There was a point last spring, watching the third night of Suede's three-night run at Brixton Academy, when I said "that's enough". The problem wasn't the gig; it was fantastic, as indeed the Pulp and Blur comebacks were. It's more that reliving the music of my youth in a near-perfect battle re-enactment was starting to give me a hollow feeling.
It's not just the personal feeling of wallowing in nostalgia; the endless run of Nineties resurrections, ever-diminishing in quality (we've had Republica already, Marion, My Life Story... who next, Rialto?) is starting to have a distorting impact on the industry. The Pulp reunion dominated much of last year's festival chatter, and The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays loom large in this summer's billings. Suede are headlining Hop Farm alongside Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel. The likes of Lakefest, meanwhile, with headliners Dodgy, Reef, Toploader and two of The Wonder Stuff, could have crawled out of 1996.
These bands had their time. Those festival slots and that money should be going to younger bands pushing forward and upward. How are the likes of The Maccabees, Bombay Bicycle Club and The Horrors, all with recent Top 10 albums, ever to rise to the big headline slots with Ian Brown sitting in them like a great musical cuckoo? Where are the make-or-break chances, the recognition for successful young acts like The Vaccines, who topped the albums chart at the end of last year? These are young bands who've all sold out the Brixton Academy and have a large live following across the country. Next month, The Maccabees play the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace in north London. Synthpop heroes Hurts are already headline material in Europe – why doesn't their home country have the same confidence in them? Plan B's The Defamation of Strickland Banks was a triple-platinum smash. Why is his only headline slot at the Eden Sessions?
Or what about The xx, due to release a "clubby" album ahead of their announced festival dates (they play Bestival in September, headlined by New Order, Stevie Wonder and Florence and the Machine). Why did no one at Bestival, or any of the other biggies, have the guts to give this hugely successful new band, who've already proved themselves a captivating festival act, a chance to take over from the Nineties dance old guard?
Music Week published a special report last year on the state of festivals, which blamed stultifying line-ups on a lack of new talent coming through, particularly in the rock genre, forcing bookers to rely on old flames, afraid that newer bands might not appeal to a wide enough audience. But isn't the problem that fear, that lack of risk-taking rather than the bands themselves? All the signs are there that new talent is coming through if you stop "in my day"-ing long enough to make notice.
Sadly, festival organisers are less likely to take a risk in these uncertain financial times on a band that might own the night, but could just possibly blow it (as Pulp stepped up to the plate in 1995 to replace The Stone Roses at the last minute) when they can book a banker in the form of an act who can attract thirtysomething original fans, but can also, thanks to the legend-building of a music press thankful for a pre-established proper story, suck in a whole new generation. That's a shame when today's misshapes, mistakes and misfits should be having their own Britpop.
Like the ageing indie kids did in the Nineties, they should see their bands taking the top billings of the biggest festivals, and feel like they're living in their own moment. Now Blur are headlining the closing ceremony celebration gig for the Olympics, with Underworld already having been chosen as official opening ceremony musicians. Are we to have athletes from the Nineties running the 100 metres for us too?
And you have to question, with the cancellation of both The Big Chill and Sonisphere, whether playing it safe is actually a sensible tactic. The expansion of numbers and opening up to a wider range of music fans that has continued since the early Nineties means that festivals are big business these days, and the need to guarantee a return is understandable. But with so many happening every weekend from September, the way to shift tickets is to stand out, not wheel Dave Grohl out again for another chorus of "Monkey Wrench".
In a fallow year for Glastonbury, you'd expect the other big-hitter festivals to be doing better, and you can't help but think that usual-suspect line-up fatigue is setting in. Those tickets aren't cheap, and if you're watching the same limited number of bands swapping round different festival sites every year, the temptation to fork out is probably a lot less enticing than it used to be. Of Leeds and Reading's three top main-stage headliners, Foo Fighters headlined both T in the Park and Isle of Wight festivals last year, sharing the latter with Kasabian, while the Cure headlined Bestival. This year, too, the same acts are repeated over a number of line-ups, to the extent that it's hard to distinguish one festival from another. Last year, tickets sold slowly, and you could still buy Reading and Leeds tickets up until July for well below asking price. A quick check on eBay, where you can find a pair of Reading weekend tickets for £70 below asking price, suggests this year's line-up hasn't rectified the problem.
So maybe it's time to take a few risks, even flirt with a few disasters. The Britpop era would never have happened if the likes of Blur, Pulp and Oasis had been stifled by a load of acts from the tail end of the Seventies overstaying their welcome on festival bills and magazine pages. That modern life would, indeed, have been rubbish.
- More about:
- Bob Dylan
- Brit Rock
- Country Music
- Indie Music
- Peter Gabriel
- Post 2000 Indie
- The Stone Roses