Recently, on our Best Of Picky Bastards Podcast Episode, we discussed the album Brutalism by IDLES. Briefly, following the release of their second album Joy As An Act Of Resistance, the Bristol-based five piece became my favourite band on the planet. I bought t-shirts. Splashed out on exclusive records. Went to see them several times. Cried at their Glastonbury set and waxed lyrical about them to everyone I spoke to, whether we were talking about music or not. I was a fanboy. I even joined a Facebook group to celebrate the band, making friends with people I’d never met due to a shared connection and love for music. Then came Ultra Mono. It wasn’t only the album that started to make me question my feelings for IDLES, but also some of the awkward things I read about them and some of the behaviour of frontman Joe Talbot. I was troubled. The lyrics to some of their latest songs, particularly ‘Model Village’, made me question whether they’d ever been the truth tellers I thought they were. The album’s tendency to pick a fight and rehash old ideas less effectively had me questioning if they meant everything they said, or had simply found a way in to a crowded market. On the podcast, I discussed how these feelings about Ultra Mono and Joe Talbot actually made it a bit harder for me to get the same enjoyment from the two previous albums. I had, in essence, gone off the band.
But I’m not here to bash IDLES. And before I move on to the real subject of this article, I wanted to point out that I do still think they are a hugely important band who have had a massive impact on their fans and the music scene more widely. So kudos to them. What I really wanted to discuss today, though, was what happens when a musician or band you once adored does something that makes you change your mind about them. How do we deal with that strange set of feelings? What happens to the music we once loved? IDLES are a small example of this for me, but talking about them on the podcast got me thinking about other times something similar has happened.
Morrissey is the biggest example. Rewind a few years and The Smiths and Moz were among my most played music – in fact, if I look on one of those websites that tells you your listening history on Spotify, The Smiths still creep in as my 14th most listened to act of all time. And I haven’t purposefully listened to them in almost half a decade, so that probably tells you where I was at with them before. I don’t know if it is worth going into minor details about what went wrong with The Smiths for me to have to cut them out of my life, but I will say that as a brown man in Britain I could no longer listen to the words of a man who didn’t want me in the country of my birth. A man I had once adored. And yes, I know that that isn’t the rest of the band’s fault – but for me, the thing I most loved about The Smiths was the frontman and his words. So when he went in my bin the rest of the band had to go in there with him.
I know there will be people reading this and thinking ‘get a grip’ and ‘separate the art from the artist.’ If you can do that, fair play. And there may be instances in which I could also, but this situation feels particularly personal and irredeemable.
So what do I do with those songs that I loved so much? The honest answer is nothing. I ignore them. Sometimes, on a drunken night or when out for a run in a rare healthy phase, I will stick an old playlist on shuffle and, a few songs in, ‘This Charming Man’ or ‘How Soon Is Now’ will come on and I will face a few moments of something that I can only describe as existential crisis. The old love will fill my veins. The guitar tone will raise the hairs on my arm and my spine will shiver, but then I’ll hear his voice. And now, for me, his voice is far too tied up with his support for Tommy Robinson, or the time he wore a For Britain badge (a party that even Nigel Farage says is too full of racists and Nazis. Read that sentence again. Even NIGEL FUCKING FARAGE), or when he said Sadiq Khan couldn’t speak properly, or when he claimed that ’not even Tesco would employ’ Diane Abbott. And if these blatant examples of his racism weren’t enough to make me want to sell his records and stop wearing t-shirts with his mug on the front, there are also his views on the #MeToo movement. His claims that the women ‘play along’ and only complain afterwards when they feel ‘embarrassed or disliked’, or his insistence that victims of sexual abuse ‘have to be aware where it could lead’ when they ‘are in someone’s bedroom’.
Anyway. That’s enough of that. If you aren’t already convinced of his crimes then I am not going to change your mind here. All of this has been obvious. He’s hidden nothing. And I think, in writing that last paragraph, I have finally gotten an answer for why I, personally, can no longer get any enjoyment from a set of songs and albums I once loved so dearly. The memories and associations are still there. But now, with all that has happened since, they are forced down by my feelings of disgust and hurt at the beliefs that are so embedded in Morrisey’s psyche. And why would I want to listen to music that makes me feel hurt and disgusted?
I will go into nowhere near as much detail about Michael Jackson, but will simply say that the pattern is similar with him. The only difference might be that I have loved him for even longer. MJ was my first musical obsession as a child and, in my teens, when he was first accused of despicable crimes, I refused to believe them. As many still do. Over the years I found that harder and harder to maintain, and any sense of doubt that could remain was ended by Finding Neverland. There will be no more Michael Jackson in my ears, even if ‘Billie Jean’ is one of the best songs ever written.
So when the crimes are as egregious as those of MJ and Morrisey, the answer is pretty clear cut for me. I can’t separate the art from the artist and I’m fine with that. But the year of the COVID19 pandemic has also thrown a few more once loved artists into the steaming shit pile, namely Ian Brown and Noel Gallagher. Luckily for me, in many ways, I had already largely gone off the lad music aesthetic of these two artists so they weren’t current loves. But they were past ones. And ones who were integral to my love of music in the first place, involved in some of my best music memories. My first gig seeing Oasis at Knebworth, watching Ian Brown at the GMEX on my first ever night out in the city that has now been my home for 13 years, queueing up for Be Here Now on release day, seeing The Stone Roses at Heaton Park. Ian Brown and Noel Gallagher have proved all my suspicions that they are dickheads at heart this past year, but they haven’t spoilt those memories. I can think the artist is a twat and still think that some of the art is a joy.
So where does that leave me with IDLES? I’m returning to them now, because in all honesty I feel bad for including them in this article. They were simply the jumping off point for me to think about this and my issues with them are nothing close to those I have with MJ and Morrissey. Obviously. They aren’t even on the same level as those with Brown and Gallagher. But unlike those musicians, Joe Talbot and IDLES have held themselves up as some sort of paragons for liberal politics and will put themselves under scrutiny if their actions don’t gel with their words. At the minute, I’m not listening to IDLES. Something has soured. But I am also a strong believer in not writing people (or bands) off, and can definitely see them winning me back in a way that Morrisey never could. I hope they do, too. I’d love to be able to drag out my old records and listen to songs like ‘Danny Nedelko’ and ‘Television’ and believe them in the same way that I used to. Fingers crossed.
Words by Fran Slater