Has rock music lost its power to shock?

May 22, 2015

Last week I went to see my favourite band of 2015 (so far) play live at the Roundhouse in Camden, North London.


Public Service Broadcasting is a wonderful idea. The band take old newsreel and radio broadcast clips and write pieces of music around them. They are preoccupied with the technological and scientific progress of the mid-twentieth century. After a debut album featuring Spitfires, the night mail train and the conquest of Everest, their second album, released last month, tells the story of the race for space, from Kennedy’s declaration that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, to the historic flight of Apollo 11, via the global rock star popularity of Yuri Gagarin.


This is clearly the kind of idea that’s going to appeal to a certain type of earnest, curious bloke. So I was surprised to see a fair number of women in the audience too. As I sat and looked around the balcony of the roundhouse, I was among mainly couples.


The extraordinary thing was that, in my mid-forties, I was younger than most of them.


I’m used to going to gigs full of middle-aged blokes. But that’s normally because the band on stage is made up of middle-aged blokes too, and we’re all gathered together to relive our youth, back when they were thrashing and we were moshing.


But this was different. It was the first gig I’ve ever been to where the majority of the audience looked old enough to have given birth to and raised the band on stage. We looked like parents who’d turned up to see their kids in a school play.


Public Service Broadcasting do have plenty of fans their own age and younger – if I’d been wearing spectacles I’d have been able to make them out downstairs at the front. But I found it unusual for a new band to have attracted such strong cross-generational fandom.


Until recently, music divided us among generational lines. The first teenagers scared the hell out of their parents when they went crazy for Elvis or Little Richard. Their children in turn terrified them with glam or punk.


But we’re approaching the time now when everyone alive has gone through the process of teenage rebellion and intoxication that began with a cry of awopbopaloobop awopbamboom. In 2009 Al Martino, who hit number one on the first ever UK singles chart in 1952, died aged 82. The likes of Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page and Roger Daltrey are now in their seventies. Rock and pop have matured, come full cycle.


Just as kids are picking and mixing playlists from rock’s entire cannon, so their parents and even their grandparents can find something familiar, interesting and relatable in new bands. We’ve all seen it all and done it all before. And this means that rock has lost some of its power to shock: whatever profane lyrics, outrageous looks or dissonant noise anyone comes up with, its unlikely to scare anyone weaned on the likes of the Pistols, Bowie or My Bloody Valentine.


Many of us feel that if rock has lost its power to outrage, it has lost its vitality. But it’s not as simple as that. While you can’t necessarily shock your hippy grandparents or New Romantic dad with your musical path, every generation produces more squares than heads, more people who aren’t really that into the poses and excitement of rock music, who ‘grow out of it’ when they reach what they imagine to be maturity. If you can’t shock upwards, you can still shock across.


But more importantly, now modern popular music has matured, it’s capable of doing so much more than graffitiing the walls, staying out late and refusing to tidy its room.


Back at the Roundhouse, Public Service Broadcasting revealed themselves to be the heirs to Kraftwerk, a very British version of the greatest ever German band, and they made perfect sense in that way. They make you see the world in a new way, or remind you of a thrilling, childlike vision that you thought had gone forever.


And maybe that’s why so many middle-aged people like them.


I would lay a heavy bet that the band attracts a high proportion of teachers to their gigs who, instead of turning their backs to take selfies with the band behind them, tap out ideas for lesson plans on their smartphones instead. This is a band whose music I can imagine being used in science and history lessons. And the coolest part of that is, I can imagine the kids loving it.


Rock music still has the power to stir and surprise. It just does so in ways you never expected.