Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Mummy Was An Asteroid, Daddy Was A Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil...and other short stories

Apropos of nothing at all, that title, but...please let me ramble on...and in the meantime, care for your ears with the song of the same name...

...and now for some general blather and nonsense...

Back in the early to mid-90s when computers in the workplace became commonplace we were constantly being told what a boon to our leisure-time they would be as you could get your work done in a fraction of the time it used to take, thus freeing up swathes of our existence to take up seal boxing or kangaroo stitching, or any other fun activity you could possibly desire.

As we all know only too well, it soon became apparent that all computers did was enable us to produce more work in the same timespan as before, and as the flow of information increased exponentially our free time in fact became more restricted.

What’s that got to do with the price of fish, or indeed music, you would be justified in asking? Well, the all-pervading nature of that grey box on the floor or that harmless-looking tablet of techiness sitting on your lap has inevitably had a life-changing impact not just on our workplaces but also on our leisure activities, the enjoyment of published music being but one significant part. The good old interweb has done two things to the music industry it may well never recover from. The first is that dreaded word “download”, and the second is enablement.

We all know the arguments for and against downloading, be it legal or otherwise, and I won’t repeat them here. The other aspect of change has enabled any Tom, Dick, or Rihanna the ability to create what they no doubt see as the next genre-defining tranche of musical genius, and all from the comfort of their bedroom. This has led to an oversaturation of the marketplace with substandard nonsense that obscures and indeed, buries true gems, some of which may well have been produced by the same DIY methods. This is in fact, along with downloading, the logical outcome of the punk revolution of 35 years ago, but I’m sure Malcolm McClaren never envisaged anything along the lines of what we have today.

The preponderance of gubbins is very much the case in the scene I’m familiar with, good ol' prog rock. The sheer amount of music that I and my reviewing colleagues have to wade through before hitting upon something that is actually not ridden with cliché or that doesn’t have the imagination of a comatose amoeba can be wearing, but I have now developed a high quality antenna that rarely fails, luckily enough. Some gubbins still gets through, as I have one particular album to review that has been sitting around for months as it is something of a turkey, and I can't bring myself to play more than the 10 minutes I endured when it arrived. And the bloody thing is a double CD, too! Maybe like the bird it takes its name from, I should execute it at Xmas.

Another problem facing the truly innovative bands is the gig circuit. Again, sticking to the scene I know about, prog rock is dominated by nostalgia, both in terms of some bands' obsession with the past and the largely conservative audience that follow them. With CD sales in permanent and probable terminal decline, the only way a band can make enough cash to survive is by playing live, but unfortunately the new bands are lost in an avalanche of pension-funding nostalgia tours that have grown more and more frequent in recent years. Given that the average age of a first-wave prog rocker is now mid-sixties, that is only to be expected I suppose.

You can’t blame the old bands for this, it’s the audience, and I’m as much to blame as anyone. I already have tickets for 5 gigs next year, 3 of which are nostalgia trips; Caravan with the 40th anniversary performance of For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night, the one-off Family reunion gig, and Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II. That’s around £80 in tickets that doesn’t get spent supporting new music, something I’m always banging on about, and to be frank, I do actually feel a tad guilty and hypocritical. In my defence can I say that it is extremely unlikely that Family will ever play anywhere again
(since I wrote that they've added a second night, so maybe it's now a "two-off"?), FGWGPITN is one of my all-time favourite albums, and I’ll probably never want to see Caravan again, and the Genesis thing? No excuses there I’m afraid, it’s simply a nostalgic wallow, with the quantum-small chance of one particular “special guest” turning up. Of course, I will get my comeuppance if it all turns out like bad cabaret. The two other gigs are Sigur Rós and Steven Wilson, by the way.

My good friend Raffaella makes this very point, bemoaning audiences’ innate conservatism, in her fine review of the SOAR gig in Baltimore recently, an event that had it been in London I would almost certainly have attended. We just don’t get that sort of thing over here, as UK prog festivals tend to be very mainstream in their outlook, and in that respect the USA is better off than here. Also they do not seem to have the preponderance of bands that we do that seem to be have been around forever, stuck in a time warp, churning out endless versions of sub-sub-Genesis/Yes sounding AOR. At least US acts that can be said to be truly progressive are at least visible, to whatever little extent, unlike here, which leads neatly on to the next topic in this wandering missive.

A colleague accused me recently of not liking anything that was popular, and although that simply isn't true as I believe The Beatles had a fan or seven, it is certainly the case that most bands who get beyond a certain level of popularity have done so by giving their audience what they want rather than than producing the music they actually want to make. Nothing wrong with that, but it makes them entertainers rather than artists, and I know which category is usually the more fulfilling, for me at least. Despite my selling out to the motability-muso generation in terms of my planned gig going in the near future, my love of the wilfully obscure and musically adventurous continues unabated. One of my discoveries of the year was the minuscule and wonderful Soleil Zeuhl label from France, who issue musical equivalents of Stealth Bombers, near invisible to radars. Their reissue of the fabulous album Eros by Dün earlier this year being one of quite a few 2012 musical high points for yours truly, a true nerd-fest end-of-year list of which is coming your way in the holidays, you lucky people.

Interviewing Soleil Zeuhl founder Alain Lebon for DPRP recently we touched upon the growing conservative and safe nature of mainstream media and the malleable audience who follow sheep-like in its wake. It’s a depressing thought but back in the late 70s a band like Henry Cow, who I’ll admit even I struggle with could probably draw crowds in the hundreds to watch their deliberately difficult outpourings whereas now, a modern equivalent, for example the utterly fab Thinking Plague (whose early 2012 CD Decline And Fall remains firmly lodged in my top 5 of the year) would be lucky to get a crowd of one hundred max, in the UK at least.

With the limitless choice and endless distractions of the modern entertainment marketplace this is hardly surprising, but it is Alain's and my fear that with each passing generation there is a rapidly diminishing percentage of an available audience who will go on a voyage of musical discovery and venture beyond the latest Muse or Coldplay or force-fed autotuned bollocks; or, to bring it closer to home, beyond the likes of Genesis Revisited II or the current flavour-of-the-month in the Genesis/Yes clone business. This is where the title of this piece comes in, for it is my current sad thought that when my generation and those ten or so years younger (I’m in my early 50s) dies out, truly innovative, adventurous, and yes, dangerous music will die out with it. 

Also, the way that the younger generation listen to music has changed from our listening youth beyond recognition. The kids have missed out on the album experience, be it on vinyl or CD, preferring compressed sounds on a hard drive or from the cloud, and dip into and out of albums without listening to the things properly. Long gone are the days when you'd rush home with the latest waxing by Van der Graaf Generator, put the record on the hi-fi and sit down and LISTEN to it while admiring the aesthetically wonderful cover art, and perusing the lyric sheet as Peter Hammill expounds on an everyday tale of existentialist dichotomy. A musician I know recently had an ongoing Farcebook stream in which he insisted that digital music reproduction is better than ye olde vinyl, and surprisingly so, as he's no young un' himself. Maybe on a purely technical level he's right, however I'm sorry but vinyl has more "soul" in its grooves than a CD, or gawd forbid, a FLAC or mp3 file could ever hope to achieve. I cannot define what this "soul" is, it's just there.

If I may be pretentious enough to quote one of my own reviews, "it seems odd that despite the ever advancing technologies involved in audio reproduction, yer average consumer is actually regressing back to a time of transistor radios under the bedcovers, metaphorically at least". In fact, such are the demands of modern life and the endless streams of information we are all fed, that even those of us who do still actually want to sit down for an hour or however long an album is to listen to the damn thing, rarely get the chance. I purposefully try to set aside an hour or so of a weekend day when I will sit in what I like to euphemistically refer to as the music rooom and play an album end to end, but it happens increasingly rarely. 

A bit of a digression there, I know, but it highlights shortening attention spans and it all points to why radical music of whatever genre will slowly but surely wither on the vine. There will always be musicians willing to push the envelope, I'm just worried that their only audience will be other like-minded musos, thereby the scene that even now feeds upon itself - just look at the average number of bands a modern alt-progger is in just to survive - will wither and die due to lack of support. I'm just glad that I won't be around to see it.

Blimey, that went on a bit, did it not?, to cheer me up I'll get back to playing that rather fab new Diagonal album.


  1. Great write up, with which I agree 100%. As regards the US scene, I will quote an Italian saying that goes, "those who have bread do not have teeth" - that is, plenty of great bands competing for an audience that is deeply steeped in nostalgia.

  2. Excellent observations, Roger. I've only a few friends that I hang out with who appreciate music from the other side of the fence. Opaque melodies and unusual song structures seem to bug most people. I'm taking my 12 year old daughter to see Zappa Plays Zappa, just so she can experience adventurous music firsthand. It will be her first concert. Great essay, sir.
    Jason Spradlin

  3. Wow, some first concert! Hope she likes it. Mine was Wizzard, 40 (gulp!) years ago next year.


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