Growing old reluctantly

I listen to music all the time. When I’m at home, I press play on iTunes as soon as I wake up and listen while I’m having a cup of tea in bed. I turn on the stereo downstairs and listen while I’m eating breakfast. I listen to music on my computer while I’m working. I’m listening right now – It’s Bjork tranquilly meandering through Vespertine.

Later I’ll get in my car and listen to whatever cd I have in there as I drive – I think it’s Neil Young. I’ll come back and listen to more while I make my supper, and I can’t get to sleep without music playing quietly in the background. Jessie (wife) is very tolerant, or maybe just good at ignoring it.

I’m conscious as I get older that the music I like to listen to gets older as well. I know this is inevitable and has happened through the generations. That’s why “Sounds of the Sixties” is so popular on Radio 2. But, I’m only 31 and am hanging obstinately to my youth. I try hard to listen to, and like, contemporary music. But it’s a tough job.

When popular music as we know it took off in the 1950s, the sound of acts like Elvis, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry made people stop in their tracks – these musicians were pioneering demigods – it wasn’t tough to like them. Then through the 60s, bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who etc… broke new ground and had fans screaming at their very appearance, let alone their barnstorming music. Yup I do, and would have, definitely liked them. Then glam rock, punk rock, heavy metal, Factory Records, The Smiths, Nirvana, then… oh wait… that’s pretty much it.

That’s not fair, but since Kurt Cobain fronted Grunge in the early 90s, there hasn’t really been a significant, challenging musical movement – not in my mind anyway. Britpop was a cheesy fad (though it did give Damon Albarn his break,) Garage – not exactly life changing, Emo – still going I guess but it began life in the 1980s so doesn’t count.

My point though is that today’s “popular” music (the music on Radio 1 or MTV) is not the same. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not the best music around even, it’s just the most marketable and easy to package. It’s formulaic. OK, this does make me sound old, but I really think it’s true. Where in the charts is the next Clash or David Bowie?

What we’ve got in the charts is a combination of: over-produced urban pop, auto-tuned within an inch of its life featuring collaborations between whoever is “in” right now, regardless of whether their styles match; various insipid solo musicians who can just about write and bang out a heartfelt tune that’s wishy-washy enough to be played by Simon Mayo on Radio 2; various talent show graduates clinging desperately to the last moments of their, never quite brief enough, careers; then there’s Lady Gaga – she and everyone around her would have you believe she’s some sort of genius, I’m yet to see or hear anything that would confirm that rumour.

It’s so hard for real musicians these days to make a significant impact on the public’s conscience as the industry chews them up and spits them out quicker than you can say, “five album deal.”

Take for example The Strokes. For me they’re the most innovative and interesting guitar band of this century, (although The Arcade Fire are up there too.) The Strokes broke through in 2001 with their debut album “Is this it?” and quickly became pretty massive – one of the biggest acts on the scene. After their second album “Room on Fire,” I went to see them at the Alexandra Palace and it felt like something memorable, maybe not like seeing The Who at Leeds or Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden but, perhaps, I thought it was a significant moment. I remember Joe Strummer of The Clash had just died and they played a cover of Clampdown in tribute – it was pretty cool.

Anyway, The Strokes spawned tens/hundreds of copycat bands, none of who could do that sort of post-punk rock as well as The Strokes. But, because these copycats were new on the scene, they received the publicity.

The Strokes have now released four albums and are writing a fifth. I think they’ve continued to challenge and excite, but the industry seems to have become bored of them. They have a loyal fan base who still appreciate, but I asked my brother, who wasn’t old enough to have heard the band’s first offerings, first time round and he answered, “Oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of them.”

The thing is, there is great music being made and released right now but not enough people get to hear it. I guess it’s always been the case with alternative music that, if you’re interested, you have to go out and find it. But now it seems that “alternative” has just come to mean anything that is produced by proper musicians or that even slightly breaks the mould. So, if you want to hear someone with actual talent you have to scour the internet – myspace, youtube, the more obscure radio channels… to get an inkling.

Most people don’t have the time or inclination to do this so they have to make do with what they’re spoon-fed, perpetuating the problem. People turn on the radio and are content enough with the mediocrity that comes out at them. After they’ve heard James Morrison enough times they even know the words and can hum along. They’ll go and buy the cd as a Christmas present for their other half… aargghhh, god help us.


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