Band rivalry in the UK press has been a constant headline generator since the dawn of rock n roll as a real money maker. The Beatles versus The Stones. Blur versus Oasis.
A perfect marriage of our pseudo Medieval feudal system to money making opportunism. The Proles versus The Bourgeoisie in a never ending battle of “For Realism” and songwriting smarts where the winners are the record companies and the biggest losers are us: the sucker fans who lap it up and buy into it, consuming every tossed off quote, every record and fueling endless shite pub chats about why my chosen band is better than yours.
Now though, we’re in the post-streaming reality. The industry is in freefall and with literally a million bands available at our fingertips, the rules have changed.
Rock stars are no longer mysterious, untouchable gods: everyone and their dog has access to professional level production equipment and seemingly every #softboy who’s ever been dumped has a lo-fi minimal electronic EP on Bandcamp. Too many voices, not enough characters.
In this almost endless landfill landscape the rules have irrevocably changed, or maybe the reality is just more laid bare. For the past 12 months or so much has been made of the apparent beef between Fat White Family and IDLES. Two very different bands with very different front men that at closest you could throw under the latest catch all umbrella term for guitar bands: Post-post punk (how fucking self aware are we team?).
In one corner we have Lias Saudi. Leaderish of the rag tag, ever changing collective that is Fat White Family. Infamous for hedonistic depravity: literally throwing shit on stage, gobbling up handfuls of the nearest narcotics and screeching songs about paedophiles, Josef Geobels and bombing Disneyland.
In the other we have Joe Talbot: singer of IDLES. A group who define the united front band mentality. Almost painfully earnest armed with songs about some sort of working class utopia where the bad guys are beaten down as we all utilise our collective joy into a literal act of resistance. Casting off the shackles of oppression, sticking it to the man and saving the world one gang vocal at a time. Hitting number 2 in the charts (no mean feat for a rock band in this era) with a rabid fanbase of the young and the woke. A shining light of positivity in an increasingly negative world.
So far, so cliché. We’ve got mutual tales of addiction and redemption. Of being like the saviours of British music, man. Left wing ideals meet alternative sounds led by charismatic front men who clearly put everything they have and then some into their respective performances. (I fully recommend that everyone sees both bands live.) And both have had more inches dedicated to them in The Guardian than seems reasonable.
But that shared talent is a shared downfall. You can’t lead a band without an insane amount of ego, an iron will and depthless self belief that means you truly feel that what YOU say WE need to listen to. Trying to keep a bunch of creatives on the same page makes herding cats seem a piss of piss, let alone making a living from it. Simply put: it ain’t doable without a large dose of narcissism.
Over lockdown Lias Saoudi began his own blog: Life beyond the neutral zone. In the latest edition he seemingly addresses the whole thing. Simultaneously trying to quash the band v band mentality whilst also placing himself as the somewhat winner, at least in terms of the all important “for real” stakes. Speaking articulately about art as a form of personal expression, the importance of loving family despite political differences, growing up in small town, racist Northern Ireland and how rather than hatred, it created a deep empathy.
Except it seems for Joe Talbot. Declaring him nothing but an empty vaguely left slogan generator with nothing of himself in his music. Choosing to ignore the fact Joe has publicly discussed his battles with alcoholism and with ‘June’ poured out his grief at losing a daughter on record. It’s a heartbreaking song and immediately counters the point. There is nothing more real in this life than death and nothing more personal than grief. In a classic backhanded compliment he ends with saying they’re great live, in a sort of beer buddies, Oasis hollow anthem way. A sort of liberal lad rock.
And he has a point.
IDLES are an inherently Bristol band. It’s a city very dear to my heart and where I lived for the majority of my twenties, leaving in part due to being priced out. Listening to the last two IDLES albums is to be a fly on the wall in any of the many independent bars… preaching without teaching. Lefter than thou chants which actually make the chasm wider via over simplicity and identity through class. It’s precisely the same mentality put forward by right wing groups: if you’re not with us, you’re against us.
Take recent single ‘Mr Motivator‘: “Let’s seize the day, all hold hands, chase the pricks away!” Yeah it sounds great shouting it with your mates whilst simultaneously denouncing anyone who votes differently to you as evil, wrong and stupid. Coffee shop politics with no answer or alternative. In the same way Corbynism claimed to have won the 2017 vote despite losing the election, it’s brought down by its own self righteous better than thou bullshit. There’s no dialogue, no real unity if you see the world differently.
Fat White Family fare little better. Whilst I agree that art should be free and based on personal expression over political grand standing, all too often that seems to be an excuse to indulge the bands own vices, and find a savage joy in celebrating mankind’s depravity. This is fine and dandy, hell it makes for some great music. Again though, it says nothing of substance (more of substance abuse), presenting no hopeful alternative and reveling in nihilism and self destruction.
To be the devils advocate to my own thought process: bands shouldn’t be the people addressing all this and presenting us with nuanced answers to very real, very difficult questions. We are being forced to look for leadership anywhere we can because it’s so lacking in our politics.
You could even argue these government characters are now more like rock stars than any band is. Personal lives splashed over the tabloids. Scandal after scandal. Sound bites instead of policies or ideas. Mods versus rockers. Punk versus prog. Left versus Right. It’s an endless tribalistic churn where we’re all becoming more and more entrenched and further apart from each other.
Perhaps with the death of the music Industry as we know it, it was inevitable the rivalry system created in a large part by the media would spread into real life to help feed the machine. The majority of people claim to have no interest in politics but will throw out an opinion on Brexit, Covid and the state of the world in the same breath. People fail to see the wood for the trees.
So maybe Lias and Joe are true rock stars after all. Larger than life characters and mirrors of ourselves. Our flaws writ large. A tribal leader in a world increasingly built on social media image and the profit of conflict. True representations of our times.
At the very least they present fascinating dichotomies: the middle class man who’s become the voice of working class sensitive Lads and the Algerian immigrant who found himself squatting in London with the art school education, quoting Tolstoy one moment, smeared in his own faeces the next.
Perhaps that’s all they should be, or maybe, just maybe, they could unite, and bridge the chasm. Right now I feel I should be beating myself up for being a fan of both bands whilst searching in vein for depth in either’s message.