Ah yes, the infamous line from the Who’s seminal track about yoof, My Generation. The wannabe status of all those sneering, thrusting 60s stars. Now look at em. In their dotage and still rocking their way round the world.
I confess it snuck into my head several times while reading Gerry Hassan’s essay in Saturday’s Scotsman. (I’d post a link but it’s behind the pay wall and not yet up on his own website). Not because I wish ill on Gerry – god no, we need more thinkers and essayists like Gerry Hassan, not fewer. But because I fear that Gerry has made the fatal mistake we oldies always make in trying to comprehend and analyse the state of the current generation’s musical predelictions. An implicit “wasn’t like that in my day” theme ran all the way through the piece. And frankly, much of what Gerry had to say about the current plight of modern music was pish. Apart from the bit about the mushrooming of talent shows.
1. “We still have some artists, such as The Proclaimers and Michael Marra, making thoughtful, captivating records… yet we have little music infrastructure, and the blanding out of the indie scene equally affects us north of the Border.”
Really? In the last couple of years there has been an explosion of interesting and creative bands in Scotland, many pushing the definition of indie in starkly different directions. There has been a commensurate burgeoning of venues, small, often sweaty and ramshackle, but perfectly formed to accommodate bands and artists learning their craft and trying to build a following. Music infrastructure in Scotland has always struggled but it is probably in as rude a health as it ever has been, with independent labels, promoters and recording studios all available to those who know where to look. Technology has also meant the growth of new infrastructure especially music blogs. Scotland has some great ones, including Song, by Toad, Aye Music, Dear Scotland, Last Year’s Girl, Peenko and Any Decent Music.
The current music scene in Scotland is far from bland. It’s eclectic and exciting with no common denominator defining its sound. Anyone wanting to test the theory could listen to the Phantom Band, Frightened Rabbits, Danananakroyd, Django Django, eagleowl, Conquering Animal Sound, the Lost Todorovs, Aberfeldy, Meursault, Found, Mitchell Museum, Kid Canaveral, Bottle of Evil, the Draymin, 1990s, Twilight Sad, Woodenbox with a Fistful of Fivers or Aerials Up. To name but a few.
2. “The rise of downloads and the demise of the record company model has strengthened the homogenisation of music. A world promising endless choice has produced risk-averse banal record labels and artists”
I’d argue the opposite actually. The demise of the record company model has actually created the ideal culture for the growth of diverse and innovative music strands. It was the dominance of several big record companies over established listening formats that stifled risk, change and experimentation. Independent record labels are more than holding their own. The ability to download has given such labels much greater audience reach, meaning they can take greater risks. Labels worthy of mention include Chemikal Underground, Sub Pop, Six Shooter Records, Song by Toad Records, Cooking Vinyl, LO-MAX Records, One Little Indian, Rough Trade, the Viper label and Southern Fried Records. This list shows current Scottish and UK ones.
3. “Music festivals were seen for a while as the new way of listening to music and for artists to make money, but the explosion of festivals can now be seen as the product of the boom…..As Paul Morley commented on Newsnight Review the music festival has lost any sense of being something different, culturally redolent of “the passivity of the masses”
Mr Morley needs to get out more. He might like to spend next year visiting all or any of these: Wickerman, the Larmer Tree, Loopallu, Rock Ness, Truck, Doune the Rabbit Hole, Eden Festival, Homegame, Wizard, the Edge Festival, Moor Music, Belladrum, Lounge on the Farm and Celtic Blue Rock. And for a review that demolishes the idea of the passivity of the masses, visit Mad Mackerel’s excellent music blog for this on last weekend’s End of the Road festival.
4. “Musical innovators will always emerge but the death of the single and album has so far presented musicians with problems. The single provided a way to breakthrough to a wider audience, while the album provided the platform for the “serious” artistic statement.”
The advent of the free and often illegal download has indeed presented a serious challenge to the industry. But the “death of the single and album” has been grossly exaggerated. Bands and artists are still releasing “singles” and putting together albums; it’s jus that the format and the process for reaching the audience has changed. Gerry’s article suggests halcyon by gone days. I’m sorry but growing up in a small town with only the top 20 singles to choose from in Woolies and a rack full of largely 80s pap to choose from on the album front made it hard to find the music I wanted to listen to. Before, we largely relied on word of mouth, John Peel and music mags to hear about a great new single; now we have a range of radio stations and presenters, music blogs, arts and music mags, lots of wee gig nights and festivals and of course word of mouth. Albums are still the platform for artistic statement. And sometimes even they provide a jolly good listen and escape.
5. “Just don’t expect, as unemployment hits three million again, for a modern equivalent of The Specials’ Ghost Town to be rising to the top of the charts.”
Actually do. Gerry’s article is essentially a lament for modern music and its inability to make relevant political statements. But I think that depends very much on your definition of political. There are still Billy Braggs out there; there are still bands like the Specials; but there are also much more subtle political statements being made. For example, the fact that so many Scottish bands these days embrace their accent rather than disguise it, is in itself intensely political. It reflects a much more relaxed attitude with their own skin and identity that is evident everywhere in our younger generation. As well as, at last, a recognition that success does not require adoption of the trappings and cultural acoutrements of other bigger neighbours.
Anyone looking for a more political statement could try any of these released in the last few years (not all of them Scottish):
Oh and check out Outsider Pop, a self styled “celebration of individuality, showmanship and the willingness to fly in the face of norms and expectations to make brilliant music”.
Nope, it wasn’t like this in our day, Gerry. Which is actually a very good thing. And maybe it’s time we oldies took our cue from the Who: “Why don’t you all fade away, And don’t try to dig what we all say”.