I owe everything I ever was to the English writer Nik Cohn, whose style I shamelessly appropriated at the beginning of my career as a music journalist. About a decade ago, in a book about his experiences developing rappers in New Orleans, he spoke of himself as always having been attuned primarily to the lower frequencies, to the bass and drums, to rhythm. I imagined St. Nik felt great kinship with the sort of guy who turns the bass up so loud in his car as to rattle the windows in any neighbourhood in which he is affronted by a stop sign. I, on the other hand, have always been about the midrange. While I enjoy a good groove as much as the next person, I’m all about melody, as I have been since my first exposure to music — specifically, the pre-Elvis pop my parents listened to on the radio. At six, the melody of “Where Is Your Heart?”, from Moulin Rouge, made me swoon.
In Istanbul in mid-March, I heard in a restaurant playing English-language pop an unidentified woman singer’s version of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” and…swooned anew. It seemed to me that each phrase was more gorgeous than the one before it. I can’t think of another group that’s had three songs in this century to compare to “Somewhere”, “Everything Changes”, and “Bedshaped”, which I first heard when a young policeman who was going to audition for my band sent me a link to his singing it. When I found and listened to the original version, as sung by the sublime Tom Chaplin, the key change before the chorus made my heart stop.
Early in the band’s career, Chaplin looked the sort of boy on whom a school’s bullies would instinctively converge on first sight of him. He had abundant baby fat, sang in a register ordinarily ceded to women, and exuded vulnerability. When he abandoned a major tour to check himself into rehab, one UK working class hero rock and roll bad boy snarkily observed that, being posh and soft and fervently un-rock, dude, Tom's addiction must be to Portuguese dessert wine.
It sounds to me that what Tom Chaplin drinks is angels' tears of laughter.
I will also admit to thinking some of Coldplay’s stuff — “Yellow” and “The Scientist” are my own favourites — extraordinarily beautiful. I will be scoffed at by rockists, who think non-blues-based music lacking distorted guitars (there isn’t one in sight in Keane) the province of drinkers of pink tea, to use the wonderful phrase of Ty Cobb — the baseball player, and not Donald J. Trump’s lawyer.
Well, sneer ‘n’ scoff away, darlings! I do get so very tired of rockism. If I had a dime for every prospective addition to my band who, after hearing our stuff, accusatorily sniffed, “Well, it’s not rock, though, is it?” I could buy myself a doner kebab. Well, no, dearies, it isn’t going to remind anyone of Motorhead. Very little of it is bluesy, and I haven’t been big on, well, raw power for around 40 years, though my first couple of professional bands delighted in playing so loud as to pin audiences to the rear wall. (The Noted British Producer who produced the first one had told us, “You’re not very good, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be really loud,” and who were we to argue?) But one could make a case for probably half of The Beatles stuff before they disappeared up their own asses being pop, rather than rock, and Elvis was nearly as often a pop singer even in his pre-conscription days as a rock one. Would you call The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds rock, or Love’s Forever Changes? Are they less glorious for it?
Rock is very often loutish, overstated (is there a single track in the Aerosmith canon on which Mr. Tyler doesn’t over-sing as wantonly as the most brazen Mariah Carey clone on American Idol?), and one-dimensional. It kicks down your front door, or even smashes a window, whereas pop picks the lock, sneaks into your abode, and steals your art and wine collections undetected, and thus is capable of infinitely greater subversiveness. Balls-to-the-wall bombast can be exciting in small doses, but is there a blues-derived rock lick I haven’t now heard 40 million times?
Call me a wuss, but give me subtlety, and melody galore. Give me Keane’s kind of pop, by which I so do not mean that formulaic, marginally more melodic brand of rock known as power pop, played by persons in retro haircuts on Rickenbacker guitars. I wouldn’t take 20 The La’s — disproportionately celebrated for their tuneful ode to heroin addiction, “There She Goes” — for Keane, the best band of the 21st century so far.