The people who run rock keep telling us it’s dead. They’re so wrong.
This week, two industry big shots predicted a bleak future for rock'n'roll. Former Guns N' Roses and Great White manager Alan Niven thinks they're wrong, that rock will prevail. Here's why.
Pick a quote:
"Metal got gray, bald and fat. And metal was about danger. When you went to a metal show, it was dudes onstage; there was some danger in it." - Kevin Lyman
"It's time to join Uncle Simon's car dealership down the street." - Peter Mensch
Aww, shit... here we go again. Two more heavy logs for the rock'n'roll funeral pyre, hoisted by two guys I take seriously, two guys who've contributed immensely to the medium over the last thirty to forty years.
Peter is one half of the management firm Q Prime. Metallica and Leppard are just two of Prime’s many successes. I have known them for years. He, and his partner Cliff Burnstein, did me a huge favour in the 80s, one that was essential to the careers of myself, Great White and Guns N’ Roses. They told Capitol that I was affiliated with Q Prime. The cachet of that endorsement gave us greater credibility.
Kevin started the Warped tour and partners with John Reese in the Mayhem tour, a heavy metal super circus that rolls through America every summer. Mayhem is the biggest metal tour of the year. According to Kevin, the numbers for Mayhem are off this year. Advance sales for Phoenix, a 16,000 capacity venue, were less than 5000.
I am no longer of an age in which I feel invincible. Too many of my peers and friends have already permanently disconnected their phones. I do not have endless time to waste. Am I wasting my precious and increasingly defined days supporting the young talent we have committed to? Do I agree with Kevin and Peter?
No. Not for a fraction of a second.
No-one has all the answers and I can only speak from personal experience and observation – but I do know why I do what I do.
Kevin has already reversed himself and apologised to the talent pool he draws from and the punters who buy his tickets. We all say things that we might think better of, especially when under stress and mounting disappointment. Yet Kevin must have thought he had something of a point, and Peter has a highly informed perspective.
The key word in Kevin’s outburst is ‘danger’. I was once asked by Sean Beavan, a Chinese Democracy producer, “how did you get Appetite to sound so dangerous?” I didn’t really understand what he was trying to ask. Sure, AFD sounded raw compared to contemporary radio albums, energetic and dynamic, but the most dangerous sound I can think of is the ker-chunk of a cartridge being slotted into the barrel of a pistol grip pump action twelve gauge. Records do not sound dangerous to me.
They can, however, have a dangerous attitude. The danger lies in the material’s ability to challenge complacency and hypocrisy. Jungle was a scathing comment on contemporary urban conditions. Out Ta Get Me no longer seems paranoid – look at the tax militia who storm troop their way around our streets, kicking in doors and blasting at anything that dares to move. So Easy expressed a profound spiritual ennui sourced directly from the Sunset horizon. Hollywood is where women are used and abused and loyalty is an ephemeral quality. L.A. is no Paradise City. AFD expressed a healthy contempt for aspects of our urban existence, and it was a battle cry for the individual, most especially the disenfranchised silhouette – even the souls of urchins from under the street are of the same worth as those of the entitled Beverly Hills corporate upper crust.
You wanna know why AFD exploded like a fifty gallon drum of kerosene hit by an RPG-7? A tsunami of working class kids responded – "fuck yeah! Axl’s one of us and he’s our voice." They could recognise themselves in the Rose’s attitude, perhaps even more so than Peter’s loveable and polite Leppards. Here was a gang of Hetfields, and better, “they smoked their cigarettes with style.” They seemed to be the real McCoy.
Now Mayhem’s problems are Mayhem’s problems as far as I am concerned – you can’t take that many bands into the same markets year after year and not expect there not to be some exercise of diminishing return — no matter how well you organise and run the tour. Furthermore, as regards the size of a festival bill, consider the maxim that expansion causes complexity and complexity becomes decay. All empires eventually fall. In their wake they leave the highlights of the moments past, and for me, that would be seeing Lemmy again. Coachella, by the way, has been contracted until 2030 by the Indio town council. Maybe they will get there and maybe they will be swallowed whole by the artificial euphorics of Tomorrowland and its insect EDM.
Rock'n'roll’s problems are twofold – first there is relevance, and secondly there is subterfuge.
Relevance is marginalized by the age of affluent technology – the freakin’ cell phones that everyone and their mother have become umbilically attached to. Social relevance is now determined by Facebook and how many Goddamn ‘likes’ your bathroom selfies get – not the fact that you've just bought the new Wailer’s album. Social connection is defined by the number of ‘friends’ you have on your three-inch screen. If we all still met in record stores, we’d not even say hello – we’d be too busy checking our e-mails to notice the others there.
Still, when 16,000 are prepared to go to a show and brave temperatures around 100 degrees and cough up $12 for a beer to gargle the desert dust down the gullet, then I do not fear that the appetite for rock n roll and the rock community has disappeared. What I do see is that there is, presently, no charismatic individual personifying the angers and frustrations of our lives. What I see is that everyone is prepared to sell out everything at any time. Sponsorship is King Midas and the spirit of rock is in reverse.
There is much for us to be angry about. Annually we kowtow to the re-distribution of wealth – we pay our taxes – for the benefit of The Pentagon and the corporate interests that own our government. Boeing, General Electric and Verizon are among the many huge corporations that pay no Federal taxes. The tax militia (I have stopped calling them ‘the police’) rolls over our streets in army surplus and blow people away with abandon. 1984? It's here, Bubba, more deeply rooted and more pervasive than Orwell could ever imagine. See it on your CCTV.
And the powers that be don’t like dissent. Consequently they allowed a Texan organization to gain a monopolistic stranglehold on American terrestrial radio – Clear Channel centralizes and constricts programming. There will be no repeat of 1968. The will be no Street Fighting Man to encourage protest. The IRS changed their laws in the mid 1990s to prevent record companies from writing off their lost speculations on potential talent. “You got a Dylan in yer basement making tapes? Well, he can stay there.” The old music business systems have been dismantled or broken down.
But then that may not all be bad. Forest fires regenerate. J.G. Ballard pointed out that even catastrophe can be seen as the portal to re-invention and renewal. Maybe rock'n'roll needs to be crawling from the wreckage every now and then.
As regards lost record sales, there were a myriad of powerful voices in rock'n'roll well before the explosion of record sales in the 1970s.
Ballard also believes that small is beautiful. You don’t need to have every band on your bill and you don’t need to play every arena. You don’t have to sell out to corporate sponsors.
There are now no major record companies supplying tour support, promoting tracks to terrestrial radio and loaning you video money. The three major labels left are not interested in ‘artist development’ anymore. Pop is less cost intensive to market and it suits the consciousness of the cell phone age of total commercialisation. So what. There has always been a predominant pop market, and rock'n'roll was always the bastard cousin of the entertainment industry.
Differentiate between entertainers and artists. Listen for the underground
Yes, rock'n'roll is in a fallow period. There are rhythms to all of life. Ken Berry, who later went on to run EMI worldwide, told me, in 1980, that the business was moribund and “that only ‘The Wall’ was selling.” We’ve been here before.
Finally, If rock'n'roll is dead, why do I have a bunch of 14-year-olds in my house telling me ‘Maiden is the shit!’ and asking ‘can we borrow your Strats?’ My youngest son and his friends are at an age where I should be rejected, with derision, as old and in the way. They should be entirely engrossed in the latest X Box Kill ‘Em All game. Instead they want to know who Jason Becker is. They want to know what the Federal Reserve is. That kind of depth of curiosity denotes intelligence and passion.
That kind of passion in a fourteen-year-old Indiana boy had consequence.