Y’know, a thought struck me recently, one that seems to grow in enormity the more I ponder on it. Shocking as it may sound, I’m not likely to see a musical revolution in my lifetime. And you’re not, man over there without the hat. Oh and you’re not either, lady with the skirt tucked into your tights.
In fact, probably none of us will experience an ear-shattering shift in the music we listen to before that day arrives when we’re strapped in the wooden box and fed into the burners to the strains of R. Williams most famous contribution to the world’s storage tank of earshit because 4th most popular describes us perfectly*.
And you can shut up too, geeky bald chap with the torches for eyes. You can talk about computers and synthesisers till your bytes fall off but a) computers are primarily a way of producing music, not how it sounds, b) just shut up ok. Computers and synths impact the way modern music is made and how it sounds but it’s not a revolution. In the main, it’s only working in accord with an already existing template. A bit like the addition of the Trombone to the symphony orchestra in the 19th century. It didn’t change the model, just enhanced it a bit.
I suppose at this point I should elaborate. The musical revolutions I allude to at the beginning are big. Massive. Monster fucking cultural asteroid in the cretaceous face so only the rats survive big, if I must overstate the point to disintegration. So big I can only count three of them in the history of music during the last millennia. Everything else has just been rehashing the status quo**.
Here they are.
Revolution #1 – Music notation
The Renaissance period saw a great many changes in the arts across Europe. It was during this period, 1400-1600-ish, that music suddenly grew in complexity. Instead of straightforward shonky folk songs about newt wrangling, mud-licking and whatever else passed for pleasure in mediaeval Europe, songs that were passed on through listening and learning in oral tradition, there was a new music emerging. One of interwoven melodies played on a wider range of instruments to more structured forms. If this had been possible before on a small scale, it could never have travelled far for before the development of written scores, there was no way of recording or transmitting music beyond first person contact. Musical notation was the worlds first ipod and music would never the same again because of it.
Revolution #2 – The piano
Never has an instrument appeared that has so completely wiped out its forerunners. Invented around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristifiori and rapidly refined over the next century, the piano usurped the competition and by the end of the 18th century, the harpsichord was totally fucked, as were all other keyboard instruments. The effect is felt down the years, even now. Let’s face it, most people wouldn’t know what a clavinet is now if one was fired up their colon with a trebuchet and they could play madrigals with their spleen. Even many musicians only know the dulcimer as a voice on the Casiotone. Piano one, all other keyboard instruments nil. I never understood why the Stylophone didn’t have the same effect.
Revolution #3 – Rock and roll
Before the war, everyone used to dance. Not, the wibbly leg freakouts you see on the floor of the Academy or Snobs, I mean properly dance. Like in ballrooms and everything. People would go out of a night to glide around to the strains of a light orchestra, or perhaps boogie to a swing or jazz band led by one chief musician or even the conductor, who would be the big name star on the bill. Band leaders such as Benny Goodman, Victor Sylvester or Ambrose were the celebrities of the day. As for the music, it was a mere variation on the basic template of composer, conductor and orchestra that had dominated the previous 500 years.
Coming off the back of probably the most brutal half century in the history of humankind, and fuelled by teenagers, new technology and a new outlook on life, the sound of popular music changed more dramatically than at any point since the piano had kicked seven bells out of the harpsichord. The electric guitar suddenly became more important than a whole orchestra of jazz men. Raucous bawdy rockers replaced gentle string laden dance bands. In one sense it was a step backwards to the mediaeval folk tradition. Anyway, it shagged dancehall properly and by the mid 60’s, less than 30 years on from the pinnacle of its mass appeal, labels like Decca were already releasing anthologies of swing and jazz bands to service a nostalgia market for a musical form that was dead and buried in popular terms.
Contrast that to now. It’s almost 50 years since The Beatles first released ‘Please Please Me’ and the demand is still there to keep reissuing it on whatever format is currently in vogue. At the same time, every week the gig venues are filled with variations on four boys with guitars doing three minute pop songs.
More than this, the culture of pop music changed. When Elvis first trotted into Sun studios, it was a given that the hits were not written or produced by the performer. The performers job was to entertain and to leave the clever part, the songwriting and the production to the experts. How things have changed. Today, we sneer at bands who don’t write their own songs. We mock popstars who sing anodyne covers of famous songs, who haven’t even got the imagination to have the song arranged differently. We expect producers like Timbaland or the Neptunes to release songs themselves. Even pop starlets like Girls Aloud are claiming writers credits on their albums, in between fine tuning their sex-trumpet whore-brigade image, smearing each other with honey and having pillow fights round each others houses.
Pop has morphed and altered, occasionally drifting down exciting and often experimental paths over the years but essentially, if you listen with uncluttered ears, are Muse all that different from Yes? Lady Gaga appears to be Madonna, just without the veined muscles and the Granny leotard. Alexandra Burke? Whitney Houston doing Dionne Warwick on Karaoke. (I could go on for years making comparisons, Arctic Monkeys = Status Quo anyone?)
Thing is, I don’t think we’ll ever see the like of those revolutionary events ever again. Transmission of music is just too easy these days. Anything you want you can find thanks to Mr Internet, and get a load of recommendations based on your choice thrown into the bargain. More variations on similar themes. There’s no point singing about revolution anymore. Revolution’s dead
* (Angels [http://www.metro.co.uk/news/623157-revealed-the-most-popular-songs-for-funerals], if you’re too plebby to work it out for yourself)
** (Not the Status Quo, although that would also be true)
More of Jeff’s genius wibblies can be found here at his Eyes of Diesel web log.