Great Britain

Enmity at the gates: Why have rock stars given up on feuding?

At first glance, there is little to unite scabrous post-punks Sleaford Mods and white-trousered indie urchins Sports Team. The former are from agitprop Venus, the latter student disco Mars. And yet in one crucial respect they are natural soulmates. Both have, in their own highly distinct and colourful fashion, gone above and beyond in trying to revive the proud tradition of the band-vs-band feud.

They haven’t shilly-shallied in this. They have slid in, studs up, into some prominent sacred cows. Last year, Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson elicited gasps and mass fainting by questioning the credentials of sainted shirtless rockers Idles, scorning, in particular, their middle-class origins.

Not to be outdone, Sports Team, who release their debut album Going Soft on Friday, fixed sights on James Joyce-worshipping Mercury nominees Fontaines DC. They lamented the Dubliners’ “mid-forties” audience of “wealthy craft-ale” fans. They’ve also had a go at south Londoners Shame and decreed red-haired panto-pop crew HMLTD “one of the worst bands ever”.

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Such jabs feels transgressive and slightly exciting. Which is obviously not the way it used to be. Summer 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of Blur vs Oasis, the bitter chart feud that essentially defined Britpop.

That turned ugly – but not as ugly as Morrissey idly jesting in the Eighties about shooting The Cure’s Robert Smith. This prompted Smith to respond, “If Morrissey says not to eat meat, then I’m going to eat meat; that’s how much I hate Morrissey.”

The venom back then was real, which sets it apart from the insults flung by Sleaford Mods and Sports Team. “We say a lot of things that are deliberately provocative,” Sports Team frontman Alex Rice said recently. “We’ve always thought you should believe in your band as ‘the One’, [which means] having that slightly tribal mentally. You against the world. It matters what you think is good and what you think is bad.”

Glass houses: Sports Team aren’t scared of being provocative

Their mudslinging is thus shot through with a sense of humour. Clearly, their tongues were at least partly in cheek as they lamented to Vice all “the miserable Fall knock-off stuff that’s going around at the moment”. “Camel Crew”, their 2018 single, is meanwhile regarded at taking a humorous dig at HMLTD, and their short-lived deal with Sony.

“This avant-garde is still the same,” they sing. “Go to Goldsmiths and they dye their fringes / You know they’ve made it only when they sign the rights to Sony”. Sports Team were also perceived as gesturing provocatively at The 1975 by releasing a T-shirt with a typeface similar to that favoured by Matty Healy and co in their album art.

Sleaford Mods, whose new retrospective collection All That Glue, is fresh on the shelves, have by contrast characterised their differences with Idles as a question of class and appropriation. Who gets to present themselves as the authentic voice of the streets? One-time Nottingham benefits adviser Williamson, who didn’t find success until his forties? Or a group of former students who include a qualified dentist in their ranks?

As far as Williamson is concerned, the answer is clear. “I thought they were kind of a street band, there were lines like ‘Tarquin’ that would insinuate that they were knocking the middle classes, but it turns out they’re not working class,” he said of Idles in a February 2019 Guardian fan interview that caused ripples around indie-dom. “That offended me, because I then held the belief that they were appropriating, to a certain degree, a working-class voice,” he continued.

“Music can’t solve political problems. And I think their take on it is cliched, patronising, insulting and mediocre. And that’s why I have a problem with them. I take music seriously, and I’ve come from a place where this music has been created. Without that, we wouldn’t be here.”

Outsider art: Andrew Fearn (left) and Jason Williamson of Sleaford Mods

What makes his comments even more extraordinary is how unusual they are. We’re often told the world is angrier than at any previous point in history. And it’s true that spending time on social media can be akin sticking your head in a jet afterburner. Yet that generally isn’t the case in rock. Bands today are more likely to slap one another on the back than throw figurative brickbats.

Still, even the politest groups can be provoked, as was the case with Idles. “He’s a f***ing bully,” frontman Joe Talbot told The Independent when asked about Williamson’s criticisms. “I’ve never once claimed to be working class and for him to misrepresent me like that – it was disembowelling.

“This idea that I can’t speak out against austerity or food banks – that I can’t think one of the richest economies in the world having f***ing food banks is wrong – I can’t say that because I’m fortunate enough to be able to feed my child? What the f*** is wrong with the guy?”

Nonetheless, these are the exceptions. Generally, band feuds are rarer than a Jar Jar Binks cosplayer at a Star Wars convention. And when artists do have a sharp exchange of views, they are typically of a generation that grew up on that sort of thing. Which is why the recent lively back and forth between Mark Lanegan and Liam Gallagher feels like a nostalgic throwback.

“This clown had accidentally stumbled into the high life, courtesy of his talented older brother, Noel Gallagher,” Lanegan recalled of the time his band, Screaming Trees, toured with Oasis.

“The limelight of popularity Liam basked in had evidently uncaged a monster, one without teeth or claws, but a small irritating monster nonetheless,” Lanegan wrote in his memoir Sing Backwards and Weep. “Maybe he’d been a bedwetter, s*** his pants at school or been cut from football squad as a youngster and never gotten over it.”

Lanegan wasn’t simply taking a swing at Gallagher. He had delivered an expert character assassination. He would later temper his remarks by describing Liam as “kind of an eccentric old uncle”. Nonetheless, Liam obviously wasn’t going to take all that sitting down.

“Mark Lanegan,” he tweeted. “Here’s how I saw it I asked you your bands name I was f***ing around and called it something else you being an uptight junkie and not having a sense of humour got your little grungy knickers in a twist another bulls***ter trying to sell a book LG x.”

This was a classic old school back and forth, where no punches are pulled. And it was, if anything, mild compared to the rock feuds of yesteryear. Consider the bad blood between Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Guns ’N’ Roses Axl Rose, sparked when Nirvana began to publicly distance themselves from Guns ’N’ Roses more traditional brand of rock.

As payback, Axl began to disparage Cobain on stage, describing him as “a f**kin’ junkie with a junkie wife”. Things came to a head at the 1992 MTV Music Video awards, at which Rose confronted Cobain and his spouse Courtney Love, saying “You shut your bitch up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement.” On stage later that night, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl taunted Rose by saying “Axl! Axl! Where’s Axl? Hi, Axl!” Nobody was holding back.

As recently as 15 years ago, bands were merrily bumping chests. Just before they broke through, The Killers, for instance, were drawn into a ding-dong battle of wills with New Yorkers The Bravery, with singer Brandon Flowers saying of their rivals, “They’re signed because we’re a band.” Hitting back, The Bravery’s Sam Endicott called Flowers “a little girl” and “a kid in a wheelchair”.

One surprise is that today feuding is more characteristic of pop – once the fluffiest of genres – than rock. See, for instance, Taylor Swift vs Katy Perry or the clash between Grimes and Azealia Banks (who claimed to have been left to her own devices when she visited the home Grimes shares with Elon Musk in order to collaborate).

Even Cyndi Lauper and Madonna have been at it. In 2017, Lauper took aim at Madonna and her Women’s March on Washington speech, at which Madonna said she had thought about “blowing up the White House”. “I don’t think it served our purpose,” said Lauper in response. “Anger is not better than clarity and humanity.”

In rock music, by contrast, people mostly walk on tippy-toes. So what has changed in the past decade and a half? The economics of being an artist for one thing. Blur vs Oasis was soundtracked by the ringing of tills as the two groups emerged from indie obscurity to conquer the charts. But many bands nowadays simply don’t have the cushion of not having to care what any else thinks.

“Our peers are just really kind. There’s no, like, feuds,” The Big Moon’s Celia Archer told The Independent. “Twenty years ago, you’d be mean about another band just because they were also being a band at the same time as you, which just seems exhausting.”

“There’s not a lot of money in it anymore,” she continued. “You can’t be inconsiderate because you cannot function. You have to be careful of each other and the people who are working for us are still not getting paid as much as they could be working for other people. Not just because we care, but you can’t, it’s untenable to do what we do without being considerate.”

When insults are flung they tend to come from bands either relatively fresh on the scene (Sports Team) or those who have been around the block and are perhaps slightly jaundiced. That covers Sleaford Mods. And also brilliant but dysfunctional Londoners Fat White Family, whose frontman Lias Saoudi last year confessed, “Everyone thinks we’re complete c***s”.

Their reputation as serial shin-kickers is well earned. They’ve dismissed 2018 Mercury winners Wolf Alice as “landfill indie” and threatened to join Isis unless inoffensive funkateer Mac DeMarco “immediately withdraws from music”. When Sleaford Mods got the knives out for Idles, Fat White Family were happy to join, describing Talbot and crew as a “general cultural malaise”.

Wolf Alice were dismissed by Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi as ‘landfill indie’ (PA)

“I really resent art that purports to be about saving humanity,” Saoudi told me. “Art is always about the artist saving himself. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t see a little bit of dirt on the artist’s soul in what they are doing ... I feel I am being lied to a little.”

There is such a thing as going too far of course. It’s fun to sit back and think that, even now, Matty Healy and Sports Team might be out there somewhere feuding via the medium of T-shirt typefaces. The enjoyment stops when Noel Gallagher expresses in public the wish that Damon Albarn would “catch Aids” as he did at the height of the Britpop wars.

Blur vs Oasis was obviously the apex of the modern band feud. Such was its sheer nastiness, though, it was also the moment at which the phenomenon burned itself out (though Noel and Damon have since patched up and are today cordial).

Battle for No 1: Blur and Oasis singles on sale in 1995 (Rex Features)

But have bands today veered excessively in the opposite direction? When Mark Foster of Foster the People joked in 2018 that he gives all his rejected songs to Imagine Dragons, the internet firestorm was too much. He later put out a long and detailed apology and seemed genuinely regretful at having suggested Imagine Dragons were anything other than geniuses.

The case can obviously be made that musician feuds were a hangover from crueller times and that we’re better off without them. And yet, it is undeniable that a well-aimed potshot can serve the vital function of deflating an over-pumped ego. It feels important to know, moreover, which artists can laugh at themselves and which can’t.

For instance, speaking to Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen several years ago, I was surprised that he took the opportunity to have a pop off at Liam Gallagher, then fronting the disastrous Beady Eye, rather than his usual target of Bono.

“I like Liam, but to be honest Beady Eye are c**p,” says McCulloch. “I think he’s in trouble. I don’t know – we’ve always got on. I liked Oasis – ‘Champagne Supernova’ is a classic. At the moment he looks like a fish out of water. He should have bided his time and thought a little bit more about lyrics that might be worth writing. ‘The roller – I’m the roller’? I feel for him. He’s never been the greatest frontman in the world.”

“Ian McCulloch you wanna watch what [you’re] saying about my lyrics,” he wrote. “Or I will come and tattoo them on your forehead.”

Perhaps Liam’s feelings were genuinely hurt. Or is it more likely that he understood that as a rock star part of his job involves engaging in puerile back-and-forths with his peers? Surveying the rock scene of 2020, it’s tempting to conclude that just a sprinkling of that sledgehammer brio wouldn’t go amiss.

Sports Team and Sleaford Mods have set the ball rolling and restored some mischievous fun to the indie scene. But there is a long way to travel before we return to the golden age of artists firing slings and arrows in public. As post-grunge songwriter Liz Phair commented when Mark Foster apologised to Imagine Dragons, “The 1970s called. They want us to get our s*** together with band names. Also, our band fights suck.”

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