All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015

The Ugly & The Beautiful

We left Clerkenwell briefly a couple of weeks ago. Travelling out of town, we headed into the West - through the ugliness of Reading and Slough - to the beauty of mid Wales where the little literary town of Hay on Wye lies on the edge of the Black mountains. The event was a small, very special music festival called “The Green Man” held in the lovely grounds of a small stately home known as Baskerville Hall. It really was a delightful, languorous weekend spent lounging in the sun, lying on, the grass and ruminating on the strange nature of things. There were very a few minor celebs there, the odd discerning journalist and a lot of bands and musicians who fall vaguely into the category of ‘nu-folk’ or ‘folktronica’ or ‘alt-country’. There was no corporate sponsorship, very little security – you could have just leap frogged the fence – no Starbucks, cash dispensers or franchised extortion. Apart from that and the clear country air, sunshine and local provender, the most refreshing thing was too notice how bloody ugly most of the male musicians were. The women were generally a bit more attractive but then that’s often the way.

Now I like beauty – and beauty there was in abundance – but on the whole it was in the backdrop of the mountain landscape and, if human, in the mouths and instruments of the players rather than in their skin. That is to say, it was a property of the music rather than the way they looked. Take that remarkable wild man of the woods known sometimes as ‘Bonny Prince Billy’ - even his mother wouldn’t claim him as a conventional pretty picture - or take the down at heel accountant known as ’Malcolm Middleton’ - or that remarkable out of work painter and decorator “The Lone Pigeon’. Head-turners none of them but all making some heart-stoppingly lovely sounds. Perhaps it’s the rootsy nature of the genre that makes it possible – perhaps it’s because the ambulance chasing industry types are only just catching up – perhaps it’s because the people who enjoy the music are somewhat immune to the beauty regime that dominates everywhere else. Perhaps. But thank heavens there is some small green corner of the land and the culture where it still doesn’t actually matter what you look like.

Of course, none of this is really news and of course we expect gross superficiality, sexism and ageism from the mainstream big guys - and it’s understandable - if not forgiveable. But the invidious, creeping tyranny of having to be finger- looking good to be given an opportunity to give the world music seems to be spreading to some of the Indies too. I mean, didn’t they used to take pride in giving the most unattractive, nerdy, piss weak, chinless geeks record deals? Look at Belle and Sebastian – well you wouldn’t particularly want to would you? – but, it didn’t matter – because they sounded great (well, pretty good at any rate). Now, things seem to have changed – I mean an A+R friend (who loves music and has very good taste) recently told me that a label she knew rejected The Magic Numbers – because they were fat and hairy. Ouch. Oh dear….Still, it might be possible to justify that with the notion that having a fat and hairy band become successful is the exception that proves the rule - is a temporary blip, a novelty, an aberration before the comforting hegemony of the beauty rules are re-established. Maybe.

But don’t you feel like you are getting short changed? Like you are getting ripped off? It’s like bringing those Schwarzenigger sized pumped-up peppers home from the supermarket. They look AMAZING – but, oh dear, they don’t taste of anything – it’s like eating an idea. And it’s not just music – my dear friend Glen Duncan told me the other day that you are far more likely to get your first book deal if you’re gorgeous! I mean can someone tell me why?! No? Well, perhaps it’s because the people who make the final decisions are the bean-counters and the marketeers – and guess what – they quite often don’t particulary like food, reading or listening to music!

Now being beautiful doesn’t mean you can’t write beautiful literature or songs – look at Nick Drake, Kate Bush, Syd Barrett etc (although, funnily enough, in some ways it might make it less likely.) But we remember them mainly for their music right? And of course, being ugly doesn’t guarantee talent, but many of the people I admire are really not a pretty sight. Look at Gainsbourg – “cabbage head’ as he called himself – or all those old jazz dudes– fat, scarred, wrinkled, bald – and the men were even worse! They were all so stylish though weren’t they?

It’s a funny world and it’s true that there are many noble exceptions and a couple of bastions of non-aesthetic discrimination still fighting the trend – just look at the good old BBC – I mean, it seems you can’t seem to get a job as a political journalist there unless you have huge sticky out ears and a gob like a frog – but generally if you want to even work the door in the entertainment business you have to be drop dead gorgeous.

Now why am I naively banging on about this and boring you to death? You’ve heard it all before and I’m gorgeous myself of course - so what do I care? J Well, it’s just because I was sitting in that field in mid-Wales chewing an English apple and reading a book by some old fright and it seemed so sad to think of all those wonderful musicians that we never got to hear, like all those wonderful writers we won’t read and all those wonderful vegetables we’ll never eat – because they didn’t look right. And, also mainly, to be honest, because I was hoping that when I’m ancient and ugly, they’d let me carry on doing the only thing that I ever really wanted to do: - trying to make beautiful music.