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Popular music: the playback years?

14th November 2012

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HOARDS of people fill the Hammersmith Apollo, eager for the show to begin. There is a mounting excitement in my stomach and my eyes are gleaming with anticipation. I am minutes away from seeing the legendary Queen perform live. Wow.

I scan the venue and see groups of older men and women with that slightly scruffy, classic-rock look that screams “old-timer." It feels as if I have stepped back in time attending a vintage, early 70s to mid 80s musical evening.

It is now 21 years since Mercury’s demise and, yet, the music of Queen still packs out prestigious live venues such as this one.

Queen and their temporary front man Adam Lambert prove to be a better ensemble than the earlier incarnation of Queen and Paul Rodgers; they seem energised at least, and their onstage chemistry is evident.

Lambert makes a conscious effort to pay tribute to Freddie as he caterwauls through numbers like Fat Bottomed Girls, Under Pressure and I Want It All. He’s a fabulous eccentric and, somewhere, Mercury must be applauding approvingly.

Footage of Freddie from the 1980s unexpectedly flashes up on screen as Love Of My Life reaches a soaring apex. My breath catches. The crowd gasp and a nostalgic twinge grips me.  

The screen invokes a memory of Mercury and his music catalysing my emotions that leaves me yearning for so much more. A lump swells in my throat and I realise that, while a talent in his own right, Lambert fails to compete with Mercury's legacy. 

I feel no time to absorb these emotions before I am witnessing such classics as The Show Must Go On and Radio Gaga, releasing the audience into unbridled euphoria.

All too soon I am listening to Lambert croon along to the finale, Bohemian Rhapsody. My mind muses as reality falls away, and suddenly, he stops: “Ladies and gentleman, Freddie Mercury,” he pronounces. My attention quickly diverts to the left-hand-side of the screen and a frisson of anticipation runs through my body. My heart leaps with unadulterated joy as my eyes cast over to see Freddie’s holographic image, playing out the prolific curtain closer. His magisterial authority and operatic bombast swallow me.

As his image disappears, an uninvited tear glazes my cheek. Why am I crying? The nostalgic ache rips through me again, a turbulent, sharp apogee forcing me to choke back tears. You’re quite the green-eyed monster for music bygone, my subconscious mind affirms, almost as if it’s protocol. I wasn’t even alive during Mercury’s musical reign, and yet I still feel this strong pull towards him; an overwhelming admiration unfurling at every given opportunity.

Is it fair to say that we are a music culture submerged in the sounds of yesteryear? Music critic Simon Reynolds noted “is the greatest danger to the future of our music culture...its past?”

“Almost any and every decade in the history of pop has somebody revisiting it and reworking it right now,” says Simon Reynolds, music critic and author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past. As a result, music, he says, “seems to be in a weird holding pattern, caused in part by the archiving power of digital culture.” Consider the likes of 80s electro revivalist Lady Gaga and the vintage 60s chanteuse era reworked by Amy Winehouse and Duffy, and perhaps he has a point. Further proof is Adele's 21, which, at the time of writing enjoys its 87th week on the chart. According to the Official Charts Company, it has now sold 4.18m copies in the UK, making it the sixth best-selling album ever.“Then the big newcomer as a female artist is Lana Del Rey, whose whole sound and image is totally 1950s and early 60s, as filtered through David Lynch’s 1980s movies,” adds Reynolds.

But is our compulsion to relive and re-consume pop history really that tangible? “There is individuality to what is being created today,” says Freddie Smith, a radio presenter for Kiss FM. “Everyone said that Oasis were copying The Beatles, but looking back on it now in this decade, it stands out as a 90s genre; Britpop.”

Is it inaccurate then, (if not a little lazy) to make connections between musicians most popular in their respective eras - just because they follow a similar template? “[Oasis] were inspired, maybe, but they weren’t completely copying The Beatles’ innovations,” he adds. Over this decade, grime is exclusively identifiable as a British genre that fundamentally grew out of East London.

Articulate and verbose, it too was a complete new wave of music, fostered by UK garage and spearheaded by artists such as Dizzee Rascal and Wiley. With this in mind, perhaps our current music culture is more innovative than we give it credit for.

Jordan Jay, Senior A&R Manager of Polydor Records, has said that music will always be cyclical because “new artists have always grown up being influenced by artists that were successful before them.” 

For R&B artist Angel, the music of yesteryear plays a big part in what he creates. “All my inspirations are what give [my music] different elements,” he says. “When I create music, I’m always thinking Brandy in terms of vocal arrangements, always thinking Michael [Jackson] in terms of epicness; his sound and his whole creativity.”

However, like Jordan Jay, he believes the pervasive nostalgia for the recent past is completely natural. “I’ve grown up listening to these amazing artists and lived with it for so long; it’s just second nature to do so,” he adds.

In the recent Radio 4 documentary, Is Pop Music Stuck in the Past, Alabama Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg said: “You can spend all day and all night watching old Otis Redding videos; it’s easy to take in that music, and it’s a matter of, I think, limiting your influences when it comes to making a record.”

Rough Trade Records owner Jeff Travis added that the digital age has created a more informed youth. “You meet a 22-year-old person and they know about Creedence Clearwater, they know about The Kinks, they know about Queen as well as they know about all the things happening in contemporary music [sic],” he said.

“That blend is creating something new and if it’s built on a basis of old styles; rhythm and blues, soul music through rock’n’roll, but comes out something new then I think that’s to be applauded.”

Revivalism is not a completely new phenomenon, of course: pop history has an extensive archive of revival periods; 80s synth pop, the late 70s post-punk and the late 60s folk-rock, for example.

Reynolds argues that what is different about the contemporary revivalism is the “exact recall” that the internet, Youtube, iTunes, Spotify and their like makes possible. “Those things arrived at a point when there was such an accumulation of rock and pop history behind us, four or five decades’ worth, so technology enabled people to revisit, recombine and mash-up all the old music,” he says.  

As a result, he adds, the imagination of young music-makers has been replaced and the accent, today, is not on the discovery of new and abstruse music but on renovation, forcing music into a characterless period “that seems very impersonal, lyrically inane, and that also lacks any kind of national characteristics.”

This is something Angel feels artists are starting to recognise. “[We] have definitely got lazy in terms of deliverance on records because you don’t have to do much these days to make a record sound cool,” he says.

However, he seems adamant that the compulsion to relive and rework the past is a sign that ‘real music’ is making a comeback. “I think everyone’s clocked on now and realising that real music is the way to go,” he says. “This [nod to past musical decades] is a real cry out for instruments, real music and for a quality of sound to come back.”

I’m sure that night, the fans left Freddie and the Hammersmith Apollo satisfied, but it left me with a desire for something which can never be revived.

While Lambert and the concession band performed to within an inch of their lives, it was not Queen. May remains an exceptional guitarist and Roger Taylor still drums up a storm, but the show failed to cohere into something unified.

And perhaps that’s the problem with the ‘revivalism noughties’; you can spend a lifetime trawling through YouTube, sampling tracks, file-sharing or reworking eras bygone, but it will never bring it back, nor will it be musically groundbreaking.

Sure, it’s an easy way of selling records and it may satisfy the masses for now, but what happens when we run out of past?

“How can these things be revived? You can’t have a re-revival, surely,” concludes Reynolds. 

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