Listen to this track by Croydon London three-piece Noisettes. It’s “Don’t Give up”, a single which would eventually appear on their 2007 debut album What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf? .
The band appeared in a new paradigm of pop music when songs had a life on more than one platform simultaneously. This is a good example of that, making it a true 21st century track. The song would also appear in other media as well, most notably on television shows and movie soundtracks, and in video games. It seems to lend itself to alternate media, being a particularly propulsive song, full of frenetic energy that made it a pretty common choice for montage scenes. The one I remember it from was the aborted Bionic Woman series, in a scene wherein (a very, very grim) Jamie Sommers is in training with her new bionic limbs as this song cheers her on. Maybe too that the idea of “don’t give up” is pretty applicable across many different contexts. It fits within the drama, whatever that drama happens to be.
Another thing to which this song connects on a basic level is the idea of struggle and conflict in general, attached to the musical traditions, and their social origins, from which this band draws.
In hearing this song for the first time, it sounded to me as if a jazz singer (as played by singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa) from the forties was discovered frozen and revived by an early 21st century garage rock band (drummer Jamie Morrison, and guitarist Dan Smith), who then asked her to front them. Being frozen for so long made her a little bit unpredictable, and maybe even a bit unhinged, although she finds that her instincts with jazz phrasing has remained unblemished even in front of a crashing set of drums and a crunchy guitar.
Maybe that’s a lot of backstory to describe what I mean.
The point is this band was taking disparate styles, particularly styles that are simplistically aligned along racial lines, and defiantly chucking them together. Even in 2007, this was a bold move. Maybe this was a part of what makes this song and others of theirs sound so propulsive. The musical brain of the listener is forced to adjust its expectations of what a rock band is supposed to sound like. Despite the influences of modern R&B and old-style jazz, that’s what this band was when they debuted; a rock band. With that, it must be remembered that rock ‘n’ roll music as a social force was all about blurring the lines between styles of music, particularly those drawn along clearly demarcated racial lines. By the 21st century when this song appeared, those lines were pretty well demarcated again, which says a lot perhaps on how far away from the ideal we’d come where rock music as a social phenomenon and as universally loved pop music is concerned.
There are a lot of reasons for this, of course, particularly with hip hop doing rock’s job in this respect for many years by 2007. But one of the things I love about this song is that it breaks the code a bit more than a lot of rock music of the time dared to do. For one thing, it put a black woman upfront in a genre dominated by white men and does so in a completely unselfconscious way. It has her singing the words “don’t give up!”, which overtly connects it to gospel music and the blues thematically speaking, just as rock ‘n’ roll did when it started. What is the common thread in these traditions that fed rock music if it isn’t about struggle?
For me, all of this added a certain gravity to the music, made it refreshing, and reminded me that rock music did once have that socially significant aspect to it at one time, just as hip hop does. It made me remember that rock music does not always and necessarily have to mean white boys clubs playing guitars. It could be performed by anyone, and continue to draw from the wells that musicians of differing backgrounds, experiences, and profiles use to add dimension to the music they make together.
Noisettes are an active band today with three albums behind them, their most successful to date being their 2009 release Wild Young Hearts. These days, they’re a duo having released their last record Contact in 2012. You can learn more about them and track their movements at noisettes.co.uk.