Every so often, our elected and appointed leaders stir their stumps, look around blinking, and cry: “Music! Aha! Yes! That makes money! Let’s DO something to exploit our rich heritage!”
They form committees. They write reports. Sometimes they do a bit of research; not much, though, that costs money. They witter on about music tourism. They print glossy brochures and pat themselves on the back; job done.
Then it goes quiet. Something else grabs their attention. Politicians must have the worst cases of ADD. At the coalface, where today's musos toil away, nothing changes. And once in a while the press gets hold of this stuff and pulls out the most headline-grabbing story it can. It happened this week.
Some bone-headed functionary at Oxford Economics, in a Government-backed report, has put forward the notion of music ambassadors for our major cities. And the ambassador for Birmingham would be… Ozzy Osbourne. The Independent has jumped on this.
Now, Ozzy's a nice chap, but come on. It’s not a great idea; really not. My reasons after the jump.
I’ve interviewed Ozzy several times. He's a nice guy: not an evil bone in his body. Before Sabs fans start frothing at the mouth, let me state that I acknowledge, and have nothing but respect for, the pleasure the band has given to millions, and what they mean to blokes my age (and younger). But that is where it stops.
1: LocalnessOzzy and his mates in Black Sabbath have not lived in Birmingham for decades. They have not kept their business in the city; they have not paid tax or business rates in the city; they have not hired people in the city; they have not gone out to support other bands in the city in all this time. They have not contributed financially or otherwise to the city’s well-being, unlike, say, UB40 or many members of ELO or The Move. Ozzy doesn’t live here; he has properties on the US West Coast and Buckinghamshire.
2: Cultural relevanceThe Metal Monsters of the late 60s and early 70s did have a strong connection with the city’s industrial heritage. It ‘fits’ to have metal music originate from a metal-bashing city. But the city is not just made up of metal-bashers any more, and contemporary metal music is a far sleeker and more muscular beastie. More importantly, the Birmingham music scene is not made up, any more, just of exclusively white young men with their shirts off setting out to nuke your eardrums while throwing shapes and ingesting industrial quantities of Remy Martin and cocaine.
3: NotorietyAsk yourself: why exactly is Ozzy famous? Was it that glorious dumb guitar riff on Paranoid? Nope. Ozzy wasn’t responsible for that; Tommy Iommi was. That riff is perhaps the single most important building block in Sabbath’s music history – so much flowed from that one figure, and all Ozzy had to do was to yelp cheerfully over the top.
No, Ozzy’s fame of late stems from a car-crash reality TV series which ran ten years ago on MTV, with unlimited footage of Ozzy bumbling around, Ozzy’s incontinent dog relieving itself, his children, and above all, his extremely shrewd wife Sharon. Sharon used that series to revive Ozzy’s career, first in the US, and then worldwide, while also using it as a platform to launch hers. Ozzy is now famous… for being famous. There is little to choose between the antics of Katie Price and Peter Andre and Ozzy and Sharon. Sharon made Ozzy tabloid fodder, and, coupled with regular gleeful press tales of rock star excess, her plan has worked a treat. But is that what we want for the city?
So do we actually need a figurehead?I’d have liked to think that someone from UB40 could have been terrific in the ambassadorial role – but their financial shenanigans appear to rule that out. At least they haven’t driven into trees on their quad bikes.
But going back to the Independent’s article – fanciful at best – it is interesting to see that in their all-white ambassadorial list they nominate Adele for London. Good call. And here’s Nicola Benedetti picked for Scotland. She’s a fabulous classical fiddle player, in case you haven’t heard of her. But if we are to recognise classical impact, there’s a screamingly obvious candidate in Solihull's Nigel Kennedy, who has rattled through a string of hugely successful milestones in his career. Pity about the cod-cockney accent, though; he never used to talk like that.
My money, for what it’s worth, would be on Laura Mvula – young, inventive, intelligent, brilliantly rooted in multiple genres of music, and someone who I expect to have a fabulous multi-faceted career for possibly decades. Or Ruby Turner, who has already been faultlessly fabulous for decades and is by far the best deep soul diva this country has ever produced. If she's good enough to play, repeatedly, for the Queen, she's good enough to big up her home town.
Music Tourism? What's that? What do we get to sell?As for music tourism – great. There’s a teeny little snag, though. Let’s think about our music heritage.
The Incognito, where Steve Gibbons used to strut his stuff? Gone.
The Golden Eagle, where Robert Plant and Noddy Holder came to watch an underage Steve Winwood? That’s a parking lot now.
The Rum Runner, where Duran Duran and their pals played and preened? Gone.
Barbarellas? Buried somewhere under Brindley Place.
The Railway? Buried under the new BCU building on Eastside Park.
Hmm. Not a lot left to remember, is there? And who was responsible for the planning applications that let this carnage take place?
Hell, at least Memphis still has Graceland – but then Elvis is dead and that’s usually good for business. We just don’t have any dead megastars with mansions in Moseley.
Music tourism is of course a very vague term. It covers people flying in to catch big international acts playing in enormodomes, and we have a couple of those. It covers people coming in for big festivals, and we have a couple of those too. Good for business, but let’s not pretend they come for the hot new local talent.
And that is, in my view, what we need to shout about. Hot new local talent. People go to Austin Texas to hear fabulous players; they go to New Orleans to drink in music (and alcohol). They go for the vibe. That is where we need to work: to bring people in to the city to check our brilliant local scene. Our future is rooted in the new talents of our city, from wherever they come. It is not rooted in bands who mattered forty years ago, and who, if they still come out on the road, do so for one last pay-day.
We need to respect and support our cities’ potential. Not flog half-dead musical horses.
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