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A Short History of Rock and Indie Diss Tracks

Last week a track by Detroit rapper Big Sean called “Control” was released  online. It was most notable though, for a guest verse by Kendrick Lamar in which he told a lot of other rappers that he was a lot better than them. From tracks like “Control” or 50 Cent ‘s “How to Rob” where a young pretender takes a shot at the throne or diss tracks like Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up” or Nas’ “Ether” which focus on ripping a rival to shreds, there is a long and noble and tradition of people being beautifully awful to each other in rap music. The art of battle-rapping has seen verbal combat meshed even further into the fabric of the genre.

Whilst rock and indie music on has a far less illustrious history of diss tracks, if you look close enough there is a secret history of act sniping at each other via songs. As with many things in rock music The Beatles got there first. After the band split John Lennon in particular liked nothing more than to write songs about how Paul McCartney was a massive twat.

Though Macca isn’t mentioned by name the barbs in “How Do You Sleep” are pretty obvious:

“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead”
“The only thing you done was yesterday”
“The sound you make is muzak to my ears”

Well, I’m fairly sure they aren’t about Ringo anyway. The early seventies saw bands trade barbs in more hidden ways. Apparently, Steely Dan took oblique shots at The Eagles in their lyrics and though it inspired a great episode of Yacht Rock it was hardly “Hit ‘Em Up”. David Bowie threw a withering aside in “All The Young Dudes” resigning sixties heroes with the lines:

“And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag too many snags “

Though as Bowie went on to write Fame with John Lennon and make an arse out of himself with Mick Jagger in the “Dancing in the Streets” Live-Aid video it seems very little offence was taken. The arrival of punk rock saw shit talking other acts take centre stage with The Clash famously declaiming “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones” on their 1977 b-side 1977.

Whether any of those acts gave much of a shit is debatable and if you take a listen to the London Calling album it’s clear there probably was quite a lot of Elvis, Beatles and The Rolling Stones in Joe Strummer’s record collection. The Clash would go on to take more pot-shots at fellow musicians; the line in “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” about “new groups in Burtons suits” turning “rebellion into money” was apparently aimed at Paul Weller and The Jam. It was this strident tone that perhaps lead to a post-punk cottage industry of Clash disses. The Mekons “Never Been In A Riot” was a piss-take of the macho posturing of The Clash’s “White Riot”.

And Scritti Politti’s scratchy, claustrophobic masterpiece “Skank Bloc Bolonga” accused Strummer and co. of an “overestimation”, disparagingly comparing their efforts to the more effective work of contemporary Italian anarchists. That said, the track is so murky that if Simon Reynolds claimed Green Gartside had been zinging the Banana Splits it would still be fairly believable. In many ways that’s the problem with rock diss songs, there generally so oblique you have to read between the lines to work out whose slagging who. Take Morrissey’s “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it’s clearly a sharp jab at someone – a number of sources claim it’s about Tim Booth from James of all people – but you wouldn’t know it from the lyrics. It’s a poison letter without an address.

Pavement didn’t take any such chances on 1994 slackly snarky “Range Life” whilst describing The Stone Temple Pilots as “elegant bachelors” was hardly the strongest of insults the lines:

“Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins
Nature kids, I/they don’t have no function
I don’t understand what they mean
And I could really give a fuck”

Were enough to make the Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan very upset indeed. He aimed a bunch of insults at Pavement through the music-press then had them thrown off the bill at the 1995 Lollaplooza music festival.  It’s sad though that he felt fit only to respond in an interview; wouldn’t it have been far better if he had recorded some kind of overblown rock-opera about how Stephen Malkmus was a douchebag? Actually, that would be utterly wretched but kinda funny I guess.

It’s a similar case with the infamous Blur vs Oasis Britpop battle: the insults and the songs were separate, the barbs were traded through the press. The most vicious track of the Britpop era is somewhat unbelievably a Menswe@r album track. “Stardust” which is a blow by blow account of why Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillepsie is a massive twat. The line: “he’s superficial fucker” will kinda nails it on it’s own, as anyone whose read Bobby G’s vacuous interviews will attest.

Denim’s “The Great Pub Rock Revival” from their 1996 album “Denim on Ice” with its chorus of:

“Everybody belives what they are told to
Everybody believes what they read in the NME
Everybody but me..”

Appears to be an attack on the whole edifice of Britpop but oddly aims its ire at Graham Parker and Nick Lowe instead.

It was left to indiepop superheroine Helen Love to put the nail in Britpop’s coffin with 1998’s “Long Live the UK Music Scene”.

It chides the Longpigs and Bluetones as “fake pop-stars” and revels in the assertion that Gina G will never sell more singles than Gina G. Unfortunately in the long-run those boys in Ocean Colour Scene probably have sold more singles than Gina G. That doesn’t really matter though: the gleeful malice transcends mere facts. Fellow indie outsiders Half Man, Half Biscuit’s laid into The Libertines with “Shit Arm, Bad Tattoo” – which makes the claim that The Lib’s second album is worse than putting ones head in a bucket of porridge and moaning about “the hospital parking scheme”.

In the anodyne Two Door Bombay Vaccines Club of modern rock perhaps its only people not invited to the join who bother to complain.

Follow The Empty Page on Twitter: @theemptypage_

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4 thoughts on “A Short History of Rock and Indie Diss Tracks

    • Yeah, forgot that one. Also, has some pretty deep political undertones as well. Maybe, I’ll do a second volume with some proper research one day…

      • Yeah, very much so, proto-“Long Live The UK Music Scene”. There’s probably a whole bunch of indie / post-punky stuff you could put in a longer article about rock diss songs.

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