Saturday, December 10, 2011

Just for the record

It was one of those questions which are what you might call perennial. So I guess the answer therefore, would have to be one of the most avidly anticipated, but I’m not sure why, maybe it’s some indication of the early beginnings of one’s musical journey, or maybe people just want to compare notes, who knows? It was that one about ‘the first record you ever bought’.

If you were there that weekend, you will recall that my colleagues had a better idea than I did. If I recall correctly, I blurted out something about records not having been invented during my childhood years.

Well it was in jest of course, the pleasurable platter has been around longer then I have, and cylindrical ones before that, though if you wanted to check that one out, you might need to visit a museum.

Nonetheless, there was at least a grain of truth in my impetuous retort. In a more considered moment, I should perhaps say, that the ‘record’ as we know it ‘to-day’ (or very recently at least) hadn’t been invented.

It was during my early life, that the black diskette of delight underwent a complete revolution, if not an actual metamorphosis. The format, known to all as the 78 by the time of my teen years, was a delicate and low-tech idea, although I believe it did improve slightly towards the end of it’s life.

Dropping one, was almost certain to result in a breaking or shattering of the piece, they really were quite brittle. The way they were intended to be played atop the musical counterpart record player, or ‘Gramophone’ as they were then called, necessitated the attachment of a stubby needle to a mechanical ‘sound’ arm, which were supposed to be replaced (the needles that is) with new ones every, or every other, play. The resulting sound reproduced, although probably the wonder of it’s day - was abysmal by later standards of the 20th century, never mind the 21st.

The whole purpose of the exercise, to deliver the recorded ‘event’ to the listener (for that was what it was, there was no ‘production’ in those days), again, would perhaps have been a wondrous event at the time, but quite sad in the light of our modern standards.

Suddenly, during the 50's, a number of truly major developments were to unfold within a historically short period of time:

* The coming of age and beginnings of a youth culture.

* The emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

* The change from the rigid 78 to the more flexible ‘vinyl’, the new 45, extended play (EP) and 33⅓ rpm type long playing (LP) records.

* The establishment of pirate radio.

* The forward evolution of music recording and playback technologies.

Astonishingly, these ground breaking events were to begin during an epoch of roughly a decade and both youth culture and Rock ‘n’ Roll were to become joint bedfellows and the catalyst for a unique revolution.

Although there was obvious excitement at the time, and actual hysteria would not be an overstatement, I don’t think that many people even so, fully comprehended the enormity of it all. We were unwittingly witnessing the birth of an entirely new popular music culture and industry, the like of which had never previously existed.

It all happened during those formative and impressionable years of my life, and so will always remain an important and very significant influence on my contemporaries, as of myself.

By the end of the calamity that was WWII during 1939-1945, Britain was a broken country, deeply scarred and bankrupt. Indeed, so deeply, that the UK didn’t complete it’s final war loan repayments arrangement with the United States until the end of 2006 and so, very, very recently. (A staggering 61 years since the war, if you haven’t worked it out already).

That first post war decade was quite grim but at least everyone was cheered by the knowledge that it was all finally over. Times were tough for most people but somehow the nation just got on with it and made the most of what they had, which perhaps makes it easier to understand how the small mercies offered by the humble ‘record’ were so much appreciated. Records had played a big part in popularising many artists over the war years and had played a major role in boosting national morale.

Dismal in terms of sound quality, as they were, they sold in what today would be considered huge and enviable quantities. This in part, because there wasn’t an awful lot else to do by way of recreation. TV had begun it’s life by then but didn’t immediately have any meaningful presence because of the austerity following the war years, and then it took time to catch on as things tend to do.

A youth culture as we understand it to-day, didn’t really exist either prior to WWII. The buying of records, or indeed just music, wasn’t what you could really call a ‘youth’ activity. Youth by and large, were unpossessed of a disposable income. From my own memories, many were far more preoccupied with a sport which was known as ‘knocking on doors and running away’ or simply breaking windows, than engaging in such sissy-like activities as listening to music. Even less available, was anything of a musical nature to which the juvenile could be irresistibly attracted.

By way of a guess, I think perhaps people purchased records and the means to play them, more because they could afford to, rather than an actual zealous desire to play music, although the latter cannot be entirely discounted.

The kind of musical phenomenon which was eventually to turn the tables and transform the youth of the day, into the crazed teenagers, that so alarmed their superiors, arrived suddenly, in the 50's and with a very big bang indeed. It was of course the aforementioned Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Now people had something to get excited about, and they had the money to buy it, although I’ve never fully understood the mechanics of how that came about.

The musical focal point of many peoples’ lives during and up to the 50's was radio. Radio in the UK, was a BBC monopoly, and there was no British commercial radio and certainly no internet at the time. Perhaps the biggest draw would have been the cinema where both music and drama were a major attraction.

The BBC’s stranglehold on broadcasting was a comparatively new and expanding phenomenon. However, being a monopoly, they proceeded to do what all monopolies do. They please themselves first, everything else comes after that. Whereas in a competitive market, you need to offer a widely attractive service or product, in order to secure the most desirable level of success.

That the Beeb were always good at what they did, is beyond dispute, but it was ‘good’ within their terms of reference, or by their own standards.

Now I’m not anti BBC, I think they are a wonderful British institution, and some of the things they do, both then and now, they do better than anyone else. But back in the day, the corporation’s attitude towards music was painfully Dickensian. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century.

I still recall their drab, politically correct, and downright pompous approach to music and there was of course a place for that, but there was never any excitement from the other end of the spectrum. The truly radical and dangerous.

Jazz was quite widely regarded as an undesirable musical element, but attitudes were to change albeit ever so slowly. This was more a case of jazz - on the other side of the Atlantic - being seen as something that just could not be ignored, than being an art form that could be easily recognised for what it was, and so legitimised. For a long time though, jazz, in the eyes of stuffy British society, still had to be performed in evening dress to be respected by many. But in the end, it got there, even though by that time, it was R ‘n’ R that people wanted, rather than the then dated jazz formula.

There was in fact plenty of music to be found within the schedules of the ‘Radio Times’ but it was as though it had to be either stuffy or stupid to qualify for radio.

Not unlike the attitudes towards jazz, the Beeb’s foray into the area of the “pop” song, was often limited to the less attractive, safe, and at times embarrassingly ridiculous. I can only surmise that they thought it was all, ‘jolly good fun, what, what, what’.

Once again, through the wonder of the internet, I have been able to locate a few examples of the kind of torture that my generation were subjected to from time to time.

I must warn you that you won’t be able to stand more then a few seconds of this, but from these links you can find some examples of the sounds the listener had to endure during the age about which I write. From 1952......(you may need to skip the ad), (if not the song itself!).

and it gets 1955.........

Even making allowances for the idea that this may have been fashionable at the time, implausible though that seems, it is difficult to comprehend how the corporation could have justified some of these choices and yet ignored real musical excitement for as long as they did, when so much else was available.

I’m sure you’re not going to need much more of that, but there was plenty more. On the whole though, it wasn’t quite so stupid as that, it was very often infantile but also stuffy and pompous and ever so British.

That one Dates from the 30's, but they were still playing it in the 40's & 50's. Then we had the Beeb’s retinue of regulars. One of the prime examples was the great Victor Silvester, the ‘Strictly’ star of his day. A dance champion and band leader.

Victor had the distinction and trademark of sameness. Every song was almost identical save for the actual melody line. He maintained a long career on the back of this, he was regularly on, and rarely off the radio.

Another BBC stalwart was the great Edmundo Ross. He was a mega star of his era and enjoyed a long life until his death in 2011. But Edmundo occupied the more sensible side of the Beeb’s regular output and possessed great charm. His style was much more than the token Latin presence in the UK, he was THE Latin exponent par excellence.

But apart from music of this type and there was plenty of it, it’s not too difficult to see that it was never orientated towards a youth audience. Perhaps I should say, why would they? The kids had no money. However, at pretty much the same time as the music abruptly and dramatically, shifted from dour and staid, to pounding and provocative, the kids had suddenly, somehow, acquired spending money. Were that not so, who knows what would have happened.

So is it any wonder that the youth of the western world went apeshit - en masse - when R ‘n’ R finally arrived!

and from the movie....those famous balls.....!!

and again the great man himself............

Music is such a fascinating subject. It is also a very personal thing. No matter how many people there are that love any one piece, there is always someone who hates it.

There are comparatively few notes available to the aural spectrum of the human ear and yet there seems to be no limit to the number of combinations that can be assembled with these musical building blocks.

I often wonder if anyone has yet set about the task of running this through a computer to see if there is actually a limit to the number of possible combinations. Surely there must be, it can’t be infinite?

There are certainly combinations of notes that just don’t work together, for pertinent musical reasons, that’s why you need to have some idea about how you might want to combine a series of notes. And there must be millions of such combinations. Yet in spite of all that, there still appear to be millions and millions of possible combinations left that do work. I find that quite fascinating.

Perhaps it’s just that the number of possible songs or compositions, is so incredibly vast, that by the time we get around to where it all started, so-to-speak, the next generation have forgotten all about those previous ones, and wouldn’t want to listen to them anyway because of their un-fashionable credentials.

By now, the number of identifiable genre within the spectrum of music must also be quite vast. Hundreds? Thousands? Who can answer that one?

To-day, we are free to explore and enjoy whatever genre we like, but there was a time within my own life, when one was limited by the choices of others. That also, I believe, is why such furore was occasioned when the musical floodgates were finally thrown open in the 50's, and thank god for that.

The next milestone of note, was perhaps the change in the type of music that pervaded the airwaves, and it was famously, the radio pirates who started the move away from the deeply entrenched and dull broadcasting format of the Beeb. There was now a new and exciting style of music and by and large, the BBC weren’t playing it. The pirates, seized the moment and seemed to just appear out of nowhere. The word went around like wildfire.

Until around this time, music was largely a serious business. To secure a career in music, usually required a ‘proper’ musical training. Holding down a music job would have required the ability to play anything placed in front of you, and with supreme confidence and ability. Anyone playing music below those sorts of standards were not widely considered ‘proper’ musicians. But then came the day when people who couldn’t read or write musical notation were demonstrating that it could be done without the constraints of musical academia.

The internal mentality at the Beeb meant in turn, that a large part of it’s output was of an ‘orchestral’ nature, both classical, semi-classical and indeed contemporary, such as it was.

So, when Britain’s airwaves were suddenly invaded by a new breed of music enthusiasts and entrepreneurs, from off-shore locations atop various ships, ex-maritime sea forts, and foreign shores, the chips were well and truly down. Auntie Beeb was dealt a massive and well aimed boot to her posterior. Listeners deserted the Beeb in droves as the new illegitimate radio stations forced her to succumb to, and rethink, her position within the new commercial world of music. This was yet another revolution and an instant one at that.

And it’s not as though the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis had suddenly torn up the rule book, it’s more likely he/they never saw it in the first place. The new music offered a new kind of freedom, freedom to play whatever you liked and without any rules.

What this new breed understood, so very clearly, and so also did it’s audiences, was excitement. Any such excitement within the hallowed walls of the BBC at the time, would doubtless have induced a corporate heart attack.

Eventually, in defence of the Beeb’s inability to reform itself and compete within a free market, (albeit illegal at the time on the commercial side of it), the government was moved to devise a method of preventing these pirates from enjoying the financial rewards of their newly developed commercial radio stations, from business resources within these shores. The BBC couldn’t beat them, so they joined them. They employed many of the once pirate DJ’s, many of whom went on to become household names. This brief period was a major milestone in the history of British entertainment, and ought perhaps to be known as the British Radio Renaissance.

Whereas the initial push towards the mass commercialisation and expansion of pop music culture was largely American driven, by the 60's it had become focussed around the English port city of Liverpool as most people know.

The business of ‘records’ had come of age too and the record business had moved from an obscure genesis amongst a handful of enthusiastic small-time pioneers, into mega-rich multi-national corporations.

The record, was now challenging every other form of entertainment for the enviable position of being, the most popular.

No-one new it at the time, but by the 80's/90's the ‘record’ was moribund. I remember around that stage, I was sitting in the New York offices of the CBS giant, on the umpteenth floor of the massive black clad edifice of the building known locally as ‘The Rock’. One of the top brass was eager to play me his new copy of the latest wonder product of the musical age. It was - so they said - indestructible, would literally last forever, and possessed sound qualities unsurpassed in the entire history of music. Little did he know it, nor did I, that it was also going to completely wipe-out his balance sheet within a few short years. This was the arrival of the CD.

To-day, all three, vinyl, CD and now DVD are widely considered obsolete technologies. Indeed the very idea of placing music on a disk seems positively ancient when all you need is a bit of digital memory space. Job done!

So what are the consequences of all this? The record, which played such a big part of my, and indeed most peoples lives, has gone. It’s not completely extinct yet, we are ourselves about to launch yet another one upon you, being one of the few remaining entities who are still able to, but the proverbial end is looking very, very nigh indeed.

This is all rather sad;........nay;........very, very sad. It’s always sad when something has to die. Is this the day the music died too?

If I can try and be positive about this, my feeling is that sooner or later, music, as we used to know it, and loved it, will eventually - one way or another - resurface and reinvigorate the enjoyment of our lives. It is just too uplifting and emotive within the human experience to remain eternally damned. Fete, will surely find a way?

But why is this happening at all? It’s difficult to face up to, but it’s also a fact of life that nothing lasts forever. Nothing.
The plain fact of the matter, is that the listener, not all of them, but enough, at some point, discovered that it had suddenly become possible to copy music - without any loss of quality - through the facility of digital music, and copy it, and copy it, and copy it, they did.

That that had become possible in the first place, was simply a result of the path that the evolution of music and it’s associated technologies had taken.

Many music lovers are still wondering when their favourite bands are going to release their next record. Well, in all probability, they ain’t going to. Who in their right mind is going to spend a fortune making a record, and then giving it away? Well, some have done so, but they’re not going to repeat that too often, if at all and that’s just the way it is now.

So, what’s next? Well, in my opinion we have already got the ‘what’s next’, it’s the Cowell empire!

Now, I’m not going to jump on the ‘I hate Simon Cowell’ bandwagon. Love him or hate him, he is just a businessman, doing what businessmen do. They make money. That’s their job. The real problem as I see it, is not Mr Cowell per se, businessmen will always grab as much as they are able. It’s that he has been allowed to create yet another virtual monopoly, and that shouldn’t be allowed and there is no meaningful alternative to it. Anyone with wall to wall TV coverage, could sell sand to Arabs and you wouldn’t need any talent to achieve it. How can anyone compete against that kind of dissemination.

So we as a nation, are no longer able to enjoy the wide and varied creations of the worlds finest artists, because their work would simply be stolen, but we are able to be battered and brainwashed with an avalanche of repetitive mediocrity for weeks if not months on end, created, not by artists of extraordinary vision and ability, but by businessmen who’s abilities are not derived from the creative music processes, but rather, the manipulation of the balance sheet. That just cannot be right.

It should not be so surprising, that programmes emanating from the newly constituted music industry format, bespoken by a new breed of muso-magnates, have succeeded in supplanting a thriving and vibrant musical industry, with a chain of mindless repetition, reliant on endless overstatement of it’s participating stars’ abilities and alleged sales achievements and aspirations, rather than any self evident and/or stunning display of inherent creative ability, has succeeded in it’s quest so to do, by way of it’s unchallenged monopoly of the supreme marketing podia of television, whilst it’s defeated former music industry would-be competitors’ resources, have been stolen, thereby rendering them impotent. Nice one Simon!

At the very least, there ought to be a level playing field upon which those that choose to buy into the creations of the businessman, can do so, but alongside those who would choose that of the artist.

The tool that facilitates this biassed marketplace against fair competition, is of course the talent show. The talent show is nothing new, it’s been around as long as I’ve been watching TV. The basic principles remain the same. You watch a series of competitors vying to be chosen as the ‘best’ of the entrants.

In other words, it’s all about watching people learning how to do something. Become professional singers, in the case of the largest of the genre.

Then there’s another show about learning how to become a variety act, or a novelty act. Then there’s a show about learning how to survive in a jungle.

Followed by another about learning how to become a dancer. And yet another about how to become a cook.

It’s all so ridiculous. What’s actually happened, is that we have gone from watching the craftsman, to watching the apprentice! And as if you needed any confirmation about that, we even have one CALLED ‘The Apprentice’, which is about watching people who want to learn how to become business people!

Now we are no longer watching great performers, we are reduced to watching learners. In any event, the majority of contestants are failures by definition since there can only be one winner! So we are in effect, watching a bunch of no-hopers showing us how bad they are. Admittedly, some are actually so bad they inadvertently become quite funny, but that’s not the point.

Have we all gone completely mad to stand for this nonsense? This surely, if nothing else is, is something up with which, we most vehemently should not have to put! Where are the crusaders when you need them? Why is no-one shouting from the rooftops?

Of course Mr Cowell’s end product is still exposed to the worst wild-west like activities of the internet, like everyone else, but he has the overwhelming advantage of massive and biassed broadcasted marketing facilities whilst the rest of the industry can go to hell, and has largely done so.

Are we all now, those of us still surviving within the industry of music, actually occupying the position once experienced by our beloved Beeb? Do we need to become as radical as did they back in the 60's and face the music of the 10's by joining those in the vanguard, if it can be so described, even if we were able?

But perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Is it a question of that lexicon of notes about which I previously speculated, having finally reached the end of the road? Is it just that we have now used-up all the possible combinations of notes and genre within the pantheon of music? Has the last song now been written? Is that the reason that music has plummeted down to where it now is? Are we now back at the proverbial square one?

Do we now have to regress to the point where it all started scores of, maybe even hundreds of, years ago, and start all over again? If that is so, then we had all better find something else to do until we get back to where we were in the 50's/60's and once again marvel at the excitement of music.

Of course if that is the case, it won’t in fact be us enjoying it, but rather some distant relatives of ours, if they in turn succeed in surviving through the dangerous world we now inhabit. Oh dear, it all now looks rather depressing, but I needed to get it off my chest................................just for the record.

jb/10th December 2011
© Jet Black 2011