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Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.
Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.
About a dozen years ago, I was watching the Grammys, and doing what I usually did while watching the Grammys: cursing, jeering, yelling at the TV, and occasionally throwing things at the TV. Finally the friend I was watching with asked me why on earth, if I was going to get so exasperated, did I bother to watch this thing at all? I had no good answer to this, and I haven’t watched the Grammys ever since. Nevertheless (deep breath) . . .
DAFT PUNK: Random Access Memories
Oddly enough, tackling this album has brought quite a few observations, and questions, trickling into my brain which have trickled in there on and off over the years. Mostly they have to do with different peoples’ perceptions of music, but also different people’s perceptions of each other’s perceptions of music, if that makes sense.
For instance: as a musician, I’m truly happy any time anyone takes any interest in any kind of music. Nevertheless there are two kinds of fans/listeners/pundits whom I’ve always found a bit silly.
The first, I call the Musical Luddites. These are people convinced that good music, real music, only existed some time in the past, and that anything new is pretty much guaranteed to be rubbish.
The second are the opposite: I call them Novelty Junkies. They’re not interested in anything old (and old might mean just a couple of years old) while anything new turns them on simply because, well, it’s new!
I’m not even in the middle of this; I flat-out refuse to even play the game. I’m interested in tradition, and I like the idea of building on it, but I’m also open to fresh ideas (indeed, I wish there were more of them around). Opting out of the game, though, doesn’t always stop other people from co-opting me into it.
This happened more back when I was in my mid-twenties, with an album or two under my belt, and people seemed to want to hang on to my every shallow and ignorant word, or at least, give me the benefit of the doubt. (In most cases, in the youth-oriented world of popular music, that doesn’t happen when you’re over fifty. It’s more likely that anything you say, no matter how brilliant, will be seen as irrelevant, or at least, fatally compromised by the fact that you’re over fifty). Anyway, when I first started touring in the USA, there seemed to be some sort of tribal war going on between supporters of ‘Disco’ and supporters of ‘New Wave’. I was seen as ‘New Wave’, so I sometimes experienced things like groups of fans at my gigs chanting ‘Disco Sucks! Disco Sucks!’ Someone even gave me a ‘Disco Sucks’ button which I was supposed to wear, but couldn’t, because (sorry!) I had no problem with ‘Disco’. I liked, for instance, the records Giorgio Moroder produced for Donna Summer, and I was quite a fan of Chic.
Something similar happened in the 90s when some of my musical peers simply refused to accept Techno or Drum ‘n’ Bass - some of which I found fascinating and exciting. OK, as someone who grew up in a more song-oriented era, I too may have been a bit puzzled at first; I kept waiting for the ‘song’ to start. But I soon realised that wasn’t the point, and I adjusted my ears accordingly. I think you have to put on different ears, so to speak, to listen to different music. (Sometimes you even have to pretty much turn your ears off and let the venue, the company, or the drugs do the rest. But that goes a bit beyond the scope of this little blogette of mine).
But back to the Grammy Album of the Year: I read an article about R. A. M. when it first came out, and I apologise to Daft Punk if the article misrepresented them (believe it or not, that happens quite a lot). But the gist of it was that these guys were being very daring and original, edging away from electronic dance music and incorporating something very clever: actual musicians playing instruments. And not only that, they were recording them in actual recording studios. You know, like people did in the 1970s and 80s. I found this so funny, I couldn’t take the album seriously, which is why I didn’t catch up with it until now.
And guess what, it’s not bad. I’d go so far as to say it’s pretty good, though it doesn’t have that extra something I find in music I really like: that extra something that haunts me after the album ends, and makes me want to go back to it again. It just sort of sounds nice: beautifully mixed, slick and shiny yet pleasantly retro at the same time. I think this is a big part of its success. It’s highly reminiscent of Chic, and even features Chic founder Nile Rogers on some tracks. Another track features the speaking voice of Giorgio Moroder. Tribute is being paid to the Old Masters. (My Old Masters are Beethoven and Duke Ellington, but, oh well). Daft Punk have somehow managed to push the right nostalgia buttons at the right time, as well as to have the right fashionable guest stars on board, and this is perhaps what passes for genius in the current pop scene.
Of course this isn’t just an imitation of Chic. Among other things, most of the vocals are electronically constructed or heavily processed, which makes them sound more ‘modern’ than Chic’s actual singers singing. Whether that’s better or not is a matter of taste. And although old pro Omar Hakim is credited as drummer, there is still a lot of programming and manipulation going on, and the beats are harder and stiffer than Chic’s actual drummer drumming. Whether harder and stiffer is, er, sexier or not, is a matter of taste. One thing I do like, though, is that at a time when many people are saying ‘the album is dead’, this album was conceived, and marketed, as a whole album. Or is that just another way of being ‘retro’?
Personally I’ve always looked for, and valued, timeless quality over hipness. Still, I’m aware that nothing can be completely separated from its time and context. So there are a couple of questions that always seem to sort of hover around my head when I hear new music that is reminiscent of older music. Firstly: to what extent does doing something old in a new context, actually make it new?
Secondly: I remember quite well encountering (for instance) Chic’s first two or three albums in the late 1970s. Does that put me at an advantage or at a disadvantage? On the one hand, I’ve experienced so much more than a 19-year-old. I was there, and they weren’t. My knowledge of music is much broader and deeper than theirs. On the other hand, the 19-year-old gets the thrill of experiencing something that – even if it’s derivative – is new to him or her. Not to mention, probably, having the advantage of not giving a damn what someone like me thinks. Maybe we come out even.
So, with apologies to Musical Luddites, Novelty Junkies, et al., I’d give the Album of the Year about 6 out of 10. I guess it would be more entertaining if I said it was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard, or tore it to pieces. But I don’t care about that; I care about music. And whatever the answers to my philosophical questions might be, at least there are still people putting their energy into making music, rather than making, say, explosive devices.
I was going to move on and write about some early Bessie Smith recordings I’ve been enjoying, but now I feel like that would be too contrived a contrast to Daft Punk. Maybe next time.