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February 21, 2006

Why Boris Johnson and Julie Burchill are wrong about the Kaiser Chiefs - apart from the Scissor Sisters they are the only current group worth listening to, argues Harry Phibbs

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Think tanks like to think that they are tackling the vital issues facing Britain and the world. Here journalist Harry Phibbs explains why he believes Boris Johnson and Julie Burchill to be wrong about the Kaiser Chiefs. Indeed, Harry Phibbs goes on to argue that - apart from the Scissor Sisters - the Kaiser Chiefs are the only current group worth listening to.

Many Conservatives regard all pop music as worthless. I do not. But it is difficult to deny that the last 20 years or so have produced far fewer decent pop songs than the previous 20 years. So hats off to those young crooners Kaiser Chiefs for their Brit Awards. Apart from the Scissor Sisters they are virtually the only pop group currently in existence worth listening to. Not everyone is a fan. Tory MP Boris Johnson has denounced them as weedy for their message in I Predict A Riot:

Watching the people get lairy
It's not very pretty I tell thee.
Walking through town is quite scary
And not very sensible either.
Boris pronounces:
When I was a nipper it was standard practice for a rock star to start the evening by biting the head off a pigeon and throwing the television out of the window before electrocuting his girlfriend in the bath and almost drowning in a cocktail of whisky, heroin and his own vomit.
Happy days.

On the Left, Julie Burchill has denounced the Kaiser Chiefs, citing lyrics from the same number. Burchill writes in The Times:

I just turned on the radio and heard the Kaiser Chiefs, one of the inexplicably "hot" bands of the moment, listing a catalogue of social ills in their song I Predict a Riot.
She then quotes the lyrics:
Walking through town is quite scary
Girls walking round with no clothes on
To borrow a pound for a condom
A man in a tracksuit attacked me!
Burchill thunders:
The lyrics could have come straight from a shock-horror chav Britain rant in the Daily Mail. Yet this very pop group claim to be the guardians of the punk flame of '77! Sorry lads - but that was John Lydon, Steven Jones and Paul Cook - not John Redwood, Steven Norris and Paul Johnson.
The point of a good pop song is to have a catchy tune or at least a rousing beat. Roger Scruton has complained that REM's Losing My Religion doesn't really have a tune. True, but it does have a pretty catchy, almost hypnotic beat. The lyrics to a pop song matter more for the rhymes and the sound and feel of the words than of the narrative or the coherence of the whole message. Most pop fans understand that a lot of lyrics are nonsense, which is why when politicians seek endorsements from pop stars it is of questionable electoral value.

But, for what's it worth, what is the Kaiser Chiefs message to the nation? Health and Safety seem to be primary concerns of the Kaiser Chiefs. Here is their song Time Honoured Tradition:

Well it's time honoured tradition to get enough nutrition
stay alive until you die and that is the end of you
and I pity the fools who don't recognise the rules
you cannot cheat the reapers reap and that is the end of that
that is the end of that

Well it's not an old wives tale too much red meat and ale
will make you pay get five a day or that is the end of you
and it's a common misconception but true without exception
these nights of booze catch up with youz and that is an actual fact
that is the end of that.

Research by the Social Affairs Unit has debunked some of the official guidance on just how much red meat and ale you can consume before your health is damaged. Perhaps if the Kaiser Chiefs really want to test to the limits their role as an anti-rebellion pop group they should seek sponsorship from some health quango. Or is here an irony I am missing?
Stay alive until you die and that is the end of you
It's hardly the most enticing rallying cry.

As well as being conformist they have also broken the rules by being anti-romance. Perhaps the most powerful number from their album last year Employment is Everyday I love you less and less. To a pulsating beat this is a most exciting anti-love song. Here is a flavour of it:

Everyday I love you less and less
It's good to see that you've become obsessed
I got to get this message to the press
That Everyday I love you less and less.
Other points made are that:
You're turning into something I detest
And everybody says you look a mess

[and that] I can't believe that me and you did sex
It makes me sick to think of you undress.

It's not exactly letting her down gently, is it? Issuing a press release to announce that you no longer wish to go out with someone seems particularly extreme as well as vain. But then as with all these pop songs they are an emotional snapshot, to the extent that they are sincere rather than just Spice Girls style manufactured pap.

The Kaiser Chiefs concern with law and order is not confined to their I Predict A Riot song. Saturday Night raises similar anxieties:

Suddenly there's a knock at your head
Donít let them in because they're trying to take your TV set
I have no idea how the Kaiser Chiefs vote if they do at all. Certainly there seems to be a nannying anti-libertarian streak in their message but also a pleasing concern for tradition. I don't think Tony Blair would find their song Modern Way comfortable listening. Its chorus declares:
This is the modern way
Faking it every day.
Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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It used to be every five years or so that our masters told us that British culture was 'back' or about to dominate the world; now, as the country's memory and overall mental capacity deteriorates, it is every 18 months. And we are not talking about finding another Handel or Holst or Elgar. Not even the Rolling Stones and other popular groups of the 1960s. No, it is the Scissors Girls, before that the Spice Girls, then some oiks named Gallagher, a while before that Boney M.

All turn out to be mindless piffle, memory of their ephemeral existence surviving barely as long as their marketing people can afford to buy advertising time. Now it's Kaiser Bill or whomever. Yawn. Don't people have anything better to do or to think about? Perhaps not, now that we are two-legged kine bred (40+ percent illegitimately) to do nothing but consume and obey.

Posted by: s masty at February 22, 2006 01:13 PM

I'm glad the SAU is bigging-up the Kaiser Chiefs. Their outing on Live 8 was a highlight of that sob-fest.

Shouldn't we also be asking people to give Robbie Williams' "Intensive Care" an attentive spin or whatever you do with a CD?

Inspired by RW's appearance on Live 8 and some outings on TV, I realised it was likely to be lovely work. But I was amazed to find that it has repaid nearly constant replays since Christmas.

Posted by: Richard D North at February 24, 2006 06:52 PM

Brendan O'Neill of spiked-online had a piece in the Spectator a few weeks back on the supposed uselessness of modern bands. Not from any musical or musicological point of view, but because, essentially, of not having the right "attitude." Franz Ferdinand, for instance (a suitable band to double headline with S J Masty's "Kaiser Bill") were slated for apparently vowing not to sexually exploit their followers. Lots of other bands were similiarly condemned for essentially, devaiting from the O'Neill gospel - the idea that being young is "all about" being rude, obnoxious, "rebellious" etc. etc. and youth-orientated music should reflect this.

What a damning comment on the limited imagination of O'Neill, Burchill et al (and, incidentally, psychology tells us that "teenage rebellion" is the exception rather than the norm) and what a comment on the ultimate paltriness of this music, that it is essentially "about" attitude and hype and little else worth bothering about. Entertaining as Kaiser Bill's lyrics are, surely on any objective analysis they are remarkably banal. And they are on of the more original bands out there.

Posted by: jim mcqueen at February 25, 2006 03:14 PM
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