Photo courtesy of the Del Amitri site and A&M Records
The Art of Career Subterfuge
by Ryan Settee
The Del Amitri story is probably more complex than you may think. "Weren't they that band that had that hit song?" Yes, they are that band. We all know the song(s). And I have to admit, for years, I had remained ignorant to their excellence. I had written them off as AOR fluff, and I'm sure that I'm not the first nor the last to do that. I think that my mindset is that I'd heard a song or two in the early '90's on the adult contemporary lite-rock station and it was innocuous enough that it slipped in and out of the airwaves without myself having any real remembrance as to what it was (I think that in hindsight it was "Always The Last To Know"). But what people don't know is that behind the hits, there was a bunch of conflicting issues that conspired to essentially obscure the best things that the band ever did.
Del Amitri were one of the bands that very well may have pioneered the vaunted "adult alternative" genre (or at least were one of the first) by the time that their second album Waking Hours had come out, but the real interesting thing for me was that they had actually started out as an arty post-punk band that was rooted in punk rock. Lead singer/bassist/ frontman/main Dels writer Justin Currie is a huge Cramps fan for example. I'm not a huge fan of the adult alternative genre as a whole, but I think that in hindsight, the bands that became a part of the genre by default were the ones that were edgy enough (some sort of youthful guitar rock basis or a weird overall image--think Sinead O'Connor) that were a tad more aggressive or were a bit too esoteric than most of the completely safe AOR musician/ band types. But I think that the term became more synonymous with bands that were getting some mainstream play that were scraping the lower regions of the Billboard top 200... enough to have some sort of popularity and touring cache, but ones that were still playing bars and soft seat theatres instead of arenas.
DA weren't the first to ditch the grassroots DIY ideals of punk (Stiv Bators' '80's output and David Johansen's Buster Poindexter, for example, have that one aced), but they were probably one of the most successful in doing so; at least in terms of being able to survive nearly two decades of making records under the same band name, from 1982 to 2002. Maybe it was because there was no internet back from 1984 to 1989, and that DA's music was only available on specialty radio/ video shows, that they escaped almost completely unscathed in transitioning from angry, political acoustic post-punk to the blatantly commercial band that they're more renowned for. The only act that I can really think of to do what DA had done, was probably Simple Minds (and years earlier, at that)-- a band that was arguably the pinnacle of '80's AOR/MOR who had started out as the very fast and noisy Johnny and the Self Abusers. Somehow, Simple Minds had also escaped the mass scrutiny of change in direction, as well. One could say that by The Joshua Tree, that U2 had shed some of their more abrasive edges and had re-configured their sound to be more accessible (which is true), but they were simply streamlining the accessible elements that they'd already had in their sound from their previous albums. R.E.M. wrote big accessible hits by the turn of the 80's decade as well, but they were pretty accessible for awhile by the time that they'd got signed to a major label deal. Bob Mould probably aimed for some sort older and maturing audience with with his solo debut, which had bore limited resemblance to the full throttle attack of the Huskers. But that had tanked as a good portion of his fanbase from Husker Du didn't particularly like the matured songwriting, and consequently, Mould never actually found the audience that would embrace his change from angry young rocker to the wiser and less crusty troubadour.
I suppose that an underlying topic of the Dels article here is my problem with the "sell out" term in general. I find it impossible to write any further without properly addressing this. I've never really had a problem with a band aiming for the big time. Some people get really offended about "sell out" moves, but really, I think that it's more like "buying in"; you ultimately want to get your music and your vision out there to the most people possible. It's only when the perception is that the only goal is money that I think people get offended. But none of us are the artist, so it's perhaps not a wise move to assume things on behalf of what we'd assume their goals or ideals to be. And also, as you get older, your goals change. It's easy to impose a whole bunch of rules as to what you will or won't do when you start out, but when you're barely living above the poverty line, crammed into a van, arguing with bandmates, staying in crappy dive hotels and/or floors of gracious fans in remote places, what the rock n' roll ideal doesn't tell you is that your longevity is threatened, anyways. There's only a select few "lifer" types that can live that whole lifestyle without questioning their eventual security/comfort in this world.
If one thinks that's not true, then think about all the great bands that never managed to survive past an album or two (maybe three). I can think of an endless litany of great bands, but their final chapters remain uncertain, simply because they never really stuck around or survived all the typical things that threaten to do them in. The interesting thing about a band coming out of the DIY/indie/punk scene (before that was even a real term in the early 80's), was that there was really no template on how to properly "sell out." Bands had to really figure it out for themselves in what constituted a reconfiguration of ideals, because by a certain point, addiction and complacency had thinned out a good majority of the true indie/punkers anyways. Most of them either died and/ or were going through the motions with their music. When your scene changes radically--or dies off (literally)--you have to ask yourself whether that was a path that you'd envisioned for yourself when you decided that you were gonna "smash the state" or "give the finger to the man." In some ways, you may as well be giving the finger to yourself if you continue on a path that makes no sense for you or your better interests later in life.
I've never heard Del Amitri offer this as a reason for changing direction and it's simply my own dissertion, but needless to say, it's applicable to some bands that have both said as much, and others that wished that they would have said it.
Nowadays, you have YouTube, and there's no way that any band would be able to do what the Dels did anymore (or even Simple Minds, and even possibly R.E.M., even though R.E.M. was the least radical of a change in this comparison). I don't think that people would accept the change in direction as being true. And not only that, I get the impression that after the '90's alternative/punk/indie boom, that the big industry (what's left of it nowadays, anyway) is very cautious about mixing indie ethics with the big music machine, simply because those bands maybe tend to be "difficult" and stop delivering the radio hits on a whim. And make no mistake, DA were sick of their own radio hits by their own account, because on one hand, it allowed them to buy houses and cars and live comfortably (Justin Currie has said that he's never had to hold down a day job since DA unofficially dissolved around 2002/2003), but for a brooding and introspective band like DA, the shiny, bouncy hits giveth, but they also taketh away. For every massive radio hit, once you go that route, people want more of the same. It's a lot like going into a restaurant and ordering a hamburger and fries--if they give you soup and Chinese food, you'd likely say "this is nice, but give me what I ordered." And if they insisted that you still eat something that you didn't order, you'd likely walk away and not come back to that restaurant.
Music is a tough thing to sell, simply because as a musician and band, you're supposed to broaden your horizons and have some sort of growth. Stagnation, in some circles, is a worse accusation than progression. Unfortunately, too much growth can often be seen as contemptuous of your current audience. Some people just don't like change. The unfortunate thing for mainstream artists, is that they're often locked into a game of giving the customer exactly what they'd ordered. There's a few artists that can deviate from it (Springsteen, for example), where they can make less commercial albums and still get away with it. But at least he's aware of his circumstances--hell, a guy like Bowie doesn't even know that in between the arty, less immediate albums and the more commercial ones, that he's not actually anywhere close to still being on the hit parade. But for most bands and artists, once they stray from the tried and true, that's it--it's career suicide. You don't get another shot, it's game over.
And for a band like DA--whose influences were rooted in punk and to the connection of real music made by real humans with real flaws--it became a problem for them in how to still balance their idealistic ethics, along with their commercial ambitions. They wanted to make a career out of music, but there was an unshakeable sense among many of their larger audience that through the depressing break-up and love gone wrong songs, that the Dels were too in tune with reality, too in tune with the basic tenets of human nature, of loss, grief, greed and tragedy. Most people look to music or movies to allow them to escape, not generally to remind them of their own problems (unless you're a goth).
It's my assumption that since the band didn't want to consistently play the "game", that new fans that had been gained on the back of the singles songs had found out that the majority of the songs on the full releases were just too dreary and too depressing. And to them, worst of all, was the variety--there was rock, country, folk, dirges, etc. It sounded like a whole bunch of bands--compounding problems a bit is that Justin's lower baritone actually doesn't sound a whole heckuva lot like his upper register. Factor in Currie's huge sideburns and add to the mix that Currie had jettisoned a lot of his thick Scottish accent/ dialect for a more Americanized style of singing that had started a bit on Change Everything (and refined on Twisted and continued on past that), and there were elements that fans of the Waking Hours era had even grown to dislike. Twisted marked the beginning of the band really starting to realize that they were permanently in the niche of selling something a bit different to the norm for 20 and 30 somethings, so you have songs like "Start With Me," which really sound like a conscious muscling up for angling towards some newer and edgier modern guitar rock type of stations. After 1992's Change Everything (arguably a more consistent album overall, compared to its follow up, Twisted), they were locked into offering something a bit more intelligent and insightful than the usual radio fodder; unfortunately, the songs that constitute that side of the band didn't really tend to get airplay; they became "select album tracks" by hardcore fans that had deviated from just listening to the singles type songs.
I suppose that the combination of these sorts of things are a pretty lethal cocktail, especially considering that 1997's excellent Some Other Sucker's Parade which (with a bigger dose of muscle courtesy of long time Dels guitarist Iain Harvie) delivered a constant flow of 4/4 guitar rockers with a minimum of stylistic diversions that unfortunately arrived too late in their career to really gain proper momentum. It should have delivered a mega hit in one of '97's best straight up pop songs, "Not Where It's At," and there's also a whole bunch of catchy, immediate power pop songs on the record. A song like "Not Where It's At" is unfortunately now relegated pretty much to faceless Muzak styled in-store business PA channels; I smiled when I heard "Not Where It's At" on the PA in a store one time not too long ago, but realized that's the fate, pretty much, for yesteryear's minor hit MOR songs. It's almost uncannily like how any minor soft rock 70's song gets immortalized now only in the "Sounds of the 70's" compilations; a fossil in a forgotten mainstream landscape as if it never otherwise existed.
However, this is the part of the tribute that now we've got some of the misconceptions and preconceptions covered (as well as some of the inherent flaws in the commercialized side of making music), I can really get to what made the band special: occasionally laying an absolute lyrical bomb on the audience. Music being entertainment in the end, I don't believe that every song should be deep and meaningful, but there are times that it should be. At some point, someone's job should be to document and comment on the world around us. It would become overused if everyone were to do it, but I think that music fails us if no one does it. That being said, if there's anyone literate and intelligent enough to extol the demerits and document the erosion of modern society, it's Justin Currie. If one of the band's intentions was to attempt to subvert part of the system from within and gain a platform in which to voice its concerns, then it's mission accomplished on that end. Take "Nothing Ever Happens", for example (big video? Check. Played at awards show? Check). 23 years on, and the scathing lyrics are still absolutely spot on. The choice of diction, rhymes, meter- it's all absolutely brilliant, wrapped up in a folk rock presentation with mandolins, and a killer chorus. The full lyrics are edited down a bit from the complete song, but I'd compiled some of the best verses/lines from the song:...telephone exchanges click while there's nobody thereThe characters on those tapes are still us in department store, but we "survive constant action replay" even more so in our very video and photo documented 21st Century, and the Orwellian nightmare still rears its ugly head. "Van Goghs" being snapped up "for the price of a hospital wing" is still prescient, since his art still sells for ridiculously high prices, but one could also replace even the Van Gogh in the song for the zillions of dollars that was spent on this upcoming U.S. election and the song would still have the same message. One just has to use their imagination for whatever current event becomes more important in its sheer vanity than its actual practicality. I'm sure that the Van Gogh parallel didn't just stop there, either- Van Gogh died poor, so that the rich could spoil themselves over who has the most dough to shell out for it to match their living room decor or to have it sit in what's essentially some sort of distant exhibit, where no one's actually enjoying it. I mean, that's the ultimate in irony right there.
the Martians could land in the carpark and no one would care
close-circuit cameras in department stores shoot the same video every day
and the stars of these films neither die nor get killed
just survive constant action replay...
.....and computer terminals report some gains
on the values of copper and tin
while American businessmen snap up Van Goghs
for the price of a hospital wing
nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
the needle returns to the start of the song
and we all sing along like before
nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all
they'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock
and we'll all go along like before...
As of this writing, Justin has put out two excellent solo albums, What Is Love For?, a slower, more acoustic and piano based album, and a more uptempo one in The Great War. On each album, there's a diatribe type song on the status of the world around him; "The Fight To Be Human" on The Great War and "No, Surrender" off of What Is Love For?. Admittedly, those songs are pretty bleak, even among the canon of a guy that's renowned for specializing in bleak. Take this lyric, for example, from "No, Surrender" (wherein the strategically placed comma in the song title turns the commonly used morale boosting phrase into a white flag waving ordeal):"pill pushers, doorsteppers, personal goal shoppers, lifestyle trendsetters, meditating mindbenders, hare-brained share sellers pumping out stocks 'til you're choking on a chain-letter avalanche of dross… god squads crawling through every country, tracking down fools who are bullshit hungry, blinded by divinity followers fall into the man-traps set along the Wailing Wall...film fans flock to the latest schlock, blockbusters block out even the vaguest thought, bankrupt schools grind out fool after fool then feed them to a system where idiots rule... if you're asking me, I say no, surrender."This is only a sampling of about a tenth or so of the actual lyrics in the song, its 7 minutes and 40 seconds being a chorus free direct tirade on basically everyone and everything that bugs him nowadays. But he's dead on target in his accuracy.
Del Amitri had put out a solid final album, Can You Do Me Good? in 2002, whose key song was "Jesus Saves," a bluesy stomper of a song with lines such as "Jesus gives to the prostitutes their pimps" and "Jesus gives so he can watch the swamp of people squirm and sink" (a rant on organized religion). Justin and Iain had never officially tendered an actual epitaph on the state of the band, but after they were dropped by A&M Records (their long time label) was folded into the Universal merger, Justin has said over the years that the band had sort of lost momentum between that and having to re-establish themselves and find a new label and tour incessantly, etc. etc.
But I will say this: through all the similar sounding bands that had come and gone throughout the years, the fact that the Dels had managed to make music for two decades speaks volumes. They got people to think that it was the hits that mattered, but for the more astute, it's the political songs that survive the test of time the most. Imagine that. It's a bit of a shame that the tirade/rant songs had disappeared from albums like Twisted and Some Other Sucker's Parade (Change Everything had "Surface Of The Moon," although it wasn't overly political, it had dug deep into the well of introspection). Despite the solid nature of those very good straight up guitar pop albums, Del Amitri was best when they'd subverted the expectations that when you trade in your indie credibility, that you forsake all the reasoning to still put up a fight and challenge people to think outside of the norm.
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