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Debating points

Michael Stuart on some vexed questions

Having reported upon my trek to Islington to see Friday night’s concert featuring Dave and Phil Alvin yesterday, I subsequently reminded myself of a fascinating discussion that my little group had whilst consuming its pre-match meal.

Amongst his many attributes, a couple of years ago my brother had the distinction of passing (I think it was) a Californian higher-education academic course on the history of pop/rock music which was available to take part-time and remotely, i.e. over the internet.

In the course of his studies, simply due to family and other commitments, he did have some problems with hitting essay and other deadlines but otherwise found the experience both enjoyable and challenging. One of his issues was that his advance knowledge of American rock music was inevitably less in depth and scope than that of his fellow US students. By the same token, of course, his inherent knowledge of the British music scene between 1964 and 1994 was probably superior to that even of the Californian professor who was supervising the course.

Our third group member was a knowledgeable and near-fanatical music fan who had either also signed up for the same history of pop/rock music course as my brother, or else something very similar, but in the end he had it given up before completing it.

It was the latter who began our discussion.

As a conversation topic, echoing received opinion that the best work done in some intellectually-based activities (e.g. mathematics and perhaps chess-playing?) is by definition done before the individual is thirty years of age, he asserted that in pop/rock music most top musicians and songwriters did their best work between the ages of 18 and 23 and, looking across the table, said “… Discuss”.

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney

The invitation prompted some interesting views and issues.

The Beatles and specifically Paul McCartney were our starting point. They broke up in 1970, the year in which Ringo and John had their 30th birthdays, Paul his 28th and George his 27th.

Our discussion leader was adamant that subsequently McCartney – bar a handful of tracks that he dismissed as exceptions that proved the rule – had spent the lasting forty-four years producing nothing remotely worthwhile.

I was prepared to argue his ‘nothing remotely worthwhile’ valuation of McCartney’s post-Beatle work, but I could see where he was coming from in principle.

And yet, arguably, the ability to knock out a tune was a knack you either possessed or you didn’t. Theoretically, therefore, writing pop/rock music was something you could do at any age – you’d didn’t need to be 21 to do it, surely?

How true was the ‘the best rock music is produced young’ assertion as a generalisation?

Neil Young

Neil Young

The names of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were raised as examples of people who had continued to produce excellent and original work into and beyond middle age.

However, there were also an enormous list of onetime huge global stars who were trudging around the ‘1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s revival’ tour circuit to questionable effect. Some, no doubt, were probably still making reasonable money in their sixties and seventies by the simple expedient of endlessly cranking out the tunes they’d composed in their twenties to anyone who was  still warped enough to fork out their hard-earned money to listen to them being played by the original artistes, however decrepit those artistes might now be.

Was it the case that by definition pop/rock music normally required its exponents to be young, anti-establishment, irresponsible, rebellious, debauched, sex-and-drugs-addled, possessed of a full head of hair and (in the style of Keith Richard perhaps?) thin, emaciated and/or, in those classic words, ‘elegantly wasted’?

Was rock music stardom a young person’s game, rather like sport?

Was it really seemly to be still singing about the frustrations and joys of youth, e.g. being broke and sex-starved, albeit unrepentant – as famously The Who did in their heyday (“Hope I die before I get old …”) – when you had reached 65 and had properties in four countries, a very healthy bank balance thank you (as recorded annually by The Sunday Times Rich List) … and were obliged to wear glasses and suffer from a spate of age-related conditions including hearing problems.

I placed my fellow conversationalists on the spot: “Supposing we had all been together in, say, a 1960s or 1970s group like The Hollies, The Kinks, Wishbone Ash, Freddie and the Dreamers, Barclay James Harvest [I leave the reader to add in their own youthful favourites at this point] … at our ages now, would we be living in quiet, contented, secluded retirement – or instead would we be prostituting (making fools of) ourselves, churning out the rebellious hits of our youth in town halls and obscure little theatres up and down the country to our fellow old age pensioners?”

Quick as a flash, the consensus answer came back “If we were making good money, we’d be prostituting ourselves, of course – no question about it!”

Someone then mentioned classical music composers. To what extent did the same ‘best work done when young’ stricture apply to them? The three of us were far less expert in this field, but our ‘sense’ was that years (decades) of musical experience was probably a positive thing when it came to knocking out symphonies and choral works.

My brother chipped in on the career of Mozart. At one dinner party he had remarked upon the Austrian’s astonishing composing genius, evident from as early as the age of 5. A fellow guest took issue: “I’m sorry, that’s a complete fallacy. All Mozart’s early work is basically crap. He only truly flowered once he was into his twenties”.

I’m afraid I’m not competent to comment upon that one.

It may not surprise you that, by the time we had reached the point where we were obliged to call for the bill and make our way to our gig, we had resolved few if any of these thorny issues.

We agreed that we should convene another meeting in short order to continue the quest.



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About Michael Stuart

After university, Michael spent twelve years working for MELODY MAKER before going freelance. He claims to keep doing it because it is all he knows. More Posts