Suzanne Connolly analyses the intent behind the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’.
2013 marks the 35th anniversary of the recording of Fleetwood Mac’s generation-defining album “Rumours”, heralding the chance for them to return once again to the world stage on their upcoming 2013 tour. It is interesting, then, to consider just how “Rumours” revealed in the raw fragility of a band which would go on to have such unlikely longevity. Aspects of fear and change are apparent in almost every song featured on the album, revealing tensions and relationship breakdowns that were occurring within the band at the time the tracks were written and recorded.
Search “Fleetwood Mac The Chain 1982” on YouTube and you’ll come across what is, I find, one of the most emotionally charged live performances ever recorded. What you are watching is not simply a band performing a greatest hit, but a band performing a greatest hit in the midst of several personal crises and unapologetically showing it.
The resonance of the song’s lyrics with the band, especially in former romantic partners Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, is evident as they showcase not only their musical talent but manifest within it their lingering tensions through brooding glares, animalistic howls and direct address from one to the other. “The Chain” happens to be the only song credited to all five members, Nicks, Buckingham, Fleetwood, McVie and McVie. Recognisable to many, partly due to the use of the bass solo on Formula 1 coverage, “The Chain” reveals the fears of a band which would profit hugely from the same internal breakdowns which threatened to end their collaboration before it had the chance to really begin.
As the lyrics show, the song deals with a fear of breaking commitment both to a relationship, as was the case with the inter-band breakups of Nicks and Buckingham alongside the divorce of John and Christine McView, as well as the fear of the breakup of the musical collaboration, shown in the accusatory lines:
“And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain”
The final chant-like repetition of the line “Chain… Keep us together” provides a sort of mantra for the band at a time of great uncertainty as to their staying together.
Although the history of Fleetwood Mac is much longer and more complex than just “Rumours”, the band itself having several line-up changes before and after, it is undoubtedly this album which established them as one of the greatest bands of the 20th Century and is finding a revived fan-base in the 21st. Lindsey Buckingham ends the intense 1982 live performance of “The Chain” with a few words to the crowd: “a lot of people were wondering what happened to us… Well we’re here to show you that we just refuse to go away”. True to his word, 35 years on Fleetwood Mac are living up to this statement, and “The Chain”, even if they have had more than a few bumps in the road along the way.
This is the hip-hop that matters, it is born out of poverty and discrimination, searches for justice with beats and rhyme. There is a growing scene of Muslim hip-hop in Europe, their music expresses their hostility towards being objectified as an enemy or as dangerous people, they feel marginalized. Farah Pandith, the US representative to Muslim communities in America, says hip-hop conveys a “different narrative” to counter foreign violent ideology, it is a form of peaceful protest, and suffering is best conveyed to the privileged through the arts of music, visual media, or written literature. However these forms of protest have been condemned by governments as “Muslim hate rap,” rappers have been prosecuted and the slogans like “Free Palestine” have been tuned out of Radio One Xtra to “ensure impartiality was maintained.”
Salah Edin, a Dutch rapper, speaks of racial dicrimination and islamophobia, in his music video ‘Het Land Van,’ (funded by the government and later condemned for its racialism) he is body searched and an old man is searched because he was praying, Salah Edin’s beard progressively becomes thicker as the video progresses and this leads him headlong into Guantanamo bay.
Kerry James is a French Haitian rapper born in Paris, he is widely known in France and popular among the large West Indies and Muslim population. He speaks out against the same problems of race and religion, he says the French government are:
“…pillagers of wealth, murderers of Africans, torturers of Algerians, the colonial past is yours, you chose to link your history to ours…”
In his video people are blindfolded, handcuffed, guns and barbed wire surround them. These symbols clearly show us the feelings of the marginalized populations in Europe, and it could replay the Civil Rights Movement in America during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Six hours after writing this article the Narcicyst (Iraqi – Canadian hip-hop artist) declared on Facebook…
“Due to partnerships that have just been made clear to me, I have chosen to drop out of the CreativeTimeSummit tomorrow in Dubai. I stand in support of the Palestinian people and against the genocide of a people and am a firm supporter of the Palestinain BDS National Committee. I apologise to the organisers here, but it is my duty and role as an Arab artist to stand with the people of Palestine. To see the change we have to be the change.”
The history of folk music is often associated with an overt political stance and didactic intellectual sentiments. Yet its renaissance in recent years which has permeated mainstream charts with pseudo-folk music in a guise which is devoid of such tropes. The social protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan feel long done, and one wonders how such monolithic figures would view self-fashioned folk bands such as Mumford and Sons. Would they see them as contemptibly contrived, or somehow retaining the essence of their past music? Exploring such a question can have its merits.
Bob Dylan described his attraction to folk music, and what compelled him to write such songs, as being found in the fact that folk music was “more of a serious type of thing. The songs were filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings”. He was drawn into it as he felt that it interacted with the listener on an sentimental and intellectual plain, rather than the rock ‘n’ roll of the time which he saw as simply Hedonism that held “great catch phrases and driving pulse rhythms” at its core. Through these “great catch phrases”, Dylan notes how the rock ‘n’ roll music of the 1960s was construed to capture public support, but actively revolted against such consumerism, and felt – or rather may have wanted to feel – that “I had no songs in my repertoire for commercial radio”.
Yet this music which strived to forge a more private relationship with the listener, also paradoxically believed music to have the potential for important wide-reaching social change. Indeed, one of Dylan’s compatriots in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, Joan Baez, fervently expressed her belief that “action is the antidote to despair”, through her music. At a march for civil rights in Washington in August 1963, the pair – Dylan’s reputation not yet cemented – performed in front of the thousands of protesters, and from henceforward were linked to the plights and protests of such Americans. A large number of their most seminal recordings are such ‘protest-songs’, and songs such as “The times they are a-changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” are formative members of the western canon.
And here we come to those singers and groups that are branded ‘folk’ by sometimes themselves, sometimes critics, and sometimes by listeners, yet they precipitate a number of questions: have they redefined the genre? Or has the very term ‘folk’ been so bounded around that it retains only a semblance of what it previously defined?
Artists that fall under this ambiguous genre of ‘folk’ such as Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons, seem to have in many respects retrograded the tropes the genre has hitherto held dear. Instead of the reserved and often poignant songs of Neil Daimond or Dylan, these artists reveal at best contrived sentiment, and at worst unashamed frivolity. But the public devouring of such releases is clear in impressive chart sales.
In addition, songs by these artists – indeed, whole albums – are embarrassingly self-absorbent, a far cry from the aforementioned politically motivated singer-songwriters. Of course it can be posited that all art is self-absorbed, but these recent neo-folk releases seem to be entirely divorced from the social context they are written in. Sentimentalists will defend them as “timeless expressions of the human condition” or some other tosh, but they undeniably not in keeping with the socially minded folk music of the 1950’s/60’s/70’s.
The problem may lie in the critical mis-classification of these new artists, more than any damning criticisms of their artistic merits, or lack thereof. Yet my real contention rises from their elevating to a pedestal of what should be celebrated as some of the most powerful of twentieth century music. Donning an archaic waistcoat and growing a beard, or having a violin in one’s band does not constitute replicating one of peaks in popular music.
The cliché is familiar: progressive rock, with its copious capes and pretentious lyrics, was a dinosaur slain by punk – honest music, made by good down-to-earth rock ‘n’ rollers. I put it to you that the above is fallacy. That punk never killed prog rock. That prog changed and progressed, outlasting punk. I posit that this was never even the aim of punk. Punk’s fight was elsewhere, and it is only due to lazy journalism and revisionist history that the ‘facts’ we have come to know are treated as gospel.
But, with your mind suddenly filled with images of anarchy, Mohicans and phlegm, I hear you cry: ‘Punk broke in 1976, sweeping away the old farts of prog’. Indeed, this is widely accepted, but even a most cursory glance at historical fact shows prog was busy elsewhere when punk broke, and then proceeded to return stronger than ever.
By 1975 the major players in prog were incapacitated. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were on hiatus. Yes were on tour. King Crimson had ‘ceased to exist’ the previous year, and with Genesis beginning their long, painful slide into banality, Peter Gabriel licked his wounds and prepared for his future solo career.
The popular musical landscape of the time was barren (recent repeats of Top of the Pops from the era confirm this). Filled with trite whimsy and the final excretions of music hall and vaudeville, it was a void that needed filling. The rot in the charts is emblematic of the troubles gripping the country at the time. The governments of Heath and Wilson had crippled the country, people taking comfort in mumsy light entertainment (and bloody legs and co). It was this blighted isle – plagued by strikes, shortages and the three day week, that punk was rebelling against. The anger was cultural and political, not aimed at some hippies singing about mushrooms, man.
At this point I feel it is important to define what I mean by progressive rock. True prog rock is an ethos. A belief that music can, indeed should, be made that strives for the new – that pushes it just that bit further. That incorporates different musical textures and patterns, music that pushes the technological boundaries of the medium and explores the human condition. Attempting to prove that music is an art form.
Genuine progressive rock fulfils all of these criteria. Listening to classic music of the genre the above becomes clear – no two bands sound the same, but they all are capable of producing music that is no longer simply ‘rocking’ or ‘groovy’. It is music that achieves the beautiful and the sublime.
It is important to remember this definition of prog when discussing the punk sea-change. Yes, the particular style of ‘prog rock’ of the early seventies was dead by 76/77, but of course it was – the ‘genre’ (if indeed we can really think of it as such) moved on. Listen to Peter Gabriel’s early solo albums, to David Bowie’s late 1970’s output, to the incarnation of King Crimson born in 1981 – using our definition, they are all prog rock. The music supposedly being destroyed had dodged the charge of the punk brigade and progressed. As such, to envisage punk in direct opposition with prog is anachronistic as humans battling dinosaurs.
The supposed rage and vitriol expressed by punk musicians towards prog was a cheap trick employed by the music press and the industry itself to make the new punks seem more exciting – more dangerous. Danger sells in this line of work, and everybody knows it.
In reality however, the punks had an admiration and debt to prog rock. Before anyone was demanding anarchy, the proggers were truly doing what they wanted, regardless of whatever anyone else wanted of them – how can anything be more punk than that? Without Jethro Tull or Peter Hammill there would be no Johnny Rotten. Rat Scabies of the Damned is a confirmed fan of Phil Collins. The Clash released ‘Sandinista!’ in 1980: a triple album no less self-indulgent than Yes’ infamous Tales from Topographic Oceans.
Punk’s image was manufactured for selling records and Vivienne Westwood’s designs. Punk of this type was very much style over substance. All about the filth and the fury – but not the music. How many people can recall any of Sham 69’s tunes?
The more creative bands of the era beg the question – can such a thing as ‘prog-punk’ exist? Can music fulfilling our prog criteria also maintain the immediacy and rawness of punk? The prog ethos can be applied to any genre. If Magazine, PiL, or any of a whole host of other so called ‘post-punk’ bands aren’t prog then I’ll eat my mellotron. Howard Devoto or David Byrne’s lyrics are no less pretentious than Peter Gabriel’s, but I would suggest equally compelling and enlightening.
Prog and its history are in dire need of a reassessment. The concept of what prog truly means needs to be understood. Forward thinking, creative and progressive music is alive and well today, well outliving ‘real’ punk (whatever that is). It is because of our desire to compartmentalise everything and have our lives be ubiquitously neat and categorised that we focus so much on genre.
But prog rock is not a genre. Not really. It is music made by creative people in an attempt to get that bit closer to perfection, to art, to God. Whatever you want to call that something deep in the human psyche that leaves us with a desire to create the transcendental, or die trying. Popular music is an art like all others, and prog rock is just an example of artists making art. The resilience of the human spirit that means you just can’t kill it. Peter Gabriel wrote perhaps the perfect prog epithet in 1973: – “The sands of time were eroded by the river of constant change”.
From allegations of intellectual property law breaches and plagiarism, to accusations of lack of creativity and pure laziness, the notion of sampling music has been subject to years of criticism from all angles. But what’s on the other side of the coin? Is sampling instead a celebration of compositions that had particular cultural impact? Is it a producers way of paying homage to those who paved the way for them? Hopefully this short celebration of the art of hip-hop sampling will answer these questions in the affirmative and dispel any doubts over its validity as an artform.
My unparalleled love for the hip-hop sample resurfaced stronger than ever after recently watching a documentary following the on-tour lifestyles of artists signed to Stones Throw Records. This included English underground sensation MF DOOM and American rap superproducer Madlib, who together made one of the most critically acclaimed hip-hop albums of the last ten years: Madvillainy. One particular scene pictures Madlib in the famous Cosmos record shop in the Richmond Hill district of Ontario, Canada, explaining his love for the art of sampling. Madlib has a Gene Ammons record from the 1940s in one hand and a Muhal Richard Abrams record from the 1950s in his other hand. These are musicians who were geniuses in their own right, but probably never even thought once in their lifetimes about hip-hop – indeed Ammons sadly died when one of hip-hop’s most notable forefathers, Afrika Bambaataa, was only four years old. But artists such as Madlib still manage to rework their masterpieces and render them relevant to modern times, which keep the genre alive behind the cloudy haze of major-label consumerism.
Despite totalitarian attitudes from close-minded hip-hop naysayers echoing ‘sampling is plagiarism’, sampling is in fact a mailing of appreciation from the hip-hop producer to the original composer. For example, DJ Premier of the rapper/producer duo Gang Starr ripped a simple 3-second sample from John Dankworth’s upbeat jazz number “Two Piece Flower” in order to create a song very close to his heart, “Above the Clouds”. Premier has nothing but respect for the legacy of Dankworth and wants to promote the 1927-born artist’s catalogue of work as well as to learn and create from it. Premier has opened my eyes to an amazing artist I was previously unfamiliar with, continuing his legacy and keeping his music alive and relevant; how this can even remotely be seen as cashing-in or selling-out is beyond me. Premier also recently starred in a project named Re:Generation where he took a crash course in classical music learning how to lead orchestras and write classical music to further expand his musical premise. This has inevitably led to him creating music through remastering and sampling classical music in a hip-hop environment. Artists such as Madlib and Premier are some of the most vastly disciplined and talented musical brains ever to release their creations to the masses, I just sincerely wish more people would appreciate their artform rather than dismiss it.
Indeed, sceptics of the sample will call it lazy and unimaginative; and admittedly it can be. Take the well known example of Kanye West’s sample of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” on his Graduation album; which in itself was already a somewhat docile sample of the classic Edwin Birdsong number Cola Bottle Baby. Or consider Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting” that would eventually be lazily sampled to create G-Funk classic “Regulate” by Warren G. Of course the most offensive and frustrating sight is reading comments such as “this totally ripped off Kanye” attached to the original works. In these cases, I can completely understand the doubts surrounding sampling, but when it’s done correctly the results can be beautiful. For example, in a recent interview with Soul Culture Media, hip-hop producer Ninth Wonder responded to critics claiming that samplists lack creativity by citing what is believed to be one of the best hip-hop samples of all time, and challenging any producer – old or new – to recreate such a feat. The song in question – produced by Pete Rock – was called “T.R.O.Y: They Reminisce Over You”, a tribute to Troy Dixon from the group Heavy D & the Boyz. Its story shows just how powerful sampling can be. A then-depressed Pete Rock heard the beautiful “Today” by Tom Scott and fell in love with its baseline and saxophone riffs. Sampling those elements, he created a new beat to which his partner C.L Smooth rhymed over paying homage to his late friend. Pete Rock recalls that upon hearing the final track in the studio, the whole team broke into tears to celebrate the life of Dixon. This not only paid homage to Dixon, but also celebrated the works of Scott.
Finally, allow me to mention possibly the most highly regarded hip-hop samplist of all-time, J Dilla of Slum Village. The Village’s first major release – Fantastic, Vol. 2 – is a masterclass in creating smooth hip-hop beats from sampling jazz and neo-soul. The most notable track from that particular record – “Fall-N-Love” – is a beautiful hip-hop reinterpretation of Diana in the Autumn Wind by Gap Mangione, a sample that encapsulates all I have discussed above. Dilla continued to promote his love for jazz sampling in creating his seminal album Donuts, of which the backstory is incredible. Whilst suffering from terminal illness, Dilla’s colleagues delivered a sampler and a small collection of records to him in hospital. He created and compiled 31 new instrumentals from around 50 samples and released them a mere three days before his death to critical acclaim. Dilla genuinely lived and died with his artform, and his work deserves nothing less than unnecessary stigma being attached to it.
If Premier, Madlib, Pete Rock, Dilla and the other great samplists have taught me anything, it is that sampling is a relatively unappreciated artform and one that should be more recognisable. The myths surrounding this artform can often be true when consumers look in the wrong places, but on the whole they are harmful to its reputation. True artistic sampling is worthy of the masses attention without any doubt and I would recommend any of the artists mentioned above.
Around five hundred days ago, Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts partied its way to its fortieth anniversary. One hundred and thirty five thousand people paid a fair sum of £185 to spend up to 5 days in a tent with several hundred bands playing night and day to keep them entertained. Now whether this sounds like your idea of a great way to spend your summer or some kind of torture technique, music festivals of all sizes have, on the most part, been on the rise these last few years, and have grown in popularity with both the consumer and the consumed. The former gets a chance to relax in a field with your favourite bands and/or to go “mental”, while the latter gets another way of both promoting their act and extending their business.
But what I’d like to take a look at is how things are from the band’s perspective. Getting on the festival circuit is what most bands need to do these days; with decreased revenue from physical music releases, digital sales providing them with very little share of the profit and piracy showing no signs of stopping, artists need more ways of making money. But this takes them to pretty varied places, with some varied crowds too. Take for instance the two music festivals I went to this summer past: Benicassim festival on the coast of Spain, and Green Man Festival in Wales. To say these festivals have a different atmosphere would be the most modest description I could provide: they are at opposing ends of what I would say is the scale that the mainstream festivals tend to sit between. On one side, we have Green Man; a fairly peaceful festival, focussing on indie and folk music with a few electronic twists and turns, but nevertheless a very family friendly frolic in a forest – or more accurately, the beautiful Brecon beacons.
Benicassim, on the other hand, is not somewhere I would take a young family for face painting and Chinese lanterns. Plonked on the outskirts of a smallish town-come beach resort, Bencassim effectively imports the English and Irish once a year to destroy the local surroundings, throw up on the majority of greenery struggling on the scorched terrain, swear at some locals for not understanding what a kebab is, then leave the residents to clean it up ready for next year. But don’t worry, Mumford and Sons are there to guide you through it all.
I wouldn’t give any prizes for guessing which one I preferred, but what I’m more interested in is which one the bands prefer. There were a few crossover acts that I happened to catch at both festivals, along with some acts I have seen elsewhere than the Spanish heat. Elbow in particular I have seen several times, the last time being before Benicassim in the O2 arena in London, with a huge but very respectable crowd. In Spain, sadly this was not the case. I accept that it is generally accepted that bands have gig playlists, where there will usually be an audience which is there for you and only you, and the paying customers are therefore ready and waiting for you to play the whole dynamic spectrum of your songs back catalogue. Whilst at a festival one expects more of a “greatest hits” deal, as most likely half your crowd is there waiting for Tinie Tempah or some other chart garbage. But to be honest a lot of the time at Benicassim the crowd mocked the bands through the level of respect shown through their levels of chatting. This is acceptable if it’s Pendulum or the first band on for the day, but it is beyond the pale when you’ve got bands such as Portishead or Elbow are playing; bands that have a lot of respect and a pretty huge fan base to boot, and leads you to wonder why people are there.
This is evident from the reaction on-stage. Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, normally a happy and bouncy leadman full of stories and jokes, spent most of his set worrying about people getting crushed at the front of the audience and looking miserable. When the band attempted to play “Mirrowball” – one of their quieter and slightly lesser-known songs – it was barely audible over the general chit chat and chanting reminiscent of football derby. Green Man on the other hand was full of bands expressing their love for the festival and the crowd. With acts such as Laura Marling getting such a good reception that there was almost perfect silence throughout her entire set, on the main stage. This thus created both a better experience for the listener and a better performance by the artist.
I accept that there are certain bands and festivals which specialise in particular genres which lead to certain crowds. In Benicassim, for example, bands didn’t start playing till late at night, with the headliners tending to start around midnight or 1am. Clearly they’re going for more of a party atmosphere, however due to the 30 degree heat during the day, they’d be pushed to put people on any earlier.
In the end I think it says more about us as a nation that we’ll pay a lot of money to go smash up a bit of another country for a few days. Potentially I was simply ignorant of the kind of crowd Benicassim would attract. I still can’t deny that I had a great time, when there are one euro bottles of sangria round the corner, there was no way I wasn’t going to. But surely bands are left wondering whether anyone really cares about what they’re playing, or whether they’re just the soundtrack to three drug-fuelled nights in a row. Does it even matter? Maybe next time they should just bring a CD along and a drum kit and press play, and watch everyone have a good time. It seems to work for Chase and Status.
Think of this as a hipster guide if you will. I’ve mainly included releases from July and August, because June was ages ago and I still can’t really count September as summer in this bloomin’ country. So, have a browse and see what you might like…
Samiyam, one of the founding members of the Brainfeeder collective (think Flying Lotus, Gaslamp Killer, Teebs), released “Sam Baker’s Album” at the end of June. Filled with a lot of good beats, quite a few bad beats and as always, some great sound effects. Highlight for me are the meows featuring in ‘Kitties’.
Washed Out released his debut album Within and Without [Sub Pop] half way through July. Sounding like his 2009 EP but less interesting, It’s one of those albums to float away on an inflatable crocodile to. One of the “founders” of “Chillwave”, you’ll probably know within the first three minutes of opener “Eyes Be Closed” whether or not you’re going to enjoy this album, as Mr. Washed Out, Ernest Greene, never really deviates from his pattern of dreamy synths, loops and other dreamy things.
Fink’s 5th LP, Perfect Darkness, came out in June to an unfairly mediocre reception. Fin Greenall is in the rather unlucky situation where he produces albums of great quality, harking towards an acoustic/ pop/blues sound, yet due to his being signed to Ninja Tune, an independent label centred on Jazz and electronic music, they don’t really have the marketing budget required to push some singles out there. Luckily for him, however, getting mentioned in a positive light in such an esteemed publication as the Zahir will no doubt send him flying towards the charts. We can only wait.
Serengeti: Family and Friends [Anticon]
The first thing I heard from this alt-rapper was a verse on Sufjan Stevens’ two-part charity contribution you are the blood, which was a rather bizarre electronic epic. He now returns with a real release, produced by Why?’s Yoni Wolf. You can certainly spot similarities between Yoni’s work and Serenjeti’s, bar Why?’s music is really good, while this hits just above average. It could, in fact, be Wolf’s fault more than Serengeti’s – the beats by the end of the record feel a little too similar and, although very different to the norm, don’t pack enough alternative punch for that to be a good thing.
HUDMO Satin Panthers EP [Warp]
My favourite Scottish beatmaker (sorry Unicorn Kid) comes out with a new EP following 2008’s Butter. There are some very big beats on this, but as is the problem with HudMo’s stuff, sometimes it gets a little bit too weird, and we miss out on what could have been a fantastic club banger. However look out for a side project of his, the truly fantastic (and slightly unofficial) “pleasure principle” – now this DOES have a pop appeal, and I really think HudMO should focus future efforts in this area, despite Warp Records probably not being so keen.
Shlohmo: Bad Vibes [Friends of Friends]
Shlohmo’s Bad Vibes is a bit like Mount Kimbie’s Crookes and Lovers, but less pace, and much more sleepy (If you’re familier with Mount Kimbie,think Tunnel vision) . It’s a great background album, but while Crookes and Lovers had some great hooks and somewhat of a club appeal, Bad Vibes was never going to end that way. The production however is super-tight, and is still a nice one to fall asleep to.
Beirut: The Rip Tide [Pompeii Recordings]
At the turn of August we saw Balken indie brass superstar Zach Condon return with Beirut and a brand new LP, The Rip Tide. His last two albums both superbly capture what is now Beirut’s niche sound: lush Eastern European influenced instrumentation and a voice fighting between opera and town crier. However, The Rip Tide is not really in the same league as what has come before it. I’m putting it down to the production being too clean and the horn parts too well rehearsed, but I’m still not sure. Basically, I would recommend anything else that you can get hold of from Beirut, apart from this album. It’s just not as good.
CANT: Dreams Come True [Terrible]
CANT’s Dreams Come True came out on Terrible Records (surely not a great way to sell CDs?) and is the solo attempt from Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. Anyone familiar with Grizzly Bear’s spacious and entertaining indie pop will recognise the vocal, as Taylor sings on many of their albums. However the sound is a lot more electronic, with influences perhaps from Caribou’s Odessa. Wherever it’s come from, it’s good stuff, and is worth tracking down.
Laura Marling: A Creature I Don’t Know
Laura Marling’s 3rd LP came out at the beginning of the September. Although another solid effort my the singer-songtress, A Creature I Don’t Know has Marling putting her American hat on for a large part of the album, which for me is a big disappointment, seeing as what really draws me to her music is her amazing vocal sound. Although I’m also a big fan of Joni Mitchell, someone who is clearly an influence on her music, it seems like she’s trying a little bit too hard to sound like her this time.
Well there were plenty more where they came from, but even I couldn’t spend all day just looking at the sunshine! And they probably weren’t worth your time anyway.
Inspiration. Creativity. Personality.
These words have as much to do with art as fact has to do with science. Art is a subjective process, whereby the innermost thoughts and feelings are displayed in a way that invites question and discussion. With science, information prompts complete understanding of a subject, leading to an objective result. In a word, science is everywhere, and whilst there is always more to know, more to study, and the world is changing all the time, all the answers are, in the end, definite, and based around logical proof. Conversely, art is being produced, new and exciting, all the time, evolving as a concept, through eras and époques, shocking and impressing and disgusting, sometimes all at once. Therefore the thing that matters most about art itself is that it is original. A scary, intimidating word, full of expectations of imagination and ingenuity, originality keeps art growing as an organic part of culture, with new ideas fuelling fresh angles and reworking established concepts. So why then has this wonderful thing been halted, stifled by today’s reality television-produced acts, the banality of pop bands, the predictable beat of mass production and the pandering of the music industry to the consumer?
To hit on a very relevant subject, let’s take The X Factor as a current example of the vacuousness that seems to be driving the art of today. When flashy reality TV shows based around finding the ‘next big thing’ in music (such as ‘Pop Idol’ which first broadcast in 2001) arrived on our TV screens, they may have not been everybody’s cup of tea, but they at least appeared focussed upon the task at hand – that is, seeking out and honing talent whilst entertaining the nation. One could argue that the first series of Pop Idol did just this, providing a final eleven who all held their own on a stage, a lineup of judges whose critiques tended to be honest and useful, and a rightful winner in a 22 year-old Will Young, whose career continues to flourish today. The manufacturing of the pop star may have ruffled a few feathers due to its unorthodox method of searching out a new face, but it was a fresh approach to doling out recording contracts. And Simon Cowell was pretty funny too. However fast forward a decade, and the TV pop talent show is now a farce; a joke in the eyes of the media and the public who still consume, but with more contempt and less genuine excitement. Originality has disappeared from the format, the comments of the judging panel, the song choices of the acts – even the acts themselves. The show panders to the small minority of the nation who enjoy futile, noisy drama, and has lost whatever talent it previously produced. And this in turn bogs down the music industry with undeserving singers, reproducing already-reputable artists’ styles and dumbing down songs to please the modern tastes of the public. It cannot go on.
As for the artists who have successfully conquered the showbiz industry, it goes without saying that many of them are to blame too. To look at one of the most famous female singers of today, one can see that Lady Gaga’s music is aesthetically pleasing and, most of all, fun. Yet it is not exactly original, something which she is often called. The songs are a mixture of Madonna, Britney and Beyoncé, the lyrics try hard to be shocking and sexy, yet end up losing their initial character with relentless repetition, meaningless vocal sounds and painful rhymes (‘Just a second, it’s my favourite song they gonna play / And I cannot text you with a drink in my hand, eh?’). An entertaining act she may be, but a unique, original one she is not, drawing on countless surprise tricks and reinvention techniques like all the divas that came before her. The saddest thing is that, while Gaga gets gazillions of radio plays and TV appearances every week, more distinctive, rare talent is flying under the radar, still undetected.
So how can we retrieve the creative zeal that fuelled the music of old? I’m not advocating a drug-infused song-writing craze à la The Beatles, or drinking and eating oneself into an early grave like Elvis Presley. Artists must simply remember that the point of art is to inspire, and one can only inspire by giving people new things to think about.
Some artistic collaborations were seemingly made to happen. With Van Gogh and Gauguin, or Robbie and Barlow, there is the overwhelming sense that – despite solo success – their real fruitful bowers came through partnership, a fusing of ideals. With others, the two Ronnies for example, one cannot help but feel that hours of anguish could have been spared if the fortuitous incident that brought two individuals together had never have happened. The third category, and the one that can precipitate hours of needless musing is the blending of principles that never even had the chance to come to fruition.
Take Wordsworth and Beethoven. Two such monolithic figures in European art, but rarely brought under the spotlight together. They stand so highly in their respective fields that it is forgivable to have hitherto not considered – and worthlessly it must be admitted – how their ideologies would have impacted each other, if at all. Would the English romantic have learnt anything from Ludwig? Could the latter have influenced Wordsworth to any positive effect? Is it even worth positing such an instance? With the time, space and ink to do so, why ever not.
The pair’s unifying ideals are superficially easy to spot. The two were, at stages, ardent supporters of French revolutionary ideals – specifically those of Liberté, égalité, fraternité – before becoming estranged and disillusioned. Wordsworth travelled to revolutionary France in 1791, so fervently sowing his seeds of support for the quest of freedom, he impregnated one Annette Valon, bringing about an illegitimate daughter Caroline. He also made appearances debating in the National Assembly in Paris.
At the turn of the century, Beethoven initially dedicated his third symphony, Eroica (“Heroic”), to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he saw as the locus of French revolutionary thought. Though later detracting its dedication, it portrays simply his desire to uphold the apparent move towards greater European freedom. This motif is also overt in his 1805 opera Fidelio, with grand scenes depicting the freeing of slaves, potentially allusions to Bastille of Paris, synonymous with the on-going revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century.
Both were also, in varying respects, patrons for the Hedonism that helped characterise the Romantic period, especially with the total adoration of nature. Wordsworth writes in The Prelude of the sensual ecstasy of rowing out onto Lake Coniston on a moonlit night. For him, nature was a lens through which life’s most significant aspects were somehow focussed, acting as a refuge. And Beethoven delights in the auditory and visual cacophony of nature in his sixth symphony, “Pastoral”, with its ability to transport one to an alternative, spiritual, creative, oneiric world.
The two also felt a great degree of duty towards their respective fields. In 1802, with his increasing angst over the onset of deafness, Beethoven wrote an extraordinary monologue addressed to his two brothers, in which he eventually concludes he will struggle on solely for his music, which he acknowledges he has such a talent for. Similarily Wordsworth, in the wake of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine’s social reform tracts, felt that the purpose of some of his poetry was to unmask the unequal and unjust facets of society.
Yet though they both were inspired by sensory experiences, Wordsworth uses the manifestations of these experiences with the goal of greater social ends than Beethoven was even wont to do. Celebrating the drunken, merry revelry in the setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in his ninth symphony, he was using his art to support an individual bacchanalian mindset, not for any great social results like Wordsworth.
Some of the same principles, therefore, exist in both their artistic mantras. They would have clashed with vitriolic passion over other aspects of their outlook, but it would appear their vastly different artistic outputs were, in part, propelled by the same forces. Who knows, then, how they would have taken to each other.
For me, a great film is determined by its music. Whether that be a soundtrack or a composition written especially for the film, there is nothing better than when music and story come together to create the perfect cinematic moment. It can make you weep, laugh or just completely consume you in ways that words alone could not.
Where would we be without the mystical and heroic sound that came when Elliott flies E.T into the forest on his flying bike whilst totally encircled by the moon. It’s no wonder the film was nominated for nine Oscars at the 55th Academy Awards. Similarly, Pirates of the Caribbean shot to fame with its widely recognised soundtrack. The staccato strokes of the violins that come with every battle scene makes the spectator actually want to be a pirate, but only if that music played in the background whilst you went about your plundering. Star Wars, too, with its unmistakably uplifting and dramatic theme music composed by John Williams. We wouldn’t know Star Wars without it. Jaws would just be a fish that goes around eating people without those two notes that create all the suspense. All these films could be recognised with your eyes closed, which is a funny thing to say about a medium famous its visual nature, but it is because they are defined by their musical scores.
Arguably in the early nineteenth century, the soundtrack of a film was just about the most important part of the film as there was no spoken word. Synchronized dialogue was only made possible in the late 1920s with the introduction of the Vitaphone system and until then, muted gestures came to life with music. Slow tempo and violins immediately gave the audience the signal that sadness was approaching in the next scene, and then the high speed brass band lifted the mood for the happy ending. Even as late as 1936, Charlie Chaplin was gracing the big screen with his silent comedy ‘In Modern Times’ in which his ‘Little Tramp’ character struggles to survive in the industrialized world. The entire music score was written by Chaplin himself and synchronized perfectly to emphasise his moments of comedy. The soundtrack was the director’s way of telling the audience how to feel, and not much has changed.
Soundtracks do not have to have been composed especially for a film for them to be spectacular. One of my favourite examples of when music and cinematography combine to produce genius is in The Garden State, when Zach Braff takes a pill at a house party and sits motionless while the room around him speeds up and slows down in a blur of Zero7’s In the Waiting Line. Braff, who directed and wrote the film, said that, “Essentially, I made a mix CD with all of the music that I felt was scoring my life at the time I was writing the screenplay”. And don’t underestimate the good old RomCom. Notting Hill won a Brit Award for Best Soundtrack, beating Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. For me, the moment of genius came when Julia Roberts goes back to America leaving Hugh Grant to continue his life, as before, at the travel book shop in Notting Hill. There are many ways they could have showed the dreary passing of time for Hugh, but they scored gold with his lengthy walk through Notting Hill market to the song Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers. There is no speaking in this scene, yet we get so much out of it. The pregnant woman at the start is holding her baby by the end. The market has gone from selling summer fruit, to hats and gloves, to spring flowers. This is a perfect example of when music and film combine to produce cinematic magic.
I am one of those people who watch a film then immediately buy the soundtrack. Then when I’m listening to a song, even if I don’t already have a great memory to go with it of my own, I can steal a memory from the film where the song fitted perfectly. Listening to music gets that much better when it brings back a previous feeling or takes you back to a previous situation. Cameron Crowe, who wrote and directed ‘Almost Famous’, has said: “The best soundtrack music by-passes your mind and goes straight to your soul”. A good soundtrack goes beyond accompanying the story in an emotionless and necessary way to being what makes the story mean anything to you.