An occasional blog on the vicissitudes of Life, Stuff and Music from The Mill.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
We're Gonna Need a Bigger Box!
Let me take you on a
quick trip down Musicboxes Lane, sometimes known as Intolerance Alley
or the Have You Gone Mad Highway and now, much more recently known to
many bewildered managers, record company execs and music public
relations people as The Commercial Cul-de-sac.
Many decades ago,
fortunately before the prickly selfie world of social media, the jazz
world went into spluttering paroxysms because one of the titans of
the then vibrant 'trad' jazz scene - the hugely popular Humphrey
Littleton - fed up and feeling trapped playing the same old, albeit
commercially attractive stuff, introduced the talented killer
saxophonist Bruce Turner into his band and started to 'swing'. So
upset were some of his fans that they took a banner to his gigs
reading “Go Home Dirty Bopper”. Yeah. Music Fans. Nice One. Humph
carried on regardless.
Unlike the ancient Hat,
you may not remember that, but you will certainly have heard all
about the famous 'Judas!' cry that went out years later at the 1966
Dylan concert in Manchester when, after a nice familiar opening
acoustic set, he played the second half of his concert on an electric
guitar. His reply to the now infamous shout was to tell his band to
play louder. Often characterised as a pivotal moment in music
(actually, he had been booed in Newport a year earlier for the same
thing), it tells us as much about fans resistance to change as it
does about the artist's development.
That was a long time
ago, wasn't it? We don't do that any more do we? Oh Really? Come with
me over here and look at that violin-playing bloke. He plays Vivaldi
you know. He is called Nigel Kennedy and he plays Vivaldi. He always
plays bleedin' Vivaldi, My grandad really likes his Four Seasons.
It's written by Vivaldi you know. What do you mean he plays Django
Reinhardt and Irish ceilidh music? He wears a football scarf? He has
ridiculous hair? Nah, he can't do that – he plays Vivaldi. If
that's the case then I'm not buying any more of his stuff. That's
outrageous. He's a Judas, he's a Dirty Bopper who should Go Home.....
At least there wasn't a riot - which was the case when Stravinsky
launched his Rite of Spring in Paris....rien ne change...
Ok, they are a just a
few high profile examples of how battalions of music fans like their
music boxed up and labelled and you will know many more examples of
where an artist has made an unexpected moonwalk right in the middle
of their oh-so-familiar foxtrot. It happened and it still happens and
wouldn't we be so much the poorer if it didn't? Music fans, like many
other type of fans, often consider they are experts in their field –
particularly in the modern age of the instant keyboard warrior –
and there are millions who still have a need to take a belligerent
stand against change of any kind. The examples above are from the
jazz, folk and classical worlds but no musical form is exempt. The
semi-mythical 'Blues Police' are legendary in their rapid
shoot-from-the-hip condemnation and many forests of blues trees have
suffered at the hands of those who find it difficult dealing with any
artist who steps out of their neat and tidy 'genre box' - (even The
Hat has been on the sharp end of their devastating original wit)....
and please, let's not go anywhere near the Literary and Literal punch-ups that go on about 'Metal' from Rock to Death and
from Doom to Crust and Christian......
And yet...and yet...Some of the world's
most successful artists are those who are always pushing boundaries,
breaking rules and thinking outside of their classified box. Look no
farther than the recent losses of Bowie and Prince, both of whom were
far too big and interesting in their musical development for anyone
to slam them into a box. The Hat is not suggesting that we should all
go off and study Laurie Anderson or Bjork's next move or clap with
joy when Brian Eno or Philip Glass show us two conventional fingers.
The attractive thing is that they are constantly moving on and
exploring. They are not abandoning what they do, or have done. They
are investigating and evolving. Listen. The phenomenal talent doesn't
disappear simply because Am/Em have got boring.
There are problems of
course with all this 'musical freedom' stuff. Firstly, many fans,
understandably, like to know what they are getting and the label on
the box gives them a clue. Not all fans will appreciate the nuances,
the twists and the breadth of vision that an artist brings with them
unless they have been forewarned. Secondly, for artists who can't be
boxed, don't wish to be boxed or move across many 'genres', this is a
problem that can bring with it, some hard-nosed financial
questions....and this is where the record promoters, radio show
producers, sharp-end sales outlets and marketing people enter the
equation. Simple questions like 'what heading does the record review
appear under in the paper or magazine'; 'what rack does the album sit
in on the shop display' and 'when does a DJ give it a play in his
'boxed genre' show' are somewhat minor issues compared to the
conversation on the record company sixth floor when the execs have to
decide how to promote their potential commercial prodigy. 'Brilliant,
but it won't sell' is often the mantra for such meetings.
Yeah, I know that it's
bollox that this is even a consideration - and an inevitable
by-product is the Xfactor world - but, however regrettable, that part
of the industry is never going to disappear. Meanwhile, The Hat loves
to take succour from the fact that the head of Island Records wanted
the Tom Jones gospel and blues album 'Praise and Blame' pulled –
because he 'didn't want hymns' It went on to become Tom's biggest
seller....so you can put your box where the sun etc...
Today, Independence can
be the watchword for many artists.... independent production,
independent or self promotion and the maintenance of control over
what you do and how you do it. It is difficult to escape the need for
funds, even if crowd-funding and kick-starter are throwing a life
line to some free spirits. Nevertheless, as with Art, struggling to
maintain what you regard as your integrity and principles may mean
getting used to living on chips in a garret....and that doesn't
appeal to everyone.
In the final reckoning
though, nothing can overshadow the force of nature that is Pure Rare
Talent. Every successful artist has that magical ability to take
their feelings and emotions out there through their music and
transmit them to the listener, totally regardless of genre, box, or
neat and tidy classification. I am sure you will know many examples
of such artists but I will give you just three recent illustrations
of how this unique artistry works:
Jo Harman, a stunning
vocalist now on the brink of international acclaim, refused to be
known as a 'blues' singer from the start of her career, politely
declined the box label, and is now at the point where her adoring
audience and collaborators come from every corner of the music world.
As she put it succinctly about her latest album “this is just about
me being me”. Then there is the totally unclassifiable duo the RedDirt Skinners, a truly wizard and original combination of guitar, sax
and beautiful harmonies now selling out virtually every venue on a
nation-wide Canada tour. But wait...they just happened to pick up
nominations in boththe Blues and Country awards worlds
– er, that can't be right...how the hell did that happen? - and yes, you got it - 'they just do what they do – brilliantly'.
Finally, let me leave
you with this third example of Anti-Boxness. I recently saw the band
Northsyde at a festival. They are known throughout the UK and the
continent as one of the finest 'blues-rock' bands on the planet and I
admit to having seen them on more than one occasion. The point here
is that they are actually NOT a blues-rock band. They are four hugely
talented artists who don't give a bugger about the box but do care
about giving everything to their audience. On this occasion, right in
the middle of their set, they played Stevie Wonder's 'I Wish'. The
singer emotionally tore down the walls and ceiling, the guitarist
went off to that place where only special guitarists have special
notes on their fretboard and the drummer and bassist laid down a
groove so deep, tight and heavy that there isn't any box anywhere in the
world it would fit. But wait a minute – where's da blues? Where's
da rock?....surely, this is soul, this is hip cool, this is funking
funkmaster jazz-funking like you never heard it...what's it doing in
the middle of a blues-rock gig....why is the audience going bonkers?
Yep. Box Off Brother. Blues-rock it ain't.
So there you have three exciting and successful Antidotes to the Genre-Box-Pox. Of course it's not going to go
away, but as Jaws hero Roy Scheider might say if he went to a gig of
any of those three artists...”Guys, we're gonna need a Bigger