in small numbers on independent labels; a few, most notably God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols, were banned by many shops. The majority were simply not stocked. As a teenager, I would have to travel 20 miles to Liverpool or 50 to Manchester to have any chance of tracking down a release by the Stooges, the Velvet Underground or the New York Dolls, which were between five and ten years old. Many of these trips ended in failure since the majority of records that were more than a couple of years old were likely to have been deleted.
As a result, the music I and others like me loved developed as a subculture, untouched by the mainstream media and its scarcity made it even more precious to us.
Nowadays, as soon as a band seems to be reaching any sort of critical mass with a young audience, it is pounced on by record labels, newspapers, radio and television. The Arctic Monkeys were the subject of fawning articles in the Guardian before they had released a record and as soon as a single came out, their music was unavoidable on the radio, on TV, even as incidental music for BBC2 programme trails. Impossible to imagine Boredom by the Buzzcocks being used in an advert or as television backing music in the late Seventies. That stuff stayed squarely in its own subcultural back yard.
Now, of course, the media is now full of people in their 30s and 40s, who are much more aware of this sort of stuff than were their equivalents in the Seventies. They (we...) want to be seen to be in touch and trendy and we are fully aware of the importance of appealing to vital 'young demographic'. So we seize on anything that looks young, new and relevant and devour it.
There is more media too; more print space and airtime to fill and, in the era of the internet and MP3s, it's easier and cheaper for bands to get their music to a wide audience. Pop music is much more curated than it was 3o years ago, its history and archives preserved and combed through for forgotten gems. It is infinitely easier to get a copy of Metallic KO by the Stooges (it's available in "Deluxe edition with metallic foil and 12 page booklet", apparently)
today than it was for me in 1977, less than five years after its release.
I wonder what this means to the young. On the one hand, it means that bands like the Arctic Monkeys can reach a lot of people quickly and make a lot of money. On the other, might it mean that they quickly become over exposed and stripped of meaning. And have today's teenagers lost something significant because they have to share their music and culture with 40-year-old men like me? Or have some of them, at least, retreated to an underground and subculture that is unreachable by the middle aged, for now at least?