ROCK OF (OLD) AGES

PurplePopular 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

IDIOTEQUE

GainsbourgNot being especially child-friendly, a couple of perennials on ‘Desert Island Discs’ always make me want to retch. One is when the guest selects a piece of music on which one of their children either plays or sings; the other is when they pick a tune their children like, usually by some contemporary pop act. ‘This is what the kids insist we have to listen to on long drives in the car’ etc. A few weeks ago, the latter category came up and something by Ed Sheeran disrupted the Sunday morning vibes. Bloody awful, it was too – the soulless sound of a purpose-built performer purposely built to play a purpose-built arena.

Unsurprisingly, the ginger Bernie Flint is up for a Brit or two next week, as are (equally predictably) coffee table queen Adele and the terminally soporific Coldplay. There’s young blood in the shape of James Bay, who shares at least one thing with his more established contenders in that he has absolutely nothing to say. Chris Martin might do a lot for charadee – and likes to talk about it, weirdly enough; but his political stance, for what it is, is pure Live Aid, throwing his weight behind worthy causes ala Bono and never short of advertising what a ‘decent bloke’ he is for doing so. None of the acts on the Brits roll of honour were ever what could be called ‘left-field’ and have been shamelessly content to kiss corporate buttocks from the off.

Left-field is an old term used by music critics to describe acts in opposition to the mainstream; you don’t hear it used to so much now, but thirty-five years ago it had more than one meaning. If a wilful attempt to break loose of rock ‘n’ roll’s Blues roots and 1950s three-chord straitjacket was the musical characteristic of the post-punk generation at the crossroads between the 70s and 80s, a political element also marks them out as retrospectively unique. Unlike the misguided alliance between socially-conscious, musically-pedestrian pop stars and the Labour Party that was Red Wedge in the middle of the 80s, there was a fiercely intelligent edge to the politically-aware musicians that preceded them, one largely derived from the Marxist rhetoric prevalent on the university campuses where many of these bands were formed. Well-read and in it for more than vacuous status symbols, they peppered their lyrics with references to obscure literary and historical figures of a radical and revolutionary bent and avoided the clumsy plebeian posturing of The Clash.

It seems refreshingly bizarre now that so many of the acts that typify the glossy pop of the 80s hadn’t come to the mainstream platform via a showbiz Svengali figure, but had begun the journey to their unlikely destination via a route that hasn’t been traversed since. Adam Ant may have been largely apolitical, but his early pre-success records displayed knowledge of the Marquis de Sade and other kinky icons that were hardly guaranteed to appeal to a mainstream audience. Scritti Politti, best known for shiny mid-80s hits, had chosen their name as an Anglo-Saxon variation of Italian for ‘political writings’, inspired by Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. The Passions, responsible for perhaps the greatest one-hit wonder of 1981, ‘I’m in Love with A German Film Star’, were led by a singer who had spent part of her adolescence in a Marxist commune.

Altered Images, best remembered for bouncy smashes such as ‘Happy Birthday’, had a distinct Banshees/Slits vibe to their first single, ‘Dead Pop Stars’, and Clare Grogan has subsequently affirmed the band members were politically conscious as a given. People tend to forget how political allegiances then were as important as which mobile phone or video game you prefer is today; and those who emerged from the left-field back then really were on the left, albeit a vague, romantic ideal of the left that was traditionally the province of champagne socialists. This would be no surprise in literature or the theatre, but pop music? Regardless of their politics, what strikes one now is that these guys were actually quite smart, perhaps the least archetypal dumb rock ‘n’ rollers ever to pick up guitars.

Bands that didn’t make the breakthrough into the top ten, such as The Pop Group or The Gang of Four, abandoned the unadventurous musical limitations of Punk’s first wave and developed a distinctly jagged, white funk that meant listeners could tap their toes to songs about subjects that were as far removed from the euphoric hedonism of Disco as it was possible to imagine. The influence of the post-punk avant-garde also filtered into the music press via the new journalists that had received the same education and lingered in the NME up until the Rave era at the end of the 80s. Devoting front covers to the experience of school-leavers forced to endure the Youth Opportunities Scheme or even teenage suicides suggested as a consequence of Thatcherite policies were commonplace practices where the NME was concerned at the time and nobody thought it odd. Any left-field musician being interviewed by the music press in the first half of the 80s was more likely to discuss Rimbaud than listing their top ten ‘Classic Rock’ albums. It’s hard to imagine that happening today, especially with the appalling free version of the NME that resembles a giveaway lifestyle mag produced in-store by Starbucks, simply begging to be put out of its misery.

Unless we’re talking Bucks Fizz or Shakin’ Stevens, divisions between pop and ‘serious music’ weren’t as evident as they were to become in the 90s; even Bananarama had their first single produced by Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook. There was less reliance on pigeon-holing and acts could have a foot in both camps, appearing on TOTP one week and the OGWT the next, appearing on the front cover of the NME one week and the front cover of ‘Smash Hits’ the next. Something similar had happened at the beginning of the 70s, when acts from the hippy underground like Atomic Rooster, Curved Air and Hawkwind scored surprise hit singles, but it didn’t last then and it didn’t last in the 80s either. It partially resurfaced in the likes of The Manic Street Preachers and Radiohead; but being ‘clever’ isn’t cool now. The notion of pop music as anything other than a lowbrow branch of the entertainment industry is essentially redundant in 2016.

The current crop think TV talent shows are a legit route to recognition – and if they didn’t begin on one, they end up being a judge on one; they think it’s perfectly fine to enter the Big Brother House once they’ve churned out a few hits; they think nothing of endorsing products. As much as I would’ve loved Brian Eno advertising Cresta in 1973, the thought is so ludicrous that it could only ever appear in the pages of ‘Viz’. An assembled line-up of nominees coming together to pay ‘tribute’ to Bowie is threatened for this year’s Brit Awards ceremony; this horrific prospect is akin to ‘The One Show’ devoting a full edition to an in-depth analysis of the works of Sylvia Plath. I can’t help but think that the hilarious, axe-wielding idiot in this video is too close to the truth for comfort…

© The Editor