When the music stops

There’s a line in Don McLean’s American Pie that has always rung true for me:

” …the day the music died …”

I always wondered what it meant, but after years of working with music, whether as a DJ, a writer or back in the day when I worked in record stores (remember them?) I think I’ve finally worked it out.

Let me explain …

If you’re of a certain age, you can probably remember the first record you ever bought. It might have been a 7″ single or perhaps an LP if it was your birthday and you’d received some gift tokens. Maybe it was on CD, cassette or even 8-track cartridge ?

Whatever we’re talking about, most people can remember their first time, right ?
Following that initial – probably embarrassing – purchase, most young people get into “their” music and before long they’re dressing in a way that reflects it, just so that everyone else knows who they are. It’s a classic way of identifying with a certain movement and lets people both fit in and stand out simultaneously.

When I was a teenager, there were loads of “tribes” I could have joined: mods, rockers, teds, punks, skins, smoothies, townies, casuals, headbangers, hippies, goths, suedeheads, new romantics, rockabillies, psychobillies, soulboys, rudeboys/girls, dreads, etc … the list is almost endless once you start delving deeper into the individual sub-cultures and their nuanced differences. To the outsider’s untrained eye, there might not seem to be much difference between a ted, a rockabilly and a psychobilly, for example. Stop and speak to those individual people though, and they would tell you about the diversity between the three, whether it was musical, political, cultural or purely stylistic in nature.

The whole point was you and others like you identified with something, and it was usually the music that led you there in the first place. Sadly, these days I think you can only really be a chav or emo: they don’t know what they’re missing … 

While most of my classmates were into metal and classic rock, I’d been brought up in a house where jazz was the norm, so I naturally gravitated towards disco and funk. Kool and the Gang’s Something Special on tape was the first album I ever bought, while Madness’s One Step Beyond and ELO’s seminal double, Out Of The Blue, were the first two LPs I was given round about the same time. Kool and the Gang were taking their first steps into superstardom following years of cult credibility as a pioneering funk band; Madness were at the forefront of the multi-cultural ska revival which was sweeping the nation; ELO were moving away from their earlier glam, prog and classical influences and on to a more commercial, disco-tinged sound that proved highly successful for them.

I still love all three albums today and have them in just about every format possible.

From there, I got into James Brown, Prince, David Bowie, The Beatles (who doesn’t), Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Anita Baker (no relation!), Motown, reggae, Kraftwerk, hip hop, trip hop, house … and so on. Everything links to something and if you had the time and a very large piece of paper you could probably draw a diagram to show the various influences of one artist on another … all the while, they all influenced me and the person I am now.

I’m sure you have a similar story to tell, though the music, the fashion and the details would be different. For me, it’s an ongoing process, and I’m discovering both new and old artists all the time. I’ve got “pockets” of music I missed, like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Who and – shamefully – the Rolling Stones, who I really didn’t get round to listening to till I was in my thirties. I know of one bloke (and it had to be a bloke) who only listens to Gary Numan. He doesn’t own any other music. Not even similar artists. I’ll run that by you again:
Just. Gary. Numan. 

And this is what I’m getting at … do you still listen ? Do you still try new music ?
Do you go to gigs ? Do you explore YouTube, watch Later and attend festivals ?
Or are you still listening to the music of your youth, like many people ?
What was the last album you bought ? Do you still buy music ?
Are all your CDs from the 20th century ?

Did the music stop for you ?

There’s nothing wrong with this: I’m not criticising and I’m not saying one type of person is better than the other. I’ve got loads of friends and acquaintances who are stuck in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, who never move on, musically. Similarly, I’ve had people come up to me at parties and demand songs from a decade, as if that’s the be all and end all … what if I only played the worst of the 60s ? The smallest hits of the 70s ? The one hit wonders of the 80s ?
What then ? Would it still be good music, just because it came out when that person’s “musical personality” was being created ?

I find the subject fascinating and have had loads of completely futile arguments and totally silly conversations about this. Some people talk about “old skool” when referring to house music from the 90s; others talk about third generation covers of sixties classics as if they’re on a par with Mozart.

I know it’s all subjective. I know it’s all opinion. That’s what’s great about music (and everything else, of course). It makes us what we are.

But I’m trying to find out why ?
Did The Who die the day Keith Moon did ? What about Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd ?
Why did you stop listening to Morrissey after he left The Smiths ? Or what about when Dave Gahan suddenly got serious ? Or when U2 “sold out” ? What about Bowie: did you like Let’s Dance or give up with him after Scary Monsters ? Maybe you never liked any of the Berlin trilogy anyway, so consider Station To Station his last great album ? Prince lost it when he left Warner Bros, right ? Once everyone else got into Jeff Buckley, you stopped liking him. Same with Nick Drake. How about The Sweet ? Best band ever, or a shadow of T-Rex ? Roxy Music were better than both of them put together, anyway. 90s ? I don’t listen to anything after 1988. There’s not been any decent music since downloads started getting in the charts. These days you only need to sell about 5000 copies to get to number 1 anyway. Not like in my day when you had to sell a million records and being on TOTP could make or break an artist. 

Where do you stand with it all ?

I can see both sides of some of the arguments, I agree completely with a few and laugh in the face of others and treat them with the disdain they deserve. Remember: there’s no such thing as bad music. If someone likes it enough to buy it, there’s value in there somewhere.

I’ll leave you with a joke:
Q: How many soul fans does it take to change a lightbulb ?
A: 6. 1 to change it and 5 to stand around muttering “It’s never as good as the original”





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