Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Going Overground

There is a much neglected maneuver in the annals of Gothic rock – the 'breakthrough' or 'crossover' album, where previously underground acts entered the pop mainstream and the charts. It provided the foundation for the popularity of the genre in the '80s and has given us a vast archive of hits. So why is this strategy so sadly underused in the modern era?

To clarify – we're not talking about bands that simply grew bigger and bigger with each album until they achieved success (say, the opposite of what the Kaiser Chiefs have done). Neither are we referring to acts that made rather perverse pop U-turns along the way (Dead or Alive, anyone?). No, we are talking about the albums where bands simply sharpened their act, streamlined their sound, and made the necessary sonic and visual adjustments to bring themselves into the mainstream. Nowadays we might regard such behaviour as cynical, as 'selling out' or as some Faustian pact with The Man. But this never used to be the case.

Take, for example, Killing Joke. They had been gradually streamlining their sound over several non-album singles by the time they finally released 'Night Time' in 1985 – cue a worldwide hit with 'Love Like Blood' and a new generation of fans. They did not do so by getting Stock Aitken & Waterman in, but by the simple expediency of an outside producer, punchier song dynamics and Jaz removing his warpaint. Et voila.

The Damned similarly ram-raided the charts with their re-modified post-punk hearse in 1985, through a combination of major label backing, revamped image and tasteful pop craftsmanship. In fact it got better for them over the next 2 years, culminating with their international megahit 'Eloise'. The Cult likewise tweaked their proto-goth hammerings into 'She Sells Sanctuary' and the rest is history. And it doesn't end there. The Cure, Bauhaus, All About Eve and Siouxsie all made that transition from fringe concerns to chart acts in the '80s.

Of course, the plan for mainstream success doesn't always work out as intended. Record company meddling strangled Ghost Dance's crossover album at birth, and many of the acts who crossed over soon found themselves crossing back onto the cultural back burner before long. But saying all that, isn't it still worth a go?

One reason why it's a tricky move to pull off these days is that the mainstream no longer exists in the same sense it did 30 years ago. It's harder to contrive a radio hit when radio has lost its centre of gravity; ditto the music video since music television has fractured so significantly, replaced with myriad online media outlets, digital television and radio. It is therefore nearly impossible to create that critical mass of exposure that you need to have a hit without substantial conglomerate backing. In fact, do we even think in terms of 'hits' anymore? Do fans of alternative music even bother to follow what we used to condescendingly call the 'hit parade'?

However, there are lessons we can take from the 'breakthrough' album of yore. Developing your sound and making it more accessible is one; honing your songwriting and stagecraft is another. Being able to keep an eye on what is contemporary and musically current is yet another, even if it means pissing off the purists.

But the most important one must be the ambition to mix it amongst the giants. There was a time when the unfashionable and unsupported got to have a go with the best of them, and although today the playing field is more uneven than ever it's still important to keep kicking inside. Because who knows, the door might open again some day....

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