Living in the Past

Or, Is our reverence for the past ruining modern rock music?

I love “old” music. Sixteen years after I first blew the dust off my father’s old records, I still find myself going back to The Who, The Doors, Pink Floyd, and even now I find myself rummaging through CD shops looking for reissues of old progressive rock albums from the late ’60s and early ’70s. There is a general consensus that this was a golden era for experimentation and invention in rock music, as bands dabbled with different phases of the Blues, psychedelica, jazz, and even the beginnings of Heavy Metal. Nobody’s saying you have to like it, but for better or worse, a lot of strange and wonderful music came out of that period, and I reserve the right to consider anyone who says, “oh, I don’t listen to anything recorded before [e.g.,] 1988” a bit up their own arse.

If I pause The Soft Machine’s first album, and snap back to the present day, there seem to no shortage of people telling me that rock music isn’t what it used to be – and I know I’ve been that person myself on plenty of occasions. Superficially, the symptoms seem to add up. The guitar music fed to the public by “tastemakers” seems to be dominated by bland, young pretty boys gently stroking acoustic guitars, and scrawny little tosspots who either whack eighth-note chords (“rhythm guitar”) or repeat four-note phrases (“lead guitar”) while some other tosspot yelps over the top. Every so often, the NME will get a throbbing hard-on for some group or artist, calls them “the saviour(s) of modern rock music” and other hyperbolic accolades, and they invariably turn out to be shite. And when a band does break through who are deemed to be playing “real” rock music, they’re either incredibly derivative, or they’re impossible to take seriously.

It would be easy to blame the record companies, and domineering record producers who listen to what their present crop of darlings have written, and tell them it’ll never sell, and do you think you could make it sound a bit more like your last hit? Why challenge your public, when you’ve already seen that they’ll buy your fifth re-hash of the same song if they like you enough? The theory seems to be widely accepted that these bloated gatekeepers are only interested in sales figures, and they’re an easy target to blame for a lack of (mainstream) musical innovation. But should we also start to ask questions of the musicians?

This was partly inspired by post from another blogger, who feared for the future of the Blues, a genre which many people, perhaps unfairly, pigeon-hole as a simple twelve-bar format for guitarists to masturbate over. In a similar way, it seems to me that as rock music has gone through its various major phases, it’s become increasingly conservative. Time and again, we’re told that punk had to happen to blow away the excess of prog rock (right, so punk had to come and kill off a niche genre of music that, by its very definition, shied away from the mainstream – with the possible exception of Pink Floyd’s overblown The Wall stage show, how exactly was prog rock “in the way”?) For something which was inherently about rebellion and ignoring the rules, punk did seem to enforce a lot of rules on its artists. Short songs. Be angry. Don’t sing; sneer. Several groups had an outright ban on guitar solos.

If it was blowing away the excess of prog rock, it clearly aimed at the wrong target, because the horror that was most late ’70s / early ’80s stadium rock seemed to be alive and well once the dust was settling after the first wave of punk bands. They ignored the rules the punks had worked to, and defiantly carried on making their idea of “real” rock music, but any sense of invention just seemed to be missing. They cherry-picked the bits they liked from earlier music and rehashed it, just with twiddlier guitar solos, more modern production, and more ridiculous hair. Grunge came along and showed how naff they all looked, and just imposed a different set of rules, looking backwards at a different set of bands.

And now, you have the option to “explore” Abbey Road Studio via the magic of digital simulation. In what sounds like a highly impressive piece of software, a series of modules allow to recreate the sounds of this revered studio on your own home recordings. I’m not going to dispute that this is a highly impressive feat of software engineering, and I certainly wouldn’t pretend that I’d turn down a chance to record in a studio like Abbey Road (I’ll freely admit that we looked up their fees when we were shopping around for studios to record in). It just feels as though, with all the technological wizardry that allowed people to create something like this, our first instinct was to look backwards, once again, at the sounds of “classic” albums.

This, I fear, is the problem with so many modern rock bands. Of course I love hearing those old classics, and they have very evidently informed the way I play, and the way I write, but if you invest all your time in trying to sound like Led Zeppelin, you’ll only ever sound like a facsimile of Led Zeppelin. Granted, people might well enjoy it – particularly those liable to complain that nobody plays “real” rock music any more – but surely you risk running out of good ideas very quickly? With the best will in the world, a catchy guitar riff does not (necessarily) a good song make. It’s all very well citing Smoke on the Water, Whole Lotta Love (or The Small Faces’ You Need Lovin’ that they allegedly pinched it from), or even the majority of Black Sabbath’s early output, but if you dig deeper into the albums from that era, you quickly realise how many other good guitar riffs were overlooked. If you keep focusing on what a select few “great” or “classic” bands did before, you might never come up with anything genuinely fresh and new – and suddenly, you start to realise why a lot of people consider guitar-based rock to be a stagnant and conservative genre.

You don’t have to go that far off the deep end to find something which can put you in a similar mindset to a lot of those “classic” ’60s albums, but with fresh-sounding ideas. All I really ask is, rather than simply looking backwards at 1971 and all agreeing, “gosh, wasn’t Led Zeppelin IV a great album?”, wouldn’t we do better to immerse ourselves in the sounds and styles of that era, but then point our perspectives forward? Don’t just stop and get comfortable in your favourite “classic” albums: pick up where Pink Floyd or Hawkwind left off, and keep on inventing. Learn from them, then go to places where they didn’t – or couldn’t. Let’s face it: if we can now build software to take us round an old recording studio, surely we can create something to take us into outer space?

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