The Rise and Fall of Popular Music
[A polemical history]
The Heat Death of Pop Music
In 1955, just before Elvis Presley appeared on network television, I was fifteen years old. Five years later, in 1960, there were almost half a million more fifteen-year-olds in the USA than in 1955; between 1960 and 1965 the increase in that age group was well over 700,000, and in another five years it increased by over half a million again. By then the rate of increase in fifteen-year-olds was slowing down, but this already represented a phenomenal rise in the number of young Americans.
All those new citizens needed baby clothes and housing; then more primary schools had to be built, and later more college professors were needed, and all the while there were more cars on the road, still more houses in the suburbs and, finally -- the ultimate shrine to western civilization -- the shopping mall. America's post-war economy is a progress of the demographic bulge through it. All this economic activity meant more tax money for politicians to spend, but the individuals who comprise that demographic bulge will soon start reaching retirement age, and as they each expect to receive hundreds of dollars a month in Social Security whether they need it or not, the fall in the relative number of people paying the bills may be a problem, especially since our leaders since 2000 have shown little ability to do anything right.
Meanwhile, the American economy has had a free ride for over forty years, and has turned into a simple computer, with only one instruction: make a profit. The car factory in which I worked years ago has been closed and torn down, because it is easier to make a profit selling Japanese or German cars than it is to do the necessary investment and development to keep the domestic industry going. The nation which once thought of itself as the most competitive in the world has forgotten how to do it in less than a lifetime.
Of those thousands of jobs lost in my home town, many were jobs for African-Americans. America may or may not still have a racial problem, but it certainly has something new to the USA: a highly visible and apparently intractable class problem. The reason there is a black urban underclass -- or, to put it another way, the reason the black middle class has not grown fast enough -- is because there are not enough decent jobs to get people out of the ghettos. The economic machine is not necessarily racist, but it is stupidly blind. If you have money, it will sell you a piece of the action, but there is no money in black neighbourhoods, so they crumble. And if you add the white people who are losing hope, the underclass is massive: unlike earlier generations of Americans, today we fear that our children and grandchildren are never going to have it so good; but the white underclass does not tug at the racial conscience, so we do not read much about it in the newspapers.
Nelson George, in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, complained that there are no longer any black-owned record shops in black neighbourhoods. The fact is that there are no longer any mom'n'pop record shops in white neighbourhoods either. In the early 1960s in my home town of perhaps 65,000 people, there were three full-service record shops, where you could buy any kind of music you wanted; now there are none. The only decent record shops are in big cities, and the reason is that the record companies and their distributors could no longer be bothered to sell small numbers of records directly to smaller shops, which then had to pay a commission to middlemen for their stock, and went broke.
The effect on the music business of the increasing stupidity of the economic machine does not end there. In 1947 the American record industry finally matched its previous best year (1921); the 1947 sales were matched again in 1955, and four years after that they had doubled. The plastic long-playing record made it possible for shops to stock a greater selection and for people to have larger record collections at home (because LPs took up so much less room than 78s), at the same time as growing prosperity made it possible for people to buy more records. But something has gone wrong. In 1975 John D. Glover of the Cambridge Research Institute said that in 1963, 61 per cent of long-playing records did not make a profit; in 1965 an LP broke even at about 7,800 copies, while in 1975 the break-even point for an album was a massive 61,000 copies, and 77 per cent of releases lost money. And that trend has continued.
Just as it is easier to sell Japanese or German cars than to build American ones that people will buy, so it seemed to be easier to sell a million copies of one album than to sell 100,000 copies each of ten albums. At the end of the 20th century the major labels still threw a lot of shit at the wall to see if anything stuck, but it was much more expensive to operate that way than it had been forty years earlier. If you guarantee Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and whoever millions of dollars for each album, you are taking a very foolish risk.
Today's pop-rock is a paradigm of a society that has no values; it is ubiquitous even though the record companies complain that most of it loses money. Perhaps the problem begins with the fact that nowadays we have less input into our own popular culture. For example, nearly all of it comes to us electronically, whereas years ago we bought tickets: in 1942-3, 80 per cent of the hit songs were from films or Broadway shows; that figure had fallen to 40 per cent by 1950, and has dropped to zero today. Television helped to kill Broadway and musical films, and has not replaced them; on TV we are given endless footage of Californians getting in and out of their cars, but no original music of any kind.
The demographic bulge allowed a marketing style that is now in the process of collapsing. The power of the song pluggers of old passed to the A&R men; when there was a great deal more money involved than ever before, the A&R men were reduced to functionaries, and the power passed again, this time to label bosses, who were no longer musicians, but lawyers and accountants. The deal-makers have now retained the power until the industry as we have known it is collapsing; the major record companies were riding an expensive tiger and they did not know how to get off.
Suppose for a moment that rock'n'roll had never happened. Suppose American radio had been successful (as the BBC was for a few years) in suppressing it. Suppose nobody had ever paid Tom Parker's price for Elvis Presley, so that he remained a regional phenomenon, and then went back to driving a truck. Suppose that the Beatles had never been signed by George Martin, and remained a short-lived Liverpool cult, and that in 1970 all we heard on the radio was the style of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, but played absurdly loud by synthesizers. That is what we have got now: rock'n'roll, the urban folk music of the working class, has been around for over forty years (if you count its hillbilly and rhythm and blues antecedents), and it is as inflated and worn out as minstrelsy was a century ago. The economic machine unwittingly created by the counterculture sees to it that pop-rock is aimed at each generation of new customers, yet each year not only is it of less musical value, but the market gets smaller, so it is not selling very well these days. You need not take my word for that. Here is Maurice Oberstein, chairman of Polygram UK, interviewed on television in 1991: 'By and large we have been starved of the hit records turning into hit artists turning into album performance that we can sell. I think as a result we have fewer new artist development [sic] ... We don't have any new artists delivering big new albums.' Oberstein was explaining why Polygram is repackaging Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and the rest on CD, having discovered that the baby-boomers are still the biggest market. Other labels are doing the same thing. And why do CDs cost so much? Jon Webster, managing director of Virgin Records UK, complained to Sean O'Hagen in The Times that the record industry's expenses include 'launching a new act. We're in a fashion business. Ninety per cent of what we release loses money; that has to be recouped somewhere.' Every time we bought a record we were subsidizing trash that nobody wants; that had always been the case, but it had become absurdly expensive trash.
The twin problems, fuelling each other, have been overuse of technology and the sound of money shouting. It is hard to deal with them separately, but let us begin with the studio toys. The possibilities of the tape recorder used in the creation of the multi-tracked recordings of Patti Page and Les Paul of the early 1950s, and carried on by Phil Spector and others, were adopted and developed by producers on both sides of the Atlantic, and the monster began to devour the shop.
Joe Meek in England performed miracles in a hole in the wall above a shop in north London; John Leyton's 'Johnny Remember Me' was a UK number one in 1961: Meek had created a pop artefact by twiddling knobs, using compression, echo and overdubbing; he was accused of manufacturing a pop star from a non-singer, which was of course correct. One of Meek's biggest hits was 'Telstar' (1962), an instrumental by the Tornados, his house band. The overdriven sound was the first transatlantic number one, the first USA number one by a UK rock act and is still the only British instrumental to have reached number one in the USA. One of the Tornados described 'Telstar' as 'crap', but kids liked the gimmicky sound, and Meek made major-label producers in the UK look rather sad, because all they could do with their more elaborate studios was imitate each other imitating American pop hits.
Meek became a legend, yet you will find few who will claim that the records are anything but junk: they are quite remarkably bad. His echoing productions of singers who sounded like you or me in the bathtub had an element of sadness in their badness, a hint of doom, as though lamenting their own ignorant boredom. Meek became paranoid about his techniques being copied. As the Beatles and their imitators brought about a new era, in which such producers as George Martin learned to use their equipment to its limits, the likes of Spector and Meek with their claustrophobic production were superseded: Spector retired in 1965 (and was on trial for muder in 2007), while Meek committed suicide in early 1967 on the anniversary of Buddy Holly's death. They were not the last pop people to take themselves too seriously.
Leiber and Stoller had already been aware that they were making records rather than recording music, but they were smart enough and talented enough to keep that fact in perspective. Suddenly there was so much money in it that the trend became the manufacture of pop artefacts instead of the recording of musical events. The stars would then tour fewer but larger venues to promote the records, rather than making records for fans they had already gained by touring.
The Beatles became so popular that they stopped touring; their work had got so highly polished that there was nothing more to be done with the jingle format. Their hits were witty, slick and catchy little jewels of pop; Maureen McGovern sings some of their love songs along with those of Cole Porter. In the same month as Meek shot himself, 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever' were released back to back, surreal (or psychedelic) snapshots respectively of Paul McCartney's and John Lennon's Liverpool childhoods: masterpieces of pop production, they revealed Meek's stuff to be the junk it was. They had been intended for a new album which was taking so long that they were issued as a single; four months later Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It was the number one album in the USA for fifteen weeks and stayed in the UK charts for nearly three years.
As a carefully assembled concept album, Sgt Pepper was an expensive production; it was the first Beatles album released in identical editions in both the USA and the UK, and cost $1 more in the USA than most pop albums. In the future a great many rock-pop albums would be expensive productions, taking many months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, and the Beatles were blamed. But they had made eight albums in about four years, including Sgt Pepper. In 1989 Kate Bush, Tears for Fears and Blue Nile released new albums which had taken a total of fourteen years to produce: these were reviewed variously as 'drifting piece of atmospheric waffle ... woefully studio-bound extravaganza ... moody sonic ramble ... serves in the end as an example of what an exhausted and exhausting business mainstream pop-rock albums have become'. But by then it was the record companies who invested huge amounts of money in grandiosity; let us not blame the Beatles any more than we blame Leiber and Stoller.
In those far-off years Sgt Pepper was a complete success on its own terms, the apotheosis of pop. 'When I'm Sixty-four' was nothing more or less than pure music hall, and a better indicator of the Beatles' roots than the rock'n'roll of Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley. McCartney's earlier 'Yesterday' was evidence of the skilful tunesmithing that would make McCartney one of the richest men in the world, and it has been covered hundreds of times. Yet in general the new pop songs of the 1960s would not stand on their own, for the Beatles had accomplished something else. The trade of the professional songwriter began to wither, because each new pop group was required to write its own material. Thousands of tenth-rate songs were published, while the craft of interpretation of good songs fell by the wayside; and the customers had been plugged into their radios and televisions for so long, and had heard so little live music, that they did not know that anything was being destroyed. Music became a throw-away commodity, hence the moniker 'bubble gum' to describe the worst of it. The fans bought records, not music; and the experience was not a musical one, but had become a social one.
Oblivious in their complete economic power and ignorant of other kinds of music, the new generation mistook the smooth efficiency of modern record production for art itself, and the new pop began to be called 'progressive rock'. Pink Floyd, Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes and many more groups composed meandering, pretentious and pseudo-philosophical music to get stoned by, which had nothing progressive about it at all, but a touch of doom left over from the Meek influence. The adoption by the Moody Blues of the Mellotron, an early synthesizer, so that they could tour without the big orchestra their ponderous stuff called for, was another sign of things to come. Today's rock critics poke fun at it, but in many cases they are the people who were buying these records when they were a little younger, and they are still looking for something progressive in a music scene that becomes less progressive each year.
The blues were not neglected, however. The legend 'BIRD LIVES' was chalked on walls in New York after Charlie Parker died; but 'CLAPTON IS GOD' was chalked in London when Eric Clapton was barely out of short trousers. A very good young guitarist who wanted to play the blues, he left the successful Yardbirds because they were turning from R&B to pop; he played with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and then formed Cream, with Jack Bruce on bass and Ginger Baker on drums. The lyrics of Pete Brown were important on their hit singles, but in concert their improvisation was thought to be meaningful because it was very loud (hence the label 'power trio'). It is easy to make fun of progressive rock, but an even greater tragedy was the attempt to force the blues to carry the weight of pop's whitebread narcissism. Cream covered Skip James's 'I'm So Glad' and Robert Johnson's 'Crossroads'; the trio was commercially successful, but soon disbanded, perhaps because Clapton knew perfectly well that their self-indulgence was about as far from Robert Johnson's sort of authority as you could get.
After some vicissitudes, Clapton embarked on a long series of studio albums that continues today. He is still a very good guitar player; he filled the Albert Hall for a series of concerts early each year and six nights in 1987 became twenty-four in 1991. This is in spite of the fact that he has little more to say than many another good guitar player; the critics have been disappointed in virtually every album since 1970.
Jeff Beck, Robert Fripp and Jimmy Page are three more English musicians who became famous guitar heroes. Beck has never made an album or led a band that has fulfilled the promise he seemed to hold. Fripp, a technician, came from King Crimson to combine his guitar with electronics, and has become a darling of pop-rock's avant-garde. Jimmy Page was a member of Led Zeppelin, one of the most successful bands of all time.
Like the American West Coast hippie bands, Led Zeppelin were loud folkies, and had their own distinctive sound. They were less pretentious than some of the other progressives, and they were carefully recorded as four individuals: of its kind, the production of their records is still to be admired, and, remastered by Page, is impressive today on CD. Their music had space in it, and they resorted occasionally to acoustic instruments. But their sound was more original than their material, and their best-known anthem, 'Stairway to Heaven', has to be likened to the Moodys' 'Nights in White Satin', in that its primary function today is one of nostalgia. After decades of classic black rhythm and blues and soul music, the riff that imitators have started out with more often than any other is Page's riff from 'Stairway to Heaven'. But Led Zeppelin's worst legacy, again, was not their fault. Their imitators invented heavy metal.
Out of the post-war boredom with Joni James's records and lookalike Levittowns inhabited by G.I. bill graduates came the black motorcycle jacket and the image of Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1954) who, when asked what he was rebelling against, replied 'Whataya got?' Each generation has thought that it invented sex, iconoclasm and much else, but the larger generation of the 1960s could get away with more; and there was the notion that rock'n'roll was somehow dangerous. Today there are a great many parents who were themselves rock fans. You would think that the notion of dangerous music would have withered, but in the meantime rebellion has become a market: in the middle of the Vietnam War, which was, after all, something worth protesting against, was there not a book called Revolution for the Hell of It? So in 1968 a band called Steppenwolf, named after a novel by Hermann Hesse which few had read, had a hit called 'Born To Be Wild', a biker's anthem, which included the words 'heavy metal thunder', taken from a William Burroughs novel.
Heavy metal is the ultimate in phoney rebellion, the logical and boring exaggeration of rock'n'roll as the music to make our parents angry, just as a logical and boring heat death of the Universe may be the ultimate result of the original Big Bang. Heavy metal combines blues-based rock with the portentous doom of progressive pop; it is the loudest music of all; it uses the imagery of vaguely Viking mythical heroes, like the trashy children's cartoon 'He-man': the artwork heroes ripple with muscles, while heavy metal's guitar heroes are usually skinny weeds. Or the HM bands promote images of devil worship, suicide and even Nazism, showing a paucity of any values at all. Yet heavy metal's largely working-class audience is curiously well behaved; the male fans at the concert-as-ritual are succoured by the phallic symbolism of the guitar hero, the females content to play their supportive roles, and all go back to work on Monday morning feeling as though they have rebelled. The cost of their cheap rebellion is that when they are older, they will find that their hearing has been damaged.
Vanilla Fudge's gimmick in the USA in the 1960s was playing pop covers very slowly, for listeners who were stoned. Deep Purple began as British Fudge imitators; Grand Funk and Mountain carried on in the USA; Britain's Black Sabbath started the sword-and-sorcery nonsense, and Charles Shaar Murray points out that if the Sabs had not been so loud that they took your head off, it would have been obvious that they were not very good. Some of these ponderous giants made so much money that they stopped playing or went into tax exile, hence the New Wave of British Heavy Metal: Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Whitesnake, Saxon. 'Heavy metal is the basic rock and roll message,' said John Swenson of Rock World. 'The least sophisticated kid can get as much out of it as its dedicated followers.' There is no arguing with that.
David Bowie seemed to have more substance than most in the 1970s. He began as David Jones, and wanted terribly to be a star. With his finger on the pulse of the times he changed images, from Ziggy Stardust to Plastic Soul to the dissolution of the Thin White Duke and beyond, mourning lost innocence as he searched for himself, as he knew his generation was searching. His lyrics were allusive and full of the grief of the search. He was intelligent enough to know how perfectly his unbridled ambition and his chameleon act fitted the decade. He ran out of images and faded back into combo rock'n'roll, but with less good songs; in 1993 the latest news was that he had found a new image again, and not long after that he sold shares in himself, and apparently retired.
And there have been groups without number coming and going on both sides of the Atlantic, in a spectrum from bubble gum for the kiddies through ear candy for grown-ups to arty stuff for the critics. As the Beatles grew up, then broke up, the music business was handed a formula on a plate, and used it to rope in each new generation of pre-teen children, while slightly older teenagers were only too happy to become recording artists. Acts which did not exist had hits like 'Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love In My Tummy', vehicles for hack songwriters; as the customers grew older, they were herded into the corral by pop-rock groups who wrote their own material and were more pretentious, but still just looking for a piece of the action, each hoping they did not sound too much like all the others.
Pop-rock acts appeared on the chat shows, such as those hosted by Terry Wogan in the UK, watched mostly by housewives, and Johnny Carson in the USA, unassailable in his polished cynicism. The kids who buy pop records did not watch the chat shows, but the pop group was given the slot because the press agents and the television producers did not know what they were doing. The Wogans and the Carsons did not even talk to the popsters; there may even have been a musical guest on the sofa, but the guest talked and then sat while Richard Marx (say) did the musical slot. Marx had a slick band, an expensive hairdo, a polished act and no soul; his song was instantly forgettable.
The lead singer of the Del Fuegos sounded like a tired mixture of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and Randy Newman. Fairground Attraction's song was not even finished. Each line was not finished: the gimmick was that each line ran out of energy, the words trailing off, the rhythm section stumbling. But the rhythm sections often sounded amateurish. One of the Cure's videos in early 1991 seemed to portray a bunch of kids noodling, or improvising, in the basement, which is appropriate. In today's entertainment business we can all be stars, because the stars are just like us; and the Cure were made by their videos, not their music.
During the 1970s it was already obvious that the original thrill that was rock'n'roll had become a middle-class marketplace, as many of the heroes of the 1960s become tax exiles and Elvis Presley killed himself with pills. A few teenagers in flared trousers were still furtively getting stoned, but the counterculture was dead. The answer to the problem of the death of rock'n'roll, since the younger generations knew nothing else, was more of it. Rock split into the rock generation's answer to Mantovani on the one hand and punk rock on the other.
Punk was supposed to make rock'n'roll dangerous again, but the danger had been an illusion, and the pathetic fallacy of punk was another. The difference was that the punks bragged about not being able to play or sing, and spat on their audience, and the audience cooperated by spitting back. (If any punk rocker had tried spitting on Jerry Lee Lewis, he would have found out what danger was.) Acts in New York clubs such as Richard Hell and the Voidoids wore torn clothes and safety-pins through their skin, and made a ranting anarchic style of noise. English entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, working in New York, knew a good thing when he saw it, and never made any bones about The Great Rock'n'roll Swindle, as the 1978 film was called. Back in London, McLaren ran a boutique, and recruited the Sex Pistols from among his customers; the most famous and typical of the punks, their music was an indescribable noise of buzzsaw guitar whine and tuneless screaming. Punk became a do-it-yourself era, and entire reference books have been compiled of terrible, amateurish pop singles made in garages with a shelf life of two weeks. David Johansen of the New York Dolls, who later changed his name to Buster Poindexter and invented a cabaret act, said of his earlier career: 'I was basically just doing a rock-oriented or a teen-oriented show -- you know, for rebels without a clue.'
In the pop charts punk disappeared into New Wave, followed by the New Romantics. Pop songs by Boy George in the UK, Blondie in the USA and countless more were slick, harmless and slightly cynical, but less portentous. Boy George was frank about dressing up and wearing make-up because it was fun; not much portent there. The songs were forgettable, but by now the pop charts were ignored by serious music fans anyway.
We could always go to the disco. Discotheque is French for 'record library'. Already in the 1960s American towns had discos, bars where scantily clad women danced in cages to the jukebox. Workers, white collar and blue, would stop on their way home to sip a beer without blinking, so as not to miss anything: the working-class dancer was often a single mother, with no other way of making a living, but she might get into the spirit of the thing and flash a bit of something naughty. The dancers were also called go-go dancers, because several French clubs and American imitations called themselves 'Whiskey a gogo' (from the French title of the 1949 Ealing comedy Whiskey Galore).
In larger cities the gay male subculture picked up on the disco. Banned from the semi-literate suburban family rooms where popular culture is legitimized, a subculture embraces the absurd, which then emerges to become the norm, and suburbia does not even know that it has been sent up; you cannot make fun of a society which has no taste. Young urban blacks also adopted the disco as a place to dress up and show off, playing records being a cheaper way to run a club than hiring live music. And the machinery began to take over completely.
Dr Robert A. Moog had built the first synthesizer in 1964; he combined a Ph.D. in engineering with experience as a composer of jingles. Sly Stone had been the first to use a drum machine, on a 1971 number one US hit, 'Family Affair'. The Family Stone was racially, sexually and stylistically integrated, and played a fusion of pop, soul and rock that was unique; Larry Graham's popping electric bass was one of the most important elements. The drum machine was first used in the family room's electric organ, in case somebody wanted to play a rhumba, a cha-cha or a little bebop. But Sly's followers were mere imitators; the music of the disco came initially from black pop, and Sly's music was a natural source for copycats, as was James Brown's.
Music business insiders had their ears to the ground. Shirley Pixley Goodman was half of Shirley and Lee, whose huge R&B hits included 'Let the Good Times Roll' (1956); her disco hit was produced by Sylvia (Vanderpool) Robinson, who as half of Mickey and Sylvia had the wonderful hit 'Love is Strange' the same year. Soon 'bpm' numbers (beats per minute) were printed on record labels, to make it easier for the disco DJ to segue from one disc to the next, and the formula of pop-rock pabulum was complete: soon we had everything from Mozart to Beatles tunes set to the mechanical thump. Larry Graham became a crooner, and his bass was replaced in the pop chart by a computer chip.
Thus good party music became godfather to a formula that did more to wreck pop music than any other, because the market for it had more to do with dressing up than with music. And the pop video was coming along, which meant that the stars could make films of themselves having fun, and sell the films at a profit too. Chic was a disco band that could play, including Nile Rodgers, who soon became a producer of plastic music; Giorgio Moroder, with a studio full of toys in Munich, took it all international. In 1977, with the film Saturday Night Fever, it became a larger bubble that soon burst, but whose effects are with us still.
In 1979 came this first crash in the pop-rock market. Rock's original customers were growing up and the size of each following generation was shrinking. Disco albums, such as the soundtracks from Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (nothing to do with the Beatles), had been overshipped by the record companies and came back by the truckload. Nevertheless, what is now called dance music is made by computers. A late 1980s manifestation was house, named after a club in Chicago; acid house was another spiral further into computer sampling of other people's music. But the twanging synthesizers and thumping machines all have one thing in common: they do not and cannot swing, so that generations of popsters making music by imitating metronomes do not know what swing is, and often cannot play at all. Talk about coming full circle: once again we have recording engineers who cannot record real drums.
The label 'dance music' implies that previous generations did not dance to music made by humans; but there are amusing aspects. Today's dance hits are made by independent one-off technocrats rather than by pop stars, and are throw-away items, like the good old singles of yore: buy one, enjoy it for a while, then buy another. This confounds the major labels, who need a marketing strategy before they can sell anything. The phenomenon of dance music that sounds like a malfunctioning compact disc player is laden with irony. Since it is all on tape tracks generated by machines, it is a simple matter to remix it, taking the fans' money several times, or to issue several versions until one finally becomes a 'hit'.
Another side of the rise of technology is that in pop-rock the visual record of the act, the video, became more important than ever. Paula Abdul was not a singer but an ex-cheerleader and a choreographer of video dancing. Of her latest album, Tony Parsons wrote in the Daily Telegraph: 'Spellbound is slightly less spontaneous than a pocket calculator ... Her dance tracks consist of boil-in-the-bag funk and her sexy stuff has fewer erogenous zones than Barbie's boyfriend.' But the fans who buy the records visualize her dancing while they listen. The kids who danced on television's Bandstand Matinee in the 1950s and the girls who danced in the cage at Freddy's Bar in Kenosha in the 1960s are now the stars, and the streets of Los Angeles are full of hopefuls.
The epitome of all this in the 1980s was the success of producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, who perfected knobtwisting, switch-flipping and button-punching until their bank managers were very happy. They were responsible for thirty or forty hit singles in the UK; they told Time magazine that they have 'pretty much a hard and fast rule that no one we work with is over 25': they thus ensure that should they run across anyone with talent, he or she will not have had much time to hone it. Stock-Aitken-Waterman's menage included Bananarama, three pretty girls; Mel and Kim, two pretty girls; and Kylie Minogue, one pretty girl. I am sure someone called Sonia was not unattractive; Jason Donovan and Rick Astley were pretty boys. None of these people had any discernible talent. Minogue and Donovan were the teenage stars of an Australian soap opera; an Australian commentator put Minogue's appeal down to her 'blinding ordinariness'; a British critic whose job required him to attend her live concert described her as a 'prancing dancing antiseptic swab'. The funniest artefact was Astley's version of 'When I Fall In Love' in 1987. Not only was he covering a classic Nat Cole hit from exactly thirty years earlier, but the producers programmed their computers to imitate Gordon Jenkins's arrangement. The result was so bad it helped the reissued original into the UK charts.
Critics pretended not to take the likes of Stock-Aitken-Waterman seriously, but why not? They were only doing what Joe Meek did, and somebody wrote a whole book about him; in the 21st century we may be expected to read a book about the technocrats of the 1980s. But actually by this time something is beginning to trouble the critics. They might like to try to ignore the kiddie pop, but anything taking itself seriously is given a good deal of space in the so-called quality newspapers.
In Britain in September 1990 a new Broadcasting Act empowered the government to award three new national radio services to the highest bidders, stipulating only that one should be other than a pop station and one should be for talk. Richard Findlay, managing director of Radio Forth Ltd (one of the hopefuls, to be sure), wrote to The Times to complain:
There is a potent and vociferous lobby at work attempting to prove that rock music is not pop music and that ... rock music consortia should be allowed to bid [along with pop consortia]. Needless to say, it is likely that such groups would outbid groups seeking to establish a classical-music station.
In the same issue of The Times a letter was printed from Robert Plant and Phil Collins, also complaining:
It is a fact that the majority of records, tapes and compact discs sold in the UK are sold to rock music fans ... Rock music has become an essential part of contemporary culture ... There is, however, no national radio station that caters for the musical tastes of this large percentage of our population. A pop station, based around top 40 singles, does not reflect the depth and quality of a vigorous popular art that supports this multi-million pound industry in which Britain enjoys world leadership.
The pop-rock industry's greatest talent is for begging questions. Were Plant and Collins saying that the people who do not listen to 'rock' are uncultured, or not contemporary? If rock is separate from pop, then let us add up pop, classical, jazz, country and everything else and see if rock still sells the majority of records. Is Michael Jackson rock or pop? How many top forty singles have Plant and Collins sold?
Phil Collins, the drummer with Genesis, has become a big-time rock crooner, helped by the image of the 'nice guy next door'. As Led Zeppelin's vocalist, Plant is one of the giants of the pop-rock of the last 25 years. His four solo albums spent a total of 40 weeks in the UK charts in the 1980s, three of them making the top ten. Collins had 14 hit singles in the UK during the 1980s (seven in the top five) and four hit albums (only one of which did not reach number one -- it was number two) in the UK album chart for a total of 592 weeks. This is not counting their MOR success in the USA, nor the chart success of Genesis and Led Zeppelin. What are these people moaning about? The truth is that the only distinction between pop and rock is that the popsters are out to be stars and to make money, while the rockers take themselves more seriously and pretend that they care less about the loot. Rockists would maintain that their music has progressed since 1956, but there is so little musical difference between rock and pop that many of the artists would be impossible to place in one camp or the other.
As for the words of the songs, we have come from the folk poetry of Hank Williams, Carl Perkins and Bob Dylan to empty posturing; the rockists are no more literate than the popsters. Take U2, an Irish group who began composing their own material because they could not perform anybody else's, and who were suddenly found to be relevant in the wasteland of the late 1980s. In the Daily Telegraph, film critic Iain Johnstone reviewed their film Rattle and Hum, which is so lame it does not bother to tell you which member of U2 is which:
The Edge, I think, says: 'There are people who say you shouldn't mix music and politics but I think that's bullshit.' And we wait, openmouthed, for him to expand on this sententious theory; but answer comes there none. Accordingly, names like Bishop Tutu and Martin Luther King are taken down from the shelves like proprietary brands and lobbed into their songs, like supermarket shopping thrown into a basket ... Bono, I think, tells us that he is upset about the Enniskillen bombing [an IRA outrage]. He begins the song, 'I can't believe the news today...', but then his well-intentioned sentiments are drowned by the backing. Compared to John Lennon's threnody on the death of Tara Browne -- 'I read the news today, oh boy' -- there is no comparison.
David Sinclair in The Times described the soundtrack album as 'a brilliant patchwork ... which found the hottest rock'n'roll band in the world on a belated quest to acquire some roots'. The hottest rock'n'roll band in the world is only now looking for some roots, and the track singled out for praise is the one featuring guest B.B. King, and this is in a round-up of the year's best albums.
Bruce Springsteen was basically a folkie whose concerts were incredibly popular because he had working-class sincerity. His song 'The River' is about a young couple in an industrial town who were married too young; their lives are already over, and all they can do is sit by the river and watch it go by. This song is about the first half of my life, and it should reduce me to a puddle of self-pity, but it doesn't, because it's not a very good song. His solo acoustic album, Nebraska, was a relative failure, but the critics were too embarrassed to point out that this stripped-down Springsteen is unfinished: the songs have not got the bumps ironed out of them, the words do not fit the tunes. It was Springsteen who said that 'Chuck [Berry] played in a lot of strange keys, like B-flat and E-flat'. (I always wondered what was so weird about Beethoven's 'Eroica'.) But Springsteen, like Elton John, scooped up fans who had no other home. Charles Shaar Murray notes that Springsteen's concerts were better value than his records: he was, after all, only a white boy playing R&B; in person he acknowledges his debt to the golden oldies, and with a good live band he is at least a showman.
Then there is Prince, who has been described as a toothpick in a purple doily. His obsession with sex is partly the obsession of each new generation and partly narcissism. There is no doubt about the professionalism of his act (he paid his dues in Minneapolis clubs), but there is nothing new in his music. He must be a serious artist, because he never laughs or smiles, never gives interviews and goes everywhere with bodyguards. Sting also never smiles. His hit single 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free' was a perfect farrago of me-too noise, the almost drowned-out sentiment being today's excuse for a love song: 'I'll have sex with you, but don't expect me to hang around.' George Michael was a big hit in a pop duo called Wham! and made all the money he wanted, then gave interviews about being a serious artist; the name of his latest album was Listen Without Prejudice. Madonna is not a singer or a dancer or a songwriter, but a 'performance artist' who knows how to get the media to manipulate themselves. In 1991 she told Robert Sandall of The Times: 'My musical career was an accident. I got a record deal in 1982 and just veered off that way. But the more I did it, the less interested I became in being superficial.' I suspect that the pop-rock critics despise her, but it takes somebody like Michael Ignatieff, not a music critic at all, to blow the whistle:
Last week, in an amazing abdication of editorial responsibility, the BBC's usually excellent arts programme, Omnibus, allowed [Madonna] to go on ... and on ... about 'her work'. Her work? You mean the bits where she writhes on satin sheets, miming self-abuse, while two Egyptian-style hermaphrodites sporting huge strap-on conical breasts give her a helping hand? Surely some mistake. But no. The usual po-faced 'cultural critics' were rounded up ... The weird thing about modern celebrity is that mediocrity does not give itself away when magnified to planetary dimensions ... When planetary marketing takes over, some smooth intellectual sucker can always be found to tell you it is Culture, with a capital C.
These artists do not give concerts; they put on 'shows'. The stadium act is said to be an important phenomenon -- music as spectacle. But if an act has big enough hits, it will sell enough tickets to fill a stadium, and if the show has lasers, smoke machines, costumes and choreography, this will distract from the fact that in most cases there is nothing compelling about the music. The huge audience, waving its arms in the air in unison like a giant beetle on its back, is celebrating itself as a social event.
The rock critics write reviews and articles in the papers which are supposed to make us run out and buy records. With all the records coming out, they wouldn't waste space on stuff they don't like, would they? Here is Simon Reynolds in the Observer on Suicide, the 'two-man performance art group': 'brutally simple use of the synthesizer and the drum machine ... critically reviled and ignored ... strict adherence to the fundamental precepts of minimalism and monotony ... too much even for the punk crowd. After recording two excellent albums in the Seventies ...' You can read the whole article over and over, but you keep missing something. Here is Sinclair in The Times on a trio with the enchanting name of Rapeman: 'Albini favours a thin, scratchy guitar sound, massively overcranked to deliver squalls of feedback at the drop of a hat ... Solos ... unfold like so much sonic splatter ... Albini's singing [is] a rabidly incoherent, hysterical shriek that brings a number of the songs to the verge of self-destruction.' Yet it displays 'a high degree of individual musicianship ... and the scalpel-sharp sense of purpose to which it is harnessed'. To be fair, the most serious rock acts (which do not include Phil Collins and Robert Plant) are trying to make their comment on the nasty world we live in, but the only vocabulary they have is the same one Elvis Presley used and it will not do the job, so they trash it and become part of the problem.
John Peel was a British DJ who made his name presenting bizarre popsters, few of whom became as famous as Peel. In his review of an appearance in London of an American group called Pussy Galore, which plays 'deeply confrontational music', six paragraphs read like an amusing send-up of the pop-rock concert scene and of irritating noise. But then he assured us that, although our initial impression would have been 'of undisciplined uproar and unreasonable aggression',
If flower power manifestly failed to solve our problems, we can turn to feedback. (Bass player and producer Bill Laswell: 'I never need songs ... The most interesting thing in the last 50 years is noise -- the sound of technology.') The frustration of these people is understandable, but it is unclear why anyone should listen to their music.
Closing his review, Peel made a gratuitous remark (typical of a British critic) about the 'clodhoppery that infests most of American music'. Meanwhile, not only are the clodhoppers and shit-kickers making some of the best music in America nowadays, but their fans, far from being rock critics and DJs, are people who have the same old trouble making a living as Carl Perkins had when he worked in a bakery. 'I think a lot of the stuff I'm playing now is crap,' Peel said more recently. He was suffering from syndromes that can be overcome with liberal doses of happy music; he should have tried some British clodhoppers, like the Famous Potatoes, an octet of melodeon, accordion, trombone, clarinet, fiddle and rhythm, who first called themselves the Folk Pistols, and who, instead of destroying their roots, play them all. They had made six albums by 1992, but most of them were soon out of print, partly because people like Peel made a career of not having a good time.
He could take a cue from Wolfman Jack, one of the great DJs of early rock'n'roll, who played a lovely cameo role in the film American Graffiti (1973), which was set in 1962. (It is curious how much nostalgia there is among baby-boomers for the period just before they became a counterculture.) In 1989 the Wolf was working on Nashville Network Radio via satellite, and he told a Florida newspaper that he plays a lot of country music these days. 'It's old-fashioned rock'n'roll, man.' Mojo Nixon is an American who has coined the terms 'Stingism' and 'Stingology' to describe the phenomenon of the rock person as Serious Artist: 'Sting? George Michael? Are these people kidding?' Nixon calls himself a punk rocker, but he is using the term in its original meaning of garage music: he is a rock'n'roller who knows that the music is supposed to be fun.
Most of today's pop-rock is not fun; it is tired and boring and its energy is forced. But the difficulty in being a pop-rock critic nowadays is relieved occasionally; it's OK to denigrate something that is going to sell millions anyway. Here is Sinclair on Phil Collins's album ...But Seriously: 'like those Woolworth's paintings of little urchin girls with pearly tears on their cheeks it is of course all superficial tat, airbrushed without guile to mass market perfection.' But you cannot do this too often. Elsewhere Sinclair, reviewing Rick Astley's live act, thinks that he 'demonstrated the timeless ability to carry a good tune, irrespective of style'. Unless it's Nat Cole's style. Robert Sandall seemed to praise a new album in early 1990 by Robert Plant: 'Manic Nirvana does sound in many respects like the best album Led Zeppelin never made, as, in fact, it was supposed to ... The interesting point ... is that Plant hasn't merely set out to recapitulate himself.' And again we've missed something.
The critics on the daily national papers in Britain are paid well for pretending that the fodder of the consumer culture is worth writing about, and it is not easy to write about something that basically is not very interesting. David Cheal in the Telegraph reviewed a gig by a band called the Dream Academy. The sound, lights and visual effects were fine, he wrote.
So why was this such a disappointing experience? Some blame could be attributed to lead singer Nick Lairds-Clowes, whose rock-star demeanour seemed at odds with the intimacy of this cosy auditorium. The show was badly paced; often there was an unsettling silence between the end of the applause and the beginning of the next song (though the exceptionally polite audience could be held partly responsible for this). Then there is the band's dearth of first-class material.
The critic was watching a group which has no stagecraft, doesn't know how to work an audience, doesn't know what kind of room it is in and has made three albums yet cannot fill up a live gig with worthwhile material. It is true that British audiences are sometimes too polite, but why was Cheal so polite?
Attempts at live performance by such non-acts as Minogue, Bananarama and the Pet Shop Boys bring out the best in the critics; they have to depict a disaster as they have seen it, and they enjoy it. These performers have to depend on their backing tapes, and sometimes they don't work. The Pet Shop Boys' tape accidentally included their vocals, so at their live debut they stood on stage with nothing to do. In mid-1991 Betty Boo, voted most promising newcomer by the British pop industry a few months earlier, was pretending to sing on stage when she dropped her prop microphone. There are groups called Pop Will Eat Itself, and the Scene That Celebrates Itself. Perhaps the point is that it is all meaningless.
Bandleader Bon Jovi treads a careful and cynical path between very loud music that is just melodic enough to be pop and not quite loud enough to be head-banging music. Steve Turner describes the familiar ritual of a pop concert, and concludes: 'Bon Jovi music can only really work for you if you believe the Bon Jovi myth. If you don't believe, you are left with the sound of one man worshipping himself in the mirror of an audience and an audience worshipping itself in the mirror of a man.' Bon Jovi also provides us with an example of the nature of today's record business. His series of theatre concerts on the West Coast in early 1990 was compared with that of Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. Steve and Eydie attracted about the same number of customers and grossed roughly the same amount of money, but Bon Jovi is promoting the new album, whereas Steve and Eydie do not bother making records at all, because they will not be played on the radio or available in the shops.
Then there is Jonathan King, sometime pop star, producer turned self-appointed critic. 'Jump Up and Down and Wave Your Knickers In the Air' was one of his in the early 1970s. In the 1990s, he presented a series of travelogues on television called Entertainment USA, each segment of which included a music slot as inappropriate as those on the Johnny Carson show. When he visited New Orleans, we got a pop video featuring a skinny young woman who had nothing to do with New Orleans and whose raucous female Mick Jagger imitation was filmed close-up with a fish-eye lens so that she appeared to fellate a bulbous microphone, itself unnecessary with today's technology. Jonathan King would be of no importance, except that when showing us New Orleans on prime-time television, he could have offered us the R&B dynasty represented by the Neville Brothers, or legendary pianist Tuts Washington, or Ellis Marsalis, pianist father of the talented clan. He could have pulled off a coup by presenting Harry Connick, Jr, then on the brink of stardom. Instead he showed us a pop video, and this brings us to the problem that is even bigger than the technology of pop-rock. The music business has been chasing money for many years; the problem is that the true cost (as economists call it) includes the cost of not doing business some other way. But the deal-makers took over twenty-five years ago.
Clive Davis, a lawyer, became head of CBS's Columbia Records in 1967. That year at the Monterey Pop Festival he was surrounded by West Coast rock groups who already had followings, though many of them had no recording contracts. Discovering an unserved market, Davis signed everybody in sight. After a decade of rock'n'roll the major labels were still undecided about it, but as the rest of the nation was losing its soul to the marketplace, Davis tied Columbia to a phenomenon that corporations did not even understand.
Davis bought Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin) from tiny Mainstream Records; other acts he got for less. He signed Electric Flag and Moby Grape (where are they now?), Blood, Sweat and Tears (successful after one-time rock superstar Al Kooper was replaced by vocalist David Clayton-Thomas) and Chicago (originally Chicago Transit Authority), the last two of which sold records because rock was already becoming easy-listening music. Davis signed baby acts (those without previous contracts) for nothing; if they made money he reaped the credit. Santana, and later Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire, were profitable. John Hammond brought Bruce Springsteen to Columbia, but Bruce took so long to become a superstar that Davis got the credit.
By around 1970 Simon and Garfunkel had split up; Andy Williams and Johnny Cash no longer had television shows and their sales began to drop. Davis had run out of baby acts, so he raided other companies, and Columbia became the house of deals. He grabbed Pink Floyd (from Capitol) and signed Neil Diamond for what seemed like a large amount of money, but everything turned out all right. In 1971 Davis was made president of a reconstituted CBS Records Group, which included all the labels and their overseas offices. Columbia was doing very little in the black music market; it invested money in what was left of Stax, and lost it. Davis became involved with black record producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their label, and once again he was lucky: in less than a year Philadelphia International had crossover success with the O'Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (including Teddy Pendergrass) and others.
The lush, overproduced sound of Philadelphia International was one of the things that was happening to black pop. Worse than that, however, Gamble and Huff did not like Columbia's promotion and were allowed to handle their own, and they were into payola. Davis had also made a promotion deal with Kal Rudman, a talented tip-sheet operator who took payola: Rudman had a real skill for picking hits, and took money for records he liked (why not?). There was now even more money involved. Davis, full of himself, liked big money, the power and stardom that could be found in an industry where flash counted for more than talent. He allegedly charged a bar-mitzvah party to a false account. He hired an assistant, David Wynshaw, who had gangster friends and who allegedly cheated Columbia with phoney invoices. One of Wynshaw's friends was caught with a roomful of heroin; Gamble was later fined for payola; it had all begun to stink, and Davis was fired in 1973. Everyone was shocked, because even if Davis had been careless with money, he was one of the most successful record men in sight; but CBS was always a conservative company, and Davis's luck had run out. (Charges were brought against Davis and later dropped, which is common in the record industry when firing somebody. The same thing had happened to Eli Oberstein decades earlier.)
Jann Wenner had also discovered a market when he launched Rolling Stone magazine after the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Rolling Stone became the voice of the counterculture, another example of how middle class the counterculture was: Wenner never pretended to be anything but a commercial operation. There were not many bad record reviews, because advertising was important. The connection with Davis lies in the contradiction that while CBS, one of the country's biggest corporations, had pushed rock records by advertising in Rolling Stone that it was on the side of the Revolution, it bounced Davis at the first sign of getting its fingers burnt.
The counterculture never knew that it was a middle-class phenomenon, though Davis at Columbia Records in New York wearing Nehru jackets should have been a give-away. As Louis Menand wrote in the New Republic in 1991, the American middle class is too insecure to resist a new self-concept when one is offered:
The difficulties begin with the word 'counterculture' itself ... For during those years the counterculture was culture ... It had all the attributes of a typical mass culture episode: it was a lifestyle that could be practiced on weekends; it came into fashion when the media discovered it and went out of fashion when the media lost interest; and it was, from the beginning, thoroughly commercialized. Its failure to grasp this last fact about itself is the essence of its sentimentalism.
Bob Dylan knew that nothing had changed. On Street Legal (1978), his last album before he turned to religion, he asked:
Can you tell me where we're headin'?
The counterculture, as consumers, became the willing partners of big business. But Clive Davis had done nothing good for Columbia. He brought the label back to the top of the marketplace, but on a much less sound basis. The ever larger amounts of money involved resulted in the major labels being forced to try to buy success, and he helped destroy the tradition that a recording artist should have some kind of following before a contract was offered. What happened to Columbia Records was what was happening to the country: the deal, the quick profit, the clever scam that impressed one's rivals was more important than the product.
Davis's ultimate successor, in 1975, was Walter Yetnikoff, another New York lawyer. He bragged that he was tone-deaf; one of his girlfriends told Frederick Dannen (author of Hit Men, 1990) that Yetnikoff could not tell one piece of music from another. Yetnikoff was the boss when the disco boom collapsed in 1979. One of the worst deals he presided over was the acquisition of Paul McCartney. Columbia not only paid $20 million, but gave McCartney the priceless Frank Loesser publishing catalogue, and did not even get in return any of McCartney's backlist. (Much of the profit in a big star comes from steady sales of old hits.) McCartney's next few albums did not do that well; Columbia lost money on McCartney, and will continue losing money as long as Loesser's Guys and Dolls keeps making it. Yetnikoff had bought the Loesser property in the first place, and promised the estate that it would be the jewel in the crown of CBS Songs; Mitch Miller's comment was, 'If I were a Columbia stockholder, I would sue for dilution of its assets.'
WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic, including Reprise) was a much better-run company. It was WEA and its predecessor companies who gave Ry Cooder a contract at a time when he had not made a single album of his own, and who have issued albums of integrity by Emmylou Harris and many others. This was possible because WEA was the artist-oriented company that Columbia used to be, with bosses for each label who were allowed to make their own decisions. Yet WEA too got sucked into the table-pounding ego-ridden style of management: Yetnikoff took James Taylor from WEA (just as Taylor was passing his commercial peak); from Columbia WEA took Paul Simon, who wanted to leave anyway, and it was some years before WEA began to get its money back with Simon's Graceland. Mo Ostin at WEA renewed Rod Stewart's contract for an absurd $2 million each for ten albums, believing that Stewart's manager was talking to Yetnikoff. Compare the cost of Rod Stewart's contract with the $425,000 for each Neil Diamond album, which seemed so high in 1970. How long could this hyperinflation go on?
After the disco crash of 1979 Columbia came back on the strength of only two albums: Michael Jackson's Thriller and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. But its erratic performance contributed to a climate in which Columbia Records, one of the crown jewels of the record industry, was soon sold overseas. The oldest record company in the world had become a liability.
The Network, the system of independent promo men of which Kal Rudman had been one of the midwives, had begun to take over. The major labels farmed out their promotion work so that the payola was kept at arm's length, and a handful of gangster types controlled what records were played on the most important stations in America. In 1985 the US record industry grossed $4.5 billion (maximum) and made pre-tax profits (maximum) of $200 million. That is only about 2.5 per cent return (pre-tax) on an investment, but there is more: they were also spending (minimum) $60 million, or 30 per cent of their pre-tax profits, on promotion, some of which, everybody knew, was kicked back to corporate vice-presidents.
In December 1989 Joseph Isgro, a record promoter and leading member of the Network, was indicted on fifty-one counts of racketeering and conspiracy to defraud and to distribute cocaine. In March 1990 the American press reported with a straight face that Columbia had been revived, thanks to Yetnikoff's appointment of failed 1960s popster Tommy Mottola to head the domestic label. Mottola hired three more executives away from Arista, Atlantic and Polygram, which made five high-powered big shots to revive the label, set to have a good year thanks mainly to a bubble-gum act, New Kids on the Block. The label of Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, most of the best of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, South Pacific and much else was now over one hundred years old, wasting so much money that it had to rely on bubble gum to stay afloat. Sony, the new owners, finally dismissed Yetnikoff in early 1991, reportedly with a $25,000,000 handshake.
As Frederick Dannen points out in his book Hit Men, if the pioneers of rock'n'roll, such as George Goldner and Morris Levy, were all crooks, at least they did not pay out tens of millions of dollars in bribery. It took New York lawyers to do that. All the promotion money goes to sell singles, which do not even make money nowadays; what the industry is after is a hit single to sell an album, where there is more profit. The Top 40 format is now called CHR, Contemporary Hit Records: it can't be called Top 40 any more because some of the radio stations don't even have forty records on the playlist. And who was the top-selling artist in the pop album charts of 1991, according to Billboard? Country singer Garth Brooks, whose label did not even bother to promote his singles in the pop market.
After 1975 sales of pop singles fell by 50 per cent in ten years, both in the USA and in the UK. Twang-thump 'dance music' on 12-inch singles survives, but in early 1993 Sony and EMI in Britain announced that they were going to stop making singles almost entirely. The pop single is as dead as an Edison cylinder, because there are a great many toys to distract kids today, such as computer games, and anyway the kids can afford to buy albums.
In the 1950s radio abandoned the adult audience, which had more purchasing power and bought albums rather than singles, which meant more profit for the record companies. You could argue that this was a smart thing to do at the time, because the youth market was increasing, but there is no evidence that broadcasters were studying demographics; and in the 1970s they did it again as the baby boom passed its peak.
In October 1965 the Federal Communications Commission ordered broadcasters to stop duplicating their AM and FM transmissions, and around that time manufacturers of radios were required to include FM as well as AM bands. In the early 1970s FM discovered new prosperity when Tom Donahue, a California DJ, pioneered a policy of playing longer, more interesting album tracks with less talk and no commercial jingles, taking the counterculture away from AM radio. But by the end of the 1970s, as the pop chart was taken over by overproduced AOR (Adult or Album Oriented Rock, or, some joked, All Over the Road), electropop and bubble gum for all ages, FM broadcasters discovered that they could make money faster by playing top 40 on FM: by this time the number of fifteen-year-olds in the country was declining and the number of thirty-year-olds increasing. Once again the broadcasters and their advertisers had abandoned a sizeable percentage of listeners with purchasing power, but this time it was a growing rather than a shrinking group. AM stations were given over to talk and pop music continued to decline in quality.
Not making easy money the way it used to, and having to find the money for the bribery somewhere, the industry then wanted a tax on blank tape. The Times reported in a subhead: 'Home taping costs European music companies about £10 million a year.' The testifying witness in the text turns out to be the record companies' trade body, the International Federation of Phonogram Producers. It is not the little independent record labels who want the tax. They know perfectly well that people tape each other's records for the same reasons they used to swap them and borrow them, and that more fans for more music will result, if the music is any good.
Meanwhile, Clive Davis landed at Arista, where he was successful with Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester, not Monterey-type acts, but MOR or AOR (which also means 'All Over the Road'). Davis has been compared to Mitch Miller, who snorts with derision:
A record executive must be a nurturer, in the mold of Conkling and Lieberson, and not take credit that rightfully belongs to his staff ... There's guys in the field who brought the stuff to [Davis], and the rest were all deals ... I could take a list of people who were promoted with four-color posters as the second coming of the Lord who couldn't ad lib a burp after a radish dinner.
Miller thought it was ironic that Manchester and Manilow were his kind of artists, but more typical of the industry was an album by British rocker Roy Hill in 1978. There were demo tapes by Roy Hill that sounded good enough to release: tough, spare, inexorable urban laments full of sexual and social grief. But the album Davis released was a party record and grossly overproduced by Gus Dudgeon, a flavour of the month in the late 1970s. It went well over budget, sank without a trace and Hill never made another. The way the major labels did business almost guaranteed that their records would be overproduced. Less and less had been done in-house since the 1960s, since the lawyers don't know anything about records anyway; they called in experts who'd had a couple of hits and who behaved like children in a toyshop. B.B. King gave one of the best live shows I ever saw at the Hammersmith Odeon in October 1977, but his latest album at the time had twelve dull soundalike songs by two writers nobody had ever heard of: the music business had succeeded in making B.B. King boring.
More recently, the English rocker Graham Parker complained, 'I don't want my cymbal to sound like a refrigerator falling on to a pile of glass.' Tom Waits, the Californian chronicler of the seamy side, said, 'If I want a sound, I usually feel better if I've chased it and killed it, skinned it and cooked it.' Steve Earle would sound less rockist if his production was not so claustrophobically amplified and had more space in it. The Forester Sisters, a quartet from Georgia, sang beautifully and their songs were mostly good ones, but their albums had a tad too much sheen. Country rocker T. Graham Brown's act was praised in Country Music People, but the magazine was a bit reserved about the albums: sure enough, Brown's touring band had been replaced by bags of studio production, including loud, stiff, unswinging rock drums.
The paucity of good music in the mainstream marketplace and the domination of technology meant that the record producers had become stars. Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis unwittingly provided a good story; he used as a guest on an album the elderly New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker, and was impressed because Barker did not wear headphones in the studio. It is hard to believe that Marsalis does not know that the best records of the century have been made with the headphones on the engineers. Musicians cannot listen to each other sitting in cork-lined cubicles wearing headphones; one hopes that Marsalis's drummer does not need a click track to tell him where the beat is. Bob Dylan comments in the notes to Biograph, a retrospective collection, about the simple way he used to make records; he should take a cue from the fact that the reviews of his new albums jabber as much about his production as about his songs.
By the time Manilow and Manchester had faded, Davis had discovered Whitney Houston. Somebody had to find this beautiful girl with a beautiful voice from a whole family of beautiful voices: Cissy Houston is her mother; Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick are her cousins; she calls Aretha Franklin Auntie Ree. Knowing from personal experience how precarious employment in the record business can be, Davis signed Houston to a personal contract, so that if he got fired again, he could take her with him. She had huge hit albums and singles, and Davis had done it again; but the only memorable song Houston recorded was 'The Star Spangled Banner'. Her hit material consists of non-songs written in the studio by hacks and producers, and laden with that sterile sheen that makes good wallpaper for the ears. We never found out whether she could sing a good song or not.
In a pub in the 1990s I heard a cassette playing which was so typical of today's pop-rock that I asked to see it. It was a compilation called Soft Metal, with several pop-rock acts of which the only one I remember is Saxon. What was typical about it was skill combined with empty content. The rock beat had nothing to do with any of the roots of country music, rhythm and blues or rock'n'roll. The songs were sung well enough, for all the tools in the modern pop vocalist's kit had been adequately mastered: the gospel melisma, the country catch in the voice, the blues inflections. All the bits copied from all the musics had been liquidized and squirted into a dozen moulds of utterly uninspired songs, adding up to rock as elevator music. First the deal-makers in fast food took the malt powder out and made the milkshake; then in the music business they took the soul out and made pop-rock.
It was no surprise that when Billboard introduced a more accurate method of counting sales in May 1991, using the bar codes on the packaging and including more supermarket racks, country music received a big boost up the album-chart ladder at the expense of poprock; country music had been unfairly neglected by the industry for decades. But there is another parallel music industry which still cannot be counted, because the records are not found in the racks at all. A large number of small independent labels put out everything from Cajun swamp rock to avant-garde jazz for knowledgeable hardcore music fans; a small army of them spends a lot of money on their favourite sounds, of which most people remain totally unaware. In this market will be found much of the best music of today. Nowadays a great many records are sold through the mail; in the 21st century, more and more are ordered over the Internet or direct from the (often tiny) record companies. Who counts these records, which are not found in the shopping-mall record shops, which are now little more than racks? When we read in the papers that jazz, for example, amounts to only one or two per cent of the market, we know the figures are distorted by the domination of the major labels, and we have their word for it that most of their stuff doesn't make a profit.
And that is almost the end of the history of popular music, because the best of it nowadays remains obscure.