AOM Logo April 1998

Is Rock 'N Roll Dead?

Forward into the Past
D. Malcom Fairbrother examines the current state of the pop music industry

Thomas Wolfe was right: you really can't go home again; but you can sure make a ton of money trying. Recently, my earwaves have been inundated, clogged really, with the sounds of the past posturing as fodder for that generation that plans not to go so gently into that good night - the baby boomers. If there is a buck to be made from opening up mausoleums of sight and sound, then, by gawd, there's someone out there with plans to do so! Forget the fact that the most commercially successful movie of the moment reenacts events of a catastrophe at sea from almost eighty years ago; forget the twenty-five year anniversary re-release of Grease (complete with the accompanying CD re-release)...let's stick to music, and examine some of the approaches selected by the apathetic artists of anaemia and the monstrous money-moguls of music who seek to separate us from our cash.

Plan One: Open Up The Vaults!
The Beatles Anthologies 1-3 might have been just as readily titled, Proctology, as they venture into areas where the Fab Four did not really plan to hold public viewings. This critic is now, and has always been, a Beatles' fan; but the recently released material could have been refined into one, perhaps two if you stretch things a bit, remarkable, informative, and enjoyable CD...but three double sets? Arguments can be made either for or against the validity of creating two new songs by wedding living modern Beatles with poor, dead John Lennon, who did not get a vote in the proceedings. The resulting hybridizations are sweet and sad, as fans ponder what a Beatles reunion might have created, a reunion denied by fateful events; but the songs, praise or damn them as you will, are ultimately false; they do not exist, except on tape, a sonic sampling of virtual reality. Other out-takes and early versions, though interesting, would do absolutely nothing to convince the uninitiated of the genius of the Beatles, or the impact of Beatlemania. At best, they preach to the converted.

Plan Two: Repackage!
Chris de Burgh's newest release is entitled Love Songs. Of the sixteen tracks contained in this package, three are new...THREE! The rest are either re-recorded versions of older songs that offer no significant improvement over the originals, or are lifted intact from their initial surroundings, some appearing for their fourth time on a deBurgh CD. Does the world really need another repetition of "Lady In Red"?

Plan Three: Celebrate!
Don McLean must have checked his calendar and seen that twenty-five years have passed since the success of the song that served well as the cornerstone of his career - American Pie. Perhaps he has been waiting twenty years to begin his 'Twenty-Five Year Anniversary Of American Pie Tour' coming soon to a small-to-modest music hall near you.

Although this pie is stale in any sense but nostalgic, can the commemorative CD be far behind, complete with out-takes, noodlings and commentary composed of old sound-clips by long forgotten celebrities, some of them even dead?

Plan Four: Unplug!
The beauty of this plan is that you do not have to write one new note; in fact, you don't even have to wait for time to pass you from the ranks of the Next Greatest Thing into the halls of nostalgia - simply release an acoustic version of your two or three marginal hits, add some reworkings of your lesser songs under the guise of "my personal favourites", and throw in someone else's moldy old tune to show that you are in touch with your roots. Capture the moment on video and release both the CD and the 'concert'. Please do not be cynical...it worked for Neil Young, Clapton, Nirvana, even the Barenaked Ladies...so many unplugged artists in an unglued industry.

Plan Five: Regenerate!
The loss of a lead singer has never deterred Genesis in the past; they flourished when Peter Gabriel moved on with his career to pursue solo interests and video dreams, replacing him with Phil Collins, and reinventing themselves as a pop group instead of trying to push Collins into a continuation of the atmospheric art rock so memorably conveyed by Gabriel. Now, with the departure of Phil Collins, the remnants of Genesis, namely Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, have sewn themselves to a new lead singer, Ray Wilson. Although he is approximately half the age of his fellow band members, Wilson possesses a serviceable set of pipes, and uses them effectively on a variety of well-written Banks-Rutherford compositions. BUT IT'S NOT GENESIS! Rather, it is Mike And The Generic Mechanics in disguise. The title, Calling All Stations, smacks of irony; the group tries to please every radio station on earth with the possible exception of those with urban-ethnic formats. The music is pleasant, with one or two tracks, notably Small Talk and the first single, Congo that bear repeated listening. The entire CD is beautifully recorded, spacily packaged, and lightly entertaining...but it's definitely not Genesis. The gig will look good on Mr. Wilson's resumé, though.

Plan Six: Denial
They soared through the Seventies, creating the soundtrack of millions of lives. Supertramp. The name evoked a feeling of eternal wandering as a generation sought out answers to the questions of their destiny, with Crime Of The Century, or Breakfast In America beckoning and soothing through the speakers of their automobiles, their blasters. By the early Eighties, Supertramp fell back to earth with a thud, two mediocre albums eroding their fan base. The moment that the magic ended is the moment that Roger Hodgson packed it in, taking his distinctive vocal style and his singular lyrical creativity off into solo realms. Today, Supertramp limps on in denial. Rick Davies struggles to shoulder the song writing load, but only manages to mock what once was so special. A billion dollars of studio equipment and some outstanding musicianship cannot breathe a spark of interest or originality into this batch of eleven banal tunes, ranging from the trite to the pointless. Listening to Some Things Never Change, one is saddened by the reality that things do change whether we accept or deny the fact; here are mere shadows and ghosts where once performed artistic giants.

Plan Seven: Reunion!
Following the flight path of the Eagles' modest success in 1994, Fleetwood Mac has reunited, although the jury is still deliberating about whether there is any artistic purpose. Their recipe, like the Eagles', is simple: record the hits from an already reputably established repertoire, changing the pace of, say, Rhiannon and adding brass band backing to that already corrupted Clinton campaign anthem, Don't Stop; add some new material, Bleed To Love Her, and My Little Demon both lifted from Lindsey Buckingham's unreleased solo work, and Sweet Girl, a Stevie Nicks composition; perform the songs live, video taping the 'concert'; finally, thank everybody for caring as you head to the bank. Nothing truly startling or insightful - perhaps the new material is included to raise our hopes that any future material will help us recapture our past as we roll on down the road, our eyes fixed firmly on the rear-view mirror. The Eagles have kept us waiting for almost half a decade, but hope springs eternal in the boomer's breast.

Plan Eight: Keep On Keepin' On.
James Taylor wins a Grammy with Hourglass, another melodic, sensitive, passionately wistful opus, his finest since...well, maybe since the last one, or at least since your favourite one. Has anybody heard this CD? What a beautifully nostalgic version of Walking My Baby Back Home! The new material is not bad either. Bob Dylan releases his new CD, Time Out Of Mind...his best work since his other best work, not to be confused with his Best-Of work. The critics rave, but, again, only a few people bother to listen as they are busy playing Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume 3 - also just released. It is easier to reprise a memory. The new stuff can be pretty scary. Besides, Dylan proved long ago that he is content to remain true to his Art, following his Muse wherever she wanders; if the people come with him or not, well, it's all the same to him. He's the quintessential artist, letting his songs speak for themselves, and letting the executives package and repackage him however they see fit.

It must be hard for new musicians to make themselves heard above the creaks, groans, and faint echoes of what passes for new music in the mausoleums and museums of the baby-boomers' lives. Small wonder, then, that much of the new music is so fueled by anger and despair, is so raucously loud. Never fear, up-and-coming groups...if they don't hear you the first time around, I have a plan. Eight of them, actually. If none of these seems right for your group, well, fear not; there's always the Deluxe Box Set.


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