More than words can say

A new generation of bands is doing away with lyrics

I listen to music constantly, become obsessed with particular records and often feel the need to rant to people about them; pieces that, for some reason, I think may affect and change their lives for the better, be it for as little as a minute and 20 seconds. However, I know very little about how music is made or constructed, despite years of expensive lessons on a variety of instruments and a brief tour around Germany with a brass band.
If I were to attempt to make a record, I know that the area in which I would struggle most would be in writing lyrics. How can you be that open about your thoughts and give people the opportunity to ridicule what you're saying? It has always seemed to me a very brave thing to do. And lyrics can put the listener off an otherwise decent tune. Once, I didn't play a record on my radio show because the band kept making references to hanging out in Camden Town. Shallow, I know, but it was annoying.

It is with joy, therefore, that I've noticed that there seems to have been an increase in popular acts that do without words altogether - or whose vocals are muffled, quiet and unintelligible, as if they were trying to tell you something not very important from the other side of a brick wall. In the past, instrumental acts would have been solely associated with either dance music or what is irritatingly referred to as "chill out" but, in the past few years, this seems to have changed, with some instrumentals even getting played on daytime radio.

The increase almost certainly has something to do with the huge success and popularity of dubstep, a genre of dance music that managed to sneak its way into pretty much every corner of the music world, including the UK Top 40. Musicians have since opened up the genre so much that it is no longer distinct and people don't know how to categorise the acts that have sprung out of its ashes.

In the post-dubstep era, people have become used to the idea of watching instrumental acts in much the same way as you would go to watch a band -without feeling the need to get wasted or dance, like you would in a nightclub. You could probably even get away with some beard-scratching. And these acts are performing in venues once reserved for more conventional, all-singing bands, as well as signing up to record labels that would previously not have ventured outside of indie rock.

The instrumental acts that I have been digging most this year vary considerably, from the slightly mystical and hypnotic duo Mount Kimbie to Fuck Buttons, who move rather gracefully from the sort of euphoric, electronic sound that you might associate with being fired into space to something close to thrash metal. Another fave from 2010 has been an indie-rock track by Civil Civic called "Run Overdrive" - you spend five minutes waiting for the vocals and they just don't turn up.

There is an ever-expanding list of instrumental acts, which includes Gold Panda, Four Tet, Jon Hopkins and Forest Swords. Their styles are varied, but what links them is that you really don't notice the lack of words - these people are extraordinarily good at creating pictures out of sound alone and their music is, strangely, all the more beautiful for it. Even the noisy, aggressive acts.

Of course, there is the chance that, as I grow older, I am subconsciously just becoming more attracted to music without vocals. Instrumentals allow you to flood the music with your own story without some young buck trying to tell you his. If this is the case, though, it is somewhat embarrassing and I'd rather you didn't say a word. l

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This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution