Music Features


If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3

Ex-KLF guerilla artist and musician Bill Drummond proposed a No Music Day a few years ago and tries, every year on November 21st - St Cecilia (patron saint of music)'s Day - to get everyone to not listen to music for a day. His argument, in a slightly Fabergé nutshell, is that the ubiquity of music in our lives is desensitising us to its richness. This argument is met, annually, with an equal mix of cautious approbation and derision, the division being along broadly speaking class lines - the approvers being broadsheet readers, the scoffers, tabloid. Such is the cultural price you pay for burning a million quid as an artwork (one of the KLF's more notorious projects).

The broadsheet response is usually anti-muzak, pro-birdsong, with a polite sussurus of dismay at the universality of jingles - even on the BBC my dear!; the tabloids stress the necessity of music to blunt the otherwise intolerably tedious swarf of the working man and woman's working day. Both miss the perfectly reasonable point of the provocation - that a brief holiday from the habit of consumption might refresh the appetite, nothing more.

As always, I'm in two or five minds about this. The appetite for music would seem to be a fundamental human trait - very close to, but one step up from the root traits of sex and eating: we could survive without music, but the corresponding hole that that would leave in our souls would be, to most of us, utterly debilitating. Whether or not we can have too much music - well, I certainly doubt that: unlike excessive consumption of food or alcohol or (I was about to say sex, but the rider to such a statement has to be - dream on) any of the other life-enhancing and/or pain-reducing add-ons, there's no discernible downside as far as I can judge. Unless - and this is Drummond's point - a surfeit might somehow diminish its effect.

Most of us spent - or, if lucky, are still spending - a great deal of our youth in this manifestly unproductive activity of listening to and/or making music. Mine (because I am one of the grizzled whitebeards to whom youth's respectful deference is automatically due merely on account of his staggering oldness) was probably far less affected by the background ubiquity than yours (assuming you were born sometime later than the Relief of Mafeking) on account of there being fewer choices of audio media. However, the broadsheet complaint about muzak should be tempered by the shocking reality of its origins - on the BBC, even, my dears! - during the war (that's WWII), when 'Music While You Work' was piped into every munitions factory and power plant and similar workplace in the land in the belief that the worker who had something to whistle to as he or she worked would be a more productive worker (actually, it was originally a US invention, which the BBC ran with, but here's not the place to go into that).

Point is - this music-to-make-you-work was science, not art, and exclusive of the vital element in determining the individuality of our responsiveness that distinguishes the work of art from the work of manipulation - the element of choice. The sort of music that is, generally speaking, offered as background to our lives (with a few honorable exceptions) is actually a major component of an architecture of social control that is so ubiquitous as to have become invisible. the poly-convoluted spaghetti of manipulative wires that contributes to the belief that we - the kids! - actually asked, nay, begged the Spice Girls to reform is the stuff of an Orwellian wet dream.

Old potatoes.

For no particular reason that I could readily identify, I found myself, sometime last year, at a complete loss for words when I came to writing about a release that I was really enjoying listening to. Writers block? It'll pass, I thought. Always does. But it didn't. It went on for weeks. The weeks extended to months. And now, halfway through 2008, I find that I've listened to a bare handful of new releases, accumulated a teetering pile of sad, neglected promos, and have actually succeeded in writing about only three of them.

If I did this for a living, this would be catastrophic, of course. fortunately, I don't. Everyone at No Ripcord Towers is indentured in perpetuity - crap contract, but what can you do? It used to be a form of consolation to remind myself that the Chinese word for 'crisis' combines the elements of 'opportunity' as well as 'danger' until I discovered this comprehensive demolition job on that idea, too. But, frankly, who cares? (Thanks, guys, but family doesn't count.)

The wonderful Mr Michael Eavis, who I like to think of as my neighbour (well, he is in the sense that his farm - site of a little music festival that you might have heard of - is a mere three-mile stone-throw from my own garden) has routinely, if arbitrarily, left gaps between festivals. One of his reasons for doing so, apart from giving everyone concerned in its organisation - mostly volunteers - a chance to recuperate - is to give the land a chance to recover from its regular churning by tens of thousands of wellie-clad feet. There's an old farming term for doing this - leaving a portion of land uncultivated for a year in order to let it regenerate naturally. It's called leaving it fallow.

It's hardly breaking news that the way we respond to music (I don't like the term 'use') is a reflection of our selves unlike any other experience: from the cradle to the grave we go cherry-picking in the vast orchards of available musics to assemble our own unique soundtrack - that musical 'taste' portfolio which, in turn, becomes an expression of our selves - and a standard social shortcut to identifying fellow members of our musical tribe. By default, this soundtrack works like a high-altitude aeroplane's contrail - a sharply condensed and definitive cloud of favourites at the trailing edge of the fast-moving engines of discernment, rapidly fading off into a wispy line of evaporating memories as time goes by. Its continual renewal is as much a function of our will to renew as a reflection of our capacity to discern. Clearly, to judge by the perennial favourites that are the staple playlists of Radio 2, there comes a time in most people's lives when the effort to keep pace with the new becomes superseded by other efforts, and the soundtrack that was playing when we were at our free-est and most emotionally volatile becomes the quarry for the remainder of our lives. Regardless of age, however, the durability of some tracks - or even whole albums - in our personal playlists marks the beginning of that mysterious process of crystallisation whereby a latter-day pantheon of classics gradually emerges out of the frantic buzz of the now.

One of the effects (symptoms?) of this temporary withdrawal from the field, as it were, has been that I've spent more time, this last year, listening to the classics - both old and new - and rediscovering just why they're called classics. The notion of endurance as a virtue in the contemporary art world is almost as recherché as the old Keatsian notion that "Beauty is truth, truth, beauty". however, a lingering taste for endurance in art is manifestly part of the culture, and, despite all the efforts of the Saatchis and the Serotas of this world to persuade us otherwise, I'm a little sceptical about the likes of the Britart darlings' pickled carcasses and skid-marked sheets attracting the sorts of crowds that routinely gather before the Giaconda in any forseeable future. Likewise, even the most cursory analysis of the music charts over the past five years discovers a ratio of hype to endurance of astronomical proportions. Travis and Coldplay were considered two of the best bands in the world only two years ago (not by me, I hasten to add). Need I say more?

Too much of some, too little of others.

My old musical mentors would turn in their graves at the suggestion that popular 'classics' like The Beatles, Jeff Buckley, and Radiohead might even be mentioned in the same sentence as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. In a real sense, they make uneasy bedfellows, the prime advocates of the High and the Low Cultures (think Brian Sewell and Chris Moyles handcuffed together for a week) being as mutually antagonistic now as ever (with the former losing influence hand over fist to the latter as the cash-strapped years roll on). Such cant-ridden conflict aside, there is no rational argument for proposing that the classicism of Classicism is any 'better' than that of post-punk or math-rock - Bach himself would have enjoyed the way Battles tie themselves into and out of those Gordian rhythmic knots, and Mozart would have loved getting down and tourettes with Fly Pan Am. However, I don't consider the well-meaning efforts of such stations as Classic FM and the otherwise excellent online Pandora to be doing the cause of the old school classics any favours by chopping the symphonies and the concerti into short populist chunks. To listen to only one movement of a four-movement Brahms symphony is akin to watching only the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet or only one episode of Lost - you get that it's good but you miss the whole of the narrative context. But with more and more bands now eschewing the whole formulaic three-minute-forty-seconds condition of radio airplay in favour of an organic development over as long as it takes, there's clearly no lasting harm been done to the collective consciousness of a musical development that lasts longer than a soundbite, which is a Very Good Thing Indeed. Pink Floyd, after all, still rule.

I recognise something a little lucky in being able to take as much anticipatory pleasure from cracking the seal on a new Efterklang release as I did on first lowering the stylus (oh the matchless thrill of that soft thud-crackle) onto track 1 of Sgt Pepper. (It was many more than twenty years ago today ... ) I also recognise that there's a lot - a really lot - a really really lot of music in that ever-filling music box - so much that (one really has eventually to admit this to oneself) some of it - even some of that stuff that was totally preoccupying once, was a landmark experience even, maybe for weeks at a time - is never going to be listened to again, not by me, not in this lifetime. There is simply not enough time. I actually feel a rush of panic even as I write that - where's that 7" of 10cc's 'I'm Not In Love'? Where's that Lost Jockey LP? - and a sense of impotent dismay. But it's true. I could spend every waking minute of every day for the next umpteen years re-listening to all the stuff that has ever mattered to me, and still there wouldn't be enough time. And anyway, where do you start? At Christmas I go goobly at Johnny Mathis ('chestnuts roasting on an open fire' - joy!). but even such a protracted and hopelessly self-indulgent orgy of nostalgia would inevitably be haunted by the dismay at wondering what I was missing NOW.

There's no relief from any of this. It is as it is. It's a fast-flowing current, that ole man Zeitgeist. From even the most elevated vantage point, blink and you'll have missed something. Sit back and have a sandwich and a cup of tea and whole genres, whole Himalayas of events will have arisen, flourished for a moment, and then subsided back into the bargain-bin murk at the bottom. And from that perspective, one might as well just accept that, for all one's earnest efforts to keep up, one might as well adopt the old newspaper hack's axiom - that today's news is tomorrow's chip wrapper. Travis and Coldplay were considered two of the best bands in the world only two short years ago (not by me, I hasten to add). Need I say more?

So this has been my Fallow Year. I didn't decide that. But - as is often the case when a vague form of anxiety is tagged with some arcane prognostic classification - having so named it has helped it emerge from the smog of concern and unease as something that was perhaps necessary, after all, part of an active principle as opposed to an abject failure to engage. I've even been playing around with the idea that I might be done with all this writing about music. I was talking with a high-ranking blogger friend who was bemoaning the way he perceived the internet to be going - increasingly grist to the corporate mill, basically: "I'm a snoop," he wrote, "I love going through drawers and looking in closets. Finding an abandoned house. The internet used to be a lot more like that. It used to feel like discovery. Now its a delivery vehicle." I know exactly what he's saying, but I don't think I'm quite there yet, not quite at the point of handing it all over to the corporate weasels. It's become very crowded, to be sure, and the competition to get a hearing is just silly. However, I still believe that a little site like this, dedicated as it is to the unearthing and extolling of musics that challenge notions of chart and genre criteria, and looks to discriminate only between the good and the bad, wherever that might be found, still has a part to play in the multicoloured weft and warp of the world wide interwebs.   
It remains to be seen whether a personal re-engagement - at the level of flinging this stuff into the blizzard out there with the careless abandon of the infant and the delusional - is imminent, but time will tell. It always does.