Believing we rely too heavily on the past, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore argues an urgent need to push forward without our parents’ record collections.
Towards the end of the 90’s a lot of DJs I knew were suddenly overwhelmed with a compulsion to seek out, preserve and catalogue forgotten pop music of the 60s and 70’s. This seemingly unedifying, bookish pastime had a cool cultural precedent: much hip-hop is created by sampling from Mum and Dad’s record collection, and the blacker, breakbeat end of the rave scene had the same trait too. But there was also a pre-millennial anxiety that was driving them. There was a feeling that somehow if the music wasn’t “saved” it would be lost forever, that the millennium would sweep away our past, our cultural heritage, in a wave of plastic coated new-ness.
In fact as things have panned out, the reverse has become the case. The past is threatening to strangle our future in the cradle as we’re left with 2 suffocating legacies: the end of the cult of youth and the fetishisation of incompetence.
But let’s not get all down in the mouth! Let’s have a night out in the trendiest, hip, cool and tasteful corners of Swinging London™!!
Starting off in Shoreditch (obvs!) we find a wicked bar with micro-brew, gluten free drinks at reasonable prices (considering the crowd is 90% tourists and oligarchal offspring). What we’re all here for is the a-may-zing taste-maker DJs spinning totally non-post-ironic Mike Batt and David Essex records 75-85! The dancefloor fills with ecstatic cries of “my mum used to listen to that when she was doing the ironing!”
Next we stagger up the road to Dalston (look out for that Edwardian cyclist!) and witness the side-splitting spectacle of white, middle-class DJs playing Bangladeshi cover versions of Madonna hits, Nepali hotel bands playing Thriller, or excruciatingly badly performed, hideously recorded and lazily mixed 70’s Italian film music. Where do they GET that stuff!??!?!
Sounds like fun? Well it’s actually not that bad if you have a few bob in your pocket and the necessary street pharma. The problem is, that although you’ve languished on the apogee of good taste, you have got through an entire evening without once encountering any new or current music, let alone supporting it in anyway.
Our first stop was at least nothing more than escapist inherited nostalgia. As anodyne as an emoticon encrusted Facebook chat, its greatest crime is simply usurping a space that could be showcasing the work of active artists, rather than the Pet Shop Boys. In this context, novelty, which was previously always in the driving seat of musical taste and progress, has been rejected for the comfort of the past: youth overlooked to venerate middle-age.
The second carries a strand of something altogether more worrying. Fair play, crate diggers got to dig, but the decision of what’s wonky enough to be cool often reveals an ignorant, colonial, patronising and at times outright racist mindset. The kitsch appeal of another culture aping our own can appear funny and charming, but usually it is nothing more than sad and desperate. Listen closely and you’ll find traces of profoundly complex rhythm, intonation and decoration, which are peeking through from the musicians’ original culture. In this context though, this is seen as charming inaccuracy. The DJs are referencing outsider or naïve art, while being completely unaware of the expertise and cultural substrate that produce these “wonky bits”.
For the DJs themselves the elevation of hopeless old shit to glorious rarity has another function. Growing up in the 80s/90s convinced a generation that by playing recordings of other people’s music, they are in fact artists themselves. As adulthood is knocking on their doors, there’s something inside telling them that the time they spent poring over old records with their noses in uncle Charlie’s bag, could’ve actually been spent developing tangible skills. Consequently celebrating the music of the incompetent comforts them: conversely, the music of those that can only demonstrates what they so sadly can’t. So as the needle sits in the groove on a witless re-pressing of another midwestern vanity album, the reasoning goes something like this: “These guys are great and THEY never went to school! …And hey! who NEEDS them skillz! I can express myself wiv my tunes!!”
Sorry, telling a story by putting other’s works of art in order is at best, sadly, little more than curation. Your story will be forgotten.
A further unsettling artefact of the elevation of outsider art in music is the self-imposed dumbing down of skilful and talented musicians. In an attempt to fit the aesthetics of the privileged 30-something ”media” company gonk with a topknot, sitting behind his convincingly distressed 1950’s desk (made in China 2012, knocked about and stained in Hackney Wick 2015) they will hide their abilities. There’s a shame in being educated – they are embarrassed by their competence. Bands formed at LIPA, where I teach at the Musikhochschule in Cologne, or even the Brits, are firing on all cylinders, but are nonetheless desperate to hide any suspicion that they may actually have been educated. They try to fool us that they can play paradiddles in their sleep from some sort of innate “street” skill. They cherish recognition as content providers, not composers or performers of rare skill.
It’s worth mentioning here that Miles Davis received private trumpet lessons from the age of 13 and passed his audition at the Juilliard School playing classical trumpet. The birth of the cool indeed.
The happy accidents of outsider art, the serendipity, can produce profound beauty at times, and new ways of seeing. But to fetishize this and make it the cornerstone of taste and fashion is a sad indictment the social pressures of recent history. In the long view, these fashions will have their time and place and the shit will remain shit. It may be disinterred from its resting place and be paraded in its kitsch glory once in a while – but it will remain shit.
The real concern here is the displacement.
Live music venues are closing every week in the rush to capitalise on property values. When bands do get to play they get paid less than DJs, but with all the costs of transport, rehearsal, instruments etc. they won’t be spending the nights cash on Jazz talc and an Uber to pick up some Valium at 5 am. £40 is the going rate for a set in the hipper end of town if your band can get a gig. You’ll have to pay the sound engineer and perhaps a couple of cabs too. Chances of a gig at a venue that pays well are miniscule as the average age of the performers at Café Oto, for example, must be well into the 70’s, and you can forget young artists being paid well enough to travel from abroad to play here. The only remuneration for musicians is the knowledge they did something better than slap on an ELO 7”, or that the show they lost money on will lead to more exposure and more gigs for the band. Optimism is the only real pre-requisite to being a musician these days.
The taste-makers dredging the past and ignoring the present are not just occupying space for more deserving acts in our culture, they are also now at an age at which they are becoming decision makers at venues and record companies. Their disdain for the current, their heads-on-backwards nostalgia is causing underfunding and is undermining so much progress. Even new music has to appear to them as if it’s been dredged up from some decomposing corner of the 70s or worse be performed by some relic of the past.
In fact old gets have never been so trendy.
Although this may bode well for my twilight years, the long shadows of Krautrockers, 70’s synth geniuses, Canterbury leftovers, 80’s New York no-wavers blah blah blah are stealing the light, air and life from our current crop of artists. The record companies gladly perpetuate this – re-issues and re-releases require a tiny amount of investment in terms of promotion or even manufacture compared to original music. Statistics now show the business model of money for old rope is doing rather well. There’s also none of the uncertainty of maintaining the long-term faith and investment to “break” a band. Those days are well gone – other than perhaps here in the darkest undergrowth of the underground where artists who I’ve worked together with for over 25 years will still collaborate, support and encourage each other.
I’m almost exactly the same age as Mark Moore who was recently lauded in the Guardian. A different generation to the 70’s artrockers – we’re the pissed off teenage punks with Burroughs and Nietzsche in our back pockets who became the driving force of the rave scene. He lives in music. While he was DJing endless nights playing new music and new sounds, I was in the studio making the music; all in the belief (misguided or otherwise) we were feeding a revolutionary but somewhat gaunt, force of nature to finally overcome the prejudices and violence of our predecessors. What is of primary importance to our generation is honesty and originality – even if you know it’s a bit crap. That, and absolute disdain for authority.
The contrast with the generation born in the early 80’s, who are now looking slack-jawed in admiration at our ragged lot, could not be greater. Exposed to the vicious values of neo-liberalism as infants; then entranced by the mind-expanding skills of the suburban DJ with his bag of tunes as cover for selling pills to them as teenagers. As young adults they developed interpersonal skills via text and email. All this leads to a veil of charming chat with a smiley face in written form, whilst being prepared to stitch each other up for a couple of pills and a little more “freedom” IRL, forever seeking solace in the perceived incompetence of another era or another culture: in desperate need to prostrate themselves before the gods and father figures of the past.
There’s another millennial legacy these poor sods have to carry: the belief that the typed document, the email, and the spreadsheet have an innate value of their own. Teenagers are wise to this, as are people in their 20’s. For us in the S’Express generation it’s largely incomprehensible, but there are plenty of 30 somethings who daily demonstrate a belief that their world of text chat logorrhoea, excel documents, and torrents of nonsensical emails, don’t just represent truth, but ARE truth, simply by virtue of being typed in to a mac book or iPhone.
Sending an email does not mean something has been achieved.
Entering figures in to Excel does not make them true.
A bunch of hearts in a chat doesn’t mean you care about anyone.
One of my favourite exhibitions of last year was Defining Beauty at The British Museum; the ancient Greeks merged their politics, morals and spirituality into an aesthetic that praised youth and the human body, both male and female. This became the basis of Roman, then consequently European aesthetics, through the renaissance to Hollywood and the plastic surgery epidemic of recent years.
Is the behaviour of a generation damaged by the Reagan/Thatcher years, who are drawn to the past to avoid engaging with the present, really showing us the first signs of the end of this aesthetic?
We are all growing older and living longer and will be spending the vast majority of our lives somewhat more crinkled than Diana appears when bathing with her nymphs. “Who dies in youth and vigour, dies best” – cries Homer down the centuries. Really? Who gently passes on with a million stories, a crooked old frame and a satisfied smirk may actually be dying somewhat better.
This writer firmly believes in understanding and appreciating the past. My work with metamono, love of wabi-sabi, finding new life and new context for discarded technology are all well documented, as is my work on the back catalogue of 70’s krautrockers Can. I even own a wind up gramophone. For me this is as a means to understand, enrich and enhance the present – not to stifle it. My experiences with Can are a good example. The reason they were a great band at their height was that they tirelessly questioned the aesthetics and techniques of the present, not to then look back into their parent’s record collections, but to drive things forward. Those old krauts would never have been seen dead performing Yoo Doo Right in the 21st century, although the offers and the money were on the table. The reason why The Beatles, The Who, 13th Floor Elevators etc. etc. were so astonishing was the sheer novelty of their work in their time. To ape the content without that commitment to the future is to miss the point entirely.
So next time you’re out for a nite on the tiles, remember to make shapes on the dancefloor like Apollo and Diana as if you remember them from the first time round, and remind the DJ what the patron saint of all DJs, the great John Peel said to guide us; “I just want to hear something I haven’t heard before.”
If they respond with more from their Mum’s record collection walk straight out the door and seek out the first gig you can by a band you’ve never heard of. It’s always there waiting for you and you’ll uncover diamonds. Fresh diamonds.