Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Thoughts on the meandering of popular music
Often I wonder why it's even necessary for new songs to be written. Mountains of high-quality popular music have been written through the years, ever since the Beatles established the prime standards of what kind of sound and melodies appeal to young people. Countless songs of arguably great appeal have been written that were never released as "singles." Many of the hits of the '70s and '80s would sound new to young people today.
I'm told it's even hard being a pop music songwriter today. Why? It's hard to know if a melody you've written might inadvertently be similar to another. People who call themselves songwriters are common. Go to a restaurant in Nashville and you'll probably be waited on by one.
Given the Everest-like mountain of pre-existing music, why don't we call some sort of moratorium on new music? Let's mine what's there. To an extent we have seen this with the "oldies" concept. Am I correct in asserting that the term "oldies" doesn't seem to be used much anymore, if at all? "Oldies" is sort of a pejorative term. It suggests that if you like such music, you're probably "old."
Let's just judge music as good and bad, by our own tastes, rather than "old" or "new."
I look for good music on the AM radio dial on weekends. Notice I just said "good music." That's the extent to which I care to categorize it. Labels have always been a little questionable in music. People who play music for us seem to understand this today. With the division between pop and country being so blurred, shall we just discard the terms?
I remember a few years ago someone saying that country music just seemed like '70s pop. You'd have a nice compressed melody, easy to memorize after a few listenings, along with some touching or meaningful lyrics. "Country" invited a certain stigma. While I might readily label Hank Williams Sr. as "country" with his twangy and earthy sound, I hesitate using the term a lot.
Beatles music? If it hadn't been them, it would have been someone else. They created the wave and rode it with incredible consistency. To do that, they had to evolve as any successful creative person must. As much as a certain album might strike you as the epitome of quality, the artist knows he/she can't just put out more like it, like clones. You might think such "clone" albums would be dandy, but music industry insiders know quite the opposite.
It's the same principle that can make movie sequels challenging. The movie industry whispers have always been: When you do a re-make, take the quality that made the original movie popular and exaggerate it. Rambo became a comic book type of character after the first movie. The first Rambo movie ("First Blood") was a work of art, showing how a scarred young man from the Viet Nam war could wreak havoc if he's misunderstood. Subsequent Rambo movies seemed like more of a formula. (And how would he instantly know how to fly a Soviet helicopter? Ah, the movies.)
I have to chuckle looking at a photo of the Beatles from the mid to late 1960s, when they had gone beyond their initial pop phase. Legend has it they evolved into a deeper sort of consciousness or something like that. Here's a photo of the Beatles looking as though they were starting to "trip out," which I guess they literally did. They look scraggly and a bit sullen, no longer the innocent "mop tops." They're posing in a flower garden. Their hair has gotten too long to serve any other purpose than to just bring attention to themselves.
I laugh particularly because of Ringo standing there, as if we were to believe he was really "into" the new sort of consciousness. I admire Ringo as a superb professional drummer for his time, a hard worker and a man who subscribed to the proper values. I don't think any of the hippie or counterculture stuff meant a thing to him. He was happy to stay on the gravy train. And that meant being willing to step forward and at least pretend to reflect the counterculture. Flower power!
Ringo's drumming was perfect for when the Beatles were starting to become famous. It was tailored for the "Meet the Beatles" album.
There's a reason why musical groups adjust with personnel. Well, there's more than one reason I suppose, but a chief one is that a group's sound changes, and eventually personnel must shift to present a new type of sound well. Beginning with "Rubber Soul," I suspect Ringo's style wasn't quite as optimal for what the Beatles were trying to do. John Lennon, the guy who really owned the band, probably was anxious in wanting to move on and secure a different drummer, bidding an affectionate goodbye to Ringo. Hey, it's not personal.
One problem: the Beatles wouldn't be the Beatles without Ringo! John had to sigh, in effect, and keep the original framework intact. He probably thought: "My God, what have I created?" I suspect there were times when the fame surprised and befuddled him. He probably even came to curse it some, though he'd never admit it. He probably thought to himself: "My God, I'm just a musician." (And, "we're not bigger than Jesus!")
The Beatles were pulled into the counterculture whether they liked it or not. My own view of this, is that they saw the counterculture as full of topics and themes that could be mined musically. Because first and foremost, the Beatles were musical craftsmen. It's no easy mantle to wear. It's very hard work and with many demanding steps along the way. The Beatles couldn't just keep turning out songs like on "Meet the Beatles." No, they had to "evolve," as they say, and conventional wisdom suggests they evolved as though their consciousness suddenly expanded.
You're nodding. I'll veto this thought, suggesting instead that all this evolution was just the natural progression of artists, successful ones, who know that re-defining themselves in some manner is necessary. I think it's absolutely cruel and fallacious to suggest the Beatles stayed successful because of drug use. I don't know the extent of the drug use but it was probably less than what popular history suggests. It's like Dean Martin at a party with a glass of what turns out to be apple juice (which I understood actually happened). The artists find that the myth is marketable.
I'm sure Mark Hertsgaard is a sincere soul but I think he's way off the mark assessing the Beatles and their relationship to drugs. Hertsgaard wrote the book "A Day in the Life." He refers to the Beatles' "involvement with consciousness-raising drugs, specifically marijuana and LSD." And, a few lines down: "Marijuana and LSD were also and more profoundly tools of knowledge, a means of gaining access to higher truths about themselves and the world."
I can't blame Hertsgaard entirely for such thinking because there was such a strongly-felt meme about such things. You'd reflect on smoking pot and say "I saw God." You and your friends would then laugh. The Beatles helped fuel the meme although I think they stayed aware of the qualities that continued to produce good music, and drugs weren't part of it. Frankly, drugs were just kind of a prop, like Dean Martin's cocktail glass.
The Beatles appealed to boomers - boy, did they ever - who drifted through different times and non-productive distractions. We see this in the movie "Almost Famous." The movie tries to be nostalgic about that, but it's a lie. All the non-productive stuff was just that: non-productive. We feel nostalgia only if we ended up "landing on our feet." If we seem reasonably healthy today, we can reflect on earlier times with some pining for what was. It's a human trait, alas, that we remember more good things about the past than bad.
We smile remembering the Beatles. I think we'd prefer remembering the mop-top phase. The Beatles later pretended to be something bigger than they ever became. What a monster they created.
Hertsgaard quoted Derek Taylor saying that marijuana left the group feeling "taller and broader of mind." Hertsgaard then suggests that the so-called psychedelic drugs "took that taller, broader mind to places it would never forget."
The Beatles themselves gave some quotes that were in this vein.
Has science ever demonstrated that this array of drugs "expands the mind," opens new vistas of consciousness or whatever other sheep dip you want to come up with? The drugs may have an effect on the brain that causes hallucinatory phenomena. Such phenomena might actually be felt as the brain is being damaged. Expanding knowledge or consciousness? I think not.
Boomers of that time would want to slug me, or at least laugh at me for making assertions of that type. They'd be indifferent today or maybe even slightly embarrassed.
Bob Dylan misheard the lyrics to one of the Beatles' earliest hits. He thought they were singing "I get high" in "I Want to Hold Your Hand." In fact the words were: "I can't hide," remember?
The Beatles couldn't hide from anything once their fame virtually erupted. As musicians they had to evolve, latching onto whatever themes seemed practical for them and their aims. Too bad so much negative stuff entered. I'd be willing to wager Ringo could read this and nod in agreement.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org