Pop music can be a difficult terrain to navigate: just what do you feel okay listening to, and can you admit to it? This issue is at the heart of dozens of websites (like myspace.com and last.fm) and grips millions of young people searching for their Pan.
Myself, I pretty much decided that I’d stick with Royal Trux about seven years ago. For me, their blend of free jazz, 70’s opiate-rock, RnB, boogie-woogie and smart, personal, witty, political lyrics was enough. Despite my liking for bands such as The Fall, I am still certain that Royal Trux sum up what it is I want pop music to be: cool, sexy, angry, bored, wasted, wise.
Neil Hagerty, one half of Royal Trux is my first pop music hero. He was a guitarist in Pussy Galore, a band now confined to the ‘most mental album I own’ category (a bit like Royal Trux?!)… and while I’m unsure as to how much influence he had on the values of that group, I’m aware that he was behind their covering the entire Exile On Main Street album. A declaration of intent, perhaps.
Through their albums, Royal Trux have covered enough material for a complete website or two (see the links in my sidebar). Suffice to say, I drank a bottle of vodka the night they broke up. Stupid of me. It should have been juice. Since then, Neil Hagerty has released a series of albums (firstly solo, now with The Howling Hex), all of which I’ve found to be entertaining, challenging and good pop records. My favourites are probably the two solo/band crossover records, Niel Michael Hagerty – The Howling Hex and The Howling Hex – All Night Fox.
As a musician, Neil Hagerty deserves much respect. His talent on the guitar is singular in that I can’t think of any other guitarist who ‘noodles’ in a way that I want it to carry on forever. Riffs on his records range from classic blues through strug-out to complete pastiche. And all that’s a good thing.
Neil Hagerty is a hero because he does what he likes and still produces good music. He’s proof that even a touch of corporate interest doesn’t have to fuck up your faith in doing something new, different or really irritating.
Ian Svenonius is in some ways similar to Neil Hagerty. He really started out in a DC based punk band (The Nation Of Ulysses), but he was already ‘front man’ then (as opposed to Neil Hagerty’s band, whose leader was Jon Spencer)… and from the beginning stood up for a left-wing, anti-parent, teen-age punk aesthetic. Replete with “yeah’s” and “baby’s”, NOU’s songs are like fifties Rock’n’Roll combined with 80s chat-up lines. What more could you ask for?
Well, the Make-Up. Their RnB sound built on the singular, sexy sound of the NOU and built in additional features (production, for example, and costumes), which all made the Make Up one of the most important but least discussed bands of the 1990s.
Interlude: brief discussion on the nature of which bands ‘are remembered’.
We’re used to walking into FNAC or Virgin and being recommended albums by the Stones, the Jam and Depeche Mode as if they were the only bands which ever existed. The problem we all face these days is something that happened during the 1990s: as far as possible, independent record lables were annihilated.
In the UK, indie labels remain, but the best cater only to electronic music (whose production is massively cheaper than traditional guitar-based pop). In the US, there remain a number of relevant independent labels of which my favourite is Drag City, Inc.
Lists of the top 10 albums to buy, top 10 albums you need to own, and so on in music papers such as the NME almost only include bands signed to the major labels. This is not, as may be assumed, a product of consumer power. In fact, there is no such thing. Major record labels, as main advertisers, hold sway over what is regarded as ‘must have’. Therefore, in the post-indie age it’s a guarantee that you won’t be told about Make-Up or Royal Trux albums by the major retailers: they haven’t been paid to tell you about them.
Back to Ian Svenonius
After the Make-Up, Svenonius convened the Scene Creamers who became Weird War (whose first incarnation includes Neil Hagerty on guitar), a more stylised and political pop group than the Make-Up. Their three albums, Weird War, If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Bite ‘Em, and Illuminated By The Light, combine a heavy dose of workers’ rights with the very best of rock, soul and RnB sensibilities.
Ian Svenonius, just like Neil Hagerty, is not a pop music hero purely for his musical composition and perfromance. Both heroes are responsible for intereting works of literature (The Psychic Soviet; Public Works and The Victory Chimp, respectively). Additionally, both heroes have worked on side projects (David Candy, the wise and sexy, if highly pretentious character played by Svenonius is a good example).
Both of these men have had an influence on pop music, from the Hives to the White Stripes. If you want to get the non-Sony view on 90’s music, you could do a lot worse than buying a couple of albums from Drag City, Inc.
Support independent pop music!