In which The Author sees some people who are stuck in time
In Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-5, the protagonist Billy Pilgrim famously comes ‘unstuck in time’. Unable to stay in one chronos-zone, poor Billy finds himself randomly hurled between his day job as an optometrist, his wartime experiences in Dresden (during the catastrophic firestorm of 1945), and his future life as a zoological specimen on the planet Tralfamadore.
Tonight, I was randomly hurled into the early 1990s. Having said that, it was difficult to tell at first. It could equally well have been the South Wales Valleys in the mid-80s, or London ten years from now, or even any small town in the USA any time since about 1975.
Unlike Mr Vonnegut’s hero, I should begin at the beginning and explain why I’m here, in Thereisnospoon, posting yet another late-night entry.
I opened my emails today and found one from Twitter. It said, ‘are you going to the Brits tonight?’ I couldn’t resist sharing it on Facebook – so I did. My reply was, ‘Sorry, Twitter, but I’ve got a prior engagement with real musicians…’
The Lighthouse has started putting on Rock Nights every other Wednesday. I’ve missed the first couple because of the weather. I couldn’t be bothered to mess about catching a bus to Aberdare in the Twilight Zone, only to have to come away early because the last bus home leaves at 2230. However, the sun has been sighted twice in the last two days, so I decided to venture into town and see what was what. I already knew from the poster that tonight’s band had the word ‘whiskey’ in their name, which sounded fairly promising. I thought we might be in for some blues-tinged R’n’B, or even a folky combo. I should really have known better.
This is the Valleys, you see, and rawwwwwk music is the staple diet of our youngsters – as well as providing the fairly limited bill of fare for a lot of older people. (When I say ‘older people’, please bear in mind that I’m less than a month from the big five-oh.)
The band came in and started setting up their gear while I was talking to Alwyn. I was showing him some ideas I’d come up with for his forthcoming website. Every so often we glanced up, in time to see yet more kit being brought in. The area of the pub where the pro/am karaoke takes place is just about big enough to accommodate three people and a laptop. Whiskey Lies were trying to squeeze a gallon into a pint pot. I don’t know whether they actually set up their entire PA, or if some of it was still in the van. Mark’s only just rejigged the pub’s own sound system, so building a Marshall stack behind the built-in speakers seemed rather like gilding the lily.
Anyway, Alwyn and I carried on chatting in between Gareth S. loading up fairly mainstream music on the in-house speakers. Then the band decided to do their soundcheck.
At which point the Tralfamadorians arrived (I was stealing a mirror, oddly enough – something else I owe to the late Mr Vonnegut), and threw me three decades back along my own timeline.
The MIT cognitive scientist Professor Steven Pinker (a man whom I’ve had the privilege of speaking to) has written several fascinating books about the human brain. In How the Mind Works he tells the sad story of the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, and his plunge into depression through a simple mathematical exercise. Mill, apparently, did some calculations based upon the notes of the musical scale, the number of keys available, the range of orchestral instruments, and other related variables with a fairly narrow range. He concluded that, taking all these factors into account, Western civilisation would – quite simply – run out of music within a few decades. This was enough to plunge Mill into a blue funk which lasted for a long time.
Prof. Pinker takes this argument apart using the mathematics of combinatorics, which works well on paper, but doesn’t really convince me. (In fact, I wish he’d written that book before we met, because I’d love to have discussed this aspect with him at his book signing.)
I know there are 88 keys on a keyboard, and over a dozen different keys within which a composer can work, and all sorts of time signatures and variables which multiply out to huge numbers. However, as far as I can tell, there will only be a limited subset of this huge set which actually sound pleasant to the human ear. One just has to look at the way Western music started to broaden out in the late nineteenth century, with the abandonment of the leading tone and the subsequent rise of serialism – a radical development which left audiences and critics baffled, angered or alienated for quite a few decades. Other composers started to draw on non-Western music, bringing in the sorts of microtones heard in Eastern music to extend the range of expression available.
It only took a few decades for this sort of experimentation to filter through to a wider audience – first into modern jazz, with the wild excesses of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sun Ra, and then into what evolved into rock music.
With rock music, the time was right for this cross-cultural hybridisation. An explosion of interest in Eastern philosophy fed into the youth culture of the Hippy era. As soon as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones introduced sitars on their records, it suddenly became apparent that Tonic Sol-fa was a fairly narrow playing field. At the same time, early synthesisers enabled musicians to generate sounds which nobody had ever heard before. I think it’s fair to say that the interval between 1965 and 1980 was probably the most productive, creative, thought-provoking and innovative period of musical composition ever experienced in the West.
And, unfortunately, it seems to be where most Rock bands stopped dead.
I have no doubt that Whiskey Lies are competent musicians. It’s clear that they know their way around their instruments. The problem is that they aren’t doing anything with those instruments that hasn’t been done a million times before, by everyone from megabands like Metallica and Slayer to the local teenagers in the scout hut on a Sunday afternoon.
I closed my eyes for a couple of minutes during their set. That’s when the Tralfamadorians caught me and took me back to the Carpenters on a Thursday night in about 1987. There were five guys at the back of the pub, armed with the best gear they could afford from their crappy factory jobs. Most of them had long hair, and some of them had curly perms – this was the era of Hair Metal, remember. I think the lead singer was wearing an Iron Maiden T-shirt; the rest of the boys were advertising the big names of the Heavy Metal scene, too. Tight denims and big hair were the order of the day – together with a plodding 4/4 beat, four-chords-and-a-screaming-solo, indecipherable words, and fuck you attitude.
I opened my eyes again, crashed back into 2016, and saw four lads in their early twenties, wearing tight black jeans and black T-shirts (one had a band name across his chest), with fairly trendy haircuts and at least one hipster beard. There was the same 4/4 beat, the same tempo, the same structure, the same attitude. Even a cover of Stevie Wonder’s amazing ‘Superstition’ was reduced to the formulaic chug-chug of the rock cliché.
It came as no surprise to learn that Whiskey Lies are (mostly) from Bridgend. Musically speaking, Bridgend is even more stuck in time than Aberdare. At least we’ve got some older guys (friends of mine) who’ve broken free of the mould and come up with some interesting music over the years. On the whole, though, the Valleys have gone nowhere in the past thirty-odd years.
I wondered whether I should have told them that Lemmy – one of the most important and original voices of the UK Heavy Metal scene – had died just after Xmas. Then it occurred to me that they might not even know that John Bonham is dead. That’s how insular and narrow the contemporary Rock scene is.
They won’t go to jam nights, so they’ll never meet people outside that sphere, and cross-fertilisation of genres becomes impossible. With the spread of dedicated radio and TV channels for each narrow niche, they don’t even have to listen to anything outside their own sphere. There’s no room for innovation, for experimentation, for development. Everything has collapsed into baby universes, completely divorced from the rest of creation – and I mean musical creation.
This isn’t just true of Rock music, though. It applies to jazz, folk, reggae, electronic (with a handful of notable exceptions in each case), and especially to pop, where all musical content seems to have been replaced by an unimaginative drum program.
I actually had a shock tonight when I realised how static the scene has become. I kinda knew it anyway, but when I’m this close to marking my half-century on Earth, I can finally justify my decision to never venture forth to see live music again.