THE BEGINNING

In the world of alternative music, it’s the most derogatory term; the most personal of slurs; the ‘stop showing off’ of critiques that it’s impossible to verbally spar against.

sellout

But can we really blame him?

In the world of alternative music, it’s the most derogatory term; the most personal of slurs; the ‘stop showing off’ of critiques that it’s impossible to verbally spar against. Much like it’s impossible to insist “I’m NOT showing off!!!” in front your marginally less embarrassed friend with any sense of dignity, there’s no comeback to being dubbed ‘a sellout’. You’re of course lower than the hardcore kids who ate pubes for dinner again last night, but the posh kids too; the ones who ate quail eggs halfway through rehearsing their shit art band that has all the commercial appeal of Gary Glitter Idol. The extreme purists and over privileged avoid such a slight on their art, the former happy to dine on dead skin like their heroes Black Flag, the latter wealthy enough to never need compromise their integrity. Almost everyone in between is susceptible to attack.

Oddly – and why the sellout swipe is so synonymous with alt. genres – pop stars are exempt from the put down altogether. It’s because the Jedwards and JLSes are music’s ‘honest thieves’, proudly laying out their shameless stalls beneath bunting that spells out, We’re bringing mass-appeal and taking the shit load of money that comes with it. It doesn’t make it right, but you can’t be a sellout if you’ve got nothing to sell, and we can’t feel betrayed by something too stupid to try deceiving us. That, after all, is where our grievances with ex-favourite/ex-credible artists come from.

Robin Scott is the founding father of brazen pop music. In 1979 he made the first knowingly uncool single that checked its credibility at the door from the off. He released ‘Pop Musik’ (y’know, the “Talk about… pop music!” song) with his band M in an attempt to proudly present the perfect throw-a-way hit record. It was punk by be so anti-punk and although its chart climb stalled at number 2, it paved the way for disposable pop music that put fun and mainstream success before even the thinnest veil of artistic merit and back-slaps from clever bands.

It was always rappers that Ben Drew – aka Plan B – wanted the props from as he viciously spat out social verse over wiry twangs of an acoustic guitar, like a Jamie T without the crooked, cheeky Oliver smile and happy reggae bounce. And Plan B’s debut album, 2006’s ‘Who Needs Action When You Got Words’, did alright by him, in terms of credibility and impressed nods from the music press. But while sneering tracks like ‘No More Eatin’ and recounting his childhood spent on south London council estates, it turns out that it was Ben Drew who wasn’t ‘eatin’, or at least not as he’d like to have been. It’s the only excusable reason for this month’s long-awaited follow up, ‘The Defamation of Strickland Banks’ – an album intent on ‘doing a Noisettes’; not just cushioning edges in the hope for improved commercial success but child-proofing them beyond all recognition.

On a blind taste test, you’d swear that new single ‘Stay Too Long’ is Paulo Nutini’s latest, all chug-a-chugging guitars and soul organs; something Olly Mears would have ‘made his own’ on X Factor. The rap middle 8 sounds a little more like the Plan B of ’06, but can’t help but come across like an non too subtle trick to keep a handful of old fans onside whilst also casting an extra wide net toward all those unaware of Drew’s previous work. It’d somehow be better if it wasn’t in there at all – a clean break from the UK hip-hop that wasn’t making Plan B a penny.

The rest of ‘The Defamation…’ tows the same digestible soul-pop line and would be far from terrible if it was a new artist’s first album (helped by the fact that Ben Drew can in fact sing like Lionel…nearly). But it’s not, and that nasty ‘S’ word is sure to be what most Plan B fans will reach for throughout March, which suddenly seems completely unfair, perhaps due to me never have being a Plan B super fan (and therefore void of that cheated feeling), but perhaps because of plain old sympathy.

Should Ben Drew know better? It’s not as if he’s U2, or Suggs even, inflating an already heaving bank account with iPod and Fish Finger money. It seems more likely that Plan B was faced with two options after his debut album failed to give his bank manager a boner – sell some records or get a real job. And while plenty of his latest album makes Lidl box boy seem like a very tempting position, Plan B’s dilemma, sorry to say, looks set to be something of the norm if new artists intend to pay the bills with profits from this music game. It’s only a half truth that no one buys records anymore – they do if they’re goddamn catchy enough – and with more second and third albums from mid-to-late-noughties bands due this year, don’t be surprised if ‘sellout’ loses it’s sharpened bite.

By Danny Canter

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Originally published in issue 14 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2010

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