No Axe to Grind

Wigging out at the 2001 Air Guitar World Championships

If Air Guitar is your religion, then Oulu, Finland, in August is your church. But rarely has the schism between sacred and profane grown so wide. Eighteen competitors, fifteen of them from Australia and Britain, made the trip to the northern college town this year. It was clear from the start that it would be a tussle between chicken impersonators and the serious bedroom onanists - the heretics taking on the devout.

This event devoted to an imaginary instrument (www.ovmf.net) has become a global feature in the late-summer news drought, and it attracted six TV crews and news agency staff this year. In front of an outdoor stage so slick with dew that it had to be squeegeed between competitors, the Wall Street Journal scribe next to me recalled his recent outing to the Finnish Mosquito Killing Championships in a nearby forest. As in that damned clearing, the crowd of 2,500 was hushed beneath a lambent sky, but this time there was only an insectile teenage hum - nervous and expectant because nobody knew quite what was going to happen.

In fact, what we saw this year was Air Guitar's return to order and cool neutrality. The jury, comprising professional guitarist Juha Torvinen and grand-old-man of Finnish entertainment Markku Veijalainen, put a premium on strong technical work and rigorous appreciation of chord changes, which left some of the clownish competitors flailing with scores below five out of ten. In the first freestyle round the competitors played one minute from a song of their choice. Geraint Todd's Johnny Lydon-style take on Green Day's 'Basket Case' and Harry Hewetson's bizarre cover of Michael Jackson's 'Smooth Criminal' were good, but mostly it was just comic theatrics, big wigs and imposture.

The reigning champion Markus Vainionpaa, aka Black Raven, a girlish 18 year-old from Oulu, ground out 'Deadnight Warrior' by Children of Bodom to an appreciative, cropped T-shirt, Metal following; but then Zac Monro, performing as 'Mr Magnet', played a balletic take on 'Song 2' by Blur. He was working the stage in sweet contrary segments: one minute a hunched, back-turned-on-the crowd miser; the next all legs and altitude, buying drinks at the bar. Mr Magnet was Mr Britpop: canvas sneakers, cigarette and old skool blue nylon windcheater.

The revelation came as the competitors lined up on stage to hear what their compulsory routine was going to be: a one-minute version of 'Hashpipe' by Weezer. Magnet blithely cannoned off the support band's amps backstage, a punching combination that dismantled his opposition. Then, proving he hadn't emptied his wallet in the freestyle, Magnet pulled off an exemplary compulsory round. Like a heavyweight fight, it takes legs and strength to keep the shop open in the middle, but Magnet - the first British winner - had the taste and vitality for centre stage work. 'I spent most of my time in the air' he observed. 'I think that's why I won'.

Issue 62

First published in Issue 62

October 2001

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