In For The Kill: On Love Island, La Roux and the Music Industry
For the best part of my life, I’ve loved music and more than a few musicians, especially my late husband, guitarist-producer-composer and Gang of Four co-founder Andy Gill. The music industry—well, that’s a different matter. Three decades with Andy granted me a ringside seat as the march of technology upended its economic models while leaving its ugliest features intact. Corporations, whether record labels or tech companies, continue to find ways to extract disproportionate value and control from creative talent. The business still seethes with misogyny.
Two unconnected events of the past week set me thinking about this. Felled by Covid, I decided for the first time to watch Love Island. This wasn’t a great idea, a waking fever dream more tedious than my own company yet, with its bright colours and brighter teeth, intensifying the hallucinatory effect of the virus. Then came the return of Adam Collard, a contestant whose stint in the fourth series of the show “included gaslighting and emotional abuse” according to the charity Women’s Aid. His arrival at the Love Island villa underlined the role producers expected him to play. They soundtracked his entrance with a familiar song—La Roux’s In for the Kill.
La Roux shooting her video for "Damaged Goods"
Never mind the sinister recontextualising of the lyrics (I’m going in for the kill / I’m doing it for a thrill). I doubted that the track’s co-writer and singer La Roux, aka my friend Elly Jackson, would know or have approved of this use—or possess any powers to do so. I was right. When I messaged her, she confirmed that her music is available to UK broadcasters under a blanket licence. This is a standard arrangement, helpful in minimising admin, but it also denies artists the right of veto open to them in other areas, such as films, advertising and games.
A different set of rules underpinned the flurry of news stories pinging into my inbox at around the same time. When Andy died, I set a Google alert so that I wouldn’t miss coverage, whether tributes to him or, after I’d released a Gang of Four EP, ANTI HERO, and later still completed his final album, The Problem of Leisure, reviews and longer assessments of his legacy. What had prompted this fresh wave of press interest? I clicked a link and discovered the answer. Johnny Depp had recorded an album with guitarist Jeff Beck; the next single from the record would be their cover of Killing Joke’s “The Death and Resurrection Show”, co-written by Andy, who also produced the original track.
Many people have covered songs written by Andy on his own or co-authored with Gang of Four or other bands and musicians. His output was prolific and collaborations eclectic and wide-ranging. The Problem of Leisure is itself a Gang of Four covers album, featuring musicians and bands including Tom Morello and Serj Tankian, IDLES, The Dandy Warhols, Flea and John Frusciante, and Killing Joke. Elly contributed her version of “Damaged Goods”. (Check her obliterating a microwave in the video for the song.) The 20-track album concludes with a cover of “Not Great Men” by gamelan orchestra Sekar Melati that delighted my beloved when he spotted it on YouTube. He was used to finding unlikely covers of his work. Most covers are not performed or recorded by prior agreement with the rights holders nor, under the rules, do they have to be.
So Depp and Beck were free to cover Andy’s co-write with Killing Joke—just as I’m free to feel queasy about it. Although known for acting, not music, Depp (who gigged before he arrived in Hollywood) has become more Keith Richards than Keith Richards, the embodiment of a swaggering archetype that sends music executives into ecstasies. The industry has a habit of conflating wildness and creativity, excess and rebellion. That would be fine if everyone in the industry operated on equal terms and with equal protections. As in the wider world, they don’t, and the culture can be especially toxic for women. Few other businesses valorise exactly the qualities and reflexes that most easily tip into destructive behaviours or celebrate those behaviours in their output. (“Blurred Lines”, anyone?)
Over many years I have myself enjoyed, whether as an observer or participant, a certain amount of wildness. If you look at Killing Joke’s album credits for their eponymous album containing “The Death and Resurrection Show”, you’ll see they thank me for my “tolerance”. The months they spent recording the album at Andy’s studio in the home we shared were entertainingly eventful. Not infrequently, the band befriended strangers in local pubs and brought them back to meet us. One man, already bleary, thrust a bunch of wilted garage forecourt flowers at me, explaining that he’d bought them for his girlfriend, but they’d just broken up. At 2 am the following morning, he leaned on our doorbell. “We’ve patched things up. Can I have I have my flowers back?”
Killing Joke album credits
Things like that I found funny, just as I was amused by Depp’s antics in 1995 when he and then partner Kate Moss turned up at Michael Hutchence’s house in the South of France. That summer Andy lived at Michael’s, co-writing an album. Michael’s lover Paula Yates and I visited most weekends. Michael lent Depp a shirt—and Depp burned it.
From left, Andy, Johnny Depp, Paula Yates, Michael Hutchence, Nicky Love, Bono, Kate Moss. Taken at Michael's house in Roquefort les Pins
Michael’s 1997 death by hanging, followed less than three years later by Paula’s drugs overdose, showed what can happen when destructive behaviours turn inwards. Depp talked about his own history of using drugs as self-medication during his defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard. Both Depp and Heard appear fragile, but when their legal skirmishes kicked off, my concerns focused on the wider repercussions. The #MeToo movement is often wrongly credited with fixing the problems it revealed. What it has really done is to show the tip of a hulking iceberg. Testifying about abuse, whether before a judge or to the press, rarely delivers justice. In the UK, police respond to allegations of sexual assault with a presumption of guilt, not against alleged perpetrators but complainants, seizing their counselling notes, mobiles and computers. A similar bias informs media reporting, in turn solidifying popular prejudices. Again and again, a sleight of hand sees not the accused but their accusers demonised, perceived flaws in their characters or testimonies pressed into service to bolster a myth: that false accusations, in reality vanishingly rare, are common.
Depp’s popularity gave him an advantage, even before the decision to televise the US proceedings. (A libel case launched by Depp in the UK against the Sun newspaper for calling him “a wife-beater”, which ended in defeat for Depp, was not screened.) Heard, less famous, nervy, female, might prevail in some courts, but the court of public opinion would always have been weighted against her. Social media inevitably devolved into opposing camps, #TeamHeard and #TeamDepp, the latter accusing her of lying despite brutal texts and threatening footage her lawyers produced in evidence. The US jury agreed with #TeamDepp, finding Heard acted with “actual malice”, either knowing her allegations to be false or showing reckless disregard as to whether they were.
She looks increasingly broken, while Depp bestrides concert stages and billboards, but this is about much more than a bitter dispute between two people. The #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke went global in 2017 amid a series of allegations about high-profile figures in entertainment and media. It would be ironic if the prominence of this battle stifled the same movement. A trend for countering allegations with defamation suits is gathering pace. Victims, who are mostly women, already risked too much in speaking out.
The low number of stories to emerge from the music industry should not be mistaken as a sign of health compared to other corners of entertainment, but rather of power imbalances and a fear of retaliation and exclusion. Almost every woman I know in music has hair-raising stories, whether of assault or other forms of abuse. Few have gone public with their experiences. Elly—La Roux—and I have often privately discussed her difficult start, still a teenager, thrust into surreal situations, winning a host of awards including a Grammy with her debut album, and surviving a challenging collaboration with Kanye West. On 30th July, we’ll do so publicly, in conversation at Primadonna Festival.
Elly broke through in spite of the system and toxic culture. Others are broken by it. When 16 other women and I co-founded Primadonna in 2019, we did so to give prominence to music, books and other forms of creativity by women and other voices routinely silenced or marginalised. Current narratives would assume the resulting three-day event to be “woke” and worthy. I hope it is woke, in the sense of being alive to structural inequalities. It is all the more engaging, compelling, joyous and ridiculously fun (with streaks of wildness) for that.
Another core aim of Primadonna is to open the festival experience to new audiences. This means keeping tickets cheap and providing free entry to those who can’t afford it. At this point, I’ve no idea how much—or little—Andy’s estate will earn from the Depp/Beck cover of his song, but I’ve already decided what to do with any income: give it to Primadonna to lift women’s voices.
Words and photos © Catherine Mayer 2022 apart from photo of La Roux © Studio Leo Cackett