As a 30-something music fan, it's pretty easy to feel disheartened these days. It's not that there is a shortage of good music, not at all - home recording and internet distribution has provided us with riches unimaginable but the fall out of this is a very fractured landscape in which bands can become popular and respected in tiny music-loving niches but usually not to such a degree that they can actually make a living from it.
The mainstream, meanwhile, has become a cynical wasteground. Major labels no longer seem interested in investing in and developing artists, opting instead for a programme of grooming emerging artists to hit very big with their debut albums - backed by a huge marketing investment - and dumping them if they don't prove instantly lucrative. They affect styles and fashion tips from the fringes and drive them into the ground in the quest for profit.
It's entirely because they construct these images so carefully that we find the wide-eyed ingenue in the limelight tends to be little more than a confused teenager with a good voice and dreary or apologetic interview style as they have nothing to say and no reason to be there. Even if they're an OK singer-songwriter, they find themselves marketed way bigger than their own ambition and playing to an unloyal and fickle audience who are only there because they heard them on the radio and, as soon as the radio stops playing them, will move on to the next phenomenon they're instructed to.
I've gone from despising Ed Sheeran to just feeling sorry for him. They picked him too soon. It strikes me he should be performing songs that people should be nodding along to as he performs them in coffee shops. He has potential. By the time his life experiences have sufficiently informed his music enough to deliver something fantastic, he'll probably be on the scrapheap. Gone are the days of the Bowies and the Elton Johns, the Ray Davies and the Marc Bolans. The amazing minds who took a few albums to get up to speed and then blazed a career that would outlive that of any record executive, keeping them in the hearts and ears of a huge audience for all of their lives.
It's disheartening stuff. Part of me wants to say, "Who cares - I get to hear good music, so sod everyone else" but then I remember what has happened to most of my favourite bands - they've split up and stopped making music because, due to mainstream indifference, they simply can't afford to put in the time or effort anymore. The mainstream aren't against good music - if you could get it to them, they'd love it - but the corporations have a stranglehold on this stuff and John Peel is dead.
On Friday night, my faith in the world was somewhat restored because I saw a man that most people have never heard of, who has never had a top 10 album or even a top 50 single, a man who has never been on the cover of the NME and never played on any light entertainment TV shows, a man who has remained on the small indie label he set out with, I saw him headline his own sold-out gig at Wembley Arena.
Frank Turner is a singer-songwriter from Winchester. He had some success as lead singer in the hardcore band Million Dead but, once they split, found himself very much back at square one. I met him around this time. He'd befriended my friends from the band Dive Dive (he was working the merch stand for a Reuben tour which DD were the support act on). Dive Dive were the perfect example of a band who, had they found their audience, could have been enormous.
Frank saw the quality in what they were doing, as they did he, and they took him to their studio in bass player Tarrant's mum's house to record his first EP, they were his backing band and guitarist Ben produced. The music Frank was making was neatly summed up in the title of his first EP - Campfire Punkrock. Singalong punk folk anthems. It was a pretty big U-turn from the music he'd made his name and reputation on in Million Dead and lost him a considerable proportion of the hangover of fans he had from that period. His influences were on his sleeve - he was writing modern protest songs and statements of intent in the tradition that went all the way back to Woody Guthrie and had arrived at his feet via Billy Bragg and The Levellers. He'd cut his teeth with Million Dead so from the first EP onwards, his music was accomplished, interesting and capable of getting a room of strangers stomping their feet and shouting their support.
Frank had the potential to be massive from the first EP out. At that time Ben and I worked together in a video shop and whenever we put the CD of his first album on, you could guarantee that people would wander over to the counter and ask what it was. The gigs were always great, it was always a good show. He would vary tours between solo and full band.
Solo, he's an incredible folk singer but the full band show has always been breathtaking. Nigel Powell is one of the best drummers I've ever seen and Dive Dive had played hundreds of shows and released three albums of their own by then. But it wasn't just the quality of the music or the show that got him to Wembley, and it certainly wasn't through investment, marketing and behind-the-scenes corporate hand-shaking.
Quite simply, Frank has a work ethic that I've never seen in any other human being. In the seven years I've known him, I can't imagine he's taken more than two or three weeks a year off in total when he wasn't touring or recording. And he certainly doesn't get weekends. He started by playing any gig he could find - coffee shops, house parties, pubs, he seemed to live on trains and sofas. He never had an inflated vision of his own talents or position - he still doesn't. After each gig, right up until he was headlining venues like the Roundhouse, he'd mix with the crowd after shows, he won his audience by breaking down the division between them. I've seen far lesser bands retreat straight to the dressing room after tiny gigs and play at being rock stars.
By acknowledging his equality with his audience, he's won their loyalty for life. You can't help but be evangelical about his shows. Even people who don't like much that kind of music tend to like him and respect what he does.
It's been a seven year road from pubs to Wembley. It might sound like a long time compared to those who sell it out playing their first or second albums but the difference is that Frank got their honestly. He won the support of every person in that arena personally - all 12,000 of them. Many making the journey from all over the country and world just to celebrate his achievement. It didn't feel like other gigs I've seen at that venue where people rock up to see a big show and cut loose. It felt like a celebration of independence and honesty. 12,000 people congregated in a space usually reserved for shitty corporate rock and Simon Cowell roadshows specifically to throw two fingers up to them and say 'we can do this too and we do it better'.
It was a magical night. Frank's support act was Billy Bragg - his own inspiration in a seemingly incongruous setting, taking to the stage defiantly with just his guitar and no backing band, asking for the houselights to be put on so he could see the crowd after drinking in the sight, he said 'I always wondered what it would feel like to be Michael Mcintyre' and ripped into his set.
Frank and the boys were amazing. Ben used to dance round the video shop, pumping his fist to music, I never thought I'd see the day he'd be dancing to his own music on the stage at Wembley. It was genuinely emotional. Not just to see my friends do so well but to see that it's still possible to get your music out there, to influence people and make their lives a little bit better. My favourite song is the one he's always saved for the very end of his set, the last song of the encore. It's called Photosynthesis and I'll forever hold it in my heart as I directed the music video for it. The chorus goes 'I won't sit down and I won't shut up and most of all I will not grow up'. In the slow part of the song, without being instructed, the entire standing area of Wembley Arena sat down for Frank. It must have been eight thousand people. It was a beautiful spontaneous act. When the drums kicked back in, they all jumped up and danced themselves silly. It was a sight I'll always remember. It was brilliant.
True to form, whereas most of us would rest on our laurels after playing Wembley (or at least afford ourselves a day off), Frank got straight on a plane to Canada where he will be spending a few weeks playing solo support shows on someone else's tour.
The Wembley show was not just a great night out or inspiration that hard work gets you where you want to be, it was a reminder that music can unite people and that although the mainstream may be clogged with sewage, there are still at least enough people to fill Wembley Arena who appreciate and demand something more.
Bravo Frank, Ben, Tarrant, Matt and Nigel. There are a lot of us who are very proud of you.
Frank Turner's current album England Keep My Bones is available through Xtra Mile Recordings. If you want to know more about Dive Dive and the scene they came from, along with Radiohead, Supergrass and Foals, you should check out my film Anyone Can Play Guitar at www.acpgthemovie.com
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