March 8th, 2004

Rock Musicals

(This piece first appeared in The Guardian in March 2004)

It seems that Elvis Presley Enterprises, who own the rights to “Jailhouse Rock” have refused the makers of a musical based on Presley’s life permission to use the song in their show. This news has warmed my cockles, which were in danger of freezing and dropping off altogether. That the producers intend to press ahead with said musical anyway, entitled, er, Jailhouse Rock, speaks megatonnes about the ghastly shamelessness of West End profiteers bent on reducing rock’s legacy to that most loathsome form of mass entertainment, one which makes bear-baiting and dwarf-hurling seem cultivated by comparison – the musical.

The rise of rock musicals has been unremitting, from Abba’s Mamma Mia to Madness’s Our House, to the hellspawn of the reptilian Ben Elton – We Will Rock You and the Rod Stewart-inspired Tonight’s The Night. Cultural weathermen predict a couple more decades of this toxic drizzle, probably involving the same handful of productions, gleefully celebrating British pop’s non-multi-ethnic heritage. What’s baffling about musicals about music is their tautologousness – it’s like baking a pie pie. Worse, however, is that everything that might have been good about original rock/pop subject matter – its fleeting, perfectly glistening moments – is obliterated in these mercenary productions, these Trocaderofications of rock, in which the glorious past becomes the cheap and waxen perma-present.

What’s sad is how many artists, from Suggs to Rod Stewart, are prepared to collaborate in the ruin of their own often already dubious reputations. Have you ever been to a Ben Elton musical? I have. It wasn’t just bad, it was traumatising. I was carrying my jaw around between my knees for days afterwards. I know other critics who have reluctantly attended Elton musicals so that you don’t have including one who, tragically, had to see We Will Rock You twice. No one should have to do that. It’s like sending a shellshocked vet on a second tour of ‘Nam.

What’s so psychologically damaging about witnessing a musical like We Will Rock You is that it shakes your fundamental, anti-Hitlerian belief that people are basically equal. There are droves of fellow human beings paying to watch this rancid baloney – the “plot” is sewn together from old Queen songtitles, involving a Killer Queen from whom the populace are Under Pressure to Break Free, etc. This makes you contemplate whether mankind does indeed contain with its ranks a sub-species, ie those who attend Ben Elton musicals and buy balloons to advertise the fact afterwards. With their hackneyed and retarded notion of the “fabulous”, musicals are vile, chronic, soul-sucking organisms. That they have become the black hole into which rock is now disappearing, in this hideous new era of shifting demographics and cynicism is a matter for universal concern.

Arguably, a musical sinner like Rod Stewart deserves no better fate than Tonight’s The Night. All the same, no one, not even Peter Sutcliffe, deserves to have his life reduced to a musical. Elvis Presley Enterprises, thank for trying to stop the rot.

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