By Hans Ebert
Maybe it was listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album after all these years, and hearing his stories put to music- “Like A Rolling Stone”, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Desolation Row”- that had us talking about music’s storytellers, and who’s there today writing songs that touch heart, head and soul.
There probably are more new, young storytellers than many of us think believe are out there, but the problem is the invisible corporate wall that’s been built over the years to keep “outsiders” at bay. It’s The Great Wall Of The Old Boys Club.
Let’s face it, music today has very little time or place for storytellers unless they’re playing the same old song of either love lost or love found- simpleton stuff that often doesn’t even make sense as there’s an audience out there- probably deaf or intellectual midgets- whose mantra is, “No one listens to words any more”. I lived with one of these species. It was around four years of fear mixed with having to listen to opinionated bollocks. But with great sex to make life rock and roll.
Anyway, this fast food strategy and business model of churning out music has not only blocked musical storytellers at the pass, one day soon, Ed Sheeran, Adele, Taylor Swift and OneDirection will no doubt make a record together. This is how music companies work today- to produce songs and records that have to be bigger and bigger and bigger by going to the proven Sales pool all the time.
It’s not about making the music industry better and supporting creativity and offering opportunities to new artists who are signed and just left to fend for themselves. Remember Starsailor? The band should have been bigger than Coldplay. But EMI aka Every Mistake Imaginable totally cocked up the marketing of their second album.
Today, it’s all about bigger not better. It’s like Donald Trump: Bloated and vapid. It’s a business model that the Hip Hop community had the smarts to formulate decades ago when labels like Death Row and Def Jam were coming onstream: A new Rapper’s first record always managed to include some big guns- the established names. This would ensure greater sales, and also provide a new artist with credibility within the ‘hood.
More than anything, it also gave the hip hop community power and legitimacy. But this was simply being smart and ensuring that the Black artist was no longer prepared to be Kunta Kinte working on Maggie’s Farm no more for the music industry’s usual power brokers. Puff Daddy, Fiddy, Jay-Z broke that mould. It also caused a great divide that even goes into politics and Obama becoming President. That’s a story for another day.
The largely mensch-controlled music industry is largely contrived, and it’s all about commercialism and the bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with looking after the bottom line, but, like everything in life, there must be a balance.
There’s nothing today like the mutual admiration societies formed where, for example, Eric Clapton recorded with the Beatles, George Harrison and the Plastic Ono Band with George returning the favour by co-writing “Badge” with Clapton for Cream and sitting in on guitar under the pseudonym of “L’Angelo Mysterisio”.
It was this musical camaraderie that helped create a “scene”- a scene that inspired healthy competition, pushed the creative envelope, and welcomed new talent with open arms. It wasn’t the closed shop that it is today. Musicians were fans of other musicians- Lennon a fan of Dylan, Clapton a fan of Hendrix, the Byrds fans of the Beatles, McCartney a fan of Brian Wilson- and through these mutual admiration societies, music improved, great songs were written, and many musicians became storytellers.
The songs- songs that were every bit as clever, interesting, and commercial as what have become standards written by all the greats from Tin Pan Alley- remain hugely underrated and shrugged off as “Pop music”. Perhaps “Pop music” needs an ad agency to give this term new fizz and, more importantly, greater respect.
Great storytellers? Apart from the obvious-Dylan, Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, Bowie, and Brian Wilson, right up there is Ray Davies. After using the “Louie Louie” riff that first launched the Kinks, Davies took a huge songwriting detour when writing “Sunny Afternoon”, lamenting how the tax man’s taken all his dough, and then on the beautiful “Waterloo Sunset”, introducing us to Terry and Julie, supposedly, Actor Terence Stamp and Actress Julie Christie, and produced a couple of records that were labelled “concept albums”.
Perhaps if we had concept albums today that told a story with a start, an end and a middle being the glue that brought it all together, and which was Sgt Peppers and Pet Sounds and Dark Side Of The Moon were and still are being produced, we wouldn’t have all these hastily produced one-off tracks with such a lack of creativity, such a blank space of lyrical cleverness- but not so clever that it crosses into pretensiousness- that are devoured like McNuggets- and just as quickly forgotten.
Perhaps concept albums, or a Poperetta, that told a story would also make consumers and music fans purchase the entire work and not 1-2 tracks? Who wouldn’t want to hear a great story put to music like the great Harry Nilsson did when he wrote and produced “The Point” and had Dustin Hoffman narrate it?
For what is supposedly a creative industry, those running it really suck at advancing the state of music, and how this industry is perceived. The business model is so broken, it’s on life support. And if all of us who are in the business of making music for a living or as a hobby, don’t do something to get this runaway train back on track, even the tiny light at the end of the tunnel will disappear. We’re looking goofy and lost, folks.
As said earlier, the music industry needs a damn good ad agency to tell us how to do things that make business and artistic sense- and where we look better to music fans. Shooting blanks in the dark and listening to daft pie-in-the-sky thinking by delusional legends in their own lunchtime are not working.