Thursday, February 10, 2011

The great thing about American rock bands

I went to a music industry showcase in a club the other night. The first act was British. You didn't have to hear the actual words they spoke to know that. You could pick it up from their body language alone. Anything that was said between the songs came over as if it had just popped into the singer's head and swiftly petered out. It was as if they hoped that if they apologised first then the audience wouldn't be too hard on them if the song didn't go too well. When they looked at each other it was to exchange sheepish glances as if they had woken up to find themselves doing something faintly embarrassing. You wondered how they'd ended up in show business.

The act who came next were a bit more experienced but just as unknown. The difference was they were American. That meant that they meant business. There was nothing apologetic about their body language. They had clearly all had experience of standing up in front of strangers and saying "I'm your server this evening and I'd like to tell you about the specials". They didn't try to banter. Anything they said had been said before. Nobody looked round to work out what was going to happen next. Because they'd all presumably served at least some time doing covers in a bar band, they could probably have whipped out a decent version of "Eye of The Tiger" if things had got really sticky.

I've been watching live rock bands for more than forty years now and it's the one thing that hasn't changed. The Americans haven't come to play. They've come to work.


  1. You cant imagine a Springsteen or a James Brown or a Prince or a Madonna coming from the UK.

  2. This is exactly why they shouldn't be allowed to square up with us on programs like The Brits they just blow us out the water. Remember Beyonce, Kanye West and Prince? All far too forward.

  3. In a similar vein, when Americans-in-the-street are interviewed on TV they always seem to say something that makes sense, at least linguistically. I'm not sure the same can be said for the Brits. Is it the show-and-tell stuff at school, I wonder?

  4. Just to play Devil's advocate though, isn't this assessment rather coloured by the fact that whenever you see an American band, they have already achieved some kind of success -- if they are playing a showcase in London, they're at least good enough to have got some notice from someone.
    And if you've seen a band in the States, you've travelled 3000 miles - you're unlikely to be seeing someone at the local equivalent of the Dublin Castle...

    Having said that, this whole thing is about confidence. Self-esteem and a sense of entitlement is seemingly bred into the youth of America - I'd say that is a bigger factor than gaining experience playing in bar bands.

  5. I live there and my 4yo daughter already does show and tell every month at school. But they do seem to value self esteem (and popularity) at the expense of actually knowing things.

    Let's not sell ourselves short though, Britain has produced more that it's fair share of acts able to hold their own against Prince, Kanye etc.

  6. I had the same experience recently when I went to see the Head and the Heart. The two British supports lacked the professionalism of the main act.

    I later read that The Head and The Heart keep office hours and play and rehearse from 9-5 when they're not touring. I can't think of many British bands working 9-5, that's what they form a band to avoid doing!

  7. Once again Mr. H, you light the blue touch paper, repair to a safe distance and watch the carnage! Of course we're sloppy and ill prepared. Of course our inter song banter isn't auto cued every night (unlike Diana Ross with her Baby Love prompts); that's what made going to see The Who at The Railway Hotel or The Kinks at Crouch End Town Hall or even The Beatles at Dingle Institute such a joy: they had come to play; they would work later (when they had to).

  8. I saw a film about American education the other day which says that in a survey American schoolchildren came very low down in terms of achievement at lots of subjects but always came top in self-confidence.

    I tend to think that anyone who's got the self-confidence it takes to get up on stage and play twelve songs that they've just made up should stop pretending to be a shrinking violet.

  9. John, I have to take issue with you there. I saw some of those sixties groups and they were punchy in every respect. They had to be to get on, play their hits and get off in twenty minutes flat. They'd come up playing in front of audiences who neither knew nor cared who they were and consequently they knew they had to hit them between the eyes. The group that changed all that were the Byrds who shocked everyone with how sloppy they were when they visited Britain. Nobody could believe that they stopped to tune up.

  10. I reckon Queen could have rustled up an Eye Of The Tiger for you. Or Def Leppard. Or Motorhead. Or Iron Maiden.

    Once they'd stopped looking apologetic and being all sheepish instead of just turning up and getting on with the job, of course.

  11. Bollocks.

    Musicians are musicians the world over. If you have the talent then it is only about having put in the hours.

    Look at Damien Rice or Glen Hansard or KT Tunstall. They just ooze confidence. Self confidence without the knowledge or skill is called arrogance.

  12. Haha....

    This is silly. You are talking about showmanship, and Britain has a long tradition.

    Daltrey, Bowie, Jagger...

    I'll grant that with the "shoegazing" revolution a lot of the soul left british rock... which is why Shoegazers, and those that came after (even Radiohead etc) suck live.

    How many nights did I watch Stipe warbling away, mic stand as a crutch... hey, I like REM, but that was a great nail in the coffin of the stand up and be counted front man (but there are many still around).

    The metal groups cited above (Def et al) prove that also.

    Go to an open mic in Roanoke VA, and find the American equivalent to the suburban pap that litters the british indie scene.

    It does indeed suck, right down to the way they hold a guitar pick

  13. I loved this blog... and have to admit, maybe it's the nearly 30 years living in the UK that's made me apologize every time I get on stage to do anything, from juggling to firing out a badly backed bit o' music. But I can tell you what the... difference is: In America, Entertainment means BUSINESS = MONEY = INVESTMENT. Americans will remortgage their homes or sell themselves on the street, to fund studio time. Parents up sticks and move to Orlando when little Suzy or Tom sings a song all the way through to get their kid a place in a Disney showcase. Americans view entertainment as a money spinner and nothing to be ashamed of. Here, if you tell someone you're an artist, a musician, an actor, a dancer... they feel sorry for you, as if you fukked up by not taking that bankclerk job 20,000 applicants fought for. The biggest difference of all is the simply workmanlike approach. Americans know it's called 'The Enternainment Business' and not the Entertainment Art' for a reason. The clue is in the name.

  14. I have a question related to this that I've been wanted to suggest you discuss on the Word podcast for some time.

    To what extent do you think that the self-deprecating tone of music hall and the brassy bling of Vaudeville underlie the differences in stagecraft between UK and US bands?

    Obviously this is a bit of a cartoon, and we can all point to exceptions, but I think there's something in it.