Ya spend years, bleeding, sweating, crying, doing everything you can to put a voice and a face to your heart, to move your music into the spotlight and hold it there for as long as you possibly can. But with the merciless flick of a switch, the spotlight’s gone, the fat lady has sung. The guitars and drums are filed away in their flight cases, stuffed, like coffins, into the spare room, gathering a sorry veneer of dust, until the day you begrudgingly sell them because you need the space; the dream finally over. Closure. Perhaps.
Recently, in a fit of “Where are they now?,” I spent undeniably too much time looking up the monthly listeners and streams on Spotify of bands who, throughout the ’90s, were unavoidable in UK’s biggest weekly music magazines, NME and Melody Maker – the bands for which all stops were pulled out to convince us that, yes, this really is the next big thing. 60ft Dolls, Ultrasound, Birdland, These Animal Men, Northern Uproar, bis, Menswear, Geneva, S*M*A*S*H, My Life Story, Marion, – the list goes on and on – those groups who really did seem to enjoy a mere fifteen minutes of fame, invariably peaking with a support to Pulp in Milton Keynes. Not that Spotify should ever be considered a measurement of quality, of course, though it is useful to assess relative unpopularity.
Of course, I partially empathise. At the height of Britpop, I formed a deeply unfashionable lo-fi, experimental collective called Piano Magic, inspired as much by pre-‘Autobahn’ Kraftwerk as Disco Inferno and Tod Dockstader. The plan was most definitely not to be on the cover of magazines (in fact, it was a shock when we were mentioned at all), not to support Pulp, not to even play live. Even so, much thanks to John Peel, Melody Maker, NME and The Wire, there we were, suddenly visible. For the next twenty years, there were a handful of spikes in that visibility – we signed to a reputable label (4AD), recorded an arty film soundtrack, played at several name European festivals and toured everywhere, most repeatedly, across Spain and Italy. Yet, when we finally disbanded, in December 2016, despite a sizable trail of records and gigs, you might not know we ever existed.
In 2008, an article in The Guardian by David McNamee, with the headline, “No-one’s Ever Heard Of My All-time Favourite Band.”
“Since 1996 there have been more than 30 standalone Piano Magic releases, but whenever I mention the name to friends or colleagues I get blank stares. Having an obscurity as your favourite band is only valuable to elitists if that band is known well enough to not be uncool. Not if no one has heard them. Maybe this is why I’ve found it so hard to convince editors to run features on the already publicity-shy Piano Magic. At this level, a band’s obscurity becomes self-perpetuating.”
Were we willfully obscure? In truth, not entirely. We just weren’t what, particularly, the UK press or radio (Peel aside), were looking for in the nineties/noughties. Our music was virtually unproduced, we had a penchant for rambling, seven minute, bleeding heart instrumentals, we were a jeans ‘n’ t-shirt band. Our albums invariably cost less than a thousand pounds to record and we released them on small, foreign boutique labels.
On the Continent, things were very different. There were actual promo days in Spain and France, where we ricocheted from one interview to another. I don’t think we ever turned down an interview in twenty years. Our songs were on the radio, sometimes in the daytime; we recorded radio sessions and even played tv a few times (for which we happily wore make-up). Back home, virtually no-one wanted to talk to us. At our lowest ebb, in November 2000, we played to 5 people in Manchester, none of whom were there to see us – they just happened to be in the bar that night. Our moody instrumental slowcore lost out to the infuriating ping of pinball machines.
There is, of course, a big difference between the descent of a band that isn’t particularly bothered and one that craves fame with every bone in their body. One night, you’re packing out the Astoria – a year later, almost everyone except your hardcore fans, has forgotten you ever existed. At worse, you’re now derided. Your records, mottling in garages before finally ending up at the local flea-market for 50p or less. The 7″ single is dead. NME and Melody Maker are dead. Your amp is dead.
Sometimes, of course, the bands pump themselves up once more and bounce back. They reform, be it for money, for the benefit of their last handful of nostalgic stans clinging desperately to their fading memories of youth or simply because, well, they miss it. There’s nothing more boring than middle age, particularly when you’ve spent two or three years in the glorious limelight of sycophancy. But these reformations invariably don’t work (or last) for a multitude of reasons. Times have changed, all those journalists and radio DJs have moved on or, in some cases, even passed away. The kids these days, thankfully, have different tastes. They don’t want your thrashy, three chord indie pop. They want something more sophisticated, that speaks to them in 2022, not from a decade they never knew. You don’t have the energy to be lugging guitars to murky rehearsal rooms across the other side of the city. You look in the mirror and where once was a budding popstar, there’s a bitter husk of one.
For some, however, those handful of fans are enough to have you ironing your stage keks once again. The prospect of making a new album still excites. The venues might not be as big as they used to be and god knows, the money barely covers your taxi fare home but you feel you still have something to say. “We’ll be a cult band when I’m dead,” you tell yourself. “We’ll be like Felt.” Now just isn’t your time. You need to be buried by the years and at some point, excavated before being truly appreciated for the genius that you were.
What’s one to think of more successful bands like (The) Pixies? Disbanded in 1993, reformed in 2004 and haven’t stopped playing live or making new records ever since. It’s easy and cynical to assume that the lure of the festival dollar was just too much for them but perhaps they really did think their creative well had not yet quite run dry. Even so, increasingly successful between 1988 and 1993, time has told that, both live and on record, their golden age was then, not now. My beloved Go-Betweens, commercially unengaged, pulled down the shutters in 1989, opened them again in 2000 and made progressively finer albums until Grant McLennan’s death in 2006 (‘Oceans Apart’ is up there with their best). LCD Soundsystem had a nap for just four years before returning with the rather good, ‘American Dream.’ The list of returnees goes on and on and all, I’m sure, thinking, “I am not over. I have more to give.”
What do I miss? I miss the travel to wonderful places I’d never expected to go. I miss the people I met in those places. I miss the chemistry between the audiences and the band which, on some nights, seemed to almost levitate the whole building into space. I miss the volume that venues afford. I miss the camaraderie of the band members, drivers and tour managers – you’re like a specialist military unit, sent in to do a dirty job no-one else wanted. Fame, sex, drugs were never why I got into this and comparative to some bands I know, that proved to be a good thing. I really did believe in the music we were making, that we were genuinely touching people. Unashamedly, I can say it’s sad to acknowledge that those moments can never be repeated, that my time in a band is over. That, from here, it is, quite probably all downhill. It’s no wonder that this depressing decline is enough to have some artists anxiously unclicking the catches on their flight cases once more.