A non-partisan journal of the left.

Alternative music

Fri 27th Apr 2012

Pop dinosaurs head up Britain’s Eurovision challenge and the Olympic jamboree. New seasons of X Factor and Pop Idol are being spawned in some modern marketing womb of entertainment hell. They are destroying Britain’s reputation as an alternative music powerhouse. Music used to matter because it had a message that was so important and urgent and powerful that we had to listen. Now it’s a glee club for celebrating the generic, the mundane, the stereotypical, the safe and the profitable.

The proof that we’re in desperate need for something new and alternative is staring straight at us – with the likes of Sir Tom Jones headlining the BT British Olympic Ball and Engelbert Humperdinck our Eurovision entry. We’re clinging to dinosaur acts that should have danced their last waltz years ago. Arguably real alternative music goes against the mainstream in terms of sound and ideas. Alternative music carries an attitude, a mentality, which distinguishes itself from synthetic safe pop. Rock music and its tendrils are an alternative to pop. This doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes manufactured. Ultimate punk rebels The Sex Pistols were actually a carefully constructed radical commodity planned by the late Malcolm McLaren, as much based around avant-garde fashion as music. (1) But the revolutionary mentality of punk – no hope, no future – came at a time of national economic struggle (2) just like now (3). Conditions are ripe for such alternative music to thrive.

Alternative as an umbrella term is arguably needed to bring the branches of rock together in a way that everyone will recognise. Alternative music has roots in reality, but has lost its sense of direction. (4)

Alternative music in Britain that is honest and true has been inspired by struggle. Metal was born out of the hardships of the Midlands metal-bashing industries. Piecework (5) promoted a competitive environment that wasn’t without accidents. Birmingham’s Tony Iommi, guitarist with Black Sabbath who has recently been diagnosed with cancer (6) lost the tips of two fingers during his last day of work in a sheet metal factory (7). The working-class mentality of the pioneers of metal made their music a tangible escape from their laborious lives. The heaviness of their music represented the physicality of their jobs.
There have been a handful of American artists who have successfully maintained an alternative outlook. The USA seems to venerate its alternative oracles – when asked a question, they answer with honesty. They’re not the Simon Cowells of this world, forever seeking the next cheque while retaining minimal humility. Take Bob Dylan – whose music explored the lifestyles of a drug user, a drifter and prostitute (8).

Tom Waits has a cult following despite miniscule radio and music video support. Along with his trademark gravelly voice, he owns and has used many obscure instruments in his music portraying the seedy, sidewalk side of life and cites Dylan as his main influence. (9).

Henry Rollins is an enigma, an outsider, be it with The Rollins Band or doing his Spoken Word material. His approach to life is a solitary one: “I need to do things on my own, need to be left alone” (10). In stark contrast to the synthetic trends of contemporary pop music, Rollins believes: “…one defines oneself by reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself. To cut yourself out of stone.” (11).

The recently late, great Gil Scott-Heron, a self-proclaimed bluesologist - a scientist concerned with the origin of the blues – approached life and music from a very different perspective. His music of the 1970s influenced later African-American music, particularly hip-hop (12).

With pop albums outselling rock albums for the first time in seven years in 2011, (13) perhaps hip-hop is where the truly alternative music lies in Britain. Even white artists like Scroobius Pip (14), influenced by Heron, tell it like it is. Rapped lyrics melded with spoken word and accompanied by electronic beats, Pip’s songs address today’s taboo subjects with a cutting yet rhythmic poetic licence. Scroobius Pip pulls no punches and doesn’t cater to the conventions of the music mainstream.

The Mercury Prize is the music industry award that looks to recognise alternative artists and go against the grain of what may be considered the latest big thing (15). PJ Harvey (16) was not only the first female winner, she is the only artist to have won the award more than once – in 2001 and in 2011. Her ability to create new music which incorporates new views, ideas and sounds and which is relevant to our ever-changing world make Harvey one of Britain’s pivotal alternative music artists.

Now is the time to cull the corporate beats and crank up the alternative music. Let alternative music, as Rage Against the Machine proclaim, even if they are American, take the power back (17). If the dinosaurs are killing you, kill the dinosaurs.


1) Malcolm McLaren
2) UK economy 60s and 70s
3)UK economy now
4) What is alternative music? Is it really a genre?
5) Piece work
6) Tony Iommi cancer
7)Tony Iommi fingers accident
8) Bob Dylan alternative lifestyles
9) Tom Waits
10) Henry Rollins
11) Henry Rollins
12)Gil Scott-Heron
13) Pop outsells rock
14) Scroobius Pip
15) Mercury Prize nominees and winners
16) PJ Harvey cultural treasure
17) Rage Against the Machine – Take The Power Back lyrics
You must be logged in to post comments on the site or you can use Facebook above.