A short story inspired by the song Did I fight in the punk wars for this? By Henry Priestman.
It was Saturday evening. Len left his dinner plate in the sink, closed the door on the kitchen and settled himself into his arm chair by the fire.
He pointed the zapper at the TV and pressed the red button, the sudden glare from the screen illuminating the small living room.
The smiley people in shiny suits and sparkling dresses were grinning manically at him. Len curled his lip and grunted.
Four serious looking people with perfect hair and white teeth, were arguing amongst themselves while a nervous looking teenager waited with a frozen grin on his face that made him look like he was in pain.
It seemed like a decision of absolute importance was being made.
“I just don’t get it.” The stony faced man said, causing the other three to react with varying degrees of shock and outrage.
“How can you say that?” The former pop star, sat next to him, asked.
“It’s like karaoke. And not even good karaoke.” He argued.
The radio DJ at the end of the row held his hands out in disbelief.
“Last week you were complaining he was too gimmicky, this week he’s bad karaoke! What is it you want exactly?”
“Well, I want to win, obviously.” The judge laughed.
Len shook his head as he pointed the zapper at the tv.
“It’s all just a game to you isn’t it?” He asked the man on the screen, before changing the channel, replacing the singing talent show with another early evening light entertainment show in which the latest pop sensation was performing their latest hit. A row of five boys executing synchronised dance moves, took it in turns to stare into the camera with sparkling eyes and wide grins while singing a rearranged, slow cover version of a once classic tune.
The front door opened and slammed shut. Len looked up at the living room door expectantly as his son, Ben, walked in carrying a guitar case.
“Hey pops.” He smiled. Len flickered his eyebrows in acknowledgement, “what are you watching?”
“Nothing, it’s all rubbish.” He flicked through the channels again, scowling when the talent show appeared again.
“They’re singing one of your songs tonight.” Ben told him.
“Well I’ll look forward to that royalty cheque.” He shrugged.
Len had written a few hits in the 80s that were always being included in best of compilations and often got an airing on radio.
“Come on, dad, this show isn’t so bad.”
“It isn’t too good either. It’s ruined music, I mean really, did I come through the punk wars for this rubbish?” Len pointed an accusatory finger at the TV.
“So what was it like when you were starting out?”
Len turned off the TV and turned to his son.
“I always wanted to be in a band when I was younger. I used to sing in front of the mirror, practising my stance and even my between song banter, and of course, my gracious acceptance of applause.” He smiled remembering it.
“I’ve done that a fair few times.” Ben laughed, standing up and peering into the mirror above the fireplace and holding his fist in front of his mouth. Len stood up next to him.
“Mine was always more like this,” he said, curling his top lip slightly and raising an eyebrow, “anyway, there was a teacher at school who could play a few instruments and he agreed to teach me during my lunch hour. I learned a chord or three on his guitar until I saved up enough to buy my own and then I started writing a few songs. Back then it was all over dramatic, ten minute guitar solos, so there didn’t seem to be much use for my three chord wonders.”
“So when did you first join a band?” Ben asked, unlocking his guitar case and lifting his instrument onto his knee.
“Well, in 1975, I went to art school, that’s how all the best bands got started back then, we played all the local bars and got a bit of a name for ourselves. We recorded a few songs and one of our mates started his own record label to release them for us. Nothing huge, but we sold a few. I mean, it’s all part of the rich history of the era now, so you can still buy them on eBay for quite a tidy sum. It was a refreshing change to hear short sharp catchy tunes instead of the disco or prog rock. You had the singers who just sang what they were told to sing, and rockers with long hair that knew all the chords and crammed them all in to one song that lasted forever. And then there was us. We weren’t being told what to sing or what to say, we were telling our own story, there were no minors or flats, it was short, simple and to the point.”
“So what happened?”
“A record company came along and signed us up, we went to New York to record our album.”
“Really? That sounds a bit corporate.” Ben teased him.
Len rolled his eyes and sighed, “in our defence, the punk scene was really happening in New York. It was the place to be and we embraced the chance to travel, but yes, the corporates wanted to control us, copy our model and turn it into the next big thing. Suddenly they were putting together bands that sounded like us. Punk became like a brand and instead of fighting the system we’d given them the blueprints to create a more mainstream version of us that made them loads of money while diluting our message.”
“The bastards fought back, huh?” Ben strummed a melancholic chord on his guitar.
“Yep, and they’ve been winning ever since. Look at this shit.” Len waved a dismissive hand at the TV, “music is dead. They broke it. They care more about tv ratings. People think they’re choosing what makes it by voting, but it’s all rigged. Of all the thousands of people that audition for this show, they cherry pick the ones that fit with their model, that they can manipulate, that will do what they’re told as long as they get to sing on TV and experience fame.”
“No one wants to make music, they just want to be famous.” Ben agreed, plucking lightly at the guitar strings, playing a pretty tune. Len grunted.
“Anyway, what have you done today?” He asked, eyeing the guitar.
“I wrote a new song. Do you want to hear it?”
“Of course I do.” Len sat back in his seat, fixing his attention on his son, listening intently to his words and watching his fingers move deftly across the fret board.
It was well written, beautifully crafted and the complete opposite of the trash that made up the top 40. Ben didn’t care about fame, he just wanted to write music that meant something to him. Len smiled as the song came to an end, this is what we were fighting for, he thought to himself.