Published New London Writers Feb 2015
We never had the internet. Music was our language back in the day, just as the internet is common currency for young people today. Music was a sounding board, a common ground but it was more than this: music was a beautiful field of fantasy. My mate Michael had a vast collection of LP records kept in beer crates on his bedroom floor. The crates covered the floor – he must’ve had at least 200 records. This represented an addiction. Records were expensive then so he spent every penny he had buying new music. Exploring avenues of blues or American or British music and even local music. There was hardly space to sit down between the records and the old NME magazines which used to take about two months to be sent over from London to New Zealand on a ship. We would sit on the floor of his room reading those NME’s like a holy book and listening devoutly to Hendrix, Dylan, the Stones, Patti Smith, Little Feat or David Bowie. LPs were the ultimate in music worship. It is no coincidence that today, some 30 years after this ancient technology has peaked, LPs are making a small but stubborn comeback. An LP represents music devotion: you can hold an LP, read the lyrics of songs and gaze mesmerised at the artwork. The truly great albums of the time were beautiful works of art – David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs; early ZoSo with the naked children on Houses of the Holy and the Beatles’ White Album or Abbey Road; Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, a record that emerged from the very crevices of Stevie’s mind; on which he played every instrument, wrote every song and sang every lyric. The mosaic of improvisation on Jimmy Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys or the sad Celtic lilt of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey. You could hold an LP and stare at it for ages. You could get into it. LPs were a work of art – from the Cream’s Disraeli Gears to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon; to the most sold record of all time in human history, Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive: a double live album which was not heavy rock music but not pop music either. An album representing the perfect nexus between everything going in popular music at that time – a mix of pop, glam, rock, American and British influence, songwriting with slick live performance. An album perfectly poised to storm the world.
So why would kids sit and listen to Patti Smith’s Horses for an hour and put their lives on hold while there was so much else to do? The answer is that music represents more than just music. It was a lifestyle that we aspired to. Music was our language but it represented more than just sounds. Music was art. An artistic process. Yet even more than this. Music was an aspiration to a new reality. Music is theatre is art. When we went to a concert we weren’t going there for reality. We turned up for fantasy, for the image of a lifestyle. When Pete Townshend smashed up his guitar, or Jimi set fire to his strat; when Iggy cut himself on stage and Mick ponced around like a chicken with a bone up its arse; when Bowie slapped on the layers of makeup; or Jimi Page unleashed the violin bow on his Les Paul: this was pure theatre. That’s what we paid for – theatre. ZoSo are a perfect example. More than any other band, Led Zeppelin reached cult status. I remember parties where all that was played for the entire night was Led Zep I, Led Zep II , Led Zep III or Led Zep IV. Physical Graffiti or Houses of the Holy. You were required to know the songs, to listen to it endlessly with the subtle progressions between each album. Nobody made the rule that only Led Zep albums could hit the record player that night – yet intrinsically we kept the law. For this was a cult and the power of a cult is that we want to obey. It’s subtle but it works. True to their idiotic cult status, Led Zep seem to have been complete imposters. We now know that large swathes of their early material was apparently copied. They cheated. In the worst way possible. Not just the music, the lyrics as well and even the feel of some of the blues tracks they ripped. In fact pretty much all they provided was the image out in the foreground. Yet we still buy into it – why? They lied to us and they scammed us. Yeah their lawyers deny it but we all know the truth now. So why do we still love this music? The answer is clear – because music is theatre is art. They sold that dream, we bought it and there is no going back. When Robert Plant hit the stage, leaving any vestige of his undies behind, we all wanted to be that guy up there wiggling his cucumber around. They peddled that snake oil and we bought into that dream, we turned up for it, paid the money and then there is no turning back. Once you have constructed the fantasy however, you need to make it real. You need to sell it and I don’t mean for money. You need to prove that this mind trick that you have created is in fact real and needs to be honoured. Artists do this all the time. That’s why they are smashing up the guitars, cutting themselves and throwing televisions into the swimming pools. They are shocking us with the real. If you can paint a picture and sell it, or play music and have people pay to listen to it, or write a story and get it published and get paid for it, or even write about other people doing all this, then you have participated in one the most honoured and holy processes of all time. Peddling tightly pressed balls of delusion. Because that’s what it is – it’s fantasia. Its not real, yet it seems so deep and meaningful doesn’t it? That’s because we make it soulful, in a way more momentous than our lives – which at times tend to be frankly routine and boring, if you looked at it honestly. We don’t tend to write songs about doing the shopping, putting the dishes away or doing the vacuuming. These artists are indeed the high priests of fantasy. It is no coincidence that so many musicians have an art school progeny. From Pete Townshend, holy priest of truth, to David Bowie an artist who developed so many persona that reality began to slide; to Mick Jagger, Ray Davies, David Byrne, John Lennon, Jimmy Page. Bryan Ferry was so good at it he was an art school teacher. Brian Eno, Syd Barrett, Eric Clapton, Freddy Mercury, Ron Wood, Roger Daltrey, Mick Jones, Andy Mackay. Keith Richards said there were more good guitar players in art school than anywhere else. And don’t get me started on the English teachers such as Brian May, Todd Rungren, Sting, Mark Knopfler and Art Garfunkle. That’s a whole other line just as important to the holy process. Literature is language and language is sound. They both push sound and fantasy. They peddle image. We look at that image and attach a depth and meaning to it. Led Zeppelin seemed to be so soulful; yet only a few years before they began as a band most of them were there backing Donovan (the first real British worldwide pop star) on songs like Hurdy Gurdy Man and Sunshine Superman. We think pop and rock and are such separate worlds but in reality they are a mere step away from each other. It’s very easy to tweak the dream. The point is that art is a process – and that process is selling a dream. Once you have accomplished this progression in one sphere, you can do it in any area you choose. Interestingly the most valuable assets that you can purchase in the world today are not machines or buildings or even technology – but simple works of art. From the depth of shade in a Michelangelo painting, the whiplash curve of a Rodin statue or the maelstrom of colour in a Picasso; an Andy Warhol print or the rights to a Michael Jackson song or even to the Beatles’ music. What a wonderful process – you have to admire this about art. These people created something valuable out of absolutely nothing. They simply applied their mind to the use of their hands. They painted a picture or wrote a song or a book or a poem; yet they made it so real and so convincing that today people will pay millions of dollars to participate in and even devote their lives to, the little ball of fantasy that they pressed so tightly togethor. Accountants, entrepreneurs and lawyers were not involved; not till afterwards once the dream began to fly. No, no – believe me, the best, most effective and accomplished business people on this globe today are all artists with their heads stuck up in the clouds – never forget that. There are thousands of good bands out there but they won’t all become what they want to be. The ones that do make it have a few things in common. Good lyrics. Good meaningful lyrics that rock your world. Stairway to Heaven tells a story, a pretty poem that pushes you onto a different plane. Momentarily you depart your life and later return, once the song has finished. That’s what people buy into. Listen to My Sweet Lord from George Harrison. He doesn’t even need to get to the end of the first bar of that song, he just sounds the very first chord and instantly we are already there next to him. How did he do that? I think I can answer. George had soul and we all needed a piece of it. Those little chords flew around this earth and changed everything. It can-opened our minds and the very moment we heard it there was no turning back – even my old Dad got that hymn for peace, Hare Krishna and devotion. To have soul you need vision and vision is the most in demand energy source on the earth today. Artists, more than anyone else, have vision. I often meet confused young people prattling on about how the internet has changed music. The internet has not changed music, and it never will. The good music is still there. The internet changed how we listen to music. It changed how we packaged it up. When we lost LP artwork and went down to little CD covers, we lost a lot of depth. Files are worse. People just need to keep making an effort to get at the good stuff. The story of Western music is one of constant and unrelenting challenges presented through advances in technology. Going back over a hundred years Western people used to buy sheet music and then play it in the evening around a piano. Musicians wrote songs and peddled the dream through sheet music. Then the Pianola came along and revolutionised the process. Instead of buying sheet music people bought piano rolls, pushed the pedals and the piano did all the work. This killed the sheet music industry. Then big jazz bands came along but when the new technology of radio turned up this killed the big bands and their live gigs. The world did not start with the internet. Better quality record players came along so that we could play loud music and dance at parties and then tapes, and then CDs and after that squidgy little digital files. Each time the new technology arrived it tended to commercialise music. They wanted to sell the new technology fast so they peddled the lighter, more commercial songs. Art has always peddled and packaged up a lot of sex, that’s what excites people and that’s a dream that works. Then we would get sick of the light music and go digging deeper, digging for soul. Make no mistake though – at the end of each of these processes were artists peddling their dreams. Peddling their little balls of pleasant delusion.