This Modern Age:
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Can We Truly Reinvent Music?
THIS will really, honestly; absolutely; definitively be the very last time…
I shall mention a fifty-year-old Beatles album – but I’ll give it a good farewell. I was watching Howard Goodall’s documentary on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band last night which gave a brilliant insight into some of the songs included on the album. We heard about Within You Without You and A Day in the Life; Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever (not included on the album) and Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite. What Goodall did was break the songs down and explain how The Beatles revolutionised the studio and pushed technology to the limits. They would cut up tape and slow down machinery; tamper with the mixes in order to achieve new sounds and possibilities. It was not enough to step into the studio, throw out another album and move on to the next one.
It was a case of taking time on each song and ensuring they were completely different to anything out there.
From archly comical numbers to mind-melting carnival rides – a baffling and unheard-of album that changed music and still inspires artists to this day. Sure, the talents of Paul McCartney and John Lennon were key – and the wizardry of George Martin and his engineers – but that ambitious songwriting was not the only reason why the album is such a triumph. The recording options of the time were limited so it was understandable the band were keen to take risks and see what could be achieved. It is inconceivable, in this day and age, to see anything like that. A band in 1967 knew what was available but what does it take to force them to go beyond logic and, essentially, reinvent sound recording and music itself? The Beatles not only changed music at the time but were keen to bring in elements of the past – Classical compositions and older sounds were all harnessed to create something new.
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That is what Goodall was talking about: they would fuse elements of other genres/artists but, rather than appearing derivative, would summon something wonderful and fresh. Every track on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whether you like it or not, is wildly imaginative and original. We make such a fuss of new artists that stray away from the mainstream – and create genuinely new sounds – but The Beatles were the most popular band of their time. They could have replicated themselves and the fact they chose to slave over Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band could have ended their career – they released Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane as a double A-side to appease the critics. The fact that single release contained two of the best songs of the 1960s shows what form the band were in.
Because of that, one can forgive the band for spending a lot of time crafting the record in the studio. In 1967, nothing like this had happened and The Beatles were discovering new techniques and breaking new ground.
Whether you see Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a peerless album and their best work – or a bit overrated and bloated – it remains, with good reason, the most influential album ever. The fact it is advanced by today’s standards got me thinking. Is it possible to truly redefine music and make something progressive given the fact we have so much at our disposal. We can quite literally, replicate any sound and create anything our imaginations see fit. Instruments are not more evolved than they were in the 1960s but one can access them electronically and modify them at the click of a button. Back in 1967, The Beatles could not do that so sought ways to skew perspective and blow minds. Now, we are working with technology in a rather affectionate and muted way. Most songs/albums are made in the studio and they are rather simple and quick. There are artists who try something different and work tirelessly to try to reinvent the wheel. The more advanced and equipped we become; the harder it is to surprise people.
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It is good, because it gives more options to musicians. Anyone can come into the industry so making it easier to make more colourful and busy music is a good thing. I like the fact one can replicate an orchestra or old Jazz trumpet from a computer. In order for music to evolve and progress we need to have armoury and weaponry; get artists pushing their limits and being as educated and informed as possible. The other route musicians are taking – especially those new and under-funded – make music from the bedroom and finding ways of duplicating a studio sound with limited equipment and finance. That is a good way of advancing music: stripping things back and removing the comforts of the studios. The thing is, The Beatles were not struggling and fighting against the odds. They had the luxury of money and fame but wanted to release as much magic from the studio as they could.
As I said, they could have produced a typically solid album and left it there but they didn’t.
Listening to Goodall’s documentary – part-science lecture, part-Open University lesson – and one got a real feeling of how the music was made and the extraordinary lengths The Beatles went to. Maybe the fact there were so many limits (and a lack of technological advancement) meant an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was going to have that kind of biblical reaction. Today, how are we ever meant to do that?! I feel music does need that fundamental kick and shift: we definitely need an album like The Beatles’ most-famous creation. There will never be a band like them again but that is not to say a new artist or existing band could not take up the challenge. How would one realistically do this, then?!
PHOTO CREDIT: The Beatles Book Photo Library
Before I come to that; the fact Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been dissected and forensically examined has got me revisiting an old ambition of mine: recording a samples-album that has the same scope and majesty as classics such as Since I Left You (The Avalanches), Entroducing…. (DJ Shadow) and Paul’s Boutique (Beastie Boys). In essence, it would be a modern-day version and attempt to rival the best of the genre. I have titles formed – Karoshi; The Last of the Great Northern Sex Symbols and Californian Winter – that would be on the album, Infamy as Child. The cover would be extraordinary and inventive: not only in terms of its design and image but the way it grows and lives. It would not be a single, static image but something that reacts to heat, time and mood – almost like a film that means, over the course of time, the cover changes dynamic, look and feel. It may sound a little pretentious and wanky but it is a way of moving music forward but embracing the future. It would be marketed in a different, inventive way and, unlike certain marketing plans by big bands, benefit other musicians and be very unexpected – cannot say too much as not to give it away. The packaging, art and promotion would be forward-thinking but it would rely on a vinyl release and reshaping the way that is heard and felt – again, not disclosing too much.
If that seems like it is all looks and no substance; the album itself aims to mix sampled music with original music to fuse the past and the present but in a different sense: taking the studio back to its base.
I have one song, Californian Winter, that would, as the name hints, look at California and winter. In terms of samples, I want to use Vivaldi’s Winter (from his Four Seasons) and Tori Amos’ namesake. For ‘California’, I want 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s Californian Love with Californian Dreamin’ (The Mamas & the Papas). That would be the dichotomy and cocktail but the way the sounds are sourced and utilised would be classical.
Instead of getting permission for songs and putting them together – which could be a legal minefield – they would be obtained but not simply slung alongside one another. I feel it is hard to provide music an evolutionary jump by being too modern or doing what has been done before. The idea is to use modern technology and push that to its limits but take older recording equipment and do as The Beatles did: find new ways and invent new sounds so, essentially, the music would be original but well-known. It may all sound a bit patchy and vague but there is a definite concept and spark that is exciting to consider. I would love to make it a reality and find the proposition of sifting through vinyl and electronic archives getting all these songs, samples and sounds together fascinating. Songs would range from head-splitting odyssey to simpler, more urgent numbers. There would be a myriad of genres and ideas around a central theme. What I want to do, without copying it, is producing a modern-day Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with, perhaps, a bit more consistency. That sounds rather preposterous, given the legacy and genius of the album, but I know it will not be as good. The idea is to take a risk and perfectly blend the modern and advanced with older and more basic.
The advancements and forward steps we see in music are more to do with lyrics and music rather than technological.
The best albums of the moment react to social and political situations or take genres like Hip-Hop and Pop and do something extraordinary with them. Whilst a record like DAMN. (Kendrick Lamar) or James Blake’s The Colour in Anything are exceptional and genuinely inventive: how much of a leap is it from what we have now?
There are those who will argue music is fine and there is enough quality and evolution with the artists we have. There is exceptional talent around the world but certain complacency exists. New artists have to push limits and boundaries because, whilst ambitious and eager, have less money and opportunities as the mainstream acts. Perhaps they do not have the time and money to obsess over every track fiddle around. They need to get records out quickly and capitalise quickly. Given the competition and difficulty making your voice heard in the industry; is it realistic for an unsigned artist to employ this recording method?! Maybe not but my argument might be directed at mainstream artists. There are plenty who take time between albums which means they have the opportunity to do something genuinely unexpected. Sure, touring and promotional duties get in the way but that is why The Beatles took a different approach to the album in 1967. They could not tour because they couldn’t hear themselves sing – with the hysteria coming from the crowd – so didn’t know how to improve and whether they were any good. They decided the album was what they’d concentrate on so went to great lengths to ensure they reinvented themselves and produced something genuinely astonishing.
Maybe things are too advanced and modern to the point we take music for granted.
Few are challenging sound and perceptions; bringing disparate sounds together and working tirelessly pushing the limitations of what is known. Maybe the 1960s provided a definite ceiling one could burst through whereas now there is an endless galaxy – impossible to stand out in such a wide and limitless advance. I would like to see an established artist go against convention and take some time off from touring. Get into the studio and really think where music can go from here. I love the artists at the moment and, every year, we are seeing some truly extraordinary records being made. I feel we have the potential to make a modern-day Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that could be remembered in fifty years’ time.
Perhaps the world has changed too much since 1967 and the music consumer requires something differently. If we lived in a time where there has been few breakthroughs and development there would be that need to break the mould and take action. Now, we have seen so much and taken music places it has never been. Just because we are advanced does not mean music needs to remain limited.
There are those who want to see it taken in new directions and, if you are honest, how awesome would it be discovering a modern-day equivalent of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?!
I think there is a definite opportunity to provide music with an incredible gift. It might be rich of me suggesting this without doing anything but, as I said, I am determined to at least embark on something and try. I am optimistic there are musicians who have that desire to create a strange and unexpected masterpiece. If that did happen, it would give a huge rush to contemporaries who would approach recording in a new way. I feel so much of modern music relies on electronics and quick releases. We engage through social media and there is such a huge promotional build-up for every record. After that, there is the endless touring and campaigning. There is ample space for someone to step away from the circus of music and do something incredible. Perhaps there could be that record that starts a chain: the catalyst that lights a fire and inspires the upcoming generations. It might seem unlikely and a challenge but, if it were to happen…
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HOW awesome would that be!?