Pop has, indeed, eaten itself

Part of the fun about being a music fanatic is rediscovering songs and albums by bands you wrote off many years ago. But before I go there and share my thoughts on a particular band (American icons, really) and their late 60’s-early 70’s output, let me go back a bit further and discuss a problem I’ve been having for quite a while now.

Said problem, and it’s a big one, is my disillusionment with the growing tendency of bands looking backward and being lauded as being forward, even futuristic.

Yes, I know I sound like the proverbial granddad (“He’s hip…he’s cool…he’s forty something!”), but hear me out. I am reading a book by the great music critic Paul Morley (“Words and Music: the history of pop in the shape of a city”), a book I’ve had in my possession for a couple of years now but have not cracked until recently (by the way, Dave, if you’re still out there, thank-you and please contact me so I can send it back to you). It’s described as a journey through the history of pop, and while that description is pretty spot-on, it’s not as dry as that description would suggest. Morley was born in 1957, cut his teeth at the New Musical Express from ’77-83—talk about a great time to be a music journalist in the U.K.!–, has been a band manager and TV presenter. He is credited with the brilliant marketing campaign for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, which amounted to that particular band becoming a worldwide phenomenon: “Frankie Say…”

At any rate Morley, like myself, found his obsession with new music waning and some of the first part of his book talks about that. The crux of it, he finds, isn’t that the music’s just not as good as it used to be, it’s that looking backward for inspiration, mixing genres to create a new sound, is no longer a revolutionary act, because it is possible that all combination’s have been tried and now the bands are simply aping their influences. He mentions The Strokes and their debut album “Is This It”. That album received a LOT of positive attention, the sound harking back to the Velvet Underground, they said. As a matter of fact, in hindsight, it sounded exactly like the Velvet Underground with some early 80’s post punk thrown in for good measure. I bought the hype at the time but haven’t listened to it for over 5 years or more, maybe because if I want to listen to a Velvet Underground record I’ll put on a Velvet Underground record.

I grew up on the Punk Rock of the late 70’s and early 80’s, and when I heard Green Day for the first time on the radio (dookie!) they sounded like a cover band to my ears. And while I bought, and quite enjoyed, Rancid’s “…and Out Come The Wolves.”, it was The Clash. Now, if these bands did nothing more that get ‘the kids’ to discover the Ramones, The Stooges, The Clash, Black Flag and the DK’s, then it was worth it. Not sure if that happened, though. I think most thought 1991 was the birth day of punk, which is a shame.

Grunge was Neil Young and Crazyhorse with a little Aerosmith thrown in for good measure. Brit Pop was the Kinks. House was disco. Chill and ambient was Eno. And…and…and.

Morley also makes the point that sometimes it’s a good thing to never go back. The pivotal moment in his life, the album that made him a music obsessive, was Tangerine Dream’s ‘Phaedra’. It so radically changed his life, when he was 14, that he’s scared that if he revisited it now it would disappoint him terribly and ruin the moment, the memory, of such an earth shattering event in his life. I’ve found that to be true as well. I’ve revisited albums that were very important to me decades ago and been under whelmed. Overexposure and over familiarity can ruin positive memories, and revisiting them can bring disastrous consequences. Maybe that’s the reason I haven’t listened to London Calling in years.

Pop has indeed been eating itself for decades, and while that in itself was a creative thing it now seems kind of pathetic, a last gasp at creativity by lesser mortals, all of which brings me back to the point I started to make in paragraph #1: going back to move forward. What a joy, for example, to discover Television’s ‘Little Johnny Jewel’, or The Modern Lovers’ ‘Pablo Picasso’. And while I was familiar with The Stooges Raw Power back in the mid ‘80’s it took me 15 years to discover the brilliance of Fun House, their best and most groundbreaking effort.

And what about those Beach Boys, eh? For years and years I wrote everything they released after Pet Sounds off as crap, and boy was that a big mistake. Friends (1968), 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970) and Surf’s Up (1971) contain some of the best music of their career, and are definitely worth revisiting. The songs from this era (‘Till I Die, Diamond Head, Cabinessence, It’s About Time, Cool, Cool Water, Feel Flows and Surf’s Up, to name a few) are brilliant. Only Mike Love keeps these albums from being truly great. I mean, Student Demonstration Time (“There’s a RIOT goin’ on!”) has got to be not only one of the worst and misguided Beach Boys songs ever (next to the dreaded Kokomo, of course) but one of the worst songs EVER. And he almost ruins Cool Cool Water by inserting the line, “in an ocean or, in a glass/cool water is…such…a…gas”—ewwww!). Those abortions aside these 4 albums are pretty strong overall. Dennis Wilson came into his own here, as did Al Jardine and even the other guy, what’s his name…Bruce something.

I am content in the fact that I missed so much bloody good music over the decades that I will no longer complain about the current state of music today, nor will I bitch about MP3’s, singles killing the album, etc. No, I will covet my cd collection, do my research and scour the bins for the next greatest oldest obscurity I’ve overlooked and, if the opportunity presents itself, maybe even be surprised by something new. That would be a wonderful thing!

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