When Oasis released their third album in 1997, the phenomenal hype and media build-up to the event was founded on three remarkable years in which a band that would previously have been ghettoised as ‘Indie’ in the old-school 1980s sense of NME front covers and singles peaking at No.26 actually became mainstream ala Take That – chart-topping 45s and sold-out stadiums. It’s easy to forget that before Oasis, that simply didn’t happen with new guitar bands. The only acts that topped the charts and sold out stadiums prior to the arrival of the Gallagher brothers and their cohorts were either 80s survivors like U2 or boy-bands. But something changed in 1994. The toppermost of the poppermost was suddenly scaled by Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Supergrass et al, as were tabloid headlines and household name status. The alternative had ceased to be alternative.
However, once the third Oasis album became the fastest-selling LP in British history and the record-buying public listened without prejudice, ‘Be Here Now’, a coked-up extravagance of self-indulgent recycling on a grandiose scale, proved to be the killer nail in the Britpop coffin. It was downhill from then on and things gradually reverted to where they’d been before, when Annie Lennox scooped her annual Brit Award year after never-changing year – only this time, it was Robbie Williams; the rise of the Cowell franchise was just a kiss away.
A few weeks ago, the record held by ‘Be Here Now’ for eighteen years was finally broken. Oasis had established the record in 17 days; Adele’s third album, ‘25’, managed it in ten. The worldwide figures for ‘25’ so far are astonishing. It sold 800,307 copies in its first week in the UK, with 252,423 being downloads (which broke another record). This kind of instant success was simultaneously repeated across all the major European territories; and in the US, ‘25’ sold 2.3 million copies after just three days on sale, making it the best-selling album in America this century. By the end of its first week on the Billboard charts, ‘25’ had become the first album in US chart history to sell more than three million copies in seven days, setting one more record. Quite frankly, I could go on; and on; and on. But I would begin to sound like a smug record company executive if I did, so I won’t.
What makes the level of sales for this one newly-released album remarkable is that we are supposed to be living in a day and age in which recorded sound on a physical artefact is as relevant as a wax cylinder when it comes to the listening experience. But there are two ways of looking at the unprecedented public response to the record.
Firstly, if we backtrack a little to the acknowledged golden age of the LP – the 1970s – we see that the removal of one all-encompassing bandleader as had existed in the previous decade inadvertently increased the variety on offer in the big-bucks stakes as a myriad of acts jostled for the top spot. Led Zeppelin’s fourth, Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’, Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’, Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellowbrick Road’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ and the Bee Gees’ ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack album all individually shifted the kind of units that are today the province of one solitary artist. Forty years ago, talent was spread far and wide, for we haven’t even mentioned Slade, T. Rex, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Status Quo, The Eagles, Wings, ELO, 10cc, Abba, Queen, Roxy Music, Blondie, Kate Bush or The Sex Pistols.
Secondly, for the past fifteen years the decline in record sales, largely attributed to illegal downloads, has run parallel with the rise of the TV talent show as an Open Sesame for young hopefuls who adhere to a strict formula that negates a voice with something to say in favour of someone yer mum will like. Many even graduate from a school that teaches them how to be a pop star – how to write a song, how to sing it and how to sell it. The majority of those whose impact in the 70s still resonates wouldn’t have made it past the audition stages – and rightly so.
Compared to this interchangeable production line of acts that all sound the same and look the same, someone like Adele is bound to contrast sharply with the competition. For one thing, next to, say, a beanpole glamourpuss skank like Sheryl Cole, Adele is plump and plain; for another, she’s less unreliable and ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ than someone like Amy Winehouse; she’s the Bobby Charlton to her predecessor’s George Best. Adele is what Amy Winehouse could have been had the beehived diva of the noughties not been such a spectacular car-crash. But that’s partially what made her such a fascinating figure and what makes Adele so dull. And the mass record-buying public like dull. Just look at how many records Mariah Carey or Celine Dion have sold.
There’s also the must-have fashion-accessory factor where this latest Adele release is concerned. Just as the nation’s bookshelves once bulged with unread Harry Potter or Bridget Jones books, having a copy of ‘25’ sitting casually on the coffee table when guests visit earns you membership of the ‘in’ club, the club that says we’re all ‘in’ it together. The CD could consist of Adele belching for ten seconds and it wouldn’t really matter. Whatever musical merits it possesses, ’25’ is essentially leisure industry merchandise with the aesthetic value of a T-shirt. Such is the era in which we reside.
NICHOLAS SMITH 1934-2015
It was announced yesterday that the last surviving member of the original cast of innuendo-riddled 70s sitcom, ‘Are You Being Served?, passed away at the weekend. 81-year-old Nicholas Smith played jug-eared Mr Rumbold, anxious middle-man between the shop floor and ‘Young Mr Grace’, throughout the series’ 13-year run (1972-85); but there was more to Nicholas Smith than one memorable role. His biggest break prior to being recruited to the staff of Grace Brothers was as PC Yates in ‘Z-Cars’, a bullish albeit humorous copper whose unsung contribution to an ensemble cast has recently been resurrected and reassessed via the magic of DVD. He also belonged to that durable post-war generation of television character actors whose faces were more recognisable than their names; they proved to be the strong support system for the leading men and women who ascended to superstardom and were in work for the best part of five decades. For those of us who enjoy viewing British TV from the 60s or 70s, the passing of Nicholas Smith is another chapter closing on an age that is slipping away quicker than a double-entendre rolling off the tongue of Mrs Slocombe.
© The Editor