Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Tomorrow Creeps in this Petty Pace

Last night I listened to the Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. It was one of those times when I marvelled at the freshness of a sound recording. It’s 50 years old for Chrissakes! And yet it is still astonishing. Listening to it you can find yourself declaring that this track is more sonically exciting and challenging than the majority of music made today.
            Some people find this longevity problematic. There is a belief that popular music should be constantly progressing. We should not be harking back to older records. There is something seriously wrong with pop when the sounds of the past are more innovative than the sounds of the present. This is part of Simon Reynolds’ case against the ‘retromania’ of our times.
It struck me that if people do have an issue with musical nostalgia, it is not centred upon songs. It is the steadfastness of old sound recordings that troubles them. There have always been long-lasting tunes. It doesn’t bother us that ‘Stardust’ is nearly a century old and is still being sung. If anything we enjoy the longevity of compositions such as ‘Greensleeves’, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ or ‘Scarborough Fair’. Conversely, there can be something irksome about the fact that Revolver still tops best albums lists, or that the Stone Roses’ debut album is still being praised.
            There are folk reasons for this. Songs are iterated. They are remade by the generations and they shine anew. Sound recordings, in contrast, are static. If they last, they last in their initial form. They can be remixed and they can be sampled but you cannot escape the original. They are monolithic.
            There is also an issue of auteurship. Although all music has multiple points of influence, we are used to the idea that songs are individually authored or are co-authored. The idea of the songwriting author is enshrined in copyright law. The duration of copyright in musical composition is tied to the lives of the individuals concerned. In Britain, it lasts until 70 years after the last of the co-authors to die.
            In contrast, the auteurship of sound recordings is not as well established. There is an issue of just who it should belong to: the songwriters, the musicians, the producers, the engineers? British copyright law awards it on the basis of financial risk. It goes to the party who has made the arrangements for the recording to take place. This legislation does not recognise artistry; it instead rewards record companies. Copyright is not tied to the life of an individual. It lasts for 70 years from the date that the record is issued to the public.
There is nevertheless an increasing sense that sound recordings are artworks in their own right. Some of the pangs of retromania are no more than growing pains: sound recording is becoming canonised. We have no problem with the idea that the greatest works of literature, fine art and musical composition achieve classic status. We will eventually have no problem with the idea that the greatest sound recordings are worthy of the same accord. Music retail, music broadcasting and music journalism have already moved in this direction. They kowtow to the records of the past; they appreciate their artistry; they help to establish the auteurs. Copyright law is lagging behind.
And yet there is one final twist. There is a reason why recordings such as ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ are timeless: their makers had one eye on the future. Until recently the imperative in popular music was either to be forward looking or to ‘be here now’. The celebration of old records makes this harder: musicians are now saturated with and intimidated by the music of then. If any records of today are going to be canonised, it will most likely be the ones that are not overly indebted to the past masters. It is a question of balance. The greatness of sound recording should be acknowledged; the greatest sound recordings should also be transcended. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

Pop of Ages

Period dramas have a common fault: they are confined in their period. Set and costume designers study the trends of the era in which the drama is set; they then decorate their rooms and their characters wholly in those contemporary styles. The problem is that styles co-exist. Many people in the 1970s, for example, wore fashions from the 1950s and 1960s. Many homes of the period had modern gadgets, but they also had heirlooms, second-hand furniture and antiques. The same is true of any era. They are amalgams.
And what is true of the past is also true of the present. This struck me on a recent holiday to Corfu. We stayed at the house of some friends while they were away. My three year old daughter was kindly donated the room of their 15 year old son. If you see children’s rooms on television or in films they usually only have the most up-to-date toys. Those toys are strictly from that child’s age group. This rarely happens in real life. The boy’s bedroom in Corfu was a case in point. It had some things that you would expect from a child of 15: a computer, some computer games, To Kill a Mockingbird on the bookshelf. It also had books by the brilliant Dr Seussa pirate ship, and Star Wars Lego.
It is not just the case that you are too lazy to clear out your old toys when you are that age. You also have a strange amalgam of tastes. This same holiday provided me with reminders of my younger self. Our host had many of the punk and post-punk records that I grew up with. As usual, it was more exciting to play familiar records from someone else’s record collection than to play them from my own. Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures was one of them. I have it at home, but hadn’t listened to it for a while. Seeing it in Corfu reminded me what a great record it is.
I put it on and it took me back. My maturity was all over the place when I first heard it. I was twelve. I already knew enough about the pain of the world to feel the depth in ‘New Dawn Fades’ (‘a loaded gone won’t set you free . . . so they say’). I was also daft, and so I joined in when my friends-and-relations laughed at the opening phrase to ‘I Remember Nothing’ (Ian Curtis’s long cry of ‘weeee’ made us think of urine).
We were the right age for punk. Jon Savage has claimed that punk fans were divided between the ‘arties’ and ‘social realists’. This may have been true for older teenagers. From an adolescent’s perspective the music was instead balanced between enlightenment and childishness. Punk was the sound of a generation who thought that they were smarter than their parents (and they were often right about this too). It was also the sound of silliness.
It was possible to like both elements. I enjoyed the Damned as much as I admired Crass. I had records by GBH and by the Gang of Four. While some bands were strictly po-faced, others were comedians. There were also groups who slipped between the adult and the immature. The Sex Pistols most obviously. Their songs ranged from the profound depths of ‘Holidays in the Sun’ (Greil Marcus once commented: ‘no one has yet seen all the way to the bottom of “Holidays in the Sun,” and probably no one ever will’) to the (very) low humour of ‘Friggin’ in the Riggin’’ and ‘Belsen was Gas’. They could even swerve between the two in a single song: what should a 12-year-old make of ‘Bodies’? What should a 50-year-old make of it?
There may be little difference. What is true of punk is true of much other popular music. It is adolescent in the most interesting sense, being both sophisticated and moronic. One reason why it has so much impact when you are young is because you believe the music harnesses eternal truths. One reason why it still hits you when you are old is because your teenage spirit never quite dries up.