It is a novel way of encouraging music fans to engage with politics. Collar an MP, party leader or newsreader, and you get a gig played in your home by leading indie stars. Jonathan Brown reports from a sofa in Sheffield.
Friday, 30 January 2009
A Friday night gathering in Worrall, a small suburb on a hill overlooking Sheffield, and the assembled guests are chatting away happily, quaffing wine and reaching for the occasional crudité. But this low-key gathering of friends is about to be radically transformed with the arrival of two of Britain's leading musicians, making good on a promise that, they hope, could, in turn, help revolutionise the spirit of political debate among this country's music-listening classes.
Jon McClure, lead singer of Reverend and the Makers, has made the short drive across his home city for the latest in a series of guerrilla gigs that he has been staging in people's front rooms, kitchens and gardens as part of his crusade to inject what he sees as a much-needed sense of radicalism into the nation's young.
The strikingly tall, Mohican-sporting frontman, who that day has learned his band is to support Oasis this summer, is tonight accompanied by friend and fellow agitprop enthusiast Drew McConnell, bass guitarist from indie band Babyshambles.
After a quick beer, a crafty smoke in the garden and a round of smalltalk with their delighted hosts, McClure and McConnell let rip with a set of intense and impassioned acoustic performances right there in the kitchen of this suburban home."I never doubted he would come," says Kate Senter, a 27-year-old marketing executive and loyal Reverend and the Makers fan who is "made up" at sharing her homemade humus dips with her favourite singer. "But it is all about making inaccessible people accessible, and that is the spirit of Instigate Debate."
For those who have yet to have heard of Instigate Debate, welcome to a unique experiment in the ongoing and, some cynics might say, thankless task of persuading music fans to engage with some of the great issues of the day.
Drawing on the power of the internet, McClure is urging ordinary people to break down the barriers between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, by striking up a political discourse with a celebrity, whether they be in the world of music, fashion, the media and, of course, politics.
At the heart of McClure's scheme is a prize – a gig such as tonight's – played for you and your friends in the comfort of your own home. That is, of course, only if you have the bottle to confront a passing luminary with a few tricky questions. Recommended posers designed to cut through the usual banalities include: "Do we need a change in our laws so any one person cannot own so much of our media? Or: "Is it inevitable that we will bomb Iran and how much say do you think you'll be given in that decision? But it does not stop there. To qualify for this unforgettable night in, ersatz Paxmans are required to film the answers on their mobile phones and then upload the footage to the internet at www.instigate debate.com for others to share.
Senter is enjoying her reward after she collared local MP and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg and asked him about immigration. McClure believes that Clegg's participation has now thrown down the gauntlet to the two other party leaders who are both preparing to be "instigated", albeit at a time and place of their choosing.
But McClure and McConnell are not working alone. They have the backing of former Libertine Carl Barat of Dirty Pretty Things and Tom Clarke of The Enemy, while pop mogul Alan McGee has also lent support.
And a browse through the Instigate website or YouTube reveals newsreader Jon Snow discussing the advantages of a bicycling monarchy, Sadie Frost on the virtues of citizenship rather than subjecthood, and Alexa Chung holding forth on the dilemma facing ethical fashionistas who find they can't live without Topshop.
But McClure acknowledges that turning the youth of today on to politics is an uphill struggle. "It suits the Government's purpose to keep people stupid," he says. "That is why, when a new Prime Minister is elected, the first person they go to see is not the Queen but Rupert Murdoch."
McClure is both loquacious and impassioned, a veteran of the Love Music Hate Racism movement, and he has been in the vanguard of the campaign against the controversial Form 696 (which demands that venue licensees must provide police with a bewildering array of detail about musicians playing and their potential audience or face possible imprisonment).
Having earned the name The Reverend for his habit of airing his strident views, McClure is rock royalty in Sheffield. He used to share a flat with Alex Turner and his brother Chris was the smoking man on the cover of Arctic Monkeys' debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. But his ambitions extend beyond the confines of the Steel City, and he now plans to make an album, with his new dub/hip-hop project Mongrel, with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
But it is the economic crisis closer to home and its potential to bring about radical change that is getting him particularly excited. "The next three years are going to be the most tumultuous in history. It is going to be incredible," he predicts with undisguised relish at the prospect of the coming storm.
Yet the level of ignorance is startling, he says. "Some people don't even seem to know they actually have a constituency MP and that they can just go up and ask them a question."
As for the digital-age music-business, McClure appears uncharacteristically downbeat. "There is a small amount of musicians who are prepared to take a stance but most are just into making money and fame and fans are just not into politics at all.
"The average music fan has just been fed a load of bullshit for the last 25 years. A lot of people thought I was some kind of nutter going on about the things that I do but now the world is doing the work for me and they think I'm some kind of visionary," he laughs.
McClure hopes that Instigate will take on a life of its own without him – there is already interest in Spain, Mexico and the United States. "It is not about any one person doing it, it is about trying to get everyone to have an opinion," he says. However, McClure has little time for veteran campaigning rock behemoths such as Bono who, he believes, are only too happy to clamber on board with the political establishment. "It baffles me that so many people don't have anything to say about dropping phosphorous on kids and who don't want to get involved when it's not a cuddly issue."
"We had a fantastic time," said Senter after rocking out to an eclectic set list that took in bravura performances of the Reverend track "Hidden Persuaders", "Kilimangiro" by Babyshambles and a generous raiding of the Bob Marley and Beatles back catalogues. "My friends absolutely loved it. All the pictures are whizzing round Facebook now. Everyone was completely gobsmacked," she added.
Here's another snippet from Jon and Drew's private gig: the lovely Drew plays Beg Steal or Borrow.