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A Classical Twist: Piano, Paganini and 'Punk Rock for Sissies'

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It seems like music has always had a place for rebels, those individuals who become fashionable by taking against the more established fashions of their day.

We may like to kid ourselves that the process only began in the 1950s with a young Elvis Presley, whose gyrations were considered 'unfit for family viewing' and whose singing was likened to a 'beginner's aria in a bathtub'.

However, rebellion in what passes for the pop music of any given age has been around for centuries.

It wasn't only Johnny Rotten but Mozart who caused a stir as much for his talent as his toilet humour, most evident in a work entitled Leck mich im arsch (or Kiss my a***, for those who don't speak German).

And let's not forget his near contemporary, the Italian violinist Niccolo Paganini, a man so scorned both for his virtuosity and his indulgence in drugs, drink and women that he was said to have sold his soul to the devil, two centuries before Robert Johnson and Satan supposedly made a similar pact at a crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

For more than 50 years now, the principal weapon of assault on the delicate senses of the establishment has been the electric guitar but prog rock and endless fretboard noodling and pointless pyrotechnics have blunted its impact. In fact, one could argue that it's got a bit up it's own arsch, as Amadeus himself might have put it.

Yet few artists have escaped criticism when they decided to go against the musical grain. There were those who even questioned when The Beatles departed from the style of their very early days to follow the orchestral arrangements suggested by producer George Martin. When Brian Wilson chose to open God Only Knows with the burst of a French horn, seasoned West Coast psychedelics didn't so much tune in as turn off.

When glam rock gave way to punk and the frills of new romantic were eaten away by a corrosive blend of saccharine pop (courtesy of Stock, Aitken and Waterman) and grunge, it would have taken a brave man to set out on a musical career armed with neither synth nor Stratocaster.

One such group of performers return to the UK's shores this week for their first tour in this country for more than a decade. When Ben Folds Five's first album was released in 1995, the charts were topped by such luminaries as Robson and Jerome and Cotton-Eyed Joe, stacked by Britpop and fuelled by the sweetly-monikered Megadeath and Marilyn Manson.

The disc was an eponymous album crammed with what Folds described as "punk rock for sissies", a joyously riotous mix of mosh pits, polkas and Muhammad Ali.

Over the course of four albums as Ben Folds Five or three as a solo artist, Folds has amassed a faithful following but only skirted the mainstream.

Sure, his stage set and lyrics have included the occasional nod to legendary goth Robert Smith. He even secured the services of Ben Grosse, a producer who had worked with more successful rock acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Flaming Lips, for one album in 2001. However, what resulted failed to cause the likes of Atomic Kitten or Hear'Say any sleepless nights.

Cynics may argue that with collaborators numbering William Shatner, Nick Hornby and the cast of Fraggle Rock, people shouldn't be too surprised.

And yet, with a piano-driven repertoire which features references to abortion, apple pies, Dr Dre, Axl Rose, cellulite, answering machines and The Rockford Files, there should be a place at pop's top table for a man and a band who have carved their own groove on the Great Vinyl of Life.

As Mr Folds might suggest to those wanting to follow his lead and break through "the static and the chatter" of X-Factor with something a little more tuneful... "do it anyway".