FEATURE: The Velvets, The Libs, And Saving British Guitar Music

the velvet underground nico

Written for DIY

“For me, the most important thing to do was to do something that nobody could imitate,” said John Cale of the Velvet Underground on 6Music last week. They certainly achieved that – ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ was unlike anything else around at the time. I emphasise: at the time.

With forty-odd years of musical history then and now, it’s a little hard to see that – like how it’s weird to think people thought the make-up in ‘Planet of the Apes’ was amazing when we now have ‘Avatar’ – because everyone and their sister is biting on Cale, Reed et al’s sound. Actually, maybe that’s not quite right. Everyone is, in fact, biting on The Libertines’ sound – which was biting on the Velvet Underground’s sound.

Last week was also the 10th anniversary of ‘Up The Bracket’, which some hail as being as much of defining and influential record on British guitar music as ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ was on music as a whole. Carl Barât learned to play guitar along to that first Velvets album; both he and Pete Doherty lived a similar hand-to-mouth existence as many of Lou Reed’s characters; they liked the distortion and bad tunings; they looked good in leather jackets. The Libertines took all the superficial aspects of the Velvets, and none of the desire to do something new. Apparently by doing that, they “saved” British guitar music from…whatever came after Britpop.

Since then, the Libertines have also spawned endless imitators, and we’ve been obsessed with deciding which of them is the new “saviour” of British guitar music – from the Others down through the Vaccines – as they each draw from the same, quickly-emptying well as the Libs. Why do we care?

These bands aren’t overly concerned with coming up with anything new; it’s all scrappy, over-driven garage rock. That’s why this sort of guitar music keeps going in and out of fashion – cos it can so easily be bloody boring. But it’s also reassuring, comforting, in its lack of originality – like spag bol. You can’t do much with it, and you’d get bored if you had it all the time, but it is pretty tasty.

The thing is, we’re being force-fed it on a fairly regular basis. Sure, there’s the odd transcendent moment – the Arctic Monkeys first album easily falls into a long-standing rock tradition, but they hopped off that treadmill by buggering off to LA – but for the most part we’re left with a landfill of doss. Doss that, because it looks a bit like the Libertines (and The Velvets), is given the time of day when it wouldn’t otherwise (see: The Enemy).

There is hope for the next “saviours” of British guitar music, mind: the much-hyped Palma Violets have as much ink spilled over them as the Doherty and Barât, and have many of the same trappings (e.g. guerrilla house party gigs, breathless write-ups of such) are, thankfully, a little more open-minded, still keeping their guitars way into the red, but drawing on aspects of garage rock other than than that and the leather jackets as they take in the elements of psychedelia and pop. If we’re gonna keep looking for the next big British rock band, we could do worse than them.

Meanwhile, if you want a truly original new album by a British artist, why not give John Cale’s ‘Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood’ a spin? Forty years on and still looking for the next new thing. There’s an inspirational musician.

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  1. […] are also plundering the music of the bands whose aesthetic signifiers they’re half-inching, so we just end up with retrograde copies of the Velvet Underground, on repeat, forever. Again, I’m not saying that you necessarily need to innovate or do something completely new […]



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