Wednesday, 11 February 2015


The whole grunge metal thing passed me by at university. I arrived expecting sex, drugs and rock and roll, and instead discovered polite conversation, lapsang souchong and opera: my mother always said I'd get in with the wrong crowd.

It's not that there wasn't a thriving musical scene - we were once rehearsing The Importance of Being Earnest and Lemmy from Motorhead burst into the rehearsal studio to tell us to shut up (I've bowdlerised what he actually said). He'd been having a snooze in the next room, relaxing before his gig: Lady Bracknell was evidently too stentorian and Gwendolyn too shrill and we'd woken him. He had strong opinions about the floppy Brideshead haircuts of Jack and Algernon and if he'd known the chap playing Canon Chasuble had arrived at rehearsal on his horse, having ridden from Wymondham, I suspect it would have finished him off. Either Lemmy was very grouchy without enough sleep or a class warrior.

You see? The wrong crowd.

The hardcore rock fans (grunge, thrash, heavy and probably death metal too - East Anglia had a climate akin to Finland and it rubbed off on the music), tended not to mix with the arts students. They were a troglodyte breed who had many more than our ten hours of teaching a week, who did things like computer programming in the days when we were still writing our dissertations long-hand. They had long hair and beards and emerged occasionally to make food and go to battle-reenactment societies. I had a surreptitious crush on one called Gavin, about seven feet tall, a part-time Viking warrior who looked like a young Catweazel: he'd once come out of his room in halls, blinking, to ask if I could help him mend a fiddly link in his chain mail surcoat. 

Arts students didn't listen to rock, or to metal. We listened to Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, to Dylan and to Leonard Cohen, to music that properly belonged our lecturer's generation, but which we'd co-opted as a sign that we were cool. The semantics of the stereo.

Anyway, before going up to university to smoke cigarettes, languidly listen to Baez and Berlioz, and talk meaningful nonsense about Eliot and Pound, I'd had quite a thing for metal. I'd go with my cousins to clubs thick with the pong of sweat, patchouli, snakebite and black and motorbike oil. It was sexy and rebellious but it couldn't be mistaken for cool. Riff for riff, it was certainly no worse than the pretentious folky guitar ballads that propped up conversations among my new peer group, but belonging is everything at university, and so I left The New Skin for an Old Ceremony album cover lying on top of my half finished Chaucer essay and slyly listened to ACDC on an unmarked tape on my Sony Walkman. 

So my memory is that, whatever the genre, none of us really listened to new music. There must have been some, even in East Anglia, and the SU had a packed gig schedule, but I can't name you a single band. In Cincinnati at around the same time, the Afghan Whigs were recording their first album, so someone, somewhere was was doing something new and different, but not in Norwich. Maybe grunge could've built a bridge between my guilty metal pleasures and the arty noise of my fellow Eng lit students. 

Anyway, fast forward a billion years and my listening habits have moved on but the eclecticism is still there. I love Fauré but also thrash, which is why it's perhaps not surprising that I end up at an Afghan Whigs gig (I can't say 'gig' without putting it in inverted commas. No one over forty should use the word unselfconsciously). It's nearly thirty years since the band got together, and the superannuated audience all look as if they were fans first time round, rather consolingly. My friend Joad warns me that the Afghans lyrics are sexist, but they may as well have been singing about Kierkegaard for all that I could hear the words - noisy guitar bands are not known for their diction, and if I wanted poetry, I'd have settled down in a coffee shop with some Seamus Heaney.


Anonymous said...

OMG. Its funny - in one of those weird kinds of way in which your worlds collide - to read about the Whigs in a blog written by a British gal. I remember hanging with those fellow Rust Belt babies in the early 90s when we were all young and stupid and no one had any money and we all lived in group houses with 5-6 other people, arguing over who ate who's food in the 'fridge. Sub Pop. If you didn't follow the label way back then and you're feeling the need to re-explore the grunge music scene, you can't do it without going thru the whole Sub Pop catalog.

Helen Brocklebank said...

that's great advice - i shall explore the Sub pop catalogue :)