XOM and the question of music

In Review: XOM’s Rockyoke

About 400 years ago, when I was an undergraduate, it was my pleasure to make the acquaintance of John Sloboda, professor of psychology with a particular interest in the psychology of music. For Professor Sloboda, music is “a way of defining community”:

My eyes were really opened to this when I went to Ireland for the first time a few years ago; in any pub or village hall you see people of all ages and ability making music together…in England we are deprived of something by the lack of a folk tradition in our society; the closest people seem to get to music here is karaoke!


Part One: 30 August 2018, The Prince of Wales, Moseley

Late summer last, I was finishing off a short but demanding course in adult education while simultaneously bailed on a GBH charge, pending trial. My choir attendance had rather dropped off the agenda, and with my voice stressed from all the screaming, I was looking for somewhere to warm up it up again. Drinking at my local, I noticed an intriguing poster advertising ‘a night of sing-a-long fun featuring the very best in rock’n’roll anthems’, raising money for St Basils, a charity that works with homeless young people. The gig, apparently chaired by a band called XOM, gloried in the name RockyOke.

When the poster came up in conversation with a close friend, who expressed interest, naturally we made arrangements, and then forgot all about it. But as fate would have it, returning from a botanical excursion one afternoon, I bumped into another close friend, and into the Prince of Wales we shot. On ordering my pint I heard an unmistakable melody floating in: the opening riff from Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. This struck me very deeply, and following the sound into the beer-yard, we came face-to-face with XOM.

Imagine my delight, and curiosity. Cinderella shall go to the ball! A sound-checking band, including one or two faces I recognised, rehearsing some of my favourite tunes of yesteryear. Lyrics sheets printed up and distributed around the yard. A mutual friend sat on a stool. The sun shone. The very gig I thought with which to warm my voice, and reconnect with community at this stressful time, despite my forgetfulness, had me blown in on the steel breeze.

In my own assault on the rhythm part of that intro, I’ve used the following sounds behind it, both licensed for use with Attribution: FM radio tuning by MrAuralization — https://freesound.org/s/269701/ – and Forest Nov NL 1pm 181107_1297.flac by klankbeeld — https://freesound.org/s/448280/

Maria, in charge of the venue, was checking decibels. Gentrification’s wave sometimes breaks, finding tension and conflict as new residents complain of noise from established music venues. Caveat emptor, a principle with which we are all familiar, sometimes seems in abeyance when considering new build flats next to musical venues, being ‘far from the whole position‘, giving residents an advantage in pursuing noise complaints, potentially affecting the music venue, and its musicians and audience, adversely. This came up last decade: when new build flats went up near the venerable Spotted Dog of Digbeth. One complaint, if I recall correctly, had a significant knock-on effect for their musical events, and the issue of new build flats next to established music venues, and the potential power imbalance, became a live one for all of us who, like Professor Sloboda, care about live music and its role in our society. The life of and around the pub made a great show of support for their side. Similarly, the Prince of Wales had made the issue public, perhaps wary of similar sonic trigger-dramas, and were keen to ensure decibels were monitored, and below certain limits. One sensed a little extra tension in the sound check, but the band’s sense of discipline and camaraderie in the face of modern Britain was immediately obvious.

And anyway, I’d been heartened by news earlier in the year of movement on this issue, after lobbying, in part by local councils presumably fed up of having to mediate such tedium. There was in 2018 a drift towards common sense from central government, on this issue at least, with reference to the perhaps less familiar principle of agente mutationem which, if applied in such cases ought to protect a venue from noise complaints, giving the new arrival the responsibility to mitigate any problems. This article on local.gov.uk covers the basics and provides links for further reading. But in short:

Jonathan Sandilands, maestro of the whole affair, later told me of the genesis of the idea. Inspired by a sing-along event staged by Moselele, Moseley’s premier Ukelele meetup, at the Prince of Wales, as well as previous charity gigs at the venue, Jon put forward the notion of a sing-a-long rock anthems gig.

It strikes me as an interesting take, with an interesting mix of songs. All decades were represented. Just as a sample, we sung:

  • Twist and shout (1961, originally recorded by the Top Notes) and the oldest song on the set list
  • Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) (1979, Pink Floyd), a particular favourite from my childhood and of course a classic of community involvement in its own right
  • Here I Go Again (originally recorded 1982, by Whitesnake), a song with an interesting history
  • Are You Gonna Go My Way (1993, Lenny Kravitz), see below.
  • Sex on Fire (2008, Kings of Leon)

I was in Muthers Studio the other day, chatting to the very nice man who looks after the reception lobby, sick to his back teeth of yet another Lenny Kravitz ‘Are you gonna go my way’ cover vibrating through the walls. He must hear the same songs over and over, like a radio on the factory floor always tuned to he same station, same playlists. People ‘murdering Queen’ was his particular bugbear.

I’m no expert, but judging by the audience reaction, Queen were almost reborn in that little pub, the climactic moment of that extraordinary song Bohemian Rhapsody energising the crowd, and a Queen number was demanded by the audience as an encore. I was just as delighted by some of the perhaps lesser-well known songs sprinkled in there. Jon however did note surprise at the number of younger people who do know songs he might feel were on the less ubiquitous end of the repertoire. Even if not, as Frank Kermode once observed, good artists lead and educate an audience as much as merely entertain, and so I appreciated the varied song choices that stray a little from well-worn paths. It’s a nice balanced mix.

XOM seem like a splendid bunch of chaps, and very professional in their playing. They’d clearly been working hard to do justice to these classic pieces, and that dedication as well as a great sense of fun emerges from their performance. I was impressed with Jon Smalls’ percussion, Iain Davies on rhythm guitar, and Matthew Banks on bass, who all put their backs properly into it, while Jon Sandilands on lead guitar not only knows his licks but also seems to take the lead in encouraging audience participation, with a commendable awareness of the whole event. He embodies that sense of music ‘defining community’. Gary Hebrard as lead vocalist also did more than his bit, engaging the audience with an energised and charismatic stage presence, jumping around from keyboards to tambourine to acoustic guitar with admirable agility.

The audience gave a splendid performance too, enthusiastically singing and dancing. The energy was infectious. I’d thought a quiet and restrained night, gently singing around my table in good company, but the participatory nature of the gig and the energy the band generated soon had me doing the can-can on the tables! I suppose it gave me an opportunity to work off some stress, what with the whole defending myself against a GBH charge while trying to qualify in teaching business, and for that I am forever grateful. That sense of community, of involvement, of even the transformation of the familiar cover band gig towards something approaching a community event, made all the difference for me.

I think the format XOM are putting forward here potentially has something of Sloboda’s missing folk tradition. The writer David Morris, late of the Birmingham University cultural studies scene, drew in his 1992 book on techno-occultism in popular culture, The Masks of Lucifer, a distinction between ‘popular and popularized culture’, as two ends of a continuum. The former refers to music (say) that genuinely arises from, with, and by the people, from grass-roots culture, as opposed to something created for them, and made popular through marketing, mass distribution and adoption. Modern digital media, as well as providing easy access to older songs, allowing viral revivals of many classic (and not so classic) recordings, also conditions a nostalgia for live music and vinyl recordings, and, while Sloboda may be right, that we lack in England a viable folk tradition, that appetite allows us to use what we have to create the lineaments of something to fill that gap. Well known, commercial rock anthems and songs, emerging from the now old-fashioned era of mass media, have passed into culture as folk memories, and so sit in an interesting, somewhat liminal place in our culture. With the emphasis on the importance of audience, it is a place XOM help us reach together.

You can read more about XOM on their site

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