Fat White Family’s blend of class war and (previous) substance abuse reminds Aidan Smith of the good-old days of rock ’n’ roll excess.
Like Casper the Friendly Ghost, like the Prohibition mobster opening his violin case and pulling out an actual violin and, yes, like the political party leader who practises what he preaches in his election manifesto, the do-gooding rock star is a bit of a misnomer.
Do we want our rock ’n’ rollers to eat their greens, be kind to animals, say their prayers and be early to bed, with the risk that might produce bed-wetting music?
Maybe I’m showing my age (again) but when I used to devour all three “inkies” on a Wednesday morning in the sixth-year common-room before double French – that’s Melody Maker, the New Musical Express and Sounds for all you printed word-disavowing kids out there – tales of rock bacchanalia were thrilling indeed. Brown M&Ms being removed from tour riders! TV sets being removed from hotel rooms and flung into swimming pools far below the penthouse suites! Red snappers being removed from seas or more likely pet-store aquariums to become sex toys!
Back then we wanted our rock idols to be wild and crazy guys and gals because we were going into further education or, gadzooks, putting on a wide-lapelled suit from C&A to enter the proper, grown-up, pension-linked world of work. In late adolescence, responsible and serious, we needed to know that some people out there were being irresponsible and silly, so we could follow their excesses from the second back row of the “gods” and cheer them all the way to their 27th birthdays and, if they were lucky, beyond that.
‘He’s very polite’
But look at rockers now. Recently I took my son to his first-ever gig: George Ezra at Glasgow’s Hydro. As other dads have pointed out, I got off lightly. Ezra has a big, bluff baritone voice and some inoffensive and catchy songs. But it was the between-numbers stuff which surprised me and, even more surprising, considering he’s only 12 and had nothing with which to compare the evening, my laddie.
“He’s very polite, isn’t he, Dad?” said Archie. And indeed he was. Ezra told us the story behind every ditty, the who and the where and the when. At the conclusion of each song he thanked us – profusely. I wondered if he might ask for all our addresses so he could confirm his gratitude with little notes. The contrast with the gigs of my youth couldn’t have been greater. Rock idols from that time were way too cool, sullen, rude, arrogant and egomaniacal to acknowledge the audience’s presence.
And look, too, at Coldplay. The biggest act in the world have just released their new album and say they won’t be touring it because they don’t want to reduce the planet’s life expectancy by jetting from one sold-out mega-show to another.
This gesture demonstrates a flagrant disregard for rock-star behaviour of old. At the zenith of their fame, but as creative powers were beginning to dull, these monster bands from 1970s would travel separately – limos and private planes – because in their drug-addled paranoia they couldn’t stand the sight of each other.
Now, it’s easy to knock Coldplay. Goodness knows I’ve done it often enough myself. Those safe, snug, soaring, lighters-aloft melodies. Those bland, generic, cliche-drenched, one-size-fits-all lyrics, as likely to help a cold-caller in Caracas get over being dumped as have a Hemel Hempstead human resources manager exclaim: “How come they’re so accurately chronicling my despair? They must be spying on me!”
A merry band of dissolutes
Chris Martin and his chums in the band will now try and work out how to make global gigging sustainable. It’s reckoned that in the UK live music generates 405,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. When Coldplay last toured the world, singing that infernally earmwormy song about ruling the world (and “walls closing in” and “pillars of salt” and “foreign fields”), the crew was 109-strong split over a fleet of 32 trucks.
Mere hours after Coldplay’s bold declaration, I was watching Fat White Family play Edinburgh University. This merry band of dissolutes, formed in a squat, have headed down a very un-Coldplayish route involving class war and crack cocaine. “Every one of us had a serious hard drug or drink problem” was the kind of admission enabling the seven-piece to stagger off with the title of “Britain’s unhealthiest band”. But they’ve since got clean – the funniest music interview I read all year was the Fat Whites in a sauna – and produced their best album. Ironically they’ve gone pop as Coldplay have gone political and, for the first time, required parent-advisory stickers.
But the thing is, Fat White Family will always have to tour. Hundreds of bands like them will have to keep chugging up and down motorways, and taking to the air if their fame spreads further. Touring is no longer an obligation; it’s a necessity. Groups can’t make good rock ’n’ roll money from record sales and even less from streaming so they criss-cross in their charabancs endlessly – the polite rockers and the impolite ones, the middle-class and possibly posho-trust-funder types and of course the insurgents.
Not everyone can be in Coldplay or would want to be. Yes, their last tour was the fourth highest-grossing of all time with £400 million in ticket sales. But they’ve sold 100 million albums to date and so can afford to take this stand. I feel that for once I should give them a break. Right-on rockers have been soft targets for a good bit before and a long while after U2’s Bono implored his guitarist: “Channel the sound of El Salvador through your speakers, Edge.” Coldplay are at least trying to square the circle of how a globally successful band with a gigantic carbon footprint continue to perform.
Obviously, like Bono and Chris, I don’t want the planet to die (duh!). But I don’t want gigging to end either. I mean, that would be the end of the world!