One of the hardest balancing acts in rock is the one between popularity and credibility. Often, to achieve one, the other has to be compromised or abandoned altogether. Sometimes, despite the best efforts and intentions of the credible artist, being successful and popular becomes the driving force where once maintaining a stance or remaining true to your roots was the main focus.
Given the fact that his band has just scored a second Top 20 album with the follow up to their debut record and have just come off one of the UK’s biggest stadium tours supporting Oasis, a man in Jon McClure’s position may be excused for flicking through a portfolio of mansions or test-driving a new Bentley. Instead of capitalizing on his sky-rocketing profile, the Reverend is planning to pack up his troupe of Sheffield troubadours and busk his way to China.
“I’m not in this to sell loads of records,” McClure says. “If I was, I’d have said yes when David Letterman asked me to go to America. And I wouldn’t have gone to Beirut to play a gig instead. So I’m in a bit of a war with my record label at the moment because they’re on at me to promote the record because ‘it’s not selling as well as we’d like it to’. I’m like, ‘no, the record is not selling as well as you’d like it too’. So instead I’m going to busk from Sheffield to Beijing, going on the Trans-Mongolian and all that shit, railing it all the way, and we’re going to record all these tunes I’ve written with street musicians and film it all. But the record company is all like, ‘you can’t, man, you’ve got to promote the album and do another tour’. Hang on, I’m not a whore. I’m not your bitch. I’m here to make music and inspire people and say it’s a big world, what’s going on in it – have a look.”
Reverend and the Makers may be enjoying an elevated status at the moment with second album A French Kiss in the Chaos beginning to make waves but, just as many of the songs on the record can attest, McClure is still a man on a mission – not to conquer the charts but to open people’s minds. To that end, rather than becoming a slave to popularity, the Reverend is using the growing interest in his band to expand his flock.
“One of the advantages of the band taking off is that people are taking me a bit more seriously,” he says. “One of the crucial things which have come about is Twitter. I don’t have to put my ideas through a publicist – I can just say them. And people are picking me up on Twitter and going ‘yeah, man, he’s talking sense, he’s telling it how it is’. Then I started getting invited onto shows like Newsnight and The Week, you know? So people were then seeing me on respected shows, telling the truth. You go from being this laughing stock, as some sections of the press were making me out to be, to suddenly talking absolute sense on TV. The tide starts to turn. People tell people and then there’s the opinion that, he’s telling the truth, that Jon McClure. He’s not that dickhead they were saying he was.”
Away from the infectious fusion of dance, rock and funk that his band produce, McClure himself has been making headlines in the British press for his outspoken political views and his pro-active involvement in initiatives such as Instigate Debate, which encourages the public to challenge power brokers and news makers on hot topics, and the 10:10 climate campaign to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The coverage he’s been getting has not always been complimentary and at times downright insulting. As a result of what he says is a distortion of reality and a breeding ground for the hate and fear culture he sees within British society, McClure’s distrust and distaste of the media has grown.
“The tabloid culture in the UK is out of control, man. It brainwashes people. The Daily Mail put up a headline recently – “Fagan’s Heirs” – about Romanian pickpockets running riot on the streets of London. Just one person was charged with possession of a stolen mobile phone but the knock-on effect is that British people start to demonize Romanian people which is utter bullshit.
“I think that for a long time I was like a lone voice, that I was literally the only person who’s been saying anything about this culture of fear and hate. Now we’ve got this Instigate Debate thing and other projects and now the face of things, the façade, is starting to crack. Once things start to hit people in the pocket, like with the MPs scandal, or when the death toll in Afghanistan starts piling up then people will start looking around and they’ll say ‘you know what, I think this guy’s telling the truth.’ So I’ve been getting a bit more of a receptive audience as time’s gone on. There’ll always be people like me and people are becoming more aware.”
McClure sees himself as coming from a long line of politically aware musicians whose main goal is to get a message across to the people who buy their records or come to their shows. But the Reverend finds himself in a very different age to many of his heroes, where celebrity holds sway over the national consciousness and real issues get buried under stories of Hollywood divorces and Big Brother scandals.
“My heroes are John Lennon, Bob Marley and Joe Strummer,” McClure says. “Just like some DJs pretend to be channeling the spirit of John Peel while being told what to play, and journalists pretend to further a debate while following the editorial line, so some musicians think it’s enough to have a picture of Lennon or Marley on the wall rather than take the soul of what they were saying. John Lennon said that musicians are the newspapers – we’re just reporting what’s going on. We just sing about it rather than write about it. When you can pick up a newspaper and read such blatant lies, then perhaps the need for people to speak out politically is more important than ever.
“The moment you put your career and your financial profit ahead of the lives of innocent people, then what sort of person are you, man? What does it say about society when Israel is dropping phosphorous on little kids in Gaza, burning their skin off, and they put Jade Goody on the front of the paper? Someone who two months earlier they were calling a racist.”
The dichotomy of McClure’s situation is that he has to operate in an industry he obviously resents in order to get the widest audience possible for the views he feels are ignored and feared by many of those in the music business. As one would expect, he has a strong opinion on the state of music today and the musicians that he feels are ignoring the responsibilities which come from having people’s minds open to your words.
“We live in the era of corporate music. We live in the era of the careerist musician where people, wrongly I believe, feel that they can’t make a statement without being crucified for it. I’ve had loads of abuse from people, like the NME, who you would think would be my natural allies. But they’re not. They’re complicit in it. Back in the day, they would have been the vanguard, the people leading the charge, but now they just want to put celebrities on the front cover.”
McClure believes that music’s foundations in rebellion and revolution are being trampled on in the stampede for the dwindling cash flow. The music business is experiencing one of its darkest times financially and the Reverend believes the desperate pursuit of what little money is available has added to the dissipation of the art form’s soul.
“People just want to make money because these are tough times, especially in the music industry where people are downloading stuff for free. There again, this is the industry founded on the idea of rebellion and they’re the ones telling people off – don’t steal music. How can you act like you’re the law when you’re supposed to be a rebel? Basically the reason that this decade has been so disappointing in terms of the mainstream is because money is the all prevailing thing. Wherever we’ve been, talking to audiences at festivals and the like, the overriding feeling is that they hate being given what the bands and the media think they want. ‘We think you want four skinny white lads with guitars so that’s what you’re going to get – every week’. Or a company says we want that type of record, and they do it but there’s no soul in it. It’s just for profit.
“It’s the way businessmen behave, like they’re providing a public service by giving the public what they think they want. It’s not how an artist behaves. They want to laud bands like the Klaxons as the future of British music – the same band who said in an interview that they sat down and thought ‘which style of music hasn’t been reinvented yet? We’ll have some success with that.’ And then they decided on rave. And then you get Johnny Borrell saying that he really wants to crack America with this album. What the fuck? That’s what you say in a marketing meeting. You’re supposed to be a songwriter, man.”
After playing some of the biggest gigs of his career as support to Manchester legends Oasis this summer, McClure spent enough time in the company of the Gallagher brothers to believe that the band’s split will rob the music industry of one of the few truly honest and independent bands it could count on.
“I’m gutted about the Oasis split, man,” he says. “I got a text from Noel telling me what had been going on and stuff, so I’m really sad about that. Oasis will be very sorely missed. They were the last band who would say the same thing to you in the pub as they would do in an interview. They would be completely honest without any thought about the effect on the wider aspects of their career. And now we have so many PR trained wankers that it’s dulled down music to the point of tedium.”
Despite the bleak picture he paints of the industry he works in, McClure maintains that he’s an optimist and that change is not only possible but essential – in music and society in general – but we are going to have to work for it.
“Musicians changing the world? It’s got to happen, man. The counterculture has got to readdress the balance because at the minute the establishment’s winning, completely, hands-down. It’s a chaotic time. The reason people like John Peel or John Lennon or whoever the fuck you want to mention made a difference is because they continually did things that challenged the people who were into them already and pushed it. As long as you can challenge and inspire people to think and question, you can fight back and win.”