Maybe it’s because I spent too much time listening to The Smashing Pumpkins when I was 14. You know how it went: warm cans of beer, sunny summer evenings round the back of the local Scout hut. Music with lots of distortion in it. And I loved it – the distortion, that is. I pretty much hated the beer, but I never stopped drinking it. And I never stopped loving distortion.
I got to thinking about the reason for this after reading an entirely idiotic review in The Independent of the debut album by Bombay Bicycle Club. In this piece of subjective, blitheringly ignorant tosh, ‘reviewer’ Simon Price completely disregards what is an accomplished, exciting and enduring album created a group of seriously precocious young musicians, and resorts to an always irritating mixture of conjecture and piling headfirst on to the backlash bandwagon before it’s even properly parked.
Of Price’s 86 words of platitudinous twaddle about ‘I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose’, this irksome sentence, in particular, struck a nerve: “BBC are led by a singer with a singularly irritating bleat and a guitarist who has you considering a moratorium on the sale of reverb pedals.” Now I know he’s talking about reverb, and this blog is about distortion – I’m no boffin, but I’m pretty sure there’s an inextricable relationship between the two, so I’ll use them interchangeably. In any case, I’m not as dense as Simon Price, and anyone else prepared to, however light-heartedly, advocate banning the sale of any kind of effects pedal. It’s just completely missing the point.
I consider myself a music lover. I love great music, so it’s wasteful to discount any genre, and for this reason I will listen to pretty much anything. Every now and again I slip on Miles Davies’ jazz masterpiece Kind of Blue. I have a deep respect for the simultaneous elegance and power of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, although fully admit that, being a Philistine beyond rehabilitation, I’m only aware of the song because Oliver Stone used it in Platoon. I have been known to enjoy nodding my block to a bit of hip-hop, too: Common and Q-Tip being particular favourites. I even like Prince.
But I always come back to distortion; music capable of supplying the kind of unparalleled adrenaline rush you’re never going to get from, say, Katie Melua’s ‘Nine Million Bicycles’, however fit you might think she is. Which is very, by the way.
From the Pumpkins’ ‘Cherub Rock’ – still one of my favourite songs of all time – to Broken Social Scene’s ‘You Forgot It In People’, a glorious, shambolic tapestry of an album, deftly laced together with a huge whack of distorted guitars, and the stone-cold classic shoegazing of My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’, unashamedly soaked in so much dizzying reverb it never fails to make your head spin, at the right time, in the right place at the right moment, the visceral brain haemorrhage-inducing punch of this music makes it the best in the world.
Take Jimi Hendrix, one of the first artists to experiment with Fuzzbox effects pedals – according to the unshakeable authority of Wikipedia, at least. Would ‘Purple Haze’ or ‘Voodoo Chile’ – a song with a blistering intro that, if my memory serves correctly, John Squire of the Stone Roses once described as the best noise ever made by a human being – really have been the same without the liberal helpings of bone-crunching distortion layered throughout?
Then there’s the growling magic of distortion-saturated live performances. Remember Kurt Cobain and Nirvana playing ‘Territorial Pissings’ instead of ‘Lithium’ on ‘The Jonathan Ross Show’ and proceeding to smash the living shit out of the stage in front of the mouths-agape crowd – probably my favourite-ever rock’n’roll moment. Or the otherworldly set from Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, in which, after lithely nailing an amazing version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, he simulates intercourse with an amp then famously sets fire to his guitar. You need a big, guttural lashing of distortion to be able to get away with that. I can’t imagine Newton Faulkner doing it.
I went to Bombay Bicycle Club’s gig in Islington last week. They were a pretty thrilling live band, both tight and inventive, despite clearly being quite severely inebriated. And as the sublime ‘Magnet’ neared its rousing conclusion the venue became engulfed in a swirling crescendo of reverb that threatened to crush under its sheer weight any infidels reluctant to be picked up and swept away by it.
That Independent review churlishly asked, “Do we really need another early-evening festival band?” What the chuff is an early-evening festival band, fuck nuts? I’ve seen James Brown, Foo Fighters, Seun Kuti, Beck, Jurassic 5 and a particularly racy Sebastien Tellier, among many others, in early-evening slots at various concerts and festivals – so going by that any artist from any genre who happens to be on any stage at any festival before it gets dark fits in that pigeonhole – making it nonsensical and Price’s comment utterly redundant.
What we do need, though, is distortion. Big, loud, bolshy dollops of ear-splitting fuzz. There’s simply nothing else like it.