If you think your favourite band isn’t making pop music, regardless whatever justifications spring to mind, you’re deluding yourself.
Pop Music is ‘commercially recorded music, often oriented toward a youth market, usually consisting of relatively short, simple songs utilising technological innovations to produce new variations on existing themes’. So regardless of which caveat you’ve chosen to balance your beloved on their pedestal, they’re still a pop band.
I’m not a classical music fan, but if you’re making pop music or consider yourself a ‘serious music fan’, please steer clear of the idea that your favourite band’s music compares to that of Bach, Mozart or Stravinsky. It doesn’t. And if you genuinely believe that The Beatles ‘invented’ new musical theory because a number of the chords and progressions in the album Rubber Soul are slightly left-field, then why aren’t you listening to Hildegard von Bingen?
Music theory isn’t important to pop fans and pop musicians, who don’t appreciate complex music as fully as a classical musician. I don’t either, it bores me to death. The music is too challenging, the associations too elitist. Campy empire-building music that swaggers with precision of a marching war machine, but sounds like accompaniment to tea and cucumber sandwiches. I like my music to be tangible. I love simple things done well. I enjoy pop music as ‘cultural product’, as commentary on day to day issues. I like the mix of new technology with traditional structures. Classical music receive credit for its depth and complexity, which is why any serious musician would find comparisons of The Beatles with Beethoven insulting.
‘Serious Music Fans’ (by which I mean pop music fans who take it too seriously, rather than serious music fans) often claim their favourite band is breaking new ground, when they make vague gestures. You can read posts on forums everywhere declaring a band experimental because “they’ve used drop D tuning”. This most minor deviation from the norm, is really stretching the idea of innovation. Hundreds of charting rock singles, including several by ‘arch copyists’ Nickelback, use drop D . These so called innovations are exactly the opposite, they’re safe bets. But there is nothing wrong with this, as long as you’re not deluding yourself.
Most Fans Aren’t Interested In Originality
As the post modern idea says -originality isn’t possible. Pop music is very formulaic, more formulaic than one of it’s closest relatives -contemporary art. Any contemporary artist/art student who declared they’d had ‘original idea’ would be met with amusement and derision and viewed as arrogant, naïve and ignorant. Perhaps this is because unlike pop music, fine art has a long established history as a field of academic study.
So it’s interesting that Serious Music Fans speak highly of originality and authenticity. Perhaps because pop music has a relatively young audience with little background knowledge. Fans might speak derisively about a band with ‘obvious’ influences, but speak excitedly about another band with less evident (but no less significant) influences. As fans become more knowledgeable and bands once prized as unique are exposed as unoriginal, the serious fan’s view of the musical landscape is assaulted.
Older Serious Music Fans deal with these issues by criticising bands with mainstream influences. A sort of redrawn line. As the Fan ages, becomes more grouchy, emphasis switches from the bands to themselves… Like embittered divorcees with burnt fingers, they agonise over whether a band deserves their affections. The inference is that bands with more mainstream influences are lazy, obvious or lacking in taste. Obscure influences allude to ideas of creative effort and development and these qualities are worthy of love and affection.
There is a problem with this. The recycling technique is identical regardless of how obscure the source material is. There is no greater skill required rip off an obscure track than a No. 1 hit single. In fact, obscure tracks are easier to lift ‘lock, stock and barrel’. Ripping off a mainstream track presents a much greater challenge to a songwriter and is more likely to be perceived as lazy, obvious and lacking in taste.
So how has Paul Weller, a musician with a long and successful career of almost unrestrained thievery, survived 3 decades of blatant unoriginality? For example ‘Start!’ from his first band, The Jam, is almost identical at points to Taxman by ‘The Beatles’.
It seems apt to compare this with a clip of ‘Taxman’ by tribute band ‘The Beatles Again’
Note: George Harrison has himself been accused of plagiarism, this amusing blog tells more of the story:
Weller’s interesting approach, accepted in some quarters, is to make origin of his song clear. Weller is actually being rewarded here for taste. His approach is accepted because it is an act of overt hero-worship, it is the introduction of the uninitiated to his heroes, a ‘you should be listening to them too’.
Kaiser Chiefs ‘I Predict a Riot’ (available on Guitar Hero) was criticised due to similarities with The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’. A ridiculous double-standard. A prime example of fan naivety in action. Chris Moyles (a man unconvincingly portrayed as someone interested in music) had a habit of playing both songs in direct succession on Radio 1. Moyles should have played an hour long segment of songs that influenced Town Called Malice instead.
As pop music evolved, the tastes of artists increasingly became a leading factor. Mainstream and alternative fashions represent an increasingly dominant force on the creative process. A songwriter’s creative process is now expected to fit neatly within a cultural narrative. The most asked question “what are your influences?” is a shorthand, mapping an artist’s coordinates to the cultural landscape.
The design of a musician/group’s image using evocative names, stylised photographs and graphics is intended to help the audience pin down an artist’s style before hearing the music. When a new band is introduced via visual or mixed media, musical content is relegated to second place. Much of an audience’s opinion is formulated by image alone. As a consequence, musicians are rewarded for compliance with current trends. Audiences select music on the basis of implied good taste. On the web, music is selected by the most appealing thumbnail image. Books are judged by their covers.
Most ironic of all, audiences decide how original a band is on how original they appear -how closely their image complies with ideas of what originality ‘looks like’. Acts that subvert this practice by using imagery contradictory to their music can (with varying degrees of success) build careers based entirely on parody.
Using their trademark blend of irony and fanaticism, the NME revisits the supposed ‘worth’ of bands they’ve cited as important or influential in a series of articles titled ‘Sacred Cows’. Perhaps unsurprising to note, writers question the adulation of a specific band, but don’t question the idea of hero-worship itself. To continue with the religious theme, it’s not a choice between religion or atheism, more a question of which religion?
These articles are an interesting device. A neat solution which allows the NME to rewrite it’s dogma. By self-referencing, the magazine emphasises it’s own shaping power on pop culture, simultaneously repositioning it’s stance on acts now be deemed passé. The articles demonstrate a growing shift in the mechanism of ‘fandom’. They don’t ask ‘do acts deserve their success?’ but ‘do acts deserve fans love and respect?’ In reality, pop music magazines are guides to hero-worship, not just guides to music. It’s also clear (with varying degrees of irony) there is a degree of pseudo-religious fervour within pop culture. The annual NME Awards the top prize given to ‘Sacred Cows’ is entitled the ‘God-like Genius Award’.
Paul Weller (2010 winner of the Godlike Genius Award) similarly positions himself as a ‘tastemaker’. Since the 1990s Weller has chosen younger bands, labelled as ‘copyists’ (e.g. The Rifles, The Bees, Ocean Colour Scene) to tour with him. As second generation ‘Wellers’ they legitimise his position- while he simulates The Beatles and The Who, these bands simulate him …so he must be a hero too. Touring with such derivative bands also allows Paul Weller to 100% guarantee the audience will experience nothing new or interesting.
Cultural awareness is essential to become a successful pop musician. Copying is to an extent unavoidable. But thought processes needn’t be so one-dimensional. In the Sonic Youth tour film ‘1991: that Year That Punk Broke’, Thurston Moore interviews some German teenagers, asking them “what do you think of the current state of young Rock and Roll?” one responds “Oh, I think it’s a problem, because Rock and Roll is getting older and older. You know for me the 60s is the only, the real rock and roll and you can only try to copy it”.
This idea has become central to ‘Serious Music’. Some bands only attempt songs after the list of influences has been stuck to the wall like a list of commandments. For some bands, copying a single influence is the sole reason for the band’s inception. In some cases this doesn’t stop at the music, but includes the life of their hero themselves. In too many cases to consider extreme, a musician might ‘feel a connection’ to a (usually dead) artist, regardless of scant biographical information. These individuals are usually unrealistically portrayed as tortured souls, in-keeping with with the Modernist idea of the struggling artist. The archetypes being the ’27 club’ of critically acclaimed artists who coincidentally died at the age of 27 years old.
The Sacred Family of The Dead Stars
The ’27 club’ is a supernatural idea. A mythologised ‘curse’ that has set these individuals apart as creative ‘shamans’. Perhaps Joy Division singer Ian Curtis best represents this figure. Liner notes for Joy Division’s ‘Permanent’ compilation describe him ‘going off into an automatic, visionary state’ … ‘Ian Curtis could project himself into the unknown’ with Bernard Sumner quoted as saying `I felt that there was an otherworldliness to the music, that we were plucking out of the air.’ The well-documented reality is that Ian Curtis was suffering from epilepsy, for which he was poorly medicated, his prescribed medicines now withdrawn due to psychoactive and depressive side-effects. ‘Serious Fans’ employ doublethink, simultaneously accepting the human tragedy and the supernatural myth, depending whichever suits at the time. A real story with a tragic basis isn’t enough, a supernatural twist is needed to make it suitable for legend.
The struggling artist idea stresses the creativity of an individual ‘genius’, an image which paints them as fighting to express their unique emotions and insights into the human condition. They are almost always presented as being imperfect, but like the brush strokes in Van Gogh paintings, idiosyncratic stylistic quirks, glitches and mistakes provide the Serious Music Fan with a notion of integrity, authenticity and originality.
Alternate takes in collector’s editions (best exemplified by The Beatles Anthology series), are essentially collections of waste material repackaged as insights for the Serious Fan. They are usually prized higher than the originally released versions. The official Joy Division bootleg ‘Preston 28 February 1980’ is a high quality recording of a difficult gig, dogged by technical problems. A fraction of the audience stay for the whole set. A woman with a thick Northern accent announces: “anyone from Burnley, the coach is leaving in 5 minutes”. As it descends into chaos a seemingly defeated Ian Curtis glumly apologises between songs. Ending a glitchy rendition of ‘Heart and Soul’ by announcing “I think everything’s fallen apart”. A gift to the Serious Fan. A dysfunctional moment captured in HiFi, which manages to be both their best and worst recording.
Pop’s obsession with death reached it’s peak in the early 1990s with the suicide of singer Per Yngve Ohlin (stage name ‘Dead’), and murder of guitarist Øystein Aarseth from Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem. Dead believed that he wasn’t meant to be alive, that he struggled against the ‘force of life’ itself. During one tour with Mayhem, Dead found a dead crow and kept it in a plastic bag. He carried it about with him and would smell the bird before going onstage, to sing ‘with the stench of death in his nostrils’.
In an interview for Slayer magazine, Dead explained how he and the band tried to weed-out poseurs at their concerts: Before we began to play, there was a crowd of about 300 in there, but in the second song, ‘Necrolust’, we began to throw around those pig heads. Only 50 were left, I liked that! We wanna scare those who shouldn’t be at our concerts, and they will have to escape through the emergency exit with parts of their body missing, so we can have something to throw around. If someone doesn’t like blood and rotten flesh thrown in their face, they can fuck off, and that’s exactly what they do.’
Norwegian documentary ‘Once Upon a Time in Norway’ by Martin Ledang, 2008 excellently documents this extremism. Ideas of authenticity are ironically supported by supernatural myths and gossip.
According to Gaudi’s plan, the eighteen spires of the Sagrada Familia symbolise the twelve apostles, the four gospels, the virgin and Jesus… Amen. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagrada_familia#Spires
Hero-worship has a disastrous effect on songwriting, reducing the entire scope of a writer’s creative output to a previous body of someone else’s work. Planning to write something like Nirvana isn’t the same as planning to write something that is as good as Nirvana. The sentiment “I want to make music that I like” is far more positive. Most revered bands have a specific individual style. When a writer attempts to reproduce it, they fail to develop songs in an organic way (any experimentation would diverge from the intended sound). They superbly fail to match the spirit of their beloved heroes. They cannot reproduce the ‘unreproducible’ qualities of their influences.
If the extent of hero-worship was ever in doubt, in 1997 Fender mass produced the most overt hero-worship item ever crafted, the ‘Hendrix Tribute Stratocaster’. Hendrix was left handed but due to the expense and rarity of left-handed guitars, played a right-handed guitar turned upside. Right-handed guitarists could achieve the Hendrix look, by essentially playing a left-handed guitar strung in reverse.
Nostalgia and Distorted Histories
Hero-worship is also placed on producers. In the UK retro scene of the 1990s, there was a rejection of modern production techniques and marketing strategies. Instead bands sought to emulate the ‘Golden Era’ of the 1960s. Liverpool band The Stairs recorded their first album in Mono, opposed the pressing of their album on CD and after release of the Weed Bus EP, refused to make videos for their singles. During recording of The La’s album, singer Lee Mavers ejected a vintage mixing desk, because “it hasn’t got original Sixties dust on it”. This sentiment sums up the approach of retro bands. Similarly, Butch Vig said “people always ask me to make their drums sound like Dave Grohl’s on Nevermind, but you need Dave Grohl to do that”.
A friend’s Uncle was in a 60s band. They spent hours in the recording studio …not innovating and experimenting (as some romantics would have us believe), but desperately by trying to overcome technical problems. On many occasions, faults impacted so heavily on recording time that only 1 or 2 takes were possible. Many artists were pressured to release substandard recordings of their tracks by the record companies. For this reason, he found it funny that new bands were trying to emulate 60s production methods.
Unlike most works of art, created by a single individual, 1960s pop music was highly collaborative, the final product was nearly always such a team effort that no single person can be said to have created it. It’s naïve to presume such sounds can be recreated 30 years later by individuals with no first-hand knowledge of the recording processes and only a romanticised second-hand idea of what it was like to live in the era. Misconceptions about the music business in the 1960s appear to be central to retro bands outlook. Perhaps some details are ignored because they don’t fit in with the idealised image.
How does an entirely backward looking movement tally with the ideals of it’s heroes? Not very well. John Lennon was frustrated by the limitations of the studio and wanted to re-record Strawberry Fields in the 1970s. Ray Davies wrote ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ as an attack on the remnants of Victorian society, still clinging on in the 1960s. Bob Dylan wrote ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ and sang “You understand your orphan with his gun”. This song is now an iconic snapshot of ‘the good old days’. The good old days weren’t an era of universal good taste and authenticity. Whistling Jack Smith couldn’t whistle. The whistling on his novelty tune ‘I was Kaiser Bill’s Batman’ was performed by session musician John O’Neill.
The idea of 1960s music authenticity ignores the cynicism of impresarios such as Don Kirshner, manager of The Monkees. Many contemporary pop acts derided by Serious Music Fans are more honest, independent and ‘real’ than these mass-produced big money projects. The Monkees were initially not allowed to play their own instruments, and company intention from the onset was to deceive fans.
My older brother was in the retro music scene of the 1990s and played in a band. The scene’s bands generally lifted melodies directly off 60s hits. My brother proudly told me told me he’d ‘accidentally’ ripped off ‘Waterloo Sunset’ by the Kinks, as if he’d assimilated the song completely by living and breathing it. This was at the high peak of 1960s puritanism, which to a small extent was understandable. Serious Music Fans rejected the shallowness of contemporary pop music and turned their attentions to an era they presumed had more substance.
“hang the DJ, because the music they constantly play says nothing to me about my life”
There seemed to be a fear that Liverpool had forgotten it’s roots. My brother and some of his friends decided that they did not belong in the here and now. What they were actually doing was incredibly post modern. The ideas of subculture and pastiche were very contemporary. Individuals cultivated a sense of dislocation, considered by some as a contributory factor to the suicides of several scenesters, however it seems more likely that the dislocation was a product of underlying emotional problems.
The retro-scene was also completely against sampling as it was a modern technique. In my view this was a less honest approach, as the retro-heads chose to rework existing pop songs by diligently copying melodies and adding minor melodic differences. A significant motive for the anti-sampling stance was also to avoid paying royalties (to their heroes) I remember being told: “7 notes is the highest number of notes you can rip off before you’ll get into legal problems”.
Later in the 1990s, about the time The Coral and The Zutons became popular, a plethora of adverts on the ‘band members sought’ boards stated ‘influences- Captain Beefheart, Doors, etc’. Influences that just happened to be referenced by The Coral in recent NME and local press interviews. None of the ads listed The Coral and The Zutons. I imagine because The Coral had singles charting, the reference was too mainstream. I wonder if any of them actually liked Captain Beefheart?
Can’t Get No Satisfaction? Why Not Try Writing Something More Original, Then?
When writing a song, it’s limiting for a songwriter to start with someone else’s idea. Hip Hop artists do not profess to like the artists music they rap over, freeing themselves from the constraints hero-worship. Studies have demonstrated that people gain more satisfaction in creating things themselves or by mastering an instrument. Satisfaction because of personal development. If your work is pastiche, if the words you wrote just sound like something your hero would sing, if you feel you must pretend to be someone else, if the attempt is only to repeat something, how can you ever be genuinely satisfied with the result? You know that it already exists in pop culture, in a purer, more genuine form. How can your pale imitation stand up to that? It can’t, it’s pointless.
The solution is to emulate the creative sprit of your heroes, or if you’re a fan of Weller style copyists, choose better ones. Writers should look at their heroes’ values and drives and seek to replicate their intention to create something new or never to do the same thing twice.