When Cornershop sang “TSB rock school, the soft rock shit” on Lessons Learned From Rocky I to Rocky III, they may have had a point. There’s something slightly unnerving about the freshly established concept of the music institute. Designed to teach students with musical aspirations – and a spot of cash – how to break their way into the music industry, universities have been offering music courses for the best part of a century, while the independent rock college is a relatively new phenomenon.
Critics say these schools do not rock. And certainly it’s hard to imagine The Vines passing an entrance audition that looks for “a high level of instrumental proficiency and high levels of self-motivation”. They find something creepy in performing arts schools turning out “rock musicians” the way drug-addled art schools used to. And they ask: what can supposed rebels learn from a conformist institute?
Time then for Q to visit the latest of these “rockademies”, the Brighton institute of Modern Music, accompanied by brothers Alex and Tom White, guitarist and drummer respectively with Mercury Prize nominees, Electric Soft Parade. Both are ideal lecturers for a school like this, but Alex and Tom are in fact going to spend the day as pupils, sitting in on lessons and telling Q what they reckon to it all.
The Brighton Institute of Modern Music is brand new. With investment from Ronan Keating, its compact building in Brighton’s aptly named Rock Place is rafter-crammed with guitars and drum things with headphones and the accumulated gold discs of its tutors and staff. Its key selling point is that the people who teach here have had real experience of the music industry, whether it’s engineering Def Leppard albums or playing the drums in a Britpop band. This hot summer morning eager students arrive, ready to rock on a songwriting day course.
But what to expect? The best known of all these schools is the Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts. Opened by Sir Paul McCartney in 1966, LIPA states that “the musicians of the 21st century will need to be self-motivated, imaginative, inquisitive and adaptable to all the contexts, existing and new, in which music will be heard”. Which may explain why Brian Eno is one of their guest lecturers. LIPA offers “a focused but broad training” that’s “structured to balance your personal, professional and musical development through a gradual process of specialisation over the three years”. It sounds like something you’d see on the back of a bottle of hair conditioner but it works. At least, it worked for Christian out of A1 who was attending LIPA when he was asked to join the band.
BIMM’s day begins with a brief introductory talk from founder and director Bruce Dickinson – confusingly, not the singer from Iron Maiden but previously guitarist in heavy rockers Little Angels (think Scarborough’s answer to Bon Jovi) Dickinson is keen to distance the college from the prancing antics of, say, Bobby Gillespie.
“Not everyone wants to be a rock star” he tells the class. “Some people want session work or to run a commercial covers band”. Dickinson is clear and sensible on the real point of the school. “For young people it’s very frustrating for a record company to say “come back when you’ve got better”, like how? How do you get better?”
If Tom and Alex know, they’re not saying. They become more engaged by the arrival of first lecturer, Jon Stewart, once the guitarist in 90’s Britpoppers Sleeper. Today he’s here to teach the finer points of songwriting and with the aid of a CD player and some demos of Strawberry Fields Forever, he shows how a song is transformed in the recording process and unveils a list of songwriting tips. He also tells the class how Sleeper’s biggest song, Inbetweener, became a hit after the label made them remove the first verse. And that a well-known dance producer is in fact an “acid casualty”.
It’s a ramshackle, engaging and funny lecture, even if it acts largely as an introduction to the whole songwriting process. In the cafe across the road, Tom and Alex are more critical.
“I didn’t hear the word emotion in his lecture once” says Alex. “And that scared the shit out of me. He’s talking about students making hit singles. We don’t give a f*** about that. We don’t give a flying f*** from a high window”
Strawberry Fields Forever is hardly a Pop Idol Tune, suggests Q. But Alex and Tom are having none of this.
“Strawberry Fields is unusual, so to use it as an example in a class like that is quite confusing” Tom points out. Alex opts for a different tack. “John Lennon would be turning in his grave if he’d heard what was going on there. And the last thing I want to hear at a thing like that is a Beatles tune”
The reason for this is associative. “When I was doing A-level music, it was classical based and at the end the teacher would say “And now something modern – a Beatles tune!” I would like to have heard some Sleeper stuff, with Stewart saying, “we wrote this about this” and putting his experiences into it. They’ve got some great tracks”
“I don’t like to sneer” adds Alex “but there’s that failed musician vibe. There’s that Alan Partridge-esque, bitter and twisted thing”
“He was in Sleeper” Tom points out.
It’s time to return for the next lecture. This is delivered by Mark Flannery, who has produced U2, Def Leppard, Tom Jones and Black Sabbath. Flannery, with the aid of local group Denzel (Tom: “I don’t know them”) shows the class how to make a song stronger. He also plays classic rock records to show how songs can be strengthened with arrangements and strong hooks. As a non-musician, Q finds it fascinating. Tom and Alex do not. When Flannery begins a sentence with the words “No disrespect to Pop Idols…” Alex is moved to shout “Yes! You should have no respect for them! They’re shit! They’re f******!”
“Learn to hate” adds Tom.
Over lunch, Tom is cautiously pessimistic. “I did learn a lot about song structure. But if you’re in a band, a producer does those things for you”
Alex responds: “I don’t like feeling superior to the lecturer but I did in there”
“But it’s a good set-up” says Tom, referring to the facilities. “When we did music at school we’d have a piano and a little ghetto blaster to work with. This is a step up”
Still, the business of improving a song has not gone down well. “It’s putting song structure into some kind of order, which I don’t want to hear” Tom asserts. “I want to listen to stuff like Spiritualized, where it’s three minutes before the vocals come in. Because it doesn’t mention that, the course is limiting what you can do”
“It’s good but it’s not creative” says Tom.
Later Q finds Bruce Dickinson and asks the one question that seems to matter: can you “teach” rock music?
“Yes and no” he says. “If you want to be a rock guitarist, you have to find your own style, but if you want to be good technically that can be taught. I spent 10 years learning to play the guitar and I look back and think, “shit, I could have done that in a year”. You can give people the information and what they do with it is up to them”
As if to illustrate Dickinson’s reasonable words, a fresh hell is seeping out of the lecture room. Alex and Tom are jamming with the students. Alex drums with the face of a happy man. Tom plays one-note bass. Around them blues scales erupt like lava, or acne. School – as an old man with a snake once said – is out.
In the pub afterwards, Alex reflects on their day back in class.
“Everything we’ve said about this college runs the risk of being pompous and know-it-all and crap but – at the risk of being pompous and know-it-all and crap – it’s f****** useless me being here, because I know this stuff really”
“But this can’t be a negative thing for people who want to study music” responds Tom. “It’s well set up and it covers subjects A-level music doesn’t even touch on”
Suddenly Alex relents.
“I’d be up for coming down here and doing a talk. I’d happily sit and pick apart one of my songs. But it would be hard, because writing a song is such a personal thing that you can’t teach it. Nobody could experience or explain how anybody writes a song, so that makes songwriting impossible to teach? Doesn’t it?”
School kids, eh?