Death Of The Talkative Frontman
The music is louder than ever before but the silence between songs is deafening
What am I missing on the Indian rock scene? I’m missing the flamboyant frontman. The talkative lead vocalist. The banter between band members when onstage.
Our band scene has become increasingly diverse. There are more festivals and pubs to play in and these spaces have been filled with excellent musicians, but no one’s talking. The music is louder than ever before but the silence between songs is deafening.
What do I want to see more of in my favourite bands? More talk, more long rambles, more mutterings about this and that.
It’s a precious moment when you are playing live and you have intimate conversations with your audience. The mask slips and you get a peek into the singer’s head.
The current generation of musicians grew up listening to alternative rock in the 1990s. The live aesthetic of alternative/ indie was in deliberate contrast to the glam rock era that preceded it. The high energy jumping around on stage was replaced with a shoe-gazing slacker aesthetic. The rocker was no longer an entertainer; she’d become a tortured poet. The high-energy lead vocalist became synonymous with heavy metal. Non-metal acts tended to avoid that. I’m not complaining about the contemporary front man’s low-key style here. It can be as introspective, shy and socially awkward as it wants to be. But you can talk to your audience. Indian bands rarely go beyond: ‘Hello peepul! good evening Bangalore!’
In contrast, I think of Kurt Cobain grumbling good-naturedly in the middle of the legendary MTV Unplugged show:‘What are they tuning? A harp? I thought we’re a big rich rock band, we should’ve had a whole lot of extra guitars!’
Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker has these asides whilst performing live, where the conversation and anecdotes can go anywhere, from the weather to bus rides. Jarvis says something, someone in the audience responds, and while the band tickers around with their instruments, Jarvis has taken the crowd with him in a totally different direction.
Usually, it’s the lead singer who does this but it doesn’t have to be. What happens is that in that moment of utterly human conversation, the band becomes one of the crowd. The band draws the audience into its own world, which is the same as yours, and yet different. The experience is more intimate, less industrial. By talking to the audience you peel off a layer of enigma and make yourself more accessible, which is what rock is about. Accessibility. Connect. Immediacy. I am your voice and you are mine.
I remember a show at AIIMS, Delhi, in the mid 1990s: Parikrama was performing Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Nitin Malik was being heckled by a drunk fan who kept asking for ‘Comfortably Numb’. Malik stopped the set and went into a rant which ended with him saying: ‘Chup ho ja nahin toh hostel mein ghus ke maroonga.’ The crowd cheered the local Delhi lad who had finally spoken like a true Dilliwallah rather than in Roger Waters’ foreign tongue.
The wildness and weirdness is missing from the Indian music scene. So is the rebellion. It’s far too corporate. Too clean. Compare this to the bad boys of punk. The late GG Allin, The Black Lips and, off late, Manchester’s Cabbage, who are known to undress on stage.
The show is interspersed with naked antics and might end in chaos but hey, that’s rock ‘n’ roll for you. A typical Cabbage (post-Brexit punk commentators) gig will take place in a small pub with some out-of-their mind fans crowding the stage. One clip I saw had a man in an S&M outfit and his face in a pig mask, staggering around until Cabbage’s front man and him have a friendly pow-wow, while the band continues to play without batting an eye-lid.
Among memorable meltdowns, we have Billie Jo of Green Day smashing a guitar and dissing Justin Beiber at the iHeart awards ceremony. Drunk Amy would often forget her lyrics.
Indian bands take their music so seriously that they rarely smile or look up from their instruments. The trick is to make the music seem effortless. Give us a peek into your minds. Talk to us. We’ll sing along and love you all the more for it.
The writer is the editor of House Spirit: Drinking in India, published by Speaking