THE SINGLE FILE

1975’s ‘The Goodies Rule O.K.’ was the undoubted masterpiece to emanate from the most popular TV comedy team of their day, an hour-long mini-movie in which they satirised both pop and politics with surreal expertise. In one sequence, the chart dominance of their fictitious band is reflected via a fake ‘Top of the Pops’ top ten rundown of the kind the programme used as an introduction at the time, with all ten places occupied by Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor. Nothing of that nature had ever happened in the real world; there had been the odd occasion when one act had held the top two positions in the singles charts, but the UK Top 40 hadn’t seen anything comparable to the landmark occasion one week in 1964 when The Beatles owned the entire top five best-selling singles on America’s Billboard Hot 100.

Sorry to get all Paul Gambaccini, but even when one takes into account that the US charts were traditionally a mix of sales and airplay whereas the British equivalent was solely based on records sold, to occupy all top five places was one hell of an achievement. It was only made possible due to Capitol Records exploiting the atom bomb of American Beatlemania by re-releasing all the band’s previous stateside flops along with their current material. Singles releases in the UK were more measured during those heady days, usually separated by three or four months, so it was rare for an act to have more than one single on the charts at the same time.

By the 1990s, the rules of the game had changed a little. In order to reverse falling singles sales, record companies hit on the idea of giving radio and TV stations exclusive previews of new releases upwards of four weeks in advance of anyone being able to buy them in the shops. On the eve of actual release, record-buyers’ ears were ringing with the tune in question to such a degree that it was a dead cert said single would debut at No.1 and would inevitably plummet down the charts in the weeks after due to the majority of its sales coming in the first few days.

This practice devalued the previous kudos of crashing in at the top spot, which had been something only a small number of acts had managed before; indeed, when going straight in at No.1 required something approaching half-a-million sales, it was such a rare occurrence that after Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ entered at the top spot in 1973, no other single did likewise until The Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ in 1980. But the moving of the chart goalposts in the 90s also meant that fewer records were climbing up to No.1 anymore and fewer still could hold onto No.1 for more than that solitary week they debuted there. For ten consecutive weeks from December 1998 to February 1999, there was a different chart-topper every single week.

Other gimmicks during this era included Indie band The Wedding Present releasing a single for every month of 1992, meaning they enjoyed twelve Top 40 ‘hits’ that year – even though none spent more than a fortnight on the charts. The Manic Street Preachers, on the other hand, released two new singles on the same day in 2001, though neither entered higher than No.8. By the end of the twentieth century, downloads (mostly illegal) were affecting singles sales anew, and though it took some time, the ailing music industry eventually embraced the changes.

This week, Ed Sheeran – that guitar-playing Cabbage Patch Doll seemingly manufactured by a Formica focus group – holds nine of the top ten places in what passes for today’s singles chart. You heard that right. None of those nine songs are there due to physical sales; they’re ‘virtual’ singles whose presence there is down to legal streaming sites such as Spotify. Had the technology existed in the 60s, no doubt The Beatles would have done likewise, for many of their album tracks received as much airplay as their singles; but what the Top 40 does now is reflect album listening habits, with every song on a popular album eligible for inclusion in the singles chart if enough people pay to listen to it on their iPods. Is it really worth even having a singles chart when this is the case?

The single as a specialised art-form in itself could once condense the entire breadth and depth of emotions and musical melodrama that most acts spread over an entire album into three and-a-half minutes; and while the likes of ‘Virginia Plain’, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ or ‘Party Fears Two’ came from artists with more than one ace up their sleeves, had that trio of 45s belonged to one-hit wonders, it’d be fair to speculate that everything they might ever have to say had been crammed onto that solitary seven-inch artefact – just like ‘Sugar Sugar’; and saying everything in three and-a-half minutes is something few can master anymore because the single is effectively dead.

Due to the manner in which big-selling albums can slow burn over a calendar year, the inclusion of tracks from them that haven’t even been released as singles via streaming sales means the singles chart has ground to a halt compared to the frenzied pace of the late 90s. If ‘Top of the Pops’ still existed, the viewer wouldn’t notice much action in the Top 40 unless the programme was only transmitted on a monthly basis; apparently, last year we even had a Bryan Adams moment when a record called ‘One Dance’ sat atop the chart for fifteen weeks. And can you imagine a current edition of TOTP as the presenter links between Ed Sheeran at No.9 and Ed Sheeran at No.3?

The continuation of the so-called singles chart when it’s essentially an album tracks chart seems quite a pointless exercise, an irrelevance that is of no real interest to anyone who doesn’t work for the music industry. ‘The Kids’ couldn’t care less from what I can gather, so who else is it really for? When that monolith corporation known as UMG owns all but a tiny handful of all the old record labels, when TOTP is now simply a selective archive show over on BBC4, and when the music press – traditional breaker of new bands – more or less no longer exists, it’s evident the framework that worked in tandem with the singles chart has gone. Maybe it’s time for what remains of the singles chart to follow suit.

© The Editor

BLACK HOLE SUNSET

sabbathA friend recently gave me three books of Charlie Brooker’s TV reviews going back a decade or more – ideal lavatory reading material, as it turns out, and that’s where I keep them. As amusingly acerbic as ever, Brooker’s musings on what his job forced him to watch on the box are nevertheless significant pointers as to the transient disposability of contemporary pop culture. I would probably laugh out even louder were I able to recall any of the programmes or personalities he rips to shred with such witty malevolence, yet the fact that I’m stumped when he describes a particular ‘Big Brother’ contestant or some doomed ITV celebrity circus makes the reading experience a tad frustrating.

Like looking at old copies of ‘Private Eye’ from the 90s (I have a few) and trying to remember some obscure Minister in Major’s Government who’s been caught with his trousers down or his hand in the till, leafing through Brooker’s early noughties time capsules reminds me how the lifespan of even the most entertaining critiques of the here and now is as limited as the figures they mock.

Judging by the already meaningless accounts of events going back barely a decade, it’s probably fair to say very few (if any) of the characters that dominate today’s media mediums will still be on the tip of the masses’ tongues 47 years from now. It’s testament to the enduring appeal and remarkable staying power of their predecessors, however, that the apparently final performance of Black Sabbath yesterday made the headlines.

Some say the combination of the words Heavy and Metal first appeared in a late 60s review of a Jimi Hendrix gig – ‘like heavy metal falling from the sky’ was the phrase Hendrix’s manager Chas Chandler recalled; some trace it back to Steppenwolf’s 1968 biker anthem, ‘Born to be Wild’ (‘Heavy metal thunder’); but as a musical genre, even acknowledging the influence of Hendrix and Cream’s turbo-charged psychedelic blues, it’s possibly fair to pinpoint the beginnings of Heavy Metal to the arrival of Black Sabbath.

Led Zeppelin always disassociated themselves from the term, and to be fair, the virtuoso musicality of Led Zep offered up a good deal more than just the riffs that continue to inspire air-guitarists the world over; similarly, the quasi-classical leanings of Deep Purple often aligned them with nascent Prog Rock as much as guitar-led Hard Rock, so they too can’t be held solely responsible. When it comes to Sabbath, though, there’s no doubt every band to have launched an axe attack upon the eardrums of teenage boys (and their parents) ever since owes them a colossal debt.

Listening to Black Sabbath’s most famous and biggest hit, 1970’s ‘Paranoid’, it’s evident that this was a band whose natural allies were not Led Zep or Purple, but The Stooges. Like Iggy Pop’s band of brothers, Sabbath emerged from the unfashionable industrial heartlands – in the case of The Stooges, Detroit, and in the case of Ozzy’s gang, Birmingham. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Sabbath didn’t enjoy the Art School route to pop stardom and all the esoteric influences such a leg-up afforded, but were genuine working-class heroes, far more genuine than, say, The Clash. They grew up in a tough, dirty city and endured an underprivileged background of hard menial labour and dysfunctional families scarred by war. They had nothing to lose.

Guitarist Tony Iommi was working in a sheet metal factory when he lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand, but used the accident to develop his distinctive sound as he and his band Earth became a draw in the Birmingham clubs that had earlier proved to be a fruitful cradle for bands such as The Moody Blues, The Move and The Spencer Davis Group. A name change came when their shared love for horror movies and Dennis Wheatley novels produced a song titled ‘Black Sabbath’ that encapsulated everything that made them so unique.

The astonishingly guttural drone of Iommi’s riffs that never leave the ear once lodged there, working in tandem with Geezer Butler’s bowel-shattering bass-lines and Bill Ward’s frenetic drums were complimented by Ozzy Osbourne’s raw, untutored vocal delivery. Unlike the thuggish showmanship of The Who’s Roger Daltrey and the preening Sex God posing of Led Zep’s Robert Plant, Ozzy kept his stage excesses to a minimum and the band never indulged in cock-rockery. The ear-splitting power of the music didn’t need it.

London-based critics were instantly hostile to these uncouth oiks from the midlands, but the brilliantly hairy ambassadors of rock stripped to its bare, uncompromising bones revelled in their outsider status when the commercial success that came in the wake of the unexpected top five chart placing of ‘Paranoid’ rocketed them into the big league and all the trappings that went with it in the 70s. Their on-the-road activities became the stuff of legend, but their musical influence outlasted the exit of Ozzy at the end of the decade that made them and ushered in a less inspiring era when they were fronted by the likes of Ronnie Dio and even (briefly) Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.

Black Sabbath can be seen as the Godfathers of Metal, Goth, Grunge and even Punk, but by the time Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career and then unlikely reality TV stardom made him a universal household name, the respect that had always evaded Sabbath belatedly resulted in the bizarre spectacle of Osbourne and Iommi performing ‘Paranoid’ in the grounds of Buckingham Palace at HM the Queen’s Golden Jubilee bash in 2002. A long-overdue reunion of the original line-up led to the 2013 No.1 album, ‘13’, whose chart-topping status in their homeland broke a record of gaps between No.1 albums previously held by Bob Dylan. The band were finally recognised as the groundbreaking innovators they always had been.

A couple of weeks ago, a few friends of mine saw Sabbath live and commented that it was akin to seeing some of the greatest musicians ever, fronted by ‘my granddad’. This is a comment largely based on Ozzy’s OAP manner of staggering across the stage, though his vocals were apparently on form. One could say the legacy of past chemical indulgence may have left its mark on Sabbath’s frontman, but we shouldn’t also forget Mr Osbourne is pushing seventy now. Just think of how ancient Sinatra looked at the same age, and note how alert and refreshingly witty Ozzy is in interviews; as with many who share his refined years, his mind is often let down by his body.

Sabbath fittingly signed off on stage in Birmingham to the strains of (inevitably) ‘Paranoid’. The audience was witness to the final act of a career that none of its members could ever have expected to span almost half-a-century, but what the band achieved in a near-fifty year existence is something none of the current contenders will ever manage because Black Sabbath rightly take their place in a pantheon of pop culture that defined an epoch that has passed and has yet to be surpassed; it still defines the age we live in, even if its practitioners are all granddads. The bostin’ boys done good.

© The Editor

THE 30-YEAR ITCH

sputnikA friend of mine celebrated his 30th birthday this week. Stuck for what to give him, I opted for compiling a CD of the best music to have been released during the year of his birth. But this was no easy task; as someone who was there (18 at the time), I remember 1986 as the lowest musical ebb of the entire 80s. My eighteenth year was an immense disappointment; just as I was expecting to participate in the Next Big Thing – the next Psychedelia or Punk – I was confronted by a scene that seemed to be on its last legs. The Bright Young Things that had illuminated the pop landscape of the early 80s had utterly run out of steam.

Boy George was in the depths of heroin addiction; Duran Duran had been stripped down to a threesome and appeared to have lost their mojo in the process; The Human League had sold their soul to the soulless Jam & Lewis production line in the US; Tears for Fears, like The Eurythmics, had swamped their synths in thundering drums that reflected their American popularity and rendered their sound indistinguishable from the likes of Pat Benatar; The Style Council still had the attitude, but the good tunes that had always been Paul Weller’s secret weapon had dried up; Dexys Midnight Runners’ eagerly-awaited comeback album ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ (released in the autumn of ’85) had bombed; George Michael had swapped his exuberant brand of pop for the pompous persona of a ‘serious artist’; Spandau Ballet had similarly attempted to ‘grow up’ with songs supposedly about Northern Ireland, but failed to convince; and others who had once seemed destined for lengthy careers such as Adam Ant, Toyah, ABC and Nick Heyward couldn’t get arrested.

The year that followed the game-changer that was Live Aid presented those who had been the big guns of the decade’s first half with something of a dilemma. Their raison d’être was the antithesis of the ‘message’ in pop, and suddenly acts whose tongues had never ventured in the direction of their cheeks, such as Sting, Dire Straits and U2, were selling bucket-loads of albums on the back of their performances at 1985’s Wembley showcase. Short-lived teen idols like King, Then Jericho and A-ha occupied the void for a while, but they were recycling a style of pop that now sounded stale and worn-out. Only Prince and Madonna were making pop music that sparkled with individual personality, even if the latter’s records were lapsing into formula as the brand seemed increasingly more important than the product.

With the album charts boosted by the newfangled CD and the wine-bar MOR Muzak it seemed especially suited for, the singles charts lacked focus and imagination. One alternative was the Goth subculture, but its chronic lack of humour seemed curious for a genre that specialised in the ridiculous, and its key acts like The Cult and The Sisters of Mercy offered little but archaic rock clichés. The music press desperately searched for something and grouped together a series of unrelated young bands under the C86 banner, but none bar Fuzzbox and Pop Will Eat Itself made any chart impact, and both much later than 1986 at that.

Some of the best hits of 1986 were one-off reminders of what pop could still offer – ‘E=mc²’ by Big Audio Dynamite, ‘Life’s what you Make it’ by Talk Talk, ‘Word Up’ by Cameo – but everyone seemed to be waiting for something to come along that would shake things up ala Punk Rock, vainly hoping for any remote Sex Pistols resemblance in a band like The Jesus and Mary Chain. They were looking in the wrong place.

The Smiths remained the outsiders’ choice, releasing one of ‘86’s seminal singles in ‘Panic’ as well as their most critically-acclaimed album, ‘The Queen is Dead’; but the No.1 hits never materialised as the gap between rock and pop continued to widen. Ten years later, Blur and Oasis could sit at the pinnacle of both singles and album charts, but such a feat was unimaginable in 1986 for a band like The Smiths. What was needed was an act to come along who could unite the great divide and scare mum and dad in the process. What we pop kids got was Sigue Sigue Sputnik.

When compiling the CD that was intended to assemble 1986’s major musical moments onto one piece of plastic, I reacquainted myself with ‘Love Missile F1-11’, the debut single by the Sputniks, and their only proper hit. Produced by none other than Giorgio Moroder and laden with clumsy samples from movies like ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Terminator’, it sounds incredibly tinny by today’s production standards – an ancient Eddie Cochran riff played on a synth, interspersed with the occasional axe ejaculation. It wasn’t exactly ‘Anarchy in the UK’, though the hype that accompanied its release suggested otherwise. An NME front cover of the time featured Sputnik frontman Martin Degville with the tagline ‘Would you pay £1 million for this crap?’ – a reference to the amount EMI had allegedly signed the band for. The Sputniks had a lot to prove, but they were incapable of doing so because they were no more ‘real’ than The Monkees had been twenty years previously.

The only two members of Sigue Sigue Sputnik who anyone can remember are Degville and guitarist Tony James; neither were exactly hungry teenagers. James had been a member of pop-punksters Generation X, alongside Billy Idol, whereas Degville had been part of Boy George’s Blitz Kid circle back in the New Romantic era. Their embrace of that period’s visual excesses was the last glorious hurrah of mainstream pop stars as peacocks, and it all seemed a bit gimmicky even next to the rest of 1986’s sartorial mishaps; but then the whole enterprise was based on gimmickry and hyperbole sourced from the Malcolm McLaren manual, a cartoon band designed to shock without the tunes to support the shock factor. Music almost seemed secondary to the event, but few could get away with that for long in 1986.

By the end of the year, the bigging-up of Sigue Sigue Sputnik as the future of rock ‘n’ roll already felt like a bad joke; but it was the last time such an audacious scam was hatched by those that promoted it in person. The production team of Stock, Aitken and Waterman were beginning to make inroads into the charts by cherry picking boys and girls-next-door whose contributions to the factory format were minimal in comparison to the clout that the three-headed duo at the mixing desk carried. The dull ordinariness of the S/A/W stable was crucial to its success; ‘image’, the byword for 80s pop for so long, was out. The commercial breakthrough of Run DMC via their collaboration with veteran US hard rockers Aerosmith reset the style template; the future would be clad in sportswear and sneakers.

A further blow to the pop star as outré alien came with the underground dance scene, which broke over-ground at the back-end of 1986 with Farley Jackmaster Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, the first acknowledged House hit. House and Techno reduced the concept of The Star to an all-time low; with their often sampled vocals, the records that constituted the chart dominance of Dance as the 80s drew to a close were largely the work of DJs, remixers and producers who revelled in their anonymity; and the audience weren’t bothered as long as they could dance to them.

1986, then – a crossroads between where we were and where we are; not a vintage year by any stretch of the imagination, and not one I’m in a great hurry to revisit again; but equally, a year it was undoubtedly fascinating to view from the kind of distance that enables its long-term consequences to be discerned.

© The Editor

THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME

DiscA cartoon in the current issue of ‘Private Eye’ shows a musician poised to unveil a new number for an appreciative audience. ‘I wrote this next song,’ he says, ‘in the hope that someone will rip it off so I can sue them.’ Satirical, yes, but to the point where the business of music is currently concerned. In the aftermath of the era when pop promised riches that speedily elevated its practitioners several social places via a string of hit singles, the descendants of deceased musicians who evidently didn’t have a problem with their little-known numbers bearing a passing resemblance to very well-known ones are launching suits left right and centre in order to grab a little cash from the only songs that still make a million, old ones.

Just a few months ago, a case of copyright infringement against Led Zeppelin claimed their magnum opus ‘Stairway to Heaven’ ripped off a track by an obscure 60s/70s band called Spirit. The judge ruled the similarities between ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Taurus’ were not similar enough to warrant infringement and Led Zep were not forced to surrender any of the astronomical royalties the song has accumulated for them over the last 45 years. This case followed the more famous one involving ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give it Up’; the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams hit of 2013 – remembered chiefly for its rather crass promo video – was compared unfavourably to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 US chart-topper in a case last year. This time round, the plagiarism charge held up and Gaye’s children were awarded in the region of $7.4 million as a consequence.

An insipid peddler of trite, vapid dirges he may well be, but is Ed Sheeran a plagiarist? The heirs of Ed Townsend, the late co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s erotic ode to Percy Filth, ‘Let’s Get it On’, reckon so. They’ve instigated a lawsuit against the guitar-playing ginger crooner that claims his track ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is a little too close to Gaye’s 1973 Billboard No.1 to not be considered a rip-off. I took a deep breath and gave the Sheeran track a listen to see if I could discern comparisons with Marvin’s sensual masterpiece. Yes, Gaye’s song was clearly an influence on Sheeran’s, but you could say that about hundreds of bloody songs recorded in the last half-century. After all, what is the 12-bar Blues but the same song over and over again?

The first time a plagiarism lawsuit caught the public’s attention was in the mid-70s, when George Harrison’s worldwide 1971 solo chart-topper ‘My Sweet Lord’ was successfully sued by the composers of the 1963 Chiffons hit, ‘He’s So Fine’. The judge found in favour of the latter and Harrison admitted he was probably subconsciously influenced by ‘He’s So Fine’ when composing the song that acted as the launch-pad for his post-Beatles career. There are identical chord changes in some places, though Harrison’s claim that he was more inspired by ‘Oh, Happy Day’, a 1969 hit for The Edwin Hawkins Singers, also rings true when it comes to the spiritual mood of ‘My Sweet Lord’.

Funnily enough, Harrison himself failed to sue Paul Weller, despite the obvious similarities between his own 1966 Beatles song, ‘Taxman’, and The Jam’s 1980 UK chart-topper, ‘Start’. Perhaps he was shrewd enough to recognise an affectionate homage to his track of fourteen years previously; but those were still the days when so much money was in pop music that people didn’t necessarily have to sue to survive.

The collapse of the old-school music industry and the multi-million dollar record sales that enabled performers and writers to join the jet-set on the back of them has hit the songwriter hard. Up-and-coming artists forced to relentlessly tour in order to make a living certainly have a case should they feel someone else has ripped off their tune and is making more money from their version of it than their original managed; but when it comes to the children of dead writers attempting to make a mint from something they themselves had no hand in, I’m not so sure. Andrew Lloyd-Webber owes his most successful songs to the eighteenth and nineteenth century composers he…er…’borrowed’ melodies from, so where are their descendants, desperately seeking some golden eggs that they had nothing to do with the laying of? The way things are going, don’t rule it out.

There are only so many chords and there are only so many ways of putting those chords in a different running order; equally, each new artist that appears carries his or her influences in every song they write, which is an unavoidable state of affairs. And with genuine originality being at such a premium today, it’s inevitable we’re going to get even more soundalikes due to the fact that twenty-first century musicians have almost a hundred years of standards behind them that they have to compete with and outdo. It’s a tall order, though the prospect of each new hit being accused of ripping off another from thirty or forty years ago by people who’ve never so much as written a shopping-list is utterly farcical. And it’s setting a dangerous precedent.

© The Editor

NAME THAT (AUTO) TUNE

ArchiesThere’s a certain irony to the fact that the BBC decided to name their Xerox X Factor ‘The Voice’; the voice is the one aspect of contemporary popular music that has been effectively eradicated from the airwaves – that is, the distinctive voice that once acted as instant identification when heard emanating from the radio or turntable. Pop in the second half of the twentieth century was peppered with a plethora of distinctive voices that remain unmistakable – Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, Karen Carpenter, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Rotten, Kate Bush, Boy George, Morrissey – the list goes on and on. None could ever be confused with another, for strength of personality radiated from such voices; these were personalities who could be both fascinating and intimidating, but you couldn’t ignore them.

Some of the most distinctive voices of the pop era were unconventional and untrained; one thinks of, say, Russell Mael from Sparks or Billy MacKenzie from The Associates – those voices didn’t emerge from voice coaches in stage-schools, adhering to manuals that followed tried and tested guidelines; they came from somewhere without rules or regulations, natural and original to the unique individuals who produced them. Think of the way in which Dylan’s raw, rasping vocals cut through every convention of the time or the way in which Marc Almond’s early recordings with Soft Cell often veer perilously out-of-tune as he injects his theatrical electronic epics with wonderfully camp melodrama. There’s as much genuine soul in ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ as there is in anything by Aretha Franklin.

Various factors brought about the marginalisation of the distinctive voice. The increasing influence of the TV talent show was one, with every participant encouraged to model their vocals on the safest and least challenging mainstream style; but the so-called Fame Academy graduates were no better. They may be able to play instruments and write their own material, but they’ve essentially been taught how to sing in a musical equivalent of a creative writing course, submitting to a system that churns out students whose work is indistinguishable from each other, as bland and unoriginal as any of their talent show contemporaries. But the one element above all others that has changed the game is the invention of the insidious Auto-Tune effect.

The record-buying public’s first exposure to the audio processor that can fix every bum note and ensure every vocal to which it is applied is pitch-perfect to an unnatural degree was Cher’s 1998 chart-topper ‘Believe’. Since then it has become the default mechanism of every pop, R&B and Hip Hop act to have attained success in the twenty-first century, ironing out the last semblance of individual personality in the process. Whereas there had occasionally been big hit records in the past that comprised anonymous session singers and musicians operating under a group name and usually promoted on TV by a fake band that had nothing to do with the recording, Auto-Tune has taken this to a frightening new level. Its widespread, almost compulsory use today has rendered every pop act the modern-day equivalent of The Archies.

I was buying some tuna for the cat in a cut-price supermarket earlier today and found my ears exposed to the local commercial radio station; I entered the shop midway through one record and exited it midway through another; but there was nothing to distinguish either. Granted, at my age there’s no reason why I should recognise who the ‘artist’ was, but I’d hazard a guess most twenty or twenty-five years my junior would probably struggle as well. The watered-down, lowest-common-denominator 90s Dance derivative musical backing was identical, which tends to have a ‘white noise’ effect on me to begin with; but the vocals were Auto-Tuned into castrated android perfection. The voice was as pre-programmed as the music. Hack songwriters and producers have effectively found a way to reduce the human ingredient to the same synthetic cul-de-sac as the sampled instrumentation, making the voice a veritable click-track of soulless uniformity.

There has been an evident reinvention of the old Tin Pan Alley school over the past decade-and-a-half, whereby the majority of the big hit songs come from the same stable and are consequently impossible to tell apart. A small coterie of songwriters and producers have assembled a production line that makes Stock, Aitken and Waterman resemble Crosby, Stills and Nash – dispensable and disposable, cold, clinical fast-food music designed to be consumed and regurgitated like an iPod Big Mac. Any regular reader will know I’m no fan of Adele, but one reason why the flame-haired foghorn has achieved such mammoth success in the past four or five years could possibly be due to the fact that she does have at least one factor in her favour: her voice is undeniably distinctive. And it’s hard to think of many who could lay claim to that discarded distinction in this execrable era of identikit audio processed cheese.

© The Editor

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

COLOUR ME POP

ToyahOne more untimely death came last week, albeit one that rather slipped under the mainstream radar – that of 53-year-old Colin Vearncombe, who used the stage-name Black; best remembered for his 1987 international hit, ‘Wonderful Life’, Vearncombe was one of many 1980s musicians who had cut their musical teeth via the DIY ethic of Punk, yet eschewed a three-chord straitjacket to embrace an eclectic (and occasionally esoteric) potpourri of sounds. At the beginning of the 80s, a generation emerged that blended the visceral energy of Punk with an appreciation of classic melodious pop and an appetite for experimentation.

Enduring characters such as Julian Cope, Ian McCulloch, Billy MacKenzie, Kevin Rowland, Robert Smith, Roddy Frame, Edwyn Collins and Morrissey were promoted as an alternative to the synthesizer-based New Pop that rose to chart prominence in 1981/82, yet were all part of the same fresh wave of talent that characterised the opening three or four years of the decade. Nobody can deny that the likes of The Human League or Depeche Mode were just as adept at producing pop the milkman could whistle as their guitar-slinging opponents; they merely utilised hi-tech technology as the vehicle for their melodies and found themselves becoming part of the ‘Top of the Pops’ wallpaper in the process.

Although heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Bowie and Roxy Music, the Synth Pop acts were very much in the here and now in terms of sound and vision, whereas the guitar alternative favoured floppy-haired 60s chic and the jangly aural trademark of The Byrds. At the same time, that in itself is a too-neat summary of their differences.

Both strands of early 80s pop shared a yearning to boldly go where no pop stars had gone before – if top 10 records as contrasting in style as ‘Ghosts’ by Japan, ‘Reward’ by The Teardrop Explodes, ‘Party Fears Two’ by The Associates, ‘Torch’ by Soft Cell, ‘The Cutter’ by Echo and the Bunnymen, ‘Living on The Ceiling’ by Blancmange, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ by Adam and the Ants, ‘Rip it Up’ by Orange Juice, ‘Mad World’ by Tears for Fears and ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners had anything in common, it was their determined aim to sound unlike anything that had preceded them and to sound unlike anything else alongside them in the charts. In this, they succeeded. They may have had one eye on their formative influences, but the other was firmly looking forward.

The refreshing willingness of this generation to follow their adventurous instincts could lead to an album as strange and original as ‘Sulk’ by The Associates or one as grandiosely romantic as ‘The Lexicon of Love’ by ABC; it could produce a hit single as bizarre as ‘John Wayne is Big Leggy’ by Haysi Fantayzee or a pop star as weird and wonderful as Boy George.

During this creatively fruitful era, ‘Smash Hits’ was as important to the moment as the NME had been to the moment of ten years earlier; glossy, colourful and yet simultaneously possessing a richness of witty, incisive writing, the fortnightly magazine launched in 1978 is retrospectively branded as an archetypal all style/no substance product of the so-called shallow 80s, but it was a good as anything promoting music on the newsstands in 1981-84 and forced the old ‘inkies’ to reluctantly up their game when their circulations began to plummet.

When the most commercially ambitious representatives of the crop found their innovative utilisation of the promo video gained them a foothold in America thanks to the arrival of MTV, the Second British Invasion of the USA was underway, resulting in a now-unimaginable situation such as that which occurred one week in 1983 when 20 of the Billboard top 40 singles were by British acts, including 7 of the top 10; this even exceeded the American chart domination by British acts in the mid-60s. The impact of UK pop upon US culture wasn’t lost on a trio of American artists who were busily taking notes – Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson – all of whom capitalised on the craze and sold a few coals to Newcastle as they did so.

Ironically, it was this generation’s eagerness to keep up with technology that would prove to be their undoing; the clunky samples on mid-80s hits such as ‘Wood Beez’ by Scritti Politti and ‘A View to a Kill’ by Duran Duran reflect the move away from melody-based fare which was then prevalent in early Hip Hop. Within a couple of years, one isolated vocal lifted from an old soul record, trimmed down to a solitary sampled phrase and repeated over and over again would be enough to pass for melody when welded to an electronic beat; equally, the backlash behemoth of stadium rock, either from the likes of U2 or the American Glam Metal bands, left pure pop in the hands of production team Stock, Aitken & Waterman and their interchangeable boys and girls next-door. Mainstream melody had been reduced to the level of nursery rhymes and synths had been reduced to the level of deliberately monotonous repetition

Don’t get me wrong; I certainly enjoyed the Rave scene when it happened and even that eventually spawned some radically energetic chart-toppers from The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers; but as I look back now on the first half of the 80s, currently sprouting anew on BBC4’s rerun through 1981 ‘Top of the Pops’, I can see (and hear) how variety really was the spice of life and nobody sounded like anyone else. These were pop stars on their own terms, bereft of stylists and Svengalis and allergic to the crassness of the TV talent show; their genesis in the shadow of Punk instilled a passion for taking risks and rejecting the kind of uniform careerism that now passes for pop. We didn’t know how lucky we were.

© The Editor

GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS

SAM_2351Any embryonic art form with commercial potential is looked upon by envious eyes, just as the Martians observed planet Earth in the late nineteenth century, according to HG Wells. The first such art form in the age of the mass media was cinema; a glut of little film companies sprang up in the early silent era, many of which grew into the giants we all recall from their memorable idents – MGM’s lion, Paramount’s mountain, Universal’s spinning globe, 20th Century Fox’s giant logo illuminated by searchlights and so on. Smaller companies that had flourished during the heyday of the silents had been absorbed into the larger outfits come the talkies, which soon achieved virtual dominance of the global cinema market. Running parallel with the rise of the Hollywood studio system was the music business, first through publishing and then the formation of record companies to facilitate the advances in reproducing recorded sound.

There were mutually beneficent relations between the movie studios and record labels in the pre-rock age, when the majority of hit records emanated from hit movies or hit Broadway shows. Songwriters rated higher than performers in terms of earnings, as the same song could be covered by a variety of singers, giving rise to the ‘standard’ that no individual performer had an exclusive claim on. Singers were little more than serfs as far as record companies were concerned, limited to pitiful royalty rates and chained to contracts signed without reading the small print.

At the beginning of the 1960s, British record companies such as EMI and Decca were headed by Old Etonians who could just as easily have been running the Bank of England, addressing everyone by their surnames; their recording studios were staffed by men in white coats who treated the job like any other 9-to-5 occupation. Maverick outsiders such as producer Joe Meek were very much on the fringes of the elite, running cottage industries from their own homes and leasing the end results to labels, as had been the case during the brief eruption of US rock ‘n’ roll before it was eaten alive by the big bucks of the big boys.

By the end of the 60s, the logo in the centre of the vinyl had not only become as identifiable as the movie studio ident, but many embodied a particular style of music, giving the listener an inkling as to what to expect even before they placed the needle on the record. Most majors had an offshoot label to cater for the more experimental end of the pop spectrum, and the men who ran these offshoots were often counter-cultural dudes with a business brain, a long way from the titled toffs at the top of the pyramid – at least on the surface. Even if there was an apparently extreme contrast between the man who condescendingly welcomed a new signing into his office with a tray of tea brought in by his secretary and the one who opened a box on his desk housing several ready-rolled joints, what headmaster and head-boy shared was a very British sense of amateurism. To use old cricket terminology, they were gentlemen rather than players.

All that changed in the 70s and 80s; the phenomenal money-spinner that the 60s had turned pop into gave birth to what was truly a music industry, and the players wrestled control from the gentlemen. Despite Punk spawning numerous independent labels, these were gradually bought up by the majors to supersede the old subsidiary labels that changing musical fashions had removed from the record racks. Improved awareness by artists as to just how much their predecessors had been ripped-off was matched by the new professional rock manager, personified by Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant.

Few acts that sprang to prominence during the halcyon days of rock as business saw ownership of their golden eggs slip through their fingers via poorly-executed deals as The Beatles had suffered. Record companies as well as their artists and management were now all well enough versed in the pros and cons of making a mint from music to run the industry with a slick ruthlessness that ensured a splendid time was guaranteed for all.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s evident that record companies assumed this state of affairs would be permanent; as they began buying each other up in an act of corporate cannibalism, the new kid on the block called the internet was poised to shake up an industry that had grown fat and complacent on the profits of past glories. The arrival of illegal downloading sites such as Napster opened a divide between producers and consumers that would issue a challenge to the Godlike authority of record companies that the record companies thought they could dismiss with a campaign similar to the short-lived ‘home taping is killing music’ crusade of the 80s. They claimed songwriters and performers would be denied their due royalties if the public weren’t prepared to pay for music, yet copyright on the likes of YouTube can be easily implemented, thus neutralising any income the poster of a song or music video stands to derive from it.

A couple of months back, assembling a Beatles CD compilation for my own personal listening, I sourced the songs I needed via YouTube, as all my Beatles albums are on vinyl. I had no problem locating the material and the CD was put together quickly. Typing in other Beatles songs for a different compilation a couple of days ago, I found most of them had disappeared. Those that survived in visual form only were without their musical content; the excuse given was that the copyright was ‘owned by UMG’ – not Parlophone, not even EMI, but UMG. UMG – who’s he when he’s at home? The record industry’s very own Judge Dredd, that’s who.

UMG stands for Universal Music Group, a behemoth of a corporation that is a subsidiary of the French media monster Vivendi, and is based in California. It owns the vast majority of pop’s most valuable back catalogues and has sought to counteract any unlicensed music videos appearing on YouTube with its Vevo brand. Famous names that fall under the UMG umbrella include Geffen, Chess, A&M, Capitol, Island, Def Jam, Decca, Polydor, Motown, Virgin and EMI. The latter was purchased in 2012 for £1.2 billion. UMG has recently started throwing its weight around online, cracking down on anyone daring to post favourite songs that UMG ‘owns’. It would be nice to think UMG is simply a collective of music lovers ensuring songwriters and artists are paid their due royalties, but it isn’t. It has more in common with News Corps, but is very much in synch with a one-time art-form that is now little more than a leisure industry whose aim is to generate a feel-good factor to its fast-food consumers. So, RIP the record company, from Sir Joseph Lockwood to Colonel Sanders in fifty years.

© The Editor