An op-ed on today’s awful admission of guilt from Ian Watkins of Lostprophets. We’d normally illustrate op-ed posts with images, but have opted for flat text because everything just seems inappropriate.
Disgust. Astonishment. Sorrow. Disbelief. Inchoate rage.
Reading the reports from Cardiff Crown Court that Ian Watkins had pleaded guilty to one of the most horrendous lists of crimes I’ve ever seen resulted in a powerful battle of emotions. As I sit down to write these words, that battle is still being fought. Maybe things will be clearer when we reach the end of the page.
To take things back to the very beginning, I remember first becoming aware of Lostprophets just after the turn of the millennium. I forget exactly when I first heard The Fake Sound of Progress, but it was either just before or just after the first time I saw them play, which was opening for Pitchshifter and earthtone9 in February 2001.
That show sticks in my mind because I vividly remember thinking “Holy cow, these guys are going to be huge”, such was the vitality of their performance and the immediacy of those songs. The band all but lived on the road for the next few years, promoting Fake Sound’s original release on Visible Noise, then its remastered re-release on Columbia. I reckon I saw them at least four times before they finally sequestered themselves away to write Start Something.
Throughout this time, I was a huge fan; I absolutely loved Fake Sound, and their gigs were a riot. I remember feeling a swell of pride when the videos for “Shinobi Vs. Dragon Ninja” and “The Fake Sound Of Progress” started circulating on MTV2 and Kerrang TV.
When it finally appeared, I did quite like Start Something, but not as much as Fake Sound. Liberation Transmission didn’t interest me at all, so I pretty much stopped paying attention to them from then on. The band’s sound and my tastes moved in almost polar opposite directions – and that was fine. I’ve always believed that any band’s primary motive should be to write what they want, not what some possessive faction of their early fanbase wants to hear.
The baton had been passed. My brother – more than 10 years younger than me – came into London to see them headline at Brixton in 2010, and I felt no desire to go with him. But, nevertheless, I was still buoyed by the fact that a band really could deliver on all the youthful promise they had exuded whilst still hauling their own gear on and off stage, and properly succeed.
I used to joke that my affinity with the band was inversely proportionate to the ridiculousness of their hairstyles – but the time for joking has long since passed.
Over the last 50 years or so, many taboos have been broken down. Homosexuality, mixed race relationships, even women wearing trousers and drinking pints – among many other things – have become socially acceptable where they had been frowned upon, or even illegal. But, if anything, paedophilia is now an even greater taboo than it was seen as even when I was growing up.
This is what made the allegations about Watkins so powerfully shocking when news of his arrest broke, seemingly out of the blue, almost a year ago. This wasn’t some hoary old DJ being accused of committing crimes decades ago, this was happening in the here and now, involving someone exactly the same age as me.
And, what’s more, this didn’t appear to be a case of a celebrity exploiting starstruck fans hovering just below the age of consent, but involved victims so very young they hadn’t even learned how to say the word ‘no’. Reading the allegations was a real sick-in-the-mouth moment, and I can’t have been alone in quietly hoping that Watkins was the victim of a supremely vindictive attempt to frame him as we waited for the trial to start.
I think we got our first proper inkling that there was real substance to the allegations when the remainder of the band announced its final demise a couple of months ago. Whether he confessed to them in private, forcing them to bring the curtain down on the band at that point, I guess we’ll never know.
But I don’t think anyone was really prepared for the news as it broke today. Even though we have been spared the most visceral evidence, it is clear that words like ‘heinous’ and ‘depraved’ don’t even begin to cover the crimes to which Watkins and his co-defendants have admitted their guilt.
The pieces all fall into place. Allegations become facts. Speculation evaporates – and with it, the work, memories and legacy of Lostprophets.
As social media erupts with a Biblical out-pouring of hatred, wishes of death, pain and torture, not to mention thousands of ill-advised puns, I find my thoughts turning to Watkins’ now ex-bandmates. My last band split up many years ago, but I would still consider the other guys my three best friends. The shared bond between musicians can be every bit as deep as a romantic relationship, especially in cases where they have spent years on the road together, literally living the dream.
But, just as in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, once the initial two minute hate has subsided, and the internet moves on to the next outrage, the career of Lostprophets will be quietly popped in the Memory Hole, surreptitiously erased from public consciousness. If it exists at all, it will be as a punchline to some tasteless joke. More than a decade of the lives of at least five perfectly innocent people will be simply wiped from the record, along with the tainted memories of thousands of fans.
And I can’t even begin to imagine what the other members of Lostprophets must be feeling right now, past an unfathomably deep sense of betrayal, and an almost inescapable guilt at not joining the dots as to precisely what Watkins was getting involved in. We can only assume that they were oblivious to his misdeeds, and they deserve our unqualified support and sympathy. To deny them this would be simply barbaric.
But, even as I say all this, I look at the Lostprophets albums sitting on my hard drive, and my hand hovers uncertainly over the ‘delete’ key. Will I ever be able to listen to those songs again? Will I ever be able to separate the stigma of Watkins’ subsequent crimes from the band’s first couple of albums? Probably not, but I still can’t quite bring myself to erase them just yet. Maybe when this laptop gets upgraded, the mp3s won’t quite make their way onto the new machine, but for now they can stay where they are, unplayed.
I think what makes this all feel so particularly horrible is that we all have a picture in our minds eye of what a paedophile looks like – a creepy, shifty, greasy loner, an abject failure of a man who couldn’t possibly hope to win the affections of another adult. Watkins falls well outside that archetypal definition.
And, as a double-blow for metal fans, he was ONE OF US. For all its petty squabbling and infighting, the world of metal is akin to a big family. Even if we had no time for Lostprophets, I’m sure we all were much happier seeing them succeed than another anonymous X-Factor karaoke honker. Watkins’ admission of guilt hits at our very sense of shared identity, which is why – even if we don’t fully realise it – this case makes us all so much angrier than any of the other cases of child abuse that periodically hit our newsfeeds. It hits closer to home than other cases – I know that I have spoken to Watkins, in one of those faintly awkward post-gig “great show, man” small-talk sessions over the merch stand. I know I shook his hand. That feels weird.
Watkins is, naturally, the lightning rod for the majority of this fury. He is the only named defendant in the case, with his co-defendants masked in anonymity. This is undoubtedly for the protection of their children – their OWN FUCKING CHILDREN – which they wilfully offered up for this abuse. Words simply fail me when it comes to what they have done. Apologists may make the case that paedophiles simply can’t help who or what they are attracted to, but even that rather flimsy argument can’t explain away the actions of these two nameless women. I am neither a violent nor a religious man, but I can only hope there is a special layer of hell reserved for those that would do such despicable things to their own flesh and blood. Watkins may be the one being publicly tarred and feathered, but what they did was – to me – even worse.
I think the other thing that makes me so incredulous about the specifics of the case is that how much of the evidence of abuse was recorded and stored by the perpetrators themselves. Even if someone likes smoking weed, they’d be pretty bloody foolish to take pictures of themselves toking on a massive joint – but to knowingly record yourself committing a terrible crime and keeping it for posterity? What sort of hellish trip down memory lane would watching those films be for them all? What did they think would happen if these films were ever discovered by third parties? Did they simply forget that it was saved images that brought down Gary Glitter, or were they arrogant enough to assume that would never happen to them?
Should Watkins and his co-defendants be put to death, either by execution or prison yard beatdown? I think not. I think they should live a long life. Preferably, one lived in a small box. Ideally, a box with a view of all the things they are missing out on, because they decided the best way to get their rocks off was by exploiting and abusing the children they should have unquestioningly loved and protected.
What they did was utterly inexcusable, but murder in any form is equally inexcusable, even when carried out under state sanction. The best way to expose their inhumanity, and to constantly remind them of it, is to treat them humanely. When sentenced, they will certainly be deprived of almost all of their functional liberty. Watkins had a world of opportunity; his band had done what thousands of others had tried to do and failed – and he threw it all away, for both himself and his innocent bandmates, in exchange for a transient, perverted thrill. He should be made to remember how fucking stupid that was for as long as is physically possible.
So where does this all leave us? I really have no idea. We are all in shock. Some of us will try to hide our distress behind bravado and some flailing attempts at humour. You’re not fooling anyone.
But, if you do want to make your crap jokes, then at least spare a thought for the families of Watkins and his co-defendants, who have effectively lost their son and daughters and have to live with the shame, for the ex-members of Lostprophets whose careers have been needlessly ruined and – above all – for the victims, exploited for cheap thrills, whose only mercy is that they may have been too young to have any lasting memory of those dreadful attacks. Maybe, it won’t seem quite so funny any more.