How To Have A Long Career In Music

The Rolling Stones. Image found at clashmusic.com

Look, Jerry Garcia famously said that if you stick around for long enough, you become respectable. Well, this is what I reckon: I reckon that it's possible to identify seven different models for long musical careers. I've attempted to fit existing bands into these molds whilst, simultaneously, I've speculated as to where the careers of "relatively new" bands might go. Of course, it's not exhaustive. This isn't "the ultimate" list. Of course it's not definitive. What do I look like to you? A Pitchfork journalist? Jesus...

As is usually the case with this blog, there are a number of disclaimers to get out of the way first. Primarily, I feel the need to once more point out that my view is somewhat limited to Western musicians who dabble in that which can loosely be categorised as "rock and pop". Look, I'll be the first to decry my blinkered view of the world, but excuse me for only listening to that which I enjoy. Secondly, it must be noted that all perspectives are from today - the right here, right now. I look at the career of bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones with the benefit of hindsight, whereas careers such as those of Muse and Coldplay are still subject to change. To put it bluntly - all of this is purely speculative and in no way academic. OK? OK.

Allow me, then, to share my musings. Ladies and gentlemen, a loose selection of long term musical career models:

1. The Steady Formation of an Intimidating Back Catalogue of Almost Unwavering Quality - The CRITICAL DARLING MODEL.
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The ultimate example of this model would, I think, be Dylan. Frankly, it's incredible that an artist can still produce a startling trilogy of albums (Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft, Modern Times) after fifty years or so of restless creativity. This model, though, is identifiable by virtue of the fact that even ignoring greatest hits collections, it remains easy for a newcomer to the artist's music to start listening. Out of Dylan's thirty four (thirty four!) studio albums, for instance, it's obvious that you'll start with Highway 61, Blood On The Tracks or Bringing It All Back Home and just take it from there.

More contemporary examples of this career model are everywhere. I'm not, you understand, proclaiming for any of the following to be "the new Dylan". Rather, I just feel that their ratios of length of career vs. quality of output are comparable. Also, it's still possible for newcomers to make that all important "headway". I speak of Sonic Youth (starting with Daydream Nation, Goo, Dirty), The Flaming Lips (Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi etc), Yo La Tengo (I Can Hear The Heart..., I Am Not Afraid of You... or even last year's Popular Songs) and Stereolab (Emperor Tomato Ketchup or any of the Switched On compilations).

The Super Furry Animals and The Animal Collective seem well on their way to fitting within this model and, having heard the marvellous Congratulations, I am hoping against hope that it's here where we will one day be able to place MGMT. I know it's only their second album, buy my GOD is it good.

2. The Rapid Formation of an Intimidating, Uncompromising Body Of Work in which Newcomers are Left to Flounder - The MARK E SMITH MODEL
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This one can be summed up pretty succintly with a simple question: Where in God's name are you supposed to begin with The Fall?! Producing, as they do, about an album a year; and with live shows which seem to disregard anything more than five years old, it's almost as if they're adverse to the idea of "the casual fan".

Similar things can be said of the work of Frank Zappa. Although one could, in theory, start with Hot Rats or a Mothers of Invention album, in practice anything from his canon is but the tip of an almighty iceberg of satirical music-hall burlesque and seemingly hundreds of exploratory live albums.

Put simply, these are artists whose very productivity is at once their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. It endears them to a few but alienates them from many, many more. In this category I'm afraid we'll one day be able to slot Ryan Adams, Bonnie "Prince" Billy and, should he ever get over his current crises of confidence, Sufjan Stevens.

3. The Mystery, the Seldom Releasing of Albums, the Legions of Followers, the Complete Creative Control - The TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE MODEL
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These are bands and musicians who seem to exist in their own little world - only sporadically releasing albums, yet still managing to retain always their status as one of the biggest bands on the planet. The reigns are long, the respect unwavering. People don't seem to lose interest in them whilst they're gone. Rather, they pine - they pine for their return, and tell themselves that there's a very good reason for their not being here - they're at work on their next masterpiece!

It might be a controversial move to place Radiohead in this category, but I honestly can never see their reign coming to an end. The same can be said of Tool, in many ways their metallic counterparts. Years in the wilderness and albums on which, you get the impression, they're allowed to do whatever they want with little to no major label interference. It may have taken them a while to get to where they are now - and it might be the case that they had to crawl through several rivers of shit to get there - but, once arrived, there's no leaving.

And it's in this model that I really hope that we'll be able to one day fit, with confidence, Elbow. Think about it. With all four of their albums the acclaim has been almost universal. With 2008's Leader's of the Free World, the acclaim seemed finally to translate into mass adoration with some gargantuan live shows and, of course, the winning of the Mercury Prize. Unless, for whatever reason, they just disappear, where can they go next but here?

4. The Repeated Failure to Recapture the Glory Days and Loss of Artistic Integrity Coupled with Being the Biggest Band in the World - the POISONED CHALICE MODEL
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From here, it looks as though the only escape from The Rolling Stones is death. Their glory days are long, long, long behind them. And yet, they continue to record, release and tour. Over and over and over - each subsequent record, release and tour a further tarnishing of the legacy.

The same can be said of U2. Who'd want to be in U2? They'll probably never stop being the biggest band in the world, but still, the pressure's on - each tour must be bigger than the last. Meanwhile, in attempting to capture exactly that which made people love them in the first place, each successive album becomes blander, less exciting, than that which it follows.

These are bands who will probably never be "cool" again, but will always be huge. Curiously, though, the bigger they get, the less serious it seems they are taken by their peers. But of course, if that many people like them, they can't be any good, right? Who'd be in U2...

This is exactly the path down which Oasis had been heading since about 1995 before they did the sensible thing and split up. I fear, though, that my beloved Coldplay and Muse will one day descend down this slippery slope.

5. The Sad Disbanding of Everybody's Favourites Out Of Whose Ashes Emerge Such Fruit, Such Joy - the EVERY CLOUD MODEL
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How did the world react when The Beatles decided to call it a day? If young girls everywhere burst into inconsolable tears at the initial disbanding of Take That, are we to infer that mass suicides occured when the original Fab Four parted ways? I hope not. Surely the prospect of fruitful careers from 3/4 of the band's lineup would, ultimately, have served to ease the pain.

Yes, these are beloved bands whose disbandment sparks no end of joyous side-projects and solo careers. For contemporary examples, look to At The Drive-In; who, upon disbanding, became Sparta and The Mars Volta and also paved the way for the impossibly prolific output of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez (whose repertoire is now sliding into Category 2). Similarly, I was most distraught when The Beta Band split in 2004. However, I'd've been considerably less so had I known that this would lead to the resurgence of Lone Pigeon, two excellent albums by The Aliens and the ever-exciting solo work of Steve Mason.

See also, The Smiths, out of which came Morrissey's intriguing solo career and a number of interesting Johnny Marr colloborations. You could also, I suppose, lump in Uncle Tupelo, from whom we get Son Volt, Wilco and every other Jeff Tweedy project. Finally, we have Spacemen 3 to thank for Spectrum, Sonic Boom and the almighty Spiritualized.

As far as this model's concerned, though, there always exists the possibility of reformation. In such circumstances, there's the danger of...

6. Post Solo-Work and Side-Projects, the Reformation of Initial Band for Nostalgia, Money etc. - the CASH COW MODEL.

What happened to The Pixies? They used to be cool. When they reformed circa 2004, I, like everyone, was so excited. And they were electric when I saw them. But, recently, Frank Black went on record in saying that they were now only in it for the money. Well, fair enough, a man's got to eat, and you could in some way justify this in saying that the more money they make, the more we get to hear from his solo output and from Kim Deal's The Breeders - in these two pursuits their hearts seem truly to lie. But, c'mon, how is anybody supposed to connect with their live shows now that we know that they're treating it as a day in the office?

Still, could be worse. At least they're not John Lydon.

In this slot I was afraid that the reunions of The Verve and Blur would represent moves into pasteurs greener. However, with The Verve having disappeared again (and with an incoming Richard Ashcroft solo album), I suppose they're safe. As for Blur, their performance of Tender at Glastonbury last year quenches any cynical notions I might ever have harboured. Concurrently, Graham Coxon has his solo career, Damon Albarn just headlined Coachella with Gorillaz, Alex has his cheese, Dave his constituency and clients... 

The Velvet Underground briefly flitted with this model in 1993. Now, however, John Cale appears to loathe Lou Reed once more. All, therefore, is right in the universe again.

As for future entries into this model, well - we'll all have to keep our eyes on Suede, won't we? Personally, I'll reserve all criticism until after I've had my spellbound live experience.

7. The Cult Fanbase, the Steady Production of New Material, the Fevrent Live Shows, the Notion that You'll Never Transcend This - the CRUSTY MODEL
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There exists a large number of bands who just don't give up, ever. They might once have been cool, they might once have been huge, but those days are gone - long gone. Nevertheless, they plough on. Either this is because they're those restless creative types and they're simply incapable of doing anything else, or because they feel they owe a debt to whomever still "dares" call themselves a fan.

These bands are demonised by such fickle sources such as NME and Pitchfork, and a lot of them can be found on the Glastonbury line-up year after year. For me, it represents an ideal, of sorts. Imagine being in a state whereby you're readily able to recognise that people really do appreciate your work whilst retaining your right to privacy, your ability to walk down the street unmolested! Also, not featuring in any "tastemaker" publications, you'll be able to safely say that anybody who calls themselves a fan does so out of genuine love for your music rather than out of a fickle notion of "indie cool". In many ways, not being cool is a blessing.

Bands of this ilk seem to exist on three scales: Small, Medium and Large. On the small scale you can find such heroes as British Sea Power, Oceansize, I Am Kloot and The Electric Soft Parade. In the middle you'll find such luminaries as The Waterboys, The Coral, Doves and The Levellers. Finally, in the big league are your Stereophonics, your Snow Patrols, your Simple Minds...

Bands like Athlete, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Starsailor - I really hope that they recognise their fan-bases and their apparent love for making music and plough on. I really, really hope that they do. The notion of still being able to count on them in ten years or so is genuinely endearing.


Ten Really Exciting Pieces of Music

Blitzkrieg Bop by The Ramones. God Save The Queen by The Sex Pistols. Faster by The Manic Street Preachers. Something by The Prodigy. And Pendulum. Possibly Hadouken!, too, I don't know. Caught By The Fuzz.

Exciting, energising music that never lets up. The furious downward strummed barre-chords and relentless bass of The Ramones and, of course, the rallying cry of "hey, ho, let's go" - in certain circumstances and at certain volumes, it can be so exhilarating that it's hard not to fall over. When such vitriolic intent is coupled with furious "social commentary" - as is the case with "The Pistols" and "The Manics" - well, you start to get the impression that anything's possible.

Today, however, I'm looking for music that's exciting in a slightly different way. Those songs as listed above would happily soundtrack a riot - think of burning flags, crumbling banks, molotov cocktails - or, if you're feeling in any way less anarchic, just imagine jumping over your garden wall and, without the slightest break in your step, running full pelt down the street to the cornershop where you scream your order of Red Bull and Pro-Plus.

Today, however, I'm looking for songs that are exciting in ways that the human brain might fail to grasp to the point that initial reactions range from vomiting through to hysteria via paralysis. 

Of course, these songs being but the product of the human brain itself, few have any real hope of coming close to this hyper-reality for which I'm striving. Be that as it may, some of these songs are the products of very special human brains. 

These songs are urgent. They're intense. The overall feel is rousing. The only reason I didn't use "Ten Rousing Pieces of Music" as a title is that, in such a context, "rousing" might be taken to refer to some kind of knees-up. "Exciting", though, is a lot more elastic a term. If you were to hear of an asteroid making its inexorable progress Earthward, you'd be terrified to incapacity. However, a part of you would also be deeply, deeply excited.

These songs are exciting in that I don't think they'd be at all out of place blaring through the headphones of the four horsemen. Surprisingly, though, there's not really much in the way of metal. You think there would be, really, but there you go. Also, as is usually the case with me, things are limited to a Western perspective and are almost without exception from the past ten years or so.

So, like with absolutely everything else in the world, mind-numbingly tedious criticisms can be levied this way. But, give the list a listen (Spotify playlist at the end) and, I think you'll agree, it's bloody exciting stuff.

10. The Flaming Lips - Silver Trembling Hands

In its live incarnation its sang from the shoulders of a gorilla to a backdrop of a retina-burning purple vortex. Heard in the context of the almighty Embryonic album, it causes such a ruckus that an extra track is required afterwards just to let the dust settle. All these, though, are but bells and whistles. As heard in isolation, it's like a head exploding in extreme slow motion again and again and again. 

Opening with a scream - not of pain, not of rage - of what? - before that relentless fuzzy bassline kicks in coupled with those propulsive drums and Wayne Coyne's singing as if he's distanced from us by at least two galaxies - "Dagger/Night flight/Tomorrow/She forgets about the fear/When she's high". 

And then, stability is achieved and we're allowed to just happily float in space for a few bars, transcendence very much achieved - before, with another sky-shattering scream, we're plunged back into chaos.

09. Radiohead - There There

Pounding tribal drums and droning feedback with a few snare fills to keep it together before Thom Yorke's loosest, swampiest riff perfectly captures the disquieting feel of walking alone through a dark forest. There's hints of broken branches, sirens, shipwrecks, unseen forces - either you're being watched or you're being followed. Either way, something's not quite right.
This is one of those songs which perhaps works best in the live context. Live Radiohead veterans will always know it's coming. Two huge tom-toms are brought to the stage whilst Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood down their guitars in favour of drum-sticks and Thom Yorke crouches over his amp for those deep rumbling drones. 

About halfway through, Jonny again picks up his guitar and adds some tight, spidery arpeggios to Thom's murky lead. "Why so green and lonely?", he cries. "Heaven sent you to me", he trills; and again. And again. The tension is almost unbearable, and then it snaps: Jonny's solo wailing like banshees on windswept moors. "We are accidents waiting to happen." And, at this point, anybody who finds that the hair on the back of their neck isn't standing on end is either not listening hard enough or not listening loud enough.

Live, at this point, without missing a beat and with his guitar still slung over his shoulders, Jonny again starts attacking those tom-toms with furious abandon. This is just to remind anyone that, apart from anything else, Radiohead kick ass.

 08. Boards of Canada - Davyan Cowboy

A song of  two halves, and the only Boards of Canada composition for which they've ever made an official video. The first half features an impossibly high sky-dive - like, from the cusp of the atmosphere itself. The second half contains footage of a surfer in his element - some of which is captured from within the waves themselves.

The two feats as depicted - when coupled with those chiming guitar chords and the most stirring of strings - makes for music every bit as rousing and inspirational as Rocky's bloody "Eye Of The Tiger" - and then some. I've always found the music of Boards of Canada to be of the most transcendent music being created today. It took this video to suggest that the otherworldliness as inherent of every bar of every composition they've ever released can be channeled into seemingly superhuman achievements. This music, then, is suggestive of endless possibilities.

The Trans Canada Highway EP on which the song featured framed it as the start of an aural road-trip across Canada. Again it's presented as the start of something very big indeed. However, by the time we reach the ten minute Odd Nodsdam remix, we're once again in the realms of the sublime.

07. Sigur Ros - Glosoli

It means "glowing sun", I think. The resonance and grounding as created by the twangy bass and the stomp/clomp/clomp of the drums create a marching feel - this is a journey! A journey, indeed, which might take some time. However, Jonsi's plaintive, celestial vocals are a comfort and an encouragement that, in the end, all will be worthwhile.

And worthwhile it is indeed. As ever, Jonsi's vocals serve to raise the song from the "devastatingly beautiful" to the realms of "worldly divine". There comes a point where the stomping drums and resonant bass increase somewhat in their speed - it feels as though we're breaking into a run, gearing for take-off. Remarkably, at this point Jonsi's vocals somehow attain a stirring angelic quality of an intensity rare even for him. It builds and builds. And builds. When it can't seemingly build any more it builds some more. Everyone's waiting for a release. For take-off.

And when it comes, it comes. For any other band to go from "floaty ambience" to "crunching guitas" would be a tired, hackneyed quiet-loud post-rock-by-numbers moment. Sigur Ros, though, aren't just any band. It feels trite and lazy to describe them as a "force of nature", but when that chiming wave of pure sonic incandescence kicks in, I for one feel like a mole or cave fish being blinded by my first burning sight of sunlight.

06. Stereolab - Metronomic Underground

Like all the best Stereolab songs, it starts off sounding like a field recording from some 1950s vision of a futuristic laboratory. We're in raygun sci-fi territory as test-tubes bubble and strange machines rattle, beep and emit multi-coloured puffs of smoke.

Then comes that bassline and that vocal refrain and you're reminded of why they call such features "hooks". In an instant, you're very much hooked. 

Stereolab were, apparently, one of the first bands to be described as "post-rock". Be that as it may, however, all the traditional facets of post-rock are almost entirely absent from their music. And thank god they are. Their tone is playful and optimistic rather than dour and muted. Their themes are focused and concise rather than pretentious and obtuse. Most tellingly, however, is the manner in which they structure a song. Layer upon layer is added to the composition before, almost without realising it, the transition from "quiet and mysterious" to "loud and fuck yes" has been achieved seamlessly. 

The majority of post-rock seems to be about slow builds, texture, sudden shifts in dynamics. When songs kick into life, its a crescendo, a release. With Stereolab, it's more like a descent into a hot bath - or madness. Gradual but, ultimately, a lot more rewarding. And nowhere is it better exemplified than here.

05. The Hold Steady - The Swish

Damon Albarn, in reference to the film adaptation of Trainspotting, described it as a film that made him want to "get up and do things". I know exactly what he means, and I feel exactly the same way about The Hold Steady. And this acted as my introduction to their visceral yet remarkably literate world.
The guitars commence by jarring and churning in an angular post-punk manner before soaring and chiming triumphantly - it's an overture in miniature, setting the stage perfectly for Craig Finn's mercurial barking growls.

"Pills and powder baby/powder and pills/we spent last night down in Beverly Hills" - As opening lines go, I'm hard pressed to think of anything more instantly suggestive of an entire world - a statement of intent - it's a constant, furious party - though so intense is the delivery that immediately we know that these are desperate people, their parties nothing but self-destructive. 

To listen to The Hold Steady is to remind yourself that there's a whole world out there and that - whilst it might be dark, terrifying, cruel and dangerous - at the same time it's very, very exciting. The best part is where the music pulls back for a rousing, triumphant shout of "Hold Steady!"

04. ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead - Ode To Isis/Will You Smile Again?

The Ode To Isis section is a gathering storm, a rapidly descending darkness complete with apocalyptic choirs, thunderous drums and downright demented screams. It all comes to a furious staccato climax before all is drowned out by an anguished scream. Then, from one channel to another - "And you will know us/by the trail of dead".

And, of course, they're just getting started. It takes a very special grasp of the big, the dramatic, the operatic - to make a song explode once again even after such an overblown opening. But it manages to achieve exactly that, and it does so with little more than the standard guitars, drums and bass. It sounds like the sort of music Wagner might want to listen to when in need of a shot to the arm.

Some music sounds as though it was written with a very specific time and place in mind. It's hard not to picture sweaty London boozers when hearing The Libertines, for instance; and even the most low-key of Springsteen compositions was seemingly written with nothing smaller than a cavernous stadium in mind.

Trail of Dead, however, never seem to make music for anything less devastating than the second coming.

03. The Flaming Lips - Race For The Prize

Presuming, of course, that people are, in fact, reading this - the only people who'd ever question the logic behind including two Flaming Lips songs in the same list will be those who haven't witnessed the life-affirming religious experience that is their live show.
They've apparently long-since realised that nothing in their canon ever can - or ever will - act as a worthier opening to their set. With a "One, two - one, two three four" - explosions of smoke, confetti - desperate, soaring, bittersweet synths and the biggest drums that ever were - all at ear bleeding volumes, cohorts of dancing rabbits, aliens, santas - Wayne Coyne swirls a neon light over his head - as if from nowhere balloons cascade over the audience - and nowhere is anybody wearing anything less than the broadest of grins on their faces. Suddenly, life is worth living, and all problems are rendered meaningless in the face of joy that's such that it's almost unbearable. 

The sheer poignant desperation behind the song - two scientists furiously and selflessly working for the salvation of the human race instead - only serves to intensify further that which was already dangerously intense.

02. The Foo Fighters - All My Life

I've realised that the key to harnessing such emotions that are contained within the songs in this list is the careful and effective treatment of tension and its eventual release. The release, when it occurs, must occur at the point where to contain it for even a second longer would have been an act of cruelty. That which follows after the release must, of course, be such that it eclipses even the satisfaction of letting go.

With this - another song apparently written with the express intention of kicking off live shows - for a while things proceed pretty standardly. Those chugging power chords and growly vocals are intense - they're certainly urgent, we're certainly going places - and that chorus - as desperate, angry, soaring as anything. But, so far, so...standard.

Soon, however, things start to build. The vocals and the lyrics take on a restless tone, with shouts of "done" and "onto the next" - this is transcience, this is self-destruction - is this addiction? And how does it feel? 

Then comes the release. Heard out of context it's nothing more than staccato guitar chugging. However, coming after all the emotions and frustrations of that build up, it's furious, it's resigned, it's so, so satisfying.

In the video - and, indeed, in the live setting - this moment is coupled with blinding red lights - the band reduced to black silhouettes crouched over their instruments. It's nothing more than a bit of creative lighting, and yet it serves to perfectly summate the feel of the moment - it's one of the most perfectly matched synergies of music and visuals that has ever been achieved. The triumphant chorus that follows - coupled, in the video, with the unveiling of gigantic flags bearing their logo - must be impossible to sing and play without an immense grin on your face. You wonder how they manage it.

01. Muse - Take A Bow

Apocalypse Please. Citizen Erased. Microcuts. Butterflies and Hurricaines. Space Dementia. Knights of Cydonia. Showbiz. Starlight. Exogenesis. Megalomania. Stockholme Syndrome. Hysteria. Muse could have filled this list twice over. Their music's so grandiose, apocalyptic and overblown that, when they play, dark clouds don't just gather, they explode.

Take A Bow, though, perhaps represents their greatest achievement to date in doing that which Muse do best - that is, in containing all the devastating, soul destroying drama of five hours worth of Gotterdammerung into five minutes or so of concise, virtuoso hypercharged rock music.

No less than three times does this song build and build and build and release - and each release is more intense and - yes - satisfying than the last. First is the point at which the swirling synths and stately colossal bass makes way for a thumping drumbeat. Then comes the moment at which Matt Bellamy's cry of the track's title is looped and echoed and the synths get higher and faster and louder and higher and faster and louder - and that bass! - and higher and faster and higher again before - drums! - and the fuzzy searing guitar cuts through everything - this section is so wallowing in earth-shattering doom that it was used to perfect, dazzling, pants-wetting effect on the initial trailers for The Watchmen.

Then comes the third and final build and release - Matt Bellamy, with terrifying fervour, screams demonically that his prey will "burn in hell" - and then comes that chord - coupled, as it is, with a choral uproar that's such that the song seems to collapse in on itself, leaving us with nothing but feedback and, you imagine, smoking craters. Fittingly, at this point in their show, flames usually erupt from the stage.

God, I can't wait for Glastonbury.

* There's very little Boards of Canada on Spotify. Davyan Cowboy reluctantly substituted with Roygbiv.