Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Cult of Reformation

So, Blur have reformed and joined the ranks of all those other museum pieces that will be gracing vast corporate arenas and the great parks of this sceptred isle. When their reformation was announced their web forum received 60 hits per second and the 45,000 tickets for their initial show in Hyde Park next summer sold out in two minutes. An additional date has been added due to its success.
Blur went on an indefinite hiatus after touring their seventh record Think Tank (guitarist Graham Coxon had left the band halfway through recording to continue with his nascent solo career, branding singer Damon Albarn an “egomaniac”). Since then Albarn has acceded to his wanderlust and been involved with the Gorillaz project, the Monkey: Journey to the West stage show, the Africa Express revue, Amadou and Mariam’s album and The Good, The Bad and The Queen group (whose eponymous album I believe to be one of the finest this decade). Coxon has continued his solo career with mixed success, bassist Alex James is a farmer and writes a column for The Guardian on his exploits while drummer Dave Rowntree is a prospective politician.
The problem with reformations is that the majority of music fans will have a frozen image in their mind, a snapshot of an artist suspended in time. So when they have drained the aspic from themselves, how do we react to the reformed band? There is huge demand to see ‘classic’ bands in a live setting, and in the very recent past there has been a rash of bands that have reformed. Our collective cultural nostalgia means the bands are effectively fetishised. My own image of Blur is that of a young band on the brink of releasing Parklife, arguably their career high and the album that entrenched them in popular cultural memory (via the Britpop ‘war’ with Oasis).
The history of rock is an illusion; its historicism presents such a narrow viewpoint, surrounded by mirages, becoming a double aspect rather than a singular truth. Blur will always remain thus in popular consciousness: estuary twang,” Woohoo!”, Blur vs Oasis, cocaine addiction, the Mogwai t-shirt. In all probability they won’t be able to escape this image, and will have this imprint of a collective cultural memory superimposed upon them for ever more.
Blur’s reformation is mainly due to a deal struck with the American promoter Live Nation, who have extensively transformed the landscape of the music industry. Realising that the real money was to be made in the live arenas from ticketing and merchandise, they sign artists but not in the traditional sense. They sign the artist as their promoter rather than as the owner of the copyright of the material. It suggests that Blur have reformed for money rather than for their art. The power of promoters such as Live Nation, the demand to see classic artists or even the whole of a classic album, and the flexing of the spending power of the music fan (even in these constrained times) means that this trend for reformation will continue unabated.
What is depressing is that it smacks desperately of corporatism. There may well be unfinished business for Albarn and Coxon, but the people that buy the tickets will be going to see Phil Daniels mug his way through “Parklife” and not to hear new material from Albarn and co. Do we wish to be infantilised by the cult of reformation? The success of recent reformations and the Don’t Look Back series of performances suggest we do. Alongside big acts such as The Police, Take That, The Spice Girls countless alternative acts have reformed, from My Bloody Valentine to Dinosaur Jr. It seems that money and a receptive audience can melt even the staunchest of grudges, the largest of “over my dead body” rifts. Even perennially optimistic English pop-punkers A are rumoured to have reformed. I mean, what is so bad with the current crop of bands that has allowed this bunch of American punk aping no hopers to lumber (or pogo) back into view is beyond me. Music should be about genesis, evolution, forward movement – yet this cult of reformation will only lead to stasis and inertia.
I genuinely hope that Blur’s new material extends beyond the inevitable specially recorded new songs that will be bundled on the end of a repackaged greatest hits collection, to a full length album that showcases the best of their talents. Only time will tell.

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