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.