Popular music’s closest cultural allies have traditionally been other artistic mediums, whether cinema, literature or the visual arts; think of the incestuous relationships between Warhol, Bailey and Scorsese and the pop icons that graced their greatest works. Today I would say popular music’s closest cultural ally is the National Trust, because what brings in the money and keeps the industry staggering on is Heritage. From remastered upgradings of the same classic albums every four or five years to the glut of tribute acts playing karaoke versions of songs for those too young to have been around at the time to the eternal roadshow that is The Rolling Stones, Heritage Rock is where it’s at.
Mind you, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that Rock has reached this stage; it happened to every musical revolution before it, after all. The fact that we refer to any post-Baroque and pre-First World War orchestral music as ‘classical’ is a retrospective repackaging that has elevated a once-radical art form to the level of inoffensive highbrow easy-listening, a fate that has befallen Rock even quicker than any genre that preceded it; the thought would probably have amused and horrified some of the counter-cultural renegades who lived fast and died young, but it is the durability of their recorded output that has provided the foundation for the elevation, and it is the gradual arrival of their original audience at a pensionable age that has facilitated Heritage Rock.
The recurring pattern of musical innovation is that it tends to reach a peak of experimentation that can often perch perilously on the cusp of unlistenable self-indulgence, eventually wearing out the patience of the audience; everyone admires a musician prepared to go where no musician has gone before, but a constant quest to break away from the rigid structures of a musical form has the potential to be a creative cul-de-sac as the innovator ends up screaming in an empty room. It happened with both Jazz and Classical in the 60s and with Rock in the 70s. A craving for the nursery rhymes of childhood resurfaces and there is a demand for a back to basics simplicity. However, once the backwards step has been taken, the innovation effectively ceases. Punk may have been a necessary evil, but was the destiny of The Sex Pistols to evolve into ELO after five years? There was nowhere left to go. As Duran Duran’s John Taylor once pondered to an interviewer quizzing him if his band could be ‘the new Beatles’, were Birmingham’s fab five supposed to progress by growing moustaches?
Since then, rock bands – or the rare ones averse to endlessly milking a hit formula – have struggled with where to go next. The first decade of Radiohead’s career is a case in point. From mastering the art of post-Nirvana, guitar-driven angst, Thom Yorke withdrew his regiment from the format that had brought them considerable rewards and did his best to incorporate avant-garde electronica into the mix; in this, he largely succeeded, with ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ being amongst the few genuinely original sounding albums of the twenty-first century’s first decade, even if they alienated many who had lost their virginity to ‘The Bends’.
It’s not easy to break new ground in a genre that now has a history stretching back half-a-century, but acts that are desperate to do so also have to contend with operating in the shadows of predecessors who had the luxury of no history to hold them back. To paraphrase Noel Gallagher’s grasp of grammar, they really are standing on the shoulders of giants.
The success of magazines like ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut’ in primarily focusing on the pre-Heritage years when Rock was the refuge for Kamikaze outsiders is an ironic juxtaposition considering Heritage is their currency; but they have succeeded where periodicals dedicated to the here and now have failed because there is a larger public appetite for these years. Partly, it is generated by those who were there, a generation that now runs the media and has steadfastly refused to grow up, and partly by the fact that the landmark albums produced in the 60s and 70s remain the benchmark and inspiration for their children and grandchildren to aim for.
Overexposure doesn’t diminish the excellence of these recordings and coming to them with fresh ears can make them sound as good now as they did then. ‘Revolver’ can excite and astonish as much as Beethoven’s Ninth, and will probably continue to do so even when it has reached the same refined age as ‘Ode to Joy’. But the influence has to be absorbed as a spirit rather than swallowed whole, coming out the other end bearing little audible relation to its source; if not, it’s just another tribute band.
The speed of life as lived today has the power to make and break musical innovations with undue haste. It took around a decade for Hip Hop to advance from the crudity of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to the complex tapestries of Dr Dre’s productions, whereas Dance music went from the clumsy, cut ‘n’ paste samples evident on Bomb the Bass’s ‘Beat Dis’ to the seamless mosaic of soundscapes that constituted the first Portishead album in the space of barely six years. In the case of Rock, the multiplying of subdivisions within pop has also served to create a musical apartheid, whereby categories and pigeonholes akin to those evident in old record stores sabotage the melting pot of influences that propelled The Beatles into unknown territory fifty years ago.
The 60s generation may have begun on the same showbiz bandwagon as their light-entertainment predecessors, but gradually created their own alternative framework that is now established as today’s equivalent of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’; yes, I’m talking Glastonbury, the Brits, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ‘Rolling Stone’ et al. Any break with established musical forms must reject the whole industry that has grown up around them outright and concentrate on blending various bits of the music to forge them all into something new, both musically and culturally. In a week when a town crier in drag labouring under the misapprehension that she’s breathing the same rarefied air as Aretha Franklin is showered in statuettes, it’s time to rip it up and start again.
© The Editor
3 thoughts on “ROCK OF (OLD) AGES”
Three additional factors that feed into what you say:
1 – Technology. Once electric instruments became available to the masses and then synthesizers and finally music software, the process changed. Originally, you didn’t start being in a band because you wanted to be a “star” (well, not everybody did), but because they had something to say, especially “outsiders”, who had something they wanted to say LOUDLY. You had to get on stage, it was a drive, it was a compulsion and it was an obsession. It was a way of being seen and heard and to make a point. The advance of technology has made it easier and easier, like word processing has made it easier to write.
2 – Economics. The above technology became increasingly cheaper giving even more people access to making music. And that is where our current cultural malaise comes from, I believe. Now anybody can make music, everybody makes music. Again, it’s the same as writing books and blogs. There are plenty of those but not everything written is worth reading. And not all music is worth listening to, because creators are not doing it to say anything or present a new point of view, or desperately want to show the way they see things differently. They do it because they can. It’s a hobby, a way to fill time, everyone does it. I may accept I’m being a bit of a snobby elitist, because surely, everyone has a unique point of view and why shouldn’t they share it? Well, to be honest, some people don’t have the talent to do it well, nor do they have anything really original to present, and accidental viral fame and money have become the main foci, instead of that need to create.
3 – Drugs. Throughout each stage of post war musical culture, change ha coincided with the popularity of different drugs. In the 50s, teenagers found alcohol, 60s was marijuana/LSD, punk was speed, disco was coke, house and rave and techno were MDMA (and more latterly, ketamine). (I’m not sure if some “classicists” used heroin?)
New technology and new drugs might produce something new again, so I haven’t given up hope of my world being moved again (and to be honest, it still is, sometimes) through music.
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Yes, three significant points there. Punk’s DIY philosophy may have implied anyone can do it, but only those who COULD emerged from it with recordings that retain their spark. Early on, the Human League would milk the ‘we’re not musicians’ angle, but to me that just translated as ‘we’re not Keith Emerson’. I doubt even they could have foreseen the democratisation of technology that, as you say, has opened the door to every Tom, Dick and Harriet with access to an app (and the same app, hence the fact they sound identical to each other).
The drugs element is extremely important too. Going back even further than pop, the Romantic Poets enjoyed their laudanum and I would imagine absinthe probably played a part in the composition of some classical pieces! I also haven’t entirely given up hope that some of ‘ver kids’ will reject the force-feeding and surprise us all. It often happens when it’s least expected, and I can’t think of a cultural climate more conducive to that than the one we’re currently enduring.
“Originally, you didn’t start being in a band because you wanted to be a “star” (well, not everybody did), but because they had something to say…”
In the pre-disco era very many pop bands started largely because their members could earn more in a night than their dads did working 40 hours in a noisy, filthy factory. Gigs for even the fairly inept were plentiful around most large towns and cities.
In the merseybeat era and before most musicians didn’t have many aspirations beyond playing the music they loved, pulling the girls, enjoying a little local celebrity and making a steady living from it for a while. The long-term and more esoteric creative aspirations for the most part started to creep in the mid 1960s and accelerated when the middle-class well-educated kids came into the business.
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