Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tyranny of the Old


On Saturday that venerable old programme Desert Island Discs changed its format for a week and featured the 8 songs that listeners would wish to take with them to the hypothetical desert island. They had been writing and emailing their selections in for some time, it seemed. I immediately succumbed to the same temptation I imagine every other listener felt who hadn’t already sent in a selection and chose my own 8 songs, just for personal amusement (and to see if I couldn’t prove my intellectual and cultural superiority to my usual audience, the silent the walls of my living room at the Bard Gaff). This was the list I produced:

John Coltrane ‘Alabama’
Neil Young ‘Mansion on the Hill’
George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’
Elvis Presley ‘Mystery Train’
Bob Dylan ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’
Billie Holiday ‘Strange Fruit’
Fairport Convention ‘Mattie Groves’
Rolling Stones ‘Gimme Shelter’

(With Carl Perkins’ ‘Honey Don’t’ and Waylon Jennings’ ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ waiting in the wings if any of the other bands couldn’t make it.)

Looking at my list today, and thinking about the artists and songs favoured by the listeners to the programme, I realised what a horrible display of middle- and old-aged complacency and close-mindedness both had been. Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (which ‘only an awful grouch could dislike’, said Miranda Sawyer, one of the guests on the show, much to the amusement of this awful grouch, who dislikes the song passionately) nestle in the BBC list alongside Edward Elgar and Beethoven. As far as I can recall, actually, there was nothing in the top eight songs voted for by listeners that came out after 1980. That’s 13 years before the birth of most of the people I’m studying with at the University. (At least I chose something from the early 90s, in Neil Young’s ‘Mansion on the Hill’, although as an artist he is really associated with the hippies.) I’m more than happy there was no presence of Madonna, Michael Jackson, or that scion of the Fiery Furnace Rihanna in either of our lists, but might there not have been at least one song by the Smiths, or Nirvana (to bring it back up to twenty years ago)? I’m no expert on things modern, musically – although seeing ‘d & b’ as I believe the youngsters call it, performed in the flesh had a surprisingly powerful effect on me – but if you don’t close yourself off to them, great songs are everywhere. It’s just that you might not hear them in the places you used to now that nostalgia has become an industry (Take That? Again?), genre programmes proliferate, and the traditional mainstream sources of new music have decided nobody wants to listen to anything that can’t be played at thunderous volume out of a shiney new growling open-top car by a bloke with greasy spiked-up hair and a miniature sculptured beard; or that gaunt lads in cheap trackie bottoms walking two Staffs on chained leads around the weedy, pot-holed streets of estates like the one I live on can’t enjoy when they skin up after the soaps have finished. My d & b experience, after all, took place in someone’s house, in a small room upstairs where an internet broadcast was going out. And I hear delightful music being played by buskers on the streets every day. (Okay, they’re usually playing other people’s songs, but you get my point. Don’t you? Don’t you?)

Paul Gambaccini, that unsurpassed near-Biblical authority on What’s Happening (he knew ‘Freddie’, we hear, so his titular right cannot be challenged), used the disparaging phrase ‘the tyranny of the modern’ to explain why Susan Boyle was in the list of top female artists that the listeners to the programme had voted for. But he expressed not even the faintest stirrings of boredom while discussing the inevitable occupation of the number one and number two positions in the male list by the Beatles and Bob Dylan (both of whom, apparently, are more important than Beethoven and Elvis Presley). I love the Beatles and Bob Dylan to distraction, as anyone who’s ever visited my Facebook page or talked to me for more than three minutes will know to their cost, and I am certainly not suggesting that older people should be self-consciously modern – it makes me cringe when people of my age say they like JLS, or whoever the current favourite manufactured moneymakers might be – but our claim to want another 1967 or another 1977 does begin to look a little dubious and self-deceiving when we continue to listen only to the purveyors of those musical ‘revolutions’ through and out onto the other side of dribbling middle age. Didn’t we watch our grandparents grow old with their Caruso and Frankie Laine LPs and feel, without acknowledging it, that they were throwbacks to some faraway dinosaur world?

If we love music and the effect it has on our lives we must be open. We must be receptive. That’s how we discovered new things in the first place. The good stuff seems thinner on the ground than it used to partly because we’ve grown older and are more rigid in our thinking, and partly because the Capitalist greedheads control the old media through which it was transmitted to us. But who said a song needs to be played to more than five people in a garage to justify its greatness? Who said a revolution needs to change the world of more than one person?

That was the thrill of rock and roll in the first place: you heard Elvis Presley or the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or the Stone Roses in a record shop and walked to the bus stop in the rain with your mind and your stomach turned upside down. You went back to your office job or your warehouse job the next day a hero. There could be a better songwriter than Bob Dylan scribbling out his or her first tentative lyrics in a basement two doors down from you right now. If there is she’ll probably be a checkout girl in Aldi in ten years while some group of profoundly uncharismatic late teens with made-up single names, whose every move is orchestrated by the next Simon Cowell, and whose songs are all written and produced for them by a record company hack who once had a track on a Wet Wet Wet album, make millions on tv talent shows and the giant stages of the world (if not Britain) (for a while). But hey, that’s rock and roll in the Corporate Age. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t give a Cadbury’s Twirl what the Saturday night armchair fatsoes who make demi-gods out of these ambitious no-hopers for a glorious six months think about music anyway. It's what we, the cognoscenti, know that counts.

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