By Hans Ebert
It’s the technique not the idea. It’s something my mentor in advertising- Keith Reinhard- used to make all his creative directors understand, especially during a time when when the art director was more interested in how “beautiful” a print ad should look like and the copywriter was asked to shorten the headline to fit the layout. It was also the time when there was an almost overnight generation of commercials directors and editors who, so influenced by MTV, wanted television commercials to look like music videos.
The combination of a “celebrity” director- and they all had some movie in the works, or so they said, and usually for Steven Spielberg, or so we were told- and editor known for their frenetic editing of footage, were a formidable and intimidating combination to the creative director who had come up with the concept. Who could dare argue with Cool and working with the most in-demand combination of commercials director and editor?
Deep down, however, many schooled in being wordsmiths, and sticklers for proper briefs and following a strategy agreed by all concerned probably went home and banged their head against the wall for allowing their simple idea to be turned into a twelve humped camel through creative by committee.
Yes, more often than not, the technique became the idea. The idea was left on the cutting room floor and nothing much ever really worked in communicating with the customer. We were selling fluff- hair blowing in the wind, lots of curtains, close-ups of lips, ghostly women dressed in white gowns scurrying up stairs, clowns juggling balls, the moon, and some ballet dancers. Once in a while, there would be a cat thrown in watching everything unfold.
Nothing made sense, but it was cool. And it was so cool that clients who approved and paid for all these exercises in Cool were also swept up in what lived in the land of MTV and the television series that was “Miami Vice”- Crockett and Tubbs, a pet alligator, and where our two heroes wore pastel coloured jackets with sleeves pulled above elbows and shoes with no socks.
Today? Today, technology is the idea. Old school music bloggers become giddy at having attended a concert by some one-time rockers and now pensioners who’ve taken to the highway for one last stop at the crossroads, recalling their youth with an avalanche of words. Enough already. Play the music. But they don’t. On the next blog, these same oldsters needing to be seen as being relevant and knowledgeable, bang on about sound quality and this and that new app and what’s better than the other and gibbering on about Spotify and some new streaming service. Does anyone under 25 care? Of course not. They don’t read oldster blogs. They’re making their own decisions though many will try to manipulate their thinking.
Personally, these blogs make for amusing reading. On the one hand, there’s this passion for some nostalgia Rock act and thousands of words about how great it all was- the rawness of it all, the raspy vocals etc- and the next minute it’s all about the technology- how YouTube has bad audio quality etc and how music needs to be heard properly to be really appreciated. What’s wrong with this verbal ga ga?
Unless an audiophile with millions to spend on a theatre of sound, there’s a casual approach to listening to music- usually via an iPhone and when on the move, or when sitting in a noisy restaurant and someone insists that you listen to something and you pretend you do and hand back the iPhone after a few seconds. It’s why most of the music produced these days are for Clubs, and where DJs is the “technology” and everyone is too off their faces to actually listen. It’s more about that bass line pumping through your body.
But something is happening and it’s slowly changing the musical landscape: The technique nor the technology is no longer the only idea around. Enter Jack White and his brave decision to get back to nothing but the songs and the interpretation of his songs. The end result is so REAL, it helps to bring importance back to words and how they can tell a hundred stories through different emotions. White is taking this back to basics approach even with White Stripes. And it’s working. Less is more.
Back to basics. Listen to what’s going around these days. Nothing much, right? There’s a roaring silence even about the plastic fandango romance of #Hiddleswift. Could all this “celebritydom” about who wore what and where and who’s zooming who – the Kardashians, the Jenners, Harry Styles, Tay Tay, Yeezy, Bae, Ri Ri etc – being left behind with the Smurfs and the pre-pubescent set, and those who still read Cosmopolitan and People? But that middle ground- that Middle Kingdom of music fans might just be being more selective about what new music they choose to listen, and will always- ALWAYS- be inquisitive and drawn to owning those recordings of their favourite bands and artists rehearsing- the embryonic stages of songs what were to become classics by Bowie, Prince, Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Brian Wilson, Clapton, the Stones and, as always, the Beatles.
Do we care if we find and hear this music on YouTube and wish the sound was better? The sound was NEVER better. Much was recorded on a four-track or, in the case of McCartney’s first two solo albums, and the tremendously underrated Emmit Rhodes and Todd Rundgren, recordings where the artists played all the instruments.
As students of music, we’re drawn and inspired by work-in-progress, solo recording techniques, and how demos became the completed recordings. And so often these days, many of us are happier discovering these new old recordings. Yes, it’s because we’re fans and we’ll always be inquisitive and wanting to hear more from our heroes. We also find these recordings more interesting. It’s part of our past- and present and future.
Again, it’s because many of us will always be students of music. It’s in our DNA. It’s in the DNA of artists like Jack White, Eddie Vedder, Norah Jones, Beck, Dave Grohl and others. And it’s this younger generation of musicians who are introducing even younger music fans to what makes the greatest pop and rock ever made live on and on and on and respecting the musicians who were part of these recordings.
It’s the only thing that’s keeping music pure, and often showing up music companies to be incredibly dumb by ignoring marketing their huge back-catalogues with all that archival footage from television shows like Top Of The Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Shindig etc and making what’s old new again. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Thankfully, there’s YouTube, where music history can always be found- and shared- shitty sound or not.