Black Eyed Peas, Guns N' Roses 2004 David Bennun
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Black Eyed Peas/
Guns N' Roses

[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]

London Brixton Academy


FOR HALF my life I've been going to hip hop shows; yet I can tally the truly memorable ones on my digits without taking off my socks, which is good news for everybody. So it's hardly fair to single out Black Eyed Peas for the failings of a style that, as a live proposition, tends to bear out the criticisms of its most obtuse detractors: that's not music, it's just a bunch of blokes shouting at you, I can't make head nor tail of this new money, &c, &c.
 Just to be clear about this: without a bracing infusion of rap records, pop would have succumbed to terminal anaemia these two decades past. But rap gigs? Not so much, as they say in today's sitcoms.
 At a time when much of mainstream rap does, alas, sound like a bunch of blokes shouting at you, Black Eyed Peas have fixed themselves squarely among the good guys. Two excellent albums, Behind The Front and Bridging The Gap, neither pandered to the market nor fretted over underground credibility. They were fresh, invigorating and clever.
 But that wasn't enough. Someone decided that BEP should sell bushel-loads of records. Fair enough, so long as the music doesn't suffer. But it did. For the first time, it sounded as if BEP were self-consciously applying a marketing strategy to the recording process. It worked. Only by gluing itself to the number one spot for weeks can a single be considered a genuine UK hit nowadays, and Where Is The Love was assuredly that. It served as an effective lead-in for last year's Elephunk album - aptly titled, because where its predecessors were nimble and compact, Elephunk veered towards the ponderous, and was fashioned to be a jumbo-sized success. It's telling that BEP leading light should have simultaneously and discreetly issued a fine solo album, Mustb21, which was everything BEP used to be and Elephunk was not.
 The new BEP incarnation that takes the stage at Brixton has expanded to a quartet, with the tactical addition of a chickie-chick singer they got out of a catalogue. Throughout the auditorium, almost every hand waving in the air like its owner just don't care is white (and being English, they do care, really, and are a bit embarrassed about overdoing it.) Echoing Groucho Marx, I have to wonder about any rap band the rest of whose audience looks so much like me.
 BEP belong to a line of hip hoppers stretching from Stetsasonic through to such kindred spirits as The Roots, favouring live instrumentation. Sometimes this works a treat (Stereo MCs, Arrested Development at their best), sometimes it creates a tepid and viscous jazz-funk porridge (Spearhead, Arrested Development at their worst). We get both tonight. Joints And Jams is a belter, as are Weekend and the pogoing ode to big, dumb fun, Let's Get Retarded. The apologetic speech qualifying their use of the word “retarded” might be necessary in the States, but probably not here.
 I for one will always pick a daft song over a trite one - and Where Is The Love may be a cracking pop tune, but it's trite, alright. It takes a Curtis Mayfield to carry off such rudimentary socio-political sentiments in a lyric (you can bet BEP have played Choice Of Colours a few hundred times, and well they might.) BEP's considerable talents don't lie in that direction. They do have some jaw-dropping dance moves, though. We could have done with a little, no, a lot more of that.
 The standing music biz joke is that we'll see actual Chinese democracy long before we hear Guns N' Roses's mooted next album, Chinese Democracy. If Manic Street Preachers hadn't nabbed it, Forever Delayed might have made a better title.
 Its patience evidently exhausted, the record company is instead releasing a Greatest Hits. Gn'R fans, an excitable crew at the best of times, are predictably livid about this. Expect riots, or at the very least, widespread hungover grumbling. Meanwhile the rest of us can ponder why a band who haven't put out a new record since 1993 and now feature just one original member should still arouse curiosity, let alone passion.
 The answer is simple: Gn'R were, briefly, rock'n'roll incarnate. They distilled all the sleaze, defiance and howling rage of the L.A. hair scene into a series of records that lurched from astoundingly great to gut wrenchingly awful. They also embodied everything that was flaky, fatuous and risible about it. The surprising thing is not that this cluster of fruit loops and mooncalves fell apart so swiftly and catastrophically, but that it held together in the first place.
 The compilation encompasses both Gn'R's rabid glories and their epic disgraces. Civil War is surely the worst protest song in that genre's ignominious history, and international law should be invoked to prevent them covering anyone else's compositions, ever. Knockin' On Heaven's Door, like De Sade's Justine, is a fragile, blameless thing repeatedly traduced, brutalised and exploited; and while Gn'R are not the only offenders, they are the worst. Axl Rose's histrionic caterwauling was never less sufferable than when it mauled Dylan's muted elegy for the old West: “Knark knark knarkin' awn heeyevan's dowowowourrr ow yow wow!”
 But alongside these horrors stand Welcome To The Jungle, Sweet Child O' Mine, You Could Be Mine, tracks which fuse the Pistols, the Stones and the Ruts into a thrillingly cut-throat metallic amalgam; while Don't Cry and the hysterical November Rain triumph where a million flatulent power ballads have failed. This is the band The Darkness can only dream of becoming.

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