I'd have to say last Saturday's piece about my
concert at the Purcell Room on September 1 was by
far the most generous review of my work that Adam
Sweeting has ever written. In fact, if you kept
the best bits, you could end up with maybe 15 positive
words about the music - probably the nearest thing
to fulsome praise that will ever come my way from
But big thanks to Sweeting for finally admitting
in print what had long been apparent: the man can't
stand me. There's no possible performance I could
ever give, or album I could ever make, that Sweeting
wouldn't detest on general principle.
Sorry - could I just run that by you once again?
Before he even turned up at the show, there was
never the smallest doubt that Sweeting would tell
the world just how embarrassingly, toe-curlingly
awful it was... regardless of what happened on stage.
Fair enough, all artists have off-nights. If any
of us give dull, sloppy or pretentious performances,
we deserve to be roasted.
Take (say) an Ian Dury concert. A fair review might
cover whether he sang well, whether the band were
hot, and what artistic risks, if any, were taken.
It might mention that his vocal range is limited,
his humour lavatorial - also (probably) that the
audience enjoyed every minute of it. But suppose
you've always loathed Dury's Essex Boy persona and
find songs such as Clever Trevor deeply unfunny?
You might go along and review him once, just to
get it off your chest. Twice, if you're feeling
particularly vindictive. But three times? Four?
Of course there's no reason why any artist shouldn't
get a good kicking in print from time to time: we
take the rough with the smooth. But the rough with
the rough? Year after year? Every album review,
every concert review. This is criticism, Jim, but
not as we know it.
Far be it from me to lecture the Guardian's arts
editor on The Role of the Critic in Contemporary
Popular Culture, but surely this is a waste of column
inches. The ignorant jibes about my personal life,
the gratuitous digs about geography teachers: this
isn't an arts review, this is character assassination.
Nor is it simply a question of wounded ego: the
fact is, I don't have a big-shot manager or PR company
to help undo this kind of damage with promotional
Damage? My records aren't played on Radio 1, or
reviewed in Melody Maker: the liberal press are
just about the only way of contacting my potential
audience these days. So while 300 people had a storming
time at my show the other night, 500,000 more read
that it was "a few songs short of enjoyable". ("Shall
we go out and see Tom Robinson's next concert, dear?"
"Erm, probably not.") I'm not asking for special
treatment, just making a point: there definitely
is such a thing as bad publicity.
And while there's no modest way to say this, plenty
of people don't agree with Sweeting. From his review
you'd never guess that the venue was packed and
ecstatic, or that the two songs he described as
"excruciating" won the wildest, warmest applause
of the evening.
So if the new Guardian pop critic is young enough
to be my grandchild, for God's sake next time (if
there is a next time) ask her or him to come and
judge one of my performances on its merits. In the
here and now, without, like Adam Sweeting, bringing
20 years of history, bile and emotional baggage
to bear. Were the songs any good on first hearing?
How committed was the performance? How was the rapport
between stage and audience? How did the show compare
to Skunk Anansie, Faithless, or The Prodigy? OK
- the answer might turn out to be "badly" - but
I'll take my chances.
Most of the audience at Glastonbury this year had
never seen me before but 2,000 of them gave my new
material a tumultuous reception in June. Good job
Adam Sweeting wasn't there to to tell everyone how
crap it was, eh?