October 12, 2013
Well, I’ve mulled this over and thought about it for quite a while. Should I or shouldn’t I write a response to a piece of writing about music that I found a bit provocative? The main reason for doing so would be to address matters close to my heart and pivotal to my understanding of music appreciation. The principal reason for avoiding this path like a plague-ridden sheep track would be the risk of being caught – in flagrante delicto – flogging a dead horse. Nevertheless, here I go where angels and shepherds fear to tread.
In a long treatise about the elastic nature of the popular song, Luke Turner writing in The Quietus grieved over the endurance of the rubber band music called rock ‘n’ roll that has pinged back and forth across six decades. He lamented the infatuation with what he describes as a “mythic golden age of music” from which pop (whatever that might be) is either unwilling, or unable to escape.
Break the mould cast by Elvis, shatter the iconography of The Beatles and give up trying to decipher childish Dylanesque runes, he says. Then, and only then, will pop music be free to innovate, invent and flourish as a living art form in full forward Darwinian motion. He seems to argue that roots-based popular music ought to be extinct because it was conceived in the past and, to his ears at least, has stopped evolving. A bit like the Giant Panda, only not quite as cute.
I agree that there are few sights more irritating than the covers of MOJO and Q whose subjects are routinely as wrinkly as the cellophane wrapping around a not terribly special anniversary edition of some non-event or other from 1971. I also concede that the proclamations of everlasting love by one-time fanboys who are now merely old-timers are as tedious as any “chance to re-live England’s World Cup victory of 1966.” But let them talk. They’re harmless.
The current vogue for television nostalgia seems to vex our Luke most particularly, and we can hardly blame him. Who wants to look at someone else’s school days as seen through the prism of The Old Grey Whistle Test, or that loveable old fraud Top of the Pops? Worse still, whenever we look through those rose-tinted specs at fondly remembered times our reverie is frequently interrupted by that uber-twerp Paul Morley twittering away his rampant nonsense about nothing that ever really mattered.
So, if I find worth in much of what he says, then why would I bother to take issue with him? Well, it’s not so much that I have issues as concerns about the inferences he makes in this passage:
“The myth of the golden age in music feeds the conservative notion that everything must be based around a limited idea of song structure and melody that is still tied to the rock & roll explosion of the 50s and 60s. Progress was fast then and continued to develop with new technologies in the late 70s and early 80s…..Back then you could be radical by combining the blues with bits and pieces from here and elsewhere, but most of those songs (always love songs) have been written now. Why not move further out, to the eddies and creeks where the fresh treasure lies?”
My problem is with “the conservative notion that everything must be based around a limited idea of song structure and melody”. If we are talking about organized music then it will inevitably have structure. The question is whether and how far that structure is mutable. It is entirely possible that the pop song got about as good as it gets on Abbey Road when the fabs sought to exit leaving behind them their best work to remember them by. Certainly, structure was re-configured and malleable melodies were widely sourced on that album.
What, may we ask, has happened since then to suggest that the structure of the popular song has limitless possibilities? The answer is very little. But that is not because the shrine at NW8 is a deadly distraction for otherwise engaged and enquiring music fans. It’s because there are only so many tools in the box when it comes to songs that could possibly mean something to anyone, anywhere and in any age.
That cannot be said of Einstuerzende Neubaten who have earned the admiration and (yes) love of many for their deconstructionist daring. And there is the rub. You cannot admire an egg, or a beautifully formed song, but still wish it into another shape. You have to break into it in order to alter it. You see, in order for the egg to be truly different you have to pull it apart and reconstitute its contents. Experimental rock bands, performance artists and avant-garde composers make exotic omelettes and maybe they even poach ideas. One thing is for sure though, by the time they are finished with it, it’s no longer an egg.
My proposal is simpler than it sounds. The notes are mutable but the structure of contemporary song is resistant and resilient by nature. It has endured because it’s comfortable like a well-made bed and people naturally like to spend a lot of time there. At its best, it’s also fun, sexy, uplifting, exciting and vitally visceral. On those terms we could equally be describing Ella Fitzgerald or Jimi Hendrix. If any of the new bands that Luke mentions ticks those boxes and appeals across the generations then they are not breaking the mould, they are fitting right into it.
But it’s melody that matters and what worries me more than anything is that melody is currently being derided for simply being pleasing to the ear. We have travelled through musical landscapes of utter banality in the eighties and nineties and emerged scarred from the experience. In those years, melody took a back seat, not to experimentation in form and function, but to rank amateurism. Keith Emerson, in a pre-Gatesian prophecy, declared that, “one day every band will have a synthesiser.” He didn’t mean A Flock of Seagulls, and he certainly didn’t mean car mechanics who dabbled on grown-up stylophones in their spare time.
That’s when the nightmare began, and it’s still with us in the vocoder hell of processed, producer pulp and witless beats. Anyone can pick out a few notes on a keyboard or hum a few notes; and absolutely anyone can operate a drum machine. Most importantly, any number of producers can make you sound credible enough to pass the customs officer test. If those officials look twice at you then you know its because something doesn’t conform. But conformity is the enemy of culture, much less music, and processing might just as easily have paralyzed folk music using the same methods. Don’t believe me? Who can stand to listen to Andean pan-pipe music anymore?
Melody is at the heart of what it is to be human. In its essence it is an expression of what it is to be humane. It may not be performed in scales to which all human ears are universally attenuated. Some peoples may value simplicity over complexity, or vice versa but melody that endures is mutable and it does evolve. The thing is, it may not evolve in your lifetime Luke. There may be several generations of stasis before something else gives. Nothing that’s forced can ever be real sang the singer. He was talking about love but it could just as easily apply to music and song.
Experimentation with a declared aim to instigate change, or simply offer a radical alternative vision is a very, very dangerous thing for any serious artist, even one with avant-garde tendencies. Many people who have written great pop songs are serious craftspeople but they are not necessarily serious artists. We need only think of songs like Hey Joe whose provenance is shrouded in controversy because it began life as a busker’s bagatelle, almost thrown away until reclaimed as an r’n’b standard.
At the risk of inviting Luke’s opprobrium further, I want to mention a singer from the sixties and seventies who took the popular song by the scruff of the neck and lived a life of creative daring. Her name was Laura Nyro and her songs and her voice would stop traffic. Her intuitive and innovative impulses alienated and enthralled listeners in almost equal measure. Her songs betrayed a love of rock, soul, blues and doo-wop but she was up for bending them into disconcerting new shapes. At the end of her life, her songs were still full of soul, they were still informed by conventions and they were still strangely arranged. She transcended the modish yet carried the past in her DNA, as we all do.
Artists like Laura Nyro are very rare and seldom fully appreciated in their lifetime. There may be several generations of derivatives down the years but a long time in between significant mutations. In her case, she threatens to be forgotten in the current tidal wave of ephemerality and the passing show of celebrity. That would be a shame because she would quite like to have been an iconoclastic sixties icon, I think. But not in the way that you mean Luke. Or maybe that’s what you do mean?