before I get old
'He was turning thirty years of age. Thirty years of age is regarded as a landmark, a watershed, a stage of departure. At that age Jesus Christ entered the teaching profession and Joseph K. worked out his guilt'
James Kelman, A Disaffection
You won't have heard of me. I spent the best part of my twenties playing in bands but I never 'made it'. I got the usual sniffs of interest, the usual tantalising leads. Heavenly once said we were in their top five of bands they hoped to sign. It was only later that I realised they say this to a lot of people, especially if you're talking to them at 1 a.m. in a club. We pressed up our own single, most of which now reside under my bed. In almost every respect I was a failure. But in one sense I stayed truer to my ideals than most of my contemporaries, even the ones I admire. That is, I quit when I became 30.
I remember seeing the House of Love ten years ago when they were on the verge of breaking. I went along to check them out, I suppose, because they were on Creation and it was a time when that still meant something. What I couldn't get over was the fact that the singer Guy Chadwick was 31. Thirty-one! It seemed impossibly old for someone in a new band. What had he been doing for the last fifteen years? By my reckoning he would have been exactly the right age for punk and yet here he was, a decade later, just starting out. It seemed undignified and I couldn't take him or his music seriously. Right then, I vowed I'd never be like that. I couldn't think of anything more tragic.
In London, 1999, it seems like there's a lot of Chadwicks about, some of whom I'd number among my friends. Every other person I know seems to be 'in the studio', working on some project that will finally propel them to fame and recognition. In fact, my decision to quit music has even proved a little controversial amongst them. It's been mistaken by some as a sign of surrender or a giving up of youthful ideals. When, for me, it's quite the opposite. I think everyone should stop at 30.
Pop culture is too old. The musicians, the DJs, the industry people, the editor of the NME ... they're all too old. The papers are full of ageing pop stars struggling on like boxers past their prime, looking more battered with each appearance but unable to contemplate a life outside the ring. Meanwhile, the record companies have ensured that gaps of two or three years now elapse between lps, each record a carefully planned campaign designed to maximise publicity and minimise the risk of spontaneity. It used to be one of pop's immutable laws that a band would produce its best work on their first two or three lps before drugs and egos took their toll. These days it's quite common for someone who made their first record at 22/23 to reach 26 before the second one appears. They often seem surprised when no-one's interested anymore.
Below the surface of most music writing there's an ideology of paying your dues, of music as a craft to be 'learned' and reverence for elders. If you look at the way a group like Symposium are presented and encouraged to act, it's easy to forget that the bulk of pop's most beautiful, inspirational and complete statements have been made by people aged 20 to 25.
That fact is not the product of coincidence. Pop is essentially a youthful art form and therein lies its greatness. The best is immediate, impulsive, of the moment; about attitude and sweeping statements. I'm talking here about form as much as content. Great pop is born of teen obsessions and strange connections made by people with incomplete musical educations reacting to what they're hearing. Thirtysomethings know too much. This explains why current music is too referential, crippled by nostalgia and too many 'classic' record collections. Whatever the next big thing is, it's a safe bet that it won't be made by anyone born in the 60's.
It's true, of course, that we're growing up later than our parents and that pop culture only reflects this. And I see this as no bad thing as such. Marriage, kids, dinner parties, jazz, trips to garden centres ... I don't want any of that. But neither do I particularly want to live my thirties exactly like my twenties. A lot of people do. As I write, they're clogging up the dancefloors and toilet cubicles of the trendiest London clubs. Hedonism, the ideology of 'life's shit, so lets get fucked', still rules and any suggestion of seriousness, other than self-pity, is frowned upon.
Sometimes it seems that as a generation we've been too dazzled by the delights of pop culture to see anything beyond it, to contemplate the possibility that we might need to move on. Pop, while capable of the most incredible emotional intensity, depth and soul, is also limited in its range. It's narcissistic, impressionistic, not so good with complexities. This is why there are so few good political songs (none, for example, about Northern Ireland) and why any attempt to write one about Nato's bombing of Serbia would, necessarily, be embarrassing. Pop isn't the only medium available to us and neither is it always the most appropriate.
At the end of the sixties, Ken Kesey spoke about the need to go 'beyond acid'. It's a phrase I always found quite funny but these days it seems increasingly salient, very applicable to the e-generation. He said: "there's no use opening the door and going through it and then always going back out again. We've got to move on to the next step." What he meant was that dropping tabs every weekend wasn't enough. If the hippie experience was really to mean anything they had to start applying what they'd learned to the straight world. Well, they didn't and we now laugh at them. I suppose what I'm talking about is new art forms, writing, and, ultimately, political commitment. Moving on to the next step.
Pop has never been about escape for me. Whether it's the example of the maverick figures I admire or the music itself, I've always wanted to apply the inspiration I've drawn from music to my wider life. The best records made me want to change the world, or at least my world. Making music in my teens and twenties was a healthy response to that inspiration, a natural desire to emulate. But to continue indefinitely would, it seems to me, be an indulgence, a cop-out.
Playing in bands after you've turned 30 is to directly contribute to the ageing and decline of the late twentieth century's greatest art form. Face it: if you haven't done it by now you're never going to. You should grow up.
© Pete Williams 1999.