HIGHWAY ’21 REVISITED

DylanAs there’s no one alive today who has lived in a time without either recorded sound or moving pictures, it’s easy to take for granted how ‘far out’ the concept of both must have seemed when they were invented. In the case of the latter, I recently became aware of objections which were made at the time, ones that had never occurred to me before. Prior to recorded sound, if someone you knew had died their voice was never heard again thereafter; it vanished into memory’s murky recesses and could only ever be recalled rather than revisited. Come the advent of recorded sound at the end of the nineteenth century, concerns were expressed in some quarters that being able to hear the voices of the deceased after they’d passed away, ones that had been preserved on the earliest wax cylinders or discs, was somehow disturbing the sanctity of death and messing with the order of things.

To be able to hear those voices again, as though calling from beyond the grave, sent a few shivers down various spines in the beginning, which is understandable when one considers such a thing had never been possible before – outside of a séance, anyway. The innovation was viewed as unnatural, though considering some of the dubious rituals the Victorians dabbled in re the recently-deceased – such as family photographs with dead children propped-up to complete the set – their concerns appear somewhat eccentric today. It does often strike me though how all subsequent generations are utterly dependent on contemporary written descriptions of the great men (and women) of the age immediately preceding the invention of recorded sound. For example, no composer was ever heard performing their own works by anyone other than those present at a performance before said performance was able to be recorded. We can only go by what was put down on paper at the time as to just how good Franz Liszt or Clara Schumann were as concert pianists; we can’t hear them, only their works as interpreted by later musicians and preserved on plastic.

Mrs Schumann, who paid the rent by hitting the road during her famous husband’s bouts of mental illness, is now again acknowledged as the significant figure she was acknowledged as during her lifetime. Her ‘feminist’ reappraisal was only necessary due to her talent being neglected in the decades following her death (1896) – probably because there had been no recordings as evidence of her gifts to pass down to future generations. But whatever perceived obstacles she faced due to her sex at the time were not necessarily unique – all artists are confronted by them, male or female; if they have anything about them, the talent will win out in the end. Just because most of the notable ‘Classical’ composers were men doesn’t mean they had success and plaudits handed to them on a plate; they had to work damned hard for it too. She, like them, deserved the reputation that has now been resurrected and doesn’t need a retrogressive ‘Woman Composer’ tag attached to reiterate that fact. She was as much a product of her age as her male contemporaries were.

I used the term ‘Classical’ as a generic one in the previous paragraph; in the modern era of strict musical categorisation it tends to be applied when referring to any orchestral music made over the past 300 years. Cut through lazy labelling and one comes across more accurate terminology to separate artistic and cultural phases, often encompassing not just the music but the art, architecture, literature, politics and philosophy of the age. These ‘epochs’ – the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic etc. – produce sons and daughters whose restless spirits and hunger for change push their eras onwards and upwards until, like Icarus, they burn out and are superseded by another cast of characters and another epoch. Distance is usually required to recognise a diverse and disparate variety of movers and shakers can be grouped together under one all-encompassing umbrella, with what they shared being greater than that which divided them. With media coverage of Bob Dylan’s impending 80th birthday, I got to thinking how the age that produced characters like him and all the others whose simultaneous breakthroughs made such an impact (in part thanks to the ubiquitous presence of recorded sound) can probably now be acknowledged as an epoch in its own right, one we are witnessing the last rites of due to the advanced years of its prime practitioners – those who have made it this far, anyway.

The great William Shatner is a decade ahead of Dylan, but even the fact that the former captain of the USS Enterprise was perhaps a little too old to embrace the extremities of 60s ‘cool’ (though he had a go at it with his own…er…distinctive version of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) isn’t relevant today. The original series of ‘Star Trek’ has long been enshrined as a component of the same cultural canon to which ‘Blonde on Blonde’ or the mini-skirt or the first Moon Landing belong; the further we’ve travelled from the moments in which these (sorry to use an over-used word) ‘iconic’ innovations and events occurred, the more it has been possible to discern the qualities they had in common, qualities that may well have not been so apparent at the time. Bit-by-bit, whether it be The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Muhammad Ali or George Best, the jigsaw of the second half of the twentieth century is now a complete picture with all its various pieces fitting neatly together as much as the pieces of the Baroque, the Classical or the Romantic retrospectively do. Perhaps we need to be once or twice removed to appreciate this.

Anyone who lives through such a period (or at least catches the arse-end of it) gradually learns it takes time to dawn on them that it’s over. The epoch which began in the 60s, realised its creative potential in the 70s, and achieved its most profitable commercial spell in the 80s is undoubtedly over now. It staggered on into the 90s, with manufactured scenes routinely appearing and disappearing to maintain the illusion it remained relevant, but the traditional remaking and remodelling that accompanied ‘The Next Big Thing’ slowly wound down. The support system that kept it on the front pages of most people’s lives – and everything from ‘Top of the Pops’ to the music press to the Sunday teatime Top 40 on Radio 1 played its part – has been dismantled. Who would give a shit if Ed Sheeran ‘went electric’ in 2021 like they did when Bob Dylan did in 1965? Somebody like Ed Sheeran is not important to anyone other than those who download his dirges as background Muzak; he’s meaningful in the same way Tommy Steele was meaningful. Even if he was an outstanding artistic talent, he would still be incapable of impacting in the way Dylan managed it because Dylan was in the right place at the right time at the right moment – and his creative spirit was a product of where he came from, a place that no longer exists.

Are we in in-between days today? It’s impossible to tell. Even if we come to terms with the fact that the aforesaid period which produced popular art of such invigorating and electrifying verve that it has continued to inspire those who weren’t even born when it appeared has passed into history, it means we feel somewhat bereft when we look to the same source for our earthly and heavenly bread in 2021. If we look elsewhere, perhaps we will find a similar spirit struggling to be heard in the digital cacophony of so many competing voices; and perhaps we won’t know until it’s gone if where we are now is another epoch or merely an interlude, a breathing space in which chaos reigns because it can. But we can’t complain we haven’t inherited some class family silver; we have the luxury of being able to listen to the young Dylan sing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ just as we can listen to any pianist of the last 80 years playing Clara Schumann – and that’s plenty to be getting on with instead of waiting for something to happen that maybe never will.

© The Editor

6 thoughts on “HIGHWAY ’21 REVISITED

  1. One key difference between the pre-recording era and now is a social one. Until the mid-20th century, most ‘hoi polloi’ had to have one focus in their lives, that being the repetitive daily struggle to provide food and shelter for their families. Only those from more independent or privileged backgrounds could forsake the daily agricultural or industrial grind to pursue the more fanciful arty topics like literature and music.

    The availability of recording then coincided with social changes which enabled ‘working folk’ not only to make and preserve their music, but also to gain revenue from selling their product to a larger population, one now with the disposable income to buy it. Hence the Rock & Roll players from the 50s and the beat groups of the 60s hailing from lowly roots had a chance, albeit a small one, of making it big and having their art appreciated – they had the time and technology to make it, while others had the time and the funds to pay for it.

    In the current digital age it is right to refer to its ‘cacophony’, because now anyone and everyone, talented or not, has the opportunity and technology to add to the global library of sound. Out of that tower of babble some gems will certainly appear, if only under the ‘infinite number of monkeys’ principle, but most of it will start and remain as digital dross, simply wasting time, money and technology along the way. But maybe if Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert had had digital technology, much of their classical product may then also have been swamped by the maelstrom of musical mediocrity, we’ll never know.

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    1. It’s not by accident each post on here is credited to ‘The Editor’. I often have to excise several sentences and sometimes entire paragraphs to keep within the standard space. I did so with this piece, losing a passage that echoes some of the sentiments you touched on. Re Clara Schumann, I made the point that like other women who made a creative mark in the 18th & 19th century, she didn’t emanate from the labouring class.

      Modern feminism often likes to imply the reason women were outnumbered by men in the arts at the time was somehow due to men keeping them down, but this theory seems to overlook the fact that in a pre-contraceptive age, many talented women had little choice but to sacrifice their talent to a succession of nappies. And, of course, if they weren’t fortunate enough to come from an upper or middle-class background, they’d have to engage in some menial labour as well; not much time for playing or composing there. Of course, there were some notable figures who did make it from humble origins during this period (Dickens being a good example), albeit nowhere near the numbers that were liberated by the democratisation of recorded sound from the mid-20th century onwards. Most, however, were men because they were spared being perennially pregnant. Easy (and maybe uncomfortable) to overlook in the present-day rush to claim feminist icons of the past.

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  2. I am old enough to remember the 60’s and 70’s. In the mid-70’s things started to stagnate (wall-to-wall glam rock). It needed the punks to come along to liven things up – maybe we need something like that again though I don’t know where it is going to come from.
    During the lock-down I’ve been re-watching some of the early star treks and they hold up quite well. It is a pity that everything is still under copyright after so many years, but a few episodes appear (on la youtube de la francais {dailymotion})

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    1. I loved the original ‘Star Trek’ series, but haven’t seen it in years. It seemed to be on a repeat loop from the 70s through to the 90s, though as you say, the terrestrial copyright must have elapsed since then. I’m sure it must be available on DVD, so I’ve no excuses not to check.

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  3. Just how good that music was is shown by how it is now used in adverts. Trying to sell to people whose parents were not even about then.
    And it was all done straight, one take, with no computer generated noise, phase and frequency shifted jiggery pokery.
    In 50 or 60 years time what will Blinding Lights, last year’s big seller, be used to flog.
    “Sung” by the vowelly challenged Weeknd.

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    1. It does feel now as though the technology operates the ‘artist’, as opposed to, say, the inventive way in which The Human League operated the technology to fit their vision in the early 80s. Everything now sounds so pre-programmed and soulless, and if anything interesting-sounding catches the ear that’s probably because the hook was sampled from an analogue recording of actual musicians from 50 years ago.

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