There’s a hand-painted sign on one of the walls of the New Rose bar in Islington, North London, which reads: Thou Shalt Not Talk Shit. This edict shall not be strictly upheld this afternoon however, for Classic Rock has summoned four opinionated, articulate individuals today with the specific intention of generating some colourful shit-talking for a round-table review of some of the hot topics in rock’n’roll and the wider world in 2015.
Only Mick Box, redoubtable leader of British hard rock legends Uriah Heep and fellow road dog Ginger – sometime Wildheart, full-time workaholic – have met previously, and the warm smiles and strong handshakes exchanged between the pair speak to a mutual respect and affection. Joining the two today are Jaren Johnston, frontman of country-tinged Tennessee rockers The Cadillac Three (winners of the Best New Band category at the 2014 Classic Rock Awards) and Tiff Stevenson, stand-up comedian and confirmed rock fan, star of BBC3’s People Just Do Nothing and founder/host of London’s excellent Old Rope comedy night. Greetings made and contrasting accents attentively deciphered, the four sit beneath the aforementioned sign, and as the Guinness and black coffee flows so too, naturally, does the conversation…
2015 then: how was it for you?
Tiff Stevenson: “I had a really shit year in 2014, so comparatively, this has been a good year. The TV show is going great – someone called it ‘the Spinal Tap of Grime music’, which I rather liked – I wrote a new one hour show, and took it to the Edinburgh festival and I’ll be touring it next year. I actually did lots of singing at the Edinburgh festival this year, and got reviewed as much for that as for my stand-up, which was odd. Basically my aim is life is to be Stevie Nicks… in fact I’ve brought a golden straw in my handbag should anyone care to use it…”
Jaren Johnston: “This year was great for me. It’s been all about constant touring - by the end of it we’ll have done about 250 shows. Over here it’s been wild. The first time we showed up here we were on the damn radio and selling out clubs, and every time we come back it’s better. I wasn’t in any TV shows about the grimes, or whatever, but I’m happy.”
Mick Box: “My year’s been amazing, the usual Heep year really, with loads of touring all over the world. It’s not slowing down at all, it’s only getting busier, which is fantastic. We recently did a reunion show in Moscow with Ken Hensley and Lee Kerslake, which was a lot of fun for the fans, and we go off to Europe again soon. I’ve been doing some guitar clinics outside Heep too, so yeah, busy, busy.”
Ginger: “That’s what all musicians want really, isn’t it, to be able to keep going like the veteran, classic bands without losing your passion. My year has been ridiculous. I don’t know whether it’s fear of death of whatever, but I just seem to get busier and busier. I’ve got one album just finished, I’ve written and recorded another two, I wrote a book, I’ve toured with The Wildhearts and Hey! Hello!, I did my spoken word tour, and I started a business, managing myself with my missus. I hear about people taking time off, but who wants that? What would you do?”
Jaren: “We’d probably all be in a bar together, drinking Guinness at noon!”
Music Festivals: Are They Done?
The same old headliners, ever-increasing ticket prices, dwindling crowds: the argument goes that the festival circuit is over-subscribed, over-hyped and on its way out.
Mick: “I hope not, because they’re still important to bands. Everyone wants to be on a festival bill, because of the sheer number of people you can play to. You can tour for three weeks and then play to more people in one hour at a festival.”
Jaren: “We’re a club band in this country, but when we did Download and Sonisphere we walked on stage at two in the afternoon in front of fifteen thousand people and it just blew our minds.”
Ginger: “Promoters spend all their money on the three main headline bands and then fill the bill with… whoever. When I was a kid and used to go to festivals, a) it was only one day b) it was only one stage, so you got to see everyone and c) there was a fraction of the people that there are now. But the headline bands are pretty much the same! Music festivals are in danger of becoming like football, where players are bigger than the game.”
Tiff: “But the cool thing about rock festivals is that the crowds are young and open to hearing new stuff, and if they see something they like, they’re a fan for life.”
Jaren: “And that’s exactly why festivals are important to new bands. One great show can make your career.”
Ginger: “But that’s also why the one-day festivals were great, because the bands further down the bill could become future headliners. I went to Monsters Of Rock in 1985 and you had Metallica and Bon Jovi on the bill in the afternoon, playing what was then the biggest shows of their lives. You won’t get that kind of exposure if you’re half-way down the fourth stage on day three of a big festival now, or someone only caught a band for ten minutes because they’ve another thirty-five bands to see. There’s a future for festivals, but they need to be downsized, because otherwise they’ll have to resort to pay-per-view to subsidise them, and they’ll forget the whole reason people go to festivals in the first place..”
Babymetal: What Is It All About?
How did three Japanese schoolgirls dancing in front of an anonymous thrash metal band become the most talked-about rock group of the year?
Ginger: “I think, as with Rammstein, that a bunch of very smart foreigners looked at the UK and thought, ‘There’s fuck all going on over there, let’s go and have it!’ When everyone has the same sound, the same look and the same tattoos on their neck, they’re doing something different, and of course people are going to be excited about that. Whether it’s a novelty or not, they’re entertaining the fuck out of people.”
Jaren: “Babymetal aren’t as big in the States yet, but they’re getting huge there too. I’m a big metal fan and someone sent me a YouTube clip saying, ‘You have to see this shit!’ I thought, ‘This has to be a joke’ and then the music started and it was like, ‘Woah!’”
Tiff: “I saw them at an awards show earlier this year and everyone went mental for them. I thought they were cool as fuck. Maybe it’s a damning indictment of the scene that someone just doing something different can attract such attention. Let’s see what happens next. Luck gets you so far, but talent will keep you there.”
Mick: “Talent and songs. Only the bands with tunes last. They obviously inspire love or hate, but at least they’ve got noticed.”
Tiff: “If you can shake people out of their reverie to go ‘What the fuck?’ that’s a good thing.”
Ginger: “I’m all for it. Until someone writes some great songs, come over here with your Japanese girls and your crazy pyro and just entertain us!”
The Great Confederate Flag Controversy
In the wake of the racially-motivated shooting in a South Carolina church on June 17, debate intensified as to whether the ‘Southern Cross’ flag, associated by many with racism, should be removed from civic use, or banned altogether.
Jaren: “Our first tour was with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and obviously waving that flag is Skynyrd’s thing. It’s not about hating a group of people, it’s about pride in where you’re from. When that shit happened in South Carolina, things got so ridiculous. Everyone would ask us, ‘You guys are a southern rock band, what do you think about this flag thing?’ and I’d say ‘I think it’s a bunch of idiots taking things far too seriously.’ To me, if you look at the flag, and think it stands for racism, that’s your fucking problem.”
Tiff: “People have become so sensitive now, which is obviously something that directly affects comedians. One ‘offensive’ joke can potentially end your career. You can be proud of where you’re from without standing for attacking people because of their race. There are people who see the St George flag as being inherently racist, but a flag can’t be racist, the person who has the flag might be: you can’t anthropomorphise an item, and put all this weight upon it.”
Ginger: “It’s more media manipulation to distract you from the real issues that they don’t want you to talk or think about.”
Jaren: “I was at a meeting last week at CMT – Country Music Television – and I was talking to the President about The Dukes of Hazzard because they run it overnight, and they were trying to get people to come into the studio to blur the flag on the General Lee! And then they ended up dropping the show completely, over the flag. That’s kinda crazy.”
David Cameron And The Pig
In September a new biography of the Prime Minister contained the allegation that, while at university, David Cameron placed his genitals in a dead pig’s mouth. Twitter exploded.
Tiff: “That was a great night on Twitter, such a gift. In America the Emmys were going on and we were like ‘You’re talking about what Naomi Watts is wearing on the red carpet… our Prime Minister put his dick in a pig’s head!’ It was joyous. But what I found interesting was that sometimes I do newspaper reviews, and it was very much off the agenda to discuss, because people were saying ‘Well, it’s just allegations, we can’t talk about it.’ I said ‘Yes you can: I once did a show where we discussed allegations that Renee Zellweger had plastic surgery for an hour and a half, so how come that’s an acceptable discussion, we can’t talk about whether our Prime Minster allegedly put his penis in a pig’s mouth?”
Jaren: “Wait, in a pig’s mouth?
Tiff: “I’ll explain what happened. [Cue quick potted summary]”
Jaren: “Oh, a dead pig? Okay, that’s acceptable. I’m from the south… I was thinking ‘Hmmm, you’d have to be careful…’”
Mick: “We play in 58 countries around the world, and get asked about all sorts of political things, and my stock answer is that I’m a musician, not a politician. Just because I can draw an audience doesn’t mean I’m qualified to know what I’m talking about. So I steer away from comment.”
Ginger: “I can’t even talk about politics, I get too angry. Facebook anarchists…eurgh: Russell Brand, what a fucking arsehole, telling people not to vote, and then talking about the problems of the British working class from his mansion in Hollywood. Fuck off. Nothing annoys me more than mass ignorance and intolerance, and that’s rarely showcased more than in politics. In my desperate search to find things to be optimistic about I try to avoid politics. But I’m a fully paid up Labour member, and it’s great to see Jeremy Corbyn annoying the red tops and Bernie Saunders getting people off their arses, and just knowing that there’s at least a little humanity out there.”
Jaren, a quick question for you: Donald Trump, yes or no?
Jaren: “He’s not getting my vote. We talked about this on the bus the other night, like ‘Man, if he actually got through this, how much of a joke will we look like to everyone else?’ It doesn’t seem real. But hey, there are some fucking idiots out there who’re like ‘I’m going to vote for him, he’s hilarious, he speaks his mind!’ It’s like ‘Dude, he wants to build a wall the length of Mexico. Come on!’
Tiff: “And also, he said he’d date his daughter. He’s gross! He said ‘If she wasn’t my daughter I’d definitely be dating her…’ Urgh.”
Ginger: “I liked it when Trump went to Glasgow and someone stuck a balloon on his head just so that it would pull his toupee up! You can have all the advisors in the world, but nothing can prepare you for Glasgow!”
Taylor Swift Vs Spotify And Apple Music
The world’s biggest pop star went to war with leading streaming services this year, arguing that artists were being exploited and underpaid: was she right?
Ginger: “I think the main issue with streaming is education: educating yourself, embracing change and seeing how it can work for you. If you’re signed to a label, chances are they don’t have your best interests at heart, and Spotify isn’t going to pay you, so the smart money is on running your own label. It’s not that hard, and then you are in control and have no-one to blame. The beauty of that is that every mistake you make is a lesson.”
Mick: “You’re right, it’s about engagement. Streaming isn’t going to go away. You can’t look for finance out of it – out of 100,000 plays you’ll get maybe 50p, it’s madness – but there are ways of making it work.”
Tiff: “There’s a Chinese proverb that says ‘When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and some build windmills.’ You want to be the ones building windmills.”
Ginger: “Let’s be honest, we never earned that much money from record sales in the first place. You can eithersit and complain, or you get smart and learn how to fuck the people that are trying to fuck you.”
Jaren: “If you look at the money you think ‘Fuck, we’re obviously getting raped here’, but I think it’s really good for new bands in other ways.
**Tiff: **“I thought Taylor Swift taking on Apple was great. It can be hard for bands to fight from the bottom, but to have a real fucking powerhouse stand up and go ‘No, don’t screw us over!’ was a real help to all the smaller artists.”
Ginger: “People can say that was just a PR stunt, but she did something for the common man, and got the smaller artists a fairer cut. Since the beginning of punk, I don’t think there’s ever been this much strength in being an artist: we can rewrite the rule books now.”
Putin Vs The West
Russia’s President is the overtly macho type who could pick a scrap in an empty room. The country’s blatant disregard for gay rights and international law is being increasingly viewed as a deliberate challenge to Western governments.
Mick: “We were the first Western rock band to play in Russia, and it’s still a big part of our touring itinerary, so I’m not going near this question! All I know that a lot of people over there are up in arms about how things are being dealt with. I mean, we’ve been going there since 1987 and the same problems exist – the roads are terrible, the water, the toilets – but now you’ve got plasma TV screens, new hotels popping up and huge cars everywhere. It seems like the money is going into the wrong areas. But we tour there an awful lot and I’d like to go back, so I don’t want to get into it really.”
Ginger: “I’ve never played there, and it’s a place that’s increasingly less desirable to want to play. Every band that ever played there came back with horror stories about the food, about being ripped off, about not getting paid and having gear stolen, and I never fancied it. I’m glad I do well in Japan!”
Jaren: “I’d just be scared of running into Dolph Lundgren from Rocky IV. He scared the shit out of me as a kid, so I was like ‘I’m never going there!’ [Puts on strong Russian accent] ‘If he dies, he dies.’ I hated that guy!”
Tiff: “There’s plenty of comedy value to Putin, but he’s a scary man. Quite a few comedians have been to play in Russia, and there’s some debate in our scene whether that’s okay or not, because of the lack of LGBT/Gay rights. Performing in some countries certainly raises ethical questions, but then you’re not playing to the government, you’re playing to the people. But I’ve never been invited, it’s not like I’ve had loads of phone calls going ‘You know what, they fucking love you out here! You can do all your Putin shit!’ He’s obviously something of a bogeyman for the West, but then he’s gone out to kick ISIS in the dick and some people will ignore all the other awful stuff and think he’s the man.”
The rise of ISIS: are we all doomed?
The extremist jihadist terrorist group Islamic State claimed responsibilities for a number of horrifying massacres in 2015, from the January killing of 10 journalists in the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, to the slaughter of 38 holiday-makers on a Tunisian beach in June: meanwhile, their videos of ritualistic beheadings spread from the internet to newspaper front pages.
Tiff: “There’s not a huge amount of comedy with ISIS, is there? I think humanity has jumped the shark in terms of our refusal to talk about or really tackle what’s going on. The papers will put pictures of beheadings on their front pages and you think ‘Do I need to see that?’ but then sometimes an image – like those awful pictures of the little refugee boy washed up on the beach – can shake people out of their reverie and really make them think ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’ And the refugee crisis is happening as a result of people like ISIS. Their tactics are obviously horrific, as is their misogyny, but I don’t know what the answers are.”
Ginger: “You just have to look at the history of human conflict to see that we have no social conscience worldwide. I’ve got a little boy that I have to talk about this sort of stuff with all the time, and it’s heart-breaking.”
Tiff: “There’s a theory called New Radicalism which says that even if we had a utopia tomorrow, with all the bad people gone, then within a matter of time the top tier would fracture off and people would still find a way to band together in groups to feel superior to other groups. It seems to be inherent in human nature that there will always be wars: if there isn’t something to fight about we’ll create things to fight about.”
Has PledgeMusic Peaked?
No sooner had it begun to be hailed as a sustainable future model for independent artists, than acts on PledgeMusic came under fire for alienating their own fans. Has the fan-funded service gone too far?
Ginger: “The market is over-saturated, but people aren’t doing it properly. Pledge was supposed to be about breaking down the final wall between the rock stars and the people who allow you this incredible life, but I see a lot of bands doing Pledge campaigns that verge on criminal. There are bands charging £1500 for the ‘privilege’ of having your name listed as an Executive Producer: those bands don’t deserve fans.”
Mick: “We’re still signed to a record company, so we haven’t gone that way, but it’s always in your thoughts. The idea of being in control and keeping your rights is obviously appealing, but with the amount of touring we do, and the countries that we tour in, we need record company support and marketing. If we did it on our own it’d be a hell of a job.”
Jaren: “When we started our band it was just the three of us getting in the van, playing as many shows as we could and making a record in a shitty-ass garage, but we could to the point, two years down the road, where we’d taken it as far as we could go. I get it, I think it’s a really good idea – I paid for our record out of my own pocket – but we figured that if we wanted to take this to the next level we needed some muscle. Honestly, we signed our deal saying, ‘We’re going to do it our way, because we’d rather quit than do it your way’, and our label President, who ironically is also Taylor Swift’s label manager, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and we’ve done everything exactly how we wanted to.”
Can Christmas Just Fuck Off?
’Tis the season to be jolly… Bollocks, is it!
Mick: “Christmas is a time for non-stop Cockney dancing! No, come on, it’s great. All year long we’re running around the world gigging and finally you get to go home and spend time with your family. What’s bad about that?”
Tiff: “I don’t like the long run-up to it – do we really need it to start at the end of September? – but it’s hard to knock Christmas itself.”
Jaren: “You start in September? But what about Thanksgiving and Halloween? Oh yeah, shit, sorry, you do things differently over here. Sorry, I haven’t slept in three or four days, so I’m kinda losing it here!”
Ginger: “I’ve got a seven-year-old kid and that’s the spirit of Christmas to me. There’s still a magic in it for kids, which makes it okay by me.”
Is Cookery The New Rock’n’roll?
The phenomenal success of The Great British Bake-Off/Master Chef et al means that social media is constantly being hijacked by talk of soggy bottoms and moist buns. Whisper it – are chefs the new rock stars?
Mick: “Are they hell! All these cookery programmes drive me up the fucking wall. I can’t stand them.”
Jarden: “Do you guys have Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives? It’s presented by a guy called Guy Fieri and I actually got hammered drunk with him in Las Vegas once and he was cool as shit. The show’s very American, but it’s pretty bad-ass.”
Ginger: “I pride myself on not watching television, but I saw Man Vs Food once and the guy was eating this impossibly big burger, sweating and puking and groaning and I thought ‘What the fuck is this?’ That whole Bake-Off thing has passed me by.”
Tiff: “I think it has a kinda nostalgic appeal, with a bit of Carry On… innuendo thrown in. With the emergence of catch-up TV we don’t really have a communal viewing experience anymore and I think sometimes people actually like feeling they’re part of a community, which is why people Tweet along to it and feel a part of it. Cookery certainly isn’t the new rock’n’roll, but rock’n’roll helps draw people together – just look at us today – and so for that alone, there’s value in it.”
Ginger: “How about next year we try to make rock’n’roll the new rock’n’roll? I’ll be doing my bit.”
Jaren: “Amen to that!”