The Maccabees: the last of the British guitar rock headliners?

This week the London indie group called it a day. With a lack of bands big enough to top festival bills, is Britain’s stock in global music falling?

Ever suffered a retrospective facepalm? Perhaps, three months ago, you congratulated a BHS retiree on their generous pension? Maybe you decided to cheer up an avid DC Comics fan who was devastated by Batman v Superman with two consolatory tickets to the Suicide Squad premiere? You might even have joined the jeering mob at the launch of Celebrity Big Brother 2016 as leader of Team Biggins. I know how you feel. A fortnight ago I ran into Felix and Hugo White from the Maccabees at a solo gig by Barry from the Futureheads, a confession that suggests my indie credentials run so deep that I’m officially twinned with John Kennedy (also present). Discussing Felix’s new Yala! record label and reminiscing about my decade or so of boozy interviews with the band, I blathered on about how far they’d come over the course of four albums and, since they’d recently headlined Latitude, suggested they and Foals were the only two current guitar hopes on course for Glastonbury headline slots. I may even have used the words “saving rock music”, but I hope that’s just the facepalm talking.

I mistook Felix’s non-committal shrug for modesty; now I know I might as well have been wishing a Russian Paralympian good luck in Rio. On Monday, the Maccabees announced that they were splitting up after 14 years together, citing no animosity and a band-wide desire to keep making music.

From the outside it seems an unfathomable decision; they were virtually the only modern British rock act on the cusp of arenas and major festival headline slots, making successful, critically acclaimed records that were helping to redefine and rejuvenate alt-rock for the getting-bored-of-neo-soul-now-actually generation. And it feels like a knell for the current era of post-millennial British guitar music. Their split leaves a gaping hole that could take years to fill with anyone of their calibre and barely a handful of UK guitar acts seem even halfway there in 2016. So while we wait five years for Wolf Alice or Royal Blood to come to full fruition, where will all the rock saviours come from?

Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice.
Growing power … Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice. Photograph: Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

Australia for one: we may be bored sick of our home-grown psych rock but the exoticism of Perthedelia may yet sweep Tame Impala to victory. Spain’s uncynical rock environment is allowing a ragged garage rock scene to thrive around Hinds and the Parrots. America still regularly churns out innovative indie rock greats, unaffected by the new limitation caps placed on the UK scene – although according to an LA manager friend of mine, the American industry no longer sees Britain as the country in which to break a rock act first.

More likely, into the breach left by the Maccabees will charge the Indie-Lite Brigade. Bastille, Catfish & the Bottlemen, Blossoms; inoffensive, Grimmy-approved guitar pop that, for want of anything else breaking through, is being talked about in the same terms as the Clash and the Stooges, while the 1975 are credited as modern punk rebels for trying to subvert the pop machine from within. Catfish and Blossoms – recently described with pinpoint accuracy by our own Alexis Petridis as “the kind of music that alternative music was supposed to provide the alternative to” - have been hailed as the swaggering rock’n’roll gangs of the age.

These are bands, to be fair, with merit; then there’s Bastille, corporate indie of the most insidious hue, a band who put another bullet between the eyes of rock’n’roll with every single note they play. Their every multi-tracked “wo-ah”, shrink-wrapped Afrobeat and written-for-adverts chorus are the twitchings of a cooling corpse’s nervous system – cold, dead-eyed imitations of life. The second any such band headlines Reading, the musical equivalent of the swearing-in of President Trump, the 60 -year rock’n’roll experiment will be declared over. Conclusion: crushed, like most other things of worth, on the neoliberal wheel, but fun while it lasted.

Alt-alternative … Blossoms.
Alt-alternative … Blossoms. Photograph: PR

Now I’m certainly not here to trumpet the death of indie rock. It’s a resilient blighter. Many have greatly exaggerated reports of its demise, only to watch it rise again. But it’s clear that, in Britain at least, the deck is stacked imposingly against it. Inventive, wolf-clawed alternative music still thrives in the underbelly of UK culture, howling with ideas, but its support network is too sprawling and disconnected to help it do any more than pad out the festivals, Savages-style. It’s shunted to 6 Music, denied a high-profile platform, lost in the ever-churning blog swamp. As press and critical influence wanes into the shadow of Spotify listens, Hype Machine positions and major label playlist lobbying, populism now resoundingly trumps art and integrity in a desperate game where the rules are increasingly tweaked by bare-faced capitalism to favour the banker.

It’s like a rock’n’roll Hunger Games out there: the majors select a handful of mainstream-compatible guitar acts and get them enough online stats and YouTube ads to battle it out to the death in the barren desertscape of the Top 40. Meanwhile, if hotly tipped hopefuls like Manchester’s Money or London’s Palace are struggling for exposure, then what hope is there for the most future-felching rock band on Nantwich’s Buttfuck Records?

In the week that 6 Music thrusts the 20th anniversary of Oasis at Knebworth into the faces of Honeyblood and Shields, like pushy parents showing their eldest son’s Nobel prize to a second child priced out of university by crippling tuition fees, we’ve never felt so far from repeating the achievement. The British alt-rock scene is running fruitlessly up against the impenetrable force field of a sleek, inclusive and self-serving industry machine, refined over decades, that only sucks in a select few pliable types in tune with its needs and processes. Long-term fans of alt-rock have always felt like the Skywalkers plotting their assaults on the Top 40 death star and throwing an ewok party every time a rock band successfully hit the target. Now it’s starting to look as though they’ve blocked up the thermal exhaust port and the Empire might actually have won. For now.

It’s a situation we need to treat with caution. Because just as Brexit looks set to reduce Britain to the economic gimp of the US and China, we’re becoming just another innocuous European market in global music terms. Until the UK allows itself to be the guitar rock hotbed it naturally is once more, chances are we’ll soon be importing the new Maccabees.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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