“In the beginning
Back in nineteen fifty five
Man didn’t know ‘bout a rock n roll show
N all that jive”
After having lived the first 28 years of my life in Canada, I moved across the ocean to Japan in 1999. To be sure it was a new world for me, a new culture with new music. I was excited about exploring the CD racks in Japan and hearing something if not entirely new then at least something different, and for the first couple of years this managed to keep my listening interests occupied.
Five and a half years later, I returned home for 15 months and, while working at my old job where the radio was usually tuned to the top 40 radio station during the morning and early afternoon, I was exposed to the latest hits as well as some older stuff. I went back to Japan and managed three more vacation visits to Canada between 2006 and the 2011. Each visit exposed me to the latest popular music whenever I heard a radio somewhere. One day the thought just struck me: these songs sound the same as the ones I heard in 1999.
Living in Japan, I was not isolated from the latest western music because the CDs were sold at the music stores and sometimes artists were featured on TV. Some of the newer bands I quite liked but when I thought about it, the ones I liked best were the ones that sounded like music I had listened to in my teen years or early twenties. Yes, there was a retro movement happening with bands like Jet and the Datsuns, and many bands were playing typical rock with guitar and synthesizer, but the only “new” trend I picked up on was that vocalists no longer had to be really good singers. Many CDs I sampled at the stores had some decent guitar/keyboard music but the singers really warbled and cracked their voices. So when I heard about bands like Wolfmother and the Darkness who put great effort in revitalizing the styles of the past, I felt there was “new” stuff I could get excited about.
“It’s al been done”
– The Barenaked Ladies
In my teens I had a fascination with the roots of heavy metal and my cassette collection included a lot of stuff from the 60’s and 70’s. I also had a predilection for learning about the history of rock and roll music – the rapid evolution of the genre and all the subgenres it spawned and their subgenres as well as the cultural changes and trends associated with the music styles were a natural fascination to me. And how rapidly the style had grown! First almost an offshoot of small-band jazz to piano rock and roll, then the country western acoustic guitar rock of Elvis, the three-piece electric guitar rock-a-billy groups like Johnny Brunette, and then a quick change into bubblegum pop and Motown, the British Invasion, electric blues, psychedelic and acid rock, the birth of progressive rock and heavy metal, funk, punk, disco, new wave… From its early days up through the 1980’s, rock music was always evolving as musicians and bands experimented with combining styles and creating new approaches, and the technology behind creating and recording the music evolved to keep up with the demands of the recording artists. In turn, the new technology not only satisfied the needs for which it was created but was then employed in new ways for even furthering the development of the sound of rock.
The problem I had identified was this: I could hear any song from between 1955 and 1990 and I could probably assign a release year to that song and nail it to within three years. A song from 1963 would most likely be clearly distinguishable from a song from 1960 or 1966 just as there’s no mistaking a song from 1977 from a song from 1973 or 1981. After two or three years, the sound of rock music would have undergone a recognizable change as popular styles, studio techniques and music equipment had all changed. However, since the late 80’s there has been very little evolution of style in the way we saw until that time. The grunge scene was a reinvention of heavy metal and punk. Rap and hip hop began sampling more and more from old rock music hits. By the mid-nineties, Disco, progressive rock, heavy metal, and many of the old genres that had fallen out of general favour at one time or another were all making comebacks. Was this just a trend? Was this just evidence that the new youth were influenced by the records that their parents had played?
In an interview with Rick Wakeman, Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame says (at around the 36 minute mark) that rock music has done all it can. It has grown and can’t really do anything new any more. It can be wrapped up with a nice bow. He explains how rock music continued to evolve up until the late 1980’s and since then there has been no new major new innovation to emerge. My ears pricked up when I heard these words because the same thoughts had been on my mind for a few years. Yes, rock music had grown and moved into new directions, branching like a tree with each branch being a subgenre like metal, prog, punk, and disco. It had borrowed from country western music, from folk, from jazz, classical and later even from world music. As rock music had spread around the globe, artists in other countries like Argentina, Japan, and India began adding their own cultural influences to the music. But it now appears that rock and all its incumbent subgenres have reached a point where only the subgenres produce new sub-subgenres (like djent, a subgenre of heavy metal).
With respect to new music we might look to electronic music, which has actually been about since the 50’s. This gave rock music a fresh supply of sounds to plunder and in recent decades produced Nine Inch Nails with its terrific blend of electronica and heavy rock or recent albums by the Mars Volta and Galahad. In truth though, it’s difficult to imagine how one can create a new branch for the Rock Tree. In the past, one could plunder the instruments and compositional stylings of another genre of music. The progressive rock bands did this to great effect and heavy metal bands have been mixing with punk, classical, and even folk. But progressive rock has also been stagnating with respect to expanding creativity. Jem Godfrey, producer and founder of the band Frost says, “Most prog bands sound as if the last thirty years never happened.” It’s true that even in the genre that gained fame for tapping into almost every genre of music conceivable for the purpose of expanding the possibilities of rock, there’s little that is truly new these days. Basically, bands are still experimenting with existing styles and sounds. Does Godfrey’s comment then mean to say that prog bands are stuck in the 70’s, or that since the 80’s there was nothing really new and exciting worth digging into?
Perhaps the much reviled and ridiculed 80’s are worth respecting then if that period gave us the last big evolutionary change in how rock and popular music was composed, performed, and recorded. By the prog revival of the 1990’s, bands like Anglagard and the Flower Kings were formed with the expressed purpose of writing and playing music like the progressive bands of the 1970’s. “Back in the World of Adventures” was the debut album of the Flower Kings and the first track now sounds like a heralding in of the good old days with the line, “Welcome back to the world of adventures.” Perhaps it was really just the latest trend at the time. If the next ten years had given us mostly just a retro sound and then that had been replaced by a new unheard of movement, we could talk about the retro styles of the 90’s. The retro sounds, however, are not only continuing but the then latest sounds of Top 40 radio in 1998 sound nearly identical to those of 2008. Ian Anderson may have hit the nail on the head. Rock has matured and cannot do anything radically new. The rock family tree has produced branches, branches of branches, and twigs on branches but no new main branches can be expected to grow.
Is rock’s social acceptance in most places of the world and its ubiquitous presence in modern culture part of the reason for its slow stagnation of new ideas? Drummer Bill Bruford says in his autobiography that (pop) music is everywhere as background music and people have become desensitized to actually listening to the music because it is so often presented as background music to shopping, movies, and commercials. Both Bill Bruford and prog connoisseur, Stephen Lambe note that home recording software and the Internet have permitted the music market to become saturated with music recorded in the homes of thousands of would-be artists who have never passed the test of playing for approval before an audience. The working/touring musician must compete for attention with hobbyists. The music market is becoming saturated with sound-alikes. “No more new music, please!”
Is everything really starting to sound a little too much the same? There’s no new ground to be broken? The best days of music revolution are behind us? Listen to the latest albums by Rush, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath and hear how they unabashedly reference their musical past. Bill Bruford’s friend said when going to see the Genesis reunion concert that “they had better play some of their old stuff”. Bruford lamented that there was a time when they couldn’t wait to hear the new stuff! Is this another indication that rock was more exciting in the old days when it was growing and branching into new territory? Or is this actually what the listening audience and music connoisseurs want? When an old established band releases an album in the style that first made them popular in the 1970’s critics say it’s a “return to form”. In other words, stop trying to do something new and just give us what we know.
“Where do we go now?”
Guns ‘n’ Roses
Thanks to the Internet, it’s very easy to discover great music be it from the past or present. Sharing music, for all the financial loses that are attributed to it, also makes it more possible for bands to be discovered by new fans. Perhaps this ease of sharing and discovery are to some degree responsible for reviving music and styles of the past so that now any subgenre of rock can enjoy a niche market and no longer has to suffer the stigma of having been consigned to the uncool and out of vogue. Yet like a boiling pot where all the ingredients have already been added, the same gruel keeps surfacing. Rock, like classical, jazz, and country western, is cooked and ready to serve. The recipe has been perfected; there are no new ingredients to add. There are no new instruments, no unheard of cultural sounds that haven’t already been tapped. Imagine Dragons from Las Vegas play with Japanese taiko drums but it’s not a new form of music. The Tea Party covered blues, folk, hard rock, and industrial all with a dose of Eastern instrumentation and sound.
There will be new artists with new ideas but if the current trend continues – as it has been for the last 20 years or so – there will be little innovation of which to speak. Heavy metal bands play faster until they need electronic equipment to increase the speed beyond human capacity. Prog bands record longer songs until specially sold hard drives are necessary to contain an entire song. Musical styles will continue to crossover and blend. Maybe some new cultural upheaval is required such as the Hippie movement or the Punk movement. Or some near future generation armed with some new technology will come up with an entirely distinguishable new way to write and play rock and add a fresh shoot on the trunk of the family tree of rock.