Sex and drinks and rock'n'roll

Illegal drugs are out and old-fashioned alcohol is back in. Can it really be true? Our man at the bar, Steve Jelbert, recounts the twinned histories of popular music and booze
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Is it my imagination, or are there more people than ever at the bars of London's music venues these days? From garage rock nights at The Garage to arty Hoxtonite events at the ICA, the one thing you can guarantee is a long wait for a scoop. It's not like the dancefloors and mosh pits are empty, either. The public is still going out in large numbers, yet it's clear that drinking is back.

Perhaps drugs have lost their allure due to their omnipresence. When it takes more effort to score a "pint" than a "dime bag", they hardly seem worth the trouble for the unaddicted or socially competent. This year's up-and-coming bands, like The Strokes, White Stripes and The Hives, provide ideal soundtracks for consumption, especially for the crucial over-25 audience, who can hold their ale properly. Andrew WK might not have sold many records, but his "party-hearty" themes are attuned to the times. (Conversely, metal, traditionally favoured by horny handed sons of toil whose thirsts require assuaging, is now beloved by the very young, as if the boiler-suited Slipknot are the logical next step after the Teletubbies.)

It's appropriate, then, that Scandinavian combos like The Hives and International Noise Conspiracy delight crowds of imbibers. Bar prices are so extreme in Sweden that drinking here, even at metropolitan prices, holds the same allure to Scandies as an Amsterdam "coffee" shop does for the British. Having seen a Noel-less Oasis in a Norwegian park, where the drinkers were corralled into one corner of the site, I can vouch that not even the cost of a round dissuaded boozy Norsemen and Norsewomen from leaping onto eminently collapsible plastic furniture at every familiar chorus and sending a week's wages (i.e. three pints of weedy lager) skywards. Liam Gallagher's well-oiled turn at Wembley had nothing on such berserk behaviour towards garden fittings.

Of course, the drinkers haven't only been in the audience. Apocryphally, Black Sabbath's drummer Bill Ward was said to have arrived at the airport for their first US tour carrying two pieces of luggage, each a flagon of cider. If Ozzy Osbourne's wife hadn't hidden the Sabbath singer's clothes in an attempt to stop him going out on the lash, he would never have peed on The Alamo while wearing one of her dresses. Jim Morrison was a greater drinker than poet, once relieving himself into several empty wine jugs placed into position by friends worried for their couch.

Present-day performers who seem to require something for their nerves include Badly Drawn Boy and Ryan Adams, while the rider requirements of Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard (an ex-teacher, so he probably got the taste before going pro) and Queens of the Stone Age inspire awe, even among hardened promoters. Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap, the definitive poet of the hangover, sometimes looks rough enough to manage Manchester United.

Drunkenness respects no genre. The Cure's Lol Tolhurst got the bullet for regularly achieving levels of inebriation noticeable even to his famously merry bandmates, and for wearing filthy trousers at a video shoot (their odour remains unrecorded). Blur's Graham Coxon and Alex James took louche living to extremes. Ash have never been shy of the sauce, though they were shy of letting their families see the video of their early tours. Rightly so, for who wants their parents to see what they're up to at that age? What if it's nothing?

Less impressively, Ocean Colour Scene vocalist Simon "Foxy" Fowler appeared on one of those "celebrities at their worst" clip shows, blowing beer out of his nose after a gulp on stage, while his audience jumped up and down, a pint in each hand, spilling nary a drop.

Hip-hop has had a long, sometimes dishonourable relationship with "pop". A decade ago, the drink of choice was malt liquor in 40oz bottles, the "forties" of so many raps. Cypress Hill adapted their "I Could Just Kill a Man" for advertising purposes by simply changing the last word to "can".

Now aspirational swilling has taken over. Tha Alkaholiks became simply "Tha Liks", Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy recently collaborated on "Pass the Courvoisier", and Jay-Z"s offhand line "Six model chicks, six bottles of Cris" – a reference to Roederer's Cristal champagne, once favoured by the Tsars of Russia – is typical. (Krug, however, is out, presumably due to its unsavoury associations with Jeffrey Archer.) Thankfully, Stockwell's Roots Manuva prefers a British brew, admitting that at "breakneck speed we down 10 pints of bitter" on his hit "Witness (One Hope)".

Stupid drinking even has its own club night. Though not as feted as the ubiquitous School Disco, Club Beer has played pretty much the same predictable sounds for a few years now, describing its playlist as "music that only sounds good when you're drunk". The event even boasts an inexplicable set of video testimonials from hip-hop luminaries on its website (www.clubbeer.co.uk), including some potty mouthed stuff from Tim "Halfords" Westwood.

Back in the mists of time, when drinking laws were more restrictive, large groups of people were only allowed to have a good time at Faces concerts, when Rod Stewart and his lads led a singsong, and Ronnie Wood paused only to sniff some nose-up out of organist Ian McLagen's handy carnation. Such shenanigans were an inspiration to the likes of Finnish drinkers and erstwhile musicians Hanoi Rocks, who reportedly needed to be strapped into their bunks when travelling. Their hairstyles and dress sense (the "drunk drag queen" look) inspired Guns n' Roses, whose T-shirt design was based on the label of Mr Jack Daniels's rock'n'roll mouthwash. Gunners fans included the Manic Street Preachers, whose James Dean Bradfield is clearly fond of a pie and a pint. And so the tradition continues.

Drinking tends to be a good thing for rock music, though. The mid-Seventies pub rock scene – rock played in pubs by drinkers to people drinking – was a greater influence on punk than is recognised. The late-Eighties Seattle explosion caught on with young people who staggered out of shows in subsidised student union venues, mumbling things like "Tad are the greatest band in the world, man" and "I heard Nirvana were on. Were they any good?". At this rate, we can expect many exciting, insensitive bands over the next 18 months. I'll be there, at the bar.

Comments