British art colleges have turned out a stellar roll-call of musical individualists, from John Lennon to Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker to Alison Goldfrapp. Meanwhile, music schools have bequeathed us the likes of Katie Melua and Leona Lewis. Cheers, BRIT School! With the help of a grizzled ’70s pop guru and, er, the Devil, erstwhile tompaulin singer and art school alumnus Jamie Holman asks why you can’t teach talent.
In the half-full gloom of a faded, red velvet Victorian theatre, I am sat with future band mate Ciaron Melia on the same row as the actor Nerys Hughes (I’ll put you out of your misery: she was Sandra in The Liver Birds). Outside the rain pours as only the Welsh know it can, and inside everything is a welcome distraction from the caravan park in Rhyl that, for one bleak October week, we call home. Onstage, the headline act is warming up the audience and asking for volunteers. It is at this point that everything changes. Forever. I find myself up on my feet and running down the aisle and up onto the steps that lead to the stage and the spotlight. People shuffle and whisper loudly in their discomfort as the hypnotist asks me what he can help me with. He passes me the mic and I seize it with both hands, red-faced, close to tears, and tell him simply that I want to be hypnotised… so that I can play the guitar. He bellows with laughter and puts his hand on my shoulder. He’s so close I can smell the mothballs. He tells me that it doesn’t work like that but that I should consider lessons. I jump from the stage; there is a mixture of awkward silence and muted laughter. It won’t be the last time I exit a stage in this manner, but I don’t know it at the time. As it is, I return to my seat and enjoy watching the man who eats an onion thinking it’s an apple, the girl who thinks she’s naked and the crowd of people/chickens who cluck at the sound of the word ‘orange’. No one else asks to be hypnotised into being a guitarist. Being poultry will suffice for them and, as the show finishes on a promise to stop a fat man getting fatter, the phrase “consider lessons” rings in my ears. I don’t/won’t/can’t consider lessons; lessons are for posh kids and classical music fans. I am fourteen years old and my favourite record is Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. I already know that no lesson’s going to teach me how to do that. Back at the caravan, we have three cassettes: The World Won’t Listen by The Smiths, Low Life by New Order and Back To Basics by Billy Bragg. I hold them in my hands, read the inlays from cover to cover, stare out of the window and dream about being in a band. I have no idea how this happens, but we talk endlessly about it. Ciaron fancies the saxophone (a nod back to an earlier Madness obsession) and I am torn between drums and guitar. Guitars are cheaper in Ciaron’s mum’s Grattan catalogue (black and white rock-style electric, £6 a week for 42 weeks; includes tuner), so I lean towards that and slowly let the drums go. We visit a disco on site, try to buy beer, talk to girls who like Bros and ask the DJ to play New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’. We dance like Barney (Sumner, not the dinosaur: stand still and move arms) and tell the girls we’re in a band. The next twenty years will pass like this. Though we are still without a lesson between us, we are still telling girls in night clubs that we are in a band. Only this time we really arc — and we’ve even got a record out.
Punk scribe Mark Perry has denied that he said this or wrote the chord diagram in Sniffin’ Glue. It doesn’t matter who authored it; it changed my life. And now the cliché; Ten years on from Jubilee year, I had the epiphany that so many others have described, dined out on, claimed and immortalised while feasting on the cold corpse of punk, re-writing and colouring outside the lines in the comic book version of the ballad of Sid and Nancy, as beloved of middle aged men in certain magazines. Avoid these people at all costs and keep it simple. The only legacy of punk that has any real currency is this: Do it yourself. Because you can. And you don’t even need three chords. Two will usually do, and one chord played really well will break hearts across the world. Try it. I recommend E minor. Of course, punk was liberating — in both attitude and aesthetic. It was dynamic, with an art school sensibility that propelled it beyond the spit and razor Daily Mail headlines of the day. Think of Vivienne Westwood’s clothing, Malcolm Mclaren’s situationist schtick, Jamie Reid’s ransom note graphic design and all the hand-drawn, photocopied and collaged fanzines that sprung up in art schools and bedrooms up and down the country. Art schools were offering the creative environment needed to produce music as well as giving a heads up on what to expect out there… with or without guitars. Punk proposed possibilities for people who never had or wanted musical training; it embraced diverse voices and reclaimed the people’s art — rock music — from those who had turned it into opera, symphony and even King Arthur On Ice. But the trouble with punk was the narrow parameters set around it by the very people it liberated. It should have been a creative starting point, not a hermetic musical genre. The same goes for what we now call ‘indie’. The punks jumped into bed with the majors even as the ink was drying on the fanzine. One man in an oversized tartan suit does not a revolution make and today the same man who told me to get off my arse is on my TV selling me butter. However, like rebellious nineteenth century textile workers the Luddites, who set out to destroy the very mechanics that had the potential to liberate them (don’t smash the machine lads — take over the factory!), the alternative legacy of punk is one of slavish, rigid repetition. So punk is reduced to a 1-2-3-4 count in a cockney accent, safety pins and photocopies. The resulting formula is so stripped of any original ideas or passion, it becomes a cliché. Every so often, of course, a band or artist comes along which changes everything at a stroke. Generally we don’t like to watch our musicians growing up on the job; we like them to arrive fully formed, myth intact. These are Robert Johnson-like figures who emerge from the shadows with a virtuoso ability but who retain the vital street authenticity – think Johnny Marr, Squarepusher and even (Arctic Monkeys frontman) Alex Turner. And they can come from anywhere. In fact: junkie, bookshop worker, thief, architectural college, unemployed, hell, even a teaching qualification, are all acceptable backgrounds for musicians. Best of all is art school! But never a music course; that’s UNFORGIVABLE.
There’s a paradox here. It’s a definite requirement for a contemporary artist to have formal training, even to learn at the hand of an older, established artist. No artist’s biography is complete without the prefix “studied at Goldsmiths/Bradford/ Glasgow” etc. I personally took the art school route, not the musical one. Three members of my band tompaulin were Chelsea art students and five of the six members studied art in some way (the sixth claims that A-level almost counts). Art school gave me the confidence to press up a single when I had only written two songs. We spent more time on the sleeve than we did in the studio. It was great. I went to art school because I had ideas and something to say. I just didn’t know if those ideas were more relevant to art or music. Or even if it mattered which form they were resolved in, that perhaps I could produce an ‘art’ object that was a song, a sleeve (photography/drawing/font) and writing; and use the record sleeve as a means of publishing your ideas/ prose/stories/daydreams. Not just the lyric. Now that’s something that art school will teach you. Art school embraces activity. Writing songs I never once worried about chord sequences. I just wanted the song to be as good as the sleeve and vice versa. I also had nowhere else to go that fitted in with what I wanted to do. I wasn’t alone. I shared a studio with Tom Jenkinson for two years, until Aphex Twin gave him the nod and he became Squarepusher (I bet he’s regretted not taking my advice to “get a degree under his belt first” ever since…) Art school is about creativity and experimentation. Anything goes. I made videos, wrote things and thought about stuff. I even had a piece in The New Contemporaries exhibition, but it still took me four years and two degrees at Chelsea to realise what I knew before I got there. All around me young British artists were making sculptures of Sid Vicious, releasing records or generally behaving like rock stars. I didn’t want irony, distance or discourse. I wanted to be in a band for real. And at art school I knew that I’d meet other people like me, and I did. For the musician, musical schooling is the kiss of death, conjuring images of, a lack of imagination (Melua, I’m speaking to you!) or posh kids slumming it (come in The Kooks!), while artists continue to set great store by their alma mater. Indeed, while interviewing artist-turned-musician-turned-artist-again John Squire for this publication recently, it became clear that John deeply regretted not going to art school, despite playing on one of the great British album debuts, The Stone Roses. But shouldn’t the opportunity to learn about tricky middle eights, recording studios, contracts and press pluggers actually empower nascent musicians rather than limit them? Should musicians be doomed to recycle the mistakes of the ’60s’ kids who signed away their lives for ten pence and a blow job? It’s with all this in mind that I recently (belatedly) took the radical step of agreeing to some musical instruction, to finally “try lessons” – and with a glam rock eminence grise, no less.
My teacher is Tony Thorpe. Tony played guitar in ’70s neo-doo wop popsters and Top Of The Pops regulars the Rubettes, and now teaches on something called Access to Music. Martin Rossiter from the band Gene runs another of these courses; BBC Radio 1’s Edith Bowman and even Sir George Martin all actively support the A2M programme. The first thing I realise is that these are the best practice rooms I’ve ever been in. There are amps, guitars, mics and a drum kit. It all works. Tony is sitting down, and although not wearing the trademark Rubettes white cap, I am pleased to see he is still cutting a dash in a black trilby, every bit the blues man with a touch of Arthur Daley thrown in. He is also nursing a personalised, hand made guitar with his name emblazoned on it. I am totally out of my depth. The tompaulin ‘hits’ aren’t going to cut it in here. We start with a chat, an ice-breaker; to get to know each other. . . and fall out immediately. Tony thinks the Kinks were one of the worst British bands ever and that Dave Davis is a crap guitar player. The Kinks are one of my favourite ever bands. Their Village Green Preservation Society LP has been consistent reference point for every record I’ve ever made; I would fight in the streets for either Dave or Roy Davis. This doesn’t bode well for the rest of the lesson. It gets worse when Tony tells me that Dire Straits are a much better band, just not “fashionable”: “You’ve got it arse over tit, J. Kinks crap… Knopfler superb.” In the haze that follows, I think Sting is also mentioned and I’m suddenly thinking that the hypnotist might be worth another go. But things begin to improve as the discussion broadens and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much we agree upon.
“They walk in and an old fart like me is telling them the opposite of everyone else” Tony Thorpe
JH: Tony, what makes a good record?
TT: No one knows, but creative understanding helps. Unfashionable words like ‘feel’ and ‘groove’. No one mentions these things anymore. But at the end of the day, as long as its a good record, who cares? Everything else is just fashion.
JH: I agree. So why come to college to learn theory if no one can identify what the criteria for a great record are?
TT: The problem is that loads of these types of courses and things are just crap. It’s down to who does it. I’m not interested in scales and playing up and down the neck faster and faster. It doesn’t do anything. You’ve got to be able to listen and react. Have ideas. Play outside your comfort zone, away from the restriction of genres. Musicianship is at its lowest ever ebb in this country. People have either tried to replace flair with theory, or just repeated punk. It’s all useless crap. Down here you can get together with a band and play along, with someone like me to advise you. All I’m really fit for is to say ‘LISTEN!’
JH: People I have spoken to seem to have the opinion that organised music education strips away creativity.
TT: In the ‘6os, there weren’t places like this, but you had bands who would listen. Think about Brian Jones watching Alexis Korner, and then sitting in and playing. Eventually you end up with a band who can innovate. That understanding is disappearing. The classroom’s not as good as a gig. But it’s a start. You need to learn in some way in order to improve. In terms of teaching, just look at who is doing it. What I do is explain how music works in the simplest possible terms. I tell kids the things that they don’t tell you. You don’t ‘learn it’. You do it.
JH: It’s not just about music lessons, is it?
TT: No. You might not like the music I’ve made, but I’ve performed and produced it at the highest level. It would be ridiculous for a young band to keep making the mistakes we all made. Own your own work, produce your own work. Set up your own label and get your stuff out there. I’ve got something to offer in terms of experience. And I still love playing. There are tutors here who will explain how a record deal works, what management, press and radio people all do. The students learn how to record and produce their own songs. They may be learning recording techniques, but it’s their songs they record.
JH: Can you help me improve?
TT: Can you listen?
JH: I’ll try.
What follows is not a watershed moment in music. There is no epiphany on my part. Tony is a great teacher and is slowly becoming my new hero as he rails against celebrity culture, Big Brother, Razorlight and Travis. I, on the other hand, can’t play a bar chord, hate Dire Straits and don’t practise. I could, however, listen to Tony speak all day. He’s intelligent, funny and an incredible musician. This is evidenced by the queue of awkward adolescents forming outside the room. Here Metallica and Flying V guitars get into bed with garage and grime, hip-hop and indie. Tony sits in and plays with them all. Later one of the students asks me what I was doing. I tell him and he informs me that Tony says I was crap. I am, but the one nagging thought that I leave with is this: I wish someone had told me about what was to come; managers, pluggers and agents. A collection of the most insidious group of people to ever call themselves an industry; we met them all in tompaulin. As Steven Drew from The Track and Field Label told me while I was writing this, “You find out that it’s true. The music industry is full of c*nts.”
“I Went Down To The Cross Road, Fell Down On my Knees.” Robert Johnson
Midnight, Four Lane Ends, Blackburn; the nearest I can find to a crossroads. I am standing with my guitar, waiting to do a deal with the old man. It’s freezing and starting to rain. A police car crawls past and then returns. They ask me what I’m doing. “I’m trying to sell my soul to the devil in exchange for a leg up on the guitar.” The bigger cop tells me that if I hang around here with a guitar at this time, I will end up bleeding and relieved of the guitar. They recommend that I try lessons. And that’s the point. I would now. Not at some Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts set up by McCartney for the benefit of ‘the gifted’, or the private, in your house torture on a piano, but from Martin out of Gene, or Tony Rubette, with the use of a decent practice room and studio for free. I’d do my own Tigermilk and let a bunch of students release it, just as Belle And Sebastian did. I’d make my own sleeve, a video, and whack it up on some internet platform. You can’t teach talent. But you can nurture it, encourage it and empower it. You can’t quantify creativity, so it can’t be marked or assessed. But you can give it a space to exist. That’s what Access To Music and the latter-day music colleges (as opposed to the still ultra-elitist conservatoires) are all about. The middle class industry might be horrified by the idea of all these kids from shit-hole towns actually being told how it works; especially when it’s made clear that in the age of social networking and free downloads, they don’t actually need a record deal, a manager or a huge advance to exist. These music schools are producing musicians in the same way that an art school produces artists — no promises, no guarantees, just the ability to produce and survive in the real world. Jesus Christ, who knows what the next generation of musicians might accomplish, once Tony and his ilk have shown them how.