Friday, March 04, 2011

Look back in disinterest.

Francesca Cassavetti
Just read a piece by one time NME writer Johnny Dee. In it he muses on the declining circulation of music papers and whether or not the internet is the main cause of this drop in readership. After all, as he rightly points out, the average music fan can find all the information they need from various sources on line: gossip, music, reviews, downloads and pictures are all readily available. What isn't available is any discernment, any filtration or any comparisons or introductions to other artists.

Anyone who has grown up with popular music has their own golden age, except for people who are in their musical moment now, most of these memories will be located somewhere around the mid-teens to mid-twenties when for the majority of us music played its most central role in our lives. As we age, and take on different roles in life, father, mother, worker, adult, music remains a constant for many but the hunger to source new sounds and artists recedes. Modern children though have grown up in households (well the ones with music loving parents anyway) where the range of music available will probably span several scenes and genres. My kids grew up with everything from the 60s to now, a major focus on punk, reggae and world music as well as soul, pop and heavy funk.

They hear the stories of music scenes that were found rather than foisted upon them, where word-of-mouth played a bigger role than a tweet or a Facebook posted track; the eternal quest for the "next big thing" (©NME) was not yet upon us - that arrived around 1984 with the rise of the Thatcherite pop era. They heard the records of their parents' youth, The Stones, The Beatles, The Clash, The Stooges; music that sounded different because it was different. It was being made without a map, it was recorded on tape so its sonic presence was different, indefinably different but the difference is there. The artists themselves genuinely offered a different way of living, of seeing the world, because in the UK and the USA at that time society's rules were still governed by a bourgeoisie that had no concept of an individual lifestyle. If you doubt this then check out Julian Temple's film The Filth and The Fury. You will be amazed by some of the talking heads in the film, figures who seem like they're from the 50s rather than the late 70s.

Now we live in a world where the individual's desires and needs are paramount. Not wishing to sound like some relentlessly nostalgic duffer I can't say this is a bad thing. As my teenage son has pointed out many times "these are the best days to be living" in terms of all round comfort and safety. But that said we are increasingly divorced from each other because of the technology that brings us together. Via the computer the youth can access horror, pornography, music and each other without leaving their bedrooms. So how can today's musicians be shocking save for the tired old tedious rubbish of bad boy behaviour. Our musicians have no history; very few reference influences other than bands who were also a mélange of influences. I can't remember who said it but it went something like this: "Talking Heads were influenced by art, by literature, by architecture, they were influenced by James Brown, by George Clinton, Chuck Berry and The Ramones but (Insert name of any band here) are influenced by Talking Heads."

Eric Burdon once said that no-one could be considered a real musician unless they were avid music collectors. Maybe mp3s have changed that, maybe not. To paraphrase Mick Jones' famous quote "Like iPod like brain". If the only music you're open to is like the music you make then you fall into some time loop; that seems to be where we are now. Pop music has always been with us. All of us imagine some golden age where the charts were full of challenging music but the reality is far duller. For every Pistols, Ramones, Suicide, Blur there was a corresponding Gilbert O'Sullivan, Rod Stewart, Bucks Fizz or Renee & Renata. Memory is the great sieve, we shake the dust of the past through it and we're left with the nuggets. But I digress.

Greedy publishing companies increase the cost of their magazines relentlessly as circulations fall they want their profits to rise. Editors come and go as they fail to stem this haemorrhage of readers; there are no Canutes out there. Where once just carrying a copy of the NME, or Melody Maker or Sounds, would define you as a person now we have websites on smartphones - not exactly the same thing.

Yes we have a huge market for festivals and major shows; some argue that this is merely a reflection of society's sense of dislocation, the need to gather together again to connect with like-minded people. Because these huge audiences aren't reflected at the gig going coalface. The Barfly, Fibbers, the smaller Academy venues, they're all struggling to survive because there is no excitement in the live music lower divisions. When a band like, say, The Vaccines appear there's no real time to develop. Because they generate a ripple from the off this soon becomes a tsunami thanks to the web, people become blasé quite quickly and even though the band are snapped up the pressure to deliver something, anything is immediate. No more is it enough to build support, hone a bunch of songs for the first album and deliver something just as real. We need the profits NOW, we need the junkie rush NOW we need something new.

Add to this the post-slacker, post-punk, post-humour attitude, the "everything I have to say is in the songs" kind of view then you get a really boring read. When we are young we need heroes, we need someone to hold in high esteem, someone who makes more sense of the world than our stupid parents who have never lived, never loved and don't understand anything. We used to get that from writers like Charles Shaar Murray, Adrian Thrills, Paul Morley or David Quantick. They moved on, like the bands, and no-one filled their shoes.

A young miner once said something about my band, in the kindest way, towards the end of our career that I think is completely appropriate to say today about our music papers:

"You used to be good - but now you're wank."


David Hepworth said...

What's wrong with Rod Stewart? Or Gilbert O'Sullivan? Or Bucks Fizz? I don't put any of these questions to be controversial - merely to point out that they all, at one time or another, made fantastic records. That's the thing that has changed most in the life of an old scrote like me. It used to be all about what things sounded like and how they made you feel. The music papers reduced that rich, fantastical, uncertain experience, into a list of artists who were considered authentic, real and therefore worthy of your attention. I've worked in the music press for well over 30 years and I can tell you that what readers want you to do is shore up the beliefs that they already have. They want to believe that the people they already like are working on some higher plane - creative, aesthetic and even moral - than the people they don't like. Every last bit of my experience suggests this is not the case. These days, now that the internet gives you perfect availability, people have to make their own minds up on the basis of what they hear. Oddly enough, some of them still want the music press to do it for them.

Son of the Suburbs said...

Wow, David, I'm honoured. I don't think that I was actually saying that these artists were rubbish, well Bucks Fizz were actually, only that we all have these memories of periods of music as if the only music that was dominant at those times was "our" sound when in fact when you look back at the charts the most loved acts tended to be on the fringes. I like Rod Stewart's early stuff but American Songbook (or whatever it's called) - c'mon.

Obviously I genuflect to your knowledge of the music press being as you've been involved for "well over 30 years" but I'm not so sure that I concur with your analysis of your readers. As a sprog it was the enthusiastic writings of the likes of Charlie Murray et al who opened my ears to artists and music that I hadn't been aware of; elements of the press have always shored up belief systems. That said our music press should look to its faults, in the sound bite writing that dominates these days.

lapt0p said...

I love what you have written here Nick and I take on board Davids word, record that were in your teens definine points of your life, they are hugely important, because they can till late in life act as emotional triggers to, remind you of how you felt when you were young...thats why advertising agencies pay a lot for them, for me they defined cool, abraxasas, was my first sexual experience and getting a really high score in bar billiards, of a blissfull evening in bagshot, the velvet underground was simply, this is the stuff that not everybody knows about so I'm feeling particularly smug that i'm into it....but there are some songs that I thought were rubbish when I was young because they did't seem cool enought that I sneakily began to admire as I grew as a songwriter, weirdly enough Gilbert O'sullivans, Alone again is one of them ... the words are so bleak but hidden in a nice melody that you dont really feel threatened by them. I love what you have written, the press moves on the mediums move on the world moves on but the song..... remains the same...

Anonymous said...

Yes, there's been music that's been okay or even good over the years. But let's get one thing straight here and now. You had your music before Sex Pistols, and you had your music after Sex Pistols. And then there's the Bible or the Quran or whatever which is called Never Mind the Bollocks. Enough said.