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