Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

There's No Such Thing As 70s Music

You'd think the dilemma was as old as the human race, but there is evidence that it's much, much more recent: Your kids think that everything you know is wrong/stupid/outdated. In the days before mass communication and the rise of popular culture, your parents' music was your music. Sure, there might be songs written for children, but these were passed on to their children when they came along. There was no constant shift in styles and trends. The word 'teenager' was centuries, then decades away.  But it was inexorably planning to take over the world. This it attempted first by nonconformity, then by rebellion, then sheer force, then finally by stealth, in which it eventually succeeded. But by now these victorious-yet-obsolete teenagers had new teens of their own, and the cycle was not so much repeated as reinvented. Raccoon coats and ukuleles were eventually supplanted by bobby sox and zoot suits, then...wait a minute. Pop culture has been synopsized by abler writers and cultural historians than myself, so before I go off on "the 78 begat the 45 begat the LP begat the 8-Track", I will narrow my focus to a particular decade whose musical impact resulted from a convergence of factors that cannot be duplicated.

My motive is admittedly ulterior: I have a 17-year old daughter who is musically talented to the point where she is beginning to recognize that any educational and career choices she makes will need to focus on the development of her creative and performing abilities. Like a legion of other teenagers, she's pretty sure that her parent's taste in music can be little more than one huge, ghastly mistake, to be studiously avoided. Since this aesthetic judgment is based largely on non-musical criteria, there is no possibility of our agreeing that my experience and knowledge amount to any valid defense of the music I grew up with.

There is convincing evidence that one's musical tastes are most strongly formed during adolescence and young adulthood. (My experience, and almost certainly yours, should settle the question to everyone's satisfaction.) My beginnings as a musician occurred right about 1970, a time when Flower Power still asserted itself on the airwaves with songs like "My Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" and Three Dog Night's "Joy To the World". By decade's end these sunny expressions had given way in turn to a stylistic gamut including glitter, prog, funk, disco, punk and  New Wave, with rumblings of hip hop and techno making themselves known before 1980.  A cursory examination of this quantum leap, comparable to that produced by the 1960s, is in order.

The Sixties, of course, are the musical and cultural egg from which the 'Me' decade hatched. The former has been so closely studied and analyzed as to be clinically proven to  kill 99.9% of penny loafers and poodle skirts on contact. The cultural climate that hatched ten years of fearless experimentation in music and its attendant artistic expressions (i.e., pop art, psychedelia, auto-destruction, cinema verité, etc.) led to multiple conclusions, ranging from morose disillusionment to wide-eyed optimism and the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment. Popular music had become such a reliable cash cow that record companies and executives were sufficiently convinced to sign unknown artists, performing unknown musical styles. By decade's end rock music had become big business, a commodity to be traded, with the last ten years of innovation and cash flow as its justification.

Technology, too, had changed the game almost immeasurably. The Beatles, whose contribution to the decade's musical progress cannot be adequately treated here, pioneered such studio innovations as tracking and overdubbing with headphones, recording electric instruments directly into the recording console (as opposed to with a microphone), automatic double tracking (ADT, now known as flanging), tape loops, sampling keyboards, and backwards recording, all common practice now but virtually unheard of when they were signed to the Parlophone label in 1962. The movement snowballed in their wake, resulting in records by other artists that sounded by turns bigger, brighter, more polished, more aggressive, softer, harder, more modern - in a word, more commercial. Happy listeners, happy recording artists, happy record executives - an oversimplification, yes, but a maturation of sorts, a coming-of-age for a turbulent decade's most cherished pop culture expression.

Just as casual listeners can usually approximate a song's epoch of origin by its sonic signature (i.e., the twangy, spring reverb-drenched guitars and cheesy combo organ that proclaim 'Early Sixties Surf'), there are ostensibly equivalent hallmarks of Seventies music that relegate it to stereotype status: The dry drum sounds, replete with fatback snare and toms with their bottom heads removed, monophonic synthesizers hooting out their then-futuristic sounding lines, phase shifted guitars and electric pianos slushing out the chords beneath, and - if the record company budget allowed (it often did), a real string section sweetening the deal often beyond reason. Today virtually any producer could duplicate these sounds in an attempt to create 'Seventies Music', and whether or not the results could fool an unsuspecting listener, the latter would at least be able to conclude that the attempt was recognizable, a reasonable facsimile.

But as time marches on, so does (or did) a decade's musical diversity. Having observed the last thirty years of popular musical trends, I perceive a certain closing up, to the point of creative strangulation. Everyone around me is sick of hearing me complain about how everything I hear on the radio - and worse, from the worship teams I play on in church - has the same four chords. There are no accidentals; it's all diatonic. Everything could be played on the white keys of a keyboard, perhaps with the transpose function enabled in case one actually desired to be in a key other than 'C'. (It happens.) Mass media have tightened the noose of acceptable musical styles. Television shows attempting to find the undiscovered 'Next Big Thing' (and to humiliate those who mistakenly believed it might be them) have reduced the musical vision of a generation to a brass ring to be lunged for, rather than a grueling, joyous process in which a garage band (the social unit, not the app) might slog its way to the top. 

This is, of course, a rant, an overgeneralization of a claustrophobic trend riddled with countless, glorious exceptions. But as cream rises, so do noxious gases. Dispensing with the gases for a moment, let's critique the cream in question.  I posit here that the non-category of  'Seventies Music' boils over with an embarrassment of stylistic, harmonic, cultural, creative and accessible riches without precedent, and sadly, without hope of any similar phenomenon happening in our lifetime. Like those that gave us the Beatles and their attendant impact, the convergence of factors that led to the riotous musical supernova of the Seventies can never again be duplicated.

That the year 1970 should demarcate some sort of musical or cultural frontier bears explanation: The last ten years had experienced cultural and political upheaval never before experienced, inflecting pop with such elements as world music, electronic instruments and processing, stylistic cross-pollination (i.e., country rock, psychedelic blues, raga rock, jazz rock, folk rock, classical rock), setting the stage for imminent breakout pop radio hits from distinct genres such as bluegrass ("Dueling Banjos"), black gospel ("Oh Happy Day"), electronica ("Hot Buttered Popcorn") and reggae ("I Can See Clearly Now").  A musical emancipation of sorts had paved the way for virtually unrelated genres to jockey for chart position.  No chord progression was too opaque, no lyric too weird, no voice too strange. 

As the money-grubbing record industry plowed through the era of Watergate, the Energy Crisis and the Carter administration, even second-tier selling genres like progressive rock (think Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, etc.) generated sales that compared favorably with the Internet-weakened music biz of today.  (Lest anyone think I'm blaming the Web for this present musical darkness, the gradual decline I write of was well underway even before dial-up.) The bewildering divergence between successful recording artists like Elton John, Patti Smith, ABBA, Bob Marley, Barry Manilow, John Denver, Elvis Costello, the Bee Gees, Aerosmith, the Carpenters and Lou Reed (sorry to have left out so many indispensables) virtually guarantees a staggering lack of distinguishing characteristics that could render a significant portion of the decade's musical output subject to any stereotype other than (a friend suggested this, not me) cocaine usage. From the stunning beauty and complexity of Steely Dan's 'Aja' to the moronic disposability of Rick Dees' 'Disco Duck', from the raging maelstrom of the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen' to the lush sonic whipped cream of 10cc's 'I'm Not In Love', from the  hippy-dippiness of Sammy Johns' 'Chevy Van' to the cloying bombast of Barry Manilow's 'Mandy', from the snappy funk of the Average White Band's 'Pick Up the Pieces' to the nihilistic futurism of Devo's cover of 'Satisfaction', there is simply no common stylistic thread running through the decade's music.

All that was going to change, though – technological innovations in the music industry would soon become catalysts for trends destined to unify musicians, producers and engineers, for better or worse. The early 80s proliferation of personal computers, drum machines, affordable multitrack recorders, MIDI devices, digital audio recording and processing, sampling synthesizers and sequencers would soon have nearly everyone – me included – scrambling to put these developments to work in the service of creativity. But there was a price beyond that of the cost of these toys: A certain sameness, a common thread. Sure, a keen ear could pick out a Fender Rhodes piano or a notch-position Stratocaster on the radio, but now even an unknown, small-time producer like me could hardly turn on the radio without hearing Yamaha's glistening-yet-sterile DX-7 electric piano sound, a fatback snare sample from Roland's GM sample set, or patch 19 on the Alesis Midiverb II reverb unit and thinking, “Hmm, those are the sounds I used on that jingle last month.” The palette of available colors was shrinking at an alarming rate. Even records that didn't use the Linn 9000 drum machine were being crafted so that a real drummer could sound fake. Not even guitars were safe. The proliferation of so-called “Super Strats” (electric guitars based on Fender's venerable Stratocaster design, but with hot-rodded electronics and locking vibrato units that allowed the humblest local player to dive-bomb like Eddie Van Halen and still stay in tune) made the guitars we saw on the now-burgeoning MTV distinguishable from each other mainly by their garish paint jobs. The custom-built pedalboards and racks of effects used by many 70s guitar greats were gradually being replaced by mass-produced multi-effects units whose sonic signature many of us could identify instantly.

And now, perhaps the most glaring example of a sound that screams “80s” like no other – gated reverb. Once Phil Collins and his cronies accidentally stumbled onto a signal path that caused the tail of the reverberation on the drums to be cut short – a sound that cannot occur in nature – producers and engineers everywhere were scrambling to duplicate this huge-yet-claustrophobic sound (perhaps most famously demonstrated on the mammoth drum break before the final chorus of Collins' “In the Air Tonight”.) By 1982 commercially available digital reverb units were putting this sound - prepackaged - into the hands of guys like me who were scrambling to sound like everybody else. Most of my surviving recordings from the 1980s may sound low-budget, but my tools, being those used by most of my colleagues, left their sonic stamp on my music in a way that carbon-dates it as surely as Rubik's Cube and parachute pants.

The ensuing decades have alternately shied away from the homogeneity of 80s music and revisited it in altered forms, grunge rock and Americana/roots rock typifying the former, hip hop and electronica affirming the latter. It is currently de rigeur to use computers in studio recording, with only the astounding diversity of available tools rescuing many of us from the sameness that made so much 80s music so easy to single out on first listen. I can use these very tools to simulate music from any decade, but if a client wants “70s music”, I need clarification. The brainy, intricate heartland prog of Kansas? The glossy, melodic hard rock of Boston? The infectious, jazzy, horn-driven pop of Chicago? The strident proto-metal of Nazareth? The folksy soft rock of America? (If you haven't spotted the pattern in this list, go drink some coffee and report back here.)

As I stated at the beginning, I would never have belabored this point if not for the frustration I've experienced in trying to pass my best knowledge and experience on to a daughter whose musical skills are a source of continual amazement to me. Aristotle quotes Plato as having pointed out “the importance of having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means.” (Arist. Eth. Nic. 1104a.20). While even my musical education has been mostly informal, it has served me well, and to be able to pass the 70s musical torch to my own offspring would be worth more than having a hit record.


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