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Music and Time

Yesterday’s review by Michael Stuart of the Rod Stewart concert at the Hove cricket ground – an excellent piece on the enduring quality and appeal of one of rock music’s greatest vocal performers – brought to mind a slew of thoughts about the complex issues that sometimes attend that genre’s icons.

In many respects some of these can be traced back to the invention of sound recording devices in the fourth quarter of the 19th Century.

Previous to that – that is, unless and until one day science and/or archeological discovery proves that the ancient Egyptians or possibly Babylonians had ‘got there first’ – it was impossible to know exactly what music sounded like through history.

Today via the technological wonders of digital recording – whether just sound or sound and pictures – we are lucky enough to have the means at our disposal to listen to great classical music of the past, played on modern instruments in acoustically-perfect concert arenas, with greater plushness, fullness and aural spendour than those in the tens of generations before us ever did – or indeed could have dreamed of.

And here I’m talking about the composers of such pieces, never mind their contemporary audiences.

[I must add a mention in passing to those modern musicians who seek – not least by playing on authentic instruments of former years – to recreate what they believe may have been the experience of listening to music of the past as it would have sounded to those who were alive during the period in which it was created. We shall never know whether – for example – Bach, Beethoven or Schubert would have preferred to listen to their music as they knew it or as it is played around the world today.].

Then there is the factor that – like live music – a sound recording can only ever be ‘of its time’.

How different would Caruso sound today if he could enter the Abbey Road studios in London next week and issue a CD of his greatest hits in time for Christmas 2019?

From a personal perspective, to be frank, when I listen to the recordings that exist of Caruso singing in his own lifetime I sometimes wonder what all the fuss was about.

Similar issues affect popular music.

If you consider the greats of the 1940s onwards – Crosby, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett to name but five – their talent and celebrity gave them popularity that probably exceeded anything of the past.

To deploy a sweeping generalisation that may or may not prove the rule, the demarcations in the music industry at the time were such that songwriters wrote songs and vocalists performed them.

Those I referred to above could have thirty or forty year careers at the top by taking their pick of the best that Tin Pan Alley could provide and creating their own versions [and incidentally let’s acknowledge that by now Tony Bennett has probably had a sixty-plus year career!].

But then came rock ‘n roll.

And part of this ‘younger generation’ genre’s appeal was its anti-establishment rebellious streak.

Never mind Marlon Brando’s famous 1953 The Wild One motor-cycle gang movie in which some local citizen asked him “What are you rebelling against?” and he shot back with the classic line “Whaddya got?”, rock ‘n roll was a teenager’s music and in that sense its business was tearing down conventions, not respecting them.

When from about 1963 the Beatles’ creativity and excellence began to gain (perhaps initially grudging) respect from our parents’ generation, teenage mindsets being what they are, the coolest kids in town (which we all thought we were) moved on to the likes of the Rolling Stones – at the time the kind of surly, long-haired, dirty, anti-social rogues that our elders and betters would surely never accept musically, let alone as potential squires for their daughters.

But then arrived an issue which never really affected Crosby, Sinatra and their peers – the explosion of Sixties consumerism and the cult of youth that overwhelmed every walk of life from movie-making to fashion.

When you’re making music for the the younger generation, fashions constantly change.

When you’re in your twenties you can be an icon to teenagers: it’s a lot harder to be one when you pass thirty – not least because by then a younger generation of performers have come behind you.

And the key demographic to which you appealed has grown up, matured and come to terms with the harsh realities of life, even if you haven’t.

The punk movement of the mid-1970s was a reaction to the pompous self-indulgences of progressive rock which was trying to elevate itself into an art form.

Teenagers wanted rebellion – playing three chords (and often badly) was a wonderful gesture of rejection of the lifestyle of those whose latest albums were hatched in multi-million pound studios over eighteen months or so whilst otherwise they were now living in manor houses and playing polo with minor figures of royalty at the weekends.

However, of course, in that revolt lay the seed of the same problem.

The phenomenon that was Johnny Rotten was one day either going to make the well-trodden “early death” career move or else eventually grow seedy, fat and then end up appearing on our television screen is I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.

As he duly did.

Overnight, reflecting upon the Rod Stewart concert referred to above, I came across a review by Alexis Petridis of the concert by Neil Young and Bob Dylan in Hyde Park on Saturday evening, as appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN

From a personal point of view Neil Young has never done it for me – I hate the sound of his voice.

But I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan even though on the two occasions I have seen him in concert – as Petridis testifies – he invariably does his own thing and swings from the magnificent to the dreadful. “Giving the audience what it wants” is seemingly never a consideration. But maybe that’s all part of his appeal.

Twenty years or so ago – when I bought and listened to a CD of Dylan’s concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963 when he was barely 22 years of age and still some four months before he made his global breakthrough – what knocked my socks off was the humble and conversational manner in which he introduced his latest material to the audience – after which both the sheer brilliance of the songs that were seemingly pouring out of him, one after the other (many of them now classics of the Dylan oeuvre), and his mesmeric performances of them were revelations even nearly four decades later.



About Miles Piper

After university, Miles Piper began his career on a local newspaper in Wolverhampton and has since worked for a number of national newspapers and magazines. He has also worked as a guest presenter on Classic FM. He was a founder-member of the National Rust board. More Posts