The Medium Is Tedium
Someone approached the decks during my set at Bartok the other night. With one hand on the axe that I keep alongside the Technics, I turned to face the guy. Luckily (for him), he was one of the few people in the bar (or in London, the country, or the planet) with decent taste, so I deigned to engage him in micro-conversations between mixing Berio with Riley and Mouse On Mars (full playlist printed in this month's Mixmag). He asked me where I got my music from and I told him 'Anywhere and everywhere, but rarely megastores and often second-hand'. But what he really meant was which radio stations, which media sites provided the inspiration. I don't think he believed me when I said that I only listened to Radio 2, although citing The Wire was something he could understand.
All this relates, coincidentally, to Kevin and Alistair's recent articles on the same subject. Since the deckside conversation the other night, I've been pondering the subject myself. One obvious conclusion is that the only show or magazine that would completely satisfy us is one we might produce ourselves. But since we're unlikely to get our own radio shows or magazines, we still dream of a single outlet comes close to being satisfactory. Regarding magazines, The Wire is still the best thing going in terms of eclectic fringe activity, having cornered the market for Moroccan nose-flautists and Finnish sound-manipulators. Unfortunately, encounters with various products means flirting with some unspoken tribal allegiance. By simply, stating a preference for The Wire, I'm sure some of you will be forming assumptions about me right now. But I'm not an 'intellectual' and don't own one recording by Stockhausen, or Stock, Housen & Walkman, honest, and I ain't been to no university neither, guvner.
Yes, in common with anyone over 30, I remember the days when the NME was 'essential'. But, let's face it, the day that you couldn't imagine, when you don't rush to the newsagents for a fix of critical wisdom, inevitably does arrive. I'm tempted to call this 'growing up', but since I'm blatantly still a kid at heart, that's not necessarily true. It is, however, a mark of someone who's either left all that behind, or simply found their own way of sampling the media and selecting their music. As for journalistic talent, there may well be a new Lester Bangs or Richard Meltzer out there, but you won't see me down the newsagents buying the NME to find out (I'd have to hide it inside a copy of Asian Babes and if it fell out I'd die of embarrassment).
The times dictate the nature of the media, don't they? In the two way transmission of creation and reaction, is anyone today really that inspired to produce writing that reflects the magnificence of modern music? If there's a 21st century equivalent of The Stooges, Coltrane, James Brown, or The Clash (and writers raving about them in passionate prose form), please let me know. Personally, accepting the fact that I'm 'old' and 'out of touch', I don't see these as exciting times, musically. The only ones who might disagree are probably paid to do so, or young enough not to know otherwise. Unaffected by the wisdom that age brings (all that suffering so many duff records and, yes, experiencing the great ones too), Youth still get their kicks.
Ah, the generation game...each new one has its own soundtrack, of course, and the older mob shuffle off clutching the records that meant so much to them in their teen and twentysomething years. Some settle down, get sensible, and give their hard-earned cash to more worthy causes (kids, the mortgage, expensive cheese etc.), whilst others still like to 'keep in touch' with what's happening. Good earners can do both, but they'll probably still find themselves out of sync when they visit a club or live music venue ('It was full of kids!'). Despite living in age an in which being over thirty doesn't necessarily mean retirement to the metaphorical old folks home hi-fi experience, 'the gap' is still there. It may not be as wide as it once was, but it will never, ever disappear.
Alistair mentioned Sleazenation, and it's the best example of post-modernist 'edge' in the media, for sure. That's the twentysomething 'revolution', not into 'style' or politics, but pick'n'mix Pop/Trash culture. Their recent feature on 'revolutionary' music read more like ironic nostalgia than some attempt to inspire debate or even, heaven forbid, cultural action of some kind. They know their readership, so they know that quaint old-fashioned notions of politically rebellious music are the subject of historical reference rather than active engagement. Meanwhile, Q, Mojo and the others reap the harvest of a generation who hold dear the album of the same name, and still want to read in-depth articles about how it was made. Looking for the equivalent of grandeur in Rock of Olde, they'll also devote acres to the likes of Radiohead and Oasis, as if they're continuing some grand tradition of Worthwhile music.
Shunning all those guitars, you might dip your toes in the Balearic waters of Dance music journalism, only to find that it's totally vacuous and less inclined towards historical perspective. For the older clubber, 'history' amounts to the heady days of '88, beyond which their vision becomes blurred. Jockey Slut, the best of a very bad bunch, has done retrospectives of Major Artists like Stevie Wonder, but the need to 'keep up' means that they must fill their pages with yet more snapshot profiles of blokes who've made not one but two 12-inch EPs and are poised to release their first (and probably last) big album (just like proper musicians do).
So, stuck between Rock and a hard place, the older listener in search of reading matter that will provide a boost to their flagging collection finds himself adrift between nostalgic heritage and superficial Nowness. No wonder The Wire's circulation is improving all the time. It's a shame that reading it conjures up memories of the Tony Hancock sketch in which he settles down with some Bertrand Russell, only to find that he spends more time checking the dictionary than learning anything. It isn't the amount of 'big' words that's the problem, anyway, it's the between-the-lines air of swotty studiousness that annoys me and, I suspect, many other readers.
A quick dip into Youth media should alert older voyeurs to the fact that it's just that - it's not aimed at you, you old fart! Everyone in Youthville today is bubbly, energetic, flashy and trashy, and that's how they want to be. There's no room for miserable, brilliant types like Joy Division today, although bands like Radiohead (hardly Youth music) maintain a profile as 'serious' outsiders. Thirty years ago, a generation must have sighed in disbelief at the spectacle of Glam kids bopping to Gary Glitter when they spent their youth marching against The Bomb and still believing in a 'revolution' of some kind (Yippy!). My generation's time came in the 80s, when we were the last to fall for the old Socialist ideology and, as continuity would have it, we got our own nuclear war to fight (against) too.
To rally against the boy/girl band thing today (as some broadsheet critics are still apt to do), is futile. That's just the early-thirtysomething generation filtering into the mainstream media and having a good moan. Likewise, national radio DJ Emma B criticises the Popstars thing, and Westlife, in London's Metro. She also claims that there's nothing she has to play that she doesn't like because she likes everything - duh, how interesting. That's how smart you have to be to make the Radio One grade. She no doubt loves the Craig David album too and sees him as a shining example of, what, The Sound of Young Britannia? But she's a national radio DJ and what else would you expect? The mainstream is the mainstream. The so-called 'alternative' is also a part of the new mainstream, which is why it's all so damn boring.
The people, ultimately, get what the people want, and if some haven't cottoned on to the existence of, shall we say, more 'interesting' music, then they're blinkered through choice, not through conspiracy or media control. I don't buy the idea that people are spoon-fed rubbish and develop a taste for it, although I realise that there's a whole other argument here based on nature verses nurture. If Radio One played Sun Ra everyday, are these people finally going to say 'Actually, this is pretty good!'? What do you think.
I have reasons for not listening to any radio show which might supply me with inspiration, but I won't bore you with them since most are based more on my matured laziness rather than playlist criticism. Jane and I keep it locked on Radio 2 in celebration of our imminent middle-age position in life. We bask in Motown, or some beat tune from the 70s, just as our parents loved the station for the very same experience of hearing 'mature' DJs play 'mature' sounds. The only difference is that my folks wouldn't have also been listening to something 'radical' on their home hi-fi. After all, they weren't of the age that had the chance to embrace an alternative culture. Besides, no other station is going to play Martha Reeves And The Vandellas and James Brown at 9.30 on a week-day morning as Terry Wogan once did.
I listened to radio 3's Mixing It, once. I've listened to Gilles and Patrick (but their pseudo-cool-jazz-world-breakbeat-whatever attitude annoys me now), and I've done my share of fine-tuning to catch the pirates but, christ, how much of that inane DJ-babble can a sane person take? I said I wouldn't bore you with my personal rejection of most radio, so I won't.
You don't have to be a graduate in cultural studies to read the writing on the tv screen. It says 'Let's wallow in nostalgia for the 70s and 80s'. And so the seemingly endless variations on that theme are trotted out virtually every Saturday night. I Love The 80s...More 70s Clips Mixed With Memories Crafted By Media Personalities Talking About Space Hoppers And Chopper Bikes...The Top Ten Crap Synth Bands of the 80s...The Top Ten Bad Haircuts In Pop...The Top Ten Black British Acts Shafted By The Covertly Racist Music Business of the 70s and 80s...The Top Ten Dancers in the Top Of The Pops Audience in the 70s...The Top 100 Moments That Made You Want To Smash Your TV Screen Because You Couldn't Stand The Horror Of Ironic Nostalgia Any Fucking More!...and, of course, being edited right now, I Love The 90s...
As a 70s kid, I should be basking in all this, but hey, enough is enough. Sure, I watched Top Ten Prog the other night, but I'd rather watch a good movie than re-live my past one more time just because tv offers no credible programmes about music, modern or otherwise. Is this all part of the dumbing down process? Regarding music, most definitely. Considering it's supposed popularity as a much-loved strand of culture, it's odd that astronomy-lovers and history buffs are better catered for than people who buy CDs. Every other night there seems to be something about the exploration of the pyramids, whilst Sun Ra remains non-existent. If any 20th century artist deserves an Omnibus, I'd say it should be him. The Late Show, which featured Cecil Taylor and Terry Riley, I recall, was axed. Modern literature is equally invisible. Now isn't it odd that a new writer, or musician, has no voice on the national tv of such a supposedly 'cultured' isle as this?
'What about Later With Jools Holland?!' I hear you scream. What about it? Stephin Merritt was on last year, yes, but to see him perform one two minute song, you had to endure, if I remember correctly, Sade and All Saints. Really, if they're accepted as valid 'live' musicians, then we should kill it off and sod what the union says (this refers to stickers which guitarists slapped on their cases in the Olde days but I'm not going into that particular history lesson). Home taping didn't kill it, and neither will studio-based music, unfortunately, because to get on Later it seems that you only have to know how to hold a microphone. The show is, more often than not, one long argument for keeping music digital, taped, studio-to-CD bound, anything but fossilised as some folk-rock-blues atrocity. To be able to perform 'live', on Later is still, regardless of ability or content, seen as a sign of 'worthiness'. Bring back Old Grey Whistle Test-style cartoons to accompany new LP tracks, I say. Why not commission animators to produce visuals for a show that only plays the music?
If I'm honest (dear reader, I try to be), I no longer care about The State of Music Today. I admit that an old clip of Joni Mitchell on Top Of The Pops 2 is as good as music in the media landscape gets for me. I don't care because I had my time and feel lucky to have been young when Rock, Reggae, Funk and Punk were living things rather than revivals, or recycled ideas. Ah, my glorious Past, I wear it as a badge of pride, showing my age as something to shout about, rather than be ashamed of, believe it or not.
A new Lee Perry selection is reason enough to be cheerful, so I'll let the new generations nurture their own musical culture, whether it be vacant post-modernist Pop as an expression of no-hope nihilism, or Disco entertainment rewritten as 'Club Culture'. The last century produced enough great music; so we can keep our own kind of faith and, as T Connection once said in what must be one of the Top Ten Disco 12-inch Classics: do it any way you wanna.
© Rob Lo 2001