(A Guest Blog By Terry Douglas)
I really think the moment the “music died” (popular/rock based music) was the day that Kurt Cobain (or whoever killed him!) blew his brains out. Now, allow me a moment (hopefully not being too long winded and redundant) to give you an abbreviated, yet somewhat concise opinion of how we got to where we are now…
If you look at rock and roll as a genre, I think it’s safe to say that 1955 was year zero. There was Elvis (the big bang) who took hillbilly and black R&B/blues and sex appeal and changed the world. It was great and it was popular.
Then the Beatles did a few things that some people kinda liked and KA-BOOM – an evolutionary shift of such seismic proportions in popular (remember that word as it is crucial to this whole discussion) music splintered into a million different vibrant, psychedelic and wonderful directions. So many bands and artists were inspired and an industry (music bizness) that up until that time had treated popular/rock music as a fad (only to be exploited for teenage $ and quickly discarded) woke up to the fact that:
A: This shit is blowing up on a world wide basis and influencing all the other arts!
B: It looks like it just might be around longer than an early 60’s “dance craze”!
C: Serious people (critics, writers, social observers etc.) were treating this popular music as a legitimate art form!
Music then became big business… but the business side (while always a necessary evil for funding/distributing this terrible “noise” to the kids) was always a step behind what was happening (hey HEY hey) NOW. And it was kinda hard for record companies to prefabricate music for this culture of DFHs (dirty fucking hippies) who were young and growing (wild in the streets).
Sure, there was disposable crap (our current morass) that was cheesy and cynically devised to “move units.” The Archies (not even a real band!), The Monkees (almost a real band!), The Osmonds (ironically, the Jonas brothers of their time with Donny O. being the “Bieber” of his time) and other bubblegum stuff. Catchy and fun, but ultimately not cool. And the kids? Well most of them wanted to be cool! This was their culture. They were cynical of anyone over 30 and demanded unique and diverse sounds to boogie and get high to.
Oddly, all this cool recorded music wasn’t just in the underground, buried away on late night FM stations. It was in the charts! Top 40! Mainstream! No sh#t! The Doors, Marvin Gaye, Janis, Hendrix, Dylan and on and on – great songs with depth and meaning (not always, but that was cool too because the music had passion) that sold and was popular. How in the hell did this happen?
This is where things start moving really fast. All kinds of music that was popular: soul, funk, psychedelic, progressive, glam-rock, hard rock… music that actually sold and was played on the radio and made big $ (a nice bonus!) was devoured and consumed in vast quantities and ushered in the era of ROCK STARDOM.
These were the Dionysian gods of their time. Rich rock stars roaming the earth like a band of aristocratic gypsies. Led Zep, The Stones, Queen, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper Band, Cheap Trick etc. Bands who rocked your ass, moved millions of “units” and flew around in their very own airliners (small private Lear jets were reserved for the coked-up managers/agents and entourage) playing world tours in huge stadiums to hundreds of thousands of screaming, rabid fans. Good times indeed…
But now, the art/commerce of big time ROCK/POP had become bloated, decadent and preposterous; out of the reach of the average rockin’ teenage combo rehearsing in their garage with dreams of having their moment…
Then something interesting happened. The American fringe of the rock and roll scene (Iggy And The Stooges, Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, Ramones etc.), bands that were not even remotely mainstream (or played on the radio or got the BIG RECORD DEALS) were welcomed by British youth. Then in an ironic reversal of the British invasion (that earlier event that took the American art form of Rock and/or Roll and re-packaged it in a more modern, desirable and fashionable version that the USA just ate up), those wacky Brits gave us two very important bands: The Damned (released the first official “Punk” single – “New Rose”) and more importantly (in an historical context) The Sex Pistols.
But, there was a villain lurking, gaining strength and becoming very popular at the same time. This musical “movement” was a precursor to our horrible current situation. DISCO. And guess what? DISCO SUCKED! It was contrived, repetitious “dance music” made for white people without any natural rhythm to do cocaine and have unprotected sex to (see Frank Zappa’s ‘Dancin’ Fool’ for further details). It was not funky (we had Parliament/Funkadelic for that!) in the least. Vanilla and bland, it was made using tape loops with anonymous studio hacks “performing” it. Not all of it was too horrible (and looking back now, it all seems kinda charming and cool in an ironic kinda way, but I digress…).
Now you had three disparate camps, all hating each other: Mainstream rock, punk rock and disco. In the foul year of our lord 1979 (which I think was one of the most interesting times in popular musical culture and probably when all of the last truly original innovations in popular rock music occurred), things were weird indeed!
Let me see if I can coherently explain this:
A. Disco sucked (a given). It was losing steam and popularity. And while elements of it were co-opted into mainstream pop, it was now considered a fad. “Disco Duck,” anyone?
B. Punk did start making headway into the mainstream. Post-punk (now re-branded as New Wave by the “suits”) became more popular and certain bands were able to actually sell and get on the radio. The Cars, Blondie, Talking Heads, Devo, The Clash, The Knack etc. It was a strange time for radio. Between the tired and unfashionable corporate rock of REO Speedwagon and Journey you had freaky punks (I was a teenager and this was my time!) sneaking in their short, weird New Wave songs. And guess what? They were popular! But not with everybody…
C. Metal (formerly hard rock) heads hated us punks. (Don’t worry, we’ll all make up later!) Depending how hip you were (and I was one hip cat!), you either dressed like a Status Quo fan from the early 70’s with long hair and a jean jacket with Iron Maiden/Judas Priest/AC/DC/Van Halen (you pick) patches with optional studded leather/spiked accessories; or if you were an avant-garde rocker and wanted to have sex with girls that looked like Lene Lovich and Siouxsie Sioux like I did, you dressed like a cross between Ziggy Stardust and Johnny Thunders. Now we were ready for the new decade, the 80’s. What would it bring? Surely music, fashion and art were going to keep evolving and changing. Breaking rules and pissing on the past in a mad, vibrant rush to find the newest ROCK AND ROLL THRILL.
Welcome to the 1980’s music lovers and producers!
Although now a new, even more insidious enemy is lurking… What makes this enemy even more dangerous and destructive to the art of pop and rock (and all music in general) is that it has good intentions! And we all know where that road leads (and it’s not backstage at a Mötley Crüe concert!)…
This brand new entertainment is called MTV. And guess what? They play music videos! Now hicks in the fly-over states can learn how to dress like Duran Duran! It’s music with visuals! Wow!
I thought it was the coolest sh#t ever. Now all my uncool friends that listen to the crap on mainstream radio could see all these new, innovative bands I had been telling them about. I had been trying to turn them on to all the cool new music I was discovering, but I would invariably show up at a party and bring my records (like everyone did back before the iPod isolation generation) only to be told to “Take that punk shit off, Terry!” And what was that awful “punk sh#t” I was playing them? The debut album by a band called The Police. Two years later these same clueless jocks and preps were running around singing “Roxanne.” Ugh. I generally would hate a band after they got popular with the “straights.” It happened after Queen became huge with News Of The World and Pink Floyd with The Wall.
Anyway, MTV was new, hip and 24 hours of music videos. They had late night shows like 120 Minutes that featured bands that I even personally knew (Athens ya’ll!), they also showed concerts and had rock related news. Most of the VJs were planks, but I still loved it because it was all music all the time. But once again, it became co-opted (and even faster than the preceding decade) by the “industry” and now only bands that had cool haircuts and were pretty were getting played. If you were fat and ugly, even if you were more talented than The Beatles, you were screwed. No airplay for you!
After being accused of being a little too white, MTV opened up their playlist to include crossover “black” artists like Prince, Lionel Richie etc. MTV helped to break Michael Jackson (already a huge and talented veteran star) to a new, younger audience with his expensive and innovative (at the time) videos. They were also helpful in exposing underground black music, and a newer form (to those not in the know) of urban music: Rap.
Now, during most of the ’80s, all the music that I dug (now called “alternative”) didn’t get any airplay on the radio. While driving around looking for trouble, I would mainly listen to black radio stations. The ’80s were a boom time for black music, especially R&B. The production was great and I was getting more and more into electronic music and dance type stuff (the irony of hating disco was not lost on me btw) ! I had been into rap since the late ’70s as drums were one of my main instruments and I loved funky breaks and beats. Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions etc. – this sh#t was fresh and new and, again, a rebellion against the establishment. That’s punk!
In the late ‘80s, music was crossing over and sampling (literally) all of these different genres. It was a very cool and interesting time. The Beastie Boys were a bridge, helping to bring black and white youth together more so than any time since the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. It was a very hopeful and positive development. I was psyched. Hardcore punk, hair metal, real metal, underground weirdness, acid house, dub and electronic; even retro stuff that echoed the past but also brought a new twist to the rock and roll game. Diversity! Yes there was still cheesy pop (as always) but many choices and options were there. Music was very popular and important to young and old alike.
Which brings us to the ’90s. I remember where I was when I first heard Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I was driving around (once again looking for trouble) when I turned on the “classic rock” station. What wafted out was rough and demo-sounding to me. In fact, I thought, ‘Damn, they must be playing some local music!’ I actually thought they were playing one of my friend’s shitty punk bands, but it was Nirvana’s brand new “single.”
At this time, I was touring in a local band that was recording for an indie label. I was also working on a solo album by myself, talking with A&R people and other assorted industry weasels. I had gotten lucky enough to find an entertainment attorney and I was getting ready to move to Atlanta – ready for fame and fortune. Nirvana blew up HUGE! Effectively throwing the industry on its ear. Hair metal was out (thank Christ!) and this underground noise that I was involved in was suddenly “marketable.” Great timing!
Personally, I didn’t think that Nirvana was that great of a band (I preferred the Melvins) but they did connect with a lot of people in a real and organic, non-hyped way. You cannot deny their impact, and because of them, bands that had previously been relegated to the independent labels (bands that I loved and knew), were now being signed faster than you could say “Smashing Pumpkins”!
Of course the music industry (always ready to exploit and harness youth culture) called this new movement Grunge, stupid and meaningless label that mainly applied to bands from Seattle. But it was a hopeful time for us punk rockers. Now, after all those years of trying to change the mainstream, we had our foot in the door. It was our time.
1991… the year that punk broke.
Unfortunately, it was really going to be the decade that music became broken.
Okay, if any of you are still reading this War And Peace length epic post, hang on, cause I’m wrapping this shit up!
Kurt blows his brains out. Mass mourning ensues. All the bands that were signed to the majors (with a few notable exceptions) were dropped or left to flounder in binding contracts. Record companies decided that difficult artists were a pain in the ass. Media corporations were consolidated and boy bands were foisted upon a newer, younger (and much more gullible) audience.
Rap was thriving, as was a lot of pop. But something had died. Teen Spirit perhaps?
Gangsta rap, while some of it was great (NWA, Dre, Tupac, Biggie), became the dominant flavor. Later, the violence that had only been implied in the lyrics became all too real. People died. It also ushered in a very monochromatic and conservative sound into the hip-hop culture that is still prevalent today.
The only innovative music that was happening (in my world at that time) was electronic music and all the sub genres that were a part of it. This was the last progressive “movement” in modern music. Yet this kind of music was too strange and abstract for mass consumption. It served well for soundtracks and car commercials but did not catch on with the general public, but the “rave culture” from which this new “electronica” spawned was invaded by posers and, like rap, became the boring, conservative 4/4 monotony that is, ironically, the sound of pop today.
Add lip-syncing underage trollops, the Disney-fication of pop, illegal downloads, mp3s, stubborn record companies, auto-tune, easy loop making music software, American Idol, etc. and you find yourself…
In the 21st century.
So what now? I don’t know. But this is the conundrum in which we music and audio lovers, the ones that actually care about quality, find ourselves.
– December 22, 2010 (Thanks to Alan Lofft, Gail Worley and the late, great Hunter S. Thompson for inspiring me to write all these “words”)
(Terry Douglas is a musician and audio engineer living in Atlanta)