Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Man Overboard: Can Blink-182 Survive Without Tom DeLonge?

Ah, Blink-182. Poway, California’s most famous sons. Finest purveyors of breathless three-minute, three chord songs played with ridiculously upbeat melodies and puerile lyrics that seemed to revolve around lines about the male anatomy and what most teenage boys want to do with it. Or, as critical purists would call it, pop punk. Originally an underground success, they burst into mainstream consciousness in the late nineties with mega-platinum selling album Enema of the State, bolstered by genre-defining anthems in the shape of What’s My Age Again? and All The Small Things. Just after the turn of the century, they were arguably one of the biggest bands in America and to an extent the world. Fast forward fifteen years and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows anymore. Dysfunctional by their own admission, it took skin cancer and a-near-fatal plane crash for its members to re-emerge from a hiatus, but even then, in 2009, their brand of toilet humour was faded from public consciousness. Pop punk was on the way out. Fall Out Boy had gone on indefinite hiatus; Green Day and Paramore had both departed the genre to mainstream alternative rock and found success there. Blink-182, reunited or not, were effectively a nostalgia trip, something they did not shy away from in live performance. Their lone reunion album Neighborhoods was mixed in its reception, and despite a strong placing in charts around the world, didn't really do anything to extend their legacy.

And so, it has come to pass that whatever goodwill brought from tragedy couldn't last forever. Earlier this month, bassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker issued a statement that guitarist Tom DeLonge had left the band. DeLonge responded quickly that this was the first he was hearing of this, and ultimately, it evolved into a war of words through press releases in Rolling Stone and letters on Facebook. The current state of Blink-182’s membership is up in the air; the only thing apparently set in stone is that Hoppus and Barker will play shows later this year with Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio filling in the dual role of guitarist and singer vacated by DeLonge. Even then, with DeLonge as a founder and principle songwriter of the band, legal issues may only be around the corner should Hoppus and Barker continue on permanently.
Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 at Reading, 2014
It is a shame that one of pop punk’s most influential and successful exports should have to come to this, airing their dirty laundry in public. They may have never had a UK Top #3 Album, but their music is still instantly recognisable in this country. Their headline set at the Reading and Leeds Festival in 2010 was the most rapturously received of the weekend; it resulted in them making a swift return only four years later. For fans of the genre, they are considered Genesis; nearly all pop punk bands of the genre’s second and third waves cite them as a primary, if not the, influence for them. I once attended a show by pop-punkers We Are the In Crowd at Leeds’ old Cockpit venue, and in between support acts, What’s My Age Again? was played over the PA system. With the exception of my good self, every single person in the crowd bellowed along in time. Never before have I seen such a sing-along with interim music at a gig.

And perhaps it is wrong to immediately condemn Blink as a nostalgia act, rooted in a single genre. Of their nine Top #40 singles in the UK, three are culled from their 2003 self-titled album, a stylistic departure that saw the ballad I Miss You chart in the top ten with its Cure-inspired rhythms. Down and Always, the two follow up singles, both represented a sharp turn away from typical pop punk structure and the band’s signature immature lyrical content into more straightforward alternative rock. The same album spawned the acclaimed All of This, drawing on its Cure influence so much that the band stole Robert Smith to sing on it. They may not have deviated from the recipe as much as other artists, but Blink have certainly proved a level of flexibility, able to implement their ability to nail a catchy hook out of their immediate pigeon-holed sound.

And then there’s Hoppus and DeLonge; pop punk’s McCartney and Lennon. A combative relationship since the band broke it in the big time, they have undeniably written some of the genre’s strongest songs in Damnit, First Date and Feeling This amongst others. The band is their baby; they are the original members, with drummer Barker a latter-day replacement for original sticksman Scott Raynor. Their on-stage chemistry and off-stage drama has helped to cultivate the legacy around the band, to build their story with sufficient twists and turns, such as friction over reality TV shows and side-projects, the latter of which seems to be one of the key issues in the latest inter-band issues.
Blink-182 headline Reading 2014.
And that brings the story up to the final few months. Blink’s headline set at Reading and Leeds 2010 had been considered a triumph, particularly against the art-rock elements of fellow headline act Arcade Fire and the shambolic timings of the current incarnation of Guns N’ Roses that hadn't translated well. Their 2014 shows went some way to sabotaging those memories. DeLonge looked uncomfortable, shadowed by the peak of his cap; vocally, he was inconsistent and drastically out of key on occasion and musically, seemed half a step behind Hoppus and Barker’s rhythm section. Sex gags seemed scripted, typical; few moments in the show stood out, the most notable high being Hoppus’ verse on I Miss You and a euphoric Damnit in the encore, mainly propelled by crowd reaction. Nostalgic longing and the strength of songwriting pulled them through ultimately, but unlike 2010, they were outclassed by fellow headliners Queens of the Stone Age, Arctic Monkeys and former pop-punk protégés Paramore over both legs of the weekend. It was frankly embarrassing.

Reading and Leeds were not the final shows of the band whilst DeLonge remained, but they were certainly the largest in that final run; as a result, they will be viewed by fans and critics as the trio’s curtain call, two shows that failed to truly impress even the hardcore and, if anything, further spread the seeds of dissatisfaction within the band. If DeLonge truly is gone though, questions certainly remain over Blink’s longevity as both a studio act and a live performer. Both have complicated paths to tread; DeLonge is one half of Blink and as such must surely have a claim over the band name and its use. Unless he consents to Hoppus, Barker and whoever fills his shows after Skiba returns to Alkaline Trio (the latter have shows booked across the summer) using the name, there’s a chance that an already messy situation could spill out even more into the public domain, a sad way for any band to hash out differences. In terms of new material, DeLonge could certainly not stop Hoppus and Barker from writing and recording with an alternate vocalist, if at all; but again, under the Blink brand, he has every right to halt proceedings. The live arena too; the remaining members can perform Blink songs without threat of potential lawsuit, but only under an alternative name. For all intents and purpose, despite their bold claim to continue as Blink-182, Hoppus and Barker’s future rests either with DeLonge, a man who claims he was unaware of his redundancy from the band, granting them an unlikely blessing after the ongoing saga or facing extensive legal fights.

And even if Hoppus and Barker succeed, by gentleman’s agreement or court order, what then? Hoppus may be the most famed and recognisable of the three, the one to clown around at the front of photo-shoots in the magazines, but DeLonge is effectively the band’s frontman – he is the lead vocalist on many of their hits, even when engaging in a battle of tones with Hoppus. The bassist has only a handful of big hits fronted solely by his own voice; most of the time, he’s second to DeLonge’s iconic angst-sneer that spoke volumes of adolescence perspectives and helped tap into a generation of young Americans. And whilst Skiba may be a talented replacement (and based on DeLonge’s performance at times at Reading and Leeds, possibly better live), the fact remains he is not DeLonge. Hoppus and Barker could record new material as a duo, with either session musicians, guests or solo, but what’s to differentiate it from a +44 record, their side-project in the original Blink hiatus whilst DeLonge was focused on his solo endeavour Angels and Airwaves?
Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 at Leeds, 2014

So, Blink-182 could technically continue. They could technically record new material. They could technically extensively tour the world in support of it. But would it really be Blink-182 without Tom DeLonge? He may have been apparently pushed from the band rather than quit outright in this instance but the fact remains that he is no longer currently part of the lineup. And, to draw comparisons, that’s a bit like The Beatles continuing on without John Lennon. With Skiba in place, they may be (and I imagine they will) a better live act for the small number of shows they will play this spring. And, there certainly seems to be a drive from Hoppus and Barker to continue under the name. But will the fans really want to see them when one part of its dysfunctional beating heart has been ousted, and the songs they love sung by a rank outsider? Will it, more to the point, tarnish their legacy? One would think that ensuring legal battles, if they come to pass, may do more than tarnish; it may raze it to the ground. So yes, Blink-182 can survive without their founding member, guitarist, vocalist and one focal point. Whether they should survive… that is another matter entirely.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Can I Play with Madness: How Iron Maiden Gave Me Music

A few nights ago, I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to watch a marathon showing of documentaries and concert films on Sky Arts 1 focusing on the acclaimed British heavy metal group Iron Maiden. It was five hours long and featured a detailed look at the recording of their seminal third album The Number of the Beast (the highlight of which was lead singer Bruce Dickinson wandering around Portmeirion in Wales to illustrate the reasoning behind a particular song), their concert film Rock In Rio, filmed at the festival of the same name in 2001 in front of a crowd of 250,000 (the highlight of which was drummer Nicko McBrain breaking out in spontaneous Scottish country dancing behind his kit) and the documentary-cum-concert film Flight 666 that charted Dickinson flying the band on their 2008 world tour in a specially modified 757 (the highlight of which was Dickie Bell, their production assistant and general grumpy yet loveable sidekick). Saying that they were the three highlights does seem to detract from the band’s credibility, but don’t let it – Iron Maiden are phenomenally talented musicians, on record and live, with an eye for a philosophically violent lyric and an ear for an insatiable pop melody underneath the pomp and circumstance of heavy metal. Flight 666 shows them at their fiercest, their fans at their wildest and a showcase for that connection between fan and artist. There are probably dozens of artists who could claim a greater connection to the masses but challenge that assertion to an Iron Maiden fan and you’ll be shot down with speed.
Iron Maiden at Twickenham Stadium, 2008

The marathon viewing session served to remind me of all this, and to remind me of the impact Iron Maiden have had on my life. Some people scoff at the notion of music being a force for good that can change lives, but I've seen so many people, friends and strangers alike, transformed by it that I can’t agree with the view that music has no effect whatsoever. For me, Iron Maiden were that band; a musical entity that changed the way I live my life, and indeed, shaped the present and direct elements of my future.

Rewind to 2010. I'm not in a very good place; I've been through a rough patch in life during year 10, through no real fault of anybody. My parents are, and still are, very supportive of me, as are my friends and mentors. Some might dismiss it as teenage angst, and indeed for many, it may be that. But I never considered it that, and looking back on it after reflection and consultation, I still don’t. It was a dark time, a black chapter in my life. Regardless, it’s closed, the episode is over and summer awaits, something that does not fill me with any real feeling of delight. It’s a six week patch that I have little expectation for, yet will become a transformative period for me.

It’s the first day of the holidays and I'm lounging on the sofa, drinking squash and channel-surfing for something to occupy my mind. I catch the end of the video for Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone on the VH1 Classic music channel, a favoured song of mine, not that that means much. Music has never been a particularly big draw for me; my album collection consists of an Electric Light Orchestra greatest hits album and La Roux’s self-titled debut. Two albums. My music taste is my parents’; it’s not a form of expression for me, not something I'm invested in. That is about to change in ten minutes.

Rainbow is followed by a short advert break, and then a video for some generic nu-metal song from the turn of the century that I can’t remember. There’s nothing specifically offensive about it, but nothing spectacularly stand-out either. What it’s doing on VH1 Classic is somewhat of a mystery that I can’t really be bothered solving. It’s bland and I decide to try for one more song before I give it up as a bad cause and search for a power ballads countdown or just turn the TV off entirely.

That one more song is called Can I Play with Madness.

Steve Harris, founder and bassist of Iron Maiden

And in four minutes, my life has been irrevocably changed for the better.

The opening lyric is so unlike anything I've really listened to before. Music of the popular variety generally deals with unrequited love, or requited love, or heartbreak, or being free, or at least the lyrics always seem to be like that with a handful of generic clichés knocked in for good measure. But for a leather-lunged voice to howl out in an animalistic scream the notion of flirting with insanity in five words, without music – it was as effective as if a fist had reached out of the television screen, grabbed me by the neck of the shirt and hauled me in.

Then comes the drums, the bass and the twin guitars. And I've heard this combination before, in Thin Lizzy in my dad’s car, but it’s never struck me in the way that it is right now. It’s an almighty cacophony of sound, of layers, of riff upon riff and a bass figure so unlike anything I've ever heard, with brushes of keyboard fleshing out underneath, before this klaxon, siren, call to arms of a voice bursts back in with lyrics that seem to make very little sense to a fifteen year old whose main interests at this point in life are Sonic the Hedgehog and sausage rolls.

But it doesn't matter one single jot. That opening line (now revealed as the title of the song by the handy information bar at the bottom corner of the video) bursts back in, sung with such awe-inspiring force and brute strength that it seems to blow me backwards, burying me deeper into the cushions as I stare, mouth hanging open, transfixed, as though a miracle has just been performed in front of my very eyes. The video is hypnotic, an unfolding fable of a schoolmaster discovering, underneath the ruins of an abbey, a vault of strange treasures, including a refrigerator in which a grotesque, undead creature leers at him from a frozen wasteland. It is utterly mental, utterly metal.

The actual lyrics of the song (concerning prophecies and mystical hellfire and death and other nasty things that form the basis of ninety-five percent of Iron Maiden lyrics) still don’t resonate with me nearly five years later. But the title can tell a story more than any lyric needs to; to the fifteen year old, a reference to being able to control a mental state so frowned upon, so much as to play with it, struck a chord with me. After the previous year, it seemed to equate to my mental state, and yet presented a way of managing and dealing far better than any well-meant words from strangers ever could.
Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden

With one song title and one hell of a brilliant melody, Iron Maiden spoke to me in a way that no music had.

For the rest of the summer, I set about tracking down the discography of Iron Maiden online; I read of Messers Harris and Murray, of Smith and Gers, of Burr and McBrain, of Di’Anno, Dickinson and Bayley and, of course, Eddie. I discovered it was Dickinson’s voice that had enlightened me on that first lesson, that Harris was the driving force behind the group, that they were the first heavy metal band to top the UK Singles Chart and that the zombie-like creature I saw on black t-shirts with regularity had a name and a name I could pronounce at that. I discovered the classic tracks – Run to the Hills, The Trooper, Aces High – and the new hits – The Wicker Man, Rainmaker, Different World. I discovered that their fifteenth studio album was due for release in August, their first effort since 2006. I bought it on the first day it was out and became one of the thousands across the country who propelled it to #1 in the UK Album Chart.

Iron Maiden were the first artist I had discovered and truly fallen in love with that hadn't been through the instigation of either of my parents. They were both somewhat surprised that after a diet of ABBA, Shania Twain and James Bond themes that I had fallen into a decades-old metal band who were as renowned for high camp as they were for crushing guitar work, but they were both incredibly supportive of my love for the band. The Final Frontier, despite its eight-minute-plus progressive metal epics, found its way into the – until then – distinctly poppy interior of my mum’s car, and with that, I hooked her and my sister too (my dad was already a bit of a part-time metal man, in between the bursts of Bob Dylan and Chris Rea). It was liberating – it bolstered my confidence to be able to look at the results of my love of a band impact others positively – and, in a somewhat strange twist of fate, my love for a band whose lyrical content painted stories that resulted in death, or possession, or more death, or supernatural premonitions – basically stuff that isn't very good for the mind – chased my black clouds of the past year away. Iron Maiden gave me new life. Between them, my family and close friends, I was able to pick myself up, move on and become a stronger individual with more respect for myself for myself.

Iron Maiden at Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield, 2011

When I saw them live, at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena almost exactly a year to the date I discovered them in 2011, on their sell-out The Final Frontier World Tour, it was my second live concert ever. It was the culmination of a journey, the end of an era in some ways. And yet, it was the kickstart for a new part. I was much happier that I had been a year prior, and that was in no small way thanks to Iron Maiden. They had widened my palate of musical taste; I owned several of their albums, and several more. Music had become one of my key interests, But in seeing Iron Maiden live, it almost felt like a goal achieved, a form of nirvana reached. What I didn't expect it to be was a gateway to a new passion. I stumbled out of the arena after 11PM, feverishly clutching my friend’s arm, gibbering about the spectacle we’d just seen. She kept on reassuringly propping me up and raved as much as I did – not bad for someone who had only known three songs on the whole setlist.

I've seen plenty of better live shows since then, but Iron Maiden was the gig that truly started off the live music craze for me, the search in life to see the perfect live show by the perfect musical artist. They’re one of the very few to come close to that ultimate goal, bested by only a select handful. I missed them on their last tour due to my refusal to go near tents and an instance of double booking on the dates of their only indoor shows. But my fingers are crossed that a new album – their first fresh material since that fateful summer of 2010 – and accompanying tour are incoming. I'm surely not the only one waiting with baited breath.

So, there we have it. When it comes to history in a hundred years’ time, Iron Maiden will no doubt be considered one of the most successful heavy metal bands of all time, and one of the most successful British exports in terms of music ever. But for me, they were so much more than that. For me, they were the band that helped me, taught me, ignited my love in music and ignited my love in live shows too. For that, they will always hold a cherished part of me without ever knowing, and I too will hold a cherished part of them without them ever knowing.

Iron Maiden, ladies and gentleman. Thank you.